Thursday, 28 July 2016


(Paul Greengrass, 2016)

Taking the original Bourne trilogy as a distinct sub-genre, Jason Bourne then attempts a sort of paint-by-numbers rendition of that sub-genre's greatest hits. So we get a hyper-kinetic fist fight, an insanely destructive car chase, Bourne taking out teams of agents while their bosses are confused in a control room, glimpsing him on cctv; Bourne feeling morose about his past sins. It gets worse: in that fist fight, it starts out hand-to-hand before Bourne (Matt Damon) improvises a weapon in response to his opponent (Vincent Cassell) drawing a knife - just as he did in both of the first two Bourne films.
Only in this case, none of those familiar elements is especially well done. Instead they feel tired, secondhand, even pointless.
That is always a risk with a sequel so far after the event: it feels unnecessary. It has been 9 years since Damon and Greengrass collaborated on The Bourne Ultimatum, and though original trilogy screenwriter Tony Gilroy sought to spin the franchise off in an alternative direction with the convoluted, Damon-less The Bourne Legacy, they did make a satisfying complete series of films. Tonally similar, thematically linked but distinct, and with a nicely shaped narrative, the Bourne saga could have just ended there and it would have been fine. But he has made too much money for Hollywood to allow that.
So here he is, and the storyline that drags him back into the open within the film seems unworthy of the character. It is complicated and dumb, involving the Mark Zuckerberg-like Riz Ahmed and some new software he has designed, which the CIA (spearhead here by Tommy Lee Jones) hope to use to help them to spy on everybody, all of the time. Bourne (living a life as a bare-knuckle street fighter, much like Rambo at the start of Rambo 3) is contacted by Nicki (Julia Styles), who tells him that he needs to see some files she hacked from the CIA, since they explain some more about his past. So now he's on the run, trying to uncover more about his own life, while new CIA tech-head (Alicia Vikander) is convinced he can be brought back in and her boss (Lee-Jones) and his pet assassin (Cassell) are bent on killing him.
Basically, much here is utterly boring. Too many conversations in control rooms, board rooms, hotel rooms. Bourne barely features, showing up at each action scene then more or less disappearing again after he's inflicted maximum damage and completed one ridiculous feat of physical daring and ingenuity. But the stakes feel low and forced, the existential questions underpinning the original films totally absent and replaced by bigger, louder, dumber set pieces.
Those set-pieces and the excellent cast keep this watchable through the long dry stretches. Damon - now the greatest movie star of his generation - grimaces and grunts and looks sad when he needs to do so, but he feels a bit too good for this role now.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016


(Joachim Trier, 2015)

It is so rare these days to see an English language drama made by a director with a real exhilarating feeling for the possibilities of cinema.
Much of what is acclaimed and viewed as quality drama is naturalistic and kitchen sink in approach, utilising handheld camera, chronological editing, low or found lighting and verging into melodrama by accident rather than design. It is influenced more by TV than cinema. Trier takes another approach: his movie always feels like cinema. It is ambitious, frequently beautiful, allusive, literary, mysterious.
It is also superb.
The story tells of the aftermath - 5 years after, in fact - of the death of a famous war photographer (Isabelle Huppert). Survived by a schoolteacher husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) and two sons, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), who is beginning his own family and struggling to come to terms with that, and Conrad (Devin Druid), a high schooler nursing his own obsessions and insecurities, a new exhibition and accompanying article in the New York Times by Richard (David Strathairn) raises the issue that Isabelle's death was in fact a suicide. Conrad - 12 at the time - is ignorant of this fact, and while Gene and Jonah struggle with their own feelings about the ghost haunting their lives and the women sharing them (Gene is having a secret affair with a colleague, while Jonah runs into an old girlfriend while in hospital for the birth of his first child), they must also decide how and if to tell Conrad about the reality of his mother's death.
That makes the story sound far more melodramatic than it is. Trier in fact makes it just like life: at times funny, sometimes profound, lovely and dreamlike. These characters all have rich inner lives, and Trier is brave and empathetic enough to follow them off on tangents to investigate. So we are treated to Gene's inner monologue when he and Hannah (Amy Ryan) connect at a party. He allows the girl Conrad has been obsessed with to narrate their brief moment together, though the perspective is obviously Conrad's. We get glimpses of Isabelle's life and her depression and joy. We see her death in slo-mo, and the bomb blast which almost killed her a few years before.
There are flashbacks to her visit with Jonah in College, the strange erotic moment they share in the bathroom. Then there are the naturalistic conversations, the Skype calls, the tense moments over breakfast cereal. Trier plays with perspective and narration. He slips elliptically between time frames without explanation, as if somebody is remembering all of this.
And it works beautifully. This is an utterly superior family drama. But also an excellent art film, about life and how it feels to be alive. The real subject of all art, perhaps. And one Trier excels at tackling.

Sunday, 1 May 2016


(James Watkins, 2016)

This is so bad.
Elba plays Briar, a walking cliche. A US Government agent seen as ill-disciplined, insubordinate and reckless, he is also plainly amazing at his job. Which is beating people up and looking hard. Though his bosses don't understand that, and they've pulled his ass out of Baghdad after an Op went wrong and compromised a source. I can barely write this shit; I don't know how the actors can stand to say it. Elba looks grim and growls a lot.
He doesn't have an actual character here. Nobody does. They just pull faces at one another, sometimes in sync with the dialogue, often not.
Anyway, Briar finds himself in Paris and eventually lumbered with an American pickpocket (Richard Madden) whole actually lives in a garret. They are embroiled in a cockamamy scheme dreamt up by a French SWAT team which involves bringing the city to its knees through a combination of hashtags (no, seriously, there is a line of dialogue that says "The hashtags will tip it over"), rioting and wanton bombing.
Briar has other ideas. His bosses shout at him. He shoots people and chases them. He doesn't really do one-liners, even. Kelly Reilly slums it through a few scenes as his understanding boss. She literally looks asleep during one scene. Which would be fine but she has to speak dialogue. Madden does a nasal American accent and his character reacts to stuff happening around him. I can't remember anything else about him. He has a beard? Thats it.
The bad guys are swarthy Mediterranean types, and we all know you can't trust them.
After a few scenes that are recognisably set in Paris - look, thats the Eiffel Tower out the window! - most of the film looks like it was shot in an industrial estate on the outskirts of Bucharest. A crowd of rioters parade down what looks like an alley behind some lock-ups.
Luc Besson must see this type of Eurocorp rip-off and laugh his socks off.
Elba is being talked up as the next Bond, and he shares the right kind of bruising physicality with Liam Neeson, but aside from that his action hero chops aren't tested here by the fact that he only registers as a figure against landscapes, and never as a human being in any recognisable way.
There are at least two redeeming action scenes: Elba chasing Madden along rooftops, and a five-way fight scene in the back of a police van.
Otherwise: this is worse than every Jason Statham movie ever.


(Joe & Anthony Russo, 2016)

Considering all of the moving parts, characters in motion, plotlines and subplots, action sequences, back story, expository conversations, locations and ideas in Captain America: Civil War, the movie is a relative model of economy and forward momentum.
In some ways it is an incredibly dense mess: much of it would make no sense to anyone who doesn't already know the Marvel Universe or these characters, and its structure is broken backed; four huge action scenes break up the 140 minute run-time, but the movie seriously drops down to first gear in that first hour as pieces are moved around the board, agendas established, themes nursed to life.
Once it gets going its popcorn pleasures are manifold, and the details are purest geek pleasure.
It has twin plots which entwine from early on. In the first, following the opening battle between the Avengers and mercenaries led by CrossBones (Frank Grillo) leads to civilian casualties, the Governments of the world conspire to introduce the Sokovia Accords, registering and controlling enhanced activity. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr, who seems more this character than himself at this point), shocked by the results of his actions and possibly grieving the end of his relationship with an unseen Pepper Potts, supports the deal and tries to sell it to the Avengers, who are split. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), bruised by following orders that he disagreed with in his last film and his experiences with powerful men in WW2, refuses.
At the same time, Zemo (Daniel Brühl, sinister in a way I never suspected he was capable of) is busy incriminating Cap's old friend Bucky/the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) for the attack on a Viennese conference established to ratify the accords.
That attack effects the life of King of reclusive African country Wakanda, T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, excellent), and suddenly it is a race to find the Winter Soldier. That in turn leads to a battle between the forces amassed behind Stark and Rogers, which include the likes of Avengers members Vision (Paul Bettany, doing well with his few big moments), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), but also newcomers Ant Man (Paul Rudd, stealing every scene he's in) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Meanwhile Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) do their best in different ways to stop Rogers from getting himself killed.
Miraculously, the movie gives each of these characters at least one big moment without ever losing focus on the friendship between Rogers and Bucky or the conflict between Rogers and Stark. The big airport super-hero free-for-all involves more or less every character and uses them beautifully. In fact, one of the real pleasures of this movie is its action sequences. Using John Wick directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch as a second unit team here really pays off in some incredibly brutal, imaginative action scenes. The airport fight allows everybody to use their specific powers to best effect, but there are smaller moments that have just as much impact - Rogers and Bucky fighting a German SWAT team in a stairwell and trying not to kill any of them is notable, as are any of the fights involving Black Panther.
This is also the first film to get Spider-Man perfectly right: introduced as a a geeky teenager in a small Queens apartment, Holland captures the character's motormouthed humour but also his moral certainty, and his scene with Stark in his bedroom is a definite highlight. He also shines in the action scene, both for his ceaseless chatter and for the way the movie captures his superhuman athleticism and amateur technique.
But that scene comes with the final act just beginning, and it ultimately reduces the action to just Stark, Rogers and Bucky, in an intense climactic battle. And it works because these are characters the audience has come to know and care about, and the Russos have shaped this narrative enough that their conflict is made personal and painful.
And underlying all this is a level of geek-pleasing detail which is frankly awesome. From Wakanda's Vibranium (which is what Black Panther's suit is made from) to William Hurt returning as General Thunderbolt Ross, to the references to Hulk and Thor and Loki, to the spark between Vision and Scarlet Witch, Ant Man's (and Spider-Mans) starstruck response to Captain America, the moments involving Peggy Carter and her niece Sharon (Emily Van Camp), which culminate in a kiss with Rogers and a brilliant bros-giving-respect look from Falcon and Bucky, whose own relationship is similarly deftly observed, to Spider-Man irritating everybody he fights through his constant talking, and Martin Freeman as a smarmy Everett K Ross, together with the Howard Stark references and the Vision's theory that the heroes power has invited challenge, the texture of ideas and details here is so thick and rich that it becomes its own sort of text.
Captain America: Civil War is all the best of Marvels films, and some of the worst too. Which means its a superior piece of blockbusterdom, and then some.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016


(Jacques Audiard, 2015)

The way Audiard combines poetic realism with gritty genre material remains unique in modern cinema. Dheepan may not be his strongest film, but it is still sensitive, riveting filmmaking.
It follows a Tamil Tiger soldier who escape Sri Lanka by pretending to be married to a young woman likewise seeking escape. They pretend a young orphan girl is their daughter and find themselves in a banlieue on the outskirts of autumnal Paris. Dheepan works as the caretaker for their housing estate, his 'daughter' learns French at school, while his 'wife' fearfully, confusedly hides away from the world until a job is found for her cooking and cleaning for a disabled old man. As they negotiate life in a country where they do not speak the language (they all appear to be fluent in English, and the woman talks of escaping to her cousin in London), they realise that some facts of life are universal. In this case that includes the men with guns who rule the estate - gangs of drug dealers patrolling the rooftops and stoops. But Dheepan was once just such a man with a gun, and traumatised as he is, it is not long until he is forced to use violence to defend those he has come to love.
That Taxi Driver-ish ending is impressive and hard won by a film that builds character and place patiently and with a fine eye for two hours. Audiard paints these three people with fine strokes; Dheepan himself is proud and in pain, widowed and mourning two children, shellshocked by the war which killed his entire unit, he stoically works and learns and falls in love with the woman pretending to be his wife slowly and despite himself. She is more complex; angry and at odds with her environment until her job allows her to find who she is once again. The scene where she seduces her 'husband' is erotic and realistic in just the right amounts.
The girl meanwhile noisily adapts.
Audiard details all this with his usual intimacy; allowing us into the characters heads at moments, showing the way they perceive things, the subjective truth of moments revealed and then snatched away again. At the same time we learn the life of the estate, its patterns and rules, its geography.
All this pays off in the bloody, dreamlike chaos of the climax.
Which is - brilliantly, surprisingly - followed by a blissfully happy ending.

Sunday, 17 April 2016


(Jeff Nichols, 2015)

Nichols' "voice" makes perfect sense here, applied to a sci-fi thriller which refers to Spielberg's sci-fi cinema of the late '70s and early '80s; like J.J. Abrams' Super 8, Midnight Special seems hugely indebted to E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as well as John Carpernter's Starman.
The difference is that while Abrams is a skilled mimic, Nichols has his own sensibility and style. It is artier than most mainstream Hollywood cinema, patient and precise, with much attention paid to tone and mood. Visually he uses almost-Hawksian simple set-ups, eschewing flashy cutting or ostentatious angles.
Each of his films is imbued with a strong sense of emotion, perhaps at the expense of plot. So here there is no exposition, meaning that the audience is involved in an intriguing game of catch-up from the start. We meet two men, on the run from the authorities across the South of the U.S. with a little boy in tow. The boy wears swimming goggles and headphones. They travel by night, the driver wearing night-vision goggles so that their car travels in darkness. They use cardboard to blackout motel room windows in the daytime. The Government is searching for them, as is the cult they appear to have escaped. The boy is spoken of in reverent terms by cult members, and appears to have powers of some sort. One of the men (Michael Shannon) is revealed as his birth father.
Nichols lets the details come slowly, focusing instead on the mood of desperation and fear around the fugitives. This is really a story of a father's struggle to protect his child, and as such it accrues tremendous emotional power as it moves with gathering speed towards a climax. The sci-fi elements are all sudden shocks in the story, and the naturalism of the setting and playing gives them an awesome effect; a scene at a gas station is interrupted by a shower of falling satellite debris. Shannon is woken from sleep by the house being shaken off the ground by the light shooting from his sons eyes. The boys touch kills patches of grass.
While the film is without any Spielbergian sentimentality, it does try for Spielbergian awe, and the context and tone helps it achieve something like that. It is a slow burn that sparks to life impressively.
Nichols is great with actors as ever. Shannon, Edgerton and Dunst are all excellent, while Driver shows good range as the Government expert on their trail. Perhaps most impressive is the cinematography of regular Nichols collaborator, Adam Stone; he paints a muted, wintry picture of the Southern States by night, lit by halogen and headlamps.

Sunday, 10 April 2016


(John Carney, 2016)

I was brought up in 1980s Dublin. I went to a Christian Brothers all-boys Secondary school in a rough area. I loved music; as an escape, as a release.
Sing Street, then, spoke to me in a way few films do. The story of a 15 year old middle class boy transferred from his posh school (the way the Christian Brothers contemptuously refer to "Jesuits" gets across something hilarious and profound about Irish culture in two syllables) to a much rougher one nearby and escapes the brutality and bleakness of life in '80s Dublin through pop music is joyous and funny throughout, but in a very Irish way, it is never blind to the realities of the world it portrays.
That means that Carney shows how Dublin - perhaps the poorest capital city in Europe in the '80s - was subject to deprivation and social issues.
The background to the story is filled with absent parents; alcoholism, heroin addiction, mental health issues. Shot on location around Dublin's working class inner city, Carney sets much of the story in the council estates that ring the city centre. Here they are full of graffiti and litter; crumbling and in undeniable disrepair. But the story seems all set in summer - sunshine fills this film until the last scene, and the day-glo '80s fashions both accentuate this lightness and positivity and are given a strange context by the daylight; velvet suits and goth make-up look beautifully ridiculous in a street in afternoon sunlight.
Our lead is Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), whose parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle-Kennedy) are enduring a crumbling marriage and reduced economic circumstances. He moves to Synge Street Christian Brothers school, where he is bullied both by students and staff (the film subtly acknowledges the abuse that was still a feature of such schools in that era) and is only saved when he sees Raphina (Lucy Boynton) on the steps of the Girls Home opposite the school. To impress her, he invents a band on the spot and invites her to star in their video. So then he has to recruit band members, write a song and make a demo.
Things snowball from there, as the band (Sing Street) improve and bond, while Conor and Raphina develop a connection. All the while Conor is guided by his stoner dropout of an older brother (Jack Reynor).
Just as in his breakthrough Once, Carney is perhaps most at home with the scenes of musical discovery - the bits here where Conor and his bandmate Eamonn write songs together are full of a sense of excitement and potential - and Conor's love of music runs parallel with his love of Raphina. The romance works even if both leads are slightly miscast. Boynton is suitably beautiful - she is meant to stand out in '80s Dublin, and she does - but her accent wavers all over the place. Walsh-Peelo never has the charisma or complexity of a lead. Indeed, Reynor blows him off screen in their shared scenes. But he does well with the musical scenes and much of the comedy, a lot of which is carried by the supporting characters.
The richly detailed world here is what makes the film work so well. Each character has an inner life, every detail makes sense. The music is lovely, and the cut from Hall & Oates' "Maneater" to the boy's rip-off is a brilliant moment. The ending is feel-good in the best way, and the themes of brotherhood and creativity are nicely developed throughout.
Plus: it is really funny.