Review: Is Anybody There?

May 1, 2009 at 10:02 am (film, review) (, , , , )

Michael Caine and Bill Milner

For his latest film, Is Anybody There? Sir Michael Caine is doing more publicity than usual. This film, he says at the premiere in west London, is a tough sell. Death is “hardly a barrel of laughs”.

Yet although Is Anybody There? is set in an old people’s home in a drizzly corner of 1980s seaside Britain, it will make you laugh – often and out loud.

Directed by John Crowley (Boy A), the film follows the blossoming friendship between the ageing Clarence (Caine) and ten year-old Edward (the excellent Bill Milner). Both are reluctant residents of a slapdash old people’s home, Lark Hall, run by Edward’s parents. Firmly rooted in the 80s with it’s brash clothing, discos and mullets, the film is based on the personal experience of writer Peter Harness who grew up in an old people’s home.

The film opens on a cheery Christmas gathering draped in colourful paper hats and tinsel. But Edward is angry at the world (he had to give up his bedroom for Arnold – he can’t afford the £50 a week) and tired of living with old people. He’s obsessed with death and tries to capture grisly final moments on his tape recorder.

Edward’s childish dramas are played out amidst the chaos of the old people’s home, whose eccentric residents are both charmingly stuck in their ways and slowly dying off. Just about holding it all together is Edward’s stoic mum, played convincingly by Anne-Marie Duff, who carries on with grim determination in the knowledge that she is doing a little “good” in the world.

Caine with director John Crowley

Caine with director John Crowley

Soon Clarence arrives in his rusty magician’s van, heavy under the burden of his own mortality and regret. Like his faltering van, Clarence’s grip on reality is fading fast and in the absence of a family, he can’t see much in life worth living for. Caine brings his usual gruff charm to his character, but balances it with a tender vulnerability that underlines the helplessness of old age – with the occasional “Fuck off!” of course. But it’s Milner with his skilful portrayal of a boy struggling against the world who steals the show.

The film is about the pain of growing up and the pain of growing old, with the two central characters each locked in their own misery but finding salvation in the other. Clarence, the retired magician gets a final boost by teaching Edward some old tricks. If this storyline sounds a bit twee, it isn’t. Clarence’s tutorials are sporadic, impatient and his pupil is reluctant. His hands can’t move like they used to.

It all seems very depressing, and at times it is. But this is one of the film’s strengths. It doesn’t glorify old age, but takes a stark look (through a series of poignant close-ups) at the wrinkles, and the hair loss – the wretchedness of it all. With such tricky subject matter it would have been easy to over-sentimentalise. But in Is There Anybody There? death becomes something to both laugh and cry at. Old age is a moment of both grace and despair.

The ups and downs of the characters are swept up into the narrative flow, and much like life itself, things have a way of plodding on. This is why at it’s heart Is Anybody There? is a celebration of life. It may be tough, but it’s worth having a good go.

In cinemas May 1.


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Cannes Film Festival: here’s to the independents

April 23, 2009 at 5:28 pm (film) (, , , , , , )

Cannes Film Festival official poster

Cannes Film Festival official poster

Today the Cannes Film Festival has announced it’s competitors. With a line up including Jane Campion, Tarantino and Almodóvar, it’s worth getting excited about.

With so many big names vying for the Palme d’Or it will be a tough decision for the judges. Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces, a psychological thriller featuring his favourite leading lady Penelope Cruz, is up against Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (starring Brad Pitt who heads a troupe of Jewish soldiers bent on wiping out Nazis). Thrown into the mix is Jane Campion’s Bright Star, a drama exploring the romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. She is the only woman to ever win the Palme d’Or three years ago with The Piano.

The festival is showing Heath Ledger’s final performance in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, although the film is not entering the competition.

Hotly-tipped British film Looking for Eric exlpores the unlikely friendship between a downbeat football fanatic postman and Eric Cantona. Will film maker Ken Loach  impress the judges as his Wind That Shakes the Barley did three years ago?

Still, even the fabulous Cannes is not insensitive to the current economic situation. Since 2009 is has already been dubbed “Crunch Cannes” since Vanity Fair cancelled it’s glitzy bash at the Hotel du Cap, the city’s hotels still have empty rooms and guests may have to settle for sparkling rosé rather than champagne. The festival’s official coiffeur will be accompanied by a modest team of 15 hairdressers, down from the 20 of last year.

There’s something about all this thriftiness that seems appropiate. Independent film has always been about economic uncertainty with unstable funding. While Cannes is an important celebration of independent film, perhaps this year’s scaled down affair will act as a reminder – when it comes to the independents there’s just never enough money.

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If you could inflict a film on your worst enemy, what would it be?

March 20, 2009 at 2:57 pm (film, Interview) (, , )

Picture from j-fin

Picture: j-fin

Everybody has a film they’ve watched so many times they can speak along with the characters. It works much the same as a wooly blanket and mug of soup when you’re ill – comforting and delicious. For me it’s Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, mainly for the striding at the end.

Then there’s those films that you can’t belive you wasted 107 minutes of your life watching, such as Gurinder Chadher’s Bride and Prejudice. I wouldn’t inflict it on my worst enemy.

Or would I? I was curious to find out what films people would inflict on their enemies. So I asked the good people of London town:

Picture: shadowtech

Picture: shadowtech

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Life is Short and so is Film – 5 Second Films et al

March 17, 2009 at 3:24 pm (film)

If life is short then modern technology is doing nothing to help it slow down. You can end a relationship at the click of a mouse, find out your whereabouts on your mobile and keep the world constantlyupdated in 140 characters.

Now film is shorter – really, really short. Five seconds kind of short.

5 Second Films was co-created by Eric Forrest and Brian Firenzi, who you may know from such off-Hollywood hits as “” and “Ninja Roomates”. As you may have gathered fromt the name, these bitesize chunks of genius are (not including two seconds of title at the beginning and a one second tag at the end) five seconds long. And it is surprising how much you can say in 5 seconds.

Signs, the 12-minute New Zealand film that won the Scweppes Short Film Festival is one of the top ten most viewed viral videos this week.

The Guardian recently ran a YouTube competition for people to submit 5 minute films based on a short story written by Mark Ravenhill. While most of the people who entered were professionals working within film the winner, Dominic Currie, was a fringe actor with no contacts in the industry. His film “Machine Time” is below.

Three very different types of short film which illustrate the benefits of the mediun nicely – whether professional or citizen moviemaker, short film provides a creative outlet outside the strictures of conventional filmmaking. And the results can be quite fun, don’t you think?

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