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The American socialite and amateur operatic soprano Florence Foster Jenkins may have gained notoriety for her terrible singing, but she was unquestionably a lover of music, and extremely generous with her money during the early part of the 20th Century. Her patronage of musicians and concert venues in New York was appreciated by many, but taken advantage of all the same; yet it also enabled her to perform at some of the city’s prestigious venues, including Carnegie Hall. Live recordings of these concerts reveal that her style was a startling mixture of enthusiastic shrill shrieking and bum notes, while on some you can clearly hear the chortling of audience members; the few studio recordings that exist are not much better. This affectionate biographical comedy-drama by Stephen Frears – written by Nicholas Martin – is an account of Foster Jenkins’ later years on stage, first in musical theatre and then as a singer (it’s the second film in the past few months to be inspired by Florence’s life, the other being the French drama Margeurite, which reimagined her as a performer in Paris). Here Meryl Streep plays the titular warbler, with Frears milking her wonky performances for laughs before ending on more touching, melancholy notes: this is a film that cares for its protagonist every bit as much as it makes fun of her follies, and Streep walks the line between butt of the jokes and tragic heroine skillfully. I chuckled away during the scenes in which she sings out of key, especially as Frears includes numerous reaction shots of those around her, which range from deadpan refusals to acknowledge that anything’s wrong to people bent double with laughter; and I was also ever-so-slightly moved by the tender – if unconventional – relationship she has with husband and manager St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), as well as Florence’s own struggles with insecurity and illness.

As well as Grant – who does good work and amuses during a wild-eyed dance sequence – Streep is joined by The Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg, who adds more laughs as Florence’s accompanying pianist Cosmé McMoon, his face constantly twitching as he tries to second guess the direction her voice will take next. McMoon starts out as an unemployed piano player and composer, and is grateful for the generous money Foster Jenkins pays him, but he’s understandably reticent when it comes to performing in public with the singer. As their relationship develops the pianist becomes more and more loyal, the character recognising Florence’s harmlessness and the need for someone to support her in front of an audience. The rest of the cast members – save perhaps for Bayfield’s mistress, played by Rebecca Ferguson – are incidental to the main story, though a couple add colour, such as Nina Arianda as a flirtatious woman married to a meatpacking magnate. There’s plenty of attention to period detail in terms of the interior sets, while Liverpool and neighbouring peninsula The Wirral serve as effective stand-ins for New York and its environs (and as a Wirral lad myself I can assure you I never thought I’d be typing such a thing, although Central Park’s landscape architect was influenced by the layout of Birkenhead Park on The Wirral; the producers of Florence Foster Jenkins missed a link there). The humour’s silly and gentle, while the comic performances are on the money, but I didn’t take to it as much as the older members of my cinema audience seemed to, or indeed in the same way that most newspaper critics in the UK have done. Funny and moving at times, though, which I guess is everything it’s intended to be.

Directed by: Stephen Frears.
Written by: Nicholas Martin.
Starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda.
Cinematography: Danny Cohen.
Editing: Valerio Bonelli.
Music: Alexandre Desplat.
Certificate: PG.
Running Time: 110 minutes.
Year: 2016.

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In Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill Ethan Hawke plays a drone pilot who is locked away in a kitted-out portacabin in an American air base, somewhere in the Nevada desert. Inside this metal box he wrestles with the moral complexities of the precise military strikes he performs under orders, which are carried out thousands of miles away in Afghanistan or unidentified countries in the Middle East; understandably the character feels detached from the field of conflict, and the film spends plenty of time exploring his mental state, while at times for the viewer the footage seems akin to watching someone play a video game, albeit with supposedly real consequences. Niccol and Hawke successfully get into the mindset of the main character, and address some of the widely-held concerns about this kind of modern warfare, but we do only see events play out from an American perspective.

Similar ground is covered by Eye In The Sky, the new release by South African filmmaker Gavin Hood, though the scope of his film is much wider than Niccol’s. We do get an equivalent of Hawke’s Major Tom Egan – here played by Aaron Paul – but he’s just one part of an international anti-terrorism operation targeting Al Shabaab extremists in a house in Nairobi, Kenya. The identities of these terrorists are swiftly confirmed via satellite and drone imagery – plus some rather niftily-disguised James Bond-style cameras in close proximity – and footage later reveals that they are in the final stages of preparation for a suicide bombing. The mission to capture or kill them is being led by Helen Mirren’s British Army colonel from a bunker in Surrey, England, while the action sleekly switches between her, Paul’s pilot, Alan Rickman’s general – who is dealing with the British government – and those who are close to the house in question; namely a young girl (Aisha Takow) who sells bread in a busy nearby market, as well as Barkhad Abdi’s covert field agent, who has the riskiest job of all but is treated as expendable by those in charge. Thus an intriguing political, moral and legal dilemma subsequently plays out: do they blow up the house and risk collateral damage to those who are unfortunate enough to be nearby, or do they wait for a later opportunity that will not endanger innocent civilians and may allow them to take the targets alive?

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Helen Mirren makes a tough call in Gavin Hood’s Eye In The Sky

The characters who are serving in the British military – perhaps more practiced with regard to making such decisions – want to strike as soon as possible; their argument is that it’s better to risk a couple of innocent deaths than have a bomber blow himself up in a crowded shopping mall, potentially killing many more. However the decision needs to be approved by the government, and that’s where lots of the film’s narrative tension lies: political and legal questions are asked but there’s very little precedent to help in terms of providing an answer, and the responsibility for giving the all-clear is repeatedly shirked by nervous politicians who are ultimately driven by the need to protect their own backs and those of their colleagues; at one point the decision even seems to rest on a politician’s desire to avoid having to discuss the matter on TV at a later date. Time ticks on as phone calls are made, and the film opens out further as bucks are passed to senior figures in the White House and Iain Glen’s Foreign Secretary, who is unflatteringly given a dose of food poisoning by writer Guy Hibbert. Throughout this mix of politicians, special agents, and military figures communicate via video message, telephone and email, and plenty of time is given over to their numerous conversations, which are generally tense and tend to end in further frustration for all involved.

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Barkhad Abdi remains close to the action

The subject matter is current, of course, in terms of the setting and the practices of the terrorist group depicted, as well as the high-tech international collaboration, which must be flexible when global interests and priorities are not aligned. It’s shot in a perfunctory fashion, though Hood regularly reverts to the overhead images coming from the drone’s camera. He uses these in fascinating ways, at one point allowing the viewer and watching military and government parties to see the proximity of armed guards to Abdi’s agent as he is chased through alleys and yards, and later setting out the level of risk attached to the little girl’s position depending on where the missiles strike. The issues we are invited to ponder are the same as those the characters grapple with, though of course as we move from room to room and conversaton to conversation we are party to information that some characters do not have at their disposal. The screenplay offers no easy answers to the problems it creates or identifies during the first act, which is exactly as it should be. In fact the script is deliberately simple and deliberately tight, successfully heading off any ‘why don’t they do such-and-such?’ questions that may arise within the audience. It’s let down somewhat by contrivance and cliched characters – a brave agent, an icy colonel, cowardly bureaucrats, etc. – but improved by subtle points and suggestions that are tucked away here and there: for all the deliberation about the safety of the girl and concern about the welfare of the field agent – the two primary African characters – it’s telling that none of the British or American soldiers or politicians here seem interested in learning about the fate of either at the end.

In terms of the acting it’s generally quite solid, though occasionally Paul fails to convince as his character struggles with the potential consequences of the situation. Mirren is good as the assertive soldier in charge and Abdi shows fleeting glimpses of the standard he reached in Captain Phillips. I guess in the future the film will be notable for being the last one to feature Alan Rickman before he passed away, and there are times when we can enjoy the exasperation that featured so heavily in his acting career (I’m struggling to think of an actor who was better at displaying their character’s eye-rolling annoyance with those around them). It’s not Rickman’s best film, or his best performance, by any stretch, but he’s good in this and Eye In The Sky is a fitting end to a fine body of work. Hood – the director of the Oscar-winning 2005 film Tsotsi – has made a series of interesting career turns, of which this is the latest, and on this evidence I feel like I probably should have paid more attention during the past decade.

Directed by: Gavin Hood.
Written by: Guy Hibbert.
Starring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Aisha Takow, Phoebe Fox, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen.
Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos.
Editing: Megan Gill.
Music: Paul Hepker, Mark Kilian.
Certificate: 12.
Running Time: 102 minutes.
Year: 2016.

 

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With each Charlie Kaufman film – and I make no distinction between those that he has written and those that he has both written and directed – there lies a central question: what, exactly, is he getting at? Each of Kaufman’s screenplays examines the collective psyche of westerners (more often than not, Americans), filtered through a male protagonist, and does so while ensconcing that character in extreme, entertainingly quirky scenarios: gameshow hosts serve as CIA stooges, a theatre director’s life becomes a play, a man can access the mind of John Malkovich, and so on. Each scenario serves as a hook, but however weird things get it’s always abundantly clear that Kaufman is a writer who is primarily obsessed with people, and how they operate and interact with one another. Each new work highlights different human frailties and foibles, pointing out the absurdities of his well-observed characters and the absurdities of the modern world around them.

Anomalisa, Kaufman’s latest film, is a droll, stop-motion comedy drama that he has co-directed with animator Duke Johnson, the pair securing funding through a Kickstarter campaign. It’s set for the most part in a Cincinatti hotel called The Fregoli, and the story follows an unhappy, lonely customer service guru named Michael Stone (David Thewlis), who is in town for a night prior to delivering a keynote speach at a conference. Michael has become distanced from his wife and son, and we soon discover that his alienation has extended beyond the confines of his home: he perceives everyone he sees to be identical. The majority of parts in Anomalisa – male and female – are therefore voiced by one actor, Tom Noonan, because we are seeing things almost entirely from Michael’s perspective, while additionally the faces of these characters appear to be interchangeable, a move that recalls the numerous talking Malkoviches in Being John Malkovich.

It would appear that Kaufman is having fun at the expense of those who work in customer-facing roles, even though it’s the main character who is perceiving them as no-name automatons; we even see the joins where each person’s face can be taken off, the suggestion being perhaps that people are afraid to be themselves any more and keep their true nature hidden (witness Michael’s own horror on the one occasion he lets his mask slip, as it were). Stone – an expert in customer service, lest we forget – is a curmudgeon, and his attitude to the various workers he comes across during the story means he’s not particularly likeable, but perhaps we can forgive his tired exasperation to an extent. First he comes across a taxi driver at the airport who wants to make small talk and doesn’t pick up on Michael’s cues for silence; then a hotel receptionist freakishly never breaks eye contact while checking him in. The person he speaks to on the phone when he orders room service robotically runs through a long description of the food Michael orders, even though it isn’t necessary.

As the main character becomes more and more concerned with questioning his own life, identity, previous love affairs and current level of happiness, he begins to experience a gradual meltdown (or, perhaps more accurately, I should say his condition worsens); we subsequently see a lot of action on screen – some of it bizarre, some of it not so bizarre – that is presumably taking place in Michael’s head, often signposted by the use of excessive backlighting (and here the hotel setting, with all its artificial lighting and big windows, comes into its own). Michael’s evening features an awkward encounter with an old flame and an odd visit to a sex toy shop, before the film hoodwinks the viewer into thinking they’re watching a straightforward love story, of sorts. Stone hears a woman talking in the corridor outside his room whose voice is different to everyone else; this is Lisa, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is in town for the conference and staying at the same hotel. Michael is instantly smitten, and sets about wooing his fellow guest. Whether the sexual encounter that occurs between the two – which is surprisingly graphic and realistic, for an animated film – actually takes place or not depends on the viewer’s interpretation of events. Kaufman offers a few small clues that tantalisingly suggest it’s all a figment of Michael’s imagination: why else would Lisa have a scar in the same place as the antique Japanese sex doll Stone purchases? (That’s the same sex doll that later…um…well, I won’t divulge.)

Johnson’s animation skills are impressive, while the work of the three actors is also worth a mention; Thewlis is a master of exasperated annoyance, and his Michael will remind anyone who has seen Mike Leigh’s Naked of that film’s gobby, nihilistic anti-hero Johnny. (Jeniffer Jason) Leigh plays a far more likeable character in Lisa, and does a good job of emphasising her vulnerability and self-doubt, particularly in the build up to sex. Noonan, you might argue, has the toughest job of all, given that he has to play everyone else. Most of his characters are all distinct from one another, due to size, clothing, haircut and so on, though the actor’s voice never wavers. Yet Anomalisa is most notable for Kaufman’s enigmatic writing, which will at the very least keep you thinking about the film after it has finished, even though you’ll probably want to forget his main character as quickly as possible. Flights of fancy and strange occurrences are Kaufman’s invitations to try and figure out what he is getting at, though he remains equally adept with the more straightforward, crowdpleasing stuff, incorporating humour that’s actually funny and penning convincing relationships, too. He’s still one of the most intriguing writers working today.

Directed by: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson.
Written by: Charlie Kaufman.
Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan.
Cinematography: Joe Passarelli.
Editing: Garret Elkins.
Music:
Carter Burwell.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
89 minutes.
Year:
2016.

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I’ve been feeling the need to shake things up a bit on this blog for a while, as writing about films using the same format can become a little tedious and repetitive from time to time, especially when you’re writing five or so posts a week. For this review of David Leon’s new British indie Orthodox I’ve decided to try something new, and have randomly selected five frames from different minutes of the film, which were chosen using a random number generator. (I can’t claim this idea as my own…it’s pilfered from Dan North’s excellent blog Spectacular Attractions, and you can see his posts here.) I’ll try and write a little about each frame, and I’ll keep them in the order they appear within the film itself. The frames I’ve chosen are from minutes 13, 38, 48, 60 and 75.

Orthodox is a gritty drama about a Jewish man who loses his family and his status within the community after he is sent to prison for arson. It’s Leon’s first feature film, though he has directed a few short films, including a truncated version of this story, which was made in 2012. If you’re in the UK and Orthodox isn’t showing at a cinema near you, it is currently available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

Frame 1: minute 13.

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Stephen Graham, seen on the left here, plays Ben, a Jewish butcher and amateur bare-knuckle boxer, whose love of fighting has seen him ostracised from the local Jewish community (the location is unspecified; Graham’s accent would suggest it’s supposed to be somewhere in the south-east of England, but the production was actually based in the north-east). Through flashbacks we learn that Ben started to box as a child because he was bullied. In his adult life he is struggling to make ends meet and to provide for his family. His butcher’s shop has a distinct lack of produce and customers, so to make some money on the side he takes part in underground boxing matches, and is managed by petty criminal, landlord and boxing gymnasium-owner Shannon (Michael Smiley), who also pays Ben to collect debts on his behalf. Both Shannon and Graham appeared as the same characters in Leon’s 2012 short.

Graham is well-known for playing tough nuts – his monstrous Al Capone stands out in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and he made his name with a string of fine performances as racist skinhead Combo in Shane Meadows’ This Is England series. He’s very good at playing aggressive guys, but he’s also adept at making you feel sympathy for his characters despite their actions (less so Capone, but that’s certainly true here and with regard to Combo). He’s well cast: Ben makes a series of poor choices that land him in prison, but when he’s back on the outside we want things to work out for him, as ultimately he’s portrayed as an honest, hardworking man who loves his family.

Also in the frame is Rebecca Callard, who plays Ben’s ‘shikse’ wife Alice. In this scene they dance and kiss in the kitchen of their house, and it’s one of the few upbeat moments in an otherwise downbeat film (all of the more positive scenes, which feature Ben, Alice and their two children, arrive within the first twenty minutes). Callard, whose mother Beverley is familiar to soap opera fans in the UK, has worked steadily in TV for many years, but this branching out into feature films is welcome; she’s good here in a small supporting role. Unfortunately when Ben goes to prison an unpleasant fate awaits her, and she is written out of Leon’s film, which is a real shame. It’s all men from then on, and that never ends well.

Frame 2: minute 38.

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Naturally when Ben gets out of prison his first move is to seek out Shannon, who employs him at his old boxing gym. Michael Smiley has made the most of supporting roles in a number of very good films during the past few years, including Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster and Gerard Barrett’s Glassland, and he’s on pretty good form here as a manipulative Fagin figure, though perhaps if anything he’s a little too dastardly. Ben’s stint in prison has led Shannon to look elsewhere for a dogsbody to carry out his dirty work, and he’s chosen another vulnerable Jewish boy, Daniel (Giacomo Mancini), seen on the left here. Ben instantly recognises Daniel as a kindred spirit, and the story then becomes about their relationship and the way they are both treated and manipulated by Shannon. I chose this frame in particular as the vest and the jacket on display reflect the film’s colour palette – which relies to a certain degree on blues and faded yellows. Both colours pop up regularly – clothes, soft furnishings, etc – and the yellows in particular help to give the film a faded, dreary look.

Frame 3: minute 49.

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Here the local community leader Goldberg (Christopher Fairbank) is visiting Ben to check up on him and to discuss the future for Ben and his family. Goldberg is a strange figure: part society patriarch, part cold-hearted businessman, he owns many of the properties that the crooked Shannon manages, and the pair have a similar relationship to that between Shannon and Daniel, with the older man passing on the dirtier side of the business to his underling. In the scene just before this one Ben and Daniel talk over dinner in the same location. The framing here mimics the framing from the previous scene: in each case the experienced, older father figure is placed on the right-hand-side and the conversation is shot side-on. The younger man is respectful and listens, and it forces us to compare the characters of Ben and Daniel once more. In both of these scenes it’s interesting to note Ben’s furnishings; they look cheap, and old (judging by people’s clothes the film is set in the present day but Ben’s TV looks like it has been around since the 1980s). We know that Ben doesn’t have a lot of money, and presumably won’t be making much working at Shannon’s gym, but there’s also a suggestion that he’s unwilling to move on after his release from prison, and has no interest in setting up a truly-comfortable home (though there are speakers, and a comfy-looking chair, I guess). It makes for a stark contrast with the well-furnished house that Ben lived in with his family, seen earlier in the film.

Frame 4: minute 60.

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This is in Shannon’s office, inside the gym. Note the yellows and blues in this frames again. The scene in question starts off quite amusingly: Shannon is alone, watching a daytime quiz show, and he’s losing his rag with a contestent who has been asked to identify Manchester United’s most-capped footballer. His exasperation, plus the fact that his own answer was incorrect, leads Shannon to mutter the word ‘cunt’ under his breath, though just as he does so there’s a cut to a shot of Ben walking past the window along the corridor outside of the office. Is it directed towards Ben, or the TV? Shannon greets his employee warmly enough, but we know by now that he’s a complete weasel, and there’s no substance to his friendliness. By this point Ben has had enough of him, and has come to realise that Shannon is partly responsible for his situation and his stint in prison (though Ben is not without fault himself, of course). His body language speaks volumes here: Ben’s arms are folded and he clearly doesn’t want to have anything more to do with Shannon.

Frame 5: minute 72

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Here we see Goldberg in a cemetery. The headstone provides plot information that I probably shouldn’t give away, but I like the shot and the way the older man blends into the surroundings; it reminds us of his age, and that time is running out for him, but also the graves foreshadow what happens next during the film’s final act. You can also see some typically overcast British weather: this is one of those gritty dramas where it’s always cloudy (or late at night), and we barely get a glimpse of sunlight (see also Catch Me Daddy). The shot is part of an impressive sequence that flicks between Goldberg and Ben, who is in Goldberg’s office; Goldberg has left an envelope for Ben on his desk that gives him important information, and the nature of their relationship becomes clearer at this point. From here on in the film moves toward its denouement, which partly recalls the plot of Iñárritu’s Biutiful, and Orthodox the Spanish film’s sense of hopelessness.

It’s a promising debut for Leon, in which Graham delivers a typically-strong performance and Smiley also impresses. If anything you wonder whether it’s able to stand out among the crowded market of gritty British independent dramas, but the focus on the Jewish community isn’t particularly common, I guess, and the acting is certainly good enough.

Directed by: David Leon.
Written by: David Leon.
Starring: Stephen Graham, Michael Smiley, Giacomo Mancini, Christopher Fairbank, Rebecca Callard.
Cinematography: Si Bell.
Editing: Kelvin Hutchings.
Music:
Simon Robbs.
Certificate:
18.
Running Time:
98 minutes.
Year:
2016.

 

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This low-key science fiction film is set in a near, post-apocalyptic future where, as the title suggests, the human race must endure a constant struggle for survival. An opening title sequence informs us – inventively, using only a graph – that catastrophe struck in the not-too distant past, and global population figures plummeted in tandem with a drop-off in oil production. As such there’s only a handful of characters in Stephen Fingleton’s debut film, which seems to imply that somewhere along the line our cities became either too dangerous, or uninhabitable for some other reason. It is mostly set in verdant woodland, where nature has thrived as a result of humanity’s decline; though if the bright green grass, plants and leaves seen on screen suggest a fervent ecosystem in the countryside, it soon becomes clear that food is scarce and packets of seeds are the most valuable item that can be traded.

The narrative follows an unnamed main character (Martin McCann), who lives alone and grows vegetables outside his wooden shack, where he is constantly under threat from human raiders and must keep a shotgun close at all times. The first act is spent illustrating the character’s hand-to-mouth existence, and is almost wordless, though his silent routine of cooking, washing, keeping a fire going (he’s burning his last remaining books and photographs) is fascinating to watch. Fingleton’s intelligent and occasionally-gruesome picture doesn’t expand much on its premise, and most of the action takes place in and around the man’s makeshift house, but The Survivalist is gripping precisely because of its narrow scope. The man’s world changes when two women (one older, one younger, played by Olwen Fouere and Mia Goth respectively) arrive on his doorstep asking for food. (Their offering of trinkets that were once valuable but now largely redundant is scoffed at.) Initially the man doesn’t trust the two women, which is understandable, given that society has seemingly devolved into a kill-or-be-killed anarchy and we see the older woman casting auspicious glances at the shotgun, as if she is waiting for the right moment to strike. Yet this intense but economical chamber piece moves forward simply by examining the way that relationships and allegiances between the three main characters gradually change over a short period of time.

This is a debut feature of some confidence, relying on the ability of its actors to explain through actions and (few) words how this society operates, and the central trio manage adeptly and convince in their respective roles. It may be lo-fi and low-key, as these post-apocalyptic stories go – there’s no soundtrack, little dialogue and the characters do not stray far from the hut – but it’s interesting to see one in which nature has taken over (rather than the usual scorched earth landscapes that show nature in regression, as seen in Mad Max, The Road, I Am Legend and so on). Yet there’s no suggestion here that mankind has returned to the ‘Garden of Eden’ or that food is abundant. Quite the opposite, in fact: humanity seems to be grimly hanging on, almost as if people are fighting against the natural world as much as they are fighting each other. Fingleton and DP Damien Ellliott cleverly create a sense of claustrophobia, with the poky shack featuring heavily, though outside of the house the walls of trees and plants further hem the characters in. When the action briefly spills into a meadow – and this section includes the film’s standout shot, as the camera pans over swaying grass to reveal the hiding place of a raider – or when we finally see more open space at the end, you actually feel a sense of relief. The final scene brings to mind Alfonso Cuarón‘s Children Of Men, and The Survivalist ends on a similarly brief optimistic note, but otherwise there’s little cheer in this intense, fascinating drama. Impressive.

Directed by: Stephen Fingleton.
Written by: Stephen Fingleton.
Starring: Martin McCann, Olwen Fouere, Mia Goth.
Cinematography: Damien Elliott.
Editing: Mark Towns.
Certificate: 18.
Running Time:
99 minutes.
Year:
2016.

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The latest film by Michel Gondry is a typically whimsical affair, and taken at face value it’s concerned with little other than the summer holiday adventures of two uncool 14-year-old French boys, but as you’d expect from this director it has a considerable amount of quirky charm. It helps that the two main characters induce waves of sympathy and are eminently likeable from the off. Daniel (Ange Dargent) is a scrawny, shy kid who struggles to fit in at school and must fight for attention at home, where he tiptoes around two older siblings and a pair of distracted parents. His classmates have cruelly give him the nickname ‘Microbe’, he’s too scared to act on a crush and he regularly gets mistaken for a girl due to his long-ish hair. Also given a nickname is ‘Gasoline’, aka Théo (Théophile Baquet), the new kid in school; he earns the moniker on account of his fondness for engines, motors and the like, but sadly his status as a grease monkey means he’s an instant outcast in the playground. It’s natural, then, that these two misfits should become friends, and soon enough they begin making plans to go on a road trip, building a motorised kart/shed contraption that they can drive on the backroads south-east of Paris.

At times it’s hard to make a case for Microbe & Gasoline being anything other than a standard coming-of-age story, even though it splutters along in the guise of a directionless road movie, but I guess when you’re young and it’s the school holidays plodding aimlessness is something of a pre-requisite. All fine by me: the developing bromance may be a very familiar sight, but it’s also handled sweetly, and I always feel better after watching a Gondry filmfew directors exhibit the same genuine level of warmth towards their characters. The director’s usual playfulness is manifest through Microbe and Gasoline’s shared creativity – the film shares the same appreciation for lo-fi DIY previously seen in Be Kind Rewind – though his penchant for cutesy (or wacky) surrealism can grate at times. A sequence in which a plane takes off with the boys on board is subsequently re-wound, for example, and Microbe comments on the fact that their plane ‘landed backwards’; a second or two later an edit subsequently places the pair on a train, and Microbe is perplexed as to how he got there, claiming to have no memory of anything in-between the plane landing and train departing. (Such self-aware idiosyncracy is a regular feature of Gondry’s films, though, so it’s hardly a surprise that it plays a fairly major part here.) Perhaps aware that the film is so light it’s in danger of floating away, Gondry tries to inject a little grit into proceedings, so we see the remnants of a Roma camp after it has been set alight, while there are sequences featuring an aggressive Korean gang; it’s all a little disjointed, to be honest, and doesn’t really fit with the director’s style. Still, overall it’s a simple, likeable film, daring enough in its depiction of pubescent sexuality to earn a ’15’ rating in the UK, and Gondry confidently implements a bittersweet ending.

Directed by: Michel Gondry.
Written by: Michel Gondry.
Starring: Théophile Baquet, Ange Dargent, Audrey Tautou, Diane Besnier.
Cinematography: Laurent Brunet.
Editing: Elise Fievet.
Music:
Jean-Claude Vannier.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
102 minutes.
Year:
2015.

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This 2013 film is the third entry in  Cédric Klapisch’s ‘Spanish Apartment’ trilogy, following the earlier comedy/dramas Pot Luck (aka The Spanish Apartment) and Russian Dolls, both of which I’ve watched recently. The series has followed the life and loves of Xavier (Romain Duris), a writer who has endured several ups-and-downs during the 16-years depicted, and it’s one that has gradually shed cast members while retaining a few core characters, who all feature again here. It has also served as a celebration of multiculturalism in cities and cross-border and cross-cultural relationships, loosely examining globalisation as the story flits between France, Spain, England, Russia and the United States, where New York’s Chinese community is foregrounded (with individual characters, Chinatown as a location and a Chinese multinational company as an unlikely plot influencer here). In the first film Xavier spent time in a shared house in Barcelona that was filled with students from various European countries; he ditched Parisian girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou), lusted after Belgian roommate Isabelle (Cécile de France) and helped English friend Wendy (Kelly Reilly) out of a sticky situation. The second film jumped back-and-forth between Paris, London and St. Petersburg as Wendy and Xavier fell in love, concentrating partly on Wendy’s brother’s marriage to a Russian ballerina. Chinese Puzzle begins several years later and the characters are all now pushing 40. Xavier’s inner doubts about companionship and his career are still present and causing him considerable unhappiness. We discover at the start that Wendy and Xavier married, had two kids, but are now divorced. She has met someone else and is moving to New York, so the impulsive Xavier follows to be near his children. Coincidentally Isabelle has recently taken a new job on Wall Street, and has set up home with her partner Ju (Sandrine Holt), which initially gives Xavier a place to lay his head. The story leans heavily towards his struggle to establish himself in the US as well as his changing relationships with family and friends: first he works illegally as a bike courier, then he employs a rather dodgy lawyer to thrash out custody issues, and finally he sets about gaining residency. The answer to his problems appears to be an arranged marriage.

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Margot Mansart, Pablo Mugnier-Jacob and Romain Duris in Chinese Puzzle

This is the best film in the trilogy, partly because Klapisch approaches the themes he developed in earlier films in a more mature fashion, which is understandable given that he’s at least 15 years’ older than he was when he began. It’s far superior to the misfiring Russian Dolls; several members of the cast from Pot Luck were briefly and awkwardly shoehorned into that second film, but Klapisch takes the bold step of dispensing with most of them for Chinese Puzzle, refocusing on Xavier and the three women he is closest to. This works wonders and revitalises the series, plus it makes senseit’s common to see less and less of the friends we had fifteen, twenty years ago. The film can be approached in the same way you might approach the later entries in Richard Linklater’s Before series, even though it’s comparitively lighter. It certainly gives you the satisfying feeling when you’re brought up-to-speed on supposed events that took place in the lives of the characters between films.

The comic strand running through the three movies – one that often results in farce with several characters converging on one location at the same time – is present once again, but Klapisch manages to imbue this one with a bittersweet edge, and the story reflects on the effect of divorce on fatherhood as much as it amuses with its Gallic flights of fancy. The screenplay is also quietly perceptive, attempting to debunk the myth that big cities are inherently unfriendly places where goodwill is in short supply, though New Yorkers may find the film romanticises their city. There’s a satisfactory ending that ties the series together neatly, although we leave Xavier and co in the knowledge that the writer has repeatedly woven the theme of temporality into the three films, and that any happiness we may see on screen may be fleeting rather than lasting. I had my doubts after watching the second film as to whether I’d want to recommend the trilogy to people, because it certainly has its faults (as you can imagine from the description above the tone jumps around a lot, and it’s a cheesy old affair at times), but Klapisch deserves credit for getting rid of most of the more problematic elements by the end. It may have a self-obsessed character at its heart, but Duris is a likeable actor, and in each installment he has managed to sell Xavier as a good guy whose instinct is to help out others, whether they’re complete strangers or those he holds dear. No-one will hold these films up as masterpieces, but they’re optimistic and witty, and I’m kinda sad that I’ve finished the trilogy now. Which probably tells you all you need to know.

Directed by: Cédric Klapisch.
Written by: Cédric Klapisch.
Starring: Romain Duris, Kelly Reilly, Audrey Tautou, Cécile de France, Sandrine Holt.
Cinematography: Natasha Braier.
Editing: Anne-Sophie Bion.
Music:
Christophe Minck, Kraked Unit.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
117 minutes.
Year:
2014.

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