Wednesday, 27 April 2011


(Jaume Collet-Serra, 2011)

Part 2 of Liam Neeson laying waste to Old Europe, in other words. Here, instead of the invulnerable super warrior he played in the simplistic but enjoyable Taken, he plays a Scientist whose life seems to have been stolen from him while in Berlin for a Conference. Only it's all far more Twisty-turny than that. Directed with stylishly brisk efficiency by Serra but essentially soulless, most of the cast play comfortably to type: January Jones as an Ice Queen and Aidan Quinn as a slimily ambiguous antagonist, for example, with Diane Kruger registering surprisingly well as a Bosnian Immigrant Cab Driver who aids Neeson.
There are a couple of decent set-pieces (Serra is a solid craftsman and in a couple of his earlier films; notably Orphan and even Goal 2, has shown that he possesses am unusually fine eye) and it puts a Bourne-style location , Berlin in Winter, to atmospheric use, but really it's all too cold and anonymous to have much impact. The exception is a scene in the final act between the two old pros in supporting roles, Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella, which seems almost to have been edited in from a different film entirely. It's a scene of quiet confrontation, completely told in dialogue, full of retreat and acceptance of mortality, and thrillingly acted by both men. It's a shame the rest of the film doesn't have the same sensibility.

Sunday, 24 April 2011


(Janus Metz, 2010)

The series of conflicts which resulted from the events of 11 September 2001 have spawned a number of exceptional documentaries. The technology available to journalists and filmmakers today - the sort of technology which means anybody with a cellphone can film news footage in the street and see it on the Internet minutes later - makes possible an unprecedented level of access to events in the field of conflict. Lightweight digital cameras, in particular, mean that one man can make a movie. They also suggest a pleasing verisimilitude; to a certain extent, we associate the visual characteristics of material shot with a light handheld camera with modern warfare. This means that even fictional portrayals of warfare have partially adopted this shooting style as a shortcut to visual legitimacy. If it's shot this way, it looks more realistic, seems to be the thinking.
Well, Armadillo is real. It follows a Unit of the Danish army through a tour in the Helmand Province in Afghanistan, tightly focusing upon five soldiers within the group. We witness them leave home, saying goodbye to tearful relatives at the Airport, then observe them through months of boredom and terror until we see their return to Denmark to those same families. It contains strong storytelling: the focus on just five men allows their characters to be well-established and Metz cleverly crosscuts between them, contrasting their personalities and reactions to the same events, just as a novel or War movie would treat the material if it were fictional. The deliberate nature of the storytelling is one of the reasons Armadillo sometimes feels more like fiction than a documentary; the other is its visual beauty. Cinematographer Lars Skree captures some absolutely stunning imagery here, the sort of thing we don't see much of in most War Documentaries.
The content is quite familiar as we see these men endure hours of tedium - with porn, wrestling, video games - and then shattering bursts of terrifying violence. That violence is always frighteningly banal, which is an aspect fictional films never capture, and beyond the explosions and the rattle of automatic weapons fire the most frightening sight here is the vacant shock in the eyes of a Dane who has just been shot and is being treated by medics. This is how it really is, his eyes seem to say.
Sensitive and profoundly respectful of the men fighting in the field - there are no politics here - and both articulate of the horror and appreciative of the thrill of warfare, Armadillo is a terrific, provocative, complex, exhilaratingly cinematic documentary on modern Warfare, fit to rank alongside other recent classics Restrepo and Gunner Palace.

Friday, 22 April 2011


(Jeong Beom Lee, 2010)

The premise is near-parodic in it's generic familiarity; a traumatised ex-Intelligence Operative is just beginning to be drawn out of his depression and mourning by the irrepressible little girl who lives next door when she is abducted by mobsters who kill her junkie mother. He vows to get her back, and he's very very good at violence. From there on in it's mayhem.
But like many Korean genre films, it's the slightly offbeat sensibility and the intensity of the treatment of such cliched material that really makes the film work. The villains are vile; torturing and harvesting organs from children, the group are also given distinctive personalities (partly signalled by a variety of extravagant hairstyles, an emphasis echoed when the heroes final transformation into vengeful killer is signalled by him shaving off his moptop) making their eventual fates much more satisfying. The hero, played by Korean Superstar Bin Won, is a muted presence early on, but his eventual eruption into spectacular, expert violence is nicely played and the actor even makes the film's weakest element - his sentimental emotional breakthrough with the little girl - feel a lot less mawkish than it should.
But it's director Jeong Beom Lee's slick, dark direction that ensures the plot rips along without ever sacrificing any characterisation. His film is full of stunning sequences, including a couple of bravura action scenes - a fantastic final knife fight and the hero versus a roomful of armed mobsters leap immediately to mind - and is always a stylish, visually pleasurable watch. Yet it still feels more soulful and substantial than an American treatment of this material might. In fact, whereas American Action cinema seems to have split into two distinct streams; comprising of the post-Bourne Arthouse Action movie (Joe Wright's Hanna, for instance) and the more simplistic and exploitative popcorn Action movie (a recent example would be Fast Five, say), Korean Action Cinema manages to incorporate both tendencies into single films. The Man from Nowhere is undoubtedly an Action film, but it's never insulting or offensively dumb, and it is shaded an individual enough to remain interesting throughout.

Thursday, 21 April 2011


(Kelly Reichert, 2010)

Deliberate and confident in its pacing, Reichert's film is a Western like they used to make them in the 1970s; not just revisionist but challenging the genre's most basic assumptions and markers. Following three families who have broken off from a Wagon Train in the Great Plains of Oregon, led by a grizzled, almost self-consciously mythic Scout named Steven Meek, it's rhythms are suggestive more of art cinema than the Western. Slow pans and extremely gradual dissolves establish the visual scheme of the film, and Reichert repeatedly captures figures isolated against vast landscapes and immense skies as they plod relentlessly across the country.
The characters are indicated through observation, their various dynamics sketched beautifully in the films first act as their situation worsens and they are stretched and tested as people. They are lost and beginning to doubt their guides ability to lead them competently, and tensions grow between the couples, especially when they capture a lone Indian and Meek wants to kill him.
The Indian is an unknowable, implacable presence in their midst and a big element of the mysterious quality that makes the film such a fascinating and occasionally demanding watch. The excellent cast - in which Michelle Williams and Bruce Greenwood are the standouts - combat that difficulty, as does Reichert's sure hand with her regular collaborator Jonathan Raymond's excellent script, always ensuring that the problem at the heart of the plot is foregrounded and expressed through the interplay of her vividly drawn characters.
The feminist angle is obvious but never overstated. This is a film that wants to show what it was like to be a woman on the frontier; not a whore or a female gunslinger, but a married woman in search of a future with her husband and family. The part Williams' character plays in the story is a subtle criticism of how the genre usually ignores the female perspective entirely, and yet the film integrates that into its ensemble portrayal of these pioneers and a sustained study in landscape cinematography.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011


(Aaron Katz, 2010)

It starts off as "mumblecore".
That's a meaningless label, really, a movement that never was. Lets say that it starts off as a slightly arty, beautifully observed, naturalistic Generation Y comedy-drama. Some of the dialogue is improvised, but that just serves to make a couple of exchanges more obscure, offhand and banal than they would be in a more conventionally-conceived film, and that makes it feel more like real life. Nothing major happens. Scenes amiably stroll past without significantly advancing any sort of plot, and that is a pleasure in such a well-directed, nicely acted film. We are introduced to characters and observe the subtle dynamics between them, even if we're not always aware of the significance of these moments.
Then, in two scenes it all changes. Suddenly the film we're watching is a mystery. Never quite a thriller, though it does accrue an unexpectedly gripping quality by the last fifteen minutes or so. But very definitely a mystery, with our protagonist now the hero and the earlier references to Sherlock Holmes suddenly making perfect sense.
This fusion of genre with drama isn't attempted all that often; it seems that filmmakers fear confusing audience expectations or, worse, making something a distributor won't know how to sell, and so most films fit nicely and predictably inside one narrow genre or another. Not Katz's fascinating, lovely third feature, which is a pleasure from start to finish and confirms him as one of the more interesting and accomplished young Directors in American Cinema. Full of beautiful imagery - stark, chilly cityscapes were a feature of his last film, Quiet City, and they are equally well-used here - quietly funny and always believable, Cold Weather is the kind of film that gets missed by far too many people.

Friday, 15 April 2011


(Gore Verbinski, 2011)

A true oddity, this Spaghetti Western for 8 year olds feels thrillingly original and bold in a cinematic genre (the animated Childrens film) as filled with mediocrity and outright trash as any other. While it may feature a quite slavish devotion to Joseph Campbell's "Heroes Journey" principals, much of the finer detail here is marked by genuine eccentricity. The character design is bizarre; sometimes ugly, often beautiful, occasionally hilarious, these fascinating animal players look like no other cast.
The hero embodies the films oddness. Voiced brilliantly by Johnny Depp, Rango is a chameleon-fantasist, with a thriving inner life and a highly developed sense of drama. He hams his way through the story and it's perils until forced to take it all seriously in the final act, and is introduced by an almost daring monologue interrupted by a sudden and violent event which provides instant context and begins the plot.
Verbinski's experience with big set-pieces is a boon here, where he can let his imagination go and orchestrate absolute mayhem, but this film has more wit and originality than all of the Pirates films combined.
Not that it's all originality; the plot is lifted from Chinatown and there are references to numerous Westerns throughout (a ghostly Clint Eastwood - voiced by Timothy Olyphant - even appears to Rango as the "Spirit of the West" during the films long, imaginative fantasy stretch), but they are at the service of the narrative rather than driving it.
Visually, the film is rather extraordinary. Master cinematographer Roger Deakins repeats the work he did as "visual consultant" on How to Train Your Dragon last year with even more impressive results. This pitiless desert sun is precisely evoked, the various textures of life in a frontier town indelibly, precisely captured. Drought is a key plot point, and Rango made me thirsty, no small achievement.
Most importantly, Rango works. As a Western, as a comedy, as a film for children and adults. And it needs no 3D gimmickry to sell itself.

Monday, 11 April 2011


(Duncan Jones, 2011)

Duncan Jones' second film as director shares it's major theme with Moon, his debut. Both films address identity and how we perceive it and it's constituent elements (memory, personality), amongst other things. Source Code is a decidedly high concept sci-fi thriller, but Jones' interest in this theme and insistence on the primacy of characterisation make it feel like something else. It handles what might be a problem - a ton of complex exposition - beautifully, drip-feeding the audience enough to keep them interested but never overloaded, and that allows character to shape the direction of the film. Here, in the interactions our hero enjoys with two women, learning about his own situation and feeling his way toward a solution, theme is gently nudged and prodded by the narrative. But more important are these people, and the way Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley subtly alter the focus of the film in the last act so that the whodunit at the core of the Mission is displaced by our hero's more personal journey. This makes the ending - which works, and then some - utterly satisfying, and even, perhaps, moving.
Gyllenhal is compelling in a lead demanding he shift modes regularly; he is confused, angry, romantic, focused and sad from one moment to the next, while Michelle Monaghan convinces effortlessly as a woman you could fall for in eight minutes, and Vera Farmiga does an awful lot with the thinnest part.
Jones' direction is slick and even somewhat anonymous; in visual terms this film could have been made by any one of a few dozen young Hollywood ex-advertising directors. But it's in the deeper tissue that we can see his influence, and its the deeper tissue that gives the film it's resonance. It finally addresses big subjects; love and death, the usual suspects, but this it does without pretension or compromise, and with a satisfying genre conclusion attached. This is not an easy thing for a sci-fi thriller to do, but this film makes it look easy.

Friday, 8 April 2011


(Jerzy Skolimowski, 2010)

Not quite a fully-fledged Action movie and yet not quite the abstract metaphysical journey it repeatedly gestures towards, Skolimowski's Essential Killing is a unique and bold curiosity. Almost entirely wordless - the only speech we hear belongs to the "Other" figures; U.S. Military, Eastern European labourers - much rests on the shoulders of Vincent Gallo as the presumably Taliban fighter captured after killing some Americans in the Afghan desert. Gallo is in every scene in the film, and he delivers a primal performance, all grunts, sobs and yelps, his desperation and stubborn refusal to die burning in his eyes whether he is clawing ants from a frozen ant-hill for dinner or gorily using a chainsaw to kill a lumberjack he has surprised.
The set-up and narrative are simple and streamlined; Gallo is captured, he escapes, is pursued, and runs. Yet it does acquire a metaphysical dimension as he trudges across near-abstract elemental landscapes of purest featureless white, never speaking, communicating with another person only at the very end of the film. By then that sense; of a sort of metaphorical layering, has become dominant as Gallo leaves the house and hospitality of a deaf-mute woman upon a White stallion which he is staining further with his blood with every step.
There are odd dissonances here. Between the visceral, immersive sensuality of Skolimowski's direction, which invites us to feel the sharp cold of the air in the woods, and that abstract strain in the text, demanding we see more in the simplicity of the film than just the narrative's bare bones. Also between the topical aspects which dominate the first act with it's Guantanamo Bay hoods, water boarding and Abu Ghraib echoes - this is if nothing else an indictment of American policies in the War on Terror - and the timeless universality of the survival and pursuit sub-genre to which it firmly belongs.
It's all very impressively made by it's experienced director, and it taught me a valuable lesson; if they ever do remake First Blood, this time remaining a little more faithful to David Morrell's novel, Vincent Gallo would make a fantastic John Rambo.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011


(Ismael Larrain , Juan Ignacio Sabatini & Juan Pablo Sallatto, 2010)
When Documentary-makers Larrain, Sabatini and Sallatto started filming behind the scenes with the Chilean National Football Team in 2005 they had a story of questionable drama and interest. This was a squad arguably lacking any truly outstanding players, who had enjoyed no recent competitive success, not reaching a World Cup Finals since 1998, been humiliated at successive Copa Americas, were Ill-disciplined, and full of players with big egos who kept their places despite their own poor form. Where was the story here?
The story was around the corner. After another miserable failure to qualify for a World Cup - Germany 2006 - Chile appointed Argentine Marclo Bielsa as National Team Coach. Bielsa, something of a visionary, revolutionised the Chilean squad, dropping most of the ageing under performers and replacing them with young, largely untested talent from the Youth Teams. He made them play a high tempo, high energy, high risk attacking football. At first, it didnt really work. This film records a few early defeats, Bielsa stoic in press conferences, the players heads hanging in the dressing room. Then it does work. Chile start to play well, and they start to win.
The film captures the growing confidence of this youthful squad and brilliantly records it's transmission to the stands as Chilean supporters start to believe and eventually to celebrate euphorically.
For a football fan, it's a treat, with plenty of great footage of games and peeks at what life is like in training, on the bus to matches, and in the tunnel heading out into a Cauldron of thousands of maniacal fans. But cinematically it's worthwhile too; elliptical and often poetic, funny in it's brief interviews with taxi drivers and men in the street and it's sidebar focus on an eccentric Football correspondent from a local radio station in Chile's Far South. There is also a crucial dose of serious consideration into why football means what it does in Chile, the political and social dimensions it has acquired, best articulated in interviews with football intellectuals like Eduardo Galeano and Jorge Valdano.
You even get to see Bielsa smile. Once.

Friday, 1 April 2011


(Kevin MacDonald, 2011)

This is Boys Own material done right; sober, intelligent and full of action, but with enough emotional weight to give its last act showdowns and reversals real sting. A handsome, rousingly old-fashioned sword & sandal Epic, MacDonald's film follows a Roman Centurion and his Briton slave over Hadrians Wall and out of the known world into Scotland in search of the Standard of the infamous "lost" Ninth Legion.
It plays much like a Cavalry Western, with the Painted Warriors of the "Seal People" standing in for American Indians, and indulges in much relatively subtle point-making on Colonial Imperialism and Occupation.
Based on Rosemary Sutcliffe's classic Childrens Novel, The Eagle manages to be both epic - in the sense that Anthony Mann would have understood - and intimate. MacDonald avoids the b-movie carnage of recent similar material (Centurion or Ironclad, for instance) and focuses instead on immersion, meaning that his film, which also eschews any modishly ostentatious production design, is full of interesting and vivid textures which suggest what life in Roman times might actually have felt like. In that sensuality the Epic it most reminded me of is Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans.
There are also buddy movie moments here in the somewhat homo-erotic relationship between the principles played by Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell, both of whom acquit themselves reasonably well. The real star however is Anthony Dod Mantle, whose cinematography is stunning; evocative, lovely and raggedly gritty when it needs to be. Director MacDonald is becoming something of a high-quality craftsman; after the early documentary triumphs he experienced with One Day In September and the transcendent Touching the Void, nowadays you can expect an entertaining and beautifully-made film from him on each occasion, whatever the genre.