Friday, 27 May 2011


(Michael Ritchie, 1972)

Each of the films Michael Ritchie directed in the golden period right at the start of his strange directorial career expresses a degree of his satiric impulse. From the clear-eyed view of a competitive athlete in the superb Downhill Racer through the more explicitly satirical political subjects of The Candidate and Smile, irony and satire were part of Ritchie's default mode. Even Prime Cut, which is, on the surface, very much a pulpy crime thriller, has a broadly satirical, offbeat streak running through it.
The story follows Chicago Mob Enforcer Nick Devlin, under-played with macho cool by Lee Marvin, on a mission to retrieve a debt from Kansas City racketeer Mary Ann, a loquacious, charming Gene Hackman. Violence ensues.
In other hands that could be a generic piece of pulp, but Ritchie and screenwriter Robert Dillon twist everything just a few degrees off, which gives the material an unusual energy. The shift from the grimy urban desolation of 70s Chicago to the vast skies and yellow, sunlit fields of Kansas is vividly captured by Gene Polito's crisp cinematography, and Ritchie's great feel for place and atmosphere is evident in the portrayals of both locations. His early work all has a marvellously unforced, verite feel to it, and that sense in the context of a mob thriller gives the material a really distinctive charge. The rural setting for the violent confrontation at the heart of the narrative is put to good use in a series of odd set-pieces that flirt with satire themselves; from the scene where Marvin and Sissy Spacek are pursued across a cornfield by an enormous combine harvester to the gun-battle amidst sunflowers to the enormous destruction of a greenhouse, Ritchie makes his location work for him. Aside from the gentle satire of genre conventions, the film also suggests that crime and big business are much the same and makes a few vague points about people being treated like cattle (the opening credits capture a man being turned, literally, into sausage, and Hackman displays the young girls he trades in from his ranch in the stables). The characterisation is interesting too, from Marvin's quiet gallantry to Hackman's nervous chatter, and Dillon and Ritchie throw in some odd scenes which are not necessary to the narrative but do effect the mood and characterisation - notably a lengthy scene where Hackman and his brother roughhouse and wrestle, while mob bookmakers work away in the background but also some of the fairytale material between Marvin and Spacek. Indeed, the film plays like an action thriller spliced into a pop art fairytale, which may be the reason it is o little seen today.
None of that prevents the genre material from working, however, and Prime Cut contains a thrilling Final act, filled with chases, gunfights and the odd punch in the jaw.
All that and a great Lalo Schifrin score.


(Ben Ramsey, 2009)

A fight movie reminiscent of the low budget, often straight-to-video b-movies starring the likes of Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme from the late 1980s and early 90s, Blood and Bone, while stuffed with cliches, succeeds splendidly on its own narrow terms.
Those cliches are wholeheartedly executed; with Michael Jai White's hero "Bone" a stoic, invincible superwarrior akin to a Western hero who fights his way through the LA Underground fighting scene on a specific mission of vengeance, taking on several quirkily individual fighters as he goes, all while becoming emotionally attached to the warm home of a foster mother and her children in a gang-infested area. His ultimate opponent is James, a sociopathic, upwardly mobile, Genghis Khan-quoting, samurai sword-wielding gangster played with effective intensity by Eamonn Walker. The drama is strictly second-rate, competently written and acted, and the few stabs at comedy barely register.
In a movie like this, action is everything, and Blood and Bone gets the action just right. Director Ramsey shoots many of the fights in single takes so that the action flows and the skills of the combatants are best displayed. The cuts he does choose are never gratuitous, and generally enhance the visceral impact of the events they frame. Many of the fighters are experienced MMA veterans, and while, as an actor, Michael Jai White seems capable of just one facial expression, he possesses undeniable charisma as a physical performer, while lacking the grace of a Jet Li or the comedic chutzpah of Jackie Chan, his explosive speed and power are beautifully captured here in some fantastically satisfying fight scenes. Even better, for fans of this sort of material, the ending promises a sequel, as Bone literally walks off into the sunset.

Thursday, 26 May 2011


(Katell Quillévéré, 2010)

Katell Quillévéré's debut is that most French of things; a bourgeois drama. A coming of age drama set in provincial Northern France, at that. It deals with the age old tension between the burgeoning sexuality of an adolescent - in this case involving 14 year old Anna, played with a sensitive, subtle realism by Clara Augarde - and the religious feeling still important in the small town world which has influenced her childhood. Quillévéré widens her gaze past Anna to include her immediate family, the young Parish priest whose own faith is being shaken by the attention given to him by Anna's mother, and her ailing Grandfather, unrepentant and spirited in the face of his own mortality.
Anna, and more specifically her flowering beauty and newly sexual presence, is a catalyst in the stories of the surrounding characters, awakening something in her Grandfather (he gets an erection while she washes him), perhaps prompting the doubts in her priest with her questions about faith and belief, and making her mother feel more conscious of her own age and waning attractiveness.
While this could be heavy material, Quillévéré keeps it light and almost peppy. Scenes are mainly short and elliptical and the narrative skips between characters, punctuated with an eclectic, telling soundtrack made up of choral music to represent Anna's spiritual impulses, English traditional folk to represent her connection with the countryside (this is the kind of film where people are always taking walks) and her Grandfather's 50s French Pop, to represent more hedonistic, secular pleasures.
The characters are well-rounded, believable people and the themes skilfully interwoven with the fragile plot; Quillévéré is undoubtedly a talented writer. There are a couple of extremely intense scenes where Anna confronts her sexuality head-on, and the way the Church scenes have a different rhythm - fewer cuts and a smoothly mobile camera - reveal some directorial talent. But largely the film is visually pedestrian, the work of a director still discovering her style.
The warmth and resonance of the world and characters depicted here partly compensate, but only partly.

Sunday, 22 May 2011


(Tom McCarthy, 2011)

Win Win is a recession-era comedy drama stripped of any rage or passion about the times which give the film its setting. It focuses on Paul Giamatti's small town New Jersey lawyer as he struggles to keep his head above water financially, running his struggling business and providing for his family, while coaching a High School Wrestling team in his spare time. Everything is complicated by the arrival into his life of the teenage Grandson of an elderly client who happens to be a talented wrestler.
The neatness of that premise is reflected in more or less every aspect of the film. It is a safe, careful drama with some comedy, never overly ambitious, only mildly funny, scrupulously modest in its aims and achievements. McCarthy crafts believable, warmly likeable characters and his fine cast bring them nicely to life, with Giamatti and Amy Ryan (as his wife) as dependably solid as ever. One key role is miscast however; as the teen Wrestler, Alex Schaffer is adequate in the early, monosyllabic scenes, but once required to tackle more dialogue his work suffers. He is good in the wrestling scenes, which work well enough.
But then everything works, while nothing works brilliantly, and this is the films problem. McCarthy is competent as a visual director, solid as a storyteller, but there is not one transcendent moment in this film, no belly laughs or truly moving dramatic scenes, no truths captured, no beauty on display. His compositions are workmanlike, the lightng and colours flat and anonymous, the soundtrack virtually sublimnal (the use of the National over the end credits may in fact be the highlight of the film). It is pedestrian, utterly predictable in its middlebrow tastefulness. Never a struggle and a mildly enjoyable experience, Win Win represents a slightly dispiriting trend within American Indie cinema; the rise of the middl of the road Adult-oriented comedy-drama.

Saturday, 21 May 2011


(Ron Howard, 2005)

Ron Howard is less a bland filmmaker - a frequent accusation - and more an incredibly old-fashioned one. He seems like a stock contract director who worked for Fox in the 1950s across a variety of genres, turning out comedies and Westerns and thrillers, none of them brilliant, none of them terrible (setting aside the aberrative Dan Brown adaptations, which even Hitchcock couldn't have saved), none of them evincing much particular directorial personality or style. Hes a Pro, in other words. And Cinderella Man may be his most purely old-fashioned film, with its triumph of the spirit, its cookie-cutter three act structure, its mean villain and it's big stars in the leads. Based on the incredible story of Jim Braddock and his rise from poverty to World Champion during the Great Depression, it is incredibly manipulative and, dammit, it works. There are good things: Russell Crowe is convincing both as last-chance fighter and desperate family man, Paul Giamatti is brilliant - moving, hilarious - as his trainer, Salvatore Totino's cinematography is lovely, and the fight scenes steal from more or less every boxing film ever made to solid, occasionally stylish effect. Less impressive are the vague shapes towards poliical meaning the film throws, personified by Paddy Considine's ill-conceived Union agitator. Indeed the entire storyline involving Considine could be excised and the film would benefit. But it does what it intends to do nevertheless - by the climax, you want Crowe to win that fight, you need Crowe to win that fight. A vivid expression of the power of the sports movie and a handsome, well-crafted piece of old fashioned entertainment.

Friday, 20 May 2011


(Pablo Trapero, 2010)

Within its first two minutes, Carancho establishes itself as a great film of the City. Buenos Aires, in this case (San Justo, more specifically), captured by Trapero, using a RED camera, in crisp images of neon-lit streets and grimy alleyways, dustily vacant lots and crumbling public buildings. Visually, this is a vivid, stunning portrayal of a crowded, chaotic megapolis by night, when it can seem lonely and beautifully desolate.
The noirish narrative and characterisation just underline this. Tracing the growing relationship between a Emergency Doctor and an Ambulance-chasing lawyer and set against the backdrop of a City with horrific road death figures, Trapero's film presents a grimy, morally compromised world where the vulnerable and innocent are preyed upon by companies bent on Insurance scams and massive profits. The lovers we follow are only slightly less tainted than everybody else: he arranges accidents for insurance pay-offs and haunts waiting rooms in search of fresh meat. She writes prescriptions for herself and shoots up into her feet.
Trapero gives their characters time and space and that - together with terrific performances from Ricardo Darin and Martina Gusman - makes their halting love story believable and affecting, and gives the danger they find themselves mired in during the last act real charge.
It is Trapero's most conventional film - you can imagine exactly how a U.S. remake might look - with its action scenes and plot reversals, but he directs it with energy, invention and a seriously great eye. His actors give it a soulful, bruised quality absent in much modern Noir.
Darin is one of the World's great film stars and Trapero's camera lingers upon Gusman's distinctive beauty (she is his wife) throughout, and the two have impressive chemistry. The supporting cast and astute use of pop and rock on the soundtrack emphasise the impression of Carancho being a class act.
In the finest Noir tradition, it contains an absolute gut punch of an ending.

Thursday, 19 May 2011


(Joe Cornish, 2011)

Attack the Block creates its own biggest problem in the opening scene, then spends long stretches of the remainder of the film attempting to overcome that problem. In that scene, a young nurse is returning home at night to a South East London tower block, when she is mugged at knifepoint by five youths. This mugging is quite gritty and realistic, even frightening in its sudden inevitability and implied violence. Then the youths are revealed - once an alien has literally crashed into all their lives - as the films chief protagonists, and the audience is left with a strange little dilemma. In some films, it isn't necessary to sympathise with the characters. The right kind of drama works whether or not there is empathy between viewer and onscreen figure: other elements can carry a film, and an unsympathetic hero can even be a virtue if handled correctly. But a genre film like Attack the Block is partly reliant on audience identification. Without it and our instinctive need for the heroes to survive and prevail, there is no suspense, no tension, and the film malfunctions at the most basic narrative level.
Cornish seems to understand this and so his film does its damnedest to humanise and explain the actions of its youthful heroes over the next hour. The mugging is even confronted directly when they are forced into an alliance with their victim and her righteous accusatory anger demands some sort of explanation. That this is never satisfactorily given is down to the nature of the film. This is a sci-fi thriller which owes a big debt to the early work of John Carpenter (it begins with a shot of an object falling from the stars towards earth ala Carpenter's The Thing or John McTiernan's Predator), meaning it moves quickly, aiming for tautness and narrative economy. The few baggier passages are the comic scenes - mainly involving Luke Treadaway's middle class drug dealer - which leaves little room for character development. Cornish gives his ghetto heroes a few slightly political bits of dialogue - they wonder if the government created the aliens to "kill black boys" just like they did with drugs, and one wonders why the Mugging victims boyfriend does charity work with children in Ghana instead of in London - but generally they are too busy fleeing and fighting to become fully realised figures, despite a Quick montage of their home lives. In a film about young minority lower class youth written and directed by a Middle Class White forty something media professional, I found that quite problemmatic.
But that's not what Attack the Block is really about. Really it's about genre thrills, and it delivers those efficiently, on it's modest scale, with a few exciting and scary sequences. It utilises its tower block location with imagination and wit, rattles along for the most part, has some solid laughs amidst the gore, and feels quite original in its high concept mix of sci-fi, horror, comedy, gang drama and action film. It also contains a nice Basement Jaxx score, which Cornish uses well.
He shows real promise here, and his future career could be interesting. I just hope he avoids the ghetto tourism next time...

Saturday, 14 May 2011


(Lance Hammer, 2008)

A sombre, low-key drama following the effects of one man's suicide upon three members of his family, Hammer's debut builds its emotional power as it progresses to an effecting conclusion. This is down partly to his patient approach with his characters, who are revealed slowly and entirely through their words and deeds, and partly through the hypnotic power of his simple, controlled aesthetic. There is no exposition, and every single detail serves the narrative or Hammer's insistent formal rigour. His camera, generally handheld, tracks his characters as they plod across the wintry fields of the Mississippi Delta or sits on the backseat of a car, gaze fixed through the windscreen. Hammer has a fine eye and captures numerous stunning shots of drab skies over scrubland, occasionally fixing a character in some private moment of misery or isolation in a cramped, somewhat grim room.
These characters are damaged and struggling to survive in a world of little money and small consolations. The dead man's twin brother is destroyed by grief, and his haunted stare and stooped, defeated walk are echoed by his estranged nephew, who steals and takes drugs to deal with his own boredom while his exhausted mother tries to keep a job, run their home, and raise him safely.
The absence of music increases our sensitivity to a superb sound mix - distant highways clash with the music of dull domesticity - as we watch these people make painful decisions in a banal, utterly believable manner. No hyperbole or melodrama here, only the stuff of real life, people dealing with mistakes and flaws and regret, unable to properly articulate how they feel or what they want. Hammer wrote, edited and directed, and his superb little film says it all for them.

Monday, 9 May 2011


(Joe Wright, 2011)

Is it better for an Action film to attempt to engage with the real world? The Bourne films, which are the pre-eminent Action films of the last decade, are set in, and to some extent offer a commentary upon, our World of CCTV and the War on Terror, distrust of Government and depersonalisation, cluttered as they are with the tech-details of the modern world; mobile phones and computers and the impossibility of ever getting off the grid. They are fine films, enriched by this sense of topicality. But some of the films which have sought to replicate the success of the Bourne franchise fall down when this part of the equation is attempted. Best perhaps to allow for the influence of those hyper-kinetic, dizzyingly edited action scenes and place them in an entirely different context.
Which is what Joe Wright does with Hanna. It is a movie for the DVD era, a collection of exquisitely imagined and mounted sequences, flicking between moods and tones expertly, all narrative forward momentum and effortless cinematic storytelling. The film it most reminded me of was Tarantino's Kill Bill in its disarming status as a narrative defined almost purely by its relation to other narratives. Here it is Fairy Tales, as acknowledged by the recurrent references to the Brothers Grimm, but it is also a spy movie and there are action movies and martial arts films in this stew too. And it's quite an eclectic stew; stir in genetic engineering, skinhead heavies, British middle class satire, some lovely travelogue material, a little free-running and a few flashes of sci-fi imagery for the full, slightly dizzying effect. Wright somehow makes it work.
Where Kill Bill is a self-indulgent gatefold double album on vinyl, Hanna is a pure and almost perfect three minute dose of electropop on mp3; short, fun, infectious and disposable.
Wright directs like a filmmaker let off the leash and the film flashes with unexpected shards of visual beauty amidst the brutal, adrenalized fight and chase scenes. These are staged mainly in the forgotten, unloved public spaces of Western Europe; a German subway, a labyrinth of shipping containers in the docks at a French mediterranean port, waste ground in a housing estate.
The film portrays the varying shades and moods of this Europe very well, from warm summer nights in the orange and yellow of Spain to the exhausting urban sprawl of grey Berlin. The cast are all fine, catching the tricky mood easily - never has Ronan's otherworldly, slightly alien look been so well utilised - and the Chemical Brothers score pulses and chimes to great effect.
Its a slick, pleasurable watch throughout. Wright understands the medium and it's visceral and sensuous potential entirely; so Hanna is full of interesting, vivid textures and brilliantly captured instants. He is a thoroughly modern director, like his namesake Edgar Wright or the aforementioned Tarantino, in that for all his brilliance as a craftsman and his technical prowess, he seems to have little to say about the world or the people in it, a suspicion which arose from viewings of his previous prestige adaptations of literary novels Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, expertly made though both were. But that is perhaps why Hanna is his best film, intent as it is on being a thrilling pop artefact, with little substance but bags of style and enough quirk - in its direction and some of its supporting performances (Tom Hollander's turn as a camp peroxide blonde assassin is as memorable as anything he's done) - to attract art house audiences.
Most importantly in an action film, it gets the action right. Ronan has a few thrilling fight scenes, but the film's best sequence belongs to Eric Bana. Wright's camera follows him in one fluid shot as he gets off a coach, strolls through a bus station, realises he is being followed, descends on an escalator into a subway, then is confronted by and fights four suited men at once. It's a great moment, and one of the better action scenes of the last few years in one of the more interesting action films.

Thursday, 5 May 2011


(Takashi Miike, 2010)

While 13 Assassins may well be Takashi Miike's most accessible and conventionally entertaining film, it is still quite firmly a Miike production. Which, given the generic stateliness of the material - this is the story of a motley band of Samurai assembled to kill the Shogun's gleefully evil step-brother before he gains any real power with which to damage Japan - makes it a fascinatingly complex and almost contradictory film. For while Miike dutifully details the political machinations and manoeuvring in the lead up to the attempted assassination and also records the preparations for the ambush, his interests seem to lie elsewhere: in the insane cruelty of his villain, murdering children, and raping and mutilating women out of pure boredom - the image of one damaged plaything, her limbs and tongue all cut off, writing a note with a brush in her bloody mouth seems inimitably Miike - but also in the digital photography vividly recreating the period he depicts and in introducing characters without any information or explanation.
The last reel of the film is one long, brutal, bloody battle scene as the 13 fight 200, and here Miike's desire to undercut the Samurai genre even as his film honours and reinvigorates it is at its most pronounced. He shoots these massively involved, complex action sequences With long lenses, visually flattening the action and robbing his scenes of any depth, an oddly undynamic way of shooting some fantastically dynamic action, it might seem. But as the finale goes on and on, an orgy of sword-slashing and blood spattering set to a Symphony of sword upon sword strikes, the action becomes repetitive and even a little comic in its grotesquely sustained brutality. Thus Miike can make a point about the senseless, deadening obscenity of such violence in the genre even while indulging in almost an uninterrupted hour of it.
And that hour is admittedly filled with numerous satisfying genre moments even while Miike seems to be teasing the Samurai film; he gives half of the 13 no discernible personalities, entirely disregards any sense of physical geography during the climax, films the death of a key character from the p.o.v of another, his view obscured and askew, dying nearby, utilises some shoddy cgi, ridiculously resuscitates a seemingly dead character without any explanation and literally portrays a rain of blood at one point. But there are also some fabulous shots and brilliantly choreographed sword fights, a few memorable deaths, and a satisfying, grim conclusion.
Closer to the Action-Samurai work of Kihaci Okamoto than that of Akira Kurosawa (to whom it's been often compared), 13 Assassins is a fine surprise from Miike at this point in his career and one of the best Samurai films of the last two decades.

Sunday, 1 May 2011


(Kenneth Branagh, 2011)

Thor seems a tricky Super-Hero property to adapt to cinema. The mix of cod-Shakespearean Epic Sci-fi and fantasy myth with more generic earthbound Super-Hero stories is an awkward one, and even Jack Kirby, the character's legendary creator, struggled with comfortably balancing both in his comics. Which is what makes Kenneth Branagh's Thor such a pleasant surprise.
It confidently addresses the Asgardian material straightaway, zipping through some dense but crucial exposition with the aid of a voiceover from Anthony Hopkins - who makes this messy mix of myth and various genres sound epic and suitably grandiose - and some strong, vividly imagined production design. The principal characters are established early on, the emotional conflicts that underpin the narrative clear and primally effective. The antagonists here are warring brothers, and Branagh never really loses sight of that. Such a strong dramatic through-line allows the film to take all sorts of tangents, introduce a few too many characters and even flirt with other genres - most obviously a decidedly 80s-style fish-out-of-water comedy - but maintain some emotional impact.
The scenes on Earth are nicely-grounded by limited ambition, all being set in or around a small New Mexico town, and play Thor's responses to his new circumstances and companions well, even if Natalie Portman is wasted here in a role that only demands she be beautiful.
Chris Hemsworth is a massive element of the film's success; funny and charismatic, he possesses a sort of twinkly old-school masculinity seemingly available only to Australian leading men right now. His work suggests a young Russell Crowe in that he is entirely credible in both the action and dramatic scenes, and Thor's journey from arrogance and hot-tempered impulsiveness to a more mature and considered feeling for his world and responsibilities is believable and effectively played. Hiddleston is just as good, making Loki a very modern villian, damaged, insecure and complex. They are supported by a host of capable - and mainly British, in the Asgard scenes - character actors.
The Super-Hero stuff, when it does come, is solidly done, although the best action scene comes when Thor is a mere mortal fighting his way through soldiers in the rain, shorn as it is of the inconsistent CGI which mars some of the rest of the film.
Reminiscent to some extent of both Richard Donner's Superman the Movie and Gary Goddard's dreadful 1987 Masters of the Universe, Thor is surprisingly warm and funny for such a big, anonymous Studio production. Its visuals - Branagh's seeming obsession with Dutch angles aside - are generally slick and occasionally impressive, its pacing superb, and above all it never forgets to be fun, as any movie about a man with a magic hammer must be.