Still the Water – LFF Review

Still the Water

On the subtropical Japanese island of Amami two young teenagers find themselves struggling to deal with their parents while awkwardly taking their first romantic steps together. Kyôko (Jun Yoshinaga) lives with her parents in a house shaded by a 400-year-old banyan tree. Her mother, a shaman, is sick and dying and all Kyôko and her father can do is try to make her comfortable and savour the time they have left together. Kyôko’s friend Kaito (Nijiro Murakami) has moved to the island with his mother. They have left a city life in Tokyo and Kaito’s tattooist father behind. As Kyôko must come to terms with losing her mother while surrounded by a large extended family, Kaito is forced to adjust to life with just his mother on an island cut off from civilisation and his heritage. Through sadness, anger, heartbreak, and companionship Kyôko and Kaito are bonded together and a sweet teenage romance blossoms.

Spread out over two hours Still the Water is not a film of thrilling action and explosive stunts but one of quiet emotions and the slow development of characters and relationships. Rather than follow the traditional three act structure made up of scenes that service a simple plot and drive towards its conclusion Still the Water instead takes on a more fluid pace. Scenes flow from one to the next in slow, lyrical fashion with mood and tone more important than exposition and function.

Still the Water 2

Kyôko’s journey through the film is one tinged with sadness. Much as the impending death of her mother casts its shadow over events she remains a positive presence and could never be said to have wallowed. Moments featuring Kyôko and her parents just sitting around their house and talking are tender in their simplicity. These authentic moments of a family enjoying each other’s company, teasing and joking with one another, are what make the film sing. Kyôko’s story is so painfully sad because the audience believes in her family and the love they share. There is an innocence to be found in the story of a young girl and her sick mother, a fable told through numerous Studio Ghibli films, and upon losing her mother this girl finds her strength within the sadness.

Kaito’s story is just as painful for him but tinged more with anger than sorrow. Wrenched away from his previous life in the bustling metropolis of Tokyo and struggling to deal with the separation of his parents Kaito turns his mother into his own personal antagonist. Kaito’s pain is at once completely understandable and totally unreasonable. His upset comes not from a logical place but from a deep instinctive sense of betrayal. Despite both having trouble in their families when Kaito and Kyôko are together they retreat into childish playfulness and happiness. Theirs is such a tender, tentative romance. One that flashes into maturity when emotions and events come to a head and Kyôko shows her strength by putting aside personal grief to try to control her young love’s rage.

If what I have said so far sounds like waffle then it is only because Still the Water is so hard to justify using words. This is a film that expresses itself best through stunning visuals, quiet moments of contemplation, and a gentle rocking pace. Writer & director Naomi Kawase has created a film that feels truly organic. A natural phenomenon that talks of the loss of innocence and subtle power that love can bring.

A quiet film about love, life, and death Still the Water will make you smile through your tears.

Still the Water is on limited release in the UK now..

BFI LFF 2014

Fifty Shades of Grey – DVD Review

Fifty Shades

For those of you whose Dom doesn’t permit you to keep up to date with popular culture allow me to introduce you to a literary adaption that has caused more fuss than it has any right to. Fifty Shades of Grey is an aspiring erotic romantic drama in which the virginal student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and handsome young billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) meet, fall madly in love, and negotiate a contract which would make Anastasia the Submissive to Christian’s Dominant. All Anastasia wants is to fall madly in love but Christian would rather just buy her nice gifts in exchange for tying her up and rubbing her down. So to speak.

Can they make it work? Is Christian emotionally stable? Is Anastasia making good life choices? The film answers very little of these questions as the film circles its quite basic plot. For all the fuss created about E.L. James’ original novel and this adaptation not much actually goes on. After their initial meeting Steele and Grey have sex a few times in between trying to convince each other to pursue wildly different relationships and then the film just ends.

From a romantic point of view the film failed to give any reason why I should want the lead pair to get together. Were either of them a friend I would advise them to move on and find someone new. Anastasia’s personality begins and ends with liking books and wanting to make love while Christian likes playing piano topless and, look away now sensitive folks, fisting. Their interactions outside of the bedroom/red-room-of-pain don’t demonstrate enough chemistry to convince that they are actually in love, lust, or even in the same book group.

Fifty Shades 2

When it comes to the erotic element of the film it is a bit hit and miss. Some of the sex scenes do succeed in actually being sexy but then the film suddenly descends into sweeping camera moves and slow fade transitions that leave the sex, after all that fuss, a little pedestrian. Considering the raunchy nature of what we see on TV and online (I’m talking Netflix not actual porn) week in week out Fifty Shades of Grey actually felt a little tame which was not what I was expecting.

We all know the film is the result of infighting between E. L. James and director Sam Taylor-Johnson. That lack of creative freedom and singular coherent vision has resulted in a film that isn’t really anything in particular. The film didn’t feel particularly romantic, erotic, nor dramatic. It wasn’t even a total disaster so isn’t worth hate-watching. Overall Fifty Shades of Grey is boring and bland; a sanitised story of love and lust that fails to excite.

For anyone seeking a romantic erotic story of a woman embracing a sadomasochistic relationship please watch Secretary, and to see a damaged man overindulge in sex let me recommend Shame. Both will show you what Fifty Shades of Grey could have been if it had the ambition.

Fifty Shades of Grey is out on DVD and Blu-ray should you need to see it for yourself. (So are Secretary and Shame.)

NOTE: The DVD I was sent included the “Unseen” version of the film with roughly three minutes extra footage. Sadly no special features were available for reviewing but the various sets do have extra footage/documentaries should you need more content when you’re done.

Paper Souls – DVD Review

Paper Souls 1

Film
In this Paris-set French comedy a widow and widower meet and the widower finds he plans for romance scuppered by an unlikely visitor.

The widow. Emma (Julie Gavet), is raising her son alone since the death of her husband, Nathan (Jonathan Zaccaï), and wants her son to have something to remember his father by. The widower, Paul (Stephan Guillon), is a writer who appears to be dealing with his wife’s death by writing speeches for other people to read at their loved ones’ funerals. In a unique meet-cute scenario Emma hires Paul to write about her dead husband to help her son. As Paul gets to know Emma romantic feelings blossom only to be skewered by the arrival of Nathan’s ghost.

Nathan no longer has any idea of who he is so it is up to Paul whether he wants to reunite the couple or keep Nathan’s resurrection a secret. Hilarity ensues.

Or rather… gentle chuckles and wry smiles ensue. Paper Souls‘ director Vincent Lannoo handles the high concept comedy with a light touch not letting the supernatural elements turn proceedings into a farce. The result is a little odd and not quite funny enough. An absurd situation is presented in such a mundane way that it avoids any real chance for proper belly laughs. This is not to say the film is bad, it is perfectly likable, but doesn’t stay around in the mind after watching and certainly doesn’t demand repeat viewing.

Paper Souls 2

Extras
As you might expect from a small comedy release the extras are limited to a trailer.

Paper Souls is out on DVD now and is worth a look, but just the once.

Listen Up Philip – LFF Review

Listen Up Philip

Listen Up Philip starts with a detailed voiceover courtesy of Eric Bogosian; a voiceover that details the precise actions, inner thoughts and intentions of the main character; voiceover that possesses the deep tone of the opening vocals at the start of (500) Days of Summer but at a faster pace. This voiceover does not relent and for the first few minutes I grew convinced that the entire film would be told by a narrator but thankfully after these first few minutes the narration stopped only to reappear at random intervals throughout the film. What this voiceover added was an almost literary like level of detail about the inner working of a character’s head; the very detail that often makes books tricky to adapt into films. Why might a film want to add literary levels of detail? Because the lead character is an author or course.

Jason Schwartzman plays the titular role of Philip, a newly successful author whose sense of self-accomplishment has reached a level that has made him emotionally distant from his photographer girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss) and generally an insufferable prick. Schwartzman has played an unlikeable author before in the TV series Bored to Death but with Philip he is taking the idea to an extreme and plays a person who is rude to everyone he meets and so naturally becomes more attractive to the women in his life. As part of his success-driven mid-life crisis Philip strikes up a friendship with an equally acerbic older author, and personal hero, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). Ike enjoys the presence of a young adoring author and so invites Philip to stay at his country retreat. From here Philip spends 108 minutes of film behaving appallingly and ruining his life. The details of which I advise you to see the film to find out.

Listen Up Philip 2

Listen Up Philip is a curious beast and avoids any sense of predictability or formulaic ststorytelling. There is no real structure to the film as Philip just meanders along being irritating to a variety of people in a variety of circumstances in an incredibly enjoyable way. The fact that Schwartzman has played this character, or someone very like it, before means that he is well suited to the role of self aggrandising protagonist. There are few people I could watch being this unpleasant for this long but thankfully Jason Schwartzman is one of them. What was also pleasing about the film is that it often lets focus wander away from Philip. Initially I was concerned that Moss had been given an unforgiving girlfriend role but soon enough she had her own narrative, and her own narration, as we saw how she lived life whilst Philip was away. The film widens its scope, stretches its running time, and risks trying its audience’s patience by fleshing out the lives of a few supporting characters. While a little unfocused I think that without this the saturation of the caustic character of Philip would become too much to bear.

Writer and director Alex Ross Perry has given the film a very tactile autumnal aesthetic. There is a golden glow to most of the scenes and an abundance of beards, jumpers, and jazz. I have said before about films, that I felt as though I could reach out and feel the texture of the film. Listen Up Philip is all about people rubbing each other up the wrong way and the screen is filled with itchy looking fabrics and faces that help compliment this irritable feel. The voiceover can occasionally become a little heavy handed but I can only assume that this is the way it would feel to read one of Philip’s novels. The rest of the film, though a little long, is an enjoyable character study that shows how a modest amount of success can be someone’s undoing and if nothing else looks lovely. I quite liked it.

Listen Up Philip is in UK cinemas from today.

BFI LFF 2014

Mad Max: Fury Road – Film Review

Mad Max Fury Road

In this rebooting sequel of a remake Tom Hardy stars as the titular Mad Max as writer-director George Miller returns to his post-apocalyptic Australian franchise without its former star Mel Gibson. After being kidnapped and used for his blood Max finds himself teaming up with the no-nonsense Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as she seeks to escape an oppressive patriarchal cult led by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). In an armoured tanker they storm across the desert with Joe’s five wives and a reforming cult member (Nicholas Hoult) in tow as an entire army of assorted maniacs barrel after them. With mere minutes of pause Mad Max: Fury Road is otherwise a relentless two hours of chase movie filled with numerous stunts, spectacular visuals, and as little dialogue as possible.

As far as reviewing this film as an entry in the genre there is little more to say that hasn’t already been said. The stunts are remarkably authentic and well choreographed and, with the film being non-stop road chase, there are fewer moments not involving a stunt than those that do. Despite the chaos ensuing all around Miller executes controlled direction with the melee never getting beyond comprehension and the peril never seeming artificial. Everything looks beautifully imperfect; cars are rusty and dirty, characters are scarred and dirty, and a thin layer of dirt covers everything else. The acting mostly requires stern voices and sterner faces but both Hardy and Theron are skilled enough to let a little humanity slip through.

As an action movie then Mad Max: Fury Road is a success but the real question emerging around the film is not whether it is a good film but whether the film is feminist or not.

Those that say that Mad Max: Fury Road is flying the feminist flag look to Theron’s Furiosa for proof. Here we have a strong female lead who not only drives, fights, and smoulders on par with Max but is actually acknowledged as surpassing him in certain skill sets. It is certainly refreshing to see such a commanding female presence in a film that would otherwise be about a man fighting other men to save some vulnerable women in their underwear.

Mad Max Fury Road 2

What makes me hesitant to award Max the Feminist of the Year Award is the fact that the vulnerable women in their underwear are still ever-present. Joe’s wives are played by a mixture of models and actresses and never find their way into more substantial outfits than the off-white, occasionally see-thru, rags they were rescued in. When Max first sees the five wives they are hosing one another down outside the truck with predictable consequences for their outfits. Considering a lot of the plot revolved around how scarce water is their Lynx advert worthy showering looks all the more sketchy.

In defense of the five wives, as they will now forever be known, they do all have names and personalities and collectively allow Mad Max: Fury Road to pass the Bechdel test but I remain unconvinced. I feel as though either Furiosa was there to compensate for the wives or the wives were there to compensate for Furiosa. I just can’t decide on who was compensating for who in order to try to appease both feminists and misogynists.

As an action film Mad Max: Fury Road is a huge success with eyeball pleasing nonsense for a full two hours. As a feminist manifesto I am less convinced by the film but there’s no proof it ever even had that agenda.

Mad Max: Fury Road is in cinemas now.