My Old Lady – LFF Review

My Old Lady

New Yorker Mathias (Kevin Kline) has inherited a large Parisian apartment from his estranged, and now deceased, father. Having driven his life into the ground this windfall comes at a time where a large lump sum are all that stands between Mathias and ruin. Sadly a bizarre French law means that the apartment’s former owner and current tenant Mathilde (Maggie Smith) has the right to live in Mathias’ new property until she dies. On top of this the bankrupt American must pay her a monthly maintenance or forfeit the entire abode. With nowhere else to go Mathias rents a room in his own apartment and lives with Mathilde and her daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas) while he judges how long Mathilde has left to live and whether he can possibly sell the place while it remains tied up in the strange Parisian legal bind.

Hilarity ensues.

For the most part My Old Lady features just this cast of three and rarely strays too far from the all important apartment. The plot is driven by plenty of dialogue, the acting is delivered with a little too much vigour, and the machinations of the story get a little contrived towards the end. All of this should scream one thing to you; the theatre. Indeed with its modest headcount, singular setting, and final act revelations My Old Lady does very little to disguise the fact that it started life on the stage in a play by the film’s director Israel Horovitz. When a play is adapted well it can make for great cinematic fare equally as lauded as its original incarnation. When done badly a big screen adaptation can feel stale and unconvincing; the melodrama that was captivating on stage not translating so well on-screen.

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For the most part Horovitz does not seem to have done much to make My Old Lady justify a conversion to film. There is nothing contained within the adaptation that could not have been performed on stage any less easily and the style of direction is one without flair or excitement. It is hard to see what filming his play has added to its story and why he felt the need to do so.

The film, and presumably the play, is perfectly pleasant. Not quite as many laughs as I had been led to expect but a funny and charming story is there to be enjoyed. Maggie Smith gives her trademark performance as a snippy but loveable aging matriarch and is as enjoyable to watch as always. Kristin Scott Thomas gives a tender edge to her role as the indignant daughter and Kevin Kline slightly over-eggs his performance as the boorish American disrupting the lives of incredibly English Parisians. The experience of watching My Old Lady is one of bemusement and mild unrest. Nothing too exciting happens, a few laughs are had, and then it ends without ever fully convincing.

Not a bad film but not spectacular either. My Old Lady is a film to be watched on a rainy weekend afternoon with a blanket keeping you warm.

My Old Lady has a UK release date of 21st November 2014.

BFI LFF 2014

Grand Central – DVD Review

Grand Central

Gary (Tahar Rahim) is a young man looking for a job, somewhere to sleep, and people to connect with. With no qualifications to his name Gary starts working at a nuclear power plant and living with his fellow workers. By day he is risking being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation but by night he finally has a community to share his time with. His colleagues may be rough around the edges but they are good company and you need to be able to rely on one another when working in such a dangerous environment. Before starting his new job Gary is introduced to the symptoms of radiation poisoning by his co-worker Karole (Léa Seydoux) who jokingly gives him a passionate kiss while her boyfriend Toni (Denis Ménochet) watches and laughs.

It would seem that Gary has finally found everything he is looking for but that wouldn’t make a satisfying drama now would it? After one particularly sexually charged car ride Gary finds himself flung into a passionate affair with Karole. What started as a one-off develops into something a little more as Gary falls deeper and deeper in love with his friend’s girlfriend. As the intensity of his passion rises so does his recklessness as Gary ignores protocols at the power plant that ensure his safety but might separate him from the object of his desire. It is unclear what will be Gary’s ultimate downfall; his dangerous job or his dangerous love life.

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Director Rebecca Zlotowski has created a film of simmering tension and an atmosphere in which the audience is constantly unsure of when the house of cards will come tumbling down. In the harsh industrial setting of the power plant Gary and his coworkers are covered from head to toe as any exposed skin increases the danger of radiation. When Gary and Karole are together they are completely exposed but in the fields where their affair takes place everything feels completely safe. Back at camp the two lovers are clothed but vulnerable; in danger should their indiscretion be discovered. Only when the pair are alone together can the audience relax as any other time death and discovery are a misstep away. Their love for one another is simple, primal, and somehow naive and innocent. In amongst tall grass and away from the dangers elsewhere Gary and Karole can be themselves and feel safe with one another. A relationship forged in passion turns tender and all the more intimate.

Seydoux and Rahim are a superb pair. Both give layered performances that allow them to behave foolishly without losing sympathy. Seydoux are Karole gives a particularly conflicted performance as a woman in love with one man but in lust with another while Rahim plays Gary as a man driven almost mad by desire. Grand Central as a result is a tense and sexy drama about how quickly one can become infected by love for another and how decisions made in the height of passion may not always serve you well. At times a little over the top and humourless Grand Central is nonetheless incredibly watchable and a great display of modern French filmmaking.

Grand Central is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on 10th November 2014.

Interstellar – Film Review

Interstellar 1

Ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to this review of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Before we begin I would like to flag up that I will be referring to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey at various points throughout. Such a comparison may seem obvious, lazy, or unhelpful but I hope you will trust me when I say that comparing this latest Sci-Fi epic to The Greatest* Science Fiction Film of All Time™ helps to put the film, and its critique, into context. Happy? Then I shall begin.

A few generations from now the world is not the technologically advanced utopia we have come to expect. Instead our planet is slowly dying. All crops fail apart from corn as dust storms roam across the harsh landscape of America. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former pilot and engineer whose time is now best spent running a farm with his children, Murph (Mackenzie Foy & Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet & Casey Affleck), and their Grandfather (John Lithgow). While Tom is happy enough following in his father’s footsteps Murph is fascinated by science. Sadly this is a world in which the scientists have failed and government money is better spent feeding the population instead of inspiring a generation.

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Life is dirty and bleak; Cooper seems resigned to the daily struggle to put food on the table and keep dust out of his children’s lungs. After a certain series of events too convoluted for me to explain here, Interstellar‘s own large black monolith, Cooper and Murph stumble across the secret base of what is left of NASA. Now headed up by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) NASA are not looking for a way to save the world but for a whole new planet for our species to move to. With the help of a wormhole pioneering explorers have already travelled to distant parts of the universe to find a viable planet but now one final scouting mission is needed to travel through the wormhole and see how they got on.

Naturally Cooper is the best man for the job and after some contemplation, and vehement disagreement from Murph, he blasts off into the void with Amelia, Doyle (Wes Bentley), and Principal (David Oyelowo). As Cooper and company search for a new home for the human race they are forced to confront whether a human can truly put the interests of mankind ahead of personal safety and the lives of their loved ones. In an adventure involving relativity, the fifth dimension, and interstellar travel Christopher Nolan bends space, time, and your mind.

But is Interstellar any good?

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Whatever my fellow audience members may have thought about Interstellar they have to admit that it is an ambitious and brave endeavour. Well… brave in the way a film can be; lives are not being put at risk here. The ambitious bravery comes in the form of including tricky science for the audience to absorb and risking people not understanding what is going on or simply getting sniffy because the science isn’t 100% accurate. It’s a difficult line to tread, teetering between incomprehension and derision, but for my money Interstellar succeeds. To fully understand the plot one has to take on a certain amount of understanding of relativity, the concept of time as a resource just like fuel, and experiencing the world in dimensions beyond time. In my opinion Nolan manages to get the basic scientific principles across well enough that nobody who is paying sufficient attention will find themselves adrift. Go to the toilet at the wrong moment though and you may want to borrow somebody else’s notes.

As for those who feel the need to take Interstellar to task for not being 100% scientifically robust, as happened with Gravity, I have very little patience. I am assuming that this a modern trend to make people feel superior by allowing them to apply derision to films that are otherwise enjoyable. No Interstellar should not be used in a science lesson but I wouldn’t use 2001: A Space Odyssey either. Did Kubrick get assessed badly for suggesting that evolution was sparked by the arrival of a large black obelisk or were critics able to accept this as a forgivable plot device essential to the story being told? Science Fiction is what it is because it is not factual. It is fiction. What is important is that the film in questions takes its own fictional science seriously and does not contradict itself. Interstellar has its own rules, explains them, and applies them. Turn your nose up and I will confiscate your light saber.

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Rather than debate the laws of physics I suggest you instead just enjoy the unimaginable visuals and infectious sense of adventure that Interstellar has in abundance. Films with this scope and imagination are few and far between and should be appreciated as such. What Odyssey lacked in emotional weight (or baggage) Interstellar is bursting with. While Odyssey‘s Dave struggled in space without any sign of a family, his wife only appearing in a sequel (played by Mary Jo Deschanel), McConaughey’s Cooper is constantly aware of his family back home on Earth. The weight of the mission to rescue mankind is made apparent through the adversity experienced both in a distant galaxy as well on the planet we call home. Interstellar wants to tug at your heart as well as muddle your mind and is mostly successful. While I did feel the struggle felt by Cooper and family occasionally the Nolan brothers’ script pulled a little too hard. One particular speech by Hathaway’s Amelia is more likely to deliver sniggers than sniffles. Bend space and time all you like but don’t over deliver on the sentimentality. In a film with two prominent female scientists it is a shame that one finds herself compromised by emotions.

The overall effect of Interstellar is one of awe. Despite some flaws the film as a whole is a visual feast and dramatic juggernaut that explores the flaws of humanity as much as it does the far reaches of the universe. Below you will notice that I have given the film a full five stars and I do this not because it is a perfect feature or my greatest film of the year, let alone all time. I give it five stars for ambition and execution. For trying something a little different. You may not like it; it might be too convoluted, too simplistic, or just try too hard for your tastes but hopefully it will give you at least one moment when your eyes widen in surprise and wonder.

Interstellar is in UK cinemas from 7th November 2014.

*Arguably/allegedly

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