Tuesday, 29 November 2011


(Terence Davies, 2011)

Terence Davies seems one of those artists who only truly operates at full capacity when he is intimately, personally connected with his material. His early work, all of it nakedly autobiographical, is where he built his reputation, and is extraordinary. He arrived seemingly fully-formed; a confident style in place, his thematic obsessions obvious straightaway, and Still Voices, Distant Lives and The Long Day Closes are both fully realised and quite masterful in their mining of Davies' own boyhood experiences in Post-War Liverpool. Since then, his feature work - adapting Classic novels for The Neon Bible and The House of Mirth - has been stylish and powerful, in a muted, repressed fashion, but lacking the spark of greatness of his first films.
The same could be said of The Deep Blue Sea. An adaptation of a Terrence Ratigan play, it finds Davies back in his favourite era - "around 1950" - meaning that the period recreation is fastidious, beautiful and just a smidgen enbalmed. While his period films are all located in a precisely detailed world, it is the soulful quality to that world which makes it so warm and distinctive, and that is evident here too, in the impromptu singalongs in cosy pubs and a Tube platform turned Blitz bomb shelter, in the small kindnesses of strangers. Yet the beautifully darkened pallette and the finely arranged set design - all of it making Weisz's red coat seem to glow in the dark - are a trifle suffocating in their perfection.
The story is a study of a dying relationship. Weisz's character is trapped in a polite marriage with an older man (Simon Russell Beale, splendid), a Judge dominated by his spitefully puritan, wealthy mother. When she meets a dashing, emotionally immature ex-RAF pilot named Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) she discovers the pleasures of physical passion for the first time and her life is changed. She leaves her husband and moves in with Freddie but his limitations make them ultimately incompatible, and in the opening scene we see her attempt suicide.
Weisz is tremendous throughout, presenting a complex, intelligent woman, bewitched by sexual rapture and all too aware of how it is ruining her life, perceiving his flaws but not caring, ashamed of herself yet desperate for him still. Hiddleston plays Freddie as a big child, all sunshine and jokes in good times, but throwing tantrums and storming off when it gets difficult.
Though Davies does a good job opening out the play, chopping up the chronology, using a stunning and mostly wordless opening sequence to relay much of the backstory, the fact the the majority of the action occurs in two locations makes it hard to forget the theatrical origins of the piece. That means it's hard to know who is responsible for the slightly chilly emotional tone; Davies or Rattigan. This is a world with a generally calm, stiff upper lip surface, broken by Hester and Freddies passion, but mainly containing it's emotional storm deep within.
Somehow that translates into a film where we watch the characters struggle with strong feelings while feeling little ourselves.
That is a small sin in such a controlled and confident piece of cinema which frequently reaches sublime heights, but it is still a sin.

Friday, 25 November 2011


(Bennett Miller, 2011)

In the end Miller's film, which scrupulously bends over backwards to avoid all of the cliches of the Sports Movie, all those slow motion turning points and dropped out soundtracks and inspirational music uses and unlikely heroes, in the end it surrenders to the power of those cliches and indulges in just about all of them, and it's a suitably glorious moment and testament to the power of the genre.
Partly it's so satisfying because of the quality of what has gone before. Moneyball takes what seemed like difficult material in Michael Lewis' non-fiction account of how General Manager Billy Beane revolutionised Major League Baseball through a new statistics-led system of player identification; and turns out a smartly middlebrow, just stylish enough adult entertainment.
It works well because Miller and the script by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin do a fine job with the set-up, wittily explaining the problems faced by Beane and his cash-strapped club, the Oakland Athletics, and just-as-wittily depicting the reasons for and manner of his conversion to a radical new approach. Early on Beane's own character is accounted for, to an extent, by a series of flashbacks, structured like memory fragments, which show his youthful promise and hopes,then detail the painful dwindling into mediocrity of his career. After that the film becomes a story of a radical with a vision and his struggle for acceptance.
The actual baseball footage is brief and snatched until the team reaches a game where it can possibly break a record, and then Miller brings out the cliches and wallows in some suspense and emotion. But generally, he stays focused on character and the intimate drama of this odd industry, aided by a terrific cast.
Brad Pitt plays Beane as confident and relaxed within himself, but with an undertone of disappointment and a slight edge. He indulges in his old trick of always ensuring his character is eating or drinking something - he knows that chewing, spitting and sucking all keep his otherwise immobile face interesting in certain scenes and when he has no foodstuff to work with, he chews on his lips - but this is a rare contemporary role in which he allows the golden boy of old to come out, his natural handsomeness emphasised by big hair and soft lighting. His very attractiveness, that Redfordian thing he's always had, is a big part of his movie star appeal, and it helps make his character here likeable and worth watching.
Jonah Hill and Phillip Seymour Hoffman both excel opposite him, and Miller keeps it all visually diverting enough to make an audience forget the fact that this is a dry, small, arty film about statistics, largely shot in ugly offices and dull locations.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011


(Tarsem Singh, 2011)

This is where modern mainstream cinema has brought us: this bizarre twisting of Greek mythology filtered through a collision between video game narrative (journey, fight, boss fight) and slick advertising imagery, all of it pumped up on steroids and as homoerotic as Tom from Finland. Thankfully that slick advertising imagery is the work of Tarsem Singh, a director with an actual, distinct and individual visual sensibility. His narrative chops are more open to debate, since each of his films so far (confused serial killer thriller The Cell and quite unclassifiable fantasy The Fall) have been problematic as Exercises in storytelling. But he makes each and every frame of Immortals look truly magnificent. The film is a triumph of design; sets, costumes, weaponry; they all look superb and Singh lights and frames all beautifully.
As if to celebrate this, he often resorts to slo-mo, emphasising the aesthetic pleasures to be had in his tableaux. But instead, he just exaggerates the film's airless, constricted beauty, the obviousness that this is a movie fantasy with no relation whatsoever with the real world. This doesn't look, sound or feel like the real world, which makes it's efforts at grittiness - in the violence, in some of the emotional content - almost laughable.
The story is familiar and familiarly ludicrous; evil king Hyperion is conquering all, his scarred, masked troops raping, murdering, pillaging. He's the kind of villain who's so evil, he casually kills his own men at regular intervals. He wants a magic bow in order to free ("unleash" is the term preferred by the script here) the Titans, only Zeus and his family of Gods looking on from Olympus aren't happy about that and so they prod Theseus (Henry Cavill), a blandly efficient Warrior with a grudge, into his path to lead the fight. Along the way Theseus meets and deflowers Phaedra (Freida Pinto), a virgin oracle, and bonds with Stephen Dorffs buff, wisecracking thief.
The script is clunky and often comically earnest as its characters discuss free will and fate while deciding whether or not to involve themselves in the big battle, and the uneven cast doesn't help. Rourke plays it like it's Sophocles, though he cops Brad Pitt's "eat something in every scene" trick, Cavill and Pinto are seemingly involved in a secret contest to see who can be the most beautifully wooden (which doesn't help their scenes together) and much of the rest of the cast seem content to flex their muscles and pout.
Singh puts together a few good action scenes, and it is always quite entertaining in its delirious way, but it's an odd film, memorable more for what it does wrong than what it gets right.

Sunday, 20 November 2011


(Justin Kurzel, 2011)

Kurzel's film, based on the real-life "Snowtown Killings" which shocked and horrified Australia in the late 1990s, is a hypnotic, gruelling study in sustained dread. The genius of it is that the actual horror of the violence and murder is seldom glimpsed - though the few scenes in which it is are agonising and unforgettable - and instead, Kurzel does his work through tone, texture and atmosphere.
He is gifted enough to find the eerie, spartan beauty in the drab Adelaide suburbs, all local authority bungalows, scrubland dotted with rubbish and bowed people smoking in dingy rooms, his compositions and a particular cool palette - sickly yellows, greens and browns, washed out greys and blues - still capturing a world with a realist eye without sacrificing any visual poetry. The pulsing of the tense, disturbing score by Jed Kurzel helps with this, making some of the many scenes filled with quiet, telling but banal dialogue exchanges positively seethe with menace.
The film is split in two. The lead-up to the lead characters discovery that his mothers new boyfriend, John, is a killer; his own involvement in Johns murders and the long, scary aftermath. The second half reels in its own daze, traumatised by the awful horror of the deeds it has recorded, just as our youthful protagonist is. The acting is uniformly excellent, subtle and naturalistic, emotion all locked down and clenched.
If the subject is that old chestnut: the banality of evil, well it's seldom been quite so well treated as it is here. John Bunting is an everyday monster, manipulative, extremely clever in his playing of those around him, targeting the weak and isolated, charming others. He quickly becomes monstrous, and each scene in which he figures in the second half of this film is an ordeal of tension.
It seems amazing that this film comes so soon after another grim Australian crime drama centred on a young man struggling against the influence of a psychopathic patriarchal figure, David Michod's Animal Kingdom.
Both powerful, artful pieces of work, neither a particularly easy watch.
Snowtown never gives the audience an inch, ending not with the apprehension of the killers - which would be cathartic - But with the most sinister, morally conclusive closing of a door in cinema nice the end of The Godfather, followed by some dry captions. It's just a final gut punch after a series of such blows, but you have to admire Kurzel's artistry in delivering such a vicious beating.

Saturday, 19 November 2011


(Shaun Levy, 2010)

It starts out as a gentle, funny, nicely observed little comedy of suburban family life. The first 20 minutes follow Carell and Fey's married couple through their daily routine with two jobs and two children, hectic mornings of breakfasts and lunch preparation, chronic exhaustion and endless planning plus the odd night out together in the same suburban restaurant. They have a little chemistry, both are obviously great comic talents, and the material rings true. It seems a promising start.
Then it all goes wrong. A 1980s style high concept plot kicks in involving a mob boss, corrupt cops, a D.A. with fetishes, and a stripper-cum-hooker and her lowlife boyfriend who are blackmailing them with a flash drive full of compromising pictures. This leads to dull, silly chase scenes, our protagonists mugging a lot and lots of hysterical screaming.
It's at its best whenever it slows down to allow the film we glimpsed at the beginning back in - a long argument in a car after she has gone all girly-flirty with a buff Mark Wahlberg where they admit some fears and desires, most notably - but those moments are too rare as it settles for awkward plot turns all leading towards a predictable, happy ending. A surprisingly heavyweight cast in the smallest supporting roles (Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Wiig, Ray Liotta, James Franco, Mila Kunis and William Fichtner all show up) makes it all a bit more bearable, but the anonymous visuals and music add nothing, and by the end, despite a few big laughs, it all feels too long a an hour and a half.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011


(Andrea Arnold, 2011)

All adaptations of classic novels should be so alive and so emotional as Arnold's extraordinary reading of Emily Bronte's book. Dispensing with the majority of the dialogue and instead placing the narrative and expositional weight on the imagery Arnold and her prodigiously gifted DP Robbie Ryan conjure from the bleak beauty of their Yorkshire locations, this is a visually stunning experience from start to finish.
And experience is the right word. Arnold favours dozens of close-ups and a fantastically detailed sound mix which make Wuthering Heights a startlingly sensual and visceral piece of work. Both the intense physicality of the moors, all howling winds, scratching bracken, clattering rain, fog and distant cloudbursts together with the small human sensations of life there, lived inside dark houses lit by roaring fires and trudging through mud, are vividly conveyed.
This is a film that feels almost as if it were made by the Moors themselves, so primal and brutal is its sensibility. But it is never less than thrillingly beautiful, filled with miraculous captures of fleeting nature and wonderful compositions of Arnold's many fine tableaux.
All of that is never at the expense of the characters or story. Arnold's approach highlights the simplicity and power of her purely visual storytelling, with much of the first half, in particular, told through wordless scenes of human interaction. We see the growth of the feeling between Heathcliff and Cathy in many mute scenes, much of it articulated through tone and mood. There is more dialogue and more traditional dramatic content in the second half, but Arnold keeps it poetic and elliptical, stark and heavily textured.
Her star-free cast is excellent, with the two actors playing Heathcliff in particular (Solomon Glave and James Howson) required to suggest so much buried emotion, both rage and love, through consistent passages. Howsons glare - and the fact his big dark sad eyes undermine it every time - give him the perfect effect for the hard but vulnerable creature Heathcliff has become.
But the true stars here ar Arnold herself and the locations, both of whom are wonderful.

Monday, 14 November 2011


(Martin Scorsese, 2011)

Following the success of his superb, epic Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home, Scorsese addresses another icon of 1960s rock in this near three and a half hour film on the "quiet Beatle", George Harrison.
In general, it's masterfully executed, focusing intently on the spiritual quest that characterised Harrison both as artist and human being, filled with brilliant archive footage and previously unseen photographs, narrated by key players in interviews and soundtracked by some of Harrison's best music.
It appears to assume some level of knowledge about Harrison's career, often skipping exposition in favour of a more reflective, elliptical or poetic portrayal of an event or phase in his life and is roughly structured around a few key moments: the formation of the Beatles, their rise to superstardom, his discovery of Indian mysticism, the breakup of the band, the making of "All Things Must Pass", the Concert for Bangladesh, his involvement in film production, the Travelling Wilburys, the assault by a deranged intruder that nearly killed him, and his death from cancer. That's a fascinating, full life, and Scorsese fills in around it with some equally fascinating details and snippets. But there are frustrating exclusions and some things are absolutely fudged. Harrison's life as a rock star who "loved women" is kept tellingly vague (his widow is a Producer), and most of his post-"All Things Must Pass" material is ignored. As far as this film is concerned, Harrison spent the last three decades of his life noodling in the studio, gardening, going to parties and meditating.
Then there is the related structural problem. One decade in Harrison's life - the 60s, the time he spent with the Beatles - dominates his reputation and legacy, but it has been exhaustively chronicled, and is dealt with in the first half here, while the next three decades take up the remainder. And Harrison, as talented a songwriter and musician as he was, was only the third greatest writer in the Beatles, and the more compelling figures of Lennon and McCartney each warp the narrative with the magnetism of genius whenever they feature.
But there are some fabulous moments here, from McCartney's thick scouse impression of a childhood friend describe George's hair as "like a fookin turban" to Olivia Harrison's chilling, shocked description of their struggle with a crazed attacker, to sundry clips of Harrison's own dry wit. And the music, of course, is fantastic.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011


(Joachim Trier, 2011)

Here is a stunning film by a young director unafraid of taking on the big questions of everyday life; a film engaged with what it is to be alive and still young in the modern world. Trier's second film, a loose adaptation of the 1931 French novel "Le Feu Follet" by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, follows a day in the life of Anders, a middle class, thirtysomething recovering junkie who has wasted most of his life in one long party of excess and oblivion, hurting those he loves, wasting his talent as a writer. After ten months in a residential clinic, and with only two weeks of his treatment left, he is considered "cured", and given a days leave to travel into Oslo for a job interview.
While in town he visits some old friends, looking to reconnect, hoping to settle up and make peace with a few. For in the opening scene we have seen Anders leave the bed of a young woman and attempt to drown himself in a lake near his clinic. It seems clear that he still intends to commit suicide - he is plain about his reasons with his friend Thomas - but he also seems to be searching for a reason not to, drifting with the currents and rhythms of his hometown, repeatedly leaving messages on the answer phone of his ex-girlfriend, listening to his friends list their own problems.
As Scandinavian portrayals of depression go, Oslo, August 31st is far more affecting and articulate than Lars Von Trier's Melancholia and is rooted in a more recognisably textured, densely detailed real world. Indeed, this is a great city film, with Oslo itself as much a lead character as Anders is, and Trier ensures we see lots of it, from rolling parks to posh suburbs, slick cafes to busy city thoroughfares. Trier has an eye for the beauty in a city scene, and the scenes in the still empty dark streets of the early morning are particularly fine in their eerie poetry.
He also has a fine feel for character and dialogue, and the scenes in which Anders confronts his old friends and acquaintances all crackle with feeling and intelligence. They swap tales of middle class problems, ennui and "trivialities"; the way friendships dissolve and social excitement recedes, the way people "disappear into motherhood", how hard entering your 30s is for a woman when men bring 20 year-olds with "perky tits" to parties, all of it instantly recognisable to anybody in the affluent West of a certain age. This all allows for a proper consideration of the existential questions at the heart of the film, as Anders and his friends consider why they are here and what happiness is. Through all this Anders struggles with his own emptiness, alienation and temptation, and Anders Danielsen Lie is superb in the role, a raw wound of self-pity and pain in certain scenes, always sympathetic, complex and full of recriminations, but also difficult to actually like.
A couple of brilliant passages widen the film's concerns beyond Anders and his little circle of modern bohemians. The film opens with archive and home video footage of Oslo over the last few decades as an aural montage of people recall their memories of the City from their youth. This is instantly moving - everybody hoards such impressions of time and place, one of the implicit subjects of the film as it wanders through the City later. At another point, Anders sits alone in a cafe and lets the conversations of his fellow patrons wash over him. We hear snatches, as people laugh and whine and relay arguments, and Anders, traumatised by an abruptly self-destructive end to his job interview, is suddenly anonymous, his concerns and problems acquiring some universality.
This may all sound uncompromisingly bleak, but Trier is such a confident, skilful director that it always remains exhilarating in its beauty and human scale. In addition, it's thought-provoking, gripping and quietly profound. Trier even throws in a burst of Aha on the soundtrack as Oslo heaves into view for Anders, approaching in a taxi, without altering the pitch-perfect tone, and that must take some doing.

Sunday, 6 November 2011


(George Clooney, 2011)

Clooney follows his sober, earnest, meaningful work on Good Night and Good Luck with another sober, earnest, meaningful drama about politics and the media, only this time his conclusions are darker and more despairing, his style a little blander and less distinctive.
His film centres upon young campaign Organiser Stephen (Ryan Gosling), involved in campaigning for a charismatic, free-thinking Governor, played by Clooney himself, to receive the Democratic Presidential nomination. Stephen starts off idealistic and passionate, and this story basically traces through his political coming-of-age as he grows more and more disillusioned. In this regard, Gosling is fine casting, convincing as the starry-eyed young hotshot politico and skilfully suggesting the pain of his rude awakening, the slight smugness of his screen presence a good fit for the character.
It's a film filled with people in suits having intense conversations in dull, realist locations and makes plain Clooney's admiration for the smart, adult political films of the 1950s and '60s and the influence of a director like Sidney Lumet on his work. Here the direction is absolutely at the service of the script, giving it all a confined, intimate feel which is true to the theatrical roots of the piece (its an adaptation of the play "Farragut North" by screenwriter Beau Willimon), and placing the onus squarely on the actors and the words they say. The actors are uniformly strong; Clooney suggesting the complexity and compromise of even the most shining public figure, Evan Rachel Wood transforming what could have been a mere plot device into a character I doubt was on the page, and Max Minghella, Marisa Tomei and Jennifer Ehle all strong in smaller parts. Two supporting actor stalwarts predictably steal the film, however; Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti play rival Campaign managers, their visceral dislike obvious in an early scene, and each is magnetic and believable throughout. Hoffman's lack of vanity is as ever a strength, his belly hanging over his belt as he rants about loyalty and betrayal. Giamatti is more reptilian, proud of his endgame even as he laments his own cynicism.
Cynicism is the key feeling here. Politics is incredibly cynical, this film tells us. It is full of cynical people and it makes even the innocent cynical, if it doesn't destroy them. This cynicism is necessary, it's the only way to win, to make a difference. This slightly simple-minded thesis is perhaps the film's greatest flaw, alongside the scripts tendency to indulge in speechifying. Characters seem to line up to make long speeches at one another, many of them fine pieces of writing, but lacking the crackle of the back and forth dialogue exchange which dominates the film.
Add to that the sense that its all a little over-familiar, a little too easy, and a little middle-of- the-road, and Clooney's achievement in fashioning such a solid piece of grown-up entertainment seems lessened a little bit. But only a little. This is a serious, well-made film with something to say, and it's full of good acting and fine scenes, which in the modern climate of American cinema, is no small thing.

Saturday, 5 November 2011


(Steven Spielberg, 2011)

For all that Spielberg and Peter Jackson's spectacular and expensive adaptation of Herge's popular creation has it's many pleasures, it never quite feels right. It never quite feels like Tintin. It feels as if they sought to make a Tintin film, were denied the rights by Herge's estate, and instead made a blatant knock-off in which everything is extremely similar, but nothing is really how it should be. Given that they weren't denied the rights and that most of the details of Tintin's distinctive fictional world are here recreated with painstaking detail and love, that's something of a major worry.
Part of the problem is the animation. Using the near photo-realistic motion capture and cgi technology beloved of Robert Zemeckis allows for massive invention and precision in so many of the visual particulars that it's easy to see why it appeals to filmmakers. But it also means that the "uncanny valley" is a problem throughout, one only complicated by the decision to render many of the characters - Captain Haddock, most obviously - in a sort of realist-caricature style. It also has its drawbacks in the areas which seem initially like Pluses. Athmosphere seems like something that can be painted into the corners of a scene, augmented by accenting the detail of the objects in a room, sharpening the colours of a palette, softening the lighting, allowing shadows to run longer. But it's more complex than that. The scenes of exotic North Africa and the middle East in the Indiana Jones movies are effortlessly, pungently atmospheric in a way simiiar scenes in this film are not. The Indiana Jones films were made on location, in ancient towns and baking deserts. Here, most everything feels hermetically sealed, without any grit or soul. The same problem afflicts the many, often brilliantly conceived, thrillingly "shot" action sequences. The level of detail and inventiveness is truly incredible, but that somehow only emphasises our distance from such patently made material, and is indeed even a distraction.
The screenplay, by the dazzling trio of Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish and Steven Moffat, is solid, working a traditional Tintin mystery and a Spielbergan set-piece roller coaster into the same film and making it work, and seamlessly for the most part, though there are a few clunky lines scattered throughout. The cast is impressive, everybody nailing the spirit and personality of hs character. And there are some nice visual gags and slapstick here, together with many beautiful images. But the whole thing, which is breathlessly paced most of the way, ends in a horrendous anti-climax, followed by the inevitable threat of a sequel. And while it may work to some degree with its target audience of 10 year old boys, as Spielberg adventure films go, this is strictly second rank.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


(Ronald Neame, 1966)

Odd how certain films are accorded Classic status, while others, sometimes more deserving, slip through the cracks to some extent.
Gambit is a clever, funny and suspenseful caper film from the mid-sixties. It's romantic, always nice to look at, and a rewarding narrative experience. Yet it's far from acclaimed as a classic. Perhaps it's a little too self-consciously clever in its Twisty-turniness. Perhaps the combination of Michael Caine and Shirley Maclaine in the lead roles doesn't have the requisite old school star power of something like Charade, say.
It should be a classic, I think. Detailing the carefully planned heist of an ancient sculpture from a reclusive North African Billionaire (drolly played by Herbert Lom), Gambit is always imaginative and interesting in it's approach.
It is also a catalogue of the pleasures of studio filmmaking at just the moment when they were about to evaporate under commercial and artistic pressure, in the mid to late 1960s. But this film is shot in lovely, thick technicolour on beautifully designed sets filled with actors in glamourous costumes. The instances of location shooting - the opening long shot of the streets of Hong Kong through the windscreen of a moving car is superbly vivid and evocative - enrich the sense of place and atmosphere.
The story is slight and familiar, but the storytelling is superb. The opening act depicts the heist going like clockwork, all the elements falling perfectly into place. MacLaine doesn't speak a word in this entire sequence, a mute doll until 27 minutes in when the story evaporates and we see that we have been shown Caine's plan as he would like it to happen, before he has actually met MacLaine. The rest of the film depicts the actual truth of the plan, ruined and adjusted throughout by complicated, awkward reality.
If the difference between how we imagine - or wish - life were and how it actually is is the real subject of Gambit, well the presentation is just as important. It slips in a little romance, a little suspense, some nicely comic moments, and always remains light and colourful.
And it is headlined by a couple of proper movie stars, MacLaine doing a variation on her kooky, vulnerable dame with a tough streak, while Caine lets his slightly reptilian looks and natural charm both work for his character, who flips from charming to selfish thoughout. They have enough chemistry to make their relationship charm, just like the film itself.