LFF 2014: My Old Lady ***

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Never mind mansion tax, what if you had a lodger who could live in your inheritance until their death by law – and you had to pay them rent? This quaint piece of French jurisdiction known as a ‘viager’ is the premise for respected playwright Israel Horowitz’s screen adaptation of his successful play, My Old Lady. It’s crying out to be explored in some kind of neurotic farce – and with Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith on board that’s what you think you’re in for. In fact, the film turns into something much darker and sinister in the second half that you wonder what you’ve tumbled into.

Penniless writer and general pessimist Mathias ‘Jim’ Gold thinks his luck has changed after his estranged father dies and leaves him an apartment in the cultural and much desirable Le Marais district of Paris. The trouble is there is a viager in the shape of a formidable 90-year-old woman, Brit ex-pat Mathilde Girard (Smith) who is allowed to live in it until she dies. And she’s entitled to demand rent from her new ‘landlord’ in the meantime.

Mathilde used to be the apartment’s owner before Gold’s departed dad too, meaning even more of a connection to the place. Gold’s plan is to sell it to a wealthy real estate businessman who wants to turn the whole building into a boutique hotel. However, there’s another stumbling block – Madame Girard’s daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas) who also lives there and is in no hurry to budge. Secrets and lies begin to surface, with Mathilde at the heart that promise to change proceedings dramatically.

Feeling very much like a play with long dialogue, single shots and posturing, Horowitz’s film offers nothing particularly new. This isn’t a problem in itself as his writing is sublimely brought to life and teased by Kline and Smith’s interpretation, especially in their tête-à-tête scenes, with Smith privileged to get some of the best parting shots. This sets things up deliciously for the supposed all-out battle to come. Even Scott Thomas’s injection of retorts and explosions just add to the whole Gaelic flavour and colour.

What is quite unsettling is where the story ventures, from black comedy to bleak diatribe for certain characters, supposedly being ‘straight-talking’ but tarnishing the goodwill first invested in the film. The revelations come left, right and centre as Smith struggles to keep her character amicable so that we still hold a shred of empathy for her and the resultant situation. There is even the odd scene to try and ‘lighten the load’ with an opera singer moment by the Seine. The unevenness is made worse by a sugary ending when the fallout would be too significant for things to be that peachy, testing plausibility.

This is not to say the acting is not first class – it is. Kline comes off the best (Smith and Scott Thomas superbly play to type, as expected). The actor delivers his finest work yet, going to some dark places in the process, considering his usual jester-like roles. Kline effortlessly switches between episodes of sardonic wit to moments of morose self-depreciation. It is an accomplished performance, even if it sideswipes you. The only oddity is his budding relationship, and how he gets from A to B? There feels like something vital missing in the characterisation, hence the ending feels forced, perhaps in order to retain order in such lush surroundings.

Horowitz’s directorial debut is genuinely encouraging and indulging in parts, hardly surprising given his knack for writing about human interaction, for example, New York, I Love You (2008). Whereas he was limited in screen-time for each slice of relationship drama in that film, he has space to explore in My Old Lady. It is the change in tonal direction that feels disconcerting and difficult to reconcile, however, great the performances achieved are.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Hunger Games – Mockingjay – Part I ****

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The third installment of The Hunger Games saga has arrived, and without having any prior knowledge of the Suzanne Collins books, it’s the darkest and most relevant film (and story) so far that can be enjoyed without any insight (or interest) in the killing games. It’s also boosted again by the striking and formidable figure of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, who combines beauty and vulnerability with stiff resolve, signifying the ultimate survivour character.

In Part 3 (Mockingjay – Part I), Katniss wakes up in the fortified bunker that is District 13, without fellow Hunger Games contestant Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), but with her mother and sister safely nearby. She is told they could only save one after she literally shatters the Games virtual environment at the end of the second film with one arrow from her bow.

District 13’s President Coin (Julianne Moore) wants Katniss to be reborn as the revolution’s figurehead, used as their propaganda weapon against the wealthy oppressor, the Capitol. But Katniss’s only thought is rescuing Peeta who is currently being held by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and used in his mission to crush the rebellion once and for all. It’s only after seeing the devastation of District 12 with her very own eyes that Katniss answers her call of duty.

It’s a case of who’s creating the best video propaganda in the third film as both Katniss and Peeta are used as political pawns. It’s a fascinating premise – and ironically timely in the real world, what with the extremes of the deadly Islamic State video campaign on the one hand, and the impact of reality TV stars on the other. This film certainly plays more to our raw emotions while sounding the rally cry for revolution to come that’s rapidly gathering pace.

In fact, Mockingjay – Part I will appeal to any ‘underdog’ out there, any sci-fi fan, complete with bunker claustrophobia that is life in a futuristic world on the brink of change. Director Francis Lawrence keeps things tense and eventful as the threat comes from all angles – the most terrifying being on a screen. Part I is actually not as rich in detail as the previous two films, but it delivers the greatest impact so far.

Lawrence will forever be Katniss, a role she has made her own. Like her character in this film, she is the franchise’s figurehead and safe bet for box office success. Hutcherson gets the short straw this time, with sporadic screen time (literally), but still manages to portray Peeta’s oppression, the result of which comes out in full force at the end.

Most of the old faces return, including the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as shady Plutarch and comedic value from a ‘dry’ Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). By far the most enjoyable is Elizabeth Banks as Effie, Katniss’s personal stylist who tries to bring a bit of ‘prison chic’ to the grey attire of District 13 with amusing results. Even Gale gets more action this time (sadly, not from Katniss), with little brother of Chris and Luke, Liam Hemsworth showing off his action-hero skills.

Moore’s Coin is definitely an intriguing character in the making, having shown her leadership talent in this, we have yet to see much of her true colours. Indeed, those familiar with the book will not get a sense of the sinister side of District 13 as this is played down to bump up the revolution rally cry and get us firmly on the side of the oppressed. It will be interesting to see how this is interrupted in Part II, whether Coin and co’s true motivations are revealed. At the moment, it’s still enigmatic Snow/Sutherland’s evil verses the suburbs’ virtue.

Like any film in a saga, it needs to be relayed to move on to the finale of the story. However, far from just joining the dots, Mockingjay – Part I is an entertaining standalone film that may attract new audiences of all ages to the cinema for the values it stands for. If nothing else, Lawrence dons the sexiest Katniss outfit yet! A shameful plug, but she is the poster girl in all senses.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2014: The Imitation Game ****

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The life of the brilliant-minded Alan Turing is not known by most. That will certainly change after this film, The Imitation Game, with the genius British logician and cryptologist forever associated with cracking the Nazis’ Enigma Code and helping the Allies win World War II. But inventor of the modern-day computer – as is suggested here, is stretching the truth a little.
What will also be established is Benedict Cumberbatch as one of Britain’s leading actors with his outstanding portrayal of Turing. Some might cynically say it’s total awards-baiting in production and delivery, though it is Cumberbatch’s finest hour.
Mathematician Alan Turing arrives at Bletchley Park, code-cracking HQ to attend an interview with Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance). What he seriously lacks in social skills, he makes up for in numbers brilliance, recognised by MI6 spook Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong). He is recruited into a team of code-crackers led by ladies’ man Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) that includes Scot John Cairncross (Downton’s Allen Leech) and Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard).
His colleagues tolerate Turing’s odd behaviour but don’t like him much. This resentment increases when he starts demanding resources to build his code-cracking BOMB machine (so-called because it ticks) and is then put in charge of the others. Turing recruits crossword whiz Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) – about the only person who likes to spend time with him. But time is running out to crack the Nazis’ Engima Code, as well as the patience of Top Brass.
The performances are faultless, with Cumberbatch delivering some immensely funny retorts without consequence. Turing’s interview with Denniston is a prime example, that the man managed to achieve anything is incredible with his catalogue of social faux pas. There is also another scene that involves getting soup for lunch which is equally delightful. These are the comedy moments in a film that is about serious stuff. Knightley and the rest of the cast are naturals – as expected, the former effortlessly providing her Atonement-style clipped responses.
In fact, director Morten Tyldum fits the Brit period drama mold perfectly, with any reference to his brilliant black Norwegian comedy Headhunters long suppressed. Indeed, the whole process while beautifully achieved, does feel like many other Brit war period dramas. What really makes Turing tick – aside from his codes and his first love affair with another boy at school – will be left a little too ambiguous for something that is supposed to be a biopic.
The really emotive part that strikes a chord is the ending when the to-and-fro narrative finally centres on events in the fifties, after Turing was arrested and investigated for a homosexual act. Finally, Cumberbatch is given some leeway to get under Turing’s skin and truly act out the character’s suffering from chemical ‘treatment’ to suppress his improper (and illegal) impulses.

The Imitation Game is a gripping and well-crafted period dramatisation of British national pride – the ending suggesting national shame at not recognising national treasure Turing when he was still alive, as well as the very real side effects of homophobic ignorance. Indeed Cumberbatch and co should be proud of their achievements here.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Third Person **

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Paul Haggis (of Crash fame) has gone for the ‘romance’ route this time in exploring relationship highs and lows. That’s not to say he’s gone all rom-com slushy, rather his interwoven tale, Third Person, starts out to be three separate troubled affairs that eventually connect by the end credits.

The story plays out in New York, Paris and Rome. Michael (Liam Neeson) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction author desperately trying to recapture his talent in a Parisian hotel room by completely his latest book, only to be interrupted by a visit from his mistress, Anna (Olivia Wilde), while escaping the fallout of a tragic event back home.

Meanwhile, Scott (Adrien Brody) on business Rome comes across a beautiful gypsy woman Monika (Israeli stunner Moran Atias) at a bar who has no money to pay off traffickers who have her little daughter. In New York, Julia (Mila Kunis), an ‘jobbing’ actress is trying to make ends meet in dead-end jobs while yearning to get custody of her young son who is living with his father Rick (James Franco) after an incident of abuse.

Third Person is a credible tale of grief and hardship, but it doesn’t endear us to any of the characters along their journeys. They all appear selfish, almost narcissistic in nature that empathising with any of them is a stretch – unless you are a parent, then it lazily taps into that engrained feeling of forlorn at being absent from your child.

Actually, it’s another Neeson meal ticket with a juicy ‘leading’ part for the action old-timer: He gets to intertwine with a younger woman. Indeed, Third Person feels like a middle-aged man’s wet dream with the ideas of escapism to luxurious European surroundings while having an exciting (if unhinged) young woman obsessing after you. Neeson and the others all give commendable performances, though nothing that stands out. In not really connecting with any of the characters embroiled in their lot, the film drifts from one scenario to another, all watchable, before you get the clever ‘twist’.

Indeed there is a moment in the film that ‘doesn’t feel quite right’, where a prop is out of place and starts you thinking what the heck is going on? In this respect, Haggis is a master of tying up loose plotlines into a conclusion that makes you wonder at his skill. The rest of the time getting there feels altogether very samey as other such films. It’s as though you are party to what’s going on, thrown into each couple’s situation but without all the details needed to truly become absorbed. This makes the status quo less enriching.

Third Person is another lesson in Haggis non-linear storytelling, something you can’t fault the writer-director on. It’s just a shame that the characters feel too detached to qualify for our sympathy. This is where the film fails down, as the twist is clever – though the more astute out there might twig in advance from the film’s tagline, “Life can change at the turn of a page”. Perhaps that’s too much of a clue and gives the game away before you embark on watching? In fact, the trailer summarises most of the couples’ issues anyway.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey?! *

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They say bad things come in threes. When it comes to writer-director Debbie Isitt’s third Nativity film, things go from bad to worse. True, Dude, Where’s My Donkey?! is geared towards adult-chaperoned kiddies ready for a cheeky pre-festive giggle – and Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton) and his donkey Archie are back (again) to oblige, like an annoying panto duo long past its prime.

The pull for the older crowd this time seems to be Martin Clunes and Catherine Tate, with Celia Imrie thrown in for chaotic measure. Whereas the latter plays adequately to type as the harassed new headmistress, all the former does is throw doubt as to their mental capacity at the time of accepting the roles. Do not expect a play on Doc Martin grumpiness, or anything like a Tate comedic treat.

Also, think ‘musical’ rather than kiddie comedy as at every available opportunity things burst into (irritating) song, usually led by one of the oldest junior school pupils ever seen. By the way, this braces-wearing teen ‘starlet’ is absent from some promotional posters, a massive slap in the face for someone tasked with kicking off each musical rendition with such enthusiasm.

St Bernadette’s needs help again to stay open (someone must be paying off Ofsted). After taking the kids to the local shopping centre, man-child Mr Poppy comes up with a great idea; enter a flash mob dance competition headed up by pop star Bradley Finch (Adam Garcia) and win a trip to New York. Hence this will show what a great school St Bernadette’s is that it can’t possibly be closed. There’s only one hurdle in the shape of new headmistress Mrs Keen (Imrie) who wants unqualified supply teacher Poppy gone and the school returned to order.

Along comes new teacher Mr Shepherd (Clunes) to step into Poppy’s place. With the big clown still haunting the school premises, Shepherd begrudgingly agrees to Poppy’s flash mob theory but then gets kicked in the head by accident by Archie the Donkey and loses his memory. He can’t even remember his own cute daughter, Lauren (Lauren Hobbs, the only star quality), or his fiancé, Sophie (Tate) who is waiting in New York to marry him. Poppy and kids decide to help get Shepherd’s memory back and win the competition.

Bah! Humbug! Yes, it’s like putting the boot into a local kid’s school nativity play when the little poppets are merely trying their best but are consistently upstaged by Mr Poppy’s idiocy. As creepy as a grown man preferring the company of kids is, Wootton’s portrayal is no more cringing than that of Cbeebies’ Justin – but at least the latter is educational in his entertainment. What becomes rapidly tiresome is the pairing of Wootton and Clunes as a pair of fools, resorting to fart jokes to get laughs – however curious it is witnessing Clunes in colourful jeans. There is no expected playoff of Poppy’s ‘innocence’ against a Doc Martin haughtiness that is perhaps expected by older viewers.

Tate as Sophie spends most of the time stressing on a phone, marooned in a NYC hotel for virtually the entire film, then being dolled up like the Christmas tree fairy for various dance scenes and the predictable Xmas wedding. In fact, returning character, the evil Gordon Shakespeare, played by Jason Watkins seems to come into his camp own this time around, leading his well-bred troupe into a ‘Gangnam Style’ flash mob dance that is one of the only entertaining musical pieces. Title tune, Dude, Where’s My Donkey?! is not. Tuneless but catchy, it has the same effect as watching any kid’s panto performance – one being encouragingly supportive but enduring bum notes through gritted teeth.

As things get sillier and parents begin to wonder why they put their kids through this (this parent included), Archie makes a final appearance – as does the rest of the cast – up the top of a famous Big Apple landmark. Bizarre is not the half of it. But if all else fails, just sing along to disguise what an ass the whole sorry thing is. Note to director: look up the true meaning of ‘flash mob’ too.

1/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Interstellar ****

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With concerns about our planet’s ailing health, and our renewed interest in what lies ‘out there’ among the stars, The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan’s new apocalyptic sci-fi Interstellar couldn’t come at a better time to play on our fears and curiosity. It’s set in a parallel ‘now’ on Earth that feels alien, even though it could just been around the corner as a possible reality. This odious atmosphere creates civil unrest and an instinct to literally explore our wider horizons. In this sense, we tap into the lead characters’ strong will to survive.

As the Earth’s atmosphere is changing, making it increasingly uninhabitable, a team of explorers that include farmer and former NASA space shuttle engineer/pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and scientist Amelia (Anne Hathaway) are launched into space to find a possible planet that can sustain our existence in another faraway galaxy.

Naturally Nolan, the film has a foreboding presence made all the more disturbing by our imaginations running riot. The ‘enemy’ is mankind itself that has created the current situation. Nolan skilfully compares man’s selfish nature in a couple of intimate subplots with the universe itself (and their insignificance to it). The result makes us seem more ignorant and vulnerable. It is a sobering realisation.

Although there is a sense of urgency as the explorers navigate new worlds, Nolan’s film never seems rushed. There is a natural passing of time, even as the explorers’ aging process stands still. In fact, there is a wealth of information to Interstellar to digest – too much sometimes when it comes to the quantum physics angle. In true Nolan style, he delivers one of his most cerebral films yet. This is not a film for parking your brain outside the cinema. It requires an investment and then some – possibly a second viewing.

With the likes of award-winning actors McConaughey and Hathaway on board, Nolan’s film matches its wealth of subject matter with a richness of A-class acting talent. McConaughey is fully engaging as Cooper, a family-centric father who has to make the ultimate sacrifice. It feels like the part the actor has been waiting for, after recent winning performances. McConaughey is no stranger to having to dominate the frame while surrounded by or causing controversy. Cooper has an edgy side, making him a fascinating to watch. He is also our ‘guide’ throughout the adventure. What happens to him and Hathaway’s characters is head-scratching stuff. Again, attention needs to be paid to get the most out of Interstellar.

Enveloping the human drama is some stunning production design and cinematography as each landscape is as much an organic player. This gives the film an additional dimension to be studied. There are also pockets of action as things go less than smoothly on the mission, counterbalanced by activity back home that heightens tension and breaks up the mind-blowing science on offer. Beware an (unintentionally) amusing element at times when Nolan’s answer to the universe appears to be ‘love conquers all’. Maybe it does.

Interstellar is a powerful smorgasbord of scientific and faith-related ideas wrapped up in an intergalactic adventure. It blows the mind in its reasoning while simplifying the importance of us preserving our quality of life and our communications. This is Nolan in scintillating freefall. Just tune in for the ride or you will get left behind.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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