GFF 2015: Round-Up 0 23

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Well, the Glasgow Film Festival has come and gone for yet another year and it was another triumph for the team involved in putting it together. I didn’t get to see as many films as I would have liked – there were a few much talked-about flicks that I was disappointed not to get the chance to catch, including Audience Award Winner Radiator and pretty much all of the FrightFest stuff – but I still managed to see my fair share of great films, homegrown and beyond.

Below is my round-up of all the films I saw this year. Note: Some of the summaries were previously published on Scotcampus (here and here).

There were a handful of films that I absolutely loved and will definitely enjoy revisiting down the road. The highlight of the entire run for me was, coincidentally, the festival’s Opening Gala: Noah Baumbach’s dramedy While We’re Young. Starring a never better Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts and rising star Adam Driver, among others, it was a touching, witty, observant and often downright hilarious film that celebrates growing up and accepting yourself – whatever your age (full review here).

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While We’re Young

Other highlights were the brilliantly surreal Swedish tragicomedy A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, which was a funny and gleefully oddball look at the various facets of human existence through a series of increasingly strange vignettes (full review here). Still Alice, starring Julianne Moore as a woman suffering from early on-set Alzheimer’s disease, was an extremely touching, powerful and affecting drama featuring a stunning and complex performance from Moore for which she rightfully won an Oscar (full review here).

The grisly but utterly gripping documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper saw prolific Brit documentarian Nick Broomfield explore the case of the notorious LA serial killer known as the Grim Sleeper, who is said to have killed more than 100 women over a 25 year period between 1985-2010. It’s positively disturbing at times but an important story of social injustice told thoroughly, emotionally and intelligently (full review here). One of the most charming and endearing films of the whole festival was The Grump, a Finnish comedy-drama from director Dome Karukoski which focused on a grumpy old man set in his ways and at odds with the modern world who has to go live with his son and his family after an accident. It was a delicate, funny and observant film about the universally relatable generational gap (full review here).

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Tales of the Grim Sleeper

One of the oddest and boldest films I saw at the fest was the nightmarish German-language horror Der Samurai, about a young police officer whose dedication to protecting and serving the community is put to the test when he happens across a mysterious man wearing a white dress and carrying a sword. Bold, stylish, ferociously unique horror filmmaking that lingers long in the mind. Staying along horror lines, the Iranian film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, about a mysterious hijab-wearing girl who stalks the streets of the fictional “Bad City” (the reason for which is best left to discover on your own), was a wonderfully unique, supremely atmospheric cinematic experience with an unexpectedly eclectic soundtrack and the ability to constantly surprise.

As always at GFF, there was a strong showing for foreign language films and one of the best was Wild Tales, the Oscar-nominated Argentinean anthology film that explores the theme of vengeance from all angles through a series of six mini-stories. The brilliance of it is how it works just as much as a complete film as it does as delightfully deranged individual tales. Switching languages we had the outlandish Italian crime comedy I Can Quite Whenever I Want, a sort of European Breaking Bad-esque tale of a group of out-of-work university professors who decide to start making and selling drugs that contain a molecule technically not illegal in Italy. It’s a tad on the derivative side but an entertaining, quick-witted watch nonetheless.

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Wild Tales

One of the biggest films at the festival, mainly because of its two stars and previous Cannes Palme d’Or nomination, was Clouds of Sils Maria, an intensely intimate two-hander drama about a veteran actress (Juliette Binoche) who reflects on her 20 year career when she agrees to star in a revival of her most famous play, helped by her dutiful assistant (Kristen Stewart, who won a prestigious Cesar award for her performance, the first American actress ever to do so).

Another film well worth checking out was Appropriate Behaviour. Written, directed and starring Desiree Akhavan, this Girls-esque character comedy is about a young woman struggling to live up to her parents expectations as “the perfect Parisian daughter” as well as hiding her bisexuality from them. It’s slightly aimless in nature but has interesting characters and a sardonic self-awareness that makes it enjoyable. There was also Wasted Time, a small-scale, thoroughly Scottish drama about a young man sent away to prison after taking the fall for someone else. Receiving a longer sentence than he first thought, he struggles to cope further when he finds out that his father has died. It was a little rough around the edges and far too short for its own good (at a meagre 53 minutes long, it doesn’t give us enough time to truly invest in the characters) but affecting and passionate nonetheless.

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Appropriate Behaviour

As is the nature of a festival in which you’re taking in all kinds of films of all shapes and sizes, there’s bound to be a few that don’t tick the boxes for you and this year’s GFF was no different. Most disappointing was Mommy, the fifth feature film from French-Canadian boy wonder Xavier Dolan (he’s only 25 and already has 5 films under his belt!), about a single mother struggling to bring up her troubled and violent son but finds hope when a neighbour enters into her life. While undeniably bold and stylish, I found Dolan’s latest to be overlong, clawingly self-indulgent and lacking in empathy.

Other letdowns included The Town That Dreaded Sundown, a meta sequel/remake of the ‘70s horror which was certainly ambitious but provided little-to-no scares and ultimately got lost in its own self-indulgent self-awareness (full review here). The Wonders, winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, was a delicate and deliberately paced film that, while well-acted, was a little confusing in its tone and coming-of-age themes. Jauja, a 19th century-set Argentinean man vs. nature existential drama starring Viggo Mortensen, was visually interesting (presented in square framing) but paced like a snail crossing a mountain and had an denouement that was curiously and frustratingly unsatisfying.

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The Town That Dreaded Sundown

That’s it for our round-up of the Glasgow Film Festival 2015. Did you attend the festival and if so which were you favourites? Please feel free to share your opinions either in the comments below, on Twitter @TOF_UK and @rosstmiller, or on our Facebook page.

‘Til next year, folks!

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I'm a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features. I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 203

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 227

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10