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Love is All You Need

Love is All You Need

Love Is All You Need – the latest from Danish director Susanne Bier – really demonstrates the power of cinema marketing. The UK poster for Love Is All You Need seemed to target those viewers who loved Mamma Mia!, and Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia!, and romantic stories set in sun-kissed European holiday spots. In fact the reality is very different, and will instead delight those viewers who have been hooked on Scandi dramas on BBC Four.

Bier once again focuses on complicated family dynamics after her Academy Award-nominated After the Wedding (2006) and the Academy Award-winning In A Better World (2010), the latter also starring Trine Dyrholm. In Love Is All You Need, (the original title in Danish translates as ‘The Bald Hairdresser’) Dyrholm plays Ida, a woman coming towards the end of her cancer treatment and about to set off to Italy for her daughter’s wedding. Coming home from the hospital she finds her husband, Leif (Kim Bodnia), in coitus with his beautiful young colleague. Sensibly deciding to travel to the wedding separately, at the airport she crashes (quite literally) into Pierce Brosnan’s widower Philip.

Ida is surrounded by emotionally stunted and disinterested men – her husband is hopeless and immature, and Brosnan’s Philip is aggressive and bitter. Philip’s relationship with his son – soon to marry Ida’s daughter – is stilted, and is still feeling the effects of the death of Philip’s wife some years previously. Into this heady pre-wedding mix Bier throws a young inexperienced couple on the brink of marriage, Leif’s mistress and Brosnan’s overbearing sister-in-law, and the stage is set for some family fireworks.

Despite the simmering family tensions, in Bier’s hands the Mediterranean setting is saturated with bright colours. Similarly, Dyrholm’s Ida presents a chirpy, well-groomed exterior, while underneath she wrestles with the impact of her illness, her husband’s infidelity and her burgeoning feelings for Philip. The family’s situation is almost farcical, but Bier never uses this as an excuse for cheap comedy; instead she brings out subtle and honest performances from the cast. Brosnan is convincing as a man whose anger slowly softens in Ida’s company, but it is Dyrholm who is the stand-out. She is magnificent as Ida, a woman who, despite living with all her uncertainties, seems to have more vitality than all of the other wedding guests who are wrapped up in their own problems.

Unfortunately it is not all deft – in a somewhat cheesy sequence halfway through the film, Philip attempts to woo Ida using his lemon grove (yes really), and stumbles towards a rather clunky metaphor about the differences between men and woman, as exemplified by the lifecycle of a particular type of ant (it boils down to ‘males’ lives are meaningless without females, whereas females can get on perfectly well on their own’). This message is quickly undone, however, by the rest of the film as Ida’s need to confide in Philip grows, and the other female characters are no less dependent on their male counterparts. In short, their family dynamic is a tangled mess, but they all rely on each other in some way to work out who they are as individuals.

Aside from the Mediterranean location, the pre-wedding setting and Pierce Brosnan, Love is All You Need is miles away from Mamma Mia. If that audience decides to give it a chance, they should be pleasantly surprised.


Reviews from TIFF 2011: 50/50

Cancer is no laughing matter, unless of course you’re Seth Rogen, and the way you deal with your best friend getting cancer is to make a comedy film out of the experience.

Actually, to call 50/50 a comedy is to do it a disservice. It is instead a humorous, touching and uplifting drama that is never crass or in bad taste. As Adam, Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a true and honest performance as a young man dealing with ideas of mortality long before he should. Gordon-Levitt’s performance is subtle and never attention-grabbing, and yet because of this he is mesmerising. He underplays scenes that in lesser hands could have become mawkish, but in one of the film’s best and most moving scenes, he brilliantly expresses all the grief and anger of his situation.

Much of the laughs come from Seth Rogen playing Adam’s best friend Kyle, who decides to blunder through this ordeal the only way he knows how: by making fun of it, and using Adam’s cancer to get laid. While it sounds crude, it’s really not; Rogen has such a likeable quality that it works, never making you squirm but rather laugh uproariously. The rest of the supporting cast are a joy, from Anna Kendrick’s inexperienced therapist, to Bryce Dallas Howard’s selfish girlfriend, to Anjelica Houston as Adam’s loving, worried mother.

It is a rare film that can have you laughing one minute and then crying the next, mainly because that balance is so difficult to achieve properly. Fortunately, director Jonathan Levine and screenwriter Will Reiser (Adam’s real-life counterpart) know what they’re doing. Truly one of the best films of the year.

At the risk of stating the obvious, statistics are dull. And, at least for this reviewer, baseball is dull. Putting the two together doesn’t immediately sound like a winning formula for a film. But Moneyball emerges as a film with as much emotion as a book of statistics lacks feeling. Helmed by Capote director Bennett Miller, Moneyball is the true story of how the manager of the Oakland Atheletics baseball team and his young assistant tried to turn their fortunes around by playing the game based purely on statistics.

For UK audiences, baseball might simply be glorified rounders, but we understand the emotions of sport, emotions that manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his young assistant manager (Jonah Hill) try not to let control them as they rebuild their team. Aaron Sorkin co-wrote the script, so it’s no surprise to find his rat-a-tat dialogue tripping off the tongue of the excellent cast. There are very few sports movie clichés; when Beane tries to give his team a pre-match talk, usually the time for a rousing speech, his efforts falls spectacularly flat.

Wisely, much of the action takes place off the field, focusing instead on Beane’s relationships with his players, his colleagues and his family. Pitt is at his best in a scene with his character’s young daughter, watching her sing and play the guitar. Pitt silently conveys the bittersweet emotions of realising one’s child is growing up, and will soon not need his help.

Jonah Hill almost steals the film as the young Peter Brand, who developed the method now known as Moneyball. Hill successfully tones down his slacker-vibe, but also brings comedy in his masterful pauses, finally delivering his dialogue with a wonderful deadpan expression. Philip Seymour Hoffman, however, is somewhat wasted as the Oakland A’s coach. His role consists mainly of hanging around the sides, being grumpy, and then he disappears. But this is the one bum note.  Brad Pitt stuck with this project through studio delays and several changes of director, but he clearly knew he was onto a good thing: a smart, witty and heart-warming film.

George Clooney’s last directorial effort, Leatherheads, failed to make a much of a splash. Here he returns to the more successful territory of his Good Night, and Good Luck, the seedy underworld of politics. Ryan Gosling, current man-of-the-moment, stars as a young political campaigner for Clooney’s presidential candidate.

Some may say Gosling’s character, Stephen Myers, is naive, but he’s smart and knows how to work the system. His fault lies in believing too much in people, and in wanting politics to be the world-changing force it ought to be. This film plays much like the political Godfather:  the title is hardly subtle, so it’s not giving too much away to say that Myers is drawn deeper into a dangerous web of deceit. Clooney seems to be trying to say that Democrats can be duplicitous too, not just those sneaky, crazy Republicans.

As a director, Clooney likes his dramatic shots, framing a silhouetted conversation between Myers and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Paul against a giant American flag. The supporting cast are terrific. Seymour Hoffman has more to do here than in his other film out soon, Moneyball, and he does it well; Evan Rachel Wood (who even earns herself an ‘and’ credit), is excellent as a young intern who is too mature for her own good; and Paul Giamatti subtly finds the humanity in his role as opposing campaign manager, a role which could so easily have strayed into villain territory.

But it is Gosling on whom the whole film hangs, and he so masterfully portrays his character’s transformation throughout the film that it’s hard to take your eyes off  him. He has now definitely graduated from indie star to full-blown leading man.

What’s that? Roland Emmerich making a film about Shakespeare? He must be running out of iconic buildings to blow up. The director of such apocalyptic films as The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, Emmerich has switched periods and genres to make a film that exposes Shakespeare as a fraud, and explores who really wrote the plays attributed to him.

The film has caused outrage among Shakespearean devotees, with the RSC even blocking out Shakespeare’s name and image on signs around Stratford. But Anonymous really isn’t worth getting your knickers in a twist about. Sure it’s a controversial story, but so was The Social Network, and that wasn’t any less enjoyable.

Not that Anonymous is in the same league as Aaron Sorkin’s film. In Anonymous the acting is campy and the dialogue is clunky, but it’s hard not to enjoy this tale of lust, power and the theatre. Rhys Ifans plays Edward de Vere, the supposed playwright who longs for a career in the theatre, but is inhibited by his rank and privilege. Instead, an opportunistic actor, William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) steps out to take the applause, and the rest is history.

Rafe Spall steals the film from under the feet of the more established stars. His Shakespeare is comically arrogant, a drunken actor who suddenly becomes the most celebrated playwright of all time. Spall, however, displays flashes of steely ambition that suggest his Shakespeare is not as foolish as he appears. Mother and daughter team of Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson play Elizabeth I at different stages of her life. Redgrave’s older Elizabeth is no stately monarch, instead appearing somewhat senile and confused, albeit with moments of lucidity; Richardson’s younger Elizabeth is inexperienced and naive, having to reconcile her position with getting her own way. And as the villain of the piece, Edward Hogg brings a vulnerability to a character that Emmerich tries so hard to make a caricature (he’s a hunchback, of course he’s a baddie!)

Although Emmerich doesn’t get to blow anything up, he can’t leave the action entirely alone and stages a riot in the streets that looks way more fun than anything the young rioters of Britain could orchestrate. His recreation of sixteenth-century London is sumptuously done, and he even takes a note from Henry V, framing the main story itself as a play, introduced by none other than Derek Jacobi. Emmerich’s film is, appropriately, wonderfully theatrical, and shows that he can do a bit more than blow stuff up.

Black Movie Festival

A Brief Introduction

The Tiger Factory


Black Swan

Here’s a note to any actor thinking of working with Darren Aronofsky: it’s not going to be all sunshine and puppies. He really puts his actors through the mill and, usually, they come out the better for it. Look at 2008’s The Wrestler – when everybody had written off Mickey Rourke, all he had to do was come out, lay bare the scars of his boxing career, open up all kinds of emotional wounds, and he was rewarded with an Oscar nomination. You could also look at Requiem for a Dream (2000) – it took drug addiction as its main theme and what happens when that addiction becomes stronger; hardly a whimsical subject. And it seems for his latest film, Black Swan, Aronofsky’s leading lady Natalie Portman wasn’t let off any easier.

It could be argued that Black Swan is an interpretation of Swan Lake, the ballet on which the film focuses and which consumes its protagonist, Nina Sayers. In the closing credits, each actor is credited as a character from Tchaikovsky’s ballet as well as from the film. When Nina is given the lead in her company’s new production of Swan Lake, Nina struggles to balance the dual nature of her roles as both the White Swan and the Black Swan. Her precision is perfect for the White Swan, but she cannot relax enough in order to convey the passion of the Black Swan. So eager is she to get everything right, that each criticism by her director pushes her further into dangerous territory within herself.

Just like our heroine, nothing is quite right even from the start of the film. Aronofsky’s (by now) trademark handheld camerawork means that everything feels off-kilter; nothing is stable. There are visual references everywhere, from the pattern on Nina’s pillow which spreads around her like the wings of a swan, to the continual use of mirrors to emphasise the fragmentary nature of human beings.

In The Wrestler, Aronofsky’s protagonist pushed his body to the limits. In Black Swan, Nina pushes not only her body but her mind as well, to its limit and beyond. As Nina warms up, we hear every creak of bone, every crack of knuckle. We see the toll that ballet takes on a dancer’s feet; they appear bloodied and scratched before they are covered up by delicate, pink ballet pumps. It seems that everything in ballet simmers beneath the surface – wounds are covered up and rivalries are put aside on stage, all for the beauty and perfection of the performance.

Aronofsky claims never to have seen, or even heard of, Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes before he began on this project, which is strange because that is the film to which Black Swan owes its greatest debt; not just because they both focus on ballet, but also on an overbearing mentor pushing his protégée to suffer for the beauty of their art. In Black Swan, however, Nina’s suffering is mostly self-inflicted. Certainly it doesn’t help that she has no real support system; she has no real friends within the company, and is still living at home in the shadow of her mother’s own failed ballet career. Therefore when the role begins to overwhelm her, she has no one to whom she can turn.

This is where Mila Kunis’ character Lily comes in. Nina is convinced that Lily is angling for the lead role. Lily is the antithesis of Nina – confident, free-spirited and content with herself. While everyone may be talking about Natalie Portman, some praise should be directed Kunis’ way, as without her providing the contrast to Nina the film wouldn’t work. Aronofsky makes much of the visual similarity between the two actresses, tricking the audience as Nina’s mind begins to trick her.

We see things from within Nina’s head, so we can never be sure what is real and what is the product of a mind that is gradually losing control. As it does, there are some genuinely scary and disturbing moments. Even a ‘love’ scene between two of the characters manages to remain creepy. The use of the haunting music from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, remixed and distorted throughout the film, produces a general sense of foreboding.

Aronofsky makes smart use of Winona Ryder as an older dancer who is shelved to make way for new blood. Ryder acts as another mirror to Nina, one in which Nina can see her future as a washed-up, bitter former star. Ryder’s performance is chilling, and she features in some of the film’s scariest moments.

But of course the most attention has to go to Portman. She is in practically every scene, and has to sustain a perpetual state of nervous anxiety. Portman trained for a year before filming began to bring her ballet up to scratch and suffered several injuries throughout production. If there was an Oscar for the most injuries sustained in the course of a film, Portman would win this year hands down. But she should win for different reasons. Her Nina is so uptight, so “frigid”, as one character puts it, that when she slowly begins to unravel it is all the more devestating. Portman is essentially creating a portrait of a breakdown, and her later scenes are visceral and unforgiving. Portman appears so young and fragile that everything that happens to her seems even more horrific.

Aronofsky is a director whose films divide audiences, and Black Swan may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Those who do see it, however, will not fail to be moved by its power, the dark passion running throughout the film, and Portman’s performance, which is her best yet.