Madame Bovary – LFF Review

Madame Bovary

Growing up in a convent Emma (Mia Wasikowska) was always a little different from the other girls. Whatever she was supposed to be doing Emma would be doing her own way and dreaming of the day she could leave. Madame Bovary starts with Emma getting her wish and marrying country doctor Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes). In theory by becoming Madame Bovary Emma is setting off to live her dream life of luxury and excitement but the reality is much less glamorous. Charles turns out to live a simple life in a modest house with a single servant. He is a kind man but dull and unambitious. While Emma yearns for the bustle of the city Charles is quite content to live out his quiet life in the countryside. Left alone in the house for most of the day Emma soon finds herself becoming less the grateful wife and succumbing to the dual temptations of material goods and extramarital romance.

Emma’s life is lived through the visitors she receives at her house and one of the more frequent faces she sees is Monsieur Lheureux (Rhys Ifans). Lheureux is a merchant who offers to sell Emma her every heart’s desire. From furniture to clothes and from jewellery to silverware there is nothing that Lheureux will not supply the Bovary couple and he happily allows Emma to rack up a mountain of debt. Another face who regularly pops by is Leon Dupuis (Ezra Miller) a young aspiring adventurer. Leon takes a shine to Emma and though she rejects his romantic advances he reawakens her sense of adventure and before the story is told Emma has taken her fair share of lovers. From a humble upbringing Emma learns to live a life of decadence and self-indulgence at the expense of her mild-mannered husband. Naturally Emma can only spend money she doesn’t have, and toy with the hearts of many, for so long before her life starts to unravel around her.

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Much like the titular character Madame Bovary is beautifully presented but mostly empty on the inside. The costume and set designs are sumptuous, detailed, and presumably accurate and the film as a whole is greatly aesthetically pleasing. The acting, led by the always impressive Mia Wasikowska, is top-notch and everyone involved throws themselves into their roles with gusto. The ingredients are all there but the end result is somehow unsatisfying. While being a relatively enjoyable film Madame Bovary never quite manages to find its stride and events seem to plod on rather than move forward. Even when the situation becomes dire for our protagonist it is hard to sympathise because not one of the characters are especially sympathetic.

Emma is a selfish young woman who comes across as spoiled and ungrateful, Lheureux is a greedy, manipulative, and selfish man, and Emma’s various lovers are heartless and weak in equal measure. The only character who might stir up sympathy in the audience is poor Charles Bovary but the wet small town doctor is portrayed as pathetic enough to not really warrant our support. With nobody to root for the stakes never rise and the outcome of the film is difficult to care about. Despite the best efforts from a quality cast the script from Felipe Marino and director Sophie Barthes doesn’t put enough meat on the bones of the story. Though enjoyable enough I just didn’t care about what was going down on-screen.

Madame Bovary is a lack-lustre period drama that is less than the sum of its parts. While I must admit to being unfamiliar with the source text this adaptation leaves solid performances lost in a bland melodrama.

Madame Bovary has no UK release date yet.

BFI LFF 2014

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.

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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 has no UK release date yet.

BFI LFF 2014

The Babadook – Film Review

The Babadook

Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is a socially awkward young boy who is quite content playing with himself, building weapons, and living in a fantasy world. His mother Amelia (Essie Davis) is struggling to cope with looking after an eccentric young boy on her own. While she has a close sister who tries to help out Samuel’s odd behaviour means that her patience and generosity is slowly wearing thin. One night when Amelia asks Samuel to pick a book from the shelf for her to read he returns with Mister Babadook. Inside the blood-red cover is a beautifully hand drawn pop-up book about a creature called the Babadook. What starts as reading like a children’s book soon turns sinister and Amelia swiftly abandons the creepy tale.

Soon Samuel’s games involve the invisible figure of the Babadook and he continually insists that he is not imagining the creature. As Samuel’s delusions grow Amelia struggles to keep control of her son amid violent outbursts and spooky goings on. Before too long Amelia has to admit that the Babadook is not just a fictional creature residing within a children’s book but a very real force that is living in her house and one that means to do her harm. As Amelia battles against something she can hardly believe is real Samuel finds himself at risk, not just from the monsters he has long feared but from his emotionally exhausted and once-loving mother.

If it’s in a word. Or it’s in a look. You can’t get rid of… the Babadook. So what can you do?

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The modern method for producing a horror film is to make your feature a found footage horror and to rely on jump scares to get your scare quotient. If you want an audience to scream you just need a long period of quiet followed by a loud band and someone rushing towards, past, or away from the camera. Thankfully writer & director Jennifer Kent has decided to buck the contemporary trend in favour of more traditional and deep-seated frights. The Babadook is genuinely terrifying and the scares don’t always come from sudden noises but from the slow and sustained building of tension and the unrelenting anticipation of something absolutely horrendous happening.

The story of Amelia and Samuel is tough enough before the Babadook comes on the scene. Their relationship is one clearly filled with love but Samuel’s allegedly bad behaviour is clearly putting a strain on his mother who is finding solo parenting to be too much work. In the film’s opening Davis excellently plays the role of overworked mother and brilliantly portrays a woman’s descent into mania as she tries to protect the one person she cares about from a supernatural force. As the film progresses and her mental state deteriorates Davis paints a woman at her weakest, one who is susceptible to possession, and then one possibly of danger to her son. Meanwhile young Mr Wiseman puts in an impressive show as the excitable young boy who has trouble relating to other children but no problem befriending the monster who lives in his wardrobe. The two leads give the film its heart and a reason for the audience to worry. A horror is all the more scary when you care about the lives at stake.

Throughout most of The Babadook I was incredibly tense. Since he first appeared as a drawing in pop-up form I was dreading the appearance of the Babadook for real. Obviously the eventual appearance could never live up to the fear that not seeing a monster can bring but in his own unique way Mister Babadook was frightening to behold and to imagine beholding. In fact as I searched for images to put in this review, while alone at home at night, I successfully managed to give myself the creeps all over again.

The Babadook is a well crafted, lovingly designed, and properly acted horror film that will have you checking out the shadows on your way home. With Hollywood failing to bring much to the horror table it took an Australian film to remind everyone why they are scared of the dark again.

The Babadook is in UK cinemas from 24th October 2014.

The Drop – LFF Review

The Drop

Tom Hardy loves a good accent and in The Drop he wraps his mouth around Brooklyn as he tackles the role of bartender Bob. Bob works at a bar previously owned by his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) straightforwardly named Cousin Marv’s. Life is mostly quiet apart from when the bar’s new owners, Chechen gangsters, stop by and use it as a money drop. One winter Bob finds life getting a little more complicated than the norm after Marv’s is held up, the Chechen’s demand their stolen money be found and the culprits brought to justice, and Bob finds himself adopting a dog found in the bins of the mysterious Nadia (Noomi Rapace) for plot advancing reasons.

Unfortunately for Bob Nadia’s ex-boyfriend, and the dog’s former owner, turns out to be an infamous tough guy and possible murderer Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts). Making Bob’s life a little more complicated, and this synopsis more convoluted than I’d like, he attends the same daily mass as Detective Torres (John Ortiz) who just so happens to be investigating the bar’s robbery and various other seedy goings on.

As is typical for a thriller nobody’s motives or allegiances can be trusted. Bob is a strong-looking but sweet guy surrounded by suspicious folk. The bar he works at is run by gangsters, his cousin Marv appears to be involved in something sketchy, his new girlfriend has a dark past, a member of his church is suspicious of him, and finally Deeds is actually making unambiguous threats against Bob and his suspicious network. With all this we have a tricky plot set in motion. As various nefarious types scheme against one another it remains to be seen who will end up on top and who was really playing who.

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At the centre of The Drop is another fine performance from Tom Hardy. Despite at first glance looking like just another leading man Hardy has continuously proved himself to be one of the more diverse character actors working today. Rather than repeat a performance in multiple films Hardy prefers to change his physicality and voice to suit each role he takes on. In The Drop he has successfully mastered the Brooklyn accent, to these British ears at least, and adopted a slow and strong style of movement that reflects the gentle giant that is Bob. As cousin Marv James Gandolfini makes his final appearance on-screen. While his performance is solid we aren’t treated to anything we haven’t already seen as his swan song requires a simple Sopranos-lite presentation. Noomi Rapace meanwhile is surprisingly American and sufficiently ambiguous in her mostly thankless role of love interest turned damsel in distress.

Director Michaël R. Roskam has put together an attractive film and brought out assured interpretations from his cast but the script offers nothing too spectacular. Dennis Lehane has adapted his own short story into the screenplay and the result is a perfectly fine if unremarkable thriller. There is tension and confusion for the majority of the film followed by a twist and resolution at its conclusion. There is absolutely nothing wrong with The Drop and its classic thriller style but it offers nothing new and as such fails to stand out.

The Drop is a perfectly enjoyable crime drama set in the murkier neighbourhoods of Brooklyn. Should you choose to see it I have no doubt that you will have a good time but you are unlikely to be chatting about the film for long after leaving the cinema and a rewatch simply feels unnecessary. Good but not great, and certainly not bad.

The Drop has a UK release date of 14th November 2014.

BFI LFF 2014

Men, Women & Children – LFF Review

Men, Women & Children

Jason Reitman’s directorial career was going so well. His first four films from Thank You for Smoking to Young Adult were each remarkable in their own way and it seemed that he could not put a foot wrong. And then he did. Earlier this year saw the release of Labor Day; an out of character romantic drama that showed Reitman trying something a little different and failing in the process. This year he returned to the London Film Festival with a new contemporary family drama Men, Women & Children. The question this film had to answer was, has Jason Reitman got his groove back?

In Men, Women & Children men, women, and children (I’m for the Oxford comma) find their personal relationships sabotaged by an over reliance on technology. Jennifer Garner* is a neurotic mother who monitors her daughter’s every move online, even going so far as to delete messages before they reach her. Her daughter Kaitlyn Dever feels oppressed and uses a secret Tumblr account as her only outlet while starting a sweet offline romance with Ansel Elgort. Ansel has abandoned the school football team in favour of playing online computer games after his mother abandoned him and his dad, Dean Norris, and became more a Facebook friend than a parent. When not worrying about his son Dean is flirting with Judy Greer who manages a questionable modelling website for her celebrity-in-waiting daughter, Olivia Crocicchia. Olivia meanwhile is sexting high school jock Travis Tope who is struggling to find real sex appealing having become addicted to a particular strand of porn. Travis’ parents Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt are failing to connect and so are contemplating exploring online escorts and extramarital affair sites respectively. If that weren’t nearly enough we also have Elena Kampouris who visits thinspiration websites and suffers from anorexia and low self-esteem but she doesn’t fit as neatly into the chain of relationships as everyone else.

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As you can tell from the above there is a lot going on in Men, Women & Children and every storyline involves someone’s life being worse off thanks to the internet. An ensemble drama can work but only when dealt with carefully. In this case the fact that a small group of interlinked individuals are all experiencing some form of cyber woe makes the whole exercise feel inauthentic and implausible. Now might well be the prime time for a film exploring the internet’s effects on human relationships but this heavy-handed attempt at highlighting the possible dangers online is not that film. Jason Reitman wants you to reflect on how you are damaging your own relationships and he will beat you round the head with an iPad until you do. Few films are this preachy and condescending which, having now sat through this public service announcement of a film, is a great relief.

There are moments of charm and humour but they are lost in amongst the endless scenes of characters making bad choices because their modems made them do it. Men, Women & Children is not about the real world or real people. It is Reefer Madness for the internet age and is every bit as overblown and undercooked. In an attempt to add levity to proceedings Reitman has added narration courtesy of Emma Thompson in the hopes that her accent describing sex acts will be enough to soften the rough edges of this melodramatic catastrophe. Sadly even Thompson’s authoritative voice can’t distract from the mess Reitman has made.

No character is given enough screen time to become fully rounded and nearly everyone involved at some point does something so utterly stupid and unrelatable that the audience is left floundering looking for someone to relate to. The minute you think you have found your cypher to guide you through Men, Women & Children they will do something unforgivable or seemingly without motive. The film is unlikely to stop anyone from going online but may well turn people away from going to the cinema again.

Men, Women & Children is misogynist, paranoid, and pretentious. Jason Reitman can do so much better.

*There are too many characters for me to have remembered any names.

Men, Women & Children has a UK release date of 28th November 2014.

BFI LFF 2014