Wednesday 8 January 2014

Drinking Buddies Review - London Film Festival 2013

Drinking buddies review
Mumblecore is the lovely subgenre that began charming us around the start of the decade with Andrew Bujalski’s  Funny Ha Ha. Joe Swanberg’s comedy Drinking Buddies is another addition to this movement of films where the style and mood is understated; budgets aren’t the highest; and the dialogue is improvised, capturing the fillers and awkwardness of everyday conversation. Swanberg joins Jay and Mark Duplass, (Jeff, Who Lives at Home, The Puffy Chair) and Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister, both wonderful) amongst the directors who have really got the hang of it.
Drinking Buddies is a prime example of entertaining, indie mumble-core. It’s a comedy and sort-of love web (but it’s no rom-com) which focuses on a group of friends who work in a Chicago brewery. The men handle the practical stuff whilst the only female employee – laddy and easy going Kate, (Olivia Wilde) – sorts out the PR side. After work the group retire to a bar, play pool and get drunk. Colleagues Kate and Luke (Jake Johnson) have a natural connection but are involved with other people;  he is engaged to fun-loving Special Needs teacher Jill (Anna Kendrik) and Kate is plodding along in a lukewarm relationship with music producer Chris (Ron Livingston). It’s easy to become immersed in the will-they-won’t-they wonderment; the characters are easy to care about. We could watch them all day.
The two couples leave on a short break and sparks fly where they shouldn’t. Drinking Buddies really is very similar to Lynn Shelton’s comedy-drama Your Sister’s Sister. Both films contain no frills, quality character interaction in a small space – namely a remote cabin – although the latter is slightly more serious and drama-heavy. The nature of this genre is that the naturalistic chit-chatter overshadows the plot, which can be a great thing. Drinking Buddies is funny, although not from jokes or try-hard gags, just from the characters connecting and having fun. There’s something warming about watching laughter that seems completely genuine. This approach relies on effective performances, and the leads in this film pull it off well. If only there could be more films like this; films that entertain rather than challenge yet remain intelligently, acutely observed. Drinking Buddies will certainly fill the little-mumblecore-gem shaped hole in your life.
This review comes from a screening at the 57th BFI London Film Festival 2013 (LFF 2013).

Sarah Prefers To Run Review - London Film Festival 2013

Sarah prefers to run review
The 57th London Film Festival is mad with coming-of-age dramas, particularly French ones with sexually confused protagonists (a la Blue Is The Warmest Colour). However I’m certainly not complaining – particularly about this quiet drama from French-Canadian filmmaker Chloe Robichaud – with its appealing muted colours, dusky hues and subtle quirks. Sarah Prefers To Run (Sarah Prefere La Course) is indeed about a girl who prefers to run, and prefers it to just about everything and anyone else. Twenty year old Sarah (Sophie Desmarais) is trying to make sense of adulthood and her identity. The only thing she is sure of is that she wants, needs, to run. This is not a typical triumphant sports movie – do not expect to be overwhelmed by the urge to get your squashed trainers out of the cupboard as the credits roll – a feeling that last years Fast Girls may have induced (ahem), the uplifting Brit-flick from Regan Hall. There is no motivating music here. Sarah runs to a delicate violin soundtrack.

Sarah wants to move to Montreal from Quebec to run as a member of the McGill Athletics Team, but her mother (Helene Florent) isn’t too fond of the idea. It isn’t sustainable, won’t put food on the table when Sarah reaches a certain age, “you can’t beat a dead horse” she says. Regardless, Sarah comes to a platonic arrangement with her friend Antoine (Jean-Sebastien Courchesne) whereby he will moves with her, pays the rent and they marry in order to get a government grant. He is also in love with her, which confuses him as she “isn’t even funny, and never smiles.” Sarah is too preoccupied with flushes of lesbian lust for fellow runner Zoey (Genevieve Boivin-Roussy) to return his affections; a relationship that would have done well to be explored in more depth.
Sarah is petite and doe-eyed but her graceful appearance is at odds with her typically masculine stoic, unemotional nature and disregard for anything feminine (about two thirds of the way through there’s a token clichéd moment where she stares blankly at a lipstick in a bathroom before defiantly deciding to apply it.) It’s obvious that Robichaud hasn’t achieved anything drastically unique with Sarah Prefers To Run but that isn’t to say it doesn’t succeed in its own way. Stylistically we have seen all this before. Some may be irritated by the slightly try-hard twee moments, such as the in-between scene insert shots of fortune cookie messages. Sarah is also an opaque character, perhaps too much so for some viewers, but it is the aim for her to be entirely one sided. There’s no real or apparent direction to this pleasingly ambling film. It’s simply a portrait of a one woman’s ambition, hunger and need to achieve crafted a delicate, understated manner. A promising first feature.
This review comes from a screening at the 57th BFI London Film Festival 2013 (LFF 2013).

Blue Is The Warmest Colour Review - London Film Festival 2013

What a great fortnight London Film Festival was. As I was commuting from Brighton I didn't quite fulfill the ambition of fitting five films in one day, however I did manage four occasionally. It was heartbreaking that I couldn't see everything, but I certainly tried. One of the festival highlights, and one of my highlights of 2013, was Blue Is The Warmest Colour; an engaging and beautiful experience of first lust and love.
Blue is the warmest colour reviewThat first love – that first spark of lust – affects us so profoundly that we remember the ecstasy and the agony until our dying days. Abdellatif Kechiche‘s Palme d’Or winner Blue Is The Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adele – Chapitres 1&2) is a French lesbian coming-of-age feature based on the 2010 graphic novel Blue Angel by Julie Maroh. It’s a film that illustrates the immense power of those first throes of desire and infatuation, submerging us into their emotional depths for a hefty three hours. It will not struggle to find its place amongst the strongest and most influential films of contemporary queer cinema (the other that springs to mind is British director Andrew Haigh‘sWeekend, a sensitive and near perfect portrayal of two young men falling quickly and deeply in love, you really must see it if you haven’t yet.)

The main focus is teenager Adéle (Adéle Exarchopoulos), a popular and intelligent girl with a fascination for literature and watching American movies, sans subtitles. It’s obvious she isn’t as boy-obsessed as her fellow comrades, oblivious to good looking male suitors who clearly admire her until it is explicitly pointed out. Pressurized by the relentless encouragement of her peers she starts a sexual relationship with handsome and lovesick Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte), but is tortured by her fantasies of blue-haired girl she spotted in the street. She feels there is something seriously wrong with her, and Kechiche does well at exploring the shame and guilt we place on ourselves for experiencing lust that doesn’t fit into society’s structured categorical norms. Adéle isn’t gay necessarily, but her budding bisexuality leaves her feeling isolated and abnormal. It’s admirable the way Blue Is The Warmest Colour frankly reflects the fluid nature of desire.

After a chance encounter in a gay bar with her blue haired crush Emma, (Léa Seydoux) a relationship blossoms. The scenes of their new and exciting passion and hunger for each other are sexually explicit, sure, but they are also tender. This is where the length of the film can really come into its own as it can charts not just the birth of romance but follows it through until the couple experience the daily drudgery of domesticity, doubts and wandering eyes. Kechiche studies the affects of a relationship after a number of indiscernible years; Emma is a successful painter, Adéle is a nursery school teacher, and they live together.  Their romance isn’t perfect. Adéle is more comfortable preparing food than discussing the works of Jean-Paul Sarte with Emma’s cultivated intellectual circle, people who alienate and bore her. Kechiche playfully mocks the dialogue of French cinema when he has Adéle say “they talk about so much stuff”. The tensions that develop between the couple – their changing priorities and growing dissatisfaction – are honest of the flaws and contradictions in real adult relationships.

The performances are wonderful, particularly Adéle Exarchopoulos, who plays Adéle with a real rawness. Adéle is a character with a heightened emotional sensibility, easily affected, and spends much of the film with tears and mucus running down her face. Kechiche isn’t afraid to turn the drama up to the maximum level, but it’s always absorbing rather than sinking into ridiculous melodrama.  Blue Is The Warmest Colour is a beautifully conducted, carefully considered exploration of the elation and torture of youthful infatuation.
This review comes from a screening at the 57th BFI London Film Festival 2013 (LFF 2013).

Tuesday 17 September 2013

The Great Beauty review for Spiked online.

There are many words to describe Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s much-hyped new film, but conventional is not one of them. The Great Beauty (or ‘La Grand Bellezza’) is astonishing and bewildering – a decadent, indulgent triumph of European art-house cinema.

Toni Servillo plays our protagonist, as he did in Sorrentino’s previous works Il Divo and The Consequences of Love, but Rome is the real star here. This is a homage to the throbbing, historic Italian capital itself in the manner of Fellini, but it is also a fierce satire of the sheer vanity of the place. Parts of the script could have been snapped from Woody Allen.

Servillo plays Jep, an affluent journalist and socialite in his sixties who wrote an acclaimed novel in his youth but was too distracted by chic parties to write another. His friends are the crème de la crème of Italian society - artists, novelists, playwrights – but they’re all somewhat removed from the real world: when he asks one woman he later beds what her job is, her response is simply ‘I’m rich’. He also flirts - Berlusconi style - with models and strippers half his age, but Servillo remains effortlessly suave rather than creepy.

The film thrives on the clashes between beauty and decay; sophistication and vulgarity; poverty and wealth. It’s all electro-pop, beautiful people and vigorous dancing. We see him grinning amongst it all, cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Then, in striking slow motion, lines of party-goers dance either side of him as he sparks another one up and stands motionless. Rome seems to revolve around him, leaving him thrilled one moment, jaded and cynical the next.

The narrative is free-spirited to say the least. A stranger shows up on Jep’s doorstep bearing tragic news which leads him to revise his life and the consequences of his choices. This is the closest we get to any semblance of plot over the epic 142 minutes. What we get instead is a series of stunning and often surreal vignettes that touch on all aspects of what it means to be human - to love, to lose, to desire, and to regret.

They are strange, sad and often amusing: we see Jep reminisce about his first love; cry at a funeral; take a 42-year-old stripper around the hidden corners of Rome in the dead of night using a secret key; and try to seek spiritual advice from a cardinal who is more interested in duck recipes than religion. For some, this method might seem overly ambitious, but Sorrentino pulls it off. 

This is a tragi-comedy and a drama, but above all it’s an art film. The cinematography is so close to perfection it’s hard to look away, and it celebrates art in all forms. In one dazzling scene, Jep absorbs a vast wall montage of photographs an acquaintance has taken of himself every day since childhood. This is opulent, self-conscious filmmaking, reminiscent of Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love.

Such ostentatious sensory feasts could have proved unbearably pretentious and come at the cost of decent dialogue or character development. Not here. Jep, rather like the film itself, is shallow on the surface but has hidden heart and depth, and Sorrentino excels in exploring it.

This is a bold, stunning and mesmerising film. Sit back, relax and let The Great Beauty work its magic.

This review was written for Spiked online. The original review can be found here 

The ten messiest movie break-ups - Time Out

I was fortunate enough to join the Time Out film team as an intern. 'Top Tens' were a recent weekly addition to the website, and I presented the idea of top ten messiest movie break-ups. Here are the ten most memorable examples of love turning to hate on the big screen. The piece can be found here.


Wednesday 31 July 2013

Lionsgate Feature

I wrote this feature during fun work experience at Lionsgate. They were trusting enough to let me write a feature on maths films for them, as part of promotion for the fifteenth anniversary release of Darren Afonsky's 'Pi', so that was pretty cool. The screenshots of the movies are remarkably similar, the maths movie is a genre that has repeatedly tread across familiar terrain.

A guide to cinematic mathematics

Films that revolve around numbers can usually be condensed into two types; the unstable genius movie and the maths thriller movie. We’re all familiar with the brilliant mathematical whizz manically jotting formulae on a blackboard. He’s (he is seldom a she) the one who is deeply damaged, socially inept or suffering from a severe mental illness. He solves something ground-breaking and influential, or simply shows his awe-inspiring skills. He is more often than not, working or studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, or has a disturbed parent that has studied there. He will not be a genius whilst being happy and stable, and if he has a mental illness minus some form of exceptional ability, he will probably be taken out of the equation.

The link between genius and mental disorder is one that has been hackneyed in films involving mathematics, and this could arguably be a critique of the genre. Regardless, many have been original and auspicious hits, worthy of celebration. To honour the fifteenth anniversary of 'Pi', the compelling debut feature from the prolific Darren Afonsky (Black Swan, Requiem For a Dream), in a definitive Blu-Ray package, we have taken a look at several films that feature numbers, including ones that do and don’t add up.

Rain Man (1988)
“Let’s play some cards.”

Callow Charlie Babbit (Tom Cruise) discovers his father has died and given his multi-million dollar estate to his other son, autistic savant Raymond Babbit, who Charlie was previously unaware of. The most memorable part of this Oscar winning film is the scene where Raymond (a wonderful Dustin Hoffman) counts the number of toothpicks that have fallen to the ground by just a glance. His photographic memory means he has memorised all numbers and addresses in the phone book, and he can work out complicated sums in his head. Although 'Rain Man' was a quality piece of film-making for its day and boasts a remarkable performance, it has clearly contributed to the notion that those with autism are generally gifted. This is a Hollywood, rose-tinted representation of one with the developmental disorder, and the most famous. The idea that autists are savants is one perpetuated by such constructions. The film has a positive reputation as a warming film, but from another perspective it is patronizing and assuming. Raymond is a nuisance to his brother Charlie until he discovers he can win him money in a casino.

Good Will Hunting (1997)
 “My boy's wicked smart.”

Modern American classic 'Good Will Hunting' is perhaps the most iconic maths movie. This feel-good psychological drama, co-scripted by and starring childhood friends Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, earned them two Academy Awards and was actually successful when 'Titanic' was sinking most of its competition. Damon plays 20 year old Will Hunting, a working class maths genius who works as a janitor at MIT. He is discovered and nurtured by award-winning maths professor Gerard Lambeau after anonymously solving a complex equation on a blackboard. His self-destructive nature and disinterest in excelling leads him to psychiatrist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams). What made this such a hit is the charisma and understated performances from Williams and Damon, and how they effortlessly conveyed one of the most emotionally involving friendships in cinema without being irritatingly sentimental. The conventional narrative and lesson in self-improvement could have created a saccharine and overly idealistic result. Yet, Gus Van Sant’s ('Milk', 'Elephant') treatment of Wills growth is organically developed and paced, as is the spark between him and Harvard student Skylar (Minnie Driver). A quality piece of enjoyable mainstream fare that was always bigger than the sum of its parts.

 The Cube (1997)
“I’m not dying in a fucking rat maze!”

Sharing the same math thriller sub-genre as 'Fermat’s Room' and 'Pi', The Cube is a gripping maths horror and the first in a series of three. The premise is a group of strangers who wake up in a cryptic structure with no knowledge of how or why they got there, an idea rather similar to the 'Saw' films. It won the 1997 Toronto Film Festival prize for ‘Best Canadian First Feature’. Quentin is the central protagonist, and along with six other unfortunate people, must use his ability to quickly work out how to get out of this maze of interlocking cubes, or they will all die from dehydration. There are traps set, as they soon discover when witnessing several gruesome outcomes. The acting is impressive considering the minimalist set, yet the dialogue and characters are a tad commonplace.

Pi (1998)
“Everything can be understood in terms of numbers.”

A striking debut feature from accomplished director Darren Aronofsky, ('Requiem for a Dream' and 'Black Swan.') 'Pi' proved his huge potential and his ability to portray madness in a riveting and original way. It focuses on Max Cohen (Sean Gullette, who helped the director and producer write the story), a haunted genius mathematician withdrawing from the world in the walls of his squalid NYC flat. He sees numbers everywhere and believes all matter in the universe can be explained mathematically. He is seeking out a pattern in man’s largest productions of ordered chaos: the stock market, and discovers a Hebrew number which may hold the name of God. Imminent discovery is interlinked with the loss of sanity, and the boundaries between psychosis and solved mystery become unclear. His pursuit leads to severe headaches, blackouts, hallucinations and tremors. Filmed using eery black and white cinematography and with a hypnotic, pulsing score, Pi is a successful vision of a paranoid nightmare.

A Beautiful Mind (2001)
“In competitive behaviour, someone always loses.”

Ron Howard’s rather syrupy and (highly) fictionalised biopic stars Russell Crowe as the real life mathematician John Forbes Nash. Nash did his revolutionary work on ‘game theory’ in his early twenties, and his schizophrenia cut his career short. The film condenses 50 years of Nash’s life into 135 minutes and focuses largely on his illness and his relationship with his devoted wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly). It begins from his arrival at Princeton as a young arrogant maths graduate, and ends with him receiving the Nobel Prize aged 64 from an exuberant academic world. Paul Bettany shines as Nash’s quirky, alluring English roommate and Russell Crowe gives a solid but not staggering performance as a gibbering and nervy man losing his grip on reality. There is at least an attempt to explain his famous theory, albeit done so in a simplistic manner.

Proof (2005)
“Sometimes in my head I think it works, and then, sometimes I just think it’s crazy.”

One year after 'A Beautiful Mind' was released came this fair and familiar story told through the flashbacks of the central protagonist Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow). Anthony Hopkins plays her recently deceased father, who was an immensely intelligent but mentally ill figure. Catherine has inherited his skill and potentially his mental state. Talented and charming maths geek Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal) is her love interest, and is after her father’s papers that may reveal a precious mathematical proof constructed in a rare moment of lucidity. Catherine insists the work is hers and must prove it, as well as affirm her sanity to the audience and to her sister. An emotional drama rather than a study of science, where Hopkins was criticized for his sketchy performance and many took to be a less than satisfactory alternative to the David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize winning play that is is based on.

Moneyball (2011)
It’s about getting things down to one number. Using the stats the way we read them, we’ll find value in players that no one else can see.”

The stereotypical underdog tale was given a well-received, creative spin in this baseball statistics film that sports a rather incongruous yet winning cast of Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jonah Hill. The ins and outs of baseball is as alienating to British audiences as another language, but luckily 'Moneyball' is about the sport the same way that 'The Damned United' was about the specifics of football managing, and 'The Social Network' was about web development. Whilst the aforementioned films focused on the drama between the lead protagonists, 'Moneyball' centres on the working relationship between Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (Pitt) and young, inexperienced Economist Peter Brand (Hill), who Beane hired to reconsider the team's game approach. It's based on the true story of how the Major League Baseball team upset the game’s odds in the 2001-2002 season, and using statistical models, placed together a team of misfits to compete. With a razor sharp script and a great performance from Pitt, 'Moneyball' is a fine example of high class Hollywood fare.

Fermat’s Room (2007)
“Do you know what prime numbers are? Because if you don’t, you should just leave now.”

Spain is an expert on the horror and thriller genre, as most film buffs will be aware, leading America to frequently imitate its exports. There’s Guillermo del Toro who gave us 'Julia’s Eyes', 'Pans Labryrinth' and produced 'The Orphanage'. Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza Ángela’s frankly terrifying highlight of the found footage genre, 'Rec', Almodovar when he decides to dabble in psychological thriller ('The Skin I Live In') and the list goes on. 'Fermat’s Room' is a Spanish thriller that doesn't quite compare to the brilliance of the former films, but is sleek and stylish nonetheless. Maths experts are trapped in a room that is closing in on them, and they must quickly work out arithmetical conundrums to stop the walls moving, as sent by their kidnapper. Oddly the scenario reminded this writer of Indiana Jones trapped in a closing room with spikes stuck out of the walls in 'The Temple of Doom', but it’s slightly less ridiculous.

Knowing (2009)
“The Numbers are key to everything.”

Another to add to Nicholas Cage’s increasingly questionable filmography, this Sci-Fi movie received a low critical reception. Cage plays an astrophysicist, at MIT of course, whose son Caleb derives some horrific news about the state of the Earth when his school discovers a time capsule from 1959. It includes a series of numbers written by a young girl named Cassandra, and their patterns are indications to widespread calamities, both in the past and future. Knowing is an overly ambitious merge of maths, science, religion, and disaster films. If someone added together Pi, Signs, Deep Impact, Final Destination and The Twilight Zone, plus more absurdity, the result might look roughly like this.

The Number 23 (2007)

Jim Carrey has shown us how he can do drama just as well as comedy in 'Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind', but unfortunately this film doesn’t reveal such talent. He plays the obsessive, once sane Walter Sparrow who becomes hooked on self-published book ‘The Number 23’ by Topsy Kretts, which reveals how the number has a mysterious and deadly presence. Kretts plays with a concept first outlined by William Burroughs, focusing on the numbers frequent occurrence in historical and cultural happenings. It is far from Jim Carrey’s finest hour. It isn’t entirely his fault, considering it was brought to us by Joel Schumacher. Granted, he directed the hit 'The Lost Boys', but he also directed Batman and Robin amongst other forgettable features.

Populaire Review

I went to see this with my friend. She adored it. I didn't. I therefore endured playful mockery about how as a film critic I couldn't simply enjoy a film that wasn't trying to be anything except entertaining and a fun way to pass 90mins. I assuredly can. I flippin' love 'Notting Hill'. I even love 'Wimbledon', with all its English stereotyping and London porn. I liked 'Heartbreakers', the French Rom-Com starring Romain Duris and Vanessa Paradis. Rom-Coms are great. What would we do without them? 'Populaire' however, was just boring. It was a shame, I really expected to like it. 

‘Mad Men’ apparently meets ‘The Artist’ in this rather irritatingly fluffy retro Rom-Com. 

Leading lady Déborah François plays cutesy, ditzy country bumpkin Rose, who has dreams of becoming a secretary. During an interview with handsome businessman Louis she is almost turned away, until she sets her fingers on a typewriter lying on the desk and blows him away with her typing talent. He has an agenda. He is going to enter her into the national typing championships, and as part of the deal she is going to live with him and he will train her. This suggestion in itself seemed rather strange and old fashioned, as Rose plays at being a sort of live-in wife. Cue montages of Lisa jogging, falling asleep at the type writer, and so on. It’s all fine to have a fun, entertaining romance tale that intends to stay light and inoffensive, but this has the substance of candyfloss. Part of the problem is that the lead characters appear to be crafted out of wood. Romain Duris’ character is a clichéd 1950s sexist stereotype, and there are office innuendos aplenty. There is nothing distinctive about Rose. At one point she whimsically says “I’m too weird for anybody to love” when she couldn’t be further from the truth. Equally, the humour is off kilter, on numerous occasions there are theatrically swooning women cramming around Louis' office, a joke which repeatedly falls flat. The story itself also set issues from the start, as a typing contest seems an odd choice in an era where most of the population have their fingers permanently gelled to a keypad. The concept was never exciting enough to carry through a feature length film, and the result is as repetitive as the monotonous task of typing itself. A predictable, disappointing and forgettable experience.