Love Is Strange – Film Review

Love is Strange

Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have been a couple for nearly forty years but were unable to legally get married until New York changed its attitude to same-sex weddings. After finally getting married George finds himself dismissed from his job teaching at a Catholic music school. With their income slashed the couple are forced to sell their apartment leaving them at the mercy of the New York housing market and relying on the kindness of their friends and family to take them in. The loved ones who gave such moving speeches at their wedding find themselves having to actually act on their sentiments and come up short. Nobody is willing to take in both men so after decades together Ben and George find themselves sleeping not just in separate beds but in different apartments.

Ben ends up in his nephew’s family home sharing a bunk bed with a decidedly unimpressed teenager while George moves in with some former neighbours who are a much younger couple prone to hosting loud crowded parties that George no longer has any patience for. Both try to be the best house guests they can but Ben especially finds himself getting in the way and testing the patience of his hosts. Separated and under appreciated Ben and George rediscover just how much they enjoy each others company and the understated authenticity of their long romance holds their relationship, and the film, together.

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Alfred Molina and John Lithgow are not actors known for their subtlety, both being fantastic at taking on large characters and blowing them up to fill the stage or screen. In Love is Strange though director Ira Sachs has managed to take the scenery out of their mouths and drawn out much more subtle and nuanced performances. Lithgow does none of the loud shouting that had made us love him and as a result gives one of his best performances to date. With Love is Strange the familiar faces fade away to reveal an older couple who are deeply in love and whose company is infinitely preferable to their chaotic friends and impatient family members.

Within their script Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias have a funny and tender love story set many decades after most romantic comedies end. This is the happily ever after. Despite their difficult living situations Love is Strange doesn’t bring with it high drama, settling instead for a portrait of love told by showing a few periods in our characters lives. The film occasionally jumps forward a few weeks or months and it is up to the audience to find their own footing in the gently flowing narrative. As a result of its distinctively indistinct structure the film ends not with a bang but with a slow sigh. I can see how this might frustrate but instead I suggest accepting the film for what it is; a brief interlude into the lives of a lovely couple and the people that love them. The characters have had lives prior to the film and they continue on afterwards. The fact that I wish I had seen more is to the film’s credit.

A beautiful film about love, family, and getting old Love is Strange is a pleasant way to spend an evening.

Love Is Strange is in UK cinemas right now.

Whiplash – LFF Review

Whiplash

Unbeknownst to him Miles Teller and I have had a tempestuous relationship until recently. He first crossed my path when he co-starred in the remake of my beloved Footloose and then the atrocity that was Project X; neither appearance endearing him to me. In the past year he has starred in two YA adaptations with Shailene Woodley, Spectacular Now and Divergent, playing unsympathetic characters with varying degrees of complexity. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Teller; was he a good actor making not so great films or a mediocre actor in mediocre films? I couldn’t be sure until I saw Whiplash this week. Everything is different now. Miles Teller has arrived and earned his place at last.

In Whiplash Teller plays the role of Andrew, a music student and aspiring drummer studying at the country’s finest music conservatory. His dream is to impress the intimidating Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) who is known for pushing his students either to the brink of sanity or into greatness. Andrew works his way into the jazz band conducted by Fletcher and while his hero is initially encouraging Andrew soon experiences to extreme high standards demanded by the musical perfectionist. In a bid to match what Fletcher demands Andrew sacrifices all semblance of a normal life to practise to the brink of exhaustion and play the drums until he has secured a place in the band and then hopefully a career for himself in music. The question is not whether Andrew wants a career drumming badly enough but whether or not he will survive Fletcher’s unique brand of training.

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Whiplash is nothing short of astonishing. The energy the film has from start to finish is literally breathtaking and the sense of release felt by the audience in my screening when the film came to a close was such that spontaneous cheering broke out. Watching Teller at work playing Andrew is exhausting as he drums and drums, and drums some more. The sheer effort of the role is self-evident and the film shows blood, sweat and tears all pouring out of Teller and onto the drum kit as his sticks flying across the screen. Effort is a key component of Whiplash; it is about not taking the easy route but about earning your dreams and demanding them when others stand in your way. Andrew sometimes comes across as entitled but he damn well earns the right to his entitlement. It’s not often that cinema shows that success requires work and sacrifice or shows it so effectively.

Opposite Teller Simmons plays the role of the surly mentor with a real vicious edge. This is not your typical irascible trainer who pushes the protagonist at first but turns out to have a heart of gold. Fletcher is a horrible man intent on bringing out the best performance at the risk of sacrificing the individual. While given a slew of amusing one-liners Simmons’ performance never lets humour outweigh the underlying nastiness of the character. Fletcher is not a nice man but he and his students believe that this is key to the success of his band. Another theme in Whiplash is ego and whether or not building it up is simply going to make it harder when you are inevitably knocked down. Fletcher is constantly undermining his students egos and stroking his own making him an absolutely fascinating character to watch.

I won’t go any further in describing what takes place in the film as it is something to experience for yourself. The journey that Fletcher forces Andrew down is a painful one and Whiplash does not follow the predictable trajectory. Writer/director Damien Chazelle has made a film of high energy, exhausting workmanship, and a real pace. Whiplash is a force of nature and I came out shaken and buzzing with energy. It’s hard to explain why without you seeing it for yourself on a big screen and a decent sound system.

The one bum note to the film is its disinterest in the sole female character. Briefly introduced as a love interest she is quickly disposed off which felty slightly wasteful and perhaps surplus to requirements. That aside Whiplash was as close to perfect as this year’s festival has gotten. Get me to a jazz bar!

Whiplash has a UK release date of 16th January 2015 and screens at the London Film Festival on the 16th & 18th of October 2014.

BFI LFF 2014

Wild – LFF Review

Wild

NOTE: For this review to work please pretend that Walk the Line never happened as I didn’t see it and forgot it existed…

As an actor you can make lots of lucrative, fun but unfulfilling films in your youth but to extend your career it helps to make the shift towards more respectable fare. Last year Jean-Marc Vallée directed Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club and took him from being the lead in mediocre romantic comedies to winning an Oscar in a single film. This year Vallée is back with Reese Witherspoon as the actor getting a career revamp, and probably an Oscar nomination, in Wild.

Based on the autobiographical novel by Cheryl Strayed, and adapted for the screen by the great Nick Hornby, Wild tells the story of Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) as she walks the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican to Canadian border. Having lost her husband following a sex and drugs downward spiral and a family crisis Cheryl decides what she needs is time to clear her head and find herself. Alongside danger, exhaustion, and pain walking this distance offers up plenty of solitude and time for reflection. As she walks Cheryl meets mostly friendly strangers and looks back on the mistakes she has made in her life so far. The further Cheryl walks the more she grows and the greater the understanding the audience gains of her character and why she felt the need to embark on this long journey.

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Witherspoon is clearly looking to put a stake in the ground and mark out a new start for her career. Far away from her Legally Blonde days Wild allows her to give a complex grown up performance as a woman who is a three-dimensional human being and not a caricature. While not a subtle film there is room for Witherspoon to demonstrate scope and depth in her acting as she plays an incredibly complicated woman who has made some truly awful decisions. The role of Cheryl does not always put Witherspoon in a flattering light and requires a certain level of exposure both emotional and physical. If nothing else Wild shows a commitment to real acting rarely seen from this particular performer. The film rests on her shoulders and she bears the burden well.

Wild is a beautifully shot film with some great performances and a witty script. While not offering anything cinematically innovative it conjures up a great sense of adventure alongside a dramatic tale of loss and errors in judgement. I am an absolute sucker for any film even remotely resembling a road trip and Wild sufficed in making me wanting to strap on a bag and walk until my feet fall off. The film earns bonus points for expertly representing the almost orgasmic relief felt when taking off hiking boots after a lengthy journey.

A solid film with a tough story to tell, Wild showcases new facets to Witherspoon’s acting chops and announces her as an actor to keep your eye on even at this stage in her career.

Wild has a UK release date of 16th January 2015 and screens at the London Film Festival on the 16th of October 2014.

BFI LFF 2014

Foxcatcher – LFF Review

Foxcatcher

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is an Olympic wrestling gold medalist who, despite his success, is struggling to get out from under the shadow of his fellow wrestler and brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). While training for the world championships and 1988 Olympics Mark is approached by millionaire wrestling enthusiast John du Pont (Steve Carell in heavy prosthetics) with an offer he can’t refuse. Du Pont offers Mark a home on his estate, Foxcatcher Farm, where he will have excellent training facilities, a salary, and the ability to hire whoever he likes for his team. Mark readily accepts and asks Dave to join him but Dave declines as he has a family to consider and cannot be so easily bought.

Mark is a simple man of few words and is happy to have been chosen by du Pont though suffers without his brother to train with. It is clear that du Pont is lonely as despite his wealth he has no friends and his mother (astonishingly wasted Vanessa Redgrave) is his sole remaining relative. As such du Pont sees Mark as a son and insists on Mark looking up to him as a father-figure. Eventually Dave is convinced to bring his family out to Foxcatcher Farm to work as a coach under du Pont. How he is persuaded is never really clear, nor is why Mark suddenly stops talking to du Pont. Foxcatcher is a slow burning film in which nothing happens before long stretches and when something does happen there seems to be no reason for it. This is most evident in the film’s violent conclusion, a matter of public record but not one I was aware of, which the filmmakers never seek to explain.

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Despite being based on real events Foxcatcher does not feel authentic or logical. While there are a series of events that definitely happened writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman have not connected the dots effectively. The gaps between what we know to have taken place are not filled with scenes attempting to provide motivation or explanation just more tedium in which du Pont is showcased as being a little bit weird, his mother so distant she doesn’t get a single line of dialogue, and Mark as a piece of meat slowly moving from room to room. The film’s only moment of consequence, that of the final ten minutes, is actually truncated rather than fleshed out as a police capture that in reality took place over two days is taken care of in minutes. Why stretch the plot so thinly elsewhere only to rush the ending?

The BFI have described the film as a nerve-jangling thriller but I would argue that as it focusses on the relationship between an almost mute athlete and an introverted millionaire there is less a sense of foreboding and more a sense of boredom. Steve Carell and Channing Tatum both put in “proper” acting performances offering subtlety not normally present in their comedic roles but they play uncharismatic characters who, when left alone in a room together, struggled to hold attention. Let’s not even talk about Carell’s facial prosthetics and the mask-like look they give him. Mark Ruffalo is gifted the only part with any character and as such I felt nothing but sympathy for Dave being pulled into the awkward atmosphere of Foxcatcher.

Director Bennett Miller has worked hard on creating a specific tone for the film and that tone is one of being slightly uncomfortable. Imagine the sensation of not being able to get comfortable in your seat for two hours before suddenly falling off it without warning or explanation. That is Foxcatcher in a nutshell.

Foxcatcher is a humourless film populated with impenetrable characters, despite some decent acting efforts, and a plot with no rhyme or reason to it. An odd, unpleasant, and often dull film.

Foxcatcher has a UK release date of 9th January 2015 and screens at the London Film Festival on the 17th of October 2014.

BFI LFF 2014

National Gallery – LFF Review

National Gallery

I have a very varied relationship with documentarian Frederick Wiseman and the films he brings to the London Film Festival. In 2011 I saw my first Wiseman film Crazy Horse and was bored out of my skull by the dull background antics of the Parisian club. Last year I changed my mind about Wiseman and fell in love with his four-hour epic study At Berkeley. This year I feel neither love nor hate but fall somewhere in between.

National Gallery is a three-hour portrait of the National Gallery on the north side of Trafalgar square in London. In typical Wiseman style the documentary consists only of footage of events taking place in the gallery, both behind the scenes and amongst the public. What the film does not have is anyone talking directly to camera or any narration or score. This approach allows the National Gallery to speak for itself and for it to be seen in full unadulterated form.

Where Wiseman’s style works best is in peering behind the scenes of the gallery. I love moments spent sitting in on internal meetings as various departments push their own agenda and fail to listen to one another. I love finding out about the detailed restoration work that takes place in workshops to maintain the paintings as they give in to natural aging. Seeing into the nooks and crannies to see the day-to-day workings of a large institution is what makes a Wiseman film fascinating. It is the curious characters that come through in candid moments that make the film work and help maintain the audience’s interest through the long running time.

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Where the film sags slightly is in allowing the gallery’s employees to speak in a less candid fashion and film them in presentation mode. While there are no interviews to camera Wiseman does allow himself to film subjects giving interviews to other journalists which, as I said with Crazy Horse, feels like cheating. There are also quite a few moments when the camera joins a tour group to learn about the history of a painting. While it is fascinating to hear this in-depth detail it feels like something that could be experienced by visiting the National Gallery itself and not exclusive to the film. What I want from a Wiseman documentary is the behind the scenes action, no matter how mundane (in fact the more mundane the better), the bits we can’t see if we visited the gallery ourselves. I love watching other institutions’ meetings; so much more fun than attending my own.

One other hole I will poke in the film is that it includes footage of Greenpeace hanging an anti-BP banner outside the gallery. As BP are sponsors of the National Gallery it would have caused some reaction in the managerial levels of the gallery but the documentary does not show any of this. Presumably the gallery didn’t want any discussion of their sponsors caught on film. An assumption perhaps but I see no other reason why this potentially fascinating avenue wasn’t explored more. A slight hint of narrative thread from something akin to the BP banner, like the student protests in At Berkeley, would have helped give the film a little more meat.

I remain loyal to Wiseman and will continue to sit through his future films at the film festival no matter how long they get. Sadly National Gallery failed to live up to the heights of At Berkeley and at times felt like more of a chore that a joy. There are definitely moments of interest and intrigue to be found but the film isn’t as consistent as its predecessor. In December a similar documentary will be released called The Great Museum which I will review nearer the time. I mention it now because it takes Wiseman’s style to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna but does so with more interesting behind the scenes goings on and half the running time. In comparison National Gallery feels lightweight and overstuffed at the same time.

One for fans of the National Gallery or people who want to visit but would rather watch a film instead.

National Gallery has no UK release date yet but screens at the London Film Festival on the 14th of October 2014.

BFI LFF 2014