Wednesday, 30 March 2011


(Richard Aoyade, 2010)

The first act is excellent; whipping by in an ostentatiously-directed blur of title cards, freeze frames, montages and jump-cuts, it feels very much like a debutant filmmaker indulging himself, and it's done with such brio and enthusiasm it can't help but charm. The debts to the Nouvelle Vague (L' enfance Nue and The 400 Blows in particular) are pronounced, as is the influence of a certain brand of quirkily deadpan American indie cinema (most obviously and damagingly Wes Anderson's superb Rushmore). All of this is suited to a coming of age tale of a young man in South Wales falling in love with a strange girl, and Aoyade has a fine eye and establishes a terrifically pungent sense of place early on.
But then the plot kicks in, involving parental marital difficulties and the New Age Guru who moves in next door, and despite fine comic turns from Noah Taylor and Paddy Considine, sporting an immortal combination of mullet and Mohawk, it all runs somewhat out of steam as that early energy dissipates. The Alex Turner songs on the soundtrack, while splendid in their own right, are a little too on the nose and trite in the context of the film, but the biggest problem here is that it's the kind of comedy which makes you smile but rarely laugh. Still, Aoyade conjures up some moments of genuine visual poetry, and is clearly a young filmmaker worth keeping an eye on.

Thursday, 17 March 2011


(Jonathan Liebesman, 2011)

As if it was made by some random sci-fi action blockbuster generator, there is not a single original idea in Battle: Los Angeles. It is derivative of every militaro-sci fi film since Aliens in it's gung ho lunkheadedness, utilises the by-now exhuasted shaky cam/ shallow focus/overexposed film style for it's action scenes first seen in Saving Private Ryan and done to death in a dozen films since and wants desperately to be a sort of Black Hawk Down meets Independence Day with its ground level view of a unit of stereotyped grunts facing an Alien invasion in L.A.
Aaron Eckhardt plays a gruffly heroic Staff Sergeant haunted by the loss of his men on an earlier mission who wants out of the Marine Corps but gets stuck babysitting a rookie Lieutenant direct from West Point with a pregnant wife. Other shorthand soldier-characterisations include: innocent hayseed virgin, cynical New Jersey Wiseguy, earnest Nigerian medic, competent Squad leader and a bunch of barely-differentiated Marines who get to die a little earlier. Their mission involves transporting some stranded civilians out of a blast zone so the Aliens can be wiped off the map, but along the way, of course, they discover how to beat these seemingly invincible adversaries and play a key role in winning the battle of the title.
Overlong, horribly directed - every time a gun is fired spatial incoherence becomes the norm - it plays like an enjoyable first person shooter video game stripped of it's gameplay and rendered a barely watchable action film. Eckhardt flexes his cheek muscles and does his best but the rest of the cast are lumbered with mainly expositional dialogue mixed in with some street slang trash talk, including Michelle Rodriguez in the "Michelle Rodriguez part" of the tough, non-nonsense airforce soldier who fights like a man.
The effects are impressive enough, but really, in a film like this they must be, and they in no way compensate for the right wing military fetishism generally on display here or for the lazy writing and aggressively bad direction.

Friday, 11 March 2011


(Joanna Hogg, 2010)

Featuring no music, no camera movement and no plot, Hogg's second film is a quietly dazzling study in middle class English manners. Observing some members of a family - a fragile mother and her two grown up children - holidaying off-Season in the Isles of Scilly, the film traces a few overcast and windy days as they delicately dance around one another and the two outsiders who flit in and out; an attractive young cook they have hired to make their food for the duration of their stay and an artist, an old family friend painting island landscapes.
Tensions are evident from the first conversation, when Edward, the son, and his sister Cynthia play a passive-aggressive bargaining game over who sleeps in which room. Edward wins, filling the poky attic bedroom with his lanky frame and establishing himself as a self-conscious martyr from the off, a status underlined by his divisive plan to volunteer as an AIDS awareness worker in Africa.
Hogg finds a halting poetry in the pauses and non-sequiters employed by people with little to say to each other, as conversations peter out and silences swell into rooms. Tension bubbles up in a couple of clenched not-quite arguments and finally explodes in two overheard offscreen screaming matches during which Hogg, ever aware of the awkwardness in any given situation, shows us the reaction of people in other rooms, their strained grimaces and furrowed brows.
The most agonising scene, however, is Cynthia's painfully English complaint about an undercooked guinea fowl in an empty restaurant during which everyone else remains perfectly blank. The aftershocks are still felt at the end of the film, by which time nothing much has changed and yet we feel that everything may have.
Hogg's shooting style is precise and controlled. The majority of scenes take place indoors - the same rooms enjoy the same camera set-ups time and again - with muted, natural light, and the lowering skies occasionally make the exteriors feel just as claustrophobic. She avoids close-ups, so that her people are always shot in relation to each other, emphasising their conflicts and isolations (Edward's awkward flirtation with Rose, the cook, is illustrated primarily through their body language) and ensuring that two late close ups have a sizeable impact. She finds some lovely shots on this small stage, but the film's chief pleasure, aside from the excellent performances, is Hogg's surgical skewering of a certain kind of English middle class dysfunctionalism.
Here the key figure is the unseen father who has chosen (perhaps wisely, on reflection) to remain at home. Mocked by his son and criticised by his wife, his absence is crucial, telling and perhaps the most interesting silence in a film of silences.

Sunday, 6 March 2011


(Greg Mottola, 2011)

Cruder and broader than either of the other Simon Pegg and Nick Frost collaborations (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, both, tellingly, co-written and directed by Edgar Wright, whose visual wit and lightness of touch are sorely missed here, competent though Mottola is), this explicitly combines elements of various genres, from the character dynamics of a buddy movie, some Kevin Smith style geek comedy, Spielbergian alien encounters, and X-Files agents, with car chases, gunfights and fist fights all played mainly for laughs. The tone is odd; perhaps because the narrative throws in some fish out of water comedy as two British geeks complain about American tea and justify the fact that British police arent armed as they are terrorised by various Yank stereotypes, their very presence providing some "comedy of embarrassment" along the way.
As such it's a mixed bag, some of it very funny (Kirsten Wiig's Fundamentalist Christian discovering swearing and doing it wrong), some of it not (far too many smug geek references), but it's breezy enough and sporadically charming.
Neither Pegg nor Frost registers all that strongly, their characters slightly generic and drab, and both utterly blown away by the CGI alien of the title, nicely voiced by Seth Rogen, whose way with sarcasm and irony are well-utilised. The alien gets all of the best lines, and is by far the films most charismatic performer.

Friday, 4 March 2011


(David Michod, 2010)

If you know David Michod's name at all, chances are that's down to the several fine and celebrated short films he's directed which are all viewable on YouTube. Those films each display a particular mastery of mood and tone which is more than matched by Animal Kingdom, his debut feature. Here he conjures up a tone of slow-burning dread and tension which is maintained, almost painfully, throughout. The few outbreaks of actual violence are brief and excessive but they never lift that awful mood. It lies over all of the action and the characters like a fog, echoed by Michod's sound mix and Anthony Partos' brooding electronic buzz of a score.
An early voiceover clarifies from where this sense of menace originates; the criminals at the heart of the story are all afraid, all of the time, that the end is near, that soon they will be caught, a reference repeated later by Guy Pearce's Police Officer and lent weight by the sudden and bloody ends suffered by some.
All of the characters seem trapped in this world; if not by their circumstances (young protagonist J) then by their own nature (the monstrous oldest brother "Pope" and his equally terrifying mother), and each seems bent by the weigh of it. Michod superbly orchestrates the slow, sad symphony of destruction that follows, each character singularly, sensitively drawn and performed by a uniformly strong cast.
The films pallet is muted, much like its mood, bright colours dulled and bleached pale by Michod's careful lighting of his compositions, which always tellingly play up the conflicts and tensions within the scenes they depict.
His work in short films is evident in the short vignette he slips into the narrative at a crucial halfway point: just as the brothers plot revenge on the Melbourne Police for the death of one of their own, he introduces us to two young patrolmen arriving for duty, donning uniforms and beginning their nightshift. Then they get a call and we are with them when men approach suddenly from the dark and the night is exploded with shotgun blasts.
This sudden shift in perspective is brief but brilliant and indicative of Michod's insistence on the human truth in his story, the quiet, painful moments at the expense of the loud, and of dark beauty at the expense of the slick glamour so often applied to this genre.


(George Nolfi, 2011)

In cinema, a little Phillip K Dick goes a long way. George Nolfi takes a basic Dick idea -in this case, the existence of a company devoted to adjusting the world in accordance with their grand plan - and turns it into a neat, poppy little romantic sci-fi thriller. Like most Dick adaptations it gets nowhere near his sensibility, but then it doesn't remotely try to, content to springboard off his concept into utterly different territory. The success of this type of material depends largely on the leads, and in this case Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, both excellent, spark with an appealing and convincing chemistry, and their meet-cute is one of the best and most charming I've seen. Once it works, and it really does work, then the rest of the film just falls into place, driven by the audiences desire to see these people happy together.
The thriller elements resolve, as they so often do, into lots of chase sequences, but Nolfi keeps it snappy and pacy, and his classy supporting cast mean that the acting is always a pleasure to watch. Visually, the direction is undistinguished - Nolfi will perhaps be more of a writer who directs than director who writes - but there's a charmingly retro feel to much of the design, and in it's quiet way this film is taking on big subjects; life and love, fate and faith, chance and free will. It also evokes a dozen other films - from Wings of Desire to Vanilla Sky and The Game - but is always it's own animal, and is never less than cleverly entertaining fun.
It's also a hundred times more romantic than most romantic comedies, with its ardent belief in the power of true love, and that's always a cherishable quality in a movie.