Review: The LEGO Movie

An anti-capitalist corporate-sponsored advert? Everything about this really is awesome.

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Film review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Monday, 17 November 2014 08:01

Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland
Certificate: 12A

"When has Katniss ever genuinely moved you?" asks Haymitch (Harrelson) near the start of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1. It's a fair question: the symbol of the rebellion she may be, but she's hardly a people person. After the events of Catching Fire, though, which saw her destroy the Hunger Games arena and unwittingly lead a coup against the oppressive Capitol, she has become the most valuable weapon in the fight for freedom: a face to rally the troops.


"We need a lightning rod," points out former Gamesmaker Plutarch (Hoffman). "People will follow her." It may not sound like scintillating conversation for an action blockbuster, but that is precisely Mockingjay - Part 1's achievement: it turns a political struggle into something grippingly potent - and thrillingly personal.


The Hunger Games has always managed to weave the two closely together, ever since Katniss first pretended to be in love with Peeta (Hutcherson) for TV audiences to protect her off-screen love, Gale (Hemsworth), and family. Here, she is torn once more between the two fellas, but the stakes are higher. Waking up in the underground (and long thought destroyed) District 13 with loyal soldier Gale, she discovers Peeta is held prisoner by President Snow - Donald Sutherland, grinning like an evil Cheshire Cat - who uses him as a puppet in a series of broadcasts that leave her again caught between a screen and a horde of angry disbelievers.


The political themes of Suzanne Collins' trilogy were always destined to erupt in a blazing climax, but the final book struggled with that scale. On the page, Mockingjay was uneven, slow, missing the claustrophobic structure of the titular tournament. Chopping the novel up for the cinema might have seemed like a bad idea, but turns out to be the franchise's saving grace.


Writers Peter Craig (The Town) and Danny Strong (Danny in Mad Men) rework the story with the lightest of touches, ignoring the text's interval to find their own pace. They rely on Jennifer Lawrence to convey her character's emotional conflict while they explore this new, murky world of propaganda. And what a world it is: the new set is massive, but Collins' universe continues to be built with superb realism, from the concrete walls to the shiny attack ships.


Fittingly for a movement that prioritises people over power, every character matters, from Elizabeth Banks as Effie (who, along with Woody's rude Haymitch, lightens the mood with her attempts to sass up District 13's uniform jumpsuits) to Jeffrey Wright's tech wizard, Beetee. Julianne Moore slots right in as President Coin, ruthlessly fair, almost to a fault, her hair as straight as her blunt gaze. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman really stands out just by not standing out at all; as generous as ever, he murmurs political machinations in the background with a calculated grin before letting out a weary sigh. You could watch an hour of him debating how to make a sandwich look good and it would be fascinating.


The team resolve to send her out into the field for real to capture footage of the Mockingjay in action; footage that won't seem awkwardly scripted (what they call "propos"). And so we travel with them - and Natalie Dormer's badass camerawoman, Cressida - as their rounds descend into gun-toting skirmishes. We see planes taken down in real time; then again, edited with music and voiceover for the revolting masses. What was once a short burst of action in an uneasy novel becomes a sharp deconstruction of storytelling that takes the series right back to its reality TV roots. Francis Lawrence shoots everything with that backdrop visible; skulls and skeletons of obliterated civilians creep into the edge of the frame, while a beautiful off-the-cuff rendition of The Hanging Tree (by Katniss, with a hint of Lawrence's Winters Bone) is swiftly packaged up by the propaganda machine and turned into an earworm calling people to action. Set against brutal uprisings and even more brutal takedowns, it amplifies the importance of every single action, be it private or public, romantic or rebellious.


That savvy presentation is evident throughout, but most of all in the central set piece: an assault on the Capitol. In the books, we hear about it after the fact, but the director takes us into the heat of the moment - chopping it up, propo-style with a monologue from Hunger Games veteran Finnick. The excellent Sam Claflin laces his words against President Snow with conflict and anger, but also a knowing element of foreshadowing that ramps up the tension. And, for that moment, the boundary between the filmmakers in front of the camera and behind the camera disappears entirely - and, lit up by the lightning rod that is Jennifer Lawrence, everything feels real. A post-modern, dark, intelligent film that tackles civil unrest and propaganda wrapped up in a romantic blockbuster aimed at young adults? Mockingjay Part 1 is an exciting, emotional spectacle that isn't afraid to treat its audience like grown ups. When has Katniss ever genuinely moved you? Every second she's on screen.


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The Imitation Game - a crossword film review Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 14 November 2014 13:51

The Imitation Game is out in UK cinemas today. To find out what we thought of the film, solve this simple word puzzle... then use the answers to fill in the blanks below.


Or, for a quick verdict, the highlighted letters can be re-arranged to form this one-word verdict:


_ _ _ _ K _ _ _!



Across

2. Nobody
7. Not an insider
8. Intimate
9. Rebels against
11. The ___ - a 1963 horror film
12. Male
13. To do with the government
14. Causing astonishment
17. Hero
19. By-the-numbers
22. Jogging


Down

1. Rhymes with "toasts"
3. Not nothing
4. PowerPoint
5. Emotional
6. Algebra
10. Last
15. A John Lennon song
16. Computer
17. Actors go behind these
18. ___Station - a games console
20. Tale
21. One of a kind



Fill in the gaps:

Aptly 19 ACROSS, the film 9 ACROSS its conventional 4 DOWN to become a rousing 20 DOWN of a 21 DOWN 12 ACROSS who did 3 DOWN 2 ACROSS could 15 DOWN. Keira Knightley is 17 ACROSS. Benedict Cumberbatch is 14 ACROSS. More about the 12 ACROSS than 6 DOWN, the 10 DOWN 17 DOWN neatly weave the 8 ACROSS and the 13 ACROSS, turning The Imitation Game into an exploration of whether a calculating 7 ACROSS can 18 DOWN at being human. There are 1 DOWN in his 16 DOWN - and they are both 5 DOWN and 11 ACROSS. Oh, and there's a lot of 22 ACROSS.

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Film review: Interstellar Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Thursday, 06 November 2014 18:14

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine
Certificate: 12A

Note: This contains very mild spoilers. For example, two lines of dialogue. And the description of a planet. If you want to go into this film cold, do not read this review. Or any other review, for that matter.


Imagine, if you will, that you're trapped behind a bookcase. Now imagine that you've been there for an infinite amount of time and you're frantically trying to tell the person on the other site that you need to get some air. Then imagine that a tiny crack suddenly appears between the books, just wide enough for a sliver of paper. So you grab the nearest notepad and start writing. Not just one thing, but everything. Life, family, mortality. It all comes pouring out, an endless scribble of ideas, somehow squeezed into a single ambitious, impossible, wildly uneven message.


That's what Interstellar boils down to.


Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, an engineer turned farmer in a future where the dust-stormed Earth needs crops, not clever starship pilots. His kids, Murph (Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Casey Affleck), are taught the moon landing was faked and that harvesting corn is the key to humanity's future. Only when they stumble across a NASA base do they learn from Professor Brand (Michael Caine) that the real answer to mankind's survival is in the stars. The plan? Pop into a worm hole and out the other side to find a hospitable planet.


It's a bold leap, driven by a most desperate human urge - but Interstellar struggles to make that jump between the divine and the domestic.


Christopher Nolan has always been a rational storyteller, who believes in manmade miracles rather than mystical fate. After all, he chose Batman as his superhero: a guy with no powers at all. The Prestige, the closest he has come to a film about magic, is more about the deception and guilt of murder than making tiny birds disappear. His work is at its best when communicating emotion through logic or character through structure; Memento's fragmented struggle to move on from something that cannot be pieced together; the haunting grief of Inception's memory permeating the subsconscious.


Interstellar attempts the same thing, stretching the bond between father and daughter across galaxies - hell, even dimensions. When Cooper and his crew - Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley, whose ongoing cinematic comeback remains a delight) - touch down on one water-logged planet, its heightened gravitational force is nothing compared to the emotional blow of realising that one hour on the surface is worth seven years back home; relativity has never seemed more relative.


If that's the movie's biggest achievement, it's one heck of a feat. But it also means it peaks a third into its runtime - because Interstellar reaches out for such greatness, then keeps on reaching. More worlds, more holes, more theoretical physics. Inception's complex structure had a strictly defined limit that sent the film in on itself. Interstellar does the opposite, expanding to galactic proportions.


"We got this far, further than any human in history," declares Brand. "Not far enough!" retorts Cooper. And so they keep venturing into the darkness for 169 minutes, clutching at distant stars.


"Do not go gentle into that good night," Brand is keen on reciting, over and over, to his team; an unsubtle mission statement that feels more syrupy than scientific. It's no surprise that the project began as a Spielberg project based on Kip Thorne's theories, which Nolan later converted.


That wide-eyed streak, so unlike the director's previous work, easily makes Interstellar his most emotional movie to date. It's no coincidence that it also has, in a way, the first happy(ish) ending he has ever written. And the script, co- created with his brother, Jonah, can't quite reconcile that loved-up tone with the rest of film's approach.


And so we have lofty ideas that soar until they reach critical mass, then implode and suck things down to Earth with a bump. It's a strange sensation, which gives rise to awkward ripples in the movie's continuum of earnestness; blips of exposition where the admirable becomes laughably bad.


"Love is the one thing that transcends time and space," argues Annie during one especially earnest discussion. Anne Hathaway's straight face just makes it sound worse. During another decisive turning point, Caine's equally serious professor (only the robots deliver a welcome vein of humour) addresses our departing hero. "By the time you come back," he intones, "I'll have solved the problem of gravity."


Hans Zimmer's overbearing score, determined to conjure up All The Feels, is low on Inception-style BRRRMMMMS because it doesn't need them: the dialogue honks all on its own.


And yet. And yet. There are undeniable moments of wonder here: singularities painted on screen with a fiery brush and multi-coloured arrays of lights that flash across time-bending tunnels. The visuals are jaw-dropping, the kind of thing that makes you marvel at the potential of the universe. You might even start to consider your own mortality. Then Michael Caine pops up to recite poetry and you consider what you're having for dinner.


It wouldn't work at all, if it weren't for our lead couple: McConaughey is magnificent as the intrepid explorer who just wants to get home to his kids, while Chastain delivers real heart as the loyal Murphy, who can't bear to visit her childhood home, which she was convinced was haunted. Their relationship grounds the whole adventure, mostly thanks to a sterling turn from Mackenzie Foy as the young Murph, who gets almost an hour to shine in the first act before her pa takes off. (It's telling that the final third, on the other hand, leaves you gawping at famous actors rather than engaging with characters.)


Those hints of a spiritual world laid early on are, inevitably, dismissed for a a human tale, focusing instead on our race's drive to exist - the key to mindkind's survival, nay for its brilliance. Forget God or aliens, it seems to hint in its most reverent moments; we make ourselves in our children's image.


Of course, it's absurd to even attempt to present these kind of concepts on camera. Even writers who deal with this stuff day in and day out on Doctor Who invented the get-out-of-jail-free adjective "timey-wimey".


As heads spin round and round in the audience, gravity vaguely emerges as central to Interstellar's space-time paradox - but so does love. That balance works until the two collide, Higgs Boson-style, into one heavy-handed climax that carries more mass than the God particle. And after a journey that has taken us to Kubrick and beyond, Interstellar suddenly finds itself back behind that proverbial bookcase, feverishly trying to communicate too much in a ludicrously rudimentary fashion.


"We've always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible," says Cooper, early on. "And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements."


It's as much a motto for Nolan's career as humanity - just read the reactions to Interstellar from other directors in this excellent Guardian piece to get a sense of how rare this kind of filmmaking is. It's stunning, ambitious stuff. The result may not go down in history as one of cinema's proudest achivements, but it will be counted as a moment that dared to reach. If Interstellar is ultimately defined by its inability to overcome the impossible, there's no huge shame in that.

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The Beat Beneath My Feet - a toe-tapping BIFA nominee on its way to a cinema near you (maybe) Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Monday, 03 November 2014 18:49

Today, the British Independent Film Award nominations were announced and included one indie film in particular that deserves it: The Beat Beneath My Feet.


John Williams' brilliant drama premiered at the Raindance Film Festival in September, where it sold out the final weekend of the festival. With the capital's film world distracted almost immediately by the arrival of Raindance's bigger brother, the London Film Festival, though, I resisted writing about it then, when it would simply get lost in the noise. So listen up.


The Beat Beneath My Feet follows a teenage boy, Tom (Nicholas Galitzine), who discovers that his nightmare new neighbour, Steve (Luke Perry), is actually a former rock star in hiding after faking his death to avoid taxes. Wanting to become a musician himself, Tom begs Steve for secret lessons ahead of his school's battle of the bands.


Will Steve say yes? How will his single mum react when she finds out the man next door she dislikes is bonding with her son? Will Tom enter the battle of the bands? And what about that other musician girl in his school he has a crush on?


The narrative could easily follow the same tired beats, but the movie drums up a rhythm all of its own. And that stems directly from the soudntrack. Directed by a guy who knows his music videos, Tom's songs take over the whole screen with vibrant animation, backed up by Nicholas Galitzine's fantastic voice. When he's not singing, Nicholas is equally charming, his downbeat demeanour and awkward relationship with his mum (an understated Lisa Dillon) both immediately convincing.


Luke Perry will be the big draw for many, following his role as 90s heartthrob Dylan McKay in Beverly Hills 90210, and he doesn't disappoint, enjoying his role as the grouchy mentor while still finding time to show a sympathetic side. More importantly, though, he's a generous performer, bringing out the laughs in Michael Muller's script but still allowing Galitzine to shine in the lead.


The result is a toe-tapping indie that, thanks to its catchy soundtrack and sincere heart, is an infectious number with a tempo that sets it apart from the coming-of-age crowd. It is, quite simply, lovely.


After delighting audiences at Raindance, the movie has now been nominated for the BIFA's Raindance Award - ranking it alongside fellow feel-good flick Pride and the equally ear-worming Frank. But, even more excitingly, The Beat Beneath My Feet has secured a UK theatrical release at the Clapham Picture on the 9th, 16th and 23rd November (BOOK TICKETS NOW).


Want to see the film near you? You can back it on Crowdshed and help it to find wider distribution. Then follow the movie over on Twitter @BeatBeneathFilm and shout about it. This is one of those indie films that not only needs support to be seen, but also deserves it. Hopefully, today's BIFA nomination is just the start.


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LFF film review: Fury Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Sunday, 19 October 2014 18:41

Director: David Ayer
Cast: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Jon Bernthal
Certificate: 15

"Ideals are peaceful. History is violent."


War is hell. It's something that bears retelling to each generation, but it doesn't excuse a war movie from repeating the same old, tired habits. Fury, though, is far from tired. It's awake and positively buzzing.


Director David Ayer gets down to business straight away, barely pausing for exposition before stabbing someone in the eye. The year is 1945. Hitler is desperate. And the Americans in tanks driving through German countryside? They're screwed.


We quickly fall in with the crew manning Fury: Bible-quoting Boyd (LaBeouf), gun-toting Coon-Ass (Bernthal), driver Gordo (Pena) and their leader, Wardaddy (Pitt). But their names are as irrelevant as the context: history is violent, so they are too. The one exception? Norman (Lerman), a fresh-faced clerk shipped to the front to fill the spot vacated by the team's late assistant driver.


Norman's introduction is our window onto the war; literally, at times, as we frequently look out of his hatch at the ongoing carnage. That claustrophobic sense of location gets right under your skin, thanks to Ayer's direction, which keeps the cameras inside the belly of the Sherman tank as much as possible. As a result, it's impossible not to feel some attachment to the boys on patrol, despite us (like Norman) knowing barely anything about them. Once again, brevity is all that is required: Gordo's conflicted feelings are summed up by the look on Michael Pena's face; Pitt's fatherly sergeant does his best to break the boy in; while an astonishingly understated Shia LaBeouf carries the weight of war on his shoulders with just the shrug of a cigarette.


Bernthal sticks out somewhat, thanks to his overtly aggressive performance - weapons man Coon-ass is the most visibly affected by the battle - but the bond between the unit is what matters; the ensemble genuinely feel like a family, albeit one fuelled by aggression as much as affection. One standout scene halfway through sees that tie contrasted with that of a real German family; a striking juxtaposition that takes place around a bizarrely pristine dinner table.


Amid the stern veterans, Logan's naive junior brings a heavy dose of fright to the mix. The result is a cocktail of adrenaline, repeatedly shaken up in that metal container: Fury distilled, from a potent blend of anger and fear. David Ayer's script casts aside the politics and history lessons: here, there is no good or bad, no sympathy or hate, no English or German. Just killing, by knife, shell or machine gun. Or, if necessary, by running over. Heroes are pushed to horrific extremes, enemies display unexpected acts of kindness. The only difference between them? Who shoots first.


That combination of confined location and stripped-down combat gives each bloody set piece the kind of nerve-jangling tension that made Saving Private Ryan's opening so shocking. This is war on rails - and it thrives on the intense rush of survival. The film lasts more than two hours. It feels like 30 minutes. Thrilling and terrifying in equal measure, Fury retells the violence of history for a generation where peace remains an ideal.


 
LFF film review: The Duke of Burgundy Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Sunday, 19 October 2014 06:47

Director: Peter Strickland
Cast: Side Babett Knudsen, Chiara D'Anna
Showtimes: Oct 19th

How do you follow up Berberian Sound Studio? Director Peter Strickland comes up with another assault on your senses - but this time, ones relating to something far more private.


The film follows rich recluse Cynthia (Borgen's arresting Side Babett Knudsen) and her cleaner, Evelyn (a wonderfully timid Chiara D'Anna). Every day, Evelyn turns up on Cynthia's doorstep, sweeping the home's floors and washing her undies. When she makes a mistake, though, she is swiftly punished - in the most humiliating of ways.


What soon becomes apparent, though, is that this couple are engaged in a sadomasochist ritual; a BDSM bond that they reinforce every day with strict routine and sexual relish. But while Evelyn enjoys their game, Cynthia eventually starts to tire: it's not easy being mean all the time. And so, as the months go by, The Duke of Burgundy captures the gradual breakdown of their relationship. Despite their physical openness, terse conversations and unsaid frustrations pry the pair apart.


Strickland stitches together this study in pain and pleasure with careful precision; raunchy encounters in the bedroom and tearful moments in the study care are cut with still collections of butterflies, which Cynthia keeps trapped in cases on the wall. The quietness and intensity create a stifling air that leaves you squirming as the slow 104 minutes unfold - and intentionally so. By the time a breathtaking dream sequence arrives, which sees giant moths flying through Cynthia's darkened box, the unconventional flourishes only confirm the overwhelmingly conventional nature of all romance; a reminder that even between the most risqué legs, the fluttering wings of desire can be fleeting.

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LFF film review: The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Sunday, 19 October 2014 06:24

Director: Hyung-yun Chang
Cast: Yoo Ah-in, Jung Yu-mi
Showtimes: Oct 18th, Oct 19th

"My name is KIT-SAN1. I weight 46.8kg. I am a satellite."


That's KIT-SAN1, a talking satellite. Her mission? To observe Earth. But one day, she crashes down to the ground, a tumble that turns her into a human girl (Il-ho) - with detachable rocket arms. Soon, she meets a singing milk cow, who used to be a singer called Kyung-chun - but transformed after a girl dumped him, breaking his heart.


Stop me if this getting too weird.


So far, it's all par for the course for this South Korean animation, whose name (The Satellite Girl and the Milk Cow) prepares you for the frankly bonkers premise. No sooner than Kyung-chun swaps his human skin for fur, though, the Milk Cow finds himself hunted by The Incinerator, an evil machine that hunts broken hearts and devours their internal organs.


Not weird enough yet?


The cow is helped by Merlin the wizard, who introduces him to Il-ho. And is disguised as loo roll.


If you're still reading, then The Satellite Girl and the Milk Cow (Uribyeol ilhowa ulrookso) is for you. Director Hyung-yun Chang's no stranger to strange (he previously made a short called A Coffee Vending Machine and Its Sword) and the filmmaker seizes his first feature-length stage with an impressive ambition: ideas literally fly across the screen, whether they're bog rolls, robots or even pianos. Meanwhile, our cow finds himself a man suit to hide in, zipping in and out of the fake skin like something from a kids' David Lynch film.


But Chang has an eye for emotion too, which keeps his surreal adventure on solid ground.


"Don't you know what happened to me because of you?" cries Kyung-chun at the love of his life. "I turned into a milk cow!"


That hilarious juxtaposition of earnest heart and out-there head makes for a constantly surprising - and funny - adventure, which recalls the whimsy and creativity of Studio Ghibli. At times, it recalls them a little too much; one scene sees a witch send pig snouts searching through a house for Merlin, while the resolution, as with similarly-magic-themed Howl's Moving Castle, feels far too simple.


But if the background drawings do not always live up to the standards of Japan's best, the country's neighbour still finds more than enough to prove its own animated mettle. Growing from a bizarre fantasy to an 80-minute meditation on love and the nature of humanity, The Satellite Girl and the Milk Cow is a bizarre delight to behold, whether you're seven years old or seventy. "You're just not my type," says the milk cow, at one point. "You're a satellite." Sometimes, all it takes to make the it's-what's-on-the-inside-that-counts message new is a singing milk cow and talking satellite. And a wizard shaped like toilet roll. What a charming space oddity this is.

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LFF film review: Night Bus Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Sunday, 19 October 2014 00:02

Director: Simon Baker
Showtimes: Oct 18th

They say that you should always write about what you know. Debut director and writer Simon Baker, then, must catch a lot of buses.


It's not hard to see where the inspiration for Night Bus came from: you can witness a surprising amount in a single journey, be it serious or silly. Baker takes advantage of that to create a fly-on-the-wall-style drama based around an evening on an East London route.


We see people from all walks of life, from students or a middle-class couple bickering after a cultural night out to addicts and a jealous boyfriend complaining about his girlfriend's behaviour in a club. But while overhearing conversations is common on public transport, Baker understands that the most interesting moments occur when these strangers interact.


Highlights include a drunk girl bickering with a pair of rap fans about utter nonsense and, on a bizarrely tragic note, a guy going to extraordinarily lengths to get a woman's phone number - without her even realising. Every time someone gets on board, you wonder whether they will talk to anyone else, and how that will affect each of them; a bizarre meta-tension as stories wait to be told.


Shot over a week on a bus in East London, the cast are given room to improvise their dialogue, adding a natural sheen to proceedings that feels closer to documentary than drama. That realism gives this a universal appeal beyond London travellers, ironically backed up by the genuine location, which is used to superb effect, cutting between seats and rows so that familiar faces go from centre stage to the background, where their lives silently continue.


Perhaps inevitably, some moments do not always pay off - fare dodgers and one boy who just wants to talk attempt to develop the character of the bus driver (Wayne Goddard), but to limited success. You wonder what it would be like if Baker were given a budget and a six-episode TV series to really explore the range and depth of these disconnected stories. Nonetheless, the meandering narrative is a fitting approach for the confined context, as the movie winds its way to a gentle stop, accompanied by DoP Dominic Bartels's sedate visuals and the moody music. An improvised, original low-budget flick with heart, humour and a host of colourful characters? It's all in a night's bus ride for this movie.

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Film review: Palo Alto Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Saturday, 18 October 2014 23:13
Director: Gia Coppola
Cast: James Franco, Emma Roberts
Certificate: 15

Palo Alto is a film based on the novel by James Franco, starring James Franco as a teacher who gets to sleep with one of his students. If it sounds self-indulgent, don't worry: it is, but it's also more than that.


The movie is directed by Gia Coppola, the latest in the Copolla clan to pick up a movie camera. (With her arrival on screen, the family now have enough filmmakers to create their own cinematic version of the Von Trapp singers.) Like Franco, it would be all too easy to dismiss Gia, but Palo Alto cements them as voices worth listening to.


More importantly, though, it shines a spotlight on several other voices: rather than hog than spotlight, Coppola uses Franco's novel as a platform to showcase a young, talented cast. The mult-strand narrative delivers the usual array of coming-of-age cliches: there's April (Emma Roberts), the virgin who fancies her soccer coach; Teddy (Jack Kilmer), the quiet one who fancies April; Emily (Zoe Levin), the one who fancies not being known as the class slut; and Fred (Nat Wolff), the troublemaker who fancies getting off with Emily, not to mention anything else that moves.


The performers, though, infuse each of these stereotypes with an unexpected depth. Levin is tragically needy as Emily, while Kilmer is endearingly insecure, happy to cover for Teddy, even as he knows he's getting dragged down into a world of vandalism and community service. The exuberantly talented Wolff nails himself to the fence between annoying and amusing, hyperactively stealing every scene before chomping on any scenery left behind. But Roberts is the one who really engages; whether she's smooching Franco or looking stroppy at soccer, she embodies the movie's overwhelming sense of ennui even more than the directionless script.


There are unsubtle moments of superficial effort, from the electronic score to a scene that sees Teddy drive a car into a wall, just for the hell of it. But it's in the quiet exchanges in between that the cast work best, elevating Franco's short stories. In 1983, Francis Ford Coppola made The Outsiders. 16 years later, in 1999, Sofia Coppola made The Virgin Suicides. Released in 2014, Palo Alto may not quite hit the sweet 16, but this collage of Millennial youngsters frequently comes together to form something just as timeless and universal.

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LFF film review: Whiplash Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Saturday, 18 October 2014 18:52

Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons
Showtimes: Oct 18th

Jazz is all about timing. Many people think it's just made up on the spot, any-which-way-you-fancy improv, but a large chunk of it is also written down. There are chord progressions, standard songs, time signatures. If you want to make it over the top - to become really, truly great - you first have to follow the rules of engagement.


No one knows the law of the battlefield like Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). The hardened conductor lords it over the Shaffer Conservatory's best big band with a fist of brass. Brass ready to spill blood. So when young pupil Andrew (Miles Teller) manages to sit on the group's coveted drumming stool, he's determined to stay there - and Fletcher's determined to make him earn it.


How? Practice. You need to devote time so you can keep time - something that most films about music tend to forget. Usually biopics, they present us with famous musicians who go through personal trials and tribulations, only to emerge the other side a fully-formed artist. It's a treat, then, to see a film about the practical nature of music, one that plays out like the messy underside of that artificial drum; the side with the snare on it.


"Are you rushing or dragging?" Fletcher interrogates Andrew, as they rehearse the titular track by Hank Levy. He asks over and over, like a drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket: The Musical.


Simmons is terrifying, a wide-eyed brute whose foul-mouthed insults are as hilarious as they are intimidating. Anyone who has ever had a bullying music teacher - and they do exist, albeit not as extreme as this - will immediately recognise the fear of playing a wrong note and the ensuing disappointment of both letting your mentor down and, worse, yourself. But there is a universal intrigue to that process, the unseen way in which talent develops - which, in Whiplash's hands, is arranged as a thrilling piece of physical, human drama. (In the words of Alan Partridge, crash, bang, wallop. What a video.)


Teller, who can play the drums in real life, is sensational as the eager student, a boy so focused that he shuts out all other concerns: family tensions, romantic dates, even a car crash are all ignored by him and the blinkered script follows suit. The only thing that matters here is the music.


Grimacing, laughing and sweating profusely, the young star is astonishing to watch in action - not only acting while playing the drums, but appearing believably enough out of sync with the rest of the band to spark Fletcher's wrath. Together, the pair form a dazzling duet, riffing off each other, as Teller's drumming becomes tighter and their relationship changes key, from nasty humour to just plain nasty.


All the while, director Damien Chazelle keeps tempo - a breakneck metronome that, like Justin Hurwitz's score (including a selection of standards, such as Caravan), is a toe-tapping masterclass in precision. As Andrew gets better, pushed by this monster with a manuscript, Chazelle's camera rappels across the kit, bouncing off the hi-hat and toms with its own fascinating rhythm. The pair, Chazelle reveals, are labouring under the (misunderstood) legend of Charlie Parker, who was given the push he needed to become Bird by Jo Jones lobbing a cymbal at his head. Are they right to believe that this is the only way to greatness? After all, classic jazz needs soul as well as skill. And all your body parts intact.


The director skilfully modulates the tone from unnerving comedy to doubting horror, but the real crescendo occurs with the final movement of his dizzying 19-day shoot, a blistering dash to the final bar that throws all that rigid conducting out of the window - and goes for a freewheeling rim-shot to the gut. Mention jazz to most people and they'll switch off, dismissing it as made-up noise. Whiplash, though, brings the house down every time. It's all about timing. And it doesn't miss a beat.


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LFF film review: Robot Overlords Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Saturday, 18 October 2014 15:02

Director: Jon Wright
Cast: Gillian Anderson, Ben Kingsley, Callan McAuliffe, Ella Hunt
Showtimes: Oct 18th, Oct 19th

There's something to be said for a film that knows exactly what it is - and puts it right in the title. There's also something to be said about a film made by Jon Wright, the director of hilarious horror-comedy Grabbers. So when you see a movie called Robot Overlords, directed by Jon Wright, you know just what to expect: something very good. With giant robots.


The movie doesn't disappoint. Set three years after a robot invasion, it sees humanity kept under curfew in their homes - a system held in place with mechanical trackers screwed into people's necks. The film doesn't shy away from the nasty reality of the situation, with grown-ups vaporised within minutes of the opening frame, including the father of young Conor (Milo Parker).


Taken in by motherly neighbour Kate (Anderson), a freak electrical accident sees Conor's tracker disabled - much to the delight of his adopted siblings, Sean (McAuliffe), Alexandra (Ella Hunt) and Nathan (Jason Tarpey).


What do they do with their newfound freedom? Start the human resistance - but not before popping to the nearest sweet shop. Mark Stay's script, co-written with Wright, nails that balance between sci-fi grit and adventurous glam, filtering the Amblin escapades of old through a modern Britain. And so we get the time-honoured themes of fatherhood and family (Sean is searching for his dad, who went missing during the first fights between man and bot), but we also get geezer Tamer Hassan hamming it up as a stereotypical gangster type, who could easily have walked right off the set of Cockneys vs Zombies.


It doesn't skimp on the freaky side of sci-fi, either: our main villain is effectively teacher-turned-cowardly-collaborator Robin Smithe (played with a soft regional accent by Ben Kingsley), but he liaises with "The Mediator", a mechanical child with all the creepiness of Ash in Alien. The film carries the same practical aesthetic as the clunky classics, from the mundane (non-American) location right down the robots themselves, which, while all CGI, have a battered quality that carries a threatening realism; when they shut down and fold into cubes, you could almost reach out and pick one up.


Younger audiences might not deal well with the darker hints of genre, but it gives Robot Overlords an exciting rush to events that can sometimes be missing from family fare. The cast, meanwhile, has more than enough humour to balance it out. The always-excellent Anderson is given the odd ripe line of dialogue, but Callan McAuliffe is charming as the young Harrison Ford-a-like, Ella does well with the love interest role, while Harpey, soon to be seen in the excellent The Beat Beneath My Feet, is enjoyably stupid. It is Milo, though, who brings them together, his enthusiastic presence helping the ensemble to interact in a wholly natural way that offsets any cheesy moments.


Cinema at the moment is enjoying a wave of young adult series, with The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner and Divergent all offering entertainment for US teen audiences. How rewarding it is, then, to see a young adult sci-fi that feels so British - and is ruddy good to boot. Boasting top-notch world-building on a small-scale budget, Robot Overlands is smart enough not to reach beyond its fun premise (it clocks in at just 88 minutes), yet remains brave enough to leave questions unanswered, paving the way for what could be a promising sequel - not to mention a strong career for Wright. He may not have the Hollywood buzz of Christopher Nolan or the hyper-kinetic style of the similar-surnamed Edgar, but the director has a voice (and confidence of tone) that knows exactly who he is, whether he's working with drunken aliens or giant robots. A UK franchise featuring more kids taking on tyrannical machines? I, for one, welcome our new Robot Overlords.


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