Human Capital – Film Review

Human Capital

In modern-day Italy two families, linked by a relationship between their teenage offspring, find themselves struggling with money, love, life, and responsibility. When the less than successful Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) drops his daughter Serena (Matilde Gioli) at her boyfriend’s house he finds himself playing tennis with the boy’s father Giovanni (Fabrizio Gifuni). Eager to impress and make some money from his wealthy new friend Dino takes out a loan to invest in a scheme run by Giovanni. As the period and setting might have alerted you this investment soon turns sour and Dino finds himself out of his depth and out of pocket. Meanwhile Giovanni’s wife Carla is trying to save a local theatre from extinction and is tempted away from her marital bed and elsewhere the young lovers Serena and Massimiliano (Guglielmo Pinelli) are no longer in love and after a drunken party a cyclist is run off the road but nobody claims to know who was driving.

As you can tell there is a lot going on in Human Capital and there is probably plenty that I have skipped over or just plain forgotten. There are a lot of strands to keep in your head once the film is done and the less interesting details may well slip from your memory as they have from mine. None of the characters feel like supporting roles as each and every actor is given a fully fleshed human being to bring to life on-screen. To lessen the impact of taking in the myriad of motifs writer/director Paolo Virzì separates the film into different chapters which follow the timeline of the film from start to finish, each from a different characters point of view. With each pass through events we learn something new about the disastrous goings on and delve deeper into a particular strand of the plot.

Human Capital 1

This spreading out of the plot into strands not only helps the audience to maintain a hold on what is taking place and follow each character’s journey without dilution it also serves to carve an element of mystery and revelation out of proceedings. Were we to be presented with all the information in chronological order there would be no mysteries to uncover or reveals to unveil. The unusual structure of the film allows for plot twists to occur without needless exposition or jarring flashbacks and while not a technique to change the face of film it is a neat device subtly executed. Human Capital is an engrossing and entertaining drama about human weakness and (allegedly) the value of human life. As the focus of the film shifts so will your sympathies and assumptions you make at the start will be tested by the end.

Being an Italian film commenting on the recent financial crisis, and being Italy’s entry into the upcoming Academy Awards, there is an inevitable need to compare Human Capital to last year’s The Great Beauty but theme and nationality aside the two could not be more different. While The Great Beauty was an examination of a single life and a particular lifestyle Human Capital is much more preoccupied with plot devices and character development than the lavish moods and styles of its predecessor. One is a painting and the other a novel and any comparisons are simply unhelpful.

Human Capital is an entertaining drama with a solid ensemble cast that occasionally puts a foot wrong when trying to get across its core message. A pleasant surprise and a little different from the norm.

Human Capital is in UK cinemas in key cities from 26th September 2014.

Love Hotel – Film Review

Love Hotel

When first asked to watch a film about a Japanese love hotel I will admit that a lot of conclusions were jumped to. The idea of a hotel where you check-in without seeing the receptionist’s face and hire a room by the hour conjured up all manner of sordid imagery in my head. My assumption was that this sort of hotel would be a hotbed (pun intended) for illicit affairs and all manner of kinky goings on. What this documentary by Philip Cox and Hikaru Toda demonstrates is that while these hotels aren’t totally innocent establishments the activities within are varied and often incredibly touching.

Certain aspects of Japanese culture is revealed through the events at the Angel Love Hotel in Osaka Japan. In an overcrowded country where space and privacy is at a premium the love hotel offers a welcome escape from everyday life. An escape away from judgement where people can truly be themselves and where secrets can be shared.

For such a secret and intimate escape the film-makers have gained a surprising level of access to not only the inner working of the hotel and its staff but to the customers as well. In a completely uncensored fashion the film takes us inside the bedrooms with their occupants and allows us to witness first-hand what takes place inside. At first this feels intrusive and an invasion of the privacy they are so desperately seeking but before long I found myself drawn in and captivated by the intimate moments within.

These intimate moments do include what you might have first imagined. One man is splashing out on his first dominatrix experience and finally finding the sexual gratification he was looking for. Meanwhile a single woman is using the hotel to conduct an affair with a married man. These carry with them a certain amount of fascination but what really intrigues are the more tender moments happening elsewhere. An elderly pair of former lovers meet weekly to take tea, waltz, and reminisce, an old man thinks back on his mistreatment of women and writes a love letter to his neighbour, and a gay couple pop out from the law firm they both work for to find a space to be alone together. With these stories the film stops feeling just sexually intimate and moves on to offer the audience emotional intimacy. When someone enters the love hotel the audience steps inside their head as they let their defenses fall down.

One couple in particular won me over. They have been married for some time and seemingly are regular visitors to the hotel. Inside their room we see them as playful and obviously still in love. It is only when the cameras follow them to their lives outside and to their home does the contrast between their relationship in the real world and in love hotel world become clear. While in the hotel they talk openly and play with each other back home everything feels much colder and less open. The power of escape offered by the hotel is laid bare and its importance to certain Japanese citizens is clear. As the hotel’s manager says himself, “it’s not just for sex. You can do that at home.”

Love Hotel is a documentary that lets its subjects speak for themselves and offers no commentary of judgement. It truly surprised me and challenged by preconceptions of what this type of hotel was used for and what it has to offer Japanese culture. Love Hotel is incredibly sweet, intimate, and unfiltered. I only wish it had been longer.

DocHouse host the UK premiere of Love Hotel at the ICA this Wednesday 17th September complete with a Q&A with directors Phil Cox and Hikaru Toda. For more information and to buy tickets visit the DocHouse website.

The Two Faces of January – DVD Review

The Two Faces of January

Film
Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst are an American couple touring Greece in 1962 after fleecing investors back home and fleeing the country. At the Acropolis of Athens they bump into tour guide and con artist Oscar Isaac who latches onto the pair in pursuit of their money and Dunst’s feminine charms. Events back in the states catch up with the trio, blood is shed, and soon the three are on the run from the law. Who can be trusted? Will they make it out of the country? Who will Dunst choose, her husband or the man she hardly knows? Will they all make it out alive?

If you haven’t yet noticed The Two Faces of January is a thriller in the most traditional fashion. With its authentic period style, crosses and double crosses, and romantic trysts suggested at but never explicitly shown this film could easily have been made fifty years ago. Being such a slave to convention and possessing such an old-fashioned manner is both to the film’s credit and detriment. The look and feel of the piece is admirable. Every shot is gorgeous and benefits from the production’s globe-trotting filming schedule while the actors are shot in a sympathetic light that showcases bone structure and lets all three leads resemble classic Hollywood icons.

Where traditional thriller mechanics disappoint is in allowing the film to become completely predictable. Maybe not completely predictable, I won’t pretend to have seen every twist and turn coming, but certainly when a character is double crossed or revealed to have an ulterior motive I wasn’t exactly falling out of my seat so much as nodding slowly to myself in a knowing way. Feeling as though you know what is going to happen is a terrible situation to be in when watching a thriller as you are never overly concerned about what actually does happen. Add to this the fact that both male leads are unlikeable untrustworthy types and I was struggling to generate much empathy for them.

The Two Faces of January 2

As for Dunst’s leading lady; she is the biggest casualty of The Two Faces of January‘s retro feel. While these days we expect, but don’t always get, a female character with some level of personality and backbone this is something that the film fails to provide. Dunst is for the most part a prize to be won and a pawn in the struggle between Mortensen and Isaac. Dunst is seemingly ambivalent about who she ends up with and is equally happy being rescued by either man. When any scene of dramatic importance takes place Dunst will reliably be asleep, waiting in the bedroom, waiting at the top of the stairs, or simply elsewhere not troubling anybody. A feminist icon this character is not.

Quibbles aside The Two Faces of January is a perfectly fine throwback thriller with serviceable acting and beautiful scenery. Just don’t go in expect to see anything new. Writer/director Hossein Amini has certainly got a fine eye but perhaps could have spent some more time energising the plot when adapting from Patricia Highsmith’s original novel.

Extras
Both DVD and Blu-ray discs have the same special features which is something to admire in itself. These take the form of the usual collection of featurettes, interviews, and deleted scenes. The interviews focus mainly on celebrating the fact that filming took place in multiple countries; more Wish You Were Here then anything in depth. There is also a blooper reel which felt slightly odd considering the po-faced tone of the film itself.

The Two Faces of January is out on DVD and Blu-ray next Monday 15th September.

Bad Neighbours – DVD Review

Bad Neighbours

Film
Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne are a young couple who have just had their first baby and bought a house they can hardly afford in a nice suburban neighbourhood. As they struggle to accept their new lives as parents and leave behind their partying days they come up against some combative new neighbours; a University fraternity. Led by Zac Efron and his right hand man Dave Franco the fraternity hosts endless loud parties, leave condoms on their neighbour’s lawn, and generally wreak havoc on suburbia. At first Rogen and Byrne try to act cool and befriend the young students but, after calling the cops so their daughter can get to sleep, end up in a war with the youths next door. Hijinks ensue.

You can probably imagine everything you need to about the film just from reading that synopsis. There is nothing within Bad Neighbours to surprise and if you are anything like me you will struggle to find anything to entertain or amuse you either. Bad Neighbours exists as a series of set pieces strung together with weak laughs as the film flits from prank to prank and party to party. The plot itself could be taken care of in a short and sharp fifteen minute montage which would allow for the jokes to not get stale and the characters less time to irritate. Imagine the idea for a sketch stretched out to ninety minutes and you will understand what manner of beast we are dealing with here.

Rogen and Byrne start the film as relatable and sympathetic but quickly lose all sympathy and their audience’s patience. Their situation of being the first amongst their friends to have a child is not uncommon and their struggle to maintain social lives while taking care of a baby is one that people can relate to. Sadly this was not the focus of the film and instead it is shifted towards their petty rival with Efron and friends. As the pranks get more and more outlandish the film loses any residual relatability and when comedy stops being grounded in reality it stops being funny. By the end of Bad Neighbours I disliked everybody on-screen and was relieved that the experience was coming to an end.

Bad Neighbours - Zac Efron

Everybody involved has done better work before. These aren’t all terrible actors but they with this film there was little chance for any talent to shine through and often the film leant too heavily on the actors having to create jokes that should have been taken care of when the script was written. Many of the scenes peter out into a slow tail consisting of two actors improvising lines. The issue I have with improvised dialogue is that it can all too often feel like improvised dialogue. This is never more true than when two comedians ad-lib jokes at one other ad nauseam. Presumably this allowed director Nicholas Stoller to fill gaps left by screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien though admittedly the scripted dialogue looks a whole look better when held up alongside lines that pop up in the actors’ heads on set.

There are moments in Bad Neighbours that may well tickle you but on the whole the film is a failure as a comedy. If you have a pressing desire to see Zac Efron with his shirt off or Seth Rogen having sex then this is the film for you otherwise I would steer clear. I have included a picture of the former above to save you the trouble.

Extras
The DVD has no special features whereas the Blu-ray comes complete with an alternate opening, deleted scenes, commentary, gag reel, and various featurettes.

Bad Neighbours is out on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK from Monday.

Obvious Child – Film Review

Obvious Child

Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is twenty-something young woman whose life slowly unravels after a successful stand-up gig when her boyfriend unceremoniously breaks up with her in the toilet. With her romantic life in tatters Donna turns to booze for solace and after crashing and burning on stage finds herself in bed with the overly sweet Max (Jake Lacy). One evening of poor contraceptive application later and woman-child Donna is with child. Accepting that she is in no position to have a baby Donna decides to have an abortion but one question remains; should she tell Max?

Obvious Child is a lot of things. It is hilarious. It is sweet. It is important. It is filthy. It is real. It is strident. It is subtle. It is probably the best comedy you will see this year. What Obvious Child is not is an “abortion comedy”. Abortion is not treated in a trivial way and is certainly not the most important element of the film but with abortion being such a heavily debated topic it is the aspect that has been discussed the most. Let’s get that out of the way for now. Obvious Child doesn’t glorify or condemn abortion but simply seeks to show it as a valid choice, something Knocked Up didn’t even consider. From the reaction of female audience members, that of gratitude and tears, this simple treatment of a serious issue is an important step forwards.

As I said before Obvious Child is not actually about the abortion but is about Donna’s relationships with her parents, her friends, her Max, and mostly her relationship with herself. This is the story of a woman finding the strength inside to take control of her life and not just coast through situations. This is a story about friendship, love, and actually listening to the advice your parents try to offer you. Donna is surrounded by a wonderful support network and her falling highlights how happy they are there to catch her. It is also important to note that Donna ultimately saves herself and while romance is a potential outcome it is not the love of a good man that serves as her goal.

Obvious Child - Jenny Slate & Jake Lacy

This might make it all seem a little too serious or worthy but let me tell you that from its opening scene, one of Donna performing stand-up, Obvious Child is ridiculously funny. I have a habit of hooting when a joke makes me lose my self-control and reveal my true laugh and I let out a few too many hoots while watching Jenny Slate give her career-defining performance. Though many modern romantic comedies are filled with unrelatable characters and situations Obvious Child is steeped in reality and all the muck and laughter that comes with it. For the time you spend watching the film Donna is your best friend; she makes you laugh, she makes you cry, and you desperately want her to get her shit together. She’s not perfect but she is far too much fun to be around for this to matter.

As for the romantic side of things let’s just say that Jake Lacy’s Max will be on everyone’s Christmas lists this year. Max manages to be the ideal man and remain human by simply being nice and fun to be around. The idea of a film featuring an abortion may not sound like a romantic classic but rest assured that Obvious Child wouldn’t be the worst choice for a date movie. Unless you’re Todd Palin of course.

If nothing else Obvious Child is a showcase for previously uncelebrated talent from the dramatic and comedic prowess of Slate to the writing and direction of Gillian Robespierre. Robespierre has an eye for unobstructive direction and writes dialogue, with co-writers Karen Maine and Elisabeth Holm, that feels real enough to be non-fiction.

I cannot stress enough how much I enjoyed Obvious Child. It is the rarest of cinematic creatures; a romantic comedy that has something to say and says it in a way that will make you laugh unattractively.

A must-see Obvious Child is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.