Ginger & Rosa (2012)

Ginger & RosaEvery teenager has felt like the world’s going to end at some point. The trick in Ginger & Rosa is that the end of the world is a very real possibility – it’s 1962, and as the Cold War clamps its icy grip around the world, a nuclear holocaust seems to be edging over the horizon.

Scared and confused, teens Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) attend anti-bomb rallies; which is nothing compared to the bomb that’s dropped when Rosa reveals she’s started sleeping with Ginger’s dad (Alessandro Nivola).

Metaphors run rampant in Ginger & Rosa, threatening to tip the film into all-out absurdity on numerous occasions. An intriguing, hit-and-miss, coming-of-age period drama, director Sally Potter’s film isn’t big on subtlety where the script’s concerned.

Luckily, it’s evident in spades in G&R’s spectacular collection of performances, with Fanning and Mad Men star Christina Hendricks (as her mother) delivering commendably tremulous turns. Both are American, but both wrap their tongues around a decent middle-English accent, and it’s through their wrought mother-daughter relationship that G&R really lives and breathes.

The same can’t be said of the teenage angst that G&R frequently falls back on. It’s been done better a hundred times over in other films, and it’s only Fanning’s formidable talent that keeps her character interesting despite the recurrent strop-throwing and fall-outs.

Sporting an eye-catching crop of red hair, Fanning’s the main reason you should seek out what is essentially a flimsy teen drama lifted by a fantastic cast. See it for Fanning, marvel at what a fantastic young actress she’s turning into, then hope she finds better material in the future. 3/5

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Immersed in a chilly gloom, this impressive first film from newbie director Sean Durkin has a mood that steals into every pore until you’re completely immersed in it. Small wonder Durkin nabbed a best director trophy at Sundance 2011.

He’s not the only one taking a notable first curtsy, though. Much has already been made of Elizabeth Olsen’s shivery central turn as Martha – a performance so intelligently crafted that nobody could ever have expected it from the girl whose siblings are the doll-like Olsen twins.

All the great buzz words apply to Olsen’s portrayal of a troubled young woman who escapes the clutches of an isolated cult – fearless, mesmerising, determined. It’s the kind of multi-faceted display you’d expect from a long-established awards-grabber, not a fresh-on-the-scene first-timer, and Olsen easily marks herself out as somebody to keep a steady eye on.

Helping her out with the heavy lifting is the more experienced but by no means less impressive John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), who chills right to the core as a cult leader who exploits his power to insidious ends. Hard to believe that just a decade ago he was bit playing in dross like I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.

As sparse and internal as MMMM is, there’s a maelstrom of hot issues bubbling under its deceptively still surface. What is normality? Who controls whom? How are the demands and rotes of society any different to the rituals of a cult? Weaving between Martha’s past in the cult (where she was known as May) and her present holing up with her sister (Sarah Paulson), Durkin expertly blurs the temporal boundaries until we tumble headfirst into the claustrophobic, foreboding climax.

MMMM won’t be for everyone. It’s ponderous and often slow (we’ll say ‘measured’). But as a dark and dreamy study of a whole mess of fascinating issues, not to mention a thrilling debut for Durkin and Olsen, it’s indie cinema at its bleak best. 4/5

Last Night (2010)

“This is a really bad connection,” says Joanna (Keira Knightley). “I know,” responds husband Michael (Sam Worthington). They’re talking about a phone link, but the exchange also nods to the sticky subtext of their rocky marriage, which is put to the test in this absorbing, slow-drip deep-thinker that’s obsessed with that most infuriating of questions, ‘What if?’

During a night out at a work party, Jo meets Michael’s attractive co-worker Laura (Eva Mendes) and suspects there’s something going on between them. Then, when Michael’s out of town on business with Laura, Jo bumps into old flame Alex (Guillaume Canet), and finds herself seriously tempted.

Ebbing with an affecting melancholy, Last Night offers Knightley her most grown-up role to date, the actress’ recent forays into theatre evident in her impressively layered performance. Mendes, meanwhile, is nothing short of mesmeric – when she’s in a room alone with crush-object Worthington, Last Night becomes electric with tension. As inactivity sashays ever-closer to devastating activity, writer Massy Tadjedin’s directorial debut takes on a quiet power that will speak to anybody who’s been tempted while in a relationship. True, Last Night’s dreamy pacing may prove too languorous for some, but as an intimate, thoughtful examination of relationships, it’s hauntingly effective. 3/5

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My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Love and the pains of prejudice are just two of the themes pumping through My Beautiful Laundrette’s veins, ensuring that this affecting, intimate portrait of inner city ’80s life is as lively as it is absorbing.

Young Pakistani Omar (Gordon Warnecke) lives in London with his alcoholic father. Given a job by his uncle at a rundown local laundrette, Omar seizes it as a canny business opportunity. Amid pressures to attend college and get married, Omar bumps into old acquaintance Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis) one night, and the seeds of an old relationship sprout anew.

Laundrette’s biggest surprise (and risk) has long since become common knowledge – that of the daring romance between Omar (affectionately and comically known as ‘Omo’) and reformed white thug Johnny. What’s most admirable about Laundrette’s handling of ‘gayness’, though, is that it refuses to portray Omo and Johnny’s relationship as any different from any other fledgling romance. Tellingly, Omo and Johnny’s is the most put-together pair-up in the entire film.

Where most contemporary ‘gay’ films root their plotlines in the traumas of being gay, Laundrette keeps it low-key and genuinely touching, deliberately skirting the obvious ‘issues’ that a gay romance might invite. Day-Lewis in particular is on top form, deepening his thuggish bad boy into an affectionate, well-meaning squatter earnestly seeking atonement for his past misdeeds.

There’s more going on in Laundrette than gayness alone. Though it’s clearly a product of the ‘80s, the London it presents isn’t all that different from the London of today. Cleverly pictured by director Stephen Frears as a stifled hodgepodge of urban development gone mad, in which people live literally on top of one another (often in the least aesthetically pleasing of surrounds), it’s the perfect breeding ground for our busy story.

Training its eye on numerous plot strands involving adultery, family pressures and racism, Laundrette is never drowned by its subject matter, retaining a warm sense of humour that often goes hand-in-hand with gratifyingly gritty realism. It remains a beautiful snapshot of troubled times, bringing with it the hope that good things really do happen to good people. 4/5

The Veteran (2011)

England is teeming with terrorists, druggies and violent council estates where evil is seated on a throne fashioned out of sports hoodies. If recent British cinema has taught us anything (see Harry Brown and Heartless among many others), it’s that nowhere is safe. With The Veteran, we can add Post-Traumatic Stress-suffering war vets to that list of dangerous British ill-doers.

Set in a recognisably mucked-up, breeze-block crammed London, The Veteran follows Robert Miller (Toby Kebbell), a young soldier who returns from Afghanistan and soon realises that it won’t be as simple as all that to ease back into his old life. The battered council estate where he lives is infested with druggie yoofs, and before long Miller’s been contracted by Brian Cox’s mysterious government figure to monitor suspected terrorists. But could nation-straddling fellow operative Alayna (Adi Bielski) have turned into a terrorist sympathiser?

Cautionary tale, social commentary, bleak character study; The Veteran has its gun barrel aimed at all kinds of red letter targets, but it never quite hits the bull’s eye. The same can even be said for magnetic lead man Kebbell, whose Miller is an interesting character desperately searching for a plot. Kebbell (RockNRolla, Prince Of Persi) is undeniably enigmatic, a man’s man with soulful eyes, but his episodic encounters with dealers, victims and shady government types lack much discernable tension, and are crying out for a more urgent sense of direction.

Veteran’s final 10 minutes are the ones that will cause a stir in the headlines (we won’t spoil them here, though the Daily Mail are going to have a field day), but considering the whole film not-so-subtly builds up to them, their power is decidedly muted. Kebbell’s a young actor going places, for sure. Unfortunately this home-grown cautionary-character-commentary just isn’t ballsy enough to take him all the way. 2/5

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Win Win (2011)

If there’s one thing Americans love, it’s sport. And if there’s one thing Americans love more than sport, it’s sport movies. Rocky, Jerry Maguire, and Gene Hackman’s genre-defining Hoosiers all kept cinemas as crammed as basketball stadiums over the years. Which brings us to new high school wrestling drama Win Win, a film that sticks close to the tropes of tried and true big-hitters (i.e. battered hero ‘finds’ himself again thanks to association with extracurricular activity) but never quite makes it into the premiere league of sporting classics.

Of course, Win Win is more than just a sports movie – it’s also a Paul Giamatti movie. With the Sideways actor having effectively cornered the market in down-on-their-luck depressed middle-agers, Win Win finds Giamatti playing New Jersey attorney Mike Flaherty. Struggling to support his wife and two kids, Mike’s on a one way road to Nowhereville. Until teen runaway Kyle (Alex Shaffer) tumbles into his life. Having fled his alcoholic mother, Kyle ends up bunking at the Flaherty’s, and when he enrols in the local high school where Mike’s a wrestling coach, Mike discovers that Kyle’s abilities on the wrestling mat far outshine those of his own team.

Directed by Thomas McCarthy, who also helmed exceptional middle-age drama The Visitor, Win Win is both cosy and charming. Amy Ryan in particular delivers a fantastic, no-bullshit turn as Giamatti’s long-suffering wife, while McCarthy keeps the domestic drama nicely in balance with the quirky comedy. But while the pacing rarely lags, Win Win’s feather light approach to drama feels more like a friendly local kick-about than a powerhouse Man U vs Liverpool clash. Which is no doubt McCarthy’s intention, his film having more in common with low-key indies than certain grandstanding boxing epics. In short: a winning drama that never punches above its weight. 4/5

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The Way (2010)

Charlie Sheen may have spent much of this year on the warpath, but it’s heartening to find that father Martin Sheen and brother Emilio Estevez are still capable of concentrating on ‘the work’. With Estevez in the director’s chair, and Sheen in front of the camera, The Way is a timely showcase of the talent that still resides in this uniquely controversy-courting of Hollywood families.

Thomas Avery (Sheen) is a near-retirement doctor whose restless son Daniel (Estevez) dies in the Pyrenees while tackling the Camino de Santiago, a Christian pilgrimage trail that leads to the Spanish Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Journeying to France to pick up Daniel’s ashes, Thomas makes a split-second decision to walk the Santiago trail himself, and scatter Daniel’s ashes along the way.

Hippy mentality ebbs through The Way as Thomas encounters numerous intriguing pilgrims – among them James Nesbitt’s motormouth writer and Deborah Kara Unger’s angry enigma Sarah. Recalling Sheen’s The West Wing, The Way is a ponderous, surprisingly joyful drama that revels in character beats and inner discoveries. Sheen himself proves as enigmatic a lead as he ever was, alternately warm, out of control and distant.

Estevez’s greatest achievement as director is nimbly weathering the pitfalls of the average road movie. Where other journey-based films have succumbed to the trap of a methodical, sequential framework, Estevez dodges such hazards by harnessing a lively pace, and packing his film with colourful characters and breathtaking vistas. The soundtrack is also unexpectedly lively, a left-field resurrection of Alanis Morissette’s ‘Thank You’ lifting an extended montage into sonorous paradise. At two and a bit hours, it’s just a pinch too long. But when that’s the worst that can be said about a film revolving around a man walking a really, really long way, you know you’re onto a winner. 3/5

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Ironclad (2011)

It’s the curse of every post-Gladiator swords-and-scrapper that it has to crawl out from under that film’s hulking shadow. Such is the plight of Ironclad, which should come with its own medieval movie check list. Giant swords? Yep. A gruff, beleaguered hero? Of course. Colossal, bloody skirmishes? Right on. The writers have even chosen a suitably obscure but nevertheless fascinating period of history to recreate, GCSE Bitesize-style (with added body parts) as we follow the fall-out from the Magna Carta’s inception.

The year is 1215. Unruly King John (Paul Giamatti) has been forced to sign the Magna Carta, which guarantees each man freedom unto himself. But Johnny isn’t happy. Bile-filled and raving, he calls on a Viking army to help him regain power – and will spill all the blood he needs to that end. Luckily, Baron Albany (Brian Cox) is having none of it, assembling a band of not-so-merry men to face down the King. Among them are a morally tortured Templar Knight (James Purefoy) and Jason Flemying’s battle-hardened Beckett.

With much of the action taking place at Rochester castle, the last bastion of liberty against King John’s tyranny, it’s all a bit like a period version of Panic Room. After an initial introductory chapter, Ironclad sets up shop at Rochester, where King John and his Vikings spend the entire movie attempting to raze the fortress to the ground and quash the Baron’s forces.

Which is fine, because despite the flat characters and ropey dialogue, Ironclad comes up trumps with its grisly set pieces. Blades in guts. Boiling oil baths. At one point a character even has both feet and hands cut off. Ironclad is probably the bloodiest film you’ll see in cinemas this year. That, and a typically radiant Giamatti, are the only reasons to buy a ticket. Otherwise, Gladiator’s crown rests easy. 3/5

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Archipelago (2010)

Alfred Hitchcock once remarked that film drama is life with the dull bits cut out. With her sophomore feature Archipelago, British director Joanna Hogg (Unrelated) has reinstated all those dull bits. Steeping her film in natural light and stripping away any formalistic film furniture, Hogg’s attempts to scrape off Hollywood gloss for a red-raw examination of familial dissonance are well intentioned. Sadly, it’s all just a little too spare for its own good.

The archipelago, or collection of islands, that gives Hogg’s domestic drama its name are the Isles of Scilly – though that title could just as well refer to our central family; a holidaying mother, her grown-up children and their resident chef. Living on top of each other, they are nevertheless islands unto themselves, battling their own insecurities as they await the arrival of the kids’ father – who has absolutely zero intention of pitching up.

Just how spare is it? Characters umm. And aah. And pause. And stumble over their words. They talk about the tragedy of boiling lobsters, and how best to pluck a partridge. An hour in, you’ll be desperate for something to happen. Which is, of course, exactly how our characters are feeling, and makes Hogg’s film all the more difficult to dismiss.

But compromising rhythm and tempo in the name of bare-faced naturalism cripples Hogg’s endeavours, and the outcome is jarringly discordant. The director’s Terrence Malick-like preoccupation with nature’s elemental presence and her Mike Leigh-echoing slow boil both feel redundant in their threadbare delivery. On the upside, squabbling sibs Tom Hiddleston (next up in comic adap Thor) and Amy Lloyd give good bicker, while a fantastically uneasy restaurant scene breathes life into proceedings. But at a patience-testing two hours, Archipelago’s floating in an arty abyss of its own making. Hitchcock wouldn’t approve. 2/5

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Howl (2010)

‘Howl’, by gay Beat generation radical Allen Ginsberg, is more than just a poem. A giddy, piquant war cry, its sexy idioms and white-hot imagery awoke a new way of thinking in a repressed, fearful ‘50s. Small wonder that, by the time of Ginsberg’s death in 1997, ‘Howl’ had sold more than 800,000 copies, been translated into 25 different languages, and had transformed into an anthem of acceptance and free speech.

Broaching such a loaded subject in biopic form was always going to be tricky. Ginsberg himself led a fascinating life, one tainted by tragedy (his mother’s descent into madness), drama (his frequent spells in jail) and romance (his affair with car thief Neal Cassidy). It’s a lot for one movie to play with, and explains the ambitious approach of directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman. Theirs is a film of four parts, Howl’s focus flitting between a quartet of distinct vignettes – interviews with Ginsberg (played by James Franco); the poet’s Beat life and first reading of ‘Howl’ in 1955; an accompanying expressionist animation; and a court hearing as a legal suit is filed against Ginsberg’s “offensive” text.

Busy is not the word, and Howl strains to suitably blend its contrasting components. The court scenes, though given a turbo-boost by actors like Jon Hamm (who looks like he’s just stepped off the Mad Men set), are the main problem, grinding proceedings to a halt. A shame, because Franco’s spirited reading of the poem is effortless, paired with a dazzling animation that features deep sea pianos, spinning, skeletal ghosts and hellish landscapes. Fingers crossed that the DVD release has a feature that plays the animation, Howl’s greatest achievement, on its own. At its best, Howl recalls the honourable experiments of an early Gus Van Sant (who serves as exec producer). At its worst, it’s directionless and meandering. 3/5

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