Tuesday, 21 October 2014

LFF 2014:
Foxcatcher

There's still no sign of the long-awaited Big Daddy vs Giant Haystacks film powerslamming into cinemas any time soon, so in the meantime wrestling fans are going to have to make do with Foxcatcher, a true story even more alarming than that of a 26-stone man called Shirley who wore a leotard for a living. In this tale, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo play Mark and Dave Schultz, two past-their-prime Olympian brothers recruited by billionaire oddball John du Pont (Steve Carell) to bring prestige to his vanity project: his own wrestling team.

And that, essentially, is it. For the best part of 130 minutes, we watch these three men repeatedly come together and drift apart, their relationships with each other rippling and shifting like Big Daddy's mantits. If you know the true story of du Pont and the Schultzes, you'll know there's a little more to it, but if you don't, good. Keep it that way. Because Foxcatcher's appeal lies in its woozy fug of unease; the sense that somehow, somewhere, something's not quite right, and waiting for it to show itself is half the fun.

Quarter of the fun is in watching Tatum and Ruffalo nailing the brothers' mildly antagonistic relationship with apparently minimal effort: their first scene together, a practice session at older brother Dave (Ruffles)'s run-down, sweat-stained gym, is a complete and thorough portrait of a frayed fraternal bond told completely wordlessly. Wrestling holds become awkward hugs, and the physicality of the sport provides an excuse for barely-concealed feelings to bubble violently to the surface. The remaining 25% of the fun is trying to gauge which bits of Steve Carell's face are real and which are rubber.
The eyeballs are definitely rubber.

Foxcatcher is not a thrilling film. It isn't punctuated by electrifying, Raging Bull-esque fights, and its moments of high drama are few and far between. And frankly that would be a huge problem, were it not for its immensely watchable leads. Tatum, Carell and Ruffalo are incredible here: before long you forget Carell's prosthetic conk and his history of patchy comedies, while Tatum's cauliflower ears, Don Corleone jaw and permanently furrowed brow tell you all you need to know about his character. Ruffles, in a less showy role, is the champ though: slouching through the film like an avuncular ape and sporting a remarkable hairpiece, he's barely recognisable, and convincingly sells the elder Schultz's woes and concerns about his younger brother's new life with du Pont.

Familial connections, both real and manufactured, are at Foxcatcher's dark heart. A spoilt child with severe Mommy issues, John du Pont attempts to buy himself a better family just like his overbearing mother bought his childhood friends. His efforts to become a father figure to Mark Schultz are painfully awkward: the one time du Pont calls Schultz "son", in front of an audience of cash-stuffed associates, is a pointedly graceless episode. And there's no such thing as a happy family, even when you pay for it, as everybody eventually discovers. These are the themes that lend a tragic air to proceedings; air that grows heavy with the threat of an inevitable thunderstorm.

Slow-burning and brooding with an indistinct menace, Foxcatcher takes its sweet time telling its story. Whether the payoff is worth the time director Bennett Miller spends on the buildup will be hotly debated, especially come awards season when the film is bound to be on everyone's lips, but the performances alone are enough to recommend it for now. And if we can lock Tatum and Ruffalo down for Daddy and Haystacks, then everything will have been worthwhile.

Monday, 20 October 2014

LFF 2014:
Fury

"Don't get too close to anyone," Brad Pitt's Sergeant Don "Wardaddy" Collier warns wet new recruit Norman (Logan Lerman), as the latter begins his tour of duty at the arse end of the 20th century's most extreme exercise in population control. Given that Norman's about to spend the rest of his war wedged inside a sweaty metal box no bigger than a VW Beetle with four other men for whom soap and hot water are occasional luxuries, you'd be forgiven for thinking Pitt's cracking wise. After all, as we see, Norman can barely turn his head inside the titular tank without burying his face in Shia LaBeouf's moustache or Michael Peña's armpit.

But the gag, if it was ever intended, never lands. Because Fury is grim. War is hell and death is everywhere and there's no room inside Wardaddy's steel office for jokes, as Norman discovers when his first task is to remove the bits of his predecessor's face left sliding down the tank's inner walls after an enemy attack. The film is, not without reason, a gruelling way to spend 134 minutes: by the end you'll feel as pulverised by the experience as the poor dead bastard smooshed further into the mud by each steamrolling caterpillar track.

All of which would be fine - I don't mind coming out of a film feeling drained and miserable; God knows I've watched Moonraker often enough - if only Fury had something a bit more original to say. It's a men-on-a-mission movie, episodic in nature and thematically monotone, and as convincing as its leads and its combat scenes are, it never quite finds anything to surprise us with.
"Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads. Because we've got a tank, which is capable of negotiating almost any solid terrain. I shouldn't have to explain that."

The cinematic equivalent of a Pixies song, Fury opts for a LOUDquietLOUD structure, alternating thundering, seat-shaking battle sequences with more contemplative character moments. The former are spectacular - the combination of practical effects, CGI and rib-rattling sound design is astonishing - while the latter are less successful, partly because it's hard to make out much of what's being mumbled and partly because all the characters slot neatly into predefined stereotypes: reluctant coward with his arc signposted from miles away; charismatic, harsh but fair leader; bible-basher; moron, and so on. And while it's fun to squeeze all those archetypes into a tin can and turn up the heat, Fury doesn't quite deliver the sense of edgy camaraderie you want it to. For all its impressive scenes of widescreen countryside-torching and town-demolishing, I'd have loved to have spent the entire running time cooped up inside the tank with no escape. This could have been some hardcore world war claustrocore, but alas, it wasn't to be.

Fury rumbles on, and so does its message, bellowed in your face throughout a near-interminable climax that stretches itself out to ridiculous length, primarily so it can shoehorn in a handful of requisite war movie clichés. But it fulfils its remit, which is to remind you that war is a big pile of shit and makes monsters of men, and it does so brutally and - for the most part - honestly. If you leave the cinema feeling lucky you didn't witness any of that first hand, then Brad Pitt and his team of inglorious bastards can consider their mission accomplished.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

LFF 2014:
Whiplash

What does it take to be the best of the best? Innate genius? Passion? Endless hours of practice? Sacrifice? Being pushed by a mentor who believes in you? According to Whiplash, the answer is all of the above, but the most important thing is to be viciously abused by that mentor until you're driven to the very limits of your mental and physical capabilities. Few people are prepared to put up with the kind of shit that JK Simmons' terrifying music tutor Terence Fletcher flings at drum student Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), but then - apparently - that's why the best of the best are so few in number. I'm not sure I agree with Whiplash's argument, but it's certainly compelling watching it being put forward.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle's script ruthlessly focuses on the relationship between mentor and student to the expense of all other potential subplots, exactly as Andrew's focus must be on his drumming. Love interests, parental relationships, student rivalries and even a court case are all elements teased but ultimately pushed aside to make way for the central dynamic. And what a dynamic duo these two are. Fletcher most closely recalls Full Metal Jacket's Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: a borderline-insane, merciless bastard who can't afford to have the second-best of the best on his team. Simmons is amazing in the role, convincingly nailing the weapons-grade asshole but never losing sight of Fletcher's humanity, no matter how deep it's buried.

Miles Teller is the real star though: required to shift from nervous, sensitive cry-baby to emotionless drumming machine while actually playing like a pro, Teller holds the film's tempo like the musician his character yearns to become. He and Chazelle sell Andrew's passion completely, as sweat is flung off his face and blood soaks through the plasters he's ineffectually wrapped round his blistered and calloused fingers. It's an incredible performance, and Chazelle uses it to force us to ask who's really out of control here - the possibly-psychopathic, chair-hurling teacher, or the student so bursting with energy and hungry for greatness that he'd risk his life to impress him?
Whiplash is technically stunning and aurally thrilling (editing and sound design will be up there with Simmons and Teller come awards season), but the thunderous cacophony drowns out the sound of its own questionable assertion: namely the insistence that single-minded commitment at the expense of basic, decent humanity is the only way to success, and if it takes unbearable bullying from a dangerous maniac to achieve that then so be it. What's more, in Whiplash that success is measured by exactly replicating an artwork to mathematically precise standards: when a stereotypical jock questions whether music should be judged so objectively, he's shut down by Andrew. It's a sign of Andrew's devotion, sure, but the film sides with him completely and we're urged to laugh at the jock's naïvety. Now I'm all for laughing at jocks but I find the idea that art - and specifically music - is not to be questioned or adapted to be massively counter-productive.

You can argue the film's case at length if you like, and indeed it does suggest that success and perfection only make monsters of us all; it just seems to suggest that that's worth it. Fortunately it does it with skill and style and an absolute fucktonne of noise, and it's one of the most exhilarating experiences I've had at this year's London Film Festival.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

LFF 2014:
The Salvation

Danish writer/director Kristian Levring is familiar with all the iconography of the western but none of the nuance, as he displays in this cackhandedly abysmal collection of hollow clichés and atrocious dialogue. Mads Mikkelsen plays a Dane in 1871 America who's out for revenge on those who murdered his family, and that's it. Potential plot threads go nowhere, the ropey CGI threatens to fall apart at any moment and actors of considerable stature are wasted. Having Eva Green play a mute isn't daring or subversive, it's just dumb.

The Salvation is bafflingly anti-American and staggeringly misogynistic: of four female characters I recall being in the film (three of them for a matter of minutes), one is a torture victim who is gang-raped, one is murdered, and one is raped then murdered. The fourth is merely a bit dim. I don't know what Americans and women have done to Levring in the past but he's so pissed off about it he's taken it out on them, and everyone else in the audience, with this offensive, thrill-free, plastic facsimile of an actual western. Oh and Eric Cantona is in it for some reason.

Not at all good, just bad and ugly.

Monday, 13 October 2014

LFF 2014:
Mr. Turner

I'll be honest: as far as the visual arts go, I kind of hit a brick wall after cinema. Painting really isn't my forte; I'd be hard pressed to tell a Monet from a Manet and only recently expressed an interest in visiting the National Gallery because I wanted to see the bench where James Bond and Q sat and stared at a picture of "a bloody big ship" in Skyfall. So it was with some trepidation that I approached Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, only really forcing myself because it's one of the LFF's big films this year. I needn't have been concerned: Mr. Turner is an incredible film, and as far as I could tell, isn't really about painting at all. In fact it seems to have as much to say about cinema as anything else, which was the first thing I loved about it. The second was that I actually got to see the creation of the picture of the bloody big ship from Skyfall, painted as it was by Mr. Turner himself. Who knew? Everyone, apparently. Everyone but me.

The most immediately obvious thing to point out about how completely brilliant Mr. Turner is is how completely brilliant Mr. Turner is. Specifically, Timothy Spall, who plays the artist like some kind of cultured warthog, waddling about the countryside with his mouth permanently contorted into the shape of an unlucky horseshoe and his porcine jowls flapping in the wind like saddlebags. Most of the time he looks less like Turner than Hooch. I have no idea what the real Turner was like, but I hope to God he "spoke" like Spall does here: in a symphony of guttural grunts and gurgles that wordlessly express his every emotion. It would be exactly the type of performance required to keep a moron like me in their seat for 150 minutes of 19th century painter biopic, were it not for the fact that everything else in the film is easily the equal of its lead's magnetism.

Mike Leigh's compositions throughout Mr.Turner are complex arrangements of frames within frames: when Turner's at work, his canvas becomes the focal point of a deceptively deep image, with background windows invariably leading the eye into the distance while foreground doorways bring us back out, eventually to the master frame: Leigh's own canvas, the cinema screen. This might be one of the greatest 3D films never made in 3D. It's one of the elements that makes Mr. Turner feel like a film about film, but it also works to compartmentalise Turner's life: while he was careful to keep certain aspects separate from each other, so Leigh presents the idea of Turner via a series of boxy rooms, each thoughtfully designed to represent a different facet of his nature.
Not that Mr.Turner is excessively stagey: Leigh and Spall regularly venture outdoors for some utterly breathtaking shots of the kind of landscapes that truly got Turner's juices flowing, and eventually found their way out of the ends of his brushes and onto the walls of history. But Leigh never lingers on these shots, as heartbreakingly gorgeous as they are, because why would he? His film is about the man who took those images and transformed them into something other, something imbued with emotions culled not just from those locations but from the people Turner knew and the experiences he lived. As Turner constructs his interpretation of the last days of The Fighting Temeraire, Leigh urges us to see not just the bloody big ship from Skyfall, but Turner's sorrow at his friend Haydon's desperate situation: a once-great man who worked on an enormous scale, brought low by circumstance and humbled by time.

There's a mischievous way in which Leigh depicts Turner and his contemporaries (including a delicious rivalry with John Constable) as a club; a band of brothers living a lively scene with little thought for how their work would be appreciated in the years to come. When that sphere attracts analysis, it's impossible not to see Leigh poking an amused finger up the bum of the industry he's worked in all his life. "There is no place for cynicism in the reviewing of art," declares contemporary art critic John Ruskin, which drew a certain amount of giggles at the press screening I attended; when he later spouted "I find myself marvelling at my own wealth of perception!" the room nearly collapsed into a black hole of sudden and painful self-awareness.

Mike Leigh isn't that interested in making political points from his film though; he just wants to show us an unexceptional man who just happened to be exceptional at what he did, and perhaps to get us to see the world as Turner did. Mr. Turner's Mr. Turner isn't a tortured genius, or a precocious prodigy, or even an enigma; he's just a flawed human being with a talent, like every other person in the world. But he sees romance and drama everywhere he looks, and views his surroundings with the same wonder with which people marvel at his work today. Leigh's film is a beautiful, insightful portrait of art, of artists and of people, and I loved it so much that I might actually bother to make that trip to the National Gallery. Who knows, I may even look at more than just the bench Daniel Craig sat on.

Friday, 10 October 2014

LFF 2014:
White God

12 Years A Slave meets Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes by way of Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey in this barking Hungarian canine uprising film that puts the "der" into Border Collie. When teenager Lili's loveless Pop abandons her lovely pup Hagen in the street, it's the beginning of an odyssey for both pooch and pal. Like a cute, furry Solomon Northup, Hagen finds himself sold from owner to owner, increasingly mistreated until he finds his Edwin Epps: a vicious dog trainer who teaches Hagen to fight and, hopefully, win a lot. Meanwhile Lili, distraught at her doglessness, also absconds with bad-pedigree chums, and it's up to her regretful Dad to retrieve her.

There's impressive acting from the four-legged thesps and what appears to be a vague allegory about slavery and repression running through the script (Hagen is frequently referred to in derogatory fashion as "not purebred"), but that may be giving this shaggy dog story too much credit. Its final act aims for a gritty pupocalypse, with Hagen as its Caesar, leading dozens of maltreated hounds in a revolt against mankind; instead it bounds, tongue lolling, into unintentionally hilarious horror played disappointingly straight. It makes a lot of noise, but White God is a sub-woofer.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

LFF 2014:
The Imitation Game

Mathematician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing's single greatest achievement (although there were plenty of others) was cracking the German Enigma decoding machine. Did you get the name of that decoding machine? The ENIGMA. It's important you get that. Because guess what? Not only was Turing trying to crack the Enigma... HE WAS AN ENIGMA. I know, right?! But don't worry if you haven't worked out the connection yet, because The Imitation Game spends 114 minutes smashing you over the head with it, to the point where even its title is an anagram of I AM THE ENIGMA, TITO. Although I don't know who or what "TITO" is. I'll be honest, that bit remains an enigma.

Perhaps I'm being unfair. The Imitation Game is, in all honesty, a very decent period drama about a man who deserves to have his story told. Historians suggest that Alan Turing's work on the Enigma shortened World War II by two years and saved 14 million lives. Plus, he secretly worked for MI6: he's basically a James Bond who never left the office. Or blew anything up. And was gay. But it's a stroke of luck he was so, uh... enigmatic, because his own personal secrets and mysteries make him far more suitable for a glossy, polished biopic than any old run-of-the-mill genius. In fact with his insufferable arrogance, reliance on pure logic and inability to fathom the rules of the most basic human interaction despite being a Grade A egghead, he's more than a little reminiscent of another popular screen character of the moment, also brought to life by the very excellent Benedict Cumberbatch.
So we've got all the reasons we need to make a movie about Alan Turing, but how do we make it as entertaining as possible? Writer Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum have two suggestions: 1) Make it funny, and 2) Make it absurdly dramatic. The Imitation Game is both of these things, and for those reasons is a much more entertaining prospect than its subject matter might suggest to anyone who's never heard of Alan Turing and is terrified at the prospect of a British period drama featuring a bunch of nerdy toffs doing maths in a shed. Turing's Spock-y, borderline Asperger's way of communicating with superiors and colleagues is played largely for LOLs, although - all credit to Tyldum, Cumberbatch and the likes of Charles Dance and Mark Strong - not enough to appear tasteless; as a result, the first act is a surprising chucklefest.

Once the cogs start turning in Moore's excitable script, though, its melodrama becomes both strength and weakness. Simplifying events, manipulating timelines for dramatic convenience and inventing details are all to be expected of a two-hour film that needs to put bums on seats, but The Imitation Game does all these things repeatedly and obviously, even if you don't know the true story. A subplot involving a double agent on Turing's team is so convoluted, and the way they're caught so forehead-slappingly stupid, that it can only be a fabrication - and sure enough, cursory post-viewing research reveals that although the agent existed, there's no evidence that they ever met Alan Turing.
Also the real Turing NEVER invented a machine that produced strawberry laces

What we're left with is an awards-baiting, crowd-pleasing drama about a significant historical event, the true details of which are - like Turing's mental processes - so complex they have to be dumbed down for the rest of us mortals to understand. The Imitation Game is essentially Argo with plummy accents and less facial hair (although in Keira Knightley's character we do have quite an impressive beard) and, like that film, I really quite enjoyed it; I just felt a little dirty afterwards.