LFF 2013: Jeune et Jolie ***

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French Screenwriter-director François Ozon returns to BFI LFF 2013 with another coming-of-age film, this time with subjective comedic value. Palme d’Or nominated Jeune et Jolie is one of sexual discovery of a young seventeen-year-old girl, Isabelle (Marine Vacth), who deals with her newfound womanhood in a rather extreme fashion. This is perhaps no surprise to diehard Ozon fans, but it does stretch the film’s credibility of events.

Isabelle willingly loses her virginity to an older boy while on holiday in the South of France with her family. This new awakening leads her to try prostitution on returning home to Paris, unbeknown to her family and college friends. She forms a close relationship with one of her clients, Georges (Johan Leysen), but things take a tragic turn after one hotel meeting, the results of which unravel her hidden secret.

What is perhaps most perplexing and not necessarily fully explained is why a young girl would go from an unsatisfying first sexual encounter – generally the norm for most – to high-class escort? Ozon’s link here is questionable, and there is no apparent catalyst for this to be the case. Added to which, stunning Isabelle’s home life seems happy and healthy, living a middle-class existence in an affluent part of Paris. Perhaps Ozon is suggesting not only a developing free will at this crucial age, but also questioning what true ‘fulfilment’ is, as those who have it all never seem satisfied? This is still tentative and pure speculation on this reviewer’s part.

Jeune et Jolie is the classic father-daughter relationship scenario French film-making is notoriously expert at. The younger female drawn to age and wisdom is the stuff of fantasy for mature males, and with Vacth’s beauty and mystique to admire, and Isabelle’s chosen profession that could make such a beautiful creature accessible to older men, Ozon panders to that illusion. It is nothing groundbreaking in this respect. Coupled with her rebellious nature, Isabelle is a figure of curious awe, the likes of which we try to fathom, hence further feeding the need to understand why she chooses the path she does. There is also an intriguing nod to the influences of modern mobile technology that allows for self-reinvention and living a double life.

Ozon gets some subtle and intelligent performances from his lead and the rest of his cast, with Frédéric Pierrot as Patrick, Isabelle’s step-father, in another LFF 2013 offering, again very similar to his The Returned TV character, Jérôme. Model Vacth is a vision, quietly confident in her first lead performance and keeping Isabelle an enigma, as she is an average, mischievous teen pushing boundaries. There is something openly experimental about the whole affair as Ozon toys with engrained morals and ‘the norm’. In fact, some might cynically say Isabelle is very entrepreneurial in times of austerity…

Jeune et Jolie is another Ozon challenge to societal norms, as with his other work. However, although intriguing, there is a lack of initial continuity to Isabelle’s behaviour, and the absence of more obvious satirical humour to this film leaves the status quo strangely hanging. Still, it is a solid performance from Vacth who could have been a serious Ana contender for the forthcoming Fifty Shades of Grey, in terms of looks and independent spirit. Nevertheless, Vacth makes an impressive lead entry into a blossoming film career, with Ozon’s pedigree and direction fully in her favour, allowing her to shine. Perhaps it’s time for old Ozon muse Romola Garai to step aside?

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2013: Saving Mr Banks *****

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Mary Poppins is a seasonal classic, and The Blindside director John Lee Hancock’s ode to her creator, Saving Mr Banks, the closing film of BFI LFF 2013, is likely to evoke the same euphoric highs. It hits all the right notes in an utterly charming, funny and well-meaning manner; part in thanks to the great pairing of Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks.

Mary Poppins author, the proud P.L. Travers (Thompson) is invited to Disneyland to meet Walt Disney (Hanks) to discuss turning her beloved character into a film. However, Travers and Disney regularly clash, with the author loathed to compromise. As events begin to thaw, and progress is made, Travers unwittingly starts reflecting on her difficult childhood – seen in flashbacks, the basis for the origins of Poppins.

There is an effortless flow from Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s script that translates beautifully on screen, coupled with some immensely enjoyable performances from Thompson and Hanks. Travers’ prickly and pompous nature is full of subtle tones, fully brought to life by Thompson who portrays a complex woman trying to gain control of her past, present and future. The witty self-discovery this takes is at the heart of the film, and we never tire of Thompson expertly crafting Travers’ transformation.

Hanks as Disney provides the catalyst to this pleasing, if predictable end result. He is both jovial and sentimental when needed, making Disney incredibly likeable – hardly surprising, given the studio behind the film. Disney’s persuasive speech for Travers at the end is a magical moment that resonates loudly, where both characters – and watching fans – realise they have the same passion for and responsibility to Poppins. This connection seals our love affair with the journey we have been invited to follow. Both actors are at the top of their game for providing accessible characters full of charisma.

Collin Farrell portrays Travers’ colourful dad, Robert Goff Travers, an emotional whirlwind of a part that is both uplifting and tragic, adding just sufficient back-story to form a true opinion of the difficult author. This provides the film’s melancholy angle, which further heightens an instinctive, protective nature towards Poppins as a national treasure, if you are a fan.

Saving Mr Banks is a Disney film for adults, bursting with a whole spectrum of emotions. As well as one woman’s quest and some highly memorable performances, there is a great delight in recognising and hence singing the iconic songs, which is an extra treat for Poppins fans.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2013: Parkland ***

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Writer-director Peter Landesman’s Parkland gives another relatively new angle on tragic events following the death of US President John F Kennedy on 22nd November 1963 in Dallas, Texas, offering the hospital portrayal at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital. It’s a solid piece of drama set to provoke the same disbelief from those who remember on the day and those too young to.

There are some equally solid performances from the likes of Paul Giamatti as Abraham Zapruder, the businessman who unwittingly took film camera footage of the fateful moment the bullet hit, allowing Giamatti ample leeway to expertly express Zapruder’s emotional arc, and James Badge Dale as Oswald’s stoic older brother, Robert, who faces the firing line. That said there is little actual fact to add to the whole historical account, just intriguing suggested reaction from the Oswald family to the news.

One such account is a possible police station confrontation between the Oswald brothers (Lee Harvey played by Jeremy Strong), which makes for a compelling story balance of opinion, also laying bare the writer-director’s thoughts on the alleged mystery surrounding who really shot JFK. This is very telling in Landesman’s ending, which is devoted to the Oswald family’s grief of being put in a compromising position and inviting empathetic after-thought on subsequent future repercussions on them.

Landesman skillfully concentrates on and depicts mounting chaos at Parkland, from the moment the President is brought in, and the confusion and disbelief of all staff involved, to the time of death and ludicrous legal and administrative obstacles that follow. Landesman’s peaks and troughs (being the characters’ reflections) drive the plot forward, keeping the energy flowing. The camera mimics, with vigorous momentum that sweeps you up in proceedings then pauses for the cold-hearted and clinical truth to seep in. The harrowing scene of the former President’s body being roughly loaded onto Airforce One by shocked staff is one prime example.

The next wave of action comes after Oswald’s shooting and the fascinating reaction from the same surgical team tasked with saving the President. The medical ensemble is where top-billed Zac Efron fits in as resident Dr Charles ‘Jim’ Carrico. Although commendable, the star billing is misleading as he shares as much screen time as Colin Hanks playing Carrico’s superior who deserves just as much acclaim. Landesman has drawn on a fine pool of acting talent that means all involved should take some credit.

In short, neatly produced Parkland has some compelling and fine performances and gives more exposure to the Oswald Family, but adds nothing groundbreaking in terms of investigative fact. It would be at home on the small screen too, though rightfully takes its place alongside other notable films on the topic that bolster the overall screen offering on one of the USA’s most charismatic leaders.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Family ***

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The ‘most Hollywood of French directors’ Luc Besson has some fun with his new black comedy, The Family, toying with an impressive A-list cast, and placing lead actor Robert De Niro straight back into his Mafioso comfort zone – even spoofing it at the end. The film may seem a tad odd tonally, but it has a certain European quirkiness and double the trademark Besson ‘tough cookie’ character in both Michelle Pfeiffer and Dianna Agron’s roles. The issue some might have is the marrying of slapstick comedy moments and sporadic brutality that feels unsettling, rather than gleefully deviant.

The Blakes, Fred (De Niro), Maggie (Pfeiffer), Belle (Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo, is an American family living in the heart of rural France, but there’s something different about them: They are part of the notorious mafia clan, The Manzonis from New York, under witness protection and the watchful eye of weary Agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) who has to pick up the pieces. The trouble is, once a mobster, always a mobster and each family member can’t help using their skills to get their own way with the locals. However, Fred or Giovanni Manzoni is being hunted by the men working for a big boss who has been disrespected and has sent out a hit squad. The Blakes are trying to move on but their past just keeps catching up with them, even when Fred decides to turn writer and pen his will past.

The buzz you get from watching this film is seeing the interplay between De Niro and his belligerent family cast members who individually make their sinister mark in a dramatic fashion on certain members of the local community. There is a reaction to the usual Yank tourist gibe that gets wonderfully explosive. It just all gets too cartoonish at the very end when the Blakes are found out, even though there is a nice comeback action scene involving the younger Blakes, with Argon doing a Nikita impression.

The cast is a fabulous collection of talent, especially Pfeiffer who takes the sinister matriarch role in her stride, and exudes both icy chills and friendly demeanour in equal, delightful measure. De Niro almost takes a passive aggressive stance, leaving the stage to his relations, and there is a standout performance from D’Leo who holds his own in the confidence stakes. The actors do their best with Besson’s material, but it could be argued that it could have been darker or funnier but never quite reaches either mark.

That said as a piece of comedic light entertainment, The Family gives a decadent account of Mafioso hiding out in a foreign country, and the cast is a tonic to watch in action.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LKFF 2013: Flu ***

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It’s the perfect time of year for a scary movie about killer flu wiping out a population. Simply named Flu, this is a typical disaster movie, South Korean style, from The Warrior writer-director Sung-su Kim. However, it contains the drama within the boundaries of the district of Bundang, the suburb of Seoul – supposedly one of South Korea’s wealthiest and highest developed areas – so it has a unique identity as a piece of film-making from the region, even though it may follow the same plotlines of larger epics. It also presents an interesting insight into social and political attitudes of the region.

After a container containing illegal immigrants is found with just one survivor in Bundang, the residents quickly start to become ill and infected with a strange and deadly, flu-like virus that spreads as an airborne disease. The city with half a million people is sealed off, its fate in the hands of its clashing leaders and some international advisers who fear it will spread globally if not contained. It’s down to infectious disease specialist In-hye (Soo Ae) and rescue worker Ji-goo (Hyuk Jang) to save the suburb by finding the antidote that is closer to home than they think.

Flu has an attractive male and female protagonist who saves the day in equal measure, making it instantly appealing to any audience. Both Soo Ae and Hyuk Jang are commendable in their roles and have a reasonable rapport.

There is a lot of humour to be found in such a serious subject matter, with hero Ji-goo reminiscent of a jokey McClane at the very start. What feels odd is the over-theatrical nature of certain scenarios followed by something graphically gruesome that neither translates well in the lighter moments nor the more sober ones. Hence, tonally, the film feels a little uneven at times, possibly lost in translation in itself?

Sung-su Kim does make commendable use of a far smaller budget than a Hollywood production in recreating the scale of destruction of life, such as his body pit. It’s an impressive use of special effects and one that displays things with a genuinely chilling reality, rather than the zombie frenzy of video-gaming proportions of World War Z.

What tests our believability, but what is also vital for the film’s heart, is the key role of In-hye’s young daughter who needs to survive to provide the story’s hope – and steals the show, naturally. And survive she does, far longer than anyone else it seems in the same predicament. Still, the cute factor cannot be wiped out. This is not a sinister tale of fiction because of the jovial side. It also bangs the drum in a proud, nationalistic manner that Hollywood is often accused of, but it’s actually quite charismatic here rather than cringeworthy, or perhaps we are more forgiving?

Flu offers the same tropes as any other apocalyptic disaster movie, from introducing our heroes and their own romantic story arc to tracking the origins and outcome of the epidemic. Although it has its distinct national identity that fuels intrigue, simultaneously, it could be accused of being too willing to fit into the Hollywood disaster mould by not being more localised in its storytelling. Flu is a perfectly entertaining watch nevertheless.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ***

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Part 2 brings the next cinematic chapter of The Hunger Games saga to waiting fans – and it does just that and no more, filling in the next part of the story before the inevitable revolution breaks out. The film hangs on the natural appeal of its lead, Jennifer Lawrence as the stoic and fearless Katniss Everdeen who must partake in another bloody Games to satisfy the bloodlust of the wealthy folk of Panem. Lawrence does a tidy job again, even if, like the Twilight saga, portraying the novel on the big screen means rolling out some so-so, samey scenes and taking some artistic licence with some of the characters too.

A year after the Games, and controversial winner Katniss, who broke the Games rules by saving her killing partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), is living with her family in a kind of ‘luxurious’ no-mans-land dwelling provided by Panem’s Government. She is back in the arms and affections of childhood sweetheart Gale (Liam Hemsworth), even though she must perform for the cameras with Peeta when duty calls.

To quell a growing rising in the poverty-stricken Districts, part fuelled by Katniss’s earlier defiance, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) orders her and Peeta to go on a promotional tour, under the watchful eye of mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and fusspot presenter Effie Trinket (a delightfully theatrical Elizabeth Banks). However, this does little to stop growing protest, and Games Maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) suggests another interim Games to celebrate the anniversary that pits the winners of previous Games against each other. Katniss must survive the virtual jungle arena again with new traps designed to maim and kill.

The second film has all the lurking foreboding and stark lessons in socio-economic imbalance of the first that resonate loudly in current austerity times. This brewing sentiment is the only real emotion to draw on, as Katniss seems more tactical and pragmatic in nature in this, especially in the undergrowth fighting for her life. This is as much a factor of the character’s present predicament in the overall story arc as it is a plot driver to the end act of defiance that sets up the next chapter and film three.

Lawrence is still captivating though, both in looks and reactions, firing arrows with poise and purpose. As in the first film, it’s totally a one-girl show, even though there is some nice supporting roles from big hitters like Sutherland, Harrelson and Seymour Hoffman, but also introducing the feisty and rebellious Johanna Mason, played by Jena Malone. Those familiar with the books will see the film studio getting their money’s worth out of Seymour Hoffman, giving Plutarch more significance in the film, but this also sets up events to come.

The action is much the same as in the first film as the killers run for their lives, dodging all number of dangers, but there is less one-to-one combat in this film. The threats come more from nature. The film ends on a triumphant note, a breakthrough, and also one of chilling realisation that makes you long for Part 3 (or Part 3a), so you are naturally hooked in, guaranteeing advanced ticket sales for 2014’s Mockingjay – Part 1. It’s the Twilight saga all over.

Director Francis Lawrence and team have secured a transgender fascination in this book-to-film franchise, producing a solid second film, and with the tactical gaming manoeuvres like something out of video game, it further cements the saga’s all-round appeal. Lawrence as Katniss is the cherry on the top, an actress so versatile and watchable that this second saga is set for box office success, regardless of any criticism, which pales into insignificance as Catching Fire acts as the all-important stepping stone to justice being served. And we want to see it.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Counsellor ***

It’s hard to fathom the big picture of the anticipated Ridley Scott-Cormac McCarthy collaboration, The Counsellor, apart from the obvious that greed is bad news, as is being embroiled in the drugs trade at any level. As a thriller, it’s stuffed with well-intentioned but wordy statements uttered by a crowd-pulling cast looking rather grand, including Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz and Penélope Cruz, in rather flash places (on the whole). However, the character ambiguity is utterly frustrating. Still, The Counsellor will be remembered for one car fetish scene, in particular.

The Counsellor (Fassbender), soon to be married to Laura (Cruz), gets more and more involved in the dangerous world of drug trafficking, even though he is warned about the fatal consequences by other key players.

This brief synopsis again highlights the ambiguity of the whole affair: None of the characters are what they seem, even the greedy Counsellor. We have no idea what makes the lawyer tick, except his woman and his money, and no gauge as to where our protagonist has come from to be in the mess he’s in now. This is both brilliantly realised and the film’s Achilles heel. Fassbender does the best he can as a broke man listening to one piece of advice – or muttering – after another. The fact remains that all the characters feel closed off, with no amount of monologues helping proceedings to unlock their personalities. The only one vaguely ‘open’ to interpretation is Bardem’s flamboyant drugs courier and businessman Reiner, with the Spaniard a tonic to watch.

Diaz as the mirror-taloned Malkina – note a new fashion craze after this – starts off rather promising and alluringly dangerous in a refreshing femme fatale role for the bubbly actress. However, as baffling as Malkina’s true identity actually is, this character begins playing to type by the end and we are still none-the-wiser. Diaz is nevertheless memorable as the Grace Jones-lookalike and THAT car scene will forever associate Diaz’s lady parts to a catfish, further cementing this as a milestone role for the actress.

That said the rest of the film is heavy on style with a strong odour of sexuality, perforated by moments of evil bloody-mindedness and gruesomeness. In all fairness, once you’ve been overstuffed on these superficialities, The Counsellor probably needs a second viewing to grab anything of significance to what is said in novelist McCarthy’s rather clunky script – if you have the patience (and the funds). The Coen Brothers’ scriptwriting expertise is sadly missed here after adapting McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men.

And that’s the problem; in trying to be too worthy and mysterious, in painting a menacing, faceless picture of the drugs trade and its collaborators, The Counsellor grabs then loses our attention. Maybe that’s best, in that there is detail to be mulled over but it’s mainly a smokescreen for what seems to be a rather lacking plot, however much you want it to be more.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2013: Gravity ****

The promise of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney battling to stay alive in Space, within a 2001: A Space Odyssey context is a great pull, as much as Gravity itself. The added buzz is the film is Children of Men director Alfonso Cuarón’s creation. All good so far. However, Space alone is mesmerising to watch on a screen, and while this film is visually spectacular and has to be seen on the big screen for full 3D effect, it’s hard to become fully emotionally involved in what happens to the characters themselves. Still, it’s a powerfully disorientating experience that will leave you dizzy and breathless.

After a Russian satellite explodes, debris is on a destructive collision course with the Hubble Telescope, being fixed by rookie astronaut, engineer Dr Ryan (Bullock) under the command and watchful eye of veteran astronaut and mission leader Matt Kowalsky (Clooney). When the inevitable happens, resulting in the demise of life and craft, the survivors must try to find a way back to Earth after losing contact with Mission Control.

This is another absorbing survival story on offer from this year’s LFF, like Tom Hanks’ Captain Phillips and Robert Redford’s All Is Lost. However, unlike these former films, we can only imagine what it would be like to try and survive a disaster in Space, whereas some know what it’s like to be threaten with violence; most know what it’s like to be in open water. This is one of two very minor issues that affect an absolute full, rich intensity that the film hype promises. All that can be tapped into is the desperate isolationism.

The second niggle is Cuarón’s hurriedness to remove players to get to that point of imposed solitude that it feels as though we lose character insight and vital rapport that would put us more firmly in the centre of how serious the situation is. Without giving the game away, only one survivor is left midway through, and though it’s an impressive performance for this particular actor (but nothing extraordinary), this is where the film relies heavily on action shots triggered by more catastrophes to propel it back to earth.

That said it’s the simplicity of the whole situation, in filmmaking terms, that is astounding and triumphant. Even though Gravity relies heavily on Space shots for wow factor, Cuarón marries the feeling of vast space and claustrophobia brilliantly. There are also moments of doubt as to the credibility of certain proceedings, but the filmmaker relies on some suspension of disbelief, and as it happens in Space, only a small percentage would ever know whether what is on offer would ring true.

Although some of the storytelling is less than stratospheric, Gravity revolves and draws you in with pictorial wonderment, leaving you a virtual prisoner in Space to what is happening with explosive tension. It is a technical masterpiece for Cuarón.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2013: Gloria ****

Cinematic portrayals of the trials and tribulations of a more mature love saga usually go hand in hand with an obvious comedic sentiment that forgives any flaws or misdemeanours in the actions of the older protagonist. In 1989’s Shirley Valentine, say, the middle-aged heroine played by Pauline Collins was mocked for having a mid-life crisis, complete with one last fling in the sun. Things improved for the older actor with the more recent The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) exploring the relationship dramas of a bunch of retired Brits, but it was still cloaked in humour.

The striking difference with Chilean writer-director Sebastian Lelio’s engaging and often dark Gloria is how the lead role of the same name could be played by any aged woman. Also, how events unfold very matter of fact in navigating the rocky relationship scene – the comedy is subjective and subliminal, if at all. With the suggested ‘punishing’ of the sexually active female in film theory, protagonist Gloria is rung through the mill, both psychically and mentally, often without pity, regardless of her later years.

Set in Santiago, divorced 58-year-old Gloria (Paulina García), an attractive, free-spirited older woman and mother and grandmother, visits the middle-aged singles scene regularly in the hope of finding a man she can have a relationship with. While out one night she meets and clicks with Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a former naval officer and extreme sports park owner who seems to be the answer. However, secrets and lies and family commitments mar the fledgling romance and the commitment Gloria so craves.

It’s perhaps another prime example of how more advanced-thinking foreign-language films are compared to their Hollywood counterparts in depicting older women as sexually active and desirable, as well as prone to the same mistakes as younger females. As a figurehead, Gloria is probably more ‘in tune’ with the present-day mature generation than a lot of screen characters. Hence, it’s a dynamic watch.

Lelio has given us a multi-layered and totally genuine character in Gloria, so much so, we continually empathise with her throughout, however irresponsible her behaviour might be to some. She is a dichotomy of curious good and bad attributes making for a highly engaging character driving the film. Events have a real-time lapse to them too, so we can paused almost and savour her every expression at any one moment, then be surprised by her more erratic responses in what seems like self-destructive behaviour at times.

Chilean TV actress García plays Gloria with a knowing stance, exuding effortless confidence, independence and approachability while tapping into Gloria’s vulnerable, sensitive and somewhat complex nature. She keeps us guessing at her next move, often thrilling us. This is beautifully summed up in Gloria’s revenge scene that again emphasises the contradictions to her nature as she tries to establish domestic bliss in what is essentially solitary existence post motherhood. Indeed, the sense of remoteness is another strong factor in us bonding with Gloria, and Lelio expertly addresses this and opens it up to any age’s understanding in these modern times.

The ending celebrates the character while simultaneously feels a little deflating and a touch contrived. It’s arguable just how such a film should conclude, considering nothing can be resolved in the timescale, except to suggest Gloria is a survivour. Lelio also challenges men of a particular age; it’s almost two-dimensional and derogatory in depiction, suggesting a weaker gender at play. That said the writer-director, never allowing caricatures to take hold, treats the status quo with intelligence and irony in the proceedings. In this respect, Gloria is a thought-provoking and immensely satisfying piece of filmmaking to catch.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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