A Little Chaos*** (UK, dir Alan Rickman)
Alan Rickman must have chosen this for his second film as a director out of nostalgia for his glory days on stage in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Watching the film feels a little like gatecrashing a fancy dress party, seeing an array of recognisable thesps all prancing around in lavish costumes and wigs – except for Kate Winslet whose hairstyle could have been the inspiration for the film’s title. Winslet is summoned to the court of Louis XIV to build a garden at Versailles (presumably Alan Titchmarsh was otherwise engaged) and falls for her boss, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, a star of French films who affects a near-perfect English accent to play a Frenchman (fair enough, he’s actually Belgian). She also falls foul of the wicked Helen McCrory – after Cheri Blair, Medea and this, surely Cruella deVil must be next for her – and Rickman himself gives us a sinking Sun King. Some of this is actually intended to be funny, particularly whenever the splendid Stanley Tucci appears as the Comte de Something, sending it all up mercilessly in a performance that seems a little like an impersonation of Rickman. It all adds up to the most memorable British account of French history since Carry On, Don’t Lose Your Head. On the plus side, this is possibly the best film about gardening ever made and, maybe not for all the right reasons, it turns out to be a real guilty pleasure.
Dearest*** (China-Hong Kong, dir Peter Ho-Sun Chan)
An uneasy mix of human drama and action thriller, this fact-based film centres on child abduction in modern China. A divorced couple (Huang Bo and Hao Lei), living in Shenzen, scour the country for their missing boy and become involved with a support group of parents with similar plights. The plot has several surprising twists, some seeming less true to life than they probably are and it meanders far too much in the final quarter, which is saved only by an excellent performance by Zhao Wei as a foster mother. Nonetheless, the film, beautifully shot and well acted, always holds the interest.
Foxcatcher**** (USA, dir Bennett Miller)
Bennett Miller’s excellent Moneyball probed the grubbier side of Baseball and he now turns his attention to Olympic Wrestling with an astonishing true story. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo play brothers in the US team preparing for the 1988 Seoul games; both are enticed under the wing of John du Pont, a self-deluding billionaire “coach”, who describes himself as “ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist” and is obsessed with impressing his dying mother (Vanessa Redgrave). Beginning as a sports movie, the film turns into a damning indictment of the corrosive effect of excess wealth in American society. The driving force is a creepy performance by Steve Carell as du Pont that has the word “Oscar” written all over it. Totally absorbing from first minute to last, there will not be many better American films in 2014.!
Mr Turner***** (UK, dir Mike Leigh)
Timothy Spall’s magnificent performance is the centrepiece of Mike Leigh’s film, which is as finely detailed and richly textured as a great oil painting. He plays the artist JMW Turner, grunting his way through many scenes, but dialogue is often rendered superfluous when all the characters, even the minor ones, are so vividly drawn that we feel as if we know them personally. Leigh regular Lesley Manville appears only in a delightful one-scene cameo, which emphasises the artist’s fascination with light. In meatier roles, particularly memorable are Paul Jesson as Turner’s stricken father and Marion Bailey as the homely widow with whom he chooses to spend his final years. This is not the usual story of an artist penurious and unappreciated in his own era; Turner was a celebrity during his lifetime, widely (if not universally) recognised as a genius and fleeting appearances by Constable, Ruskin and even Victoria and Albert underline the point. The background details of early Victorian life are also fascinating, as are images of the landscapes and seascapes which gave Turner his inspiration. To call this film a masterpiece might be to steal one description too many from the art world, but it would not be far wrong.
Men, Women & Children** (USA, dir Jason Reitman)
A character in this film points out that hardly anyone used texting on the day of the 9/11 attack, which reminds us just how quickly the social media revolution has engulfed us. This is an ensemble piece telling interlinked stories of relationship problems involving teens and their parents and showing what happens when RL (real life) intrudes on the virtual world. It starts out as a smart modern comedy, but loses its bearings at about half way, becomes serious and opens the door to an array of tired cliches. At least, after all these years, I have finally seen an Adam Sandler film, but maybe I shouldn’t have bothered.
Phoenix**** (Germany, dir Christian Petzold)
Neither completely true-to-life, nor melodrama, nor thriller, but a little of each, the strange mix of genres becomes part of this film’s hypnotic allure. It tells of a Jewish woman (Nina Hoss) who survives a concentration camp at the end of World War II and attempts to rebuild her life, reconciling past with present, thereby reflecting the dilemma of the German nation at that time. A plot that is full of improbabilities includes echoes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, bringing psychological complexities to the relationship between the woman and her husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) and adding further layers to the slow-paced drama as it builds to an enigmatic conclusion. An intriguing and absorbing film.
Rosewater*** (USA, dir Jon Stewart)
Jon Stewart (the American television satirist) makes a decent job of telling this story of an Iranian-born western journalist (Gael Garcia Bernal) who returns to his home country to cover the 2009 rigged re-election of Ahmadinejad. Falling foul of the authoritarian regime, he ends up in jail, suffering torture so that he will confess to espionage and be made an example of. The specific details, covering relatively recent history, are fascinating, but, from about a third in, the film follows the path of just about every movie about brutal incarceration ever made and the prevailing feeling becomes one of deja vu.
Serena* (USA, dir Susanne Bier)
Having scored two huge hits, the Bradley Cooper/Jennifer Lawrence partnership seemed on course to become the new Tracy/Hepburn. Sadly. they have hit the buffers big time, incapable of giving any life at all to this dreadful, humourless costume melodrama. The plot creaks, the dialogue stinks and none of the actors can do more than go through the motions. Shame on the Festival organisers for allowing such a turkey to be included.
Son of a Gun** (Australia, dir Julius Avery)
An Australian heist movie, it starts in prison where a young guy (played by Brenton Thwaites with a fixed look of bewilderment) falls in with the wrong sorts and, on release, he joins a gang out to plunder tons of gold bullion. Ewan McGregor never looks comfortable as the hard man mastermind, but, playing the mandatory girl hanging around to share the spoils, Alicia Vikander (see also Testament of Youth) confirms her status as a big star in the making. First time director Avery mounts some slick action sequences, but the whole enterprise is let down by a screenplay which merely re-works a predictable plot, under-develops the characters and burdens the actors with bland, stilted dialogue. How this very ordinary little film ever made it into the Festival’s official competition is a major mystery.
Testament of Youth**** (UK, dir James Kent)
Without wishing to seem disrespectful to the fallen, it has to be said that maybe we don’t need to be told yet another World War I story just now. However, it would be a travesty if commemoration fatigue was to dampen enthusiasm for James Kent’s impeccably crafted film. What makes the story different is that it sees the War from the perspective of a woman, being adapted from Vera Brittain’s memoir of her own experiences. The events depicted are, on occasions, so unbelievable that they could only possibly be true. The story begins in 1914 when Vera, at the vanguard of female emancipation, begins studying at Oxford and it ends in 1918 with her scarred permanently by her experiences and committed to being a lifelong pacifist. A literate script is brought to life by a strong cast of established actors and promising newcomers. Most notable is a wonderful performance by the young Swedish actress Alicia Vikander as the headstrong, determined Vera. This film is a dark horse for the awards season.
The Drop**** (USA, dir Michael R Roskam)
Will Brits soon make American leading actors completely redundant? Here, Tom Hardy resembles a cross between DeNiro and Stallone, playing Bob, a hard man with a heart who works as a Brooklyn barman for his cousin (James Gandolfini) on the fringes of organised crime. A psychotic killer (Matthias Schoenaerts, taking a break from gardening – see above), a Pit Bull puppy and the Chechen mafia all cause him problems as he struggles to keep out of trouble and get closer to his dog walker (Noomi Rapace). This is a fairly routine crime thriller which is elevated to a higher level by Hardy’s mesmerising performance.
The Imitation Game**** (UK-USA, dir Morten Tyldum)
Playing an autistic genius hardly takes Benedict Cumberbatch outside his comfort zone, but he is excellent as a man who found the way to beat the Nazis and invented computers as a by-product, yet fell victim to a very English form of fascism. This film is a stirring if belated tribute to AlanTuring, now rightly recognised as a national hero. When the first four faces you see on screen are Cumberbatch, Rory Kinnear, Mark Strong and Charles Dance, you know you are in safe hands and, in a very impressive cast, only Keira Knightly looks a little out of place, playing a Maths wizard working alongside Turing who becomes his “fiance of convenience”. She typifies the Hollywood-style gloss that occasionally threatens to swamp the film; however, the superb writing and acting always win through.
The Keeping Room** (USA, dir Daniel Barber)
An odd choice of subject for a young British director, this film creates a post-apocalyptic vision of a civilisation broken and lawless in the wake of the American Civil War. There is much to impress, including the leading performances. in an account of the struggle of three women to overcome the odds and survive. However, the central narrative thread is weak and the relentlessly grim brutality becomes very wearing.
The New Girlfriend**** (France, dir Francois Ozon)
Francois Ozon moves into Pedro Almodivar territory for this gentle comedy. The first 20 minutes seems like an abridged version of Beaches and then, barely giving us time to wipe the tears from our eyes, Ozon springs the first of several surprises which it would be unfair to reveal. With two very strong central performances from Anais Demoustier and Romain Duris, the film first embraces and then celebrates human diversity. It is all deliciously audacious and it manages to be both funny and touching.
The Salvation** (Denmark-UK-South Africa, dir Krtistian Levring)
Many nationalities (Danish, Scottish, Welsh and French spring immediately to mind) feature in the cast, Eric Cantona as number two baddy (thankfully with no more than a handful of lines to speak) being one of the more notable oddities. To be fair, this could be a reflection of the fact that many nationalities did indeed emigrate to the American West in the pioneering days. After a misleading start, the film turns out to be a revenge western in the Leone/Eastwood mould, a straight fight between the good, the bad and the ugly in which few in any of the categories are left standing at the end. A promising plot line is introduced with the suggestion that the gang terrorising a town is just a front for big oil corporations, but, sadly, this leads nowhere and cliches continue to abound in a film that would have been routine 40 years ago, but now has appeal only because of its novelty value.
Whiplash**** (USA, dir Damien Chazelle)
JK Simmons is terrific as the hard-hearted, bullying monster mentoring an aspiring jazz drummer (Miles Teller). The film follows a well-used formula, but still springs surprises and, even when the strings tugging at our emotions are clearly visible, they still do the trick. Lots of great jazz music is the icing on the cake of a film that is not too demanding, but provides top class entertainment.
Wild*** (USA, dir Jean-Marc Vallee)
On the face of it, a film in which a character played by Reece Witherspoon treks hundreds of miles along the Pacific Coast Trail of California in order to “find herself”, is one to avoid at all costs. This is a road movie with few cars, but most of the interest in Nick Hornby’s intelligent screenplay arises from flashbacks to the woman’s earlier life. Witherspoon reminds us that she once won an Oscar and Laura Dern also gives a moving performance, with the result that the film rises well above the ordinary.