Tuesday, 2 September 2014

FILM REVIEW: BOYHOOD



Universal Pictures

Richard Linklater would appear to be a filmmaker preoccupied with time. In his Before trilogy, he followed a couple -- Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) -- over the course of 20 years; revisiting them every nine years to see where they've been, where they are, and where they're headed.

That series culminated in 2014's Before Midnight -- and a tour de force performance by Delpy -- and was an extremely satisfying filmic journey and arguably one of the best trilogies in cinema.

And now in an even bolder cinema experiment, writer-director Linklater has set out to capture a life on film: following young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to 18, from boyhood to his first day of college. The ambitious conceit being that Mason isn't played by three different actors, as would happen in a typical coming of age film, but the one kid; captured on film every year for 12 years: Linklater and his cast gathering for a few days (39 in total) a year, every year over the time period.

Mason (and Coltrane, who has just turned 20) literally grows up before our eyes. There are no title cards to tell us what year it is (the film begins in 2000) or how old Mason is, but the ebb and flow of time is evident in the changing haircuts, his increasing height and his thinning out as Mason sheds his puppy fat and grows into a slim, long-limbed adolescent.

But it's not just Mason's journey we follow. His mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who raises him and his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter), is integral to the story, not just as the primary caregiver (she's separated from their dad, Mason Snr., Ethan Hawke) but as a woman trying to better herself (returning to college) and in turn provide a better life for her kids.

That involves some less than perfect marriages, for even someone studying, and eventually teaching psychology can repeat the same mistakes, over and over. But to err is human, and Boyhood is as much a coming of age story as it is a testament to single motherhood.

Essentially about nothing and everything, the magic of Linklater's experiment is just how much we are invested in these peoples' lives. Not just Mason's but his mum's (Arquette is the film's MVP), his dad's (Hawke, effortlessly impressive), sister and friends. People come and go as Mason and his family move homes, towns, and eventually away from each other.

That's life, and its milestones, big and small, are captured in all their banality without any fanfare or concocted melodrama. It may not require its 165-minute run time but your patience will be rewarded: you won't begrudge a second spent in the company of this family and in this boy's life.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

FILM REVIEW: MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT



eOne Films

Woody Allen makes a film every year. Every year. And without meaning to sound patronising, that's impressive for a 78-year-old. But there's a difference between keeping busy and producing good (or great) work, and the results are often evident in the New York auteur's post-2000 oeuvre.

For for every good film (Match Point (2005), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Midnight In Paris (2011), Blue Jasmine (2013)), Allen seems to follow-up with a less than stellar effort: Scoop (2006), and To Rome With Love (2012), for example. And so it is with Magic In The Moonlight, which, even if it didn't come so soon after the award-winning Blue Jasmine (and Cate Blanchett's towering tragi-comic performance) would suffer from unmet audience expectations.

For on paper, Magic in the Moonlight has the right ingredients to succeed, or at the very least entertain: two fine actors in the leads (Colin Firth and Emma Stone), a playful battle of wits between cynicism and open-mindedness, and period detail and picturesque locales in the south of France.

It's 1928, and professional magician Stanley Crawford (Firth), who works under the stage name (and yellow face) of Wei Ling Soo, is called upon by an old colleague, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), to travel to the Cote d'Azur where he believes a young American spiritualist is trying to swindle a visiting wealthy family. Stanley agrees, for if there is nothing he enjoys more than wowing an audience with his teleportation tricks -- elephants and himself -- it's debunking those who profess to claim actual powers of the occult.

Firth (the least Allen-esque avatar for some time) seems to be channeling his infamous Mr Darcy role, sans brooding silence. Stanley is never short of a word or two, and he's full of pride and extremely prejudiced. But his claws retract somewhat when he meets Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), the big-eyed, red-haired American who claims to be in contact with the spirit world. And like Elizabeth Bennett, Sophie takes great delight in confounding her scowling opposite.

The age difference aside, there's not much chemistry to speak of between Firth and Stone: Stanley's dialogue seems to consist of Allen bits on the meaningless of life, and when he's not sharing them with everyone he's letting everyone know how intellectually superior he is to them. As for Stone, ostensibly an ideal actress for a Woody Allen film, she looks great in period dress but her comic ability is under-utilized. Maybe it's the summer sun in the south of France, but there's a lack of energy to their interplay and the film in general.

Marcia Gay Harden, as Sophie's mother, and Jacki Weaver, as the wealthy widow in Sophie's sites (she plans to fund the young clairvoyant's research facility), aren't given a whole lot to do either, which is odd given that you can almost always rely on Woody to write great roles for women. But thankfully there's Eileen Atkins as Stanley's Aunt Vanessa, the only person whose opinion he values and who is not afraid to challenge his 'logical' ways.

Perhaps this late 1920s tale comes too soon in the wake of Midnight In Paris, where Allen's protag and avatar (played by Owen Wilson) found a way to travel back through time to Paris in the 1920s and hob-knob with his literary and artistic heroes. Indeed, at one Gatsby-esque party scene in Magic in the Moonlight, one can't help but hope for Marion Cotillard's muse from 'Midnight' to wander in off the lawn and lead us off to another more fascinating soiree.

Alas, that's not to be and ultimately Magic in the Moonlight fades not too long after the end credits roll. This is not a summer -- nor a Woody Allen film -- to remember. But we'll always we have Midnight in Paris.

Monday, 25 August 2014

FILM REVIEW: PREDESTINATION



Pinnacle Films

Predestination may begin simply enough -- a man walks into a bar -- but by the end of this taut little tale of time travel, you'll feel as though you've spent the evening in said bar, knocking back one too many stiff drinks. For to paraphrase the most famous of time travelers, the titular Doctor of long-running sci-fi TV series Doctor Who, Predestination is "wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey"; a mind-bending, head-scratcher of a film.

The aforementioned man is a newspaper advice columnist, whose pen name is The Unmarried Mother, and he believes he has a story worthy of winning a free bottle of whisky from the bartender (Ethan Hawke). As the night unfolds, the writer tells his incredulous story which begins in an orphanage, proceeds to a cadetship with the space program, and eventually leads to his current employment.

His story also begins with him as a female. And as played by Sarah Snook (looking a little like Leo DiCaprio; a little like Dane DeHaan), that tale is never less than riveting and empathetic. It is also linked to that of the Fizzle Bomber, a domestic terrorist who has been terrorizing the city.

The bomber is also the number one target of the bartender who happens to be a Temporal Agent i.e. time travelling cop, who has been in pursuit of the Fizzle Bomber for years. That the writer walked into this bar on this night is no accident either. That's about as much plot detail for Predestination as one can give before moving into spoiler territory. It's a riddle, wrapped in an enigma and paradoxical would be putting it mildly.

Adapted from a short story (All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlein) by the Spierig Brothers, Michael and Peter (2009's Daybreakers), it's not unlike something the Wachowskis would enjoy sinking their teeth into; Predestination playing with theories of time and gender, and defying audience expectations to dizzying if not entirely logical effect. For be warned: your head will hurt by the time the end credits roll.

That's by no means a bad thing. Too few films today require a mental workout from its audience, and even if you guess at how the writer, the bartender and the bomber are linked, you're still likely to develop a migraine doing the 'chicken or the egg' calculations.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY



Walt Disney Studios Films

Food, glorious food. Cinema is no stranger to the culinary arts and long before MasterChef -- and social media -- made food porn a phenom, food has been lovingly, and lustily captured on film. Tampopo, Babette's Feast, Like Water For Chocolate, Eat Drink Man Woman, and even this year's Chef have all boasted menus as enticing and memorable as the characters and stories themselves.

Lasse Hallstrom, no stranger to food films (see 2000's Chocolat), directs The Hundred-Foot Journey, an adaptation by Steven Knight of the Robert C. Morais bestseller. Best described as a fairy tale, it tells the story of the Kadam family, restaurateurs in Mumbai who, following a personal tragedy, uproot to Europe and quite by accident -- literally -- decide to open an Indian restaurant in the south of France.

As fate or luck (or mere story contrivance) would have it, the Kadams' new kitchen is directly opposite the one-hat Michelin restaurant operated by Madame Mallory. As played by Helen Mirren, she's an imperious woman who objects as much to another restaurant opening on her doorstep (the two venues are a hundred feet apart, separated by a road) as she is to these loud, colourful foreigners bringing down the tone of the neighbourhood.

Madame Mallory and Papa Kadam (veteran Indian actor, Om Puri) immediately lock horns but Hassan (Manish Dayal), the natural chef of the family (there are four other siblings), is determined to make a go of the new restaurant as well as win the Madame over with his culinary skills, not to mention the heart of her sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon).

The French locales are idyllic and the food is appetite-inducing. And while Mirren is a solid presence, it is the charming and wily Puri who steals their scenes together. American Dayal also makes for a handsome if a little wet protagonist but there's nothing remotely challenging or, indeed, original about The Hundred-Foot Journey. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's the movie equivalent of comfort food, more a French pastry than a spicy Indian dish and there's nothing wrong with that if that's what you're in the mood for.