Mockingjay: Part 1

Turns a political struggle into something thrillingly personal.

The Beat Beneath My Feet

A toe-tapping indie that is, quite simply lovely.


An extraordinary true tale made disappointingly ordinary.

The Battle of the Five Armies

"Why does it hurt so much?" Because the rest of it felt so real.
LFF film review: Brooklyn Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Wednesday, 14 October 2015 20:19

Director: John Cowley
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent

How do you build a life in a new country? That's the question facing Eilis (Ronan) in Brooklyn - until it's replaced by another, equally tough question: what if you then realise you could have an equally perfect life back where you came from?

Nick Hornby adapts Colm Toibin's novel for the screen with typical wit and heart, creating a story that manages to be full of both cheerful hope and painful nostalgia. Saoirse Ronan shines in the lead, the excellent make-up and costume team making her as plain and blank as possible in the vibrant, colourful New York scene. Her face, which so subtly shifts between emotions, is perfect for the conflicted part - ably matched by Emory Cohen's swoonsome suitor, who never feels less than certain about his feelings. You suspect he's only one smile away from heartthrob stardom.

Cohen is as charming as Domhnall Gleeson's boy back in Ireland is polite - between Star Wars and Ex Machina, Gleeson is on roll right now - while Julie Walters' hilariously uptight landlady helps to juggle the cheerful and sad mood.

It's the understanding of what makes a home, though, that gives Brooklyn its old-fashioned, moving magic. John Crowley shoots the tranquility of Wexford with a twinkle in his lens, but it's the gradual assembling of clothes, cosmetics, work colleagues and confidence that convinces; the attention to period detail (the film, curiously, wasn't shot in Brooklyn at all, but in Montreal) becomes an intrinsic part of character and plot development: as Eilis looks more and more American, her journey becomes more and more engaging. The result is a funny and unabashedly sentimental tale of belonging and starting over.

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LFF film review: Our Little Sister Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Tuesday, 13 October 2015 18:49
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Cast: Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Suzu Hirose

We live in an age where divorce and broken families are far from uncommon. Between old partners and new kids acquired through marriage, it's easy to imagine these lives as episodes from EastEnders, full of bickering and bad table manners. Not so, if you live in a Hirokazu Koreeda movie. Our Little Sister follows the surprise union of three sisters with the hitherto unknown fourth child of their father: Suzu, conceived with another mother. You'd expect shouting matches and melodrama to fill the screen, but the Japanese director's eye for human relationships has never been more tender.

Koreeda, whose last film - Like Father, Like Son - also screened at the London Film Festival, is a master of everyday detail, the kind of filmmaker who doesn't wallow in the kitchen sink so much as run a bath in it and enjoy playing with the bubbles and scouring pad. In his hands, even the most mundane of activities can become uplifting. For Suzu, that routine is crucial to her slow assimilation into the family unit - in between going to school, running late and dressing up for business, the group (played with easy chemistry between the girls) always find time for communal dinners, which look as delightful as the bond they represent.

All this takes place in the shadow of grief and uncertainty over what their father was like - combined with the appearance of a mother from the past, Hirokazu quietly draws the lines between each character's memory and perspective of the loved ones around them - but the script (based on the manga Umimachi Diary) allows that to inform their behaviour, rather than be the driving force of events. The most dramatic things that occur are one sister wearing another's blouse, or Suzu struggling to stomach the plum wine. The response? They promise to make non-alcoholic version for her - a simple gesture, but one that carries with it a substantial element of love. The result completes a series of films about parenthood, absence and inheritance, but is so lightly handled it could almost blow away in the breeze like a cherry blossom. Marvellous.

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LFF review: Son of Saul Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Sunday, 11 October 2015 11:19

Director: László Nemes
Cast: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn
Showtimes: 20.45 10th / 21.15 10th / 13.00 11th

Son of Saul, a film that depicts the day-to-day survival of a man in Auschwitz-Birkenau, is not an easy movie to watch. It's an even harder movie to hear.

Director László Nemes - astonishingly, making his feature film debut - has crafted a shocking piece of cinema, which brings concentration camps to life in a new way. They have appeared on screen before many times, from the black and white of Schindler's List to, most recently, the vampire horror TV series The Strain, but never with such alarming immediacy.

The film follows Saul, a Hungarian who holds the post of Sonderkommando, which involves the handling of everyday exterminations. But when he recognises a boy in the gas chamber, Saul decides to give him a proper burial - and so he tries to find a Rabbi to recite the correct prayers.

Whether or not the boy is his son is never clear, but the quest consumes Saul, a futile, yet all-encompassing attempt to retain some semblance of humanity and dignity in a place where numbered people have neither - one of the first things prisoners ask each other is what country they're from. Géza Röhrig is fantastic in the lead, his fixed, hardened frown conveying a surprising amount of emotion, as he annoys fellow prisoners with his inability to join in their escape plan. Saul is stoic, but movingly so; a last remnant of tradition rattling around inside a relentless machine.

Nemes' camera follows him through his tasks, from piling up bodies to shovelling ashes, almost always one step behind - a long-take approach that recalls the immersive power of Children of Men. The over-the-shoulder perspective, though, perhaps most resembles a video game, positioning Saul in a never-ending universe of increasingly horrible obstacles; no matter what task he completes, there is something harder to come.

If the onslaught inspires dismay, though, what is terrifying is how quickly you get used to it. The restricted POV leaves the nastiest things to occur off-screen; you don't see the atrocities of war, but you listen to them all. Screams, footsteps, fire, guns. That gruelling reality is Son of Sauls' grim achievement: capturing the sound of the Holocaust. As Saul soldiers on, his numb resilience rubs off on us, rendering the genocide as a constant background thrum. Every now and then, the deafening horror of it all breaks though.

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LFF review: Suffragette Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Wednesday, 07 October 2015 13:05

Director: Sarah Gavron
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Ben Whishaw
Certificate: 12A

Say the phrase "women's rights" to people today and they may well roll their eyes or nod their head in understanding. Gender equality is a subject that has finally started to take centre stage, over 100 years since the suffrage movement began. For some, though, it remains a theoretical issue. Numbers are thrown around regularly. Salaries for men and women. The percentage of female directors in Hollywood. Suffragette takes the issue off the page and gives it a beating heart.

It's hard to believe that there hasn't been a major film about the movement before now - itself an indicator of how endemic sexism still is in 2015. That topicality, though, isn't just confined to off-screen: in director Sarah Gavron's hands, the film manages to feel less like a documentary about the past and more a story relevant to the present.

Our eyes onto events belong to Maud (Mulligan), a laundry worker with a well-meaning husband (Whishaw) and a well-behaved boy. All that is thrown off kilter, though, when she joins the movement through her colleague, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff). But Abi Morgan's script is less a tale of radical recruitment (with an excellent Helena Bonham-Carter as eagerly militant pharmacist's wife Edith Ellyn) than a document of social necessity: Maud isn't pulled into the protests; she's shoved in by the violent cops beating crowds, by her poor wages and by her abusive boss.

The cast are uniformly excellent, from Meryl Streep's rallying cry ("I'd rather be a rebel than a slave!") to Mulligan's heavily-cockney everywoman. In the lead, Carey's facial expressions are as fluid as ever, able to seem both innocently naive and world-weary. The men are equally well treated, as Whishaw's hubby finds himself unable to endorse her full rebellion and Brendan Gleeson's conflicted cop remains determined to carry out the law, regardless of his opinion. "They promised nothing, they gave nothing," he shrugs, as the women march on Parliament on the understanding that testimonies from working class women might be heard by the government.

Mulligan's delivery of her life story is enough to move a room full of men, but it's halfway through that Suffragette really hits its message home - when Maud says goodbye to her son, realising that the law says that he belongs to his dad, not her. The concept of disenfranchisement can be hard to convey with much passion, but Gavron and Morgan's achievement is to give that abstract notion a tangible, emotional clout. For Maud, her personal and political battle are one and the same; if the subject of legal rights doesn't bring you to tears, the sight of someone's child being torn from them will.

The only blemish is the absence of black women from the ensemble - a potential whitewashing of history that is evidently unintentional but nonetheless suggests that there were no black women in London in the early 1900s. If Suffragette fails to be equal in all departments, though, it certainly succeeds at paying tribute to those who gave up their family, their jobs and their lives for a cause that continues today. Inspirational and hugely moving, this is a historical drama that feels urgently present.

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Raindance film review: Driving with Selvi Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Tuesday, 06 October 2015 20:38

Director: Elisa Paloschi
Cast: Selvi

"250 million women today were married before the age of 15. One third of them are in India."

If that sounds like an unexpected introduction to Driving with Selvi, a documentary about South India's first temple taxi driver, that's because its subject had an equally unexpected start in life. Selvi was paired off when young to a husband who abused her. It's only when she reaches the age of 18 that she runs away to a shelter - something that happened as recently as 2004. There, she meets Canadian director Elisa Paloschi, who is volunteering at the shelter. Over the following decade, Paloschi follows Selvi as she grows up.

"Grow" is the operative word: we see Selvi mature, but also move above her victimised roots. She starts her own company and becomes the country's first female cabbie: from passenger to active driver in her own destiny. The metaphor that's apparent in this choice of career could be laboured or unsubtle in another filmmaker's hands, but Paloschi's approach is admirably low-key; there's a real feeling that the film has evolved as a side effect of friendship as much as a movie-making project. That gentle, unobtrusive style allows Selvi to take centre stage, making for a slight (the runtime is just 70 minutes) yet inspiring piece of cinema: at the end of it all, she remains admirably in forward gear, planning to move from taxis to trucks. After sitting in her back-seat for an hour, you believe she can do it.

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Raindance film review: Kicking Off Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Tuesday, 06 October 2015 16:08
Director: Matt Wilde
Cast: Warren Brown, Greg McHugh, Alistair Petrie

"Life doesn't always turn out the way we want it to. You have to find something that takes the edge off things. Mine is football." It's the kind of generic voice over you'd expect to kick off a feel-good British comedy. But Matt Wilde's indie flick, which won Best UK Feature at this year's Raindance, isn't afraid to embrace convention - or move beyond it.

The film follows Wigsy (Brown) and Cliff (McHugh), Wigsy's mate. One of them is pining for his ex-girlfriend. The other is tired of being decribed as "Wigsy's mate". Both of them are mad about football. That madness comes into focus when their team loses a crucial match and gets relegated. The reason? A disallowed goal, decided by the referee (Alistair Petrie as the brilliantly named Anthony Greaves). So Wigsy does the natural thing any sane person would: he kidnaps him.

It's a neat enough idea and the central duo run with it up and down the pitch. Warren Brown is admirably intense as the devoted fan, too busy yelling to listen to sense, while McHugh makes for an endearingly generous foil. The reveal of the act itself is laugh-out-loud funny, prompting an amusingly incompetent chase through the streets. It's a shame, then, that Robert Farquhar's script briefly enters stoppage time halfway through, as it tries to find a way to fill its 85 minutes: a detour to a church is coupled with a subplot about religion that draws an interesting parallel between faith and fandom, but feels clumsily introduced - one character is mocked for their faith before we are told about it - while a dream sequence mostly exists to allow for a enjoyable cameo. Danielle Bux, meanwhile, is wasted as Wigsy's former partner, Philippa - although she gets the best football-related putdown in the whole film.

But, true to form, this is a movie of two halves: for every substitute from the genre bench, there's an inspired lob or a free kick that curves past your expectations. An early set piece in a bar is eye-openingly brilliant - a visual marvel that singles out Matt Wilde as a successor to Edgar Wright - while Farquhar's use of narration is delightfully witty, combining split-screen and McHugh's knack for under-delivering lines to bring some crowd-pleasing guffaws. If the end result feels like a conventional follow-up to The Full Monty, though, there's nothing wrong with that: despite any minor injuries, this British comedy still knows how to make an audience feel good.

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Raindance film review: Alice in Marialand Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Tuesday, 06 October 2015 12:07
Director: Jesús Magaña Vázquez
Cast: Bárbara Mori, Stephanie Sigman, Claudio Lafarga

"Where am I?" asks Alice, as she enters Marialand. It's not the last time we hear that question. Jesús Magaña Vázquez's drama comes up with a grounded interpretation of the familiar fairy tale - but one that still carries all of its surreal confusion.

Marialand, we swiftly discover, is the vacuum in the life of Tonatiuh in the wake of his former partner, Maria. A writer who hasn't written anything successful, he was in thrall to the seductive, wild model - something that left their relationship doomed to crash and burn. Vázquez presents flashbacks to their time together with the finality of monochrome, cutting between the faded memories and the vibrant present, where Alice and Tonatiuh collide.

What follows is a dizzying study of the confusion that surrounded moving between relationships, as Tonatiuh falls head over heels without standing up from the last time it happened. Alice, meanwhile, is just as dazed, finding herself surrounded by remnants of feelings and projected ideals.

It's a fantastic set-up, which Vazquez presents with fantastical flourishes: an opening sequence, which interprets Maria and Tonatiuh as a lavish Hollywood sci-fi is stunning, while a dance sequence halfway through shimmies between greyscale and gorgeous oranges and blues with sass. The cast are more than up to navigating the maze, from Lafargo's deceptively controlled presence to Barbara Mori's fiery recklessness. Stephanie Sigman, though, is the one who steals the show: ahead of her turn in Spectre, and following her performance in Miss Bala, she reminds us just how captivating and sympathetic she is on camera, coyly smiling at her guide through the warped universe.

The script, though, never quite allows this world to convince: on-the-nose dialogue (one doctor in a hospital is even called "Dr. Robbit") and a wayward structure distract you from the disorienting effect of the premise. A scene involving Alice's mother, meanwhile, only hints at another angle on the same subject that could have proven more powerful - a revelation in the final act has all the chilling impact of Hitchcock's Vertigo, but is swiftly brushed aside. There are interesting questions here about resolutions and conclusions: how can one move on from the past, if one is haunted by it? And how can one create a new life, if they cannot remember it? But you can't shake the feeling that the film ends up as lost as its titular heroine.

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Raindance film review: Shelter Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Saturday, 03 October 2015 13:42
Director: Paul Bettany
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Jennifer Connelly
Showtimes: 18.45, 30th / 16.30, 3rd

"For the people who live in front of my building", reads the caption at the end of Paul Bettany's directorial debut, Shelter. It's a dedication that raises all kind of questions, but what could have been an exercise in romanticising poverty or projecting a story onto a disadvantaged stranger emerges as something far more moving and subtle.

The film tells the story of two homeless people connecting: Hannah and Tahir. Both their tales involve loss and tragedy, but what's remarkable about Shelter's understated script is the way it handles them. Facts and exposition aren't wheeled out immediately, because that's not what people are like. Tahir and Hannah aren't lonely hearts waiting for love; they're guarded, trying to get by as everyone around them either gives them something or takes it away.

Bettany presents the streets of New York as a harsh place, where things come at a cost - be it money, sex or dignity - and possession is what defines you. As winter arrives and storms batter the pavements, those with homes are safe and warm inside. Those without shoes, on the other hand, are visibly not part of society. Tahir guards his drums, which he uses to make money, fiercely, but Hannah, who steals his coat early on, mostly longs to possess more heroin.

Anthony Mackie is wonderful as the illegal immigrant, polite and gentle but always intimidating. He's matched every step of the way by Jennifer Connelly, who is unrecognisable as the desperate runaway. One has made peace with what he has; one cannot stop craving what she doesn't.

A standout sequence halfway through sees the pair break into a rich family's home, dressing up in their clothes and drinking their wine. As they sit down for a lavish meal at a borrowed dining table, the couple suddenly seem more human. Philosophy, French and religion become the conversation du jour and back-stories float to the surface without seeming forced.

Bettany captures this gradual acquisition of objects and intimate knowledge with a sensitive touch - one brief, poetic flourish, which sees the pair fall into a puddle, only to tumble through a slow-motion ocean, is a beautiful watershed moment - but there's a grim reality throughout that suits the low-budget production. As we learn more about these characters, the climax makes it harder to care about Hannah's plight, but the cast's stunning performances smooth over any melodramatic cracks in Bettany's debut script. The result is a accomplished, smart drama that aims for the head as much as the heart; less the cliched story of an unlikely romance and more a study of identity and humanity from a distance. Bleak and moving, it's a reminder that, no matter what you own, emotional shelter can be as effective as physical.

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Raindance film review: 1 World 100 Lonely Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 02 October 2015 12:41

Director: Brian McGuire
Cast: Robert Murphy, Farah Mokrani, Lara Heller, Mark Fletcher
Showtimes: 20.30, 28th / 14.10, 2nd

"I don't know if I should be dating, but I'd rather meet someone than stay at home," says a guy in 1 World 100 Lonely. You believe him. That raw sincerity has become something of a trademark for Brian McGuire, a director who returns to Raindance with another tale of loneliness in the modern age.

After Prevertere's rough romance over one night and Window Licker's portrait of one man's madness in a digital, media-saturated world, this serves as something of a halfway house between the two, combining McGuire's knack for emotional honesty with an understanding of how technology has subtly changed our everyday existence. Out of the mosaic of storylines here, all dealing with love and loss, it's no surprise that one involves online dating.

McGuire intercuts his stories with on-screen conversations, using texts and pictures to recreate virtual messages between an American and his Iranian correspondent, who eventually meet up. Miscommunication is immediately evident, but that gap opens even wider in another narrative, which sees a guy ranting at his ex-girlfriend while driving with terrifying passion. Devices not only help us connect, but disconnect too - something that's reinforced by McGuire's decision to shoot once again using only mobile phones.

There is happiness to be found, but as the title suggests, it's accompanied by that same pang of intimacy as the sad moments. The wobbly camerawork may alienate some, but it fits with the natural ensemble cast, who appear to improvise most of their dialogue (the excellent actors are credited as co-writers on the script). The same is true of the production values on the OkCupid-style messaging, which adds to the lo-fi, unpolished air.

The focus feels less crystallised as Prevertere and WindoW Licker, which benefited from a narrow focus to fit their small lenses, but the sweeping scale of 1 World 100 Lonely is testament to McGuire's ambition to chronicle human relationships on a bigger stage (it's a treat to see London in his work, as well as America). Regardless, all of the stories are united by the same uncertainty of whether they should be dating, the same habit of interpreting another person (and their messages) through the perspective of our own feelings. The result is a fragile drama that is definitely lworth going out to see rather than staying at home.

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Film review: The Martian Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 02 October 2015 05:36

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie
Certificate: 12A

"I'm going to science the shit out of this," decides Mark Watney (Damon) near the start of The Martian, after the astronaut finds himself stranded on Mars.

It's a simple motto, but that's the secret to both Mark's potential survival and the movie's success: it reduces space travel down to a string of problems that need to be solved. No water? Fine. How do you make it? No food? Ok. How do you grow some? The formula begins even before Mark's isolation, as the rest of the crew of shuttle Ares 3 face a more essential conundrum: with a severe storm hitting their base, should they evacuate without the missing Watney and survive, or wait to find him and possibly all die?

It's a tough call for Commander Lewis (Chastain) and co (Mara, Peña, Hennie), but it's over and done with in 10 minutes, because Drew Goddard's script knows that there are more challenges still to come. What follows is a series of theoretical and practical exercises, each one seemingly dry on paper but thrillingly urgent on-screen, where they mean the difference between life and death. It's like watching the final act of Apollo 13 remade into an entire film.

That unique mindset grounds everything: because we're focused on the basic challenges of day-to-day existence, our brains don't question that this is all taking place on an alien planet; the stunning scarlet landscapes (shot with unfussy style by Ridley Scott) are second to the mathematical athletics on display; the prospect of space travel is nothing compared to the mind-bending number of disco tunes in the possession of Chastain's guilt-ridden leader - if there's one thing Blade Runner was missing, it's Abba.

The downplayed mood extends to Damon too, who uses his everyman charm to narrate events with a surprising amount of humour. He doesn't make grand speeches or weep into his helmet; he makes fun of himself in video diaries and swears at NASA via text.

On Earth, people are just as flummoxed by Watney's situation. Sean Bean is enjoyably gruff as the veteran in charge of the crew, Chiwetel Ejiofor is composed as the boffin overseeing the mission and Jeff Daniels avoids being painted as the bad guy as his NASA chief tries to avoid any bad PR. In fact, there isn't really a villain at all: cutting between the people in the control room and the person on Mars, Scott and Goddard craft a tale that presents space exploration as one huge team endeavour. There's no difference between people in China, the US or even in space: they're all just clever humans solving problems. Isn't being smart cool?

From Damon's passion for homegrown potatoes to Halt and Catch Fire's superb Mackenzie Davis as an enthusiastic control room assistant, it's hard to think of another sci-fi with as much emphasis on the science. More than the flawless visuals, nuanced performances and consistent laughs - watch out for one cheeky movie reference - it's a treat to see a big budget blockbuster that celebrates intelligence over explosions. The Martian is essentially one long, two-hour equation. And it cinemas the shit out of it.

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Raindance film review: Digital Dissidents Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Sunday, 27 September 2015 10:19

Director: Cyril Tuschi
Cast: Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake, Daniel Ellsberg
Showtimes: 14.15, 26th / 12.10, 27th

There aren't many people who haven't heard of Edward Snowden or Julian Assange. Are they heroes fighting for liberty and transparency? Villains of the state? Cyril Tuschi's documentary puts aside those questions to ask another: is it worth exposing such secrets to then live life as a fugitive?

It's a provocative subject matter for what proves to be an unsettling, relevant film. Tuschi traces his "traitors" all the way back to the daddy of them all: Daniel Ellsberg, who blew the whistle on the Pentagon's plans for Vietnam. Cutting together contributions from him, Assange, Snowden and Thomas Drake, Tuschi finds intriguing parallels between his protestors - and some differences too, especially when it comes to Drake and his decision to stay working for the government (unlike his colleagues) and trying to fight things from the inside.

From the opening frame to the final shot, Tuschi also lines up revelation after revelation about just how much data about us is given over to authorities, voluntarily, as we live in an increasingly online age. Your phone? GPS. Your Google history? Logged. Your Facebook account? A treasure trove of information that once would have taken weeks for the secret service to collect.

But in trying to raise so many big issues, Digital Dissidents ends up muddled, losing sight of its initial question halfway through and never really finding its focus again. An ex-British spy doesn't get enough screen time to offer full insight, while footage of a former Stasi prison balances precariously between heavy-handed and hugely powerful.

Tuschi spent years researching his material for another project, before being hired to assemble this for German TV and, unfortunately, it shows: occasional mistakes in subtitles and establishing shots that linger for too long make the mixed pacing more noticeable, while footage of Snowden talking at a hacker conference is almost undermined by the distracting sight of Ellsberg fiddling with broken headphones. While the polish is lacking, though, there is some gloss to the presentation, as Tuschi links together his segments with effective, flickering animations and (best of all) drone shots of Berlin and London - a decision that lends a chilling immediacy to the whole movie. The result is uneven, but undeniably important. Snowden re-appears near the end to suggest it's not about sharing their viewpoint, but about finding your own principles to believe in. It's a great message, but it's different to the one the film promised to deliver.

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