Saturday, July 31, 2010

What's On in August

Over 80 years after it was first released, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, one of the most influential films ever made, has now been reborn. The discovery of footage long thought lost in Argentina in 2008 has enabled the restoration and reconstruction of a film that is now closer to Lang's original vision than ever before, and now viewers in the UK will finally get the chance to experience it. Metropolis will be re-released in cinemas in September, ahead of its DVD and Blu-Ray release, but I'll be seeing it on August 26th, when it will be receive its UK premiere at the NFT. Frankly, I can't wait.

The Metropolis screening ties in nicely with the BFI's ongoing celebration of its archive's 75th anniversary, which continues in August. There will be more screenings of rare and recently rediscovered titles and a number of nitrate presentations, including Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh. Beyond the archive screenings, the Future Human season also continues in August with sci-fi features from the past forty years, ranging from Tarkovsky's Stalker to Spielberg's Minority Report, and including the UK premiere of Second Life documentary Life 2.0 as well as a screening of The City of Lost Children that will be followed by a Marc Caro Q&A. Finally, South American cinema's 21st century renaissance goes under the spotlight (although this season seems to be missing some of the most notable films from this era, such as Amores perros or Y tu mamá también), and Steve McQueen's career is the subject of a retrospective.

From August 13th-15th, the NFT will play host to the third Empire Movie-Con, a weekend of screenings, Q&As and events. The full details of the weekend have not yet been announced, but it has been revealed that the eagerly anticipated Scott Pilgrim vs. The World will round things off with a Sunday night screening. Animation fans will be treated to the International Animation Festival which takes place towards the end of the month, while horrors fans will find all of their bloody needs satisfied at the 11th FrightFest festival, which this year includes screenings of the I Spit on Your Grave remake and the already notorious A Serbian Film. Whether or not I have the desire or the stomach to watch that particularly nasty-sounding shocker is a debate I'm still having with myself.

If you know of any upcoming film events that you'd like me to include in future articles, please let me know at

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review - The A-Team

There's not much I can find to say in defence of a film like The A-Team, but I suppose I can admit that Joe Carnahan's film is admirably honest about its intentions. "Overkill is underrated," Liam Neeson's Hannibal observes towards the movie's climax, and that appears to be this filmmaker's mantra, having left behind the impressively gritty style of his breakthrough Narc for films like Smokin' Aces and this depressing mess; pictures in which the bullet and body count is of considerably greater importance than story and character. That's a particular shame for this movie, because in its TV incarnation, The A-Team's biggest asset was the collection of unlikely companions at its centre; mastermind Hannibal, charmer Face, muscleman BA and crazy Murdock. The actors selected to take on these iconic roles in 2010 may be the perfect choice or they may not, but we'll never truly know, because this picture doesn't give any of them a single moment to breathe.

As Hannibal, Liam Neeson never looks entirely comfortable, and I suspect an actor with a lighter touch would have been a better fit. As the film opens in Mexico, only he and Bradley Cooper's Face know each other, and both are in a right old fix. The process through which they manage to escape and turn the tables on their captors leads them to ex-Army Ranger BA Baracus (Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson) and certifiable helicopter pilot Murdock (Sharlto Copley), before Carnahan leaps forward eight years to find them in the Iraq, where they are about to be framed for a crime they didn't commit.

The story that follows is barely worth devoting any time to because, to be honest, there's barely a story. It took three screenwriters to come up with the tiresome series of double-crosses, faked deaths and leaps of logic that form the movie's narrative, but their prime task appears to have been to find as many opportunities as possible for Carnahan and co. to blow things up. The A-Team is structured (if that's the word) around its action sequences, and you might argue that there's nothing unusual in a summer blockbuster taking such an approach, but those sequences are handled in such a horrendous fashion they immediately negate the film's sole reason to exist. Some of these scenes might have worked in other hands – one early set-piece cuts between Hannibal laying out his plan and the team pulling it off, while a more outlandishly imaginative one tackles the problem of steering a tank that's freefalling through the sky – but surely to enjoy these escapades you'd need to know what's going on.

The rapid-fire editing style embraced by Carnahan turns every action sequence into a shapeless, incoherent jumble of gunfire, flying bodies and fireballs, with the director never making an attempt to give the audience some sense of where his characters are in relation to one another, or where they need to be. This affliction doesn't only apply to The A-Team's money shots either, as Carnahan's inability to hold a shot for more than two seconds eats into the actors' performances. Of the main four, only Copley – who previously excelled as Wikus in the otherwise overrated District 9 – finds something like the right note, delivering a lively and occasionally funny performance as Murdock. Jackson struggles to fill Mr T's shoes as BA, but he has been saddled with an appalling subplot in which his character loses, and then regains, the will to kill. Perhaps this was intended as a sly comment on the TV show's famous refusal to kill off its villains, but it's cringeworthy as portrayed on screen. The rest of the cast barely register, and that includes Bradley Cooper, whose swaggering arrogance seems to sum up the film – so convinced of its own charm, but with no substance to back it up.

By the time The A-Team has reached its incomprehensible climax, which consists almost entirely of crates exploding, it's clear that the film's limited well of inspiration has run dry. For all of the noise and spectacle, this is a crushingly boring cinematic experience; completely empty, soulless and disposal. It represents everything that's lousy about mainstream cinema in the summer months, and coming so soon after the ambitious Inception and the near-perfect Toy Story 3, its laziness and contempt for the viewer is even more unforgivable. If you want to see a film that combines thrilling action with wit and heart, go and see Toy Story 3 instead, and if you've already seen it...well, you'd be better off seeing it a second time. I pity the fool who wastes good money on this junk.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Review - Rapt

The title card for Lucas Belvaux's Rapt appears twice onscreen during the opening credits, which is the first sign that this film will be doing things a little differently. What could have been a straightforward kidnapping tale is given an extra dimension by the choices this Belgian director takes, and by the manner in which he shifts the focus of the narrative unexpectedly. In a few short, effective strokes, Belvaux sets up his protagonist for a severe fall from grace. Stanislas Graff (Yvan Attal) is the wealthy industrialist who spends his days jet-setting with the French President, but whose nights are spent racking up major gambling debts at poker or spending a few illicit hours with his mistress before heading home to his loyal wife Françoise (Anne Consigny). Oddly, over the course of the film, Belvaux successfully manages to manipulate our perception of this cocky and deceitful character so he eventually earns our sympathy.

And he really does earn it, being put through a terrifying experience by the kidnappers who snatch him in a swift and carefully orchestrated assault. Graff is blindfolded, handcuffed, drugged and taken to an underground location, where the crooks show they mean business by chopping off a finger. The ransom is set at €50 million, which should be no problem for a man of his wealth, the captors reason, but that's where their plan starts to go awry. It seems Graff isn't quite as affluent as the media has suggested, and the corporation he represents shows an unsurprising hesitancy in putting up the cash when revelations about his gambling debts and affairs begin appearing in the tabloids. Belvaux places us in a position of uncertainty regarding Graff's ultimate fate as those who he thought of as his nearest and dearest begin backing away and looking after their own interests. Does anyone even want this guy back?

Belvaux divides his time evenly between Graff's ongoing ordeal, the negotiations between the police and his former business partners, and his family, who are threatening to come apart under the strain. As these discussions about the rights and wrongs of paying the ransom take place in the outside world, Graff begins to feel increasingly isolated, and Attal gives a thoroughly convincing portrait of a confident man rapidly being reduced to a broken, terrified wreck. He flinches and cowers like a beaten dog whenever one of his captors enter the room, and he finally spends much of his time sitting and staring dumbly ahead, seemingly ready to accept whatever fate lies in store, and wondering why he has been forsaken. It's no surprise that he first asks to see his dog when he finally does get home; the only loyalty he can truly count on.

It's not really spoiling Rapt to reveal that Graff does eventually return home. The plot is not the key thing here, as Belvaux seems much more interested in observing human nature, and seeing how these characters react when placed in these extreme situations. While Belvaux stages a couple of tense and gripping sequences, Rapt is ultimately more of a character study than a straightforward thriller, and it impresses on both levels. The final scenes are fascinating, as we watch Graff, a man much changed by his traumatic experience, wandering through the debris of his former life, looking at those around him with fresh eyes, and pondering his next move. Belvaux closes the film just as Graff makes an agonising choice, and in an appropriately ambiguous move, he leaves the audience to speculate on the character's ultimate decision.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Review - Bluebeard (Barbe Bleue)

After a career spent shocking audiences with the sexual explicitness of her work, Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress and her latest film Bluebeard indicate the development of a mellower sensibility. This is certainly the tamest film she has made to date, but the same themes Breillat has always been fascinated by are still present, they're just being played on a more subliminal level. This adaptation of a famous French fairytale allows the director to once more explore the complexities of female desire, but this time there's not an erection to be seen. In fact, there's barely even any exposed flesh on display, apart from one sight of the title character's half-naked corpulence. By Breillat's standards, this is astonishingly chaste stuff, with a scene of voracious meat-eating being the closest Bluebeard gets to generating some kind of erotic heat.

Regrettably, it's all a little dull. Bluebeard is the grim story of a lord who has the habit of marrying and then murdering his wives – he's already been through seven at the story's opening – and Breillat plays the tale in a straight, minimalist fashion, while adding a framing device in which two young girls read the narrative from an old picture book. The main story follows two sisters, Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) and the elder Anne (Daphné Baiwir), left bereft and penniless when their father dies. Without a dowry to their name, they are left with little choice when Bluebeard (an excellent Dominique Thomas) sends a messenger to invite them to the castle, and the lord eventually settles on Marie-Catherine to be his new bride, taking her home to his imposing castle.

Breillat has not lost her ability to shoot beautiful young women, and her camera often lingers on the faces of Créton and Baiwir, allowing their expressions to tell the story. Créton's guileless and inquisitive performance is particularly impressive, and the director draws natural turns from Marilou Lopes-Benites and Lola Giovannetti as the two children delighting in this dark story. There's one superb moment in the film, when the two narratives, without warning, suddenly bleed into one another (there may be no sex here, but that other Breillat mainstay – blood – makes a vivid appearance), but generally I found the film perplexingly uninvolving. Breillat's detached and academic directorial style keeps us at a certain distance, and while the film is full of beautifully composed shots – including the haunting climactic image – I found myself futilely wishing for something more on the handful of occasions that Bluebeard showed a real spark of life. Breillat's film gets at the heart of darkness that underpins the best fairytales, but rarely has her work left me feeling so frustrated and dissatisfied.

Friday, July 23, 2010

"The main concern was that I don't know how to write a movie" - An interview with Joann Sfar

Joann Sfar is certainly not a man who lacks ambition. For his first film as a director, this acclaimed graphic novelist has chosen to tackle the life of French cultural icon Serge Gainsbourg, and if that wasn't enough of a challenge, he has elected to tell his story in a surreal, unconventional manner that aims for an artistic rather than literal truth. Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) is a fascinating and distinctive portrait of a unique artist, and I met the young director in London last month to talk about it.

When did you first discover Serge Gainsbourg and why did he become such an important figure for you?

Not only to me but I guess to French youth. Gainsbourg was the only guy with an attitude on French television. Everything was so boring on French television when I was a kid and this guy, he was not shaved, he pretended to be dirty, he would say dirty words and almost harass women on stage, and yet he was so intelligent at the same moment. He always mentioned sex and alcohol and so on, and when you are a kid and you see this guy, you want to grow old. He's the guy who makes you feel that being a grown-up is so cool. Then when you discover his work you find also the sadness and the kind of cliché of the French Don Juan, the Russian-Jewish spirit which is almost mad and desperate with love, and it's very appealing for a storyteller.

So it was his rebellious spirit that most attracted you to him?

This is a strange question because he always claimed to be a rebel, but the truth I guess is that he wanted to be loved. He would do any silly thing for people to take notice of him, even if it meant hating him, but he could not stand the idea of people not talking about him or forgetting about him. His main idol was Salvador Dali, so you can imagine kind of behaviour he wanted to have. He would open a newspaper and if his name is nowhere it's a tragedy for him.

Your film suggests that the events of his childhood informed his whole life.

I've heard many things about Jewish people during World War II, but his story in my perception is very strange. He had no idea about being a Jew, there were no religious activities in his family and then one day the French police call him and give him the yellow star. So it is very strange to have a religion that is given by the administration of your country and he had a very strange relationship with France. After 50 years, he invites black Jamaican musicians to rob and sing the national anthem, so it is an answer to his childhood and it was a long, passionate relationship with France. I also love the symbolic relationships he had with women and clearly he wanted to conquest France through women and through love stories. I feel that when he had those three months of passion with Brigitte Bardot it was clearly a symbolic love story, and maybe one of the motives of the movie is that I wanted to shoot Brigitte Bardot. You know, I say this as a joke, but if you have been drawing for twenty years and they give you a camera, you want to put a real fantasy princess on screen, and Brigitte Bardot is a hit not only for French people but everyone.

Was it difficult to decide what aspects of his life to focus on in the script, and which ones to leave out?

The main concern was not Gainsbourg, the main concern was that I don't know how to write a movie. I am quite used to writing comic books and I didn't want to listen to the masters of scriptwriting because it would like having the master of sex in the room while you are performing [laughs]. I'm perfectly aware of the fact that I don't know how to structure a movie and I'm not quite proud of the structure of my movie. I worked with what I knew like dialogue, image, colour, scenes, and I have to confess I'm proud of the actors, the image and the scenes, but maybe I'm not quite proud of the structure because I'm learning. I don't know how to give simplicity to the structure of a movie. I did structure this movie as I would have done for a comic book and I've got to improve this, because when you've been performing an art form for a long time, on the one hand you respect the rules and on the other hand you want to break the rules. That's what I do in graphic novels, but I have just discovered movies so I have to learn the grammar and at the same moment show disrespect to this grammar, and perhaps that's too much of a burden for my first movie. I had no idea it would be so complicated to mix songs, children, animals, puppets, I didn't know that the production would be so difficult.

I'm very happy that I went through this movie, because afterwards everything will be easy for me. For instance, I was so surprised and happy to see the audience laugh because I had no idea I could write comedy moments. In the future I only want to write comedies, whether they are children's comedies or adult-oriented, because I am so happy when people laugh, and writing an emotional line is quite new for me. I'm in the beginning of a learning process, and I say all this because I don't want to say, "Oh, I'm an artist, this is how I see my movie," I'm not like that. This might sound very pretentious but I would like to do intelligent entertainment. I don't feel I'm there yet, but I'm on my way.

While I was waiting outside I was told that there is a re-edited version in the works for the film's general release. Can you tell me more about that?

Yes, I did that. It isn't finished yet but it will be released in London next month, that's what you will see in the theatre. It will be about 15 minutes shorter. It does not change big things to the story, everything is here, but the language is quite different, and I understood many things. The film appears to address a younger audience. It is as complex but with more rhythm.

How did your background as a comic book artist help you shape the film's visual style?

The useful stuff was not comic books it was drawing. When you know nothing about technical cinema terms, not only with the camera but with the wardrobe, production design and so on, you need to make very precise drawings. You show them to the technicians, you wait for their answer, which will be very concrete, and then you draw again. Even with things like the focus on the camera, I don't know the names but I know precisely the kind of picture I want, so we try all of them. It's a very good way to talk to a technician because he can interpret the drawing, and he does not feel he is your slave, because he has a lot of invention as well. We made thousands of drawings through the movie, and they told me they were very happy to work this way.

Were there cinematic influences on your approach as well?

Maybe there is one; it would be An American in Paris. I wanted to have all of the clichés of a love story on the bank of the river Seine, like in Everybody Says I love You which was already a reference to An American in Paris. I wanted to shoot it on the real location but to make it look fake. I don't want my life to look like real life I want it to look like a movie, so there's a lot of light and a lot of colour. I would love to do a musical and I love the idea of doing a romantic comedy.

That sense of unreality is in the script as well, and we get the idea that we are not watching the historical reality of Gainsbourg's life.

I'm taking everything as it was said. It has been highly documented but it is documented only in his voice. The other thing is that I don't like it when a movie has the camera moving on the shoulder and you pretend that what you say will be more true because the camera is moving like you are a journalist and not a storyteller. My whole point is that you can give true emotion through fake image, and that's the whole point of live theatre. When you read Shakespeare, when you read A Midsummer Night's Dream, you know nothing about fairies but you know many things about feelings. I love to do this, and even though Brigitte Bardot is still alive, I love to treat her as a princess from the middle ages, as an icon. This is clearly not a realistic cinema but I hope people really cry and I hope they really laugh.

It can be controversial to take a non-historical approach to an iconic figure, though. Have you had any criticism for this approach?

Fortunately, it was wonderful when the movie was in Paris. Maybe they were easy because it's a first movie, they might shoot me for the second one! [laughs] We have sent the movie to 30 countries, but most of the time people don't even mention Gainsbourg who they don't know, and instead they say it is a love story in Paris with Brigitte Bardot, which is fine for me. I feel I was working more on the art of Gainsbourg than on his accurate life.

I understand you are currently working on a screen adaptation of your comic The Rabbi's Cat?

Yes, we finished the animation two weeks ago, and we are having very good screenings. We are considering putting it in 3D, but I am very stupid because this will add five months of work. We have to work on almost every shot of the film again because we have to change the floors and the space and so on, but I hope it will be released next February.

And do you think you'll focus more on animated films in the future, or will you direct more live action?

First I'd like to do more comic books, but I created a production studio for The Rabbi's Cat and I am not the only director, there are others. Our movies will be clearly European and worldwide oriented, I don't want to just stick to French audiences so most of our movies will be English-speaking movies, and we are considering working with the Universal studio in London because we are very fond of them. We are in the beginning of the process, but maybe one day we could create a studio like the Aardman studio or Miyazaki's studio, where they are a universe and every year you go back to their universe. Not every movie will be good but it's about writing a line from one year to another.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Review - Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)

Joann Sfar has given his film Gainsbourg the subtitle Vie héroïque – a heroic life – and whether or not the subject deserves such a description is a matter that's open to debate. What's more certain, however, is that Serge Gainsbourg's life was a remarkable one, and in the hands of this debutant filmmaker it has been brought to sensational life. The music biopic has been one of the most formulaic genres in recent cinema, so it's refreshing to view a film that dares to shake that formula up, and to find cinematic ways to explore both the life and work of an artist. Granted, the film still hits the standard beats – childhood, success, failures, affairs, the slow decline – but it does so with a bracing energy and some hugely imaginative directorial choices.

Taking a kind of 'greatest hits' approach to Gainsbourg's story, Sfar chooses to focus on the episodes that interest him and dispense with those that don't, giving the film a hectic pace in its early stages as it rushes from one incident to the next. Gainsbourg opens in Nazi-occupied France, introducing us to the young Lucien Ginsburg (Kacey Mottet Klein), and establishing the central character as a cheeky and imaginative figure from the start. When he is forced to don a yellow Star of David, Lucien skips down the streets before stopping to stare at a grotesque Jewish caricature on a poster, which then comes to life and begins dancing with the boy. His restless imagination is the driving force behind this early section of the film, with Sfar finding unexpected flights of fancy everywhere, from a scene in which Lucien is forced to hide from the Nazis in a Catholic school, to another in which he persuades a model to let him draw her nude.

Kacey Mottet Klein is an appealingly precocious presence as the young Ginsburg, but he's got nothing on the man who takes over when Sfar moves onto his subject's adult life. Eric Elmosnino was surely born to play this role. He is uncanny both in his physical resemblance to the singer and his representation of Gainsbourg's swaggering attitude, capturing the magnetism that made him such a prolific ladykiller while simultaneously expressing the deep insecurity that the artist felt about his looks. There's an enigmatic air to Elmosnino's performance, with a sly smile playing on his lips as a cigarette hangs from his lips, but whatever thoughts and feelings the actor keeps hidden tend to escape anyway, in the form of Sfar's most inspired invention. Throughout the film, Gainsbourg is followed by a strange, elongated figure with caricatured Semitic features protruding from his papier-mâché head – like a cross between Nosferatu and Frank Sidebottom. This is 'La Gueule' or 'Gainsbarre,' a personification of the singer's id, who is constantly whispering in his ear and leading him astray. He's a creepy and striking figure, and he is brilliantly played by Doug Jones, once again proving he is one of the most versatile and expressive physical performers around.

Sfar maintains a surreal and theatrical tone wherever possible, eschewing biopic clichés and historical reality in an attempt to create something more in tune with his subject's artistic perspective. The director has no cinematic experience and prior to Gainsbourg his reputation has been forged in the world of comic books, which is shown by his emphasis on the film's visuals. Guillaume Schiffman's gorgeous cinematography and Sfar's eye for compositions give the film a lush, vibrant feel, but the director struggles at times with his structure. Essentially a series of scenes rather than a fluid narrative, the film has gaps and hurdles that leave it feeling uneven, although a couple of key performances help to keep the film anchored. Aside from Elmosnino, Sfar has settled on some spot-on casting choices for the women in Gainsbourg's life. Laetitia Casta turns up halfway through the film for an outrageously sexy cameo as Brigitte Bardot, and Lucy Gordon, who sadly died before the film's release, is effective and affecting as Gainsbourg's long-suffering wife Jane Birkin.

It is she who has to suffer the star at his alcoholic, reckless worst, and while Sfar skims over the most unsavoury aspects of this life story – he has clearly come to praise Serge, not to bury him – the final section of the film is a drag. For all of his attempts to shake off cliché, Sfar still finds himself a prisoner of the biopic template as Gainsbourg begins his slow descent into boorish drunkenness and misanthropy. The film finally threatens to outstay its welcome in this climactic section, and Sfar's attempt to loop things back to the artist's childhood doesn't come off, but this is still a bold and distinctive work. Gainsbourg is unconventional, passionate, sensual, frustrating and occasionally inspired – for better and for worse, Joann Sfar truly has made a film infused with the spirit of its subject.

Read my interview with Joann Sfar here.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Review - Toy Story 3

At the height of summer, every Hollywood studio is desperate to dazzle us with the most expensive, ambitious and bombastic sequences money and technology can buy, and in the opening minutes of Toy Story 3, we're led to believe that Pixar is following suit. The film begins with an explosive chase in which all of our favourite characters from the first two films play key roles, but just as the outlandish action builds to its dramatic climax, director Lee Unkrich cuts away to reality. We're in Andy's bedroom, and the previous scene has taken place entirely within his head, as he plays with his toys on the floor. The boundless imagination of a child has concocted this fantasy from whatever items he has to hand.

This depiction of childhood playtime will strike a chord with anyone who has ever created a world for their toys to inhabit – which, I'd imagine, is almost all of us – and that's why the Toy Story movies have found a special place in audience's hearts, above and beyond the rest of Pixar's astonishingly consistent output. They're cutting-edge films that celebrate old-fashioned virtues. We can instantly relate to Andy's relationship with his toys, and Toy Story 3 takes advantage of that emotional connection by exploring what happens when that relationship comes to its inevitable end. Toy Story 3 has all of the humour, action and excitement that made its predecessors instant classics, but it is also a piercing study of the limits of nostalgia, and of the pain involved in severing the ties that bind. It's a film about love and loss, ageing and even death.

Such is the way of Pixar, whose mastery of animation is now so complete that it seems there are only emotional boundaries, rather than technological ones, left to be pushed against. The remarkable thing is just how adept all of the filmmakers at this studio are in striking a balance between the light and shade of their stories, cracking jokes throughout without undermining the real sense of peril their characters face. The toys' traumas begin as 17 year-old Andy (again played by John Morris) prepares for college life and must decide what to do with the long neglected Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and gang. Through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, they find themselves carted off to the Sunnyside Day Care Centre, a place that initially sounds like a utopia – children to play with every day! – but one that is quickly revealed to be a terrifying hell from which there may be no escape.

This turn of events allows screenwriter Michael Arndt (who had the assistance of Unkrich, John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton) to add a whole bevy of new toys to the cast of characters. Michael Keaton's Ken is a terrific newcomer – his on-off romance with Barbie culminating in a hilarious fashion show sequence – while I have a particularly soft spot for frustrated thespian Mr Pricklepants (voiced by a haughty Timothy Dalton), but pink teddy bear Lotso (an outstanding Ned Beatty) is the new toy who dominates the film's second half. He may be all smiles and hugs but his soul is twisted, and his imprisonment of the toys leads to the superbly staged Great Escape-spoof that drives the narrative. Toy Story 3's screenplay is a thing of beauty, with Arndt never allowing the momentum to slacken, even while he finds time for funny sidetracks like Buzz's bizarre Spanish turn, or Mr Potato Head having to improvise after losing his potato.

There are also pleasing references and echoes of the first two films laced throughout, like so many small gags and details that will only become apparent on repeated viewings, but Unkrich also pushes the emotional core that those films shared further than ever before. At one point, the toys stare into the abyss and face the fact of their ultimate mortality, their quiet acceptance of their fate being one of the most remarkable and moving scenes I've ever witnessed in a film ostensibly aimed at children. Toy Story 3 ventures into some extremely dark corners and finds a number of haunting images there – many of which feature the damaged Big Baby – and I couldn't help wondering if the film might prove too intense for some young viewers. But the filmmakers seem acutely aware of how much is too much, and they manage to put us through the emotional wringer without seeming to manipulate our emotions in a false way. Every tear is earned.

That holds true right up to the touching coda, which brings the story full circle and ends on a note that feels perfectly apt. The decision-makers and accountants at Disney will undoubtedly look at the box-office returns and ask for another instalment in this can't-miss series, but I hope Pixar resists that notion, because it's hard to imagine a better culmination for the story they began 15 years ago. Made with incredible love, care and attention, Toy Story 3 is the climax this series deserves and it's as close to a perfect piece of mainstream entertainment that one could imagine. A whole new generation of children will surely thrill to the wonderful action sequences, memorable toys and slapstick humour, but those of us who have grown up with these characters will undoubtedly have a stronger reaction. Rarely has the act of putting away childish things resonated as deeply as it does in this glorious film.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Review - The Concert (Le concert)

The Concert is a two-hour movie, but it's only the final twenty minutes you'll really remember. The film is an awkward, unsubtle piece of work that often missteps in its storytelling, but director Radu Mihaileanu gambles everything on his finale, and he just about gets away with it. The story is a silly piece of fluff from the first minute. Aleksei Guskov (Andreï Filipov) is the central character, and the way this figure is introduced is a joy; we see a series of beautifully lit shots as Guskov conducts an orchestra, but the spell cast by this music is abruptly broken by Aleksei's mobile phone, which starts ringing and gives away his position as an unseen observer in the rafters. Although Aleksei was once a renowned conductor, he is now no more than a lowly janitor working behind the scenes at the theatre.

Aleksei's downfall occurred thirty years ago, when he incurred the wrath of Brezhnev by including Jewish musicians in his orchestra. Disgraced and downtrodden, the former conductor has spent the subsequent decades dreaming of his former glories, but an unlikely opportunity for redemption presents itself when Aleksei intercepts a fax intended for the Bolshoi orchestra. Why not get the old gang together and take the Bolshoi's place at their Théâtre du Châtelet appointment, he reasons. Never mind the fact that most of them haven't picked up an instrument in thirty years, never mind the fact that many of them don't have passports, never mind the fact that the plan itself is riddled with plot holes and leaps of logic that even the laziest viewer could identify. Such concerns are mere details, and Radu Mihaileanu appears to be a director with little time for details.

Mihaileanu paints in the broadest of strokes. His characters adhere to lazy stereotypes, with all Russians being oligarchs, gangsters, communists or hucksters, and a band of gypsies being called upon to procure dodgy passports and those much-needed instruments. The director creates scenes of chaos, like the wedding that descends into a shootout or the nightmare of trying to control a horde of drunk Russian musicians on the streets of Paris, and at times he generates an infectious, Kusturica-like manic energy. He's less successful when he tries to balance that tone with the more emotionally loaded strand of the narrative, and some of the scenes that build up to a revelation about violinist Anne-Marie (Mélanie Laurent) are laboured and dawdling. I did appreciate the way Mihaileanu set us up for a particular kind of revelation, however – one that I was dreading – before adding a late twist that made it a little more palatable.

A couple of key central performances keep The Concert grounded in a sense of reality, and keep Mihaileanu's rickety crowd-pleaser on the rails. As Guskov, Andreï Filipov is a hugely endearing and empathetic lead, while Dmitri Nazarov brings warmth and humour to his role as Aleksei's loyal, bear-like chum Sacha. But the real pleasure of the film is Mélanie Laurent. She gave one of last year's finest screen performances in Inglourious Basterds, and here she is wonderfully understated, providing this hectic film with a vital calming presence. She is also at the centre of the extraordinary finale, and I think the main reason The Concert has a chance of being a breakout hit is because this ending is almost guaranteed to leave audiences both applauding and weeping. Past, present and future collide in the climactic performance, and Mihaileanu's ability to whip scenes up into fervour reaches its apotheosis here, with Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto enabling the sequence soar to new heights. Of course, to swallow this turn of events you'll have to accept the fact that a ragbag bunch of musicians could bring the Parisian audience to its feet without a single moment's rehearsal. A load of nonsense? Absolutely, but The Concert made me laugh a few times and it ultimately made me cry, and I find it very hard to argue with a movie that can do that.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Review - Leaving (Partir)

Films about infidelity and crumbling marriages are ten-a-penny, but with high-quality acting and some interesting storytelling choices, Leaving is better than most. The film benefits hugely from having Kristin Scott Thomas in the lead role, an actress who is unquestionably among the finest currently working in cinema. She excels again here, playing the woman whose seemingly perfect life is disrupted by her unexpected lust, then love, for another man. Suzanne Vidal is the wife of Samuel (Yvan Attal), a successful doctor, and she is preparing to return to work herself for the first time in 15 years. Her husband is converting a disused outhouse into an office so she can practice physiotherapy at home, but one of the labourers is Ivan (Sergi López), a Spanish ex-con that Suzanne takes a shine to.

Of course, there's no way this can end well, and director Catherine Corsini opens her film with a scene that imbues every subsequent action with an impending sense of tragedy. Leaving is a film about people being led by their emotions and not taking a second to step back, to consider the consequences, as they find themselves being drawn inexorably along a destructive path. Corsini's direction is detached from the emotional tumult, however. She observes the action in a clinical fashion and often cuts to black at the end of a scene in a manner that recalls Michael Haneke, while slowly detailing the key encounters that see these two very different people falling into each other's arms. There are contrivances involved in the director's narrative – a silly accident is required to allow Suzanne and Ivan some time alone – but Leaving is very effective in its depiction of their animalistic attraction, with the growing sexual tension eventually segueing into passionate coupling, which the director shoots in a frank fashion.

Up to this point, you may think there's not a great deal about Leaving to distinguish it from myriad other bourgeois dramas about extra-marital affairs, but the way Corsini depicts the fallout from this affair is quite interesting. Suzanne may be sexually and emotionally liberated by her relationship with Ivan, but she quickly finds herself a prisoner of the situation this relationship places her in, with the wealthy Samuel exerting his influence and wealth to punish his wandering wife. Samuel continually offers her the opportunity to end the affair and return home, but as she digs her heels in, he seems to take a sadistic pleasure in slowly turning the screw. The downside of this is that Leaving very quickly degenerates into a film about unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to each other in a tit-for-tat manner, but Corsini does find some superb individual moments among them. Many of these involve Suzanne's growing humiliation as she applies for menial jobs or, at one particularly low point, is reduced to selling her jewellery to passers-by outside a petrol station, while the scenes between Suzanne and her husband crackle with tension and animosity.

Attal and López are both excellent in this actors' showcase, but this is Scott-Thomas' film. Her bold performance alternately brings a brittleness and vitality to the character and she remains a mesmerising presence as Suzanne's journey takes her through a series of increasingly painful situations. The greatest testament to her performance is the fact that she keeps us interested in her character even as her behaviour grows increasingly selfish and the film gets more preposterously melodramatic. The climax offers us a clever twist, but it's not one that satisfies or convinces, leaving us with a disappointing ending to a film that had found some interesting wrinkles in an otherwise familiar story.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Review - Women Without Men (Zanan-e bedun-e mardan)

Shirin Neshat is an artist whose career has been built upon photography and installation works, but making a feature film, which she is doing for the first time with Women Without Men, is a very different beast. That's a lesson Neshat appears to have learned to her cost, producing a film which is faultless on a visual level but one sadly lacking in the cohesion and momentum that a full-length narrative requires. It remains a fascinating piece of work, though, and Neshat's undeniable mastery of composition ensures individual sequences have a truly mesmerising quality. Neshat's theme is the plight of women in Iranian society, and her adaptation of Shahrnoush Parsipour's novel follows four very different females as they escape their patriarchal society and withdraw into a self-contained sanctuary. What a shame the director is incapable of bringing these characters to life in a way that would allow us to fully engage with them.

Neshat opens her film with a death, as Munis (Shabnam Toloui) floats through the air having decided to leap from a rooftop to end the misery of being a virtual prisoner under her brother's command. He wants her to marry and live as a good wife, but she's more interested in becoming politically engaged, as the UK and US-backed coup d'état of 1953 takes place in the streets outside. Her best friend Faezeh (Pegah Ferydoni) is a devoutly religious woman secretly in love with Munis' brother, and when she visits the family home to pay her respects, she finds herself being called into the garden by her late friend's voice. She digs Munis up, allowing her body to rise and her spirit to walk away from her grave and into the streets, where she can finally fulfil her political aspirations by joining a group of student protestors.

It is around this point that we realise Women Without Men is not a strictly realistic film, and these magical, ghostly elements allow Neshat and her co-director Shoja Azari to conjure some beautiful images. The film's most vivid sequences occur in the secluded orchard that Faezeh wanders into after being raped, a sanctuary for women who have suffered at the hands of men. This location is shot in a hypnotic and hallucinatory fashion that recalls the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, and I initially wondered whether this orchard was supposed to represent some kind of afterlife. When Faezeh arrives there, she discovers two other women who have escaped the city for the comfort of this isolated spot. Fakhri (Arita Shahrzad) bought the orchard after leaving her domineering military husband, and Zarin (Orsolya Tóth) is an emaciated prostitute who has run away from the brothel she was silently suffering in.

The actresses playing these roles (particularly the enigmatic Tóth) all give convincing performances, but their characters lack dimensions and Neshat doesn't seem sure how to develop them beyond our initial impressions of them. Faezeh lets her hair down and Zarin starts to look a little healthier, but that's about it, and the film as a whole seems lacking in a real sense of purpose. There's a disconnect between the story of the three women at the orchard on one hand and the ghostly wanderings of Munis on the other, with Neshat's climactic dovetailing of these strands failing to gel. As a filmmaker, she is a creator of stunning images, and there are some brilliant moments here. I was particularly struck by a sequence in a bathhouse, when Zarin draws blood as she tries to scrub away the stain of her past life, or the shot of Munis as the sole female face in a crowd of protesting males. However, the true test of a director is the ability to make stunning individual elements fit into a whole, creating a cohesive, satisfying drama. Women Without Men fails that test, but Neshat has the eye and the ambition of a real artist, and she may strike a finer balance in future projects.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Review - Inception

Although I have major problems with The Dark Knight, the arrival of Inception makes me appreciate that 2008 blockbuster a little more. The phenomenal success of Christopher Nolan's superhero sequel has given the director a position of incredible power and influence in Hollywood, and he has chosen to use that power for good, taking the opportunity to create something daring and original that shames the timid, inward-looking industry it has emerged from. This is the rare summer film that is not a sequel or remake, it's not an adaptation of a comic book or video game, and it's not a rehash of an old franchise. With Inception, Nolan is cashing all of his Batman chips and trusting that the mainstream audience is both intelligent enough and hungry enough for something new to follow him into the remarkable dream world he has created.

It's a disorienting experience, and from the opening moments Nolan makes us question what is real and what is imagined in his film. When we see Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) washed up on a beach in Japan, are we watching reality or a dream? Is this a dream within a dream or – as we subsequently experience – a dream within a dream within a dream? Cobb is a master thief whose domain is the subconscious mind. He has perfected the art of breaking into people's dreams and stealing the secrets that lie within, but he is also a fugitive, on the run and unable to return home to his children in America, for reasons that have something to do with Mal (Marion Cotillard), the figure from Cobb's past who keeps materialising mid-mission. Cobb's battle to overcome the painful personal memories that keep interfering with his dreams form Inception's subplot, and are supposed to provide the film with its emotional weight.

That it fails to do so is one of Inception's major disappointments. The increasing importance placed on the Cobb/Mal relationship as the film progresses is undermined by the fact that emotion is an aspect of storytelling that Nolan is yet to master. No matter how many times the director fills the screen with close-ups of Marion Cotillard's big, beautiful eyes, I didn't feel anything towards her because – as in Michael Mann's Public Enemies – the actress is stuck trying to bring depth and heart to a character who's not really there on paper. There's a gap where there should be a tragic love story, and for much of the film I found my attention wandering from this central relationship and towards some of the supporting actors. In particular, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy stand out as two key members of Cobb's operation, with Gordon-Levitt being at the centre of the film's most memorable action sequence, and Hardy being so good when he's onscreen I started wishing Nolan would give him more than the occasional sardonic one-liner to play with. The director really has cast the hell out of this film, though, and there are fine actors in every minor role, but the downside of this is that a few of them (Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, Pete Posthelthwaite) really aren't given enough to do.

The main plot of Inception is the mission itself, and for all of its outlandish effects, the film plays out like an old-fashioned heist movie for much of its opening hour. Cobb has 'one last job', the big one that will finally allow him to quit this life and return to his family, and as he assembles his team, Nolan cleverly makes the considerable exposition slightly more digestible by filtering it through the training of Ariadne (Ellen Page), the group's new architect. There are a lot of rules and boundaries that need to be explained to both her and the audience, but in a few neat sequences, Nolan manages to both explain his premise and show us what's possible within it. As Ariadne adjusts to her newfound ability to shape her dreams, Nolan pulls off some dazzling shots, showing us a city being bent to the will of the dreamer, a world that can fold in upon itself or expand to the limits of that dreamer's imagination. Importantly, however, it's not all grandiose effects, and Nolan incorporates some lovely little details that really sell the situation; like the tiny droplets of blood floating out of Ken Watanabe's mouth in zero-gravity, the ominous shuddering of a dream on the verge of collapse, or a terrific staircase gag that recalls an earlier discussion about paradoxes.

Nolan's direction is so much more consistently fluid and commanding than his work on the Batman movies has been, and with his tightly constructed screenplay driving things forward, the film quickly develops into a gripping and visually dazzling spectacle. It builds up a breathless momentum towards the middle of the picture, as the director stages a chase sequence while Cobb and his team simultaneously try to turn their target against his own dreams. He does a superb job of handling the multiple strands of his complicated narrative, but in the final half-hour, Inception finally grows a little too complicated for its own good. A fourth narrative level is suddenly introduced, and I felt that this element stalled the film's pacing at a crucial juncture, with the notion of time being relative to the dream level currently being experienced not really working as a storytelling tool. As a result, this climactic sequence weirdly feels both rushed and overlong (what were they saying about paradoxes?).

Fortunately, Nolan just about manages to pull through this clumsy final passage and prevent his dream from collapsing completely. Inception may lack the emotional impact that it is truly crying out for, but the impact it possesses in other areas – cinematically, intellectually – is undeniable. It is Nolan's most accomplished film since Memento and the boldest, most conceptually ambitious mainstream American film since The Matrix. It's not often we're offered a film as complex, challenging and thrilling as this as part of the summer blockbuster menu, and Inception feels like a refreshing anomaly. We are being rewarded for Nolan's desire to dream big.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

"I like the idea that you can take an audience and change their mind about the character" - An interview with Brenda Blethyn

In a career that has included two Oscar nominations and numerous memorable characters, Brenda Blethyn has established herself as one of Britain's best-loved actresses, and in Rachid Bouchareb's London River she gives one of her most challenging and moving performances to date. Blethyn plays Elisabeth, a woman whose world is devastated by the July 7th bombings in London and who has to face her own prejudices as she explores the life of the daughter she never really knew. Yesterday, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the attack, I met Brenda Blethyn to discuss the film.

How soon was it after the July 7th bombings when you were offered this role?

It was two years, at least, but I was steering clear of it because it was too recent history and I thought it would be sacrilege to make the film. You know, you have this idea of it being a big extravaganza about the London bombings, which would have been just awful, but I was soon put right on that. My agent told me that it's not a film about the bombings, and that's just the catalyst to bring these two people together. I went to meet Rachid and I found him inspiring, and then I watched his film Days of Glory and I loved it. I could tell that he was going to be treating this backdrop of 7/7 very, very sensitively. It wasn't a political film, it was just looking at the human side of the tragedy; two ordinary people, coming together from completely different cultures, and discovering their similarities. I really wanted to work with him, and when he said Sotigui Kouyaté, I'd heard of him but I didn't know him, so I watched Little Senegal and I thought he was just magic. I think he's completely, completely wonderful in London River, the grace just shines out of him. It's beautiful.

It brought back a lot of memories for me. I remember the fear and confusion, and the eerie atmosphere of the days after. Were you in London that day?

No, I was at the coast, but I was due to come back to London that day. I rang my partner to tell him what time I'd be home and he said, "Brenda, haven't you been watching the news? Don't come to London." Then I switched on and saw what had happened. He said, "Stay where you are, don't come to London" because who knew whether or not there would be more?

In this film you have to deal with the loss of a child, which is the greatest trauma a parent can go through. Was it hard for you to portray such extreme emotions?

It's always hard. You've got to stay in the moment if you want people to believe what you're doing, but at the end you're going through this terrible breakdown and then a light will go and you'll hear, "Cut! Can we start again?" [laughs]. I'm not a method actor, I'm the opposite. I'm from the Mike Leigh school, and there's always a third eye up here watching what's going on, and it's never me going through that trauma, it's her. As soon as we stop, I'm Brenda and that's Elisabeth, and I think that's always the best way to work because you can also look at the character more objectively. I knew people weren't going to warm to her initially, because on the outside she can look like a bit of a racist, and there's normally a gasp when she meets Ousmane in the film because she doesn't shake his hand. In the audience I would feel the same, but we've all met him, and we know he's an innocent man looking for his son, the same as she is, but she doesn't know that. All she knows is, she's in an alien part of London, her daughter's missing, she realises the daughter is living a life completely different to the one she thought she was living, she's surrounded by Muslims and this terrible thing that has happened, which may have killed her daughter, was perpetrated by Muslim extremists. She's suddenly in this world that's totally alien to her, and not getting much help from the police, but it's interesting that the police come round in squad cars the second she says, "A Muslim knows something about my daughter" and fingerprint the flat.

The character's paranoia seems to reflect the atmosphere of suspicion in the media at the time. Did that play a part in your performance?

I did incorporate some of that. It's not what I would think but I felt it was what she would think. Another part that always makes people gasp is when she says the place is "crawling with Muslims" and because it's such a sensitive subject, people's hackles go up, but a while ago I actually heard somebody say that in a shop so I remembered it. I like the idea that you can take an audience and change their mind about the character. It's a bit of a journey and it's not all black and white. I think people's judgement of her at that point, that she's a racist, is too extreme for its own good. All of us are too quick to jump to conclusions when we haven't got all the facts, but most of the time we think we do have all the facts.

Did you speak to any survivors of the bombings about their experiences and memories of the day?

No I didn't, because I already had more knowledge than Elisabeth had, and it wouldn't have helped me to play a woman who knows nothing about the situation.

You've got a benefit screening tomorrow night on the fifth anniversary of the bombings. Have you had much reaction to the film from people who were affected by July 7th?

I do know that the distributors Trinity have been very sensitive and responsible about opening it, and that several charities have been involved. The 7/7 survivors charity, the 7/7 assistance fund and also the Gill Hicks charity have all supported it, giving it their stamp of approval. She's an amazing woman, that Gill Hicks, lost both of her legs and set up a charity for greater understanding and tolerance.

Does making a film like this give you a different perspective or deeper understanding of this kind of incident?

It just makes you think more deeply about the total anguish that people must have gone through. Just ordinary people getting on a bus or getting on a tube to go to work, and that happens. It's just evil.

Even though this is a very emotive issue, the thing I liked most about the film was how understated the emotions were, which makes the final breakdown even more powerful.

Rachid just wanted it to be organic throughout. There was never any instruction to big it up or dull it down, it just had to be organic and real. He wanted us to deal with the information we had at the time and just run with it, so that's what we both did.

I understand Rachid also gave you and Sotigui a lot of freedom to improvise in the film. What was it like to work in that way?

Oh, it was great. He's a wonderful director to work with. He makes you feel like you're the most interesting actor he's ever worked with, and of course you're not, but that's how he makes you feel, and he made all of the actors feel like that. It's so liberating for an actor, because you're not afraid to try things and look like a berk. You can run with something and if he doesn't like it, then it won't be in the film, he'll just get rid of it [laughs]. When you're working in that kind of secure environment, everything is useful, and working with Sotigui was one of the treasures I'll take to my grave; a beautiful, beautiful man. We had the greatest respect for each other.

Did you speak French before the film?

No, and I've forgotten it all now [laughs]. I learned it in a crash course, a three-week intensive course in Manchester, and then straight onto the film. It was shot in three weeks and then I was straight onto another film, and I've been working all the time since, so I haven't spoken a word. I was pretty proud of myself, because he wanted us to improvise so I needed to have a better understanding than I had, which is why I had to go to school. Quite a few of the scenes were improvised just to get you into the scene, so if a scene started here we'd start over here and get to that point to play the scene, and he still wouldn't say cut. We would just carry on acting as those characters would until he did say cut, which is what Mike Leigh does...well, I mean there's no script with Mike Leigh at all, so it's all improvised. When we were making Secrets & Lies, one scene went on for nine hours [laughs].

Does acting in an unfamiliar language make it more of a challenge to get across the emotion and meaning of a scene for you?

The only responsibility is to get whatever's going on in here [points to chest] across, and she's thinking in English not French, so I'd have to translate it. Sometimes I'd drop huge clangers and say something really obscene [laughs]. They'd say "Cut, let's go again. You just said something awful," [laughs]. It was a slight inflection that gave it a totally different meaning. Everyone was very friendly and helpful, though, and while it was a challenge for me, I did love every minute of it.

You've mentioned Mike Leigh a couple of times in this interview. Is Secrets & Lies still the film you're most recognised for?

Well, people do remember that film, and it was a good film, wasn't it? Actually, Chance in a Million, a television show, is the one I'm most remembered for, believe it or not.

The sitcom with Simon Callow?

Do you remember it? [laughs] That must have been thirty years ago.

I think the original broadcast was a bit before my time, but I've seen it since.

I'll jump into the back of a taxi and say, "Waterloo" and the driver will turn around and go, "Chance in Million!" [laughs] It's strange. I'm very proud of London River, though. I think it's my best work, I don't know what other people think, but I do think it's my best performance.

Review - London River

It has been five years since the July 7th terrorist attacks in London, and London River is the first film to deal directly with the events of that day. However, while 7/7 provides the catalyst for the film's narrative, the true-life events ultimately act as a backdrop for the human drama that director Rachid Bouchareb really wants to explore. His film is about two characters from very different backgrounds who have both travelled to London to search for their missing children. Elisabeth (Brenda Blethyn) is a white Christian widow from Guernsey whose daughter has been studying in the capital. Ousmane (Sotigui Kouyaté) is a black Muslim who is looking for the son he hasn't seen in years, and who wants to bring him home to Mali to reunite their estranged family. The casting choices Bouchareb has made instantly work for him, offering us a great visual contrast between the small, timid Elisabeth and the tall, imposing Ousmane, before he allows us to spend some time in their company and see their similarities rather than their differences.

It's hardly an instant bond, however. When the pair first meet, Ousmane having discovered some information that ties his son to her daughter, Elisabeth eyes him with suspicion and refuses to shake his hand. She is a prisoner of her own prejudices, and she looks at every Muslim she meets as a potential threat, with the recent attack the media-fuelled paranoia filling her thoughts. "The place is crawling with Muslims" she wails to her brother on the phone when she has found the area of London her daughter was staying in, but Blethyn achieves a delicate balancing act with this character. She makes us understand that Elisabeth's behaviour is a result of her conservative background, her place in an alien environment and the extreme pressure she is under. Above all, Elisabeth's fear is a fear of the unknown, but during the course of London River, her character gradually overcomes those notions to develop a sense of understanding and openness that seemed impossible at the start.

There is something convenient about the film's setup and I occasionally sensed a strained air of contrivance about the way Bouchareb kept yoking together his two main characters and had their paths cross so repeatedly. I didn't mind so much, because I really wanted to see these two actors together, and to see the relationship between Elisabeth and Ousmane grow into a real friendship. Elisabeth and Ousmane are united not only by the sense of loss they share, but by the dawning realisation that neither character really knew their offspring as well as they should have done. The relationships between parent and child have been allowed to drift away, and the film has a core of sadness and regret about this lost connection. In his last screen role, Sotigui Kouyaté expresses this melancholy through his eyes and his incredible screen presence; he can communicate so much emotion without saying a single word. It's an absorbing, dignified and very touching performance.

Blethyn perhaps has the trickier task, having to overcome our initial distaste at her character's racial views and perform much of her role in French, but she pulls it off superbly, making her character warm and hugely sympathetic. Bouchareb wisely allows these actors to carry London River, rarely interfering with any unnecessary directorial decisions, and many of the best scenes are simple ones in which he lets us just watch the pair sitting quietly together, sharing their painful burden. The film's emotions are kept admirably low-key throughout, which makes the final outburst of grief even more powerful. London River's final scenes are beautifully handled by the director, the sense of great sadness that hangs heavily on the film being slightly leavened by the friendship that has been forged between the two main characters. They may have suffered a terrible loss, but at least Elisabeth and Ousmane could take solace in each other's compassion and humanity.

Read my interview with Brenda Blethyn here.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Review - Lymelife

If you think suburban life is hell, try watching movies about how suburban life is hell. Derick Martini's Lymelife might be based on the director's own upbringing (he wrote the screenplay with his brother Steven) but for many viewers, the film will feel all too familiar. In particular, Lymelife can't escape the shadow of The Ice Storm, a film that covered similar themes in a similar setting but with greater insight and class, and the Martinis' personal connection to the material isn't enough to give the events they depict any resonance. Every cliché of the suburban family drama is here – a stifling sense of conformity, marriages crumbling, teens getting their first taste of sex and drugs – and despite the best efforts of the cast, Lymelife just goes over old ground without ever unearthing anything that feels fresh.

Lymelife is set in Long Island in 1979, with that era's outbreak of Lyme disease giving the Martinis a handy ready-made metaphor to play with. Charlie Bragg (a sweaty and bedraggled Timothy Hutton)
has been suffering from the illness for a year, which has put a strain on his relationship with wife Melissa (Cynthia Nixon). As Charlie deteriorates, Melissa takes solace in the arms of her co-worker Mickey Bartlett (Alec Baldwin), whose relationship with his own wife (Jill Hennessy) has hit the skids, a fact that Mickey seems to be unaware of or wilfully ignoring as he ploughs ahead with his plans to build a dream home for his family. Our guide to all of this frustration and misery is 15 year-old Jimmy (Kieran Culkin) who is going through a particularly difficult period in his life, yearning for the Braggs' precocious and seductive daughter (Emma Roberts) while trying to avoid the wrath of the school bullies, and his coming-of-age is the film's central narrative strand.

I suppose there's nothing really wrong with Lymelife, there's just not a great deal to get excited about with it either. The film is well acted by its cast, with Baldwin, Culkin and Hutton giving particularly strong performances, and a couple of scenes have a raw emotional edge. Martini also has a decent visual sense as a director, composing his shorts cleanly and confidently, and he creates an authentic period atmosphere, even if his soundtrack selections have a lazy "hits of the seventies" feel about them. Lymelife's attempts at comedy tend to fall flat, with one scene, the morning after Jimmy loses his virginity, being a misjudgement for all involved, but he cleverly sustains a sense of tension as the film builds towards its tragic finale. Some viewers, however, may find themselves thinking about American Beauty as this finale unfolds, and that's Lymelife's problem; everything it does reminds us of something else. One aspect of the script did stand out for me – the constant mentions of Jimmy's older brother being called up to fight in the Falklands, a conflict that took place years after the events of this film, and one that had no US involvement. That such a sloppy error could have survived every stage of the film's production and found its way into the final cut is perhaps the only thing about Lymelife that's truly remarkable.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

What's On in July

Last year, Quentin Tarantino used the volatile properties of nitrate film to bring down the Nazis and now London-based cineastes have the rare opportunity to experience the spectacle and danger of this beautiful but fragile film stock. The NFT is the only public cinema in the UK licensed to screen nitrate prints, and they are taking advantage of that position to showcase such films during the summer. In July, two great films will be shown, John Boulting's Brighton Rock and Alexander Korda's The Private Life of Henry VIII – featuring Charles Laughton's legendary performance as the monarch – alongside two pictures I haven't seen, the Italian noir Fugitive Lady and The Yearling, a Technicolor drama starring Gregory Peck. These enticing screenings are part of the BFI's 75th anniversary celebration of their National Archive, and they are also taking the opportunity to put some recently discovered and salvaged films on display. These will screen in the BFI Most Wanted strand, and one I'm particularly anticipating is His Lordship, an early directorial effort from the great Michael Powell, even if Powell was notoriously dismissive of his early 'quickies' later in his career.

Also at the NFT in July will be the work of Alberto Cavalcanti, the adventurous director whose eclectic oeuvre encompassed a variety of countries and genres, and this season will include screenings of Dead of Night, Went the Day Well? and They Made Me a Fugitive. A two-month season of science fiction cinema kicks off in July as well, with a wonderful variety of screenings building up to the UK premiere of the newly restored Metropolis in August (I'll have more on that next month). The collection ranges from silents such as Aelita: Queen of Mars to the unmissable 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm, with diverse offerings such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Fantastic Voyage, Sleeper and The Man Who Fell to Earth also on view. Finally, there's the opportunity to catch up with the work of Goran Paskaljevic, the Serbian filmmaker whose work has rarely received UK distribution.

Elsewhere, short films are given a welcome platform at the annual Rushes Soho Shorts Festival, which will screen over 140 mini but mighty films between July 21st and 30th. Indian cinema will be in the spotlight at the London Indian Film Festival from the 15th to the 20th, and fans of Romanian cinema's new wave will be interested in the 7th Romanian Film Festival, which runs at Curzon Mayfair early this month and features the UK premiere of Police, Adjective. The ICA will be hosting POUT 2, a short season of gay cinema, and the Tibetan Film Festival runs throughout the month in July before going on tour in August.

Finally, if you actually like the stiflingly hot weather we're currently experiencing (personally, I struggle with anything above room temperature), then perhaps you'll fancy sitting outside to enjoy some movies rather than in a nice air-conditioned cinema. If so, head down to Somerset House towards the end of the month for some screenings in Film4's always-popular Summer Screen. It will be kicking off with the premiere of Knight and Day, and there are some genuine classics on offer here. Mulholland Drive, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Manhattan and Paths of Glory are part of the schedule, but my pick has to be Powell and Pressburger's masterpiece Black Narcissus. Hell, even I might brave the great outdoors for that one.

If you know of any upcoming film events that you'd like me to include in future articles, please let me know at