drama

Review: Rust And Bone (De rouille et d’os)

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The Pitch: Love is… never having to say you’re sorry (for the killer whales and street fighting, apparently).

The Review: If you’ve never seen a Jacques Audiard film before, then you should come to this with the right expectations: that what you’re going to get will be a little unconventional, to say the least. Take his last three films: Read My Lips, involving the pairing off of an almost deaf woman with an ex-convict, or The Beat My Heart Skipped, the story of a shady real estate broker with aspirations to be a pianist. Audiard’s last film, A Prophet, was less concerned with romantic aspirations but still took a hard-boiled prison drama and wove supernatural elements inextricably within it. So if you’re coming to Rust and Bone completely cold, you should be aware that Audiard’s films are anything but simple.

It will be no surprise in that context that Rust And Bone sees a return to romance, but also that it’s not your average boy meets girl. In this case the boy is a big hulk of a man, Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) who’s trying to find the means to raise the young son he’s been saddled with looking after, but it’s difficult when responsibility doesn’t come easy to him. Through one of his many attempts at respectable work as a nightclub bouncer, he has a chance encounter with Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), whose hotheadedness gets her in trouble at the club before Ali intervenes. A begrudging act of kindness on her part later becomes more crucial when she suffers an unfortunate and potentially devastating accident; through that, this odd couple start to become friends, but form a complex relationship which both of them struggle to truly come to terms with.

Audiard is no stranger to powerful male figures in his films (the last three have featured Vincent Cassel, Romain Duris and Tahar Rahim, for example), and Matthias Schoenaerts seems to have been hewn almost from solid granite, such is his imposing physical presence. But the real strength comes from the performance of Marion Cotillard, now no stranger to English speaking audiences for her work with the likes of Michael Mann and Christopher Nolan. Most reviews are giving away the nature of what happens to her character, and given that she’s a killer whale trainer it’s maybe not hard to surmise, but I’ll leave that for you to find out on screen if by some miracle you don’t already know; either way, the pain of self-discovery is powerfully captured by Cotillard, but that’s only the start of an excellent performance that sees her take a surprising, but always believable, journey through that pain and towards some form of a normal life.

It’s fair to say that Audiard’s film isn’t necessarily concerned primarily with the difficulties of dealing with disability. There’s an awful lot more going on here, from Ali’s street fighting career to his stewardship of his son to the nature of his relationship with Stephanie to the issues of socialism and family brought up by some of the divisions between management and employees where Ali also works. With so much happening, not every plot line gets the time it needs (Ali’s son suffering most from this) and also not every plot feels that it’s earned its time in the mix. Whenever Cotillard’s on screen, Rust And Bone captures and keeps your attention, but when she’s not, it has to work a little harder, and while it’s not a constantly captivating film when it’s at its best, it soars. But it’s fascinating to see what can be done with modern special effects, no longer purely the domain simply of big Hollywood productions, and for the most part Audiard has produced another compelling story of human relationships with a twist to stand shoulder to shoulder with his earlier works.

Why see it at the cinema: Audiard knows how to use the frame, and there’s at least a couple of moments that pack a much bigger punch for being seen in a cinema for their emotional wallop.

The Score: 8/10

Review: The Imposter

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The Pitch: All in the family.

The Review: Who am I? You’re somewhere, reading this review and  this blog, and will likely fall into one of two groups. You may have somehow come to this site via the wonder of the internet, somehow curious as to the thoughts of a random stranger on blockbusters and documentaries, possibly one with similar tastes. You may have wandered over via Twitter, read a few reviews and begun to form a picture in your mind. An over-zealous student looking to make his way in the film world, perhaps? Or a grumpy old man with a love of both films and the sound of his own voice. Already those two sentences have limited your options by 50% – if, of course, you believe a single word I say. And why should you? You don’t know me from Adam. Indeed, maybe I could even be Adam – maybe attempts to name myself to the contrary are just an idle attempt at misdirection. I could be a five foot tall coal miner or a greying Cabinet minister, and unless you met me, you just wouldn’t know. But surely if you’d met me, you’d know who I was. Wouldn’t you?

Identity and integrity are the common themes of Bart Layton’s documentary, which attempts to lay out the curious tale of Nicholas Barclay, a thirteen year old American boy who simply goes missing one day in 1994, to the complete horror of his family. Three years later, they get a phone call from Spain, where the boy has been reported found. Time changes all of us, especially at that age, but Nicholas seems to have undergone a transformation that even Edmund Blackadder would find hard to pull off. Three years in Spain, poorly treated by his abductors, have left him unable to speak without an accent, and thanks to his mistreatment his hair colour has also gone much darker. As have his eyes. But his family know immediately that they’ve found their long lost son, so why is the only person seemingly doubting this a private investigator who comes upon the case almost by accident?

The Imposter plays out with a combination of styles, mixing the standard talking heads approach of the majority of the main players with dramatic reconstructions set at the time of the disappearance and reappearance. Initially the talking heads don’t do the family any favours (Spain, for example, is “all the way across the other side of the country”), but it would be hard to fault their willingness to accept such a miracle if presented to them. But that, in and of itself, wouldn’t make for much of a remarkable story. What does set the story apart are the narrative twists and turns, piling implausibility on top of disbelief which would be impossible to credit if the movie hadn’t credibly presented the evidence, even to the extent of archive TV news footage at the time. The Imposter manages to cram in as many twists as a classic noir, but never loses its through line or its intent.

Much of this is the other half of the film, as in addition to those talking heads the recreations of the events as they unfold help to truly bring the drama alive. To say that the early scenes are a little reminiscent of The Usual Suspects is intended as a favourable comparison, even evoking such direct comparisons as the teenager sat in a police station, casting his eyes over the bulletin board. But it’s also the storytelling rhythm of Suspects and its kin that The Imposter feeds off, with the recreations feeling more at home in the thriller genre than the documentary. Layton tightens the tension like a screw, never allowing it to dissipate for a minute, and by the time the later revelations come The Imposter exerts a vice like grip which it never relinquishes.

Back to that Usual Suspects comparison. While many such films have a slow reveal, The Imposter plays its first trump card immediately; imagine Keyser Soze staring down the barrel of the camera with dead-eyed certainty, wearing a T-shirt saying “I’m Not To Be Trusted!” Layton never attempts to portray his subjects as anything other than the classic unreliable narrator’s extended family, but still it’s to his credit that the techniques he employs will not only help you to empathise, but by the end be as desperate to find the truth as that dogged private investigator. Who am I? That question isn’t actually important, it’s a red herring, as long as you believe me when I say that The Imposter is one of the finest documentaries in years and hopefully not the last we’ll see of Bart Layton. And you know me; I wouldn’t lie to you, would I?

Why see it at the cinema: With the cinematic qualities of a great thriller, coupled with the knowledge that it’s based on fact, you’ll not only enjoy the visuals but also possibly be more drawn in by the sound of gasping all around you. Layton works the cinema screen like an established master and The Imposter is not to be missed.

The Score: 10/10

Review: Margin Call

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The Pitch: The long dark night of the soulless.

The Review: When you become immersed in something, it’s easy to lose perspective sometimes, especially when it comes to money. I can remember, a few years into my real world career, being in discussion about a forecast for the coming year. I don’t recall the exact numbers, but it was along the lines of whether, say, 424 or 426 was the right number to use. Only when I left the meeting did it truly sink in that the unit we were discussing was pounds. In millions. (Thankfully I wasn’t the one making decisions about what to do with that money.) It’s all too easy to become blasé or to ignore the risks of managing such huge sums, so should we have any sympathy for those who lost their jobs on the banking crisis, given that they may have caused it in the first place.

Margin Call attempts to get under the skin of the bankers who caused these issues, or who might have brought about the wider downturn in our global economy. There’s a whole host of players and levels involved: we start with Stanley Tucci, who’s sensed something going wrong, but can’t put his finger on it and is caught up in the cull on his floor. His parting gesture is to get underlings Zachary Quinto and Aasif Mandvi involved, who then have to start escalating up the chain of command, and by the middle of the night everyone from Kevin Spacey to Jeremy Irons is involved. It’s clear that the likes of Demi Moore have known something’s been up for a while, but as the scale of the problem hits home, loyalties shift and everyone tries to have a chair to sit on when the music stops.

If that last paragraph felt somewhat lacking in specific detail of the issues the bankers are facing, then that’s actually a fair description for watching the film itself. Last year’s documentary Inside Job proves that it’s possible to get to the heart of the complex issues and processes that have caused the financial meltdown, but Margin Call takes completely the opposite tack, consisting of lots of men in suits pointing at screens with furrowed brows, but the actual drama of what’s happening is kept at arm’s length. It’s easy for us to see with hindsight the consequences of the drama, but Margin Call relies too much on that hindsight and fails to inject any sense of drama or understanding into the events at the core of the situation, when it could have taken that opportunity without compromising the rest of the narrative.

So Margin Call relies on the strength of its smaller moments, mainly two or three-hander scenes where the various characters gaze at their navels and contemplate how matters will unfold, and those tend to depend entirely on the quality of the actors in that particular scene. The outstanding performer, as so often, is Kevin Spacey, alternating between rallying speeches and a worn down frustration seemingly at will. Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci and Paul Bettany also put in great work, Quinto (who’s also a producer) does what he can with the slightly thankless role he’s given himself, but everyone else involved varies from the eminently forgettable (Simon Baker) to the downright uninteresting (Demi Moore). Margin Call never really even manages to become the sum of these parts; taken as a series of vignettes on the lives of bankers, they’re interesting enough, but the film never really rings true to its potential source. The Margin Call on this one: it’s just about watchable, but unlikely to last longer than a night in your memory.

Why see it at the cinema: Seeing this in a cinema will improve the theatricality of the two handers, and there’s a scene on top of a skyscraper that’s vaguely cinematic.

The Score: 6/10

Review: Wreckers

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The Pitch: The true village people.

The Review: If you were attempting to take a snapshot of British life from the output of our film industry, you might think that we’re stuck somewhere between a sumptuous costume drama, a brutal gangland thriller or a Richard Curtis comedy. Unless you’re Mr Darcy, Danny Dyer or Dawn French, you may not find these to be the most realistic or relatable portrayals of the core of British society. As for an understanding of village life, The Archers or Emmerdale are the closest that popular culture has come to understanding what makes a village tick, but now writer / director D R Hood has given us her insight into the lives of villagers and the secrets hidden behind the calm façade of life in the country.

Dawn and David (Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch) are attempting to make a life for themselves in the country, in the village where David grew up. It seems the perfect couple have found the perfect home, but the arrival on the scene of David’s brother Nick (Shaun Evans) opens up a few closets with skeletons in, and starts to sow a small seed of doubt in Dawn’s mind. Having moved back to the village to start a family, Dawn begins to wonder if David is really the man she thought he was, especially as previously unknown details about the brothers’ childhood come to light. As Dawn finds herself drawn closer to Nick, their relationships become increasingly strained and Dawn finds herself faced with difficult decisions.

Wreckers is, first and foremost, an actor’s film, but it never descends to the level of melodrama, the performances all marked out in subtle shades rather than broad strokes. Claire Foy is at the heart of the film, and she captures perfectly the sense of conflict as she struggles to come to terms with what she’s learning. Opposite her, Benedict Cumberbatch is full of simmering tension and later controlled rage, hidden so far beneath the surface that it would be undetectable in a lesser actor. Shaun Evans completes the central trio, and while his performance isn’t quite the match for subtlety of his co-stars, his in-your-face manner a suitable counterpoint to the more understated performances of the two leads.

The other star of Wreckers is the scenery, the East Anglian countryside being used very effectively not only to emphasise the increasing isolation of the characters but also to give contrast to the lives they’re leading. There’s an almost dream-like quality to some of the photography, and the combination of this and the score from Andrew Lovett help to emphasise the placid nature of the surroundings, which only serves to give more edge to the unfolding drama. The story itself is a little linear, but that doesn’t detract from the overall effect, and there’s a pleasing sense of ambiguity around the ending. While Wreckers might capture the scenery and the atmosphere of village life, its moral dilemmas are somewhat more universal, but it’s worth catching for the combination of great actors working close to the top of their game in quintessentially English settings, and is a refreshingly different slant on British life without the need for British stereotypes.

Why see it at the cinema: The combination of the beautiful scenery and the intimate drama will work best on the big screen; the countryside scenes are almost hypnotic at times but the camera gets in close to the actors, and the cinema screen will capture every intimate glance and nuanced gesture.

The Score: 8/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Sleeping Beauty

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The Pitch: The Jobbing Student’s New Clothes.

The Review: Being a student isn’t easy – I had enough attempts at it to know. I certainly don’t envy those entering higher education in this country at present, for while I still had some form of grant to accompany my student loan, today’s undergraduates in the UK are likely to have  £20-30,000 of debt by the time they get their degrees. I gathered, as Wayne Campbell once put it, “an extensive collection of nametags and hairnets” while working my way through university, even working on the bins at one point, and that was far from the worst student job I undertook. Julia Leigh’s new film, however, takes the student necessity for income as a jumping off point for an exploration of adult themes, of sexuality and relationships and exploitation.

Emily Browning is Lucy, the student at the centre of the film. When we first see her she’s having a tube fed down her throat as part of a medical experiment, gagging and retching as it’s fed down inside her, but it’s also contrasted with her variety of other jobs, from office work to waitressing. Despite the variety of work she’s doing, she’s struggling to pay the bills, so takes up an advert for silver service work of a unique nature. The change in her income has the potential to revolutionise her life, but her new role also offers the possibility of promotion, and with it a decision on whether to further compromise her morals in search of security.

While the films shares a title with Perrault’s original fairy tale, the narrative theme feels less like that or the Brothers Grimm version and more akin to Alice In Wonderland, as a girl is drawn into a strange and eclectic cast of characters and allows herself to be drawn into events. Much of the drawing is done by Rachael Blake’s Clara, the icy madam who draws Lucy increasingly into this uncomfortable world. But Lucy is a willing participant, driven by greed as much as need, and the film tries to say as much about the culture of youth and poverty as it does about the sexual mores and deviance of society in general. I have to emphasise the use of the words “tries to”, because Sleeping Beauty fails by varying degrees to achieve pretty much everything it sets out to. This is partly both because of and despite Browning, who is willing to invest herself in both the naked physicality and bare psyche of her character, but only succeeds in making that character so dislikeable as to put unintentional barriers between herself and the audience.

Most of the fault, though, must lie with Leigh. It’s possible to see what she intended, and various influences can be detected, but sadly there’s a much better film in the material than the one that Leigh has committed to film. The director instructed her lead to watch Charlotte Gainsbourg’s performance in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, but Leigh lacks the vision and talent for imagery that Von Trier so repeatedly manages. The themes of sexual exploration feel as if they could have been better handled by the likes of David Cronenberg; the movie attempts surreal imagery and situations, but dialogue and scenes (especially in Lucy’s one attempt at a genuine relationship with another person) come across as arch and stilted, and somehow the Lynchian feel that could have enhanced serves only to confuse; and the movie’s biggest waste of potential is in the scenes with Clara, both in her introductions and later on in the bedroom. It feels, particularly with the staging of long, uncut scenes pointed directly at the audience, as if  this is Michael Haneke’s attempt at a pshcyosexual drama, but where Haneke has such flair for making his audience complicit in events or engaging their minds, Sleeping Beauty feels all gloss and no substance, as if the subtext got lost in the post somewhere between shooting and the cinema. It’s frustrating because it feels that any of those more established names might have gotten more out of these ideas, but Sleeping Beauty will do its best to alienate you from its themes, and gets lost in a wash of over-structured visuals and muddled messages, from its unfocused beginning to its anti-climactic and unsatisfying ending.

Why see it at the cinema: Set aside the feeling that you should only be wearing a brown raincoat to see this; in attempting to get inside your minds and those of her protagonists, Julia Leigh avoids titillation and exploitation, but this will be a challenging watch more for the long scenes of irrelevant dialogue and detached characters rather than the actual on-screen events. The cinematography has a timeless feel and is probably the best thing about the film; in the final analysis, it might be about the only thing the film has going for it.

The Score: 3/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Tyrannosaur

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The Pitch: Dog Dead Afternoon. (Alternatively: Jurassic Bark.)

The Review: If I said “British cinema” to you, then chances are that would conjure up one of a small number of images; most likely either a Richard Curtis type rom-com or a social realism film of the likes of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh today, but that would have its roots in the likes of Lindsey Anderson and the British New Wave back in the Fifties. For decades, we Brits have been fond of the kitchen sink drama, but it’s never really felt like we’ve told all of the stories there, and the likes of Shane Meadows and Peter Mullan have taken the drama out of the kitchen and onto the rough back streets of modern day Britain, with an unflinching view of the literal beating heart of Britain. Step forward then Paddy Considine, who’s the latest director to set a drama on the back street and housing estates of an unnamed British city – but just don’t call it social realism.

It’s a label that Paddy himself is uncomfortable with, but it’s not difficult to see why it’s being applied. When the first three locations in your movie are the bookies, the post office and a charity shop, you shouldn’t be expecting flashy special effects or a cast of thousands. Instead this is a small, intimate piece as Joseph (Peter Mullan) struggles to find a way to control the destructive rage that has gripped him since his wife’s death. He finds his way almost by accident into the charity shop of Hannah (Olivia Colman). Hannah’s Christian kindness sparks something in Joseph, but soon he also finds himself inexorably drawn into her world and the consequences of her relationship with her husband James (Eddie Marsan).

What you may not expecting is quite how good the performances are that Considine has managed to extract from his cast. If you’re looking for understated menace, then Eddie Marsan is your go-to guy, and he delivers a restrained but always threatening performance. Mullan is even better, his random rage and attempts at contrition giving him a huge range to work within, and anyone who can create a sympathetic character from someone whose first action is to kick his own dog to death is doing well. But the stand out without a doubt is Olivia Colman. Best known for her comedy roles with the likes of Mitchell and Webb or as Hot Fuzz’s dirty, flirty Doris, the latter brought her to co-star Considine’s attention and her performance here is nothing short of astonishing. Calm and stoic in the face of everything that life throws at her, it would be unfair to her to describe her performance as anything short of a revelation and in a world where there was some justice, she would be building a giant cabinet to put all of the well-deserved awards that this performance would gather.

And so to that question of social realism. Tyrannosaur might have all the trappings of the kitchen sink drama, but it’s unflinchingly brutal, and staccato bursts of violence have to be tempered by occasional flashes of humour to allow you to get all the way to the end. That occasional humour and a streak of something approaching optimism make the darker side bearable, but it’s still a difficult watch and not for the faint hearted. I mentioned the dog, and it’s symptomatic of Tyrannosaur being unafraid to tread where other dramas might not. Ultimately you can understand the view of not wanting to see this as social realism; it’s more comforting to want to believe that there aren’t real world equivalents to the likes of Joseph and James, and the ending has an almost gothic feel. It’s an impressive debut, enhanced by steady direction that doesn’t rely on cheap tricks or outlandish camera moves, and since Paddy’s said he’s more comfortable behind the camera telling his own stories, hopefully this is the first step in adding another name to the pantheon of great British directors.

Why see it at the cinema: Immerse yourself in a darkened room and lose yourself in the plight and the fate of these characters. Paddy’s also gone for a widescreen ratio – that’s a clue that you should see it on a wide screen (i.e. not your telly). And it’s British – support good British film, not enough gets decent distribution these days.

The Score: 9/10

Review: Little White Lies (Les petits mouchoirs)

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The Pitch: The One Where They’re All French And On Holiday.

The Review: Ensemble comedy dramas have been around since almost the dawn of film itself, but there’s one thing that they’ve all had to live in the shadow of for the last fifteen years, and it’s something that grew on the small screen rather than the big one. I refer, of course, to the comedy behemoth that was Friends, which with its ten years of episodic set-ups and lead characters that, on their own, were arch stereotypes but collectively formed a clique that most of the English speaking world seemed to fall in love with. During that ten years, though, Friends ran through almost every possible scenario that six friends could get up to. South Park once had an entire episode revolving around the fact that The Simpsons had mined every possible plotline and left nothing new for its competitors to explore, and at face value this is the equivalent of the two episodes in Friends where everyone went on a beach holiday.

So the challenge for director Guillaume Camet is what he can bring to the genre that’s fresh or original. Certainly the opening sequence is a little more hedonistic than any of the Friends was ever allowed to be, and the opening credits play out over a fantastic tracking shot with a cinematic pay-off.  From there the stakes are raised a little, as a hospital visit requires some tough decisions to be made; two weeks’ holiday or four, for example? It’s less a patient in a bed and more the elephant in the room as the absence of one of the group due to the opening accident casts a shadow over events, but not one that detains the friends for too long. The other major factor casting an omnipresent shadow is a conversation at dinner between Max (François Cluzet) and Vincent (Benoît Magimel), when Vincent struggles to express his more unusual feelings for Max and typically tries to express them before he’s resolved them himself. As it’s Max whose hosting their summer get-together, tensions are bound to run high.

For the majority of the rest of that running time, though, it does become indistinguishable from a French friends. Effectively a series of comic and dramatic vignettes, the passing of each night and day signals a new escapade that the varied characters end up in, each one pretty much defined by a single personality characteristic to help keep them separate. If that sounds a lot like a certain sitcom, then there’s another reason for mentioning it – Little White Lies is 154 minutes long, or the exact equivalent of watching seven episodes of Friends back to back without commercials. You’d expect a lot to be packed into that running time and you’d be right, but the consequence is that none of the stories moves along at much of a pace, and only Marion Cotillard as the pot-smoking bisexual gets called on to do much in the way of proper acting during the majority of the running time. (And yes, the reaction of most of the male characters to the revelation of her sapphic leanings is very reminiscent of one Joey Tribbiani.) Cluzet probably has the most fun of the group, getting to work through his anger management issues and tossing out pithy asides.

But there is more depth here than a TV sitcom, and in the final half hour set-ups pay off and elephants in rooms make themselves resolutely heard. So this holiday is worth taking for the eventual emotional journeys of the characters, but it’s also worth taking because it’s quite a lot of fun for the most part. While certainly a little overlong, the length doesn’t detract too much and  the story arcs do all (eventually) pay off. Camet always keeps things visually interesting and gets the most out of his characters, it’s all generally undemanding and the best bet is to sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery. You might not want to spend ten years in their company, but these friends are well worth two and a half hours of your time.

Why see it at the cinema: Plenty of gorgeous French scenery, a fair few decent laughs and you might just need one of those literal mouchoirs (handkerchiefs) by the end. What more could you want?

The Score: 8/10