Laia Costa

Life Itself

02/01/19

There’s a lovely little movie trapped inside Life Itself. An arch, playful, beautifully acted and intriguingly populated film, with a gently emotive storyline. It’s all there: ripe and ready. Unfortunately, it’s covered in an unwelcome layer of fridge-magnet cod-philosophy, with a side helping of pomposity thrown in. Oh dear.

Things start well. We meet Will (Oscar Isaac) as he stumbles drunkenly into a coffee shop, clearly having hit hard times. His therapist (Annette Bening) encourages him to talk about his relationship with his wife, Abby (Olivia Wilde), and their back-story is revealed in a series of flashbacks. The idea of the unreliable narrator is introduced early on, and reinforced by Abby’s student thesis on the subject. Life, concludes Abby, is the ultimate unreliable narrator, more random and unpredictable than anyone cares to acknowledge. Her friends like the idea, but she fails her course, because the essay strays too far from literary criticism.

Still, as the film goes on to show: she’s right. Time and again, writer-director Dan Fogelman pulls the rug from under our feet, throwing us swerve balls and catching us unawares. The action moves, almost arbitrarily,  from Will and Abby’s New York to Javier González (Sergio Peris-Mencheta)’s Spain – where all the dialogue, naturally, is in Spanish – and back again to New York, where we meet Will and Abby’s daughter, Dylan (Olivia Cooke). All this I like. The characters are captivating, and the seemingly unrelated strands are pulled together expertly. Segmenting movies into ‘chapters’ seems to be a bit of a recent phenomenon, and it works well here. Antonio Banderas is wonderfully understated as the emotionally needy Mr Saccione, and Laia Costa, as Javier’s wife, Isabel, really lights up the screen.

So why doesn’t it work? Because that premise, of life being the ultimate unreliable narrator, is overworked. It’s not left to be played out; we’re not trusted to understand without an actual lecture, delivered in the final chapter by Elena (Lorenza Izzo), Dylan’s teenage daughter, who, we discover, has been narrating throughout. There’s not enough substance to the idea to merit this much talk; it’s a simple – dare I say banal? – concept, enough to carry a story but not to bear such scrutiny. It takes itself too seriously, accords itself too much weight. And that’s a real shame.

There’s a filmed Q and A at the end of our screening, but it reinforces rather than alleviates our concerns. The interviewer, Jenny Falconer, talks of weeping copiously as she watched, but we both feel curiously unmoved. It’s clearly a movie that wants to tap into our emotions, but the narration distances us from events, and makes that level of engagement difficult. I don’t mind this – the film is at its best when it’s witty and stylised, which it is, a lot of the time – but it feels muddled, as if the ‘message’ is getting in the way of all the good stuff that’s on offer here.

3.3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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Film Bouquets 2016

 

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It was an interesting year for film. Here, in order of release, rather than stature – and with the benefit of hindsight – are our favourite movies of 2016.

Room

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This superb adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel got 2016 off to a cracking start. There were powerful performances from Brie Larson and young Jacob Tremblay as the central characters in a tragic yet oddly inspirational story.

The Revenant

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Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu delivered another dazzling movie, this one as savage and untamed as the grizzly bear that mauled Leonardo Di Caprio half to death – but made up for it by helping him win his first Oscar.

Anomalisa

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Writer/director Charlie Kaufman gave us a quirky (and deeply disturbing) animation that was a Kafkaesque meditation on identity and the bleak nature of the human condition.

Dheepan

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Jacques Audiard’s fascinating study of the lives of refugees never fell into cliche. There was violence here, but it felt horribly real and totally devastating. There were affecting performances from a cast of newcomers.

Victoria

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Sebastian Schipper’s film really shouldn’t have worked. Delivered in one continuous take, the fact that it hooked us in so brilliantly was just the icing on the cake – a real ensemble piece but plaudits must go to Laia Costa as the eponymous heroine.

Sing Street

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John Carney may have only one plot but when it was delivered as beautifully as it was in Sing Street, we were happy to indulge him. This was a beautiful, heartwarming film with appeal to anybody who has ever dreamed about pop stardom.

The Neon Demon

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The fashion industry as seen by Nicolas Winding Refn is a hell hole and here, Elle Fanning as Jesse, was the latest recruit. A weird mash-up of sex, violence and extreme voyeurism, this was the director’s most assured effort yet.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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New Zealand director Taika Waititi offered up this delightfully quirky story about a troubled teenager (Julian Dennison) and his friendship with crusty curmudgeon, Hec (Sam Neill). This film reeled us in and kept us hooked to the end credits.

The Girl with all the Gifts

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Just when we thought the zombie movie had stumbled as far as it could go, Colm McCarthy’s film gave the genre a hefty kick up the backside – and there was a star-making performance from young Senna Nanua in the lead role.

Under the Shadow

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Babek Abvari’s film had all the tropes of the contemporary horror movie and a powerful political message as well. Set in post war Tehran, young mother Shideh (Narges Rashidi) struggled to keep her daughter safe from the forces of darkness.

I, Daniel Blake

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Ken Loach’s return to the screen resulted in one of the most powerful and affecting films of the year – a searing look at ‘benefits Britain’ that would have the most stony-hearted viewer in floods of tears. Should be required viewing for Tory politicians.

Train to Busan

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Another day, another zombie movie – but what a zombie movie! Korean director Sang ho Yeon gave us a galloping ‘zombies on a train’ thriller that nearly left us breathless. There were some incredible set pieces here and a nerve-shredding conclusion.

Paterson

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Jim Jarmusch presented a charming and quirky tale about a would-be poet living in a town that had the same name as him. Not very much happened, but it didn’t happen in an entirely watchable way. A delightful celebration of the creative spirit.

Life, Animated

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This compelling documentary squeaked in right at the end of the year – the true life tale of Owen Suskind, an autistic boy, initially unable to speak a word, but rescued by his love of Disney movies. It was funny, uplifting and educational – and our final pick of 2016.

Victoria

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Victoria (Laia Costa) is a young Spanish woman, living and working in Berlin. We first encounter her dancing by herself at a nightclub and it’s there that she first meets Sonne (Frederick Lau) and falls for his boisterous chat-up lines. She’s supposed to go and open up the cafe where she works, but instead falls in with Sonne and his friends, Boxer, (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burat Yigit) and Fuss (Max Mauff) and agrees to go with them to visit a favourite hangout of theirs. As the night progresses, it’s clear that Victoria and Sonne are falling for each other – but when Boxer enlists Victoria’s help to drive a car for him, so he can do a friend ‘a favour’, the mood quickly switches into thriller mode and it becomes apparent that this is not going to end well for anyone involved…

As you may have heard, the ‘gimmick’ with writer/director Sebastian Schipper’s film is that it’s shot in one continuous take, which is of course, a monumental undertaking in itself. (Innarutu’s recent hit Birdman gave the impression of being shot in this way, but he managed to sneak in a few clever edits. This, however, is the real McCoy.) Schipper and his cast and crew manage to achieve their goal with such verve and brilliance, that you feel like applauding their ingenuity. (Apparently they could only afford three attempts to get everything right and the third take is the one they used).

But don’t go thinking that a gimmick is all that this film has to offer. There’s more. Much more. As the story progresses and Victoria and her new-found pals fall deeper and deeper into the brown stuff, Schipper expertly racks up the tension to an almost unbearable degree. This is gripping, nerve-shredding stuff that will keep you on the edge of your seat right up until the brilliant conclusion.

An unqualified triumph. Don’t miss it.

5 stars

Philip Caveney