Saturday, 30 July 2011


(Mike Newell, 2010)

There is an attempt, somewhere within this massive, often beautiful Jerry Bruckheimer production, to recreate something of the spirit of the Romantic Middle Eastern Epics which were once a Sunday matinee staple. But that attempt jostles for breathing space with the interests of too many other focus groups and corporate partners and demographic-pandering ideas, with the end result that the whole thing is loud and busy and confusing, with some fine moments and interesting elements lost within the sandstorm of cgi and gags and action and cack-handed plotting.
Based upon Jordan Melchner's seminal platformer video game - and incorporating that, sort of, with a couple of thrilling free-running sequences and with one distinctly unthrilling cgi surf-the-collapsing-landscape scene - the plot is unnecessarily fussy and complicated. A common orphan adopted as a boy by a King finds himself blamed for the King's death and must flee with a beautiful princess, pursued by his Brothers and in possession of a dagger which allows the owner to travel back in time. It gets worse after that, and that takes a half an hour to set up. That leads to an episodic string of chases, encounters and fights, some lovely design and photography, some terrible dialogue, Alfred Molina as the comic relief, assassins who practice sorcery, lots of screwball love/hate exchanges between a hero and heroine who look good together but lack chemistry, an ostrich race, the criminal waste of Toby Kebell, Ben Kingsley sleepwalking throughout a stock villain role, and lots and lots of swords before it all ends in a big vague cgi climax and an unexpectedly satisfying resolution.
There are compensations; Gyllenhall is a convincing action star, Arterton is beautiful, Newell is a pro, never over-directing anything, and it always looks expensive and lush.
It's fun, mostly, and that might have to be enough in an adaptation of a videogame. But it could be more fun, you feel. It's almost there.

Friday, 22 July 2011


(Mike Mills, 2011)

Yes, it's yet another in a long line of American Indie quirkfests, by a director married to Quirk-Queen Miranda July and best known as a graphic artist. Yes, it features a (subtitled) talking dog, and wryly narrated photo-collages and felt-tip doodles being doodled and a meet-cute between a sweetly sadsack hipster protagonist and an idealised French beauty at a fancy dress party. Yes, we also see them enjoying (ironic, archly self aware) graffitti together and rollerskating through a hotel lobby and racing piggyback through woods and enacting sundry other charming though near-generic 'new love in the movies' moments together.
And yes, still Beginners is funny and moving and full of truth and warmth and pain.
Ewan McGregor plays Mills' own character, basically, in what is very obviously auto-biographical material. A few months after the death of his father (Christopher Plummer) he meets and falls for Anna (Melanie Laurent) a French actress, and has to work through his own relationship issues and his parents marriage in order to be happy. His gay father only came out after his mothers death and enjoyed four years of gay life before his own death, and Mills considers the meaning and weight of this through his photo-collages, contesting the '00s with the 1930s and '50s, commenting on his generation feeling a "sadness our parents were too busy for".
The film Beginners most reminded me of was Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. Both examine a man emotionally blocked by his relationship with two radically different parents and both use experimental narrative techniques to widen their focus thematically.
Mills' film is less cosmic in its ambition and more accessible, with a consistently warm and charmingly funny sensibility running throughout. He has an inventive comic mind - little details snap with amusing detail - and a fine eye; here is a great Los Angeles film which, like a couple of other recent indie productions (500 Days of Summer, In Search of a Midnight Kiss, Greenberg), takes care to present a different, less iconic and recognisable side of that City.
But it is the human drama that makes the film work so well, and it is nicely written with a great ear for people trying to protect but also open themselves, and beautifully acted. Plummer has the most dazzling role and is excellent, giddy at his newfound liberation, in jolly denial at his unfair illness, then resigned and dignified in death. McGregor, who can disappear in a bland role, here makes his hero sympathetic and likeable enough that we believe the stunning, believably complex Laurent might fall for him. Of course, the dog outacts them all.
Together they ensure that, when it needs to, the pain and loss of the story bleeds through the visual style and the offbeat wit to occupy centre screen, and when it does, it feels real and recognisably human. All of which makes Beginners much more than just another hipster-bait Indie American comedy drama.


(Lucas Belvaux, 2009)

The cinema of Claude Chabrol is often described as Hitchcock-esque, and some of it undeniably - and self-consciously - is. But Chabrol quickly established his own directorial identity, and over a career stretching across four decades he honed and perfected it just as much as Hitchcock had done his. All the same, the first time I ever thought to describe a film as "Chabrol-esque" was during a viewing of Lucas Belvaux's superb thriller Rapt. It shares that French masters economy and classical, perfectly neutral, yet also magisterial style. It also shares an emotional coolness which is stripped away for instances of raw, shocking emotion and a nastiness of sensibility which Chabrol would envy.
It is the tale of a kidnap; a wealthy industrialist is abducted and ransomed by a well-organised gang of criminals. Belvaux shows us his ordeal, while also detailing the machinations at his company in his absence, his family reeling at tabloid revelations about his private life, and the police struggling to catch those responsible. This is all beautifully juggled with an effective mix of restrained emotion and pulp storytelling, and the performances are strong by all involved.
It is extremely gripping, particularly the sequence - reminiscent of a similar passage in Dirty Harry - where a policeman is led on a dance across Paris by the kidnappers at the other end of a phone, switching cars, jumping onto a high speed train, all in an effort to hand over the ransom. There is some nice, subtle commentary on the relationship between the press, police, government and industry in the debates over how to handle the ransom, and the ending is brilliantly bleak, with lives andvcareers ruined despite an outwardly happy resolution. This jaundiced view of the world and of people is spectacularly Chabrol-esque, and it gives Belvux's film great power and impact.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011


(Michelangelo Frammartino, 2010)

Slightly challenging in its nonchalant dismissal of traditional narrative, Frammartino's film is a unique piece. Part documentary, part poem, part essay, part movie, it coolly and precisely observes some characters around an Italian mountain village. Only one of those characters is human; an old goat farmer we follow for the first reel, observing his everyday routine. He walks his goats to a pasture, sits beneath a tree, brings them home, trades goats milk for dust from the town church, which he dissolves into a glass before bed at night, collects snails. The soundtrack is the bells round the necks of the goats and his worsening cough. The second character is a calf, born to one of his goats after his death, and whose early existence in sheds and upon mountainsides we witness. Then a huge fir tree becomes our lead, chopped down for use in a Spring festival, made into charcoal, and finally transformed into smoke from a village chimney. The goat farmers dog is the comic relief, responsible for a surprisingly deft comic sequence observed by Frammartino's camera from on high involving a truck, a hillside and a fence.
The camera is the real star here however, exquisitely capturing the skies above the town and the mountains through changing seasons, beautifully picking out a twisting swirl of dust motes turning in the light from a window in the gloom of a church, rarely moving, generally perfectly placed. The films attractive simplicity and even pacing invite the viewer to interpret it however they wish, and indeed one could wrest big statements about nature, time and space and life and death from its content. It is undeniably interested in all those themes and studies each to one extent or other. But it all seems too obvious, polite and even slightly too inarticulate to be regarded as profound, but it is the sort of film which becomes hypnotic if you surrender to its unique rhythm, and it is beautiful, funny, and never less than interesting.

Monday, 18 July 2011


(Jamie Thraves, 2010)

Driven by a terrific performance from Aidan Gillen as a jobless eccentric in anonymous South East London, Treacle Jr. treads that tricky fine line between comedy and Drama with considerable aplomb.
It begins as a dark little drama as we see a thirtysomething man leave his wife and baby in a suburban semi detached and begin a commute. Only he is escaping, not commuting, leaving his life in Birmingham behind for the anonymity of London, where he shreds his credit cards, throws his iPhone into a pond and even discards his wallet, containing a picture of his family (he returns for it moments later). Then he settles down to sleep on the street, an instant tramp.
Soon, after incurring an injury while escaping a gang of youths intent on beating him up - presuming him a cruising homosexual - on a nocturnal common, he meets Gillen's talkative, amiable oddball and spends much of the first half of the film trying to escape his company. But a tentative link develops and all is complicated by the arrival of Gillen's "girlfriend", an abusive prostitute keen to exploit any weakness.
Thraves is skilled enough to find beauty in the bleak banality of his locations and he brings out the warmth and humour of the interactions between these people. Gillen is crucial; funny, touching and complex, he never sentimentalises his character, and refreshingly goes for cheap laughs on a few occasions. Tom Fisher gives a quieter, more interior performance, but the contrast between them is really what makes the film work.
And work it does. It is undeniably slight and a little overlong, but it's an enjoyable, even a little moving film, and evidence that Thraves still has the potential to make a great film one day.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011


(Terrence Malick, 2011)

For all the talk about this being a non-narrative film and a tone poem, whst surprised me about it is that for much of its central sequence it is a decidedly narrative experience. There are characters, tensions, events take place, people learn, suffer and grow, time passes in a mostly linear fashion. There is little plot, and Malick's style is far from the mainstream; instead it is elliptical, fragmentary, intent on the tensions and possibilities of the interplay between sound and image.
The story follows a middle-aged architect (Sean Penn), struck by a bout of inertia and depression in modern-day Dallas, shot by Malick at a perpetual low angle so that it's immense towers of gleaming glass and steel loom over his unhappy protagonist throughout. His mood is either sparked by thoughts of his boyhood and his dead brother or his depression leads to the thoughts; either way, we appear to spend much of the film inside his head as memories and fantasies wheel Past. As such Tree of Life recalls much great modernist fiction, microscopically examining the self in a stream of consciousness. Malick is an extraordinarily gifted director at capturing mood and texture; the sequences of life as a boy in 1950s Texas ring with truth and the vivid shiver of sense memory. It seems universal, this portrayal of the empty days and wonders and worries of childhood, since it reminded me in many ways of my own boyhood in Dublin in the 1980s.
Of course, Malick being Malick, he poses bigger questions through his intimate drama. Mainly through voiceover - but also through the dichotomy the boy feels between his father and mother, representing nature and grace, "wrestling" inside him and played out nicely in almost very aspect of his interactions with them - he teases the issue of faith and meaning in the world. The loss of his brother, an almost angelic presence in his scenes, complicates these questions, and is foreshadowed by a drowning incident the family witnesses and a friend badly burned in a house fire. There is something very "new age" about Malick's treatment of the issue of mortality and the afterlife, best (or worst) seen in the liminal scene that ends the film.
But his ambition is otherwise tremendous; the films best passage, the fluid intercutting of the first act, which juggles timeframes, modes and moods to dazzling, unprecedented effect, is followed by the 20 minute "birth of the universe" sequence, featuring some exhilarating fx and those controversial dinosaurs. While giving the personal questions central to th film's identity a wider, more Epic dimension, I understood this passage as part of Jack's struggles with the world. If much of the film sees him skirt the question of where and why his brother has gone, here he idly envisions where he (and everybody) came from, and by extension, why. The little dinosaur morality play we are shown makes sense in the context of the struggle between his parents and his uncomfortable positioning between them.
As the sterner of those parents, Brad Pitt does some of his best ever work, presenting a complex, flawed man who loves his sons but cannot help but transfer some of his frustration on them. Jessica Chastain has less to work with. Presented as a saintly presence, she is luminous and good at grief. The boys are all well-cast and excellent.
The thing most people will take from Tree of Life is its pure sensual beauty. Stunningly photographed by Emmanuel Luzbeki, whose sensibility compliments Malick's well, it fetishises 1950s Americana in some indelible, unforgettable imagery. Malick has always had a fine eye, and here the mix of perfectly composed still tableaux with countless swoops and sweeps of his camera - many at hip level, better to capture the subjective eye of a child - is exhilarating. The use of some lovely Classical pieces alongside Alexandre Desplaat's score only makes it even more lush and ravishing.
People go to a film like this expecting answers of some sort, I think. But Malick only asks questions and treats an audience like adults by leaving the rest to us. The fact that he has the ambition and poetic vision to make such an assured, complex and exquisite film - and the fact that he is allowed to - seems like a minor miracle.

Thursday, 7 July 2011


(Paul Feig, 2011)

Extremely funny, but filled with an interesting dose of bitterness and pain, Bridesmaids is the film which finally makes Kirsten Wiig a star. Perhaps fittingly, given the elastic nature of her talent, here she plays a recognisable, three dimensional woman with emotional issues aplenty, and yet she finds the humour there, then pushes it just about as far as it will go. But the darkness of her characters situation is what gives the comedy so much bite.
Wiig, like Steve Carrell, for example, is a comedienne whose comic persona allows her to display her skills as an actress, as opposed to the likes of Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler, who have to move into entirely different registers to do any "acting" beyond their usual schtick. So here her character is depressed, self-destructive, angry and afraid, and all of that is evident in her behaviour. The films great strength is making all that humorous. The relative emotional realism of Bridesmaids also allows characters like Rose Byrne's Helen, the closest the film gets to a villain, to be given more depth and humanity, preventing it ever slipping into Hangover-style cartoonshness. And Wiig and Director Feig are never afraid of going lowbrow in search of laughs, as the food-poisoning scene in the Bridal boutique proves.
It helps that the supporting cast are so strong across the board, from John Hamm enjoying himself in a nasty cameo, to Chris O'Dowd being nice, Melissa McCarthy getting all the best lines and Maya Rudolph just as complex and true as the bride as Wiig's Maid of Honor.
Feig's direction is unobtrusive, the script - though way overlong in the patented Judd Apatow manner - is occasionally brilliantly sharp, and it delivers consistent laughs.