Films reviews: “Blue is the Warmest Colour”, “The Do Gooders”, “The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas”, “Gloria”, “Locke”, “May in the Summer”, “Nebraska”, “Side by Side” and “The Spectacular Now” (pictured above).
This year’s London Film Festival was split into strands including Cult, Dare, Debate, Documentary, First Feature, Galas, Laugh, Official Competition, Sonic and Thrill. These reviews cover the Family, Love and Journey strands. I caught the three gala films (respectively Side by Side, Blue is the Warmest Colour and Nebraska) but my scheduling regrets included 2 Autumns 3 Winters, Child’s Pose, Short Term 12, So Much Water, Suzanne and Tonnerre. There was too much to see.
Anyway, here are the review. It might be of interest that The Do Gooders was a world premiere, but it didn’t make much of an impression – at least, not the right kind. For more, follow me on Twitter at @halfacanyon.
Blue is the Warmest Colour – 8.5/10
Original title: La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2
Director: Abdellatif Keniche
Writers: Ghalia Lacroix, Julie Maroh (novel)
Starring: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux
UK release date: 22nd November 2013
US release date: 25th October 2013
“Excuse me. It’s out of my hands.”
Many RSS feeds have been stuffed with Blue is the Warmest Colour articles since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. After a flutter of 5-star reviews, the pre-release backlash came not from critics, but the director and lead actresses: the two stars listed unpleasant anecdotes about the filming process, causing Abdellatif Keniche to temporarily disown the whole feature. However, none of them criticised the film itself, which proves to be a moving, naturalistic teen romance with a three-hour running time that, if anything, isn’t long enough.
The French title loosely translates to The Life of Adèle – Chapters 1 & 2, which is a more direct description of a plot centred on a 15-year-old’s early steps into adulthood and first love. Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoloulos) is introduced as a fairly typical teenager who eats spaghetti bolognaise for dinner and gossips with friends in the canteen hall. While not a complete introvert, she displays signs of shyness: she is easily coerced by her friends into spending an evening with a boy simply because: “He looked at you. I’ve seen him do that before.”
It’s unclear if Adèle is motivated by dissatisfaction or curiosity, but she wanders into a lesbian bar; on her own and underage, she attracts the attention of onlookers. One of them, Emma (Léa Seydoux), is a blue-headed art student who’s instantly caring and aware of Adèle’s inexperience. Instead of a lascivious chat-up line, Emma provides sympathetic, polite conversation and takes a genuine interest in Adèle’s admittedly not-that-interesting life. The mutual affection is evident, alongside a dynamic that will play into their long-term relationship.
Unlike Adèle, Emma is over 18, a frequenter of gay bars, and sexually experienced with both genders. Emma is also quick – perhaps too quick – in pointing out these differences, but her honesty is appreciated from an early stage. The “graphic” sex scenes signify that trust in each other; sticking a tongue into someone else’s crevices is shown to be the deepest exploration of love on a physical level. There’s also juxtaposition: Adèle’s first time with a boy is an awkward affair ending with him embarrassedly asking, “Did you like that?” With Emma, the noisy lovemaking doesn’t require any post-coital survey.
And is the sex actually that graphic? There’s certainly more nudity and realistic-looking orgasms than anything else shown at the cinema (apart from some regions of Soho), but there’s no sense of performing to the camera. After all, Adèle’s sexual awakening is a defining moment that needs to be documented in what is supposed to be the first two chapters of her existence.
If those scenes are called graphic, I think the real adjective is “honest”. Keniche’s filmmaking style takes that ideology even further; if reports are to be believed, the director’s off-camera demeanour was frightening and prompted real tears. At time, the acting is so devastatingly convincing, it often struck me that Adèle’s crying absolutely had to be real – tears stream down the cheeks, snot droops into the mouth. (Some actors use special eyedrops for artificial weeping, but is there a nosedrop equivalent?)
The tender romance gently evolves through the film’s 179 minutes, with minimal screen time spent on Adèle’s homophobic friends or if her parents ever find out. They both demonstrate a rich, pure passion that’s shown in close-up for a large percentage, literally and figuratively. Blue is the Warmest Colour also doesn’t shy from love’s downsides; as Emma’s blue hair dye fades away, so does that crucial abstract term: “honesty” – but for a while, it exists, with all the emotional, snotty baggage.
The Do Gooders – 1/10
Director: Chloe Ruthven
Any release date: TBC
When I tried explaining this documentary to my friend, he assumed it was a parody. Sadly, it’s not. The British director spends three weeks in Palestine with a video camera, attempting to learn more about the complicated subject of foreign aid. She doesn’t learn much other than her own incompetence. She’s scolded for always filming, yet somehow misses crucial footage of fiery debates. Her investigative journalism peaks with a few Google searches. Aware of her failure, she packs her suitcase and cries – in front of her own strategically placed camera.
The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas – 6.5/10
Original title: I Aionia Epistrofi Tou Antoni Paraskeua
Director/Writer: Elina Psykou
Starring: Christos Stergioglou, Maria Kallimani, Giorgio Souxes
UK/US release date: TBC
“The return of Antonis Paraskevas has to be a historic event… I owe it to myself. I owe it to my fans”
Psykou’s Greek debut is a meditative satire on fame and the economy’s downfall. The titular Antonis Paraskevas is a recognisable TV presenter whose enduring presence in living rooms doesn’t exempt him from financial troubles. He stages his own kidnapping – while waiting for a ransom, he lives alone in an empty hotel and learns how to cook.
Antonis watches news reports concerning his own disappearance with a steady fascination, somewhat akin to the fantasy of turning up to your own funeral. However, the public’s attention span dwindles and moves onto the next person who can read a teleprompter. The melancholic satire explores the presenter’s loneliness, particularly how he winds down time: by seeking an audience, he’s ironically forced into isolation.
However, the film doesn’t develop the idea much further, so even the 90-minute running time feels like a stretch. I can imagine an English-language version with a recognisable star: Richard Bacon, perhaps, playing himself.
Gloria – 8/10
Director: Sebastián Lilio
Writers: Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza
Starring: Paulina García, Sergio Hernández, Diego Fontecilla
UK release date: 1st November 2013
US release date: TBC
“That cat is so ugly.”
Disco may be dead, but it can still make you alive. At least, that’s the case for Gloria (Paulina García). The titular character of Gloria is a lonely 58-year-old who finds solace in attending clubs with cheesy disco hits aimed at middle-aged dancers who, while not exactly reliving their youth, find rejuvenation absent from their routines before 10pm.
Gloria’s own life is impacted by broken down relationships; her children have moved on as adults, and she is divorced. Hilariously, in a bittersweet joke shared with Inside Llewyn Davis, she is reluctantly accompanied by a neighbour’s cat. (“That cat is so ugly,” she complains.)
The character portrait focuses on Gloria emerging with a never-say-die attitude: paintballing, bungee jumping, and romancing a fellow disco dancer, Rudolfo (Sergio Hernandez). Sebastián Lilio keeps the direction low-key and avoids saccharine sequences, keenly aware that there’s enough of a feel-good element in someone who sings along to the radio.
Bittersweet emotions run through the drama, with Gloria’s optimistic exuberance only slightly hiding the deeper regret underneath – one where she wasn’t alone at this point of her life. With Rudolfo, she enjoys a sexual frisson, but is acutely aware she’s a substitute for his ex-wife and daughters. Like a toe-tapping phoenix, she rises as someone with the self-belief to be happy on her own, in her life and on the dancefloor. Finally, a charming drama aimed at anyone who visits the cinema on their own.
Locke – 6/10
Director/Writer: Steven Knight
Starring: Tom Hardy
UK/US release date: Presumably 2014
“I will wash this sweater 10 times to get the dirt out.”
I’ve read some articles about a growing trend for watching films on a mobile phone. I don’t fancy it myself, although it’s tempting to save Locke up for a long car journey for a real sensory experience. This is as Locke itself is an 85-minute drive with Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) and no one else on screen, except for voices on a speakerphone.
The early word on Locke was that it was riveting – a term that, combined with Hardy’s casting, caused me to expect Phone Booth on four wheels. Actually, the confined gimmick produces a surprisingly touching drama about a man on the brink of losing his established life. Rather than real life taxi journeys when you wish the racist taxi driver would stop ranting, Ivan is likeable, mostly through the angst on Hardy’s face. An early phone call reveals he’s on the way to a hospital; although married with children, he is caught up by a case of infidelity from nine months before.
Just by reading the plot, I initially questioned whether the protagonist had to be in a car – could he not take a train? People use phones on buses all the time, don’t they? But by stepping on the pedal himself, there’s a bitter poignancy in Ivan physically moving away from the family home, unsure if he’s allowed to return. What he believed to be an honourable trip begins to splutter amid voluntary self-destruction, made worse by hearing his children on speakerphone.
The action is understandably limited by its concept. You might miss the tears rolling down Ivan’s face, but Locke would also work as a radio play (heard on earphones while commuting). Another subplot involves work commitments and cement, which isn’t given time to set; even if the participants aren’t visible, some strands can’t escape their cliches. Otherwise, Locke is mostly an effective minimalist take on the worst motorway trip to feature no traffic.
May in the Summer – 3.5/10
Director/Writer: Cherien Dabis
Starring: Cherien Dabis, Alia Shawkat, Bill Pullman, Nadine Malouf
UK/US release date: TBC
“I’ll tell you how I feel…”
The plot summary suggested a thoughtful insight into religious and racial tensions. However, the Jordan-set film is mostly an average romcom which touristy scenery. Dabis is the writer, director, producer and star; the film comes across as her own blog post, with the dialogue acting as a Q&A format.
Nebraska – 4/10
Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Bob Nelson
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk
UK release date: 6th December 2013
US release date: 22nd November 2013
“He just likes to believe what people tell him.”
Although The Descendants was nominated for several Oscars and won best screenplay, I shall forever remember it merely as “that thing with George Clooney in Hawaii”. Alexander Payne follows that disappointment with another one, continuing his descent (pun sort of intended) with Nebraska – I’m sure I’ll forever remember it merely as “that thing with black-and-white in Nebraska”.
Payne swaps Hawaiian sunshine for a cold road trip, journeying along a barren landscape from Montana to Nebraska, shot entirely without colour. The miserable sameness would suit its protagonists, a quarrelsome father and son, if it wasn’t for a script laden with sub-sitcom humour and hollow characters.
Woody (Bruce Dern), an elderly man, receives junk mail that claims he’s won a million dollar jackpot. He insists on taking the ticket himself to the Nebraska office, finding a reluctant companion in his son, David (Will Forte), who uses the doomed trip as an excuse for familial bonding.
Will Forte is an odd choice for lead, especially considering Payne’s last three male protagonists have been the enigmatic trio of George Clooney, Paul Giamatti and Jack Nicholson. Forte, however, is meek and passive, far away from the world of MacGruber and Saturday Night Live. He’s largely a foil for Dern’s grumpiness: short-tempered and stubborn, somewhat contradicting the unwise confidence in the fake lottery ticket.
Forte and Dern make the most of the script, even injecting moments of pathos (mostly from Dern’s tired, struggling figure), but are hampered by surprisingly weak humour. The road trip involves meeting several elderly relatives and strangers, leading to lengthy periods of “old people say the funniest things”. The mother is played by June Squibb, although it could easily be Betty White. Not even Bob Odenkirk, as David’s brother, could save proceedings.
I was admittedly in the minority as a screening full of regular laughter, perhaps supporting my initial sub-sitcom criticism – some of the dinner scenes aren’t too dissimilar from Everybody Loves Raymond. The pristine, black-and-white cinematography subsequently feels jarring, as if the dialogue-free scenes belong to a far better film. When the joking stops, I couldn’t find much in the central relationship that’s distinctive or felt genuine. Ultimately, the only moving factor is the car.
Side by Side – 3.5/10
Director: Arthur Landon
Writers: Arthur Landon, Matthew Wilkinson
Starring: Bel Powley, Alfie Field, Diana Quick, Sara Stewart
Any release date: TBC
“You’re either very trustworthy of very gullible.”
Although Side by Side is clearly aimed at a young audience, there isn’t much teenage spirit – which is bizarre considering the narrative revolves around two children under 15 running away from home.
Lauren (Bel Powley) and Harvey (Alfie Field) take an ill-advised trip to Scotland in search of a lost grandfather. The journey’s catalyst is to avoid Lauren’s guardian, who also happens to be her scrupulous sporting agent. The two siblings have each other and learn to survive exactly as the title suggests, which would be more sickly sweet if it wasn’t for the lack of scurried focus – profiting from the internet, qualifications for the Olympics, they’re all jumbled together.
Well, to a certain extent. Side by Side falls apart with a central relationship that’s never particularly frayed, at least not more than expected between a brother and sister spending that much time together. The comedic angle also subdues any sense of danger, enough so that Lauren, a 15-year-old, hitchhikes on her own with a middle-aged stranger – and without making a radical point.
Ultimately, when there’s little character growth, narrative edge or amusement, it’s a struggle to find the purpose of Side by Side. Powley and Field are both likeable actors, sure, but are stuck with painfully contrived lessons (mainly through strangers who are a script beat away from summarising their life story). If there is a lesson, it’s to follow the advice of Harvey and stick to computer games.
The Spectacular Now – 8/10
Director: James Ponsoldt
Writers: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber, Tim Tharp (novel)
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kyle Chandler
UK release date: Early 2014
US release date: 23rd September 2013
“Live in the now. Embrace that shit.”
I’m wary about calling The Spectacular Now a coming-of-age story. The film unquestionably part of the genre and doesn’t exactly break new ground, but is more than a typical indie teen love flick. It’s a heartwarming drama obsessed with time – the past, present and future – in an absorbing manner that took me by surprise.
Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley play the two charming leads, Sutter and Aimee, who begin a romance in the last few months of high school. Sutter is a wisecracking underachiever who’s more interested in drinking from a hidden flask that finishing homework. His volatile dynamic meshes with Aimee, a hardworking student with no boyfriend experience; she’s drawn to his “bad boy” image and willing to put up with his alcoholism.
However, the expected storyline doesn’t play out, partly because neither character is the extreme caricature often purported in teen dramas. “I’m just trying to help this girl out,” he initially insists. They gradually fall in love through natural conversation and feel like real people who enjoy each other’s company; the relationship’s evolution thrives on snippets of intimate dialogue and a real pleasure at sharing emotions.
James Ponsoldt, as he did in Smashed, again examines alcohol as a ticking timebomb that can damage sour a relationship. Ponsoldt’s just the director, with Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber adapting a novel by Tim Tharp, yet he’s clearly interested in the theme of alcoholism. Sutter’s downfall is inevitable, given the number of times he steers a driving wheel with a flask in his hand. Additional layers appear through Sutter tracking down his absent father (Kyle Chandler), arguing with his exhausted mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and discretely hanging out with ex-girlfriend (Brie Larson).
These are all traditional ingredients for an indie love story, and it’s to the film’s credit that the concept of time overshadows every plot turn. Sutter is obsessed with the present (“Live in the now! Embrace that shit!”) and boasts about his indifference towards the future. His ethos clashes with his parents, who both vehemently avoid discussing the past. Completing the Venn diagram, Aimee does whatever her mother tells her, knowing a promising career awaits. In a small space, the pair find emotional solace in that fleeting, intersecting circle.
My main issue with Smashed (which I otherwise loved) was its jarring sitcom-y subplot. Fortunately, The Spectacular Now gets rid of all its quirk in the opening sequence. Like the relationship itself, I slowly fell in love with the film and the characters, enough to forgive the predictable twists when they occurred.
Okay, it’s hardly groundbreaking, but the actors have the charisma and warmth to evoke the desperation for living the perfect moment, even if it can never happen. The most moving scene is prom night: everyone dances to an Ariel Pink song, except for Sutter and Aimee who watch from their seats. Sutter gushes that these magical minutes are the happiest he’ll ever be and it’s why he only cares for the present. It’s a deeply flawed manifesto – but at that moment, it’s hard to disagree.
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