Monday 31 December 2012

For your consideration: my Critics' Circle Award votes

Best Actor
1. Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
2. Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
3. Deon Lotz, Beauty
4. Matthew McConaughey, Killer Joe
5. Jean-Pierre Darroussin, The Snows of Kilimanjaro 

Best Actress
1. Elle Fanning, Ginger and Rosa
2. Fumi Nikaido, Himizu
3. Julie Sokolowski, Hadewijch
4. Karin Viard, Polisse
5. Ann Hui, A Simple Life

Best Supporting Actor
1. Yilmaz Erdogan, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
2. Michael Fassbender, Prometheus
3. Alessandro Nivola, Ginger and Rosa
4. Frédéric Pierrot, Polisse
5. Ryan Metcalf, Damsels in Distress 

Best Supporting Actress
1. Marina Fois, Polisse
2. Carrie MacLemore, Damsels in Distress
3. Megalyn Echikunwoke, Damsels in Distress
4. Naomie Harris, Skyfall
5. Christina Ricci, Bel Ami 

Best British Actor
1. Charlie Creed-Miles, Wild Bill
2. Jack Reynor, What Richard Did (opens in the UK Jan 11; full review to follow)
3. James Floyd, My Brother the Devil
4. Toby Jones, Berberian Sound Studio
5. Jude Law, Anna Karenina   

Best British Actress
1. Judi Dench, Skyfall
2. Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina
3. Andrea Riseborough, Shadow Dancer
4. Helena Bonham Carter, Great Expectations
5. Alice Lowe, Sightseers

Young British Performer
1. Jack Reynor, What Richard Did
2. Fady Elsayed, My Brother the Devil
3. Letitia Wright, My Brother the Devil
4. Will Poulter, Wild Bill
5. Sammy Williams, Wild Bill  

Director of the Year
1. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
2. Pablo Larrain, No (opens in the UK Feb 8; full review to follow) 
3. Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
4. Sion Sono, Himizu
5. Aleksandr Sokurov, Faust

Screenwriter of the Year
1. Whit Stillman, Damsels in Distress
2. Robert Guediguian, The Snows of Kilimanjaro
3. Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks
4. Mia Hansen-Løve, Goodbye, First Love
5. Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, A Royal Affair

My Top 20/Worst 10 Films of 2012 will follow here in the next week. 

Friday 21 December 2012

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of December 14-16, 2012:

1 (new) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (12A) ***
2 (1) Rise of the Guardians (PG) **
3 (5) Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger! (U)
4 (2) Skyfall (12A) ****
5 (new) Tinkerbell and the Secret of the Wings (U)
6 (4) Breaking Dawn: Part 2 (12A) **
7 (3) Seven Psychopaths (15) **
8 (6) Silver Linings Playbook (15) **** 
9 (8) Argo (15) ***
10 (7) Great Expectations (12A) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. West of Memphis
2. Neil Young: Journeys
3. Chasing Ice

Top Ten DVD rentals:
2 (7) Prometheus (15) *** 
3 (new) Brave (PG) **
4 (new) The Expendables 2 (15) ***
5 (new) Men in Black 3 (12) **
6 (new) Wrath of the Titans (12)
7 (new) Keith Lemon: The Film (15)
8 (new) Magic Mike (15) **
9 (3) Rock of Ages (12) ** 
10 (new) The Hunter (15) **

My top five:

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Dances with Wolves (New Year's Day, BBC2, 12.45pm)
2. The Wizard of Oz (New Year's Day, C4, 4.30pm)
3. King Kong (New Year's Day, ITV1, 10.30pm)
4. Edward Scissorhands (Sunday 30, C4, 2.55pm)
5. Mary Poppins [above] (New Year's Day, BBC1, 1.45pm)


2012: The Year in Film (ST 23/12/12)

2012 felt like a spotty year, during which we were left watching the further decline of a once-mighty manufacturing empire. As Disney’s wretchedly cluttered space epic John Carter crashed and burned, the Hollywood studios looked to have forgotten how to make the sure things that were once its bread-and-butter. Worse, they seemed to have forgotten how to market them: Ridley Scott’s quiet, eerie, design-rich Prometheus turned out to be more art installation than the commercial horror it was so aggressively sold as, dismaying fanboys everywhere. One sensed the mainstream struggling to manage our expectations, let alone surpass them.

The default position for 2012’s bigger releases was either nostalgia (in various shades, from Spielberg’s muted War Horse to Tim Burton’s larky Dark Shadows) or novelty (found-footage, 3D, hi-definition 48 frames-per-second). When the 70mm format was revived, for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, it helped that the film was big and mysterious enough not to need the gimmickry. There were teen-oriented hits, as ever: Avengers Assemble, Ted, The Hunger Games. Yet some old reliables (Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboots, the Twilight saga) came to an end, and the muted response to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit only left one wondering: where now?

Such a question was likely posed closer to home once Harry Potter was finally put to bed late in 2011. Yet the British industry appeared in renewed good health – a diagnosis confirmed when Skyfall overhauled Avatar in mere weeks to become the biggest ever film at the UK box office. Having Daniel Craig appear during the London 2012 opening ceremony was felicitous PR, though the Olympian spirit also empowered Julien Temple’s superbly energetic collage London: The Modern Babylon, and three films emerging from the East End: Dexter Fletcher’s overlooked Wild Bill, Sally El Hosaini’s accomplished debut My Brother the Devil and the cheeky Cockneys vs. Zombies, which sent the undead shuffling after Richard Briers.

Further afield, there were masters at work. From Turkey, there came Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s searching police procedural; from South Africa, the arresting Beauty, a queer Vertigo; from Russia, Aleksandr Sokurov’s one-of-a-kind Faust. The Hungarian great Béla Tarr bowed out with The Turin Horse, an apocalypse in slow-motion; by contrast, the insanely kinetic The Raid had the year’s best backstory, having been shot in Indonesia by a Welshman. It was a quiet year for French cinema, the much-lauded Amour and Holy Motors striking me as respectively bullying and baffling; I preferred Polisse, a messily compelling and pertinent portrait of Paris’s child protection unit, and Robert Guediguian’s compassionate, Loach-like dockside drama The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

The year’s real highlights, though, came in non-fiction. This was the best year for documentary in living memory: as the mainstream lurched towards the fantastical, these films formed a vital countermovement nudging us back in the direction of reality. Sometimes the appeal was narrative verve (Bart Layton’s The Imposter, better told than 99% of this year’s studio output), sometimes it was pure spectacle (Wagner’s Dream, illustrating Robert Lepage’s attempts to stage the Ring cycle at New York’s Metropolitan Opera). Occasionally it was downright nosiness, as with Lauren Greenfield’s standout The Queen of Versailles, which aped reality-TV in its study of America’s 1% – until the recession bit, and it became a very different story.

So strong was the documentary field that one could pick double-bills of favourites, like the summer hit Searching for Sugar Man [above] and its shadow-movie, Paul Kelly’s Lawrence of Belgravia, collectively cocking a snook at the Cowellverse in canonising music’s continued, confounding ability to evade those structures the record industry would place around it. Elsewhere, a pair of hugely moving artworld profiles – Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – showcased invention, courage and craft enough to power a thousand movies. This, at last, was the kind of heroism one longed to see more of in mainstream cinema. And it was real.

"Safety Not Guaranteed" (Guardian 21/12/12)

Safety Not Guaranteed (15) 85 mins **

Eight years ago, Sundance premiered Shane Carruth’s coolly conceptual time-travel drama Primer; here’s the kooky romcom derivative, dotted with Star Wars nods and “wacky” training montages. Parks and Rec’s Aubrey Plaza plays a Seattle magazine intern investigating a small-town shelfstacker (Mark Duplass) who’s planned a trip back to 2001; the film dithers over how mentally troubled this individual is, until its geek-pandering finale. Plaza’s abrasive comic gifts are largely wasted amid the cutesiness, though New Girl’s Jake Johnson has a nice supporting turn as a blunt journo, nudging his charges away from his own past mistakes. 

Safety Not Guaranteed opens in selected cinemas from Boxing Day.

"Parental Guidance" (Metro 21/12/12)

Parental Guidance (U) 104 mins **

This notably unseasonal offering – not a single snowflake, but plenty of schmaltz – is at least partly intended as a comeback vehicle for Billy Crystal and Bette Midler. They’re playing Artie and Diane, old-school technophobes obliged to inhabit daughter Marisa Tomei’s computer-operated eco-house and look after their three grandchildren. One of the kids is heavily constipated; this, you feel, will be coming up again later.

It’s almost endearingly formulaic: ninety minutes in which the adults take repeated blows to the groin, followed by the ritual passing out of hugs and life lessons to a treacly piano score. Endless baseball references won’t help its cause over here, while its touchscreen technology can’t disguise a script apparently rescued from the same Hollywood mothballs the stars have been stored in. Hey, Billy and Bette: 1992 just called, and it wants its third lamest family comedy back.

Parental Guidance opens nationwide from Boxing Day.

Saturday 15 December 2012

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of December 7-9, 2012:

1 (3) Rise of the Guardians (PG) **
2 (1) Skyfall (12A) ****
3 (new) Seven Psychopaths (15) **
4 (2) Breaking Dawn: Part 2 (12A) **
5 (4) Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger! (U)
6 (5) Silver Linings Playbook (15) **** 
7 (6) Great Expectations (12A) ***
8 (8) Argo (15) ***
9 (9) End of Watch (15) ***
10 (10) Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (PG) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Neil Young: Journeys

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (new) The Bourne Legacy (12)
2 (1) Ted (15) ***
3 (new) Rock of Ages (12) **
4 (2) Dr. Seuss' The Lorax (U) **
5 (5) The Five-Year Engagement (15) **
6 (4) Snow White and the Huntsman (12) **
7 (new) Prometheus (15) ***
8 (6) The Dictator (15) ***
9 (3) What to Expect When You're Expecting (12) **
10 (8) Avengers Assemble (12) **


My top five:

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial [above] (Sunday, ITV1, 4.50pm)
2. Great Expectations (Monday, C4, 12.20pm)
3. Oliver Twist (Tuesday, C4, 12.25pm)
4. Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Thursday, C4, 11.40pm)
5. Back to the Future Part II (Saturday, ITV1, 5.45pm)


On DVD: "The Dictator"

So here's Sacha Baron Cohen's latest creation: General Aladeen, sabre-rattling leader of the North African republic of Wadiya. You may already be familiar with the type, but The Dictator opens with a helpful dedication to the late Kim Jong-Il and namedrops Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Muammar Gaddafi within its opening twenty minutes, lest anyone be unsure. The plot of Larry Charles' brisk, 79-minute romp sees Aladeen betrayed by his right-hand man (Ben Kingsley, continuing the late-career switch into comedy initiated by The Love Guru) after being summoned to the UN to answer charges of developing weapons-grade uranium; shorn of his beard and his power and cast out on the streets of Manhattan, he's eventually taken in by the staff of an organic health-food collective, in whose company he discovers his sensitive side and picks up a few words of Yiddish - even as an aide reminds him his erstwhile foreign policy goal was to blow its native speakers off the face of the planet.

The title may echo Chaplin, but the film's stance is closer to the libertarianism of South Park: for all that Baron Cohen might want to take down the world's tyrants with custard pies, the suggestion is that Aladeen's military-grade discipline might have some use in whipping Manhattan's mismanaged mung-bean dispensaries into something like sound commercial shape. The free-thinking approach yields one brilliant piece of satirical writing, as Aladeen speculates on the benefits America could reap under a dictatorship ("You could let 1% of the people control all the wealth... you could keep all the people with one skin colour in prison"), but again you have to take the daring (like the Wii shoot-'em-up entitled "Munich Olympics") with a certain degree of crassness.

Aladeen's attempt to field a cellphone call while delivering a pregnant customer's baby would be the obvious example of give-'em-what-they-want grossout intended to tickle those kids bored by all the political stuff, though the film is generally iffy around the fairer sex, represented here by a snatch of concubines and the ever-willing Anna Faris as the protagonist's love interest, a right-on gal who - we're told - could do with losing a few pounds, and has to shave her underarms before Aladeen will even consider marrying her. (Naturally, she's allowed few qualms in return on the matter of pledging her troth to this homicidal maniac.) At some point, libertarianism must curve back around and overlap with totalitarianism: the film's attempt to subjugate the female body is just as regrettable as it is in those cultures Baron Cohen is sending up - particularly as The Dictator is so sharp and funny elsewhere.

The new film is actually less crass - and more crafted - than 2009's Bruno, which went blundering after its punchlines, usually at the expense of real people. Baron Cohen works up a terrific double-act with Jason Mantzoukas (as Aladeen's munitions advisor, "Nuclear Nadal"), through whom the writers find a very clever way to make their protagonist immediately more sympathetic: Aladeen is such a fool he hasn't realised his executioner was working against him, and so - try as he might - he hasn't actually had anyone killed. There's fun involving the Wadiya lexicon, and the soundtrack of Wadiyan takes on established hits ("Everybody Hurts", "Nine to Five", "Let's Get It On"). And somewhere in here, there's one authentic flash of genius: the suggestion that - for all that Aladeen can buy the sexual services of anybody he wants (and Megan Fox is extraordinarily game to embody a type of actress prepared to prostitute herself out to rich sugar-daddies) - the dictator has done everything he's done because he was desperately lacking for someone to cuddle up to at night. Amid the yaks and yuks and vaginal atrocities, this has the ring of comic truth.

The Dictator is available on DVD now.

Friday 14 December 2012

"Neil Young: Journeys" (The Guardian 14/12/12)

Neil Young: Journeys (PG) 87 mins ****

Jonathan Demme’s third documentary portrait of Neil Young finds the singer driving the filmmaker around his former Ontario playgrounds, pointing out abandoned mineshafts and the spot where the younger Young once offed a turtle. They’re headed for Toronto’s Massey Hall, site of Young’s summer 2011 homecoming gig. Attaching his camera to the mic stand for a couple of numbers, Demme hasn’t stopped seeking out new angles on this old warhorse, and even the odd speck of spittle on the lens cannot obscure the fact Young increasingly looks and sounds like one of the all-time greats. This particular set proves less revelatory than 2006’s comprehensive retrospective Heart of Gold, but Demme brings such perennials as “Ohio” to renewed, rumbling life by having them recorded in double-the-standard 96khz sound – the one technical advancement in this week’s releases that pays off unconditionally. These songs absolutely resonate

Neil Young: Journeys opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Chasing Ice" (The Guardian 14/12/12)

Chasing Ice (12A) 80 mins ****

Jeff Orlowski’s documentary begins as straightforward biographical profile, before shifting up into something more urgent, impassioned and compelling. Its subject, James Balog, is a photographer who goes to extremes to prove the existence of global warming: his latest expedition involves descending Arctic cliff-faces to fit time-lapse cameras with which to monitor glacial erosion. Orlowski’s framing – interspersing field footage with talking heads – is somewhat conventional, but the images he and Balog have collated are consistently breathtaking, and accumulate real power. The cameras look on in vain as massive icesheets shear off, leaving once-mighty glaciers – characterised in the manner of the endangered species in Attenborough documentaries – to slump into the sea. Behind them, they leave nothing – save colossal insurance premiums for those areas subsequently flooded by displaced waters. If any film can convert the climate-change sceptics, Chasing Ice would be it: here, seeing really is believing. 

Chasing Ice opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?" (The Guardian 14/12/12)

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (12A) 134 mins ****

Reissued in a new print, this enduring example of L.A. Gothic comprises both a last hurrah for the studio system and a critique of the monsters the entertainment industry habitually spawns: it needed the indie-minded Robert Aldrich behind the camera, because there would still have been directors around just longing to indulge those divas the movie pins to the screen like butterflies. Surely even 1962-era audiences found the set-up – obliging hissing showbiz sisters Bette Davis and Joan Crawford to cohabit in passive-aggressive seclusion – borderline implausible. Yet the film remains fascinatingly warped: an extended study in decaying flesh, set to a score mordantly trying to break into “Hooray for Hollywood”. Aldrich sensed the terror age might wreak on those working within an industry beginning to deify youth, even as he awarded two seasoned troupers another chance to devour the scenery – and each other. 

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? returns to selected cinemas from today.

"Dead Europe" (The Guardian 14/12/12)

Dead Europe (18) 84 mins ***

Though it’s not quite in the same league as last year’s knockout one-two of Snowtown and Animal Kingdom, this adaptation of a novel by Christos Tsiolkias (The Slap) provides further notice of the Australian cinema’s new-found boldness. A gay photographer (Ewen Leslie) heads to Athens to scatter his Greek Orthodox father’s ashes and discover his roots; instead, he stumbles over the knots and tangles of a continent-spanning network of prejudice and exploitation. Footage of the austerity protests lend it an of-the-moment vibe, but essentially it’s a historical horror movie, turning on the snapper learning what’s been polluting his bloodline. The film’s restlessness – schlepping from one Mitteleuropan hellhole to another, like a morbid-minded tourist – saps some momentum, but director Tony Krawitz pulls off several unsettling moodshifts, and takes extremely seriously the old-world traditions and superstitions a gruefest like Hostel could only sneer and snigger at. 

Dead Europe opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Baraka" (The Guardian 14/12/12)

Baraka (PG) 92 mins ***

Twenty years before this August’s Samsara, cinematographer-turned-director Ron Fricke set out on this practically identical hippy-trippy odyssey, sourcing documentary footage of rituals from various points on the globe. Fricke was evidently going through a Far Eastern phase back in 1992, and so carefully raked Zen gardens and Hindi funeral rites come to be contrasted with scenes of deforestation (boo!) and sky-blackening oilfields (hiss!). Again, one is left weighing the dense, stirring beauty of these images with the crushing banality of what’s actually being expressed through them: the vaguest of we-are-the-world sentiments, further muffled by chanting or Incantation-style panpipes on the soundtrack. It can’t fail to dazzle in the newly rediscovered 70mm format, but it now seems more than ever like the next evolution of those VHS tapes of fishtanks once sold to calm stressed executives. The only reaction permitted is gawping. 

Baraka returns to selected cinemas from today.

"Love Crime" (Metro 14/12/12)

Love Crime (15) 106 mins **

This undistinguished French drama limps through familiar workplace-hell territory without yielding much in the way of either laughs or thrills: you could call it The Devil Wears Nada. In the Paris HQ of a global agrichemical business, tough, career-minded Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas) is very much the queen bee, stealing ideas from her underlings with an eye to securing a promotion to the company’s New York office. When put-upon assistant Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier) hits back by sleeping with the boss’s beau and reporting Christine’s plagiarism to her superiors, there begins a game of one-upwomanship that has bloody consequences.

There’s reasonable mileage in the personality clash between the emotional Sagnier and the harder-edged Scott Thomas, who cackles while humiliating her employees with CCTV blooper reels. Yet it’s been flatly directed by the late Alain Corneau (Tous Les Matins du Monde): the first half gets repetitious as the leads march around on stiletto heels making passive-aggressive threats, while too many scenes late on depend on Sagnier’s unconvincing quivering. Brian de Palma’s upcoming remake Passion – reportedly junking any pretentions towards classiness in favour of massive catfights and (working) girl-on-girl action – sounds a good deal more fun.

Love Crime opens in selected cinemas from today.

Thursday 13 December 2012

Sister act: "What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?"

1962's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, which returns to UK cinema screens in a new print this weekend, comprises both a closing hurrah for the studio system and a critique of the monsters the entertainment industry habitually spawns: it had to be made by an independently-minded toughie like Robert Aldrich, because there would have been directors around at the time still longing to work with the kind of flouncy divas the movie pins to the screen like butterflies. At its centre is an extreme form of sibling rivalry. Baby Jane Hudson was the child star who once got all the attention, while her sister Blanche waited in the wings; but Blanche (Joan Crawford) was the one who went on to land the movie roles, while Baby Jane (Bette Davis) had to settle for bit-parts and bitterness at a career that peaked too soon.

A car accident puts an end to Blanche's mobility, leaving her in a wheelchair; and the two sisters - in the most implausible aspect of the whole affair - end up living together in passive-aggressive seclusion: Blanche sympathetic yet needy, Baby Jane slowly pickling in alcohol and resentment, and doing everything within her fading powers to assert her superiority over her sister once again. The staircase-spine holding the sisters' home together links the film to Psycho (which might just have helped get it into production; the Baby Jane doll in the armchair is very Ma Bates in the basement) and, indeed, Sunset Blvd. (which went further still in its stylisation; Aldrich, for his part, clings to a Californian suburban realism against which the sisters appear even more grotesque).

The set-up - essentially, two people being horrible to one another for two hours - risks becoming as one-note as the countless drag acts the film inspired, but it develops by illustrating how others get sucked into this house of narcissism: maids, neighbours, the fat momma's boy (Victor Buono) whom Baby Jane drafts into soundtracking her comeback fantasies, and who's almost as unappealing a sketch of the fan mentality as the main characters are of stars. As far as the latter are concerned, the competition is entirely one-sided: while Crawford is limited to clenching her jaw (and resembling Powers Boothe in a dress), Davis is free to exhibit flashes of wheedling charm, skip through sequences in which Baby Jane puts on a show, as well as those that require no more of her than play the crabby old bitch, and effect a last-reel rejuvenation that's weirdly moving, while her co-star lies around in the background.

Somehow just too big and spacious (a deluxe star vehicle!) to be properly scary, it nevertheless remains fascinatingly warped: a film of enfeebled bodies and decaying flesh, looked down upon by portraits of Davis and Crawford in their pomp, and playing out to a mordant score that keeps trying to break into "Hooray for Hollywood". Aldrich was way ahead of the curve on the terror age might wreak upon actresses working within an industry coming to value youth above all else - even as he awarded two seasoned troupers one more chance to chew up the scenery and one another.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow. An edited version of this review will appear in tomorrow's Guardian, and can be read here.

Friday 7 December 2012

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of November 30-December 2, 2012:

1 (2) Skyfall (12A) ****
2 (1) Breaking Dawn: Part 2 (12A) **
3 (new) Rise of the Guardians (PG) **
4 (3) Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger! (U)
5 (4) Silver Linings Playbook (15) ****
6 (new) Great Expectations (12A) ***
7 (new) Talaash (12A)
8 (8) Argo (15) ***
9 (7) End of Watch (15) ***
10 (6) Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (PG) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Lawrence of Arabia

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (new) Ted (15) ***
2 (1) Dr. Seuss' The Lorax (U) **
6 (5) The Dictator (15)
7 (new) Brave (PG) **
8 (6) Avengers Assemble (12) **
9 (8) Contraband (15) ***
10 (7) The Lucky One (12)


My top five:
1. Lawrence of Arabia

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Back to the Future (Saturday, ITV1, 3.55pm)
2. The Fugitive (Wednesday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
3. The Dirty Dozen (Sunday, five, 6.10pm)
4. Went the Day Well? (Tuesday, C4, 12.50pm)
5. Heist (Wednesday, BBC1, 12midnight)


Inbetweeners: "Life Just Is"

Life Just Is, an appreciably droll debut from writer-director Alex Barrett, fits neatly into a subgenre we might define as "downtime drama", of which Jamie Thraves' cult favourite The Low Down would be the most prominent 21st-century example: films that seek to describe the existence of young characters waiting for their lives to get going. We open on a set of twentysomethings sitting around a modest front room somewhere in latter-day North London, and discussing how the romcoms and action movies they have cause to rent bear no relation whatsoever to the lives they lead. They're writing the film's own manifesto, in effect, and it's one Barrett wholeheartedly signs up to, proceeding to show us all the quotidian filler usually elided in or omitted from other films, on the grounds of efficiency: characters cleaning their teeth or entering into halting conversation, or hanging round in kitchens with stuff on their minds, or lying around in bed, unable to get to sleep. Occasionally big news intrudes from the outside world - the death of a contemporary, for example, struck down far too young - but everyone ends up back at the breakfast table the next day, shrugging about the tickets they failed to get that one time for that thing. What we're watching would appear to be an extension of student living, only without the educational framework and financial structures to support it: Barrett's characters, trudging along with their hands in their pockets, have very much been left to their own devices.

The film is a little bit isolated, too: at a time of renewed interest in British genre output, it's intriguing to see something with the confidence to go its own way and insist not every low-budget offering has to fit a certain template. At times, Life Just Is has the air of a formal joke: practically the only time the camera moves is to follow Tom (Nathaniel Martello-White), one of the friends, on his way to and from work - and even then it's in no particular hurry. Yet slowly the film begins to pull the limitations it's working within around it, assembling them into a pillow-fort sort of vision: the awkwardness and hesitancy recorded here - the odd off-note struck by the performers, the dead air hovering around the beginnings and ends of scenes, pushing the running time up to 102 minutes - feels, for once, at least partially deliberate, the better to represent a set of characters who often don't have all that much to say for themselves, and seem unsure where they're heading exactly. A likable cast and some attractive digital photography, making the colours pop right out of the everyday, ensures this enforced downtime doesn't feel like wasted time; the film's not always so polished, but it's certainly promising.

Life Just Is opens in selected cinemas today, ahead of its DVD release on Monday.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

The libertine: "Confession of a Child of the Century"

Sylvie Verheyde's Confession of a Child of the Century is one of those conceptual period pieces sunk by novelty casting, leaving us to watch familiar faces shambling artlessly around Truste Nationale properties. Indeed, what feels like some three-quarters of Confession is given over to footage of its principals tramping around stately homes and muddy gardens, in the hope of encountering - well, what? Profundity? A plot that might engage the viewer? Any real point or purpose? Anybody who had their doubts about Andrea Arnold's chancy take on Wuthering Heights should be referred here forthwith; compared to Verheyde's idea of revisionism, that earlier film begins to look like an unqualified masterwork.

Verheyde has cast "Peter" Doherty (this season's Andrew Cole, or Josephine d'Arby) as the hero of Alfred de Musset's 19th century tome: a dandy, heartbroken when the only girl he ever fell for completely is seen giving the eye to another man over dinner. (She's played by Lily Cole, using all her Cambridge smarts to get out of the picture early.) Retreating into decadence, our boy meets Brigitte (Charlotte Gainsbourg), an older woman who tempts him to feel something more than lust - but we soon twig no-one's likely to come away from this tryst any the happier, or wiser.

It's important to note that Verheyde is no rookie. She's wise enough to have hired cinematographers, costume and production designers who know how to dress up a thin, novella-sized conceit as a workable cinematic idea; truthful-sounding snippets of de Musset persist in her screenplay, and she's found a valuable ally in Gainsbourg, an actress who's always looked good wrapped up in corsets, bonnets and hesitant displays of emotion. But - oh dear - she's only gone and become the latest creative to fall under the dubious spell of Doherty, whom the director describes in the press notes as "a symbol of the sacred and damned poet". (Spare me.)

Clearly, the hope here was that Doherty would turn out to be a natural of the Sam Riley school, capable of bringing all his rock-star connotations to bear on the material. I'm afraid he may well be more Lisa Riley, wafting in on a formidable cloud of what can only be described as anti-charisma: you cannot tear your eyes away from him as he drags each scene and every co-star down to his grubby level. "Peter" sniffles and trips over his lines; he fumbles and tears the props; he looks entirely ill-at-ease in his natty period costume, as though he really wanted to go before the cameras in a stained vest and pants, with a syringe hanging from his forearm. Finally, he mumbles the closing credits number, in which we learn "love is the only cure for the sickness of celebrity". (Have you not tried Canesten, Peter?)

Somewhere in the middle of all this, Doherty shuffles through the lamest "man considering suicide" scene in the history of motion pictures, holding his musket to his face in such a listless and narcissistic fashion it's just possible audience members might shout out "oh, do it already", much as the crowd who suffered through Pia Zadora's stage interpretation of Anne Frank reportedly told the actors playing Nazis "she's in the attic!". With anybody else in the lead role, and just a little editorial tightening, it might have played; as it is, it's a terrible drag. If you are in the market for this type of thing, you'd be better off with Arnold's film, or Catherine Breillat's terrific The Last Mistress, in which Asia Argento shrugged off the novelty casting tag to state her credentials as both rock star and courtesan.

Confession of a Child of the Century opens in selected cinemas from Friday.