Final round-up: Leeds International Film Festival

Finisterrae

A SECOND week of films from the vast selection at Leeds International Film Festival threw up some oddball additions, not least of all Open Wings competitor, Finisterrae.

In what is undoubtedly one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, two ghosts who have tired of their other-worldly existence go on the road to Finisterre to seek advice on returning to the human world.

This debut work from Spain’s Sergio Caballero – co-director of the famous Sonar music festival – features snippets of an eclectic soundtrack, though its brilliance does not distract nearly enough from the heavy-handed manner in which the film desperately tries to push existential boundaries.

There are moments of humour to break up the obtrusive weirdness – the deadpan narrative between the ghosts’ dialogue does tickle on occasion, particularly when it transpires one of the two is depressed and there’s debate over the usefulness of keeping an appointment with a psychiatrist.

But rather than laughing at the film’s content I was rather more amused by the thought of its production, with camera crews sneaking out on night time jaunts to industrial estates to film two men covered in bed sheets standing in a ring of fire.

I also couldn’t help but wonder if animals – like children – are subject to the same rules and regulations of shorter working hours, and was the third main role of the steed in fact a job share with a second horse?

Having said that there was an erroneous scene where a fake horse with a rotating head replaced the real deal, for reasons largely unknown…

Together

Lukas Moodysson’s Together was a largely more comical affair than I anticipated as it followed the lives of those living in a hippy commune forced to make room for a housewife and a pair of precocious brats.

It’s the adults who live in this supposedly harmonious home who are exposed for their hypocrisies – flouting social norms for no real reason other than it was radical to do so – and the children who remark on their stupidity.

Marxists, nudists and vegans all get in a look-in as their 70s pad implodes with the frankly mundane: unrequited love, divorce, family spats, etc, but the film does strike a nice balance between funny and touching.

Shut Up Little Man

Music documentary Shut Up Little Man introduces us to an audio phenomenon that captured an underground music movement way before the internet reared its head.

Mid-west punks Eddie and Mitch have noisy neighbours and paper-thin walls to thank for their creativity as they set about recording.

Going viral before it was cool to do so, the pair recorded snippets of rows and recorded them to mix-tapes for friends,  which in turn sparked the interest of movie producers.


Sure, the dream was shortlived, but director Matthew Bates’ interviews with the protagonists provides a bittersweet ode to one of the earliest musical subcultures.
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Cinema review: The Help

THE HELP: 12A

RUNNING TIME: 147 minutes

DIRECTOR: Tate Taylor

STARRING: Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek,

IT usually makes me nervous when a director gets their sticky mitts on one of my favourite books.

But praise be that in the hands of Tate Taylor, Kathryn Stockett’s best selling novel, The Help, escapes a fate worse than cinematic massacre.

In fact, I’ll even go as far as to say that at two hours and 20 minutes, the film stays about as true to the book as attention spans will allow, giving its weighty issues the screen time and all-star acting it deserves.

At the heart of the tale is Aibileen, played by Viola Davis with the sort of perfection that makes your throat ache from choking back tears for two hours straight.

She’s a black maid who’s made a career out of raising white babies for the rich, middle class ladies of a 1960s southern town, and who loves them more than their mothers do but must stand by as they grow up to be as narrow-minded as their  parents.

Unexpectedly, her plight – and that of dozens of her friends –  is given a voice by would-be journalist Skeeter (Stone) who far from conforming to the married fate expected of her, decides to write an expose on how the “help” were treated at a time when civil rights was but a twinkle in Martin Luther King’s eye.

It’s a heart-warming drama which ticks all of the boxes for helping the downtrodden and mistreated, though as some critics have rightly pointed out, the maids do gaze upon Skeeter as their saviour – undercutting the very idea that this is about giving strength to the oppressed and not a superior white woman allowing them a shot at equality.

But this film deserves an awful lot of credit. Stone gives a solid performance in what is arguably one of her more challenging roles to date, despite a couple of blips where we are reminded of the actress’ naturally “kooky” character.

Bryce Dallas Howard gives a wonderfully bitter performance as the evil conductor of the town’s racism and her chemistry with Octavia Spencer, who plays the sassy “mammy” figure given a second chance by equally outcast socialite, Celia (Jessica Chastain), is wonderful to watch.

Overall the film is tastefully made with beautiful attention to period detail and star quality support slots from Chastain and Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother.

If The Help doesn’t pick up a string of awards I’ll consider it a crime.

Cinema review: Contagion

Jude - Kim and Aggy called, they want their suit back.

CONTAGION: 12A

DIRECTOR: Steven Soderberg


RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

CAST: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard

I ONCE saw a man on the bus read a newspaper, have a wild sneezing fit into its pages, then place it on the seat and leave.

I vowed there and then I would never again pick up second-hand reading material found on public transport – and it’s this unhygenic premise which makes Contagion uncomfortably believable.

Steven Soderberg’s tale of a killer virus threatening to wipe out the world is hardly new; in fact, the emergence in recent years of infectious diseases like SARS and swine flu are a sobering reminder that the plot is far from unrealistic.

In this particular race-against-time disaster movie, businesswoman Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from a trip to Hong Kong with what seems like a case of the sniffles.

In what must be the easiest pay check Paltrow has ever banked she suffers a fatal seizure within the film’s first few scenes, sparking a world-wide alert that a deadly contagion is on the loose and multiplying at a rate of killer knots.

Matt Damon gives a rather forgettable performance as husband Mitch, a turn as a desperate dad trying to keep his daughter from picking up the nasty bug. But the individual plights of those affected by the disease are frankly overshadowed by the scientific – and eminently more interesting – elements to the story.

Kate Winslet plays disease specialist Dr Erin Mears who attempts to stop the disease in its rapidly spreading tracks, but just as she hones in on the next contagious victim she contracts it herself and end up in a body bag.

Continuously killing people off is perhaps realistic if a virus quite so infectious were to exist but it eradicates any hope of forging a connection with the characters: case in point being an erroneous subplot involving Marion Cottilard which never really picks up despite its heartstring potential.

Jude Law – playing a smug conspiracy theorist masquerading as ‘journalist’ Alan Krumweide – is the only character that provides a real constant, yet he is the candidate most deserving of catching the deathly cold.

In nasty hack fashion he stirs a cauldron of propaganda causing riots among cure-seekers which hits squeamishly close to home in these times of social discontent.

With so many branches of disorder to keep track of it’s both easy to forget who is panicking where and hard to care whether they survive as they trample over each other to save Number One.

But the idea that something as innocuous as a handshake – albeit linked to an unfortunate chain of events involving a bat, a pig and a Chinese casino – can cause such catastrophe is not as far-fetched as one would imagine.

I guarantee you’ll think twice about touching handrails on public transport again.

Review: Crazy Stupid Love

Crazy Stupid Love

CRAZY STUPID LOVE: 12A

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes

DIRECTOR: John Requa and Glenn Ficarra

STARRING: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei

ASKING for a ticket to see “Crazy Stupid Love” is impossible to say without scowling. I’ve tried, and the acid reflux it caused was frankly painful.

For future reference I would rather report on the heartless murder of kittens than have my gag reflex tested in such a manner ever again.

Title rage aside, this film is actually very good: tying together various threads of romance in the manner of Love Actually minus the vomit-producing levels of schmaltz. 

In the lead role of Cal Weaver is Steve Carrell, channelling the downtrodden middle-aged routine he’s perfected from roles like The 40 Year Old Virgin.

Poor Cal has been unceremoniously dumped by his wife of 25 years, Emily (Julianne Moore), for no greater crime than getting a bit old and boring.

Drowning his sorrows in vodka-cranberries, he takes up residence on a bar stool to the annoyance of serial womaniser Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who gets so bored of Cal’s pity-party that he decides to take him under his bicep-bulging wing.

There’s the traditional transformation montage where buying new clothes and getting a hair cut will fix Cal’s woes, because, obviously, this will carry just as much favour with the ladies as Gosling’s outrageously chiselled abs.

But the reason Carrell works the character so well is because he get the sympathy vote: he’s like a puppy who has been repeatedly kicked in the face but resolutely carries on, not wanting to bother anyone.

“Sweet” doesn’t even begin to cover his hopeless attempts to get over his wife, though “hilarious” gets a look-in when he sleeps with a mentally unstable, ex-alcoholic teacher (Marisa Tomei). 

Elsewhere, Emma Stone plays the lovely but pithy lawyer, Hannah, who chops Jacob’s seduction tactics down to size, proving that even for self-confessed studs there’s hope for love.

The film does fall into a world of sentimentality towards the end, and there is a mildly inappropriate moment with a naked photo and a prepubescent boy, but it dodges the rom-com bullet of death with witty screenplay penned by Dan Fogelman.

A first class cast throwing themselves whole-heartedly into a believable and bittersweet world is just the icing on the cake.

Fukunaga continues the Eyre affair

Bit o' scandal

JANE EYRE: PG

RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes

DIRECTOR: Cary Fukunaga

STARRING: Mia Wasikowska, Jamie Bell, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench, Tamzin Merchant, Sally Hawkins, Imogen Poots

BY rights, no-one in their right mind would venture into the world of adaptations with a novel of such classic status as Jane Eyre.

It’s dangerous ground, visualising Charlotte Bronte’s gothic romance: there’s a lot of ground-breaking feminism, scandal and appropriately wild weather to fit into 90 minutes.

But the attempts to bring Brontë’s words to life continues, and of the numerous attempts by directors to do so, Cary Fukunaga has the spirit of the novel spot on.

The pickiest of critics will point out that the casting of plain Jane is at cross-purposes with the unusual looking 21-year-old Australian actress, Mia Wasikowska – she is after all, supposed to be, “obscure, plain, and little” – and quite clearly, she is none of these things.

The same can be said for the brooding Michael Fassbender as Edward Fairfax Rochester, who has hardly been dealt a bad hand in the looks department, yet reciprocates with remarks like, “you’re not pretty anymore than I am handsome,” words that ring true to the novel but not to the actors playing the characters.

But that small matter aside – lest we forget, this is Hollywood – the pair are well cast.  Fassbender stews with unabashed arrogance as Rochester, putting small-town Jane on the spot with blunt questions such as “do you find me handsome?”

 Wasikowska’s reserved portrayal means she responds to the Rochester’s intensity with a restraint natural to her station. She responds with firm put-downs matched with a steely gaze, a trait the young actress masters with understated delivery.

Their exchange is quick witted and fiery, propelled by Fassbender’s urgent delivery and the only criticism is that he perhaps overplays this aspect of the gothic anti-hero to the point of carnal: more Heathcliff than Rochester.

Jane is a role that ticks the boxes for early feminism: she’s a working class governess but she’s no fool. Best of all Wasikowska plays with a much more passable northern accent than Anne Hathaway’s recent and diabolical attempts.

Her measured guttural lilt compliments Fukanga’s attention to the Brontean love of the wild and untamed moors and dales as a backdrop to disastrous tales of woe.

Pathetic fallacy is gloriously abused with widescreen panning shots of bruise-coloured bracken being bashed by high winds, misty grey mornings reflecting the turmoil of relationships doomed by class and expectation, and bare tree branches clawing at gloomy skies.

The film teeters on becoming glamorised, partly because the tempestuous descriptions of the text lends itself to exaggeration, but Fukunaga does well to keep it from becoming just another tea-time period drama. The characters are earthy and fiercely acted by both stars – it’s not a startling rework but it’s a classy and polished effort.

Lights out for the Green Lantern

Look, it’s almost as big as Kate Middleton’s!

GREEN LANTERN: 12A

RUNNING TIME: Too long

DIRECTOR: Martin Campbell
 
STARRING: Ryan Reynolds, Mark Strong, Peter Sarsgaard, Blake Lively

FIRSTLY: a superhero that carries a lantern around like a handbag is never going to be particularly intimidating, is it?

Add to that the fact he has to re-charge his ring like a cheap mobile phone and his part-time powers just come off a bit, dare I say it, lame.

Secondly: while we’re on a film-bashing trajectory, ‘star’ of the show, Ryan Reynolds, does little to improve matters, indeed fulfilling the description made by someone far funnier than I, that he is in fact the human equivalent of low-fat spread.  Bland, weak and more than a little dull.

In fairness to Reynolds, who can’t be blamed for the fact that the Green Lantern story is the diet version of a fizzy drink, the final nail in an already half-buried coffin is the fact that the power bestowed upon our Superhero Lite is the unspeakably crap possession of ‘will’.

Talk about positive thinking. Our superhero may as well sit at home swatting up on self-help books, learning the art of zen and chanting ‘if one believes he can save the world, one can.’

The film, which recounts the DC Comics ‘silver age’ era of the Green Lantern series, sees Reynolds’ character, Hal Jordan, appointed to replace dying alien warrior, Abin Sur, who has been defeated by Parallax, a former Green Lantern guardian who has succumbed to the power of ‘fear’.

Seeing himself unfit to take the role and duly told so by his mentor Sinestro, Hal quits and returns to Earth, although he is allowed to keep the power ring and lantern battery, so it wasn’t an entirely wasted journey into outer space.

But with the help of love interest, Carol, (Blake Lively), Hal comes to terms with his self worth and realises until he accepts his own downfalls, namely his aversion to any sort of responsibility (a pre-requisite for the job, you’d imagine), his standard of crime-fighting is never going to be up to scratch.

So, he looks inside himself and thinks really really really hard about his immature behaviour and lo and behold, he throws off his man-child cloak and saves the world. 

I did not see that coming.

On a more positive note, the one decent line in the whole cheesy script comes from Lively, who asks the question which has burned in me like an irritating fire since I learnt to read comic books: “why do you think I can’t recognise you just because I can’t see your cheek bones?” 

Quite! I’m all for suspension of disbelief but a strip of material across the eyes does not a mask make.

Sadly, while it did warm me to hear someone point out something I’ve wondered for years, it doesn’t negate the fact that against the slew of comic book classics currently setting the silver screen ablaze, Green Lantern is a weak tribute to far more exciting contemporaries.

Not all’s fair in love and war

My husband did what now?

IF you were to ask former senior members of the Bush administration whether the identity of real-life CIA agent Valerie Plame was “fair game”,  they would probably tell a different story to that of director Doug Liman.

The conspiracy drama surrounding the unmasking of a federal agent in 2003 was a hotly-debated topic in every opinion column of the American press when the scandal broke, with journalists chucking in their two cents at every opportunity and the Washington Post effectively killing a successful operative’s career.

Fair Game however gives a rather bland account of the events leading up to the moment Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, wrote a column denying the claims made by White House honchos that Sadaam Hussain bought uranium from contacts in Niger, allegedly for the purpose of building weapons of mass destruction.

The fallout of Wilson’s quest to tell the truth was astronomically destructive to both Plame’s private and professional life.  It not only resulted in her becoming a CIA scapegoat but also suggests that operations mishandled after her dismissal led to the death of innocent informants.

But what initially looks and feels like a Bourne film is surprisingly boring in execution. Naomi Watts plays Plame with cool authority,  juggling high-profile operations crucial to national security and taking responsibility for endangered lives all across the Middle East.

Wilson (Sean Penn) on the other hand is anchorless,  doing very little other than schmoozing with relevant ambassadors and taking the questionable decision to go up against the biggest authority in the United States. 

In Liman’s version, the CIA is painted as all bark and no bite,  emasculated by White House chiefs who stalk through the corridors demanding answers from supposedly powerful agents who bow to their demands.

For anyone with a passing interest in the politics of the last decade, there’s nothing groundbreaking about the rumours and suspicions surrounding the,  some might say,  imaginary catalyst for the Iraq invasion.

Fair Game is an altogether muted affair,  never reaching the sense of urgency that the events should invoke:  the worst we get is a marital spat and even that is brief.

The story is real but the feeling is badly handled – a shame given that Watts puts in a strong performance as a public servant badly wronged.  Justice to Plame is not met in real life, nor in the film’s execution.