Tuesday, 22 February 2011


(Tom Hooper, 2009)

Colin Firth is the undisputed master of one type. If you have a character who's a repressed Brit, either Upper or Middle Class, displaying a classic case of stiff upper lip but with more violent passions running deeper beneath, then Firth is your man. Looking at his entire career, the films in which he does not play such a character can probably be counted on one hand.
He's played that role to death, won awards for it, done all he can with it. It's time he did something else, time he stretched himself. Play a drug dealer, a super villain. Do something, do anything, else.
Here he plays King George VI, engaging Geoffrey Rush's slightly eccentric speech therapist to aid in his battle with a stammer just as his brother abdicates the throne and he is forced to speak in public on a regular basis. He is predictably excellent, suggesting the buried anger and complexity of a man facing his own demons in public and for high stakes through the tiniest facial tremors and shifts of expression, his body language constricted and tense throughout. Rush is just as good, his colonial presence vital as perhaps the films only means of puncturing the pomposity of the British Royal family and all the ceremony surrounding it.
The film works best as a sort of a buddy movie about their two characters complete with a feelgood ending, and it has a fine supporting cast of British, Irish and Australian character actors (Timothy Spall as Churchill, Guy Pearce as the abducting David, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Jennifer Ehle) with Helena Bonham Carter particularly perfect as the Queen Mother, but director Hooper comes close to ruining it with some of his visual choices.
He favours frames with the characters - especially Firth's Bertie - isolated in the lower third, generally in a corner, an ocean of space stretching away from them. In some of the two-shots the ceilings fill half the frame in what seems almost parodic of Citizen Kane, and he uses wide angle and fish-eye lenses far more than is healthy for any film. All of this serves to tell us how isolated and pressurised Bertie is - how much is pressing down on him from above - while also functioning as a sort of visual metaphor for a stammer, echoing the frustration by leaving the image "unfinished" or cut off. In a few scenes it might have been effective, but Hooper leans on these devices so consistently that they become tiresome and almost laughable.
The script is solid and old-fashioned; it works and does what it sets out to do, and it really doesn't need this sort of rudimentary trickery to elevate it.
Indeed, Hooper's desire to elevate it is perhaps the best evidence of it's essential triteness. With its mythologising of a minor episode in Britsh history and glorification of a monarch, this is a scrupulously middle-brow film. Which explains much of it's Awards success.

Monday, 14 February 2011


(Curtis Hanson, 1997)

An object lesson in how to alter the narrative details of a complex literary source in order to preserve its feel and tone, Curtis Hanson's 1950s-set adaptation of James Ellroy's epic novel is one of the finest Hollywood films of the 1990s.
Grand and ambitious in every particular, from the multi-stranded plotting which thrillingly converges in the final reel, through the stately, classical shooting style and lush palette from cinematographer Dante Spinotti to the mix of noir brass and orchestral melodrama in Jerry Goldsmith's superb score, the film is chiefly an exceptional entertainment.
Its pacing is expertly marshalled by Hanson, leisurely in the early stages and then tightening around the plot turns until the last act, in which everything comes together and falls apart in an unhurried blur. The characters are true to Ellroy's iconic archetypes, partly down to Brian Helgeland's terrific script, which is stuffed with sharp lines and indelible moments of quietly telling observation, and partly to the casting. All three leads are perfect, but Russell Crowe first served notice here that he was a movie star, and he stands out as the brute with a heart an a brain, Bud White. Kevin Spacey delivers a quietly mournful faded golden boy with just a few key glances, while Guy Pearce's finds his characters journey to an understanding of justice in a series of minute calibrations of his jutting jaw and strained cheek muscles; he can't afford to relax, ever, until his climactic buddy movie bonding with Crowe frees him finally to laugh. Then there are the likes of Kim Basinger, David Strathairn and James Cromwell, vividly creating characters around the principals.
If the influence of Roman Polanski's Chinatown is obvious, then Hanson's film is much slighter thematically than that dark masterpiece, and far more optimistic in it's outlook, hard though it works to address political corruption and law enforcement. It carries too much of Ellroy's pulp attitude for any high seriousness to stick.
But Hanson comes up with some memorable scenes of his own, including a couple of excellent action scenes and one immortal moment, which Steven Spielberg stole only a few years later for Minority Report, and which anybody who has seen it will recall instantly at the mention of a name: Rolo Tommassi.


(Peter Mullan, 2010)

Mullan possesses an unusual sensibility as director. His films are fiercely emotional (not just this coming-of-age gang drama, but Orphans, his debut, and the acclaimed The Magdalane Sisters), but contain surreal elements, vivid religious imagery, a fascination with violence; and are models of storytelling clarity and subtle thematic content.
NEDS is probably his best film. A powerfully gruelling story of one young mans near-destruction by his involvement in youth gangs, there are elements of autobiography here, which may explain the emotional wallop this narrative delivers. Mullan was very probably picked on and isolated at school by his cleverness, and joining a a gang has always been a universal, obvious and accepted attempt to fit in. In the film, gang violence is an empowering spectacle, then it is a dangerous insanity, and as our protagonist pushes himself beyond his own limits, it acquires a distorted sort of horror movie edge.
As a writer, Mullan displays much empathy for these people, and the emotional details of so many moments are captured beautifully; from the terror of random bullying to the first thrill of adolescent rebellion.
It's a simple tale, simply told, and all the better for it.
Mullan's feel for place and character is unerring, and he draws some magnificent work from his young cast. And if it all sounds a bit rote and familiar, then the surreal touches and religious imagery may be what lift it - the final scene combines the two into something strange, wonderful and more than a little affecting.

Sunday, 13 February 2011


(David O. Russell, 2010)

The Fighter indulges in every boxing movie cliche imaginable. Here is a working class young man from a troubled background in an unfashionable part of America, taking beating after beating, his career and life seemingly going nowhere. And here is his sudden rise, buoyed by the love of a good, formidable woman, ending in a final shot at glory. Best of all, it's based on a true story. But David O. Russell really isn't interested in boxing cliches. Instead his focus is on the troubled, working class background. The young mans brother, a former golden boy contender turned chatterbox crack addict, is just as central to this film as the boxer himself, and his terrifying hydra of sisters and peroxide blonde mother are it's antagonists more than any of his opponents are.
But then Russell is clever. Understanding the cheap potency of those boxing cliches, he delivers them anyway, and they are as powerful and satisfying as ever, perhaps even moreso, because his choices are interesting. Reflecting the period in which the film is set, he shoots much of these sequences on cheap video - or at least film treated to look like video - and always includes the comentators on the soundtrack. Such fidelity to the unwritten rules of cinematic portrayals of pugilism is echoed in his cross-cutting between the ring and the reactions of spectators and the way the momentum and advantage swings between the fighters. He even throws in montages and distorts the soundtrack during slow motion instants. The film ends on a triumphant freezeframe, an almost self-parodic moment. Then Russell undercuts and denies the cliches at every turn. His characters are complex and difficult and the pain and awkwardness of their relationships is never downplayed. The big lesson he seems to have learned from Scorsese's Raging Bull is that the fights can be a relief from the emotional and psychic violence of interpersonal relationships, that the straightforward physical contest seems pure and almost wholesome by comparison.
Russell has always worked well with actors and here Christian Bale - as the crackhead brother - and Melissa Leo - as the peroxide blonde mother- are the real standouts, especially powerful in a couple of fierce scenes together, while Mark Wahlberg is all quiet, hurt dignity as the title character.
What separates the film from a legion of superficially similar boxing biopics is the energy it crackles with, there in Russell's mobile, live wire camera, the selection of classic rock and pop on the soundtrack, the intimate capture of a real community in Lowell, and in Bale's itchy bodypop of a performance.
All this and it works pretty much as well as Rocky, as feel good boxing films go.

Saturday, 12 February 2011


(Ethan Coen, 2010)

The Coen Brothers, in this mature phase, seem more rewarding than ever before, their cinema more reflective and with more shades and tones than they were once either capable of or interested in. Here they adapt Charles Portis' superb novel into a blackly comic, violent reading of the American creation myth and in the process come up with their most moving and perhaps most accessible film.
The pacing is classically true to the genre, and that suits the Coens' loquacious, rambling style, allowing them to showcase a series of eccentrics in their first act as the principles meet and prepare for the pursuit to come.
When that pursuit does come, it's leisurely and chatty, with character the dominant element until the plot finally sparks to life in the last 40 minutes or so. That means that these actors are allowed to work on their characters, and they all feel lived-in and comfortable, each of the principals quite superb. Bridges has fun as Cogburn, never apologetic about his own personality and with a streak of steel in that one eye, but Damon finds both the humour and pathos in his Texas Ranger and Stanfield more or less effortlessly carries the first act alone.
Roger Deakins was born to shoot Westerns, on the evidence of this film and Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and he finds and lights textures that bring this world to life throughout, from snow falling in woodland scrub to the whitewashed primness of turn of the century Memphis.
This is the Coens at their most mainstream, but still filled with their many virtues: great, witty dialogue, dynamic visual choices, both in shot and editing selection, instantly appealing characters, and easy but thrillingly inventive storytelling. Perhaps only their old weaknesses have melted away with time: an over-reliance on irony, which has been replaced with a more soulful, even serious sense of engagement with their material - their last few films have seemed to grapple more intently with notions of mortality and fate than their early works flirtations could ever manage. And then there are gambits beyond the imagination of most filmmakers here; most notably the final moonlit ride and the coda, which introduces an elegiac, emotional strain to their work quite unlike anything they've ever attempted before.

Friday, 4 February 2011

CELL 211

(Daniel Monzon, 2009)

Spain has turned out a handful of superior genre films over the last few years. The likes of King of the Hill and Time Crimes were well written and made a virtue of their budgetary restrictions. Taut and economical, both would seem ripe for the Hollywood remake treatment. A Cell 211 remake is already in the works, which is partly a reflection on the films massive success in Spain, where it made back its budget three times over at the Box Office and triumphed at the Goyas - the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars - winning Best Film, Director and Actor.
Strange to discover then that it is a solid B-Movie with an appealing high concept at its core: a Prison Guard is caught up in a riot on his first day in the job and to survive he pretends he is an inmate. From this director Monzon spins a gripping yarn of suspicion and tension which features a handful of great suspenseful moments as his protagonist risks discovery or nears escape, and is always expertly made.
But it is a manipulative little thrill-ride, elevated mainly by the performance of Luis Tosar, terrifying, complex and ever- believable as leader of the rioting prisoners, Malamadre. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.
Which is just as well, because other than that, Cell 211 is no better than an average episode of the terrific HBO show OZ.

Thursday, 3 February 2011


(Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu, 2010)

Javier Bardem is extraordinary, as usual. As Uxbal, a terminally ill single father mixed up in the frequently criminal exploitation of illegal immigrants in Barcelona, he has a lot to convey. His ex-wife is a bipolar party girl with substance issues who is sleeping with his wheeler-dealer brother and cannot be trusted with their two children. He is a necromancer, able to speak to the dead in the brief instant after they have passed, and is abused by people who think this is a con and troubled by the visions this power induces. He has problems with the African immigrants he supplies with pirate DVDs and fake designer bags, but also with the Chinese suppliers of this merchandise and the policeman he pays to turn a blind eye. And, of course, he is dying of cancer.
This is the films problem: everything is too much. Inarittu piles on the story strands, each of them heavy and serious, relevant and soulful, and as the film strains harder and harder for profundity it becomes suffocatingly intense. Inarittu's style doesn't help; that immersively jittery camera and a visceral, almost painful sound mix gives the viewer little space in the film as the characters pain and the grimness of the milieu press on you. He cannot resist adding more detail, either, filling in the characters of a Senegalese couple involved with Uxbal and giving a few scenes to the gay affair between the married Chinese boss and his Lieutenant.
Worse is that, as in previous films Babel and 21 Grams his conclusions are so trite and disappointing. From a film that takes itself so immensely seriously, I would expect more insight and ambiguity. At least Inarittu's gifts as a visual director are still sharp. Biutiful is filled with unexpected moments of startling beauty and striking images : mainly of Barcelona's urban sprawl in Winter, and for all it's other flaws, is always engrossing. This is chiefly down to Bardem, reasserting himself as both a great, magnetic movie star and an incredible actor. He is moving, believable, always human. All that in a mullet and tracksuit.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011


(Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

Aronofsky's facility with the cinematic medium is thrilling. Stunning, even. From the grungy low-budget intensity of Pi through the hyperactive visual, sensual and emotional overload of Requiem for a Dream, and from The Fountain's stately fantasy-worlds to the Wrestler's Dardennes-aping realism and long takes, he seems capable of almost anything with a camera. He has a fine eye and a great feel for the rhythm of a scene, he seems gifted with actors (just ask Mickey Rourke or Ellen Burstyn), uses music and visual effects quite well, and appears to be comfortable in many different genres.
But I think that as an artist he has absolutely nothing to say.
His films frequently look magnificent, they entertain, move and involve to different degrees; but I don't see the defined worldview or style of an artist. Instead I see a really classy, motivated and extremely intelligent journeyman director. It doesn't surprise me that his next film will be the Superhero blockbuster sequel The Wolverine. Indeed I can see him doing a superb job with it, since it will require a technically adroit but somewhat superficial approach.
Black Swan, then, is a beautifully directed, deliriously camp and overwrought art house drama, with traces of the thriller and horror genres in its DNA. It recalls the Roman Polanski of the late 1960s in subject matter, as it traces Nathalie Portman's ballerina as a role drives her inexorably towards madness. Aronofsky plays with sound and vision to disorientate the audience - plenty of flash cuts and images glimpsed in the corner of a moving frame alongside ambient noise and creepy sound affects - even while his story remains a primarily realist ballet drama for much of it's first two acts.
The last act is an emotional escalation as all becomes hysterical (in both senses) and an almost parodic element of grand guignol is introduced.
Like all of Aronofsky's films, it appears to be about how people destroy and hurt themselves, but it's investigation of this issue is never more than skin deep despite the sound and fury it creates.
Still, it is gripping, funny, frightening, sexy, often visually exceptional and always entertaining. Portman is superb.