- Read our review of Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard's entrancing Nick Cave doc 20,000 Days on Earth
- Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight offers a bewitching portrait of the artist as a Wildean cynic
- An Education director Lone Scherfig returns with bright young British toffs drama The Riot Club
- Night Will Fall provides a harrowing insight into the horrors of the Holocaust and its visual impact
- Notions of childhood innocence and guilt through complicity play against one another in Wakolda
★☆☆☆☆A decade since his directorial debut Garden State (2004) offered him a platform to air his views on the quarter-life crises of a handful of waylaid young adults, ex-sitcom star Zach Braff (Scrubs) returns to the silver screen with Wish I Was Here (2014), a part-Kickstarter funded pet project he co-wrote with his brother Adam J. Braff. Though his previous, extremely divisive first feature went about meeting tooth-grating sincerity and a studied cavalcade of quirk (Natalie Portman played a Shins-loving pathological liar) with genuine visual promise, it's made to look like a masterpiece compared to the excruciating Wish I Was Here, which strikes a curious balance of having too much to say and yet saying nothing at all.
Schindler's List (1993) is now a more bankable hardman than Schwarzenegger and Stallone, and yet little before 2008's Taken suggested such a second career for someone of Neeson's gruff appearance. Perhaps the tragic death of his then-wife Natasha Richardson was the catalyst. There's a gravitas and indeed a tragedy that makes him effortlessly identifiable in these madcap parts. Just look at how many 'former' roles he plays - an ex-CIA man in the Taken films, a reformed convict in The Next Three Days.
An Education (2009) director Lone Scherfig's bright young toffs drama The Riot Club (2014), based on Laura Wade's West End play Posh. Starring a host of upcoming actors, it provides a peek behind the curtain of a fictionalised version of Oxford University's Bullingdon Club of which Prime Minister David Cameron, Mayor of London Boris Johnson and Chancellor George Osborne were all members. It makes for entertaining viewing but its power is undermined by a ultimate lack of insight amongst the debauchery.
★★★★☆A conflict rich in inhumane horrors, it was the discovery of Nazi concentration camps by Allied forces as the battle in the European arena drew to its conclusion that remains most potent to this day. In Night Will Fall (2014), directed by The Act of Killing (2012) producer André Singer, we're provided with a harrowing but necessary insight into what the first Allied troops met as they stumbled upon the nightmare of the Holocaust. Though comparisons will be drawn with Joshua Oppenheimer's own exploration of the machinations behind mass genocide, Singer focuses not on the culprits or victims but the photographic units that found themselves charged with documenting one of the darkest moments in human history.
Small Time Crooks (2000) and The Curse of Jade Scorpion (2001), the image of an artist adrift in a new decade was cemented. As he coasted from one uninspired project to another, a great critical fallacy came to pass; Woody had lost it. Over the past fifteen years, Allen has continued to make a film a year. The quality may have veered significantly, but accepted critical wisdom has served to temper any serious discussion of the period. Taken as a whole, his recent work represents a distinct chapter in Allen's canon in which new themes began to emerge; in particular, we see an ageing director at a crossroads between something of a golden and gilded age.
Grand Piano (2013). It's a genre piece packed with the kind of knowing Hitchcockian thrills peddled by Mira's fellow Spanish contemporaries like Guillem Morales (Julia's Eyes) and J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage), but the USP here is the additional Speed-like high concept device, transposed to a more sedate setting while still delivering on the excitement. The eternally pixie-like Elijah Wood takes the lead as Tom Selznick, a young pianist virtuoso preparing for his big return to the limelight and a chance to tackle his demons after developing a disastrous bout of stage fright just five years earlier.
Down by Law (1986), which has been fully re-mastered and is also receiving a limited theatrical run courtesy of the BFI and UK distributor Soda Pictures.
20,000 Days on Earth (2014). Set around a fictionalised version of Cave's 20,000th day when he started recording what became last year's acclaimed Push the Sky Away, the film is both a biography of Cave's life and a beguiling vision of a musician considering the meaning of his own art. Forsyth and Pollard, whose most famous work to date was re-staging David Bowie's last performance as Ziggy Stardust, have worked with the Australian singer-songwriter for many years and use their unique access to the man while crafting this unique documentary.
The Two Faces of January (2014), based on the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name, is an atmospheric thriller set in Greece and Turkey during the early 1960s. Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his glamorous wife Collette, (Kirsten Dunst) are holidaying in Athens when they run into Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a young, Greek-speaking American working as a tour guide. Rydal, we discover, likes to con clients unsure of the lingo or local currency. He doesn't even draw the line at short-changing his date, American tourist Lauren (Daisy Bevan). However, Rydal finds he's met his match when he becomes entangled in the shady affairs of Chester, who's on the run for selling fake shares in the US.
★★★★★The promotional material surrounding Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin (2013) concocts spurious images of knife play, bombastic explosions and plenty of bloodshed. Could this be a sign that China's foremost independent filmmaker has finally decided to play ball with the state? Anyone familiar with the deliberately languid and meditative approach of the director will know this type of aesthetic is the antithesis of his methodology, yet the threat of violence has always been prevalent within his work. By focusing on four real life incidents of violence, all ignored by the Chinese media, Jia has managed to dexterously work the system to his advantage, appropriating big-action movie tropes to augment his state of the nation address.
The Last Stand edging out Escape Plan as the better of the two. Directed by David Ayer, Sabotage (2014) has loftier ambitions, but despite some solid work from its leading man the film is tripped up by its messily executed plot. Loosely based on Agatha Christie's novel Ten Little Indians (yes really), Schwarzenegger stars as John 'Breacher' Wharton, leader of an elite team of DEA agents looking to swindle $10 million from a cartel. What initially looks to be a successful heist proves anything but; the stolen loot goes missing, and the team fall under heavy scrutiny from their superiors.
A Touch of Sin (2013) (on DVD and Blu-ray this week). But the ex-breakdancer turned prolific Chinese filmmaker has a relaxed air about him. He greeted us for this interview with a friendly "Hello" in English. Like many Chinese film directors who've experienced a difficult relationship with the censors, Jia is no stranger to having the word 'controversy' slapped all over his work. The trajectory of his entire output has been laden with stories of censorship and struggles with domestic distribution, from the underground filming of his first three films (known as his 'Hometown Trilogy') to A Touch of Sin's sudden withdrawal from last month's China Film Directors' Guild Awards.
Night Moves (2013). The film examines an act of terrorism on a hydroelectric dam and the resulting effect on the three activists that perpetrate the crime. "At the very beginning," Reichardt explains in our interview with the director, "John Raymond [the screenwriter] and his partner spent some time on this farm - the farm we actually ended up shooting on. He was getting pretty fascinated with the small world polities that surround the community."
Pompeii (2014). Kit Harington, of Game of Thrones fame, stars as Milo, the last survivor of a tribe of Celts. As a child, Milo saw his family slaughtered by Roman forces led by Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, chewing the Italian scenery for all his worth) and his lackey Proculus (Sasha Roiz); Milo now finds himself in Pompeii as a gladiator-slave, where Corvus is negotiating a trade agreement with the city's patrician, Severus (Mad Men's Jared Harris). Corvus is also pursuing Severus' daughter, Cassia (Emily Browning), who is enamoured with Milo after a chance meeting on the road.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) is the story of two misanthropic vampires who have been in love for centuries, witnessing the humanist revival of classical art and literature and its sad decline into the vulgar and uncouth yield of contemporary populist culture. Vampires have never seemed as stylish and refined as they do here, inhibiting the poise and self-assurance of a Shoreditch hipster with the style and grace of classically-trained concert pianist. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a musician who once gave Schubert a String Quartet, but is now a suicidal romantic.
★★★☆☆After impressing both audiences and critics alike with previous feature What Richard Did (2012), a slow-burning drama that put him front and centre on the filmmaking map, Irish director Lenny Abrahamson takes a decidedly different approach for his next project, Frank (2014), a fictional story loosely inspired by Frank Sidebottom, the persona of cult musician and comedy legend Chris Sievey. A story of a band made up of a ragtag group of outsiders and their newbie keyboardist, Frank has winsome curiosity in spades, yet does little with a tried and tested formula. Domhnall Gleeson plays Jon, a weary office drone who dreams of being a musician yet struggles with finding inspiration when it comes to writing his own music.
The 'Burbs, starring Tom Hanks and Carrie Fisher, "love thy neighbour" is a term mostly adhered to by the residents of Mayfield Place. Living out a relatively peaceful existence in their quiet cul-de-sac, save for the odd lawn care disputes, the arrival of the mysterious Klopeks threatens to shatter the peaceful suburban bliss, particularly for immediate neighbours Ray Peterson (Hanks) and wife Carol (Fisher). The trio of unidentifiable Eastern Europeans ("Klopek - is that a Slavic name?") keep themselves to themselves, spending all night using their basement furnace and paying zero attention to the general upkeep of their property.
★★☆☆☆The feature debut from Welsh filmmaker Jamie Adams, Benny & Jolene (2014) - or, to give it its original title, Jolene: The Indie Folk Star Movie, is a diminutive and largely improvised British comedy that takes a look at the fictional uphill struggles of an amateur band desperate to make it big. Purportedly made for as little as £12,500 and shot in less than a week, Adams' film, in an attempt to make it into the annals of classic low-budget British cinema, assembles a cast of high quality who are clearly game, yet it suffers from the very thing it treats as unique. The film opens with protagonist Jolene (played by TV's Fresh Meat star Charlotte Richie) directly addressing the camera and surmising, "It's been a really weird year".
Frances Ha saw the director chronicle the ailing dance career and resultant ennui of an arrested development twenty-something whilst gently ribbing consciously cool New Yorkers. His new picture, While We're Young (2014), explores both professional stagnation and sends up trendy hipster culture through a more traditional mid-life crisis narrative. Providing a further through line between the films is Adam Driver who stars alongside Amanda Seyfried, Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts in a film that talks about getting old and artistic integrity while keeping the laughs plentiful.
Venice (2014) is very much about Cuba. Specifically, it's a rarely seen independent film from the country, marking its director's first appearance at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival. Named after a city to which its characters will never travel, it is clearly imbued with an aspirational spirit, but largely this is a social realist work that attempts to shine a light on the lives of three women living, loving, and striving for agency in modern Havana. It's a low-key affair that makes for engrossing viewing taking in three fascinating characters and the fine performances that breathe life into them. A fan whirs in the otherwise stifling air of small salon as, one by one, a trio of stylists arrive.
Return to Ithaca (2014) is the new film from French director Laurent Cantet. After the Palme d'Or-winning The Class (2008) and 2012's somewhat clunky Foxfire, this is another dialogue heavy character piece. Though more intentionally languid affair than both of those two films, it retains a political edge, exploring the country's recent history through the diverging lives of these five comrades. It is slow going for the majority of its runtime, but with such a fine ensemble cast, patience does pay dividends as rifts and secrets surface amidst pensive self-reflection and regret, both national and personal.
The Face of Another (1966), notions of identity both personal and national are explored through the story of man whose face is irrevocably scarred in a terrible accident. The indelible image of his bandaged head is brought to mind in the opening reel of Christian Petzold's latest offering, another interested in the rebirth of nation after the Second World War, his Toronto Film Festival entry Phoenix (2014). Built around a devastated and devastating central performance by the director's muse Nina Hoss - who gained rave reviews for his last feature, Barbara (2012) - Petzold's Phoenix is a high-concept premise executed as a heart-wrenching character piece.
★★★☆☆Another year, another film from prolific French director and festival regular François Ozon. After the (intentional) inscrutability of the lead in last year's Jeune et Jolie (2013), his latest film The New Girlfriend (2014) is thankfully a far deeper exploration of its two equally complex central characters. Based on a Ruth Rendell story - though inflected with considerably more humour by all accounts - it explores a burgeoning relationship between a widower and his departed wife's best friend on a sliding scale of gender and sexuality. Ozon's inconsistency of tone is once again present, but on this occasion he just about carries it off, crafting a thoughtful comic drama led by a pair of fine and nuanced performances.
Henry Fool (1997), Hal Hartley introduced the world to his garrulous and hedonistic eponymous rogue who, amongst other things, impregnated an impressionable young woman. Years later, she was coerced into a labyrinthine plot regarding her former husband's long lost notebooks that resulted in her own self-titled movie, Fay Grim (2006). Now, Hartley has returned to the family to complete his trilogy with new film Ned Rifle (2014) featuring returning cast members, but centred on the offspring of Fool and Grim. Rife with the director's trademark stylistic preferences, this is a blast of an idiosyncratic comedy full of brilliant deadpan performances that offer a wickedly funny and poignant conclusion to the fable.
Luna (2014), which featured in the experimental Vanguard strand of this year's Toronto International Film festival. In the director's striking but uneven 2005 debut feature, Mirrormask, it was style that particularly caught the eye as he crafted an utterly unique blend of reality and fantasy, a trick he emulates with his latest effort. A meditation on grief and parenthood, it has some shaky moments, but their memory is largely erased by beautiful, spectral flights of fancy and a thoughtful and inventive treatment of fairly brooding subject matter. It's a bold, intimate vision from a very interesting emerging British filmmaker.
Li'l Quinquin (2014), which is due to premiere on French television this week and has screened in its entirety as a single film at both Cannes and more recently Toronto. Set in a coastal town in the Boulonnais, recognisably Dumont to regulars, it is a wonderfully strange and wickedly humorous tale involving a meandering murder investigation. "You will cause me grief/If you don't sleep until tomorrow."
Ossos, the work of auteur Pedro Costa has frequently explored the troubled Lisbon district of Fontainhas. In a loose trilogy he has chronicled the existential wanderings of impoverished immigrants, most recently in Colossal Youth (2006), which focused on the Cape Verdean Ventura. Costa is once again the subject of the director's latest film, Horse Money (2014), which moves at a brisker pace than previous outings but is unlikely to convert disbelievers. It's a singular and deeply resonant work that finds a mesmerising poetry amidst the chiaroscuro rubble of post-colonial Portugal, and was rightly rewarded with the Best Director prize at this year's Locarno Film Festival.
Foreign Body (2014). Potentially best known on British shores for the masterful The Illumination (1973), this is an entirely different kind of prospect. Imagine, if you will, a psycho-sexual thriller involving high-powered business women, nuns, and a naive Italian Romeo. Now imagine such a film but with every hint of mirth or eroticism stripped and replaced with po-faced allegory. Various national maladies regarding the church and commercialism are also thrown into the mix. If it all sounds like something of a mess, then you're forming a fairly good picture.
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