Monday, 31 October 2011


(Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

Bathed in the red of blood from its very first scenes, which segue into a really extraordinary first act of non-linear emotional and tonal free association, told loosely from the point of view of Tilda Swinton's character. She is struggling with grief and regret and trying desperately to drag herself through a "normal" life while continuously assailed by memories of her past life; a transcendent moment at a surreal tomato festival in Spain, the glow of passion from the early days with her husband, the bright bubbliness of her daughter. And Kevin.
Kevin is a near-Satanic presence in that first act, a screaming infant, a scowling toddler, a brattish boy and finally a knowing, sarcastic teen. The relationship between mother and son is central to the film, and both Swinton and Ezra Miller rise to it in their scenes together, a delicate duel between two combatants locked in a love/hate dynamic.
That is over-simplistic, which Ramsay's film never is. Rather it is ambiguous in the right places and elliptical throughout, refusing exposition and doling out backstory piecemeal so that when the extent of Kevin's act is revealed - though we already know what he has done - still it carries a huge emotional shock. The fractured sequence when Swinton arrives at Kevin's high-school and we see hysteria and bodies on gurneys, lit by the red light of emergency vehicles, is purgatorial, for we know that for all her anxiety worrying about her son and his safety, her situation is about to get much worse. Her numb shock in the aftermath - a state that pulses through the film in scenes of her echoed responses to the world and it's distant banality. She finds a job, a house, shops, feeds herself, tries to avoid the parents of Kevin's victims, all of it without feeling, Swinton's face frozen with shock.
The dominant emotion for a long stretch is dread. Much of this film feels like Horror, partly because we know what Kevin will do.
Ramsay never tries to explain his actions; his final "explanation" in the surprisingly cathartic last scene, feels authentically random and true. He doesn't know. Though obviously a psychopath, the "adult" Kevin is complex and resists easy labelling, self-aware enough to have a nice, quotable rationale ready for media consumption. Miller is charismatic and beautiful but there is a darkness to his presence which works beautifully with the character. Swinton is even better, making a difficult character sympathetic and explicable throughout, her pain and confusion always evident.
But this is a directors film, and Ramsay, one of the most distinctive talents in modern cinema, is always in control, displaying her great eye and compositional sense (ably abetted by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey), drawing good work from her cast, precisely controlling the tempo and pacing of her narrative and editing, and, as she's done in each of her films, working a terrific soundtrack against her story and imagery. There are a couple of slight missteps - Swinton scrubbing the red paint from her house is a little too obvious a metaphor for my liking - but for the most part, We Need To Talk About Kevin is a gruelling, acute, hugely impressive piece of work from a truly exciting filmmaker.

Sunday, 30 October 2011


(David O.Russell, 1999)

David O. Russell's Three Kings is an unashamedly political film. Russell benefitted from several years of hindsight in his treatment of the first Gulf War. He could more or less say what he liked about it, so his film is highly critical of that Bush Government's treatment of Iraqi rebels who rose up against Saddam when it became apparent that he was losing the War. But Russell was savvy in his criticism - he veiled it in a terrific action comedy which felt, at the time, unlike just about anything else anyone was doing. Indeed, watching the film now it looks like a masterpiece of sorts. It has aged extremely well.
In recent years, American cinema has profited handsomely from the collision of Indie creativity with Studio money. Russell is a great example of this faustian phenomenon. His debut, Spanking the Monkey is a sweatily well-observed, pitch black incest comedy, made for not a lot of money. He followed it with the broader Flirting With Disaster for Miramax, but despite the presence of bigger not-quite stars (Ben Stiller, Tea Leoni) his work managed to retain some of its independent edge. Its there in the off-centre characterisation, the portrayal of America as a zoo for neurotics of various shades. Three Kings is something else entirely. A mega-budget semi-Blockbuster with some rising stars and the backing of one of the big studios in Warner Bros, it asked a lot of a young Indie director. But it was worthwhile. His film manages to feel like a big action movie with an indie sensibility, a fairly unique beast.
Early on, everything is comic. That first shot of featureless desert horizon punctured by the incongruously surreal vision of a young Iraqi waving a white cloth from atop a small bunker/hill, the helmet of a US soldier in the bottom corner of the frame; sets the tone as just slighty askew. This is not how big studio War movies start. That this movie will be different is only underlined by its first dialogue, beginning an instant later, and shouted across the desert floor, a dunderheaded, repetitious exchange between grunts, part Beckett, part Abbott & Costello.
Russell treats the grunts with a cynical detachment - he likes his heroes, you feel, but he is aware that they are all flawed individuals. His montage of their victory celebration paints them as jingoistic, meathead fratboys, a depiction much of the remainder of the film works hard to balance. Even so, there is something of the Coens in his sensibility, the notion that he feels somewhat superior to his characters and periodically cannot resist patronising them, even sneering at their idiocies. The conversation about "perfectly good substitutes" for racial terms of abuse for Iraqis is a good example. Russell was clever enough to cast likeable actors, however, and his film is structured cunningly so that the action and drama kicks in suddenly, and the audience is dragged along with the narrative's momentum, the heroes abruptly established as such.
The comedy, while it lasts, is a mixture of effects. Russell uses whatever may produce a laugh: slapstick, satire, sight gags and funny dialogue all feature. This is a film which depicts an exploding cow, while also featuring a character mistake bullion for "them little cubes you put in hot water to make soup" and employing a sudden, and frankly, quite brilliant cut to Chicago's "If You Leave Me now" in the tense preamble to an action sequence. Russell makes it all work, and it makes the film feel richer, more electric.
If Three Kings has a direct ancestor, it is Kelly's Heroes, Brian G. Hutton's 1970 Clint Eastwood vehicle about a heist by a platoon of GIs in Nazi-controlled Italy. That too was an action-comedy, though it entirely lacked any political dimension and it's action was far tamer than Russell's. He had never directed action before, and as a result those sequences are often sloppy and obviously the work of a director new to this type of material. And yet this inexperience is a boon - the action scenes are entirely lacking in the baggage of a seasoned pro, they seem almost to come without influences. As a result they feel fresh, with more impact and resonance than most action scenes. Russell signals his intentions with the early scene in which Clooney explains how a bullet can cause sepsis and the camera zips into and out of a body like an invisible scalpel, capturing the spurt of bile from a ruptured organ from the inside. Russell takes this violence seriously, it seems, he feels every bullet, and he seems determined to ensure that audiences do too. This pays off later when we see the anatomy of the escalation of the initial gunfight, the camera woozily cutting and panning across the spaces between combatants as a domino effect of thunderous shots and visceral impacts pulses through a town square, leaving men dead. Later on, characters we care about will be shot, even die, and Russell wants us to feel that too, to see the lunacy of it all.
Stylistically, the film is mainly handheld, giving it a jittery immediacy. The colours are washed out, bleached by the desert sun, most obviously in the earlier scenes. This over-exposed look has been much imitated since. Russell also indulges in some strange, almost disturbing frame compositions, and makes a few references to other movies - that first action scene is notable for its self-consciously posed close-ups of Clooney and Ice Cube, filtered light discolouring them, clouds streaming by unnaturally fast overhead. These shots seem like ultra-pop homages to Sergio Leone (which makes sense, given the duel that has just occurred) , and stand out because they are so different to the way the rest of the film is shot. Is Russell underlining that this is the moment priorities changed for these men, or ironically mocking their own possible self-images as bad-ass American fighting men? The way Russell portrays Clooney's character as a cool customer throughout, the latter suggestion seems unlikely. He gives the men credit for following their consciences, the poor treatment afforded to Iraqi villagers snapping them out of their greed and forcing them to intervene. Here he sets the standard so many later Iraq films cling to - he lauds the men on the ground while attacking the politicians. But this is not a simple issue and Russell does not avoid its complexity, either. He makes it clear that these men are conflicted about helping the rebels in the longer term, beyond the initial situation in the town square. Indeed, they are more or less blackmailed into lending aid after their own lives have been saved. Wahlberg's character emerges from a torture-and-lecture session with more empathy for everybody - he is in severe shock - and falls in line with the others, who have all seen the light during their journey. At the end, the Rebels and their safe passage seems more important to the men than the gold. Of course Russell undercuts this with the final hint that even then, some of the gold was looted.
Much of the political context is made explicit in the dialogue. The film has an entire subplot about one Reporter searching for a story amidst a sea of reporters earching for stories, and indeed begins and ends with TV news report footage. As if that was too subtle, a character says "This is a media War" at one point. Clooney refers to "Bush" with a near-visible sneer, and uses him as a figurehead, with great irony, in his speech to rouse rebellion : "God bless America and God bless a free Iraq!" The speech fails, a possible allusion to the co-opting of American patriotism together with Iraqi nationalism. Clooney's superior, played by a brusque Mykelti Williamson, asks him a prescient question when he wonders what the purpose of the War was, if not to dethrone Saddam: "What do you wanna do, occupy Iraq and do Vietnam all over again?" But the most chilling scenes of political comment are the torture sequences wherein Said Taghmaoui's Captain tortures Wahlberg's frightened grunt for no particular reason. He just seems to want to teach him a lesson. And he does, pouring oil down his throat to ensure he understands the real motivation for the War. Wahlberg's dazed replies to his enquiries: "to maintain the stability of the region" etc, his lack of understanding of why he is there; are perhaps Russell's most pointed comment on his countries role in that conflict.
One of Three Kings other great strengths is obvious in that scene - this is unequivocally a film about the modern world, about how we live now, how things are and will be. American cultural imperialism is a given, so alongside torturing Wahlberg, Taghmaoui wants to discuss Michael Jackson with him, all the while awkwardly - and hilariously - using American slang terms to address him : Bro, Mymainman. His men watch MTV on stolen Kuwaiti televisions and risk their lives for Levis. Everybody has an intimate knowledge of Lexus models and Easy Listening tapes hide in Arab cars. Then there is the casual and brilliant realism of many of the references in Russell's dialogue - his soldiers discuss American Football, cars, religion, are at first awed by the violence they encounter. Ice Cube is a devout Christian, Spike Jonze an ignorant hick ("from a group home"). When Wahlberg rings his wife she asks him if she should apply for a job for him. The leader of the Iraqi rebels was educated in the US. Clooney ends up as a consultant on Hollywood action movies. This density of detail gives the movie texture, allows its narrative to breathe because the characters feel real and lived-in. Again, this makes their eventual loss and peril more affecting, meaning that the climax has a real power to it. Even better, Russell ends with a euphoric little coda, and perhaps the best ever, only-slightly ironic use of U2 in film.

Saturday, 29 October 2011


(Steven Soderbergh, 2011)

Taking a particular subgenre of the popular 1970s disaster movie, the pandemic thriller, and thoroughly modernising it, Soderbergh, together with his screenwriter Scott Z Burns, demonstrates again that there are few better filmmakers in America currently making adult entertainments. Contagion is a procedural, a precise account of how a virus spreads through the world, and also an account of how the bodies put in place by the human race identify it, classify it and eventually counter it. But it is also, in it's inimitably Soderberghian, chilly way, an utterly gripping thriller. We see people we like put at risk and tested by this virus, we wonder who it will take next, and the deaths of two major stars tell us early on that nobody is safe. Then we are with the scientists racing to create a vaccine in order to save not one, but millions of lives.
Then there is the fact that it is an epic. Almost casually epic, a globetrotting, international story with a massive cast of speaking parts and at least five separate and equally important narrative threads running simultaneously. And nobody - except perhaps Micahel Mann - captures the real world, "the now" quite as well as Soderbergh does. Each location feels different and distinctive, from Hong Kong to the American Midwest, largely due to Soderbergh's ability to pick up on detail and texture in his environments.
Detail is crucial here; early on the camera lingers an almost subliminal beat longer on certain objects and surfaces until the viewer queasily realises that these are all subject to communal touch; a bowl of peanuts on a bar, a door handle, a handrail on public transport. Later the visceral fear of germs, and by extension of other people, is vividly communicated in the arc following Damon's character, immune to the virus himself but terrified his teenaged daughter might get it.
He is as solid as ever, but each of the stars here dials down the wattage on their starpower in order to slip seamlessly into the impressive ensemble. Jennifer Ehle is perhaps the great standout, but she too is outshone by the film's focal character and protagonist; the virus itself.

Thursday, 27 October 2011


(Glen Ficara & John Requa, 2011)

Playing By Heart is a 1998 comedy drama, directed by one Willard Carroll, with a surprisingly starry cast. Sean Connery, Angelina Jolie, Ryan Phillippe,, Jon Stewart, Dennis Quaid, Madeilne Stowe and Gena Rowlands are all part of the impressive ensemble. It's blandly shot, set to an eclectic soundtrack of pop songs, and set in the most middle class, glossily attractive parts of Los Angeles. It's a portrayal of a disparate group of characters in the city and their relationships and struggles with love. Its like a less ambitious, less accomplished, less interesting spin on superior multi-character LA dramas like Robert Altman's Short Cuts, Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia or Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon. Those films all grapple with multiple themes and deeper trends, with knotty social and emotional problems, and ultimately with life itself. Not Playing By Heart. It's about love, nothing more, nothing less. And that's ok. Love is a worthy and profound subject, and has inspired thousands of great works of art, from pop songs to poetry to novels to cinema. I'm just not sure that the romantic comedy is the genre best suited to discussing it. Well, perhaps the auteur-driven romantic comedy. Creative intelligences like that Woody Allen or Albert Brooks have done it with conspicuous success in the past. But the slick romcom, all effortlessly nice fashion, unconvincingly spacious homes, identity-less, boring music and predictably conventional storytelling? That sort of risk free, lazy film is all about love. But the form seems to prevent any sort of deeper consideration of the subject as a theme. The superficial and narrative elements never go far enough. Love is strange, but worthwhile, is the greeting card conclusion many such films seem to settle upon.
Crazy Stupid Love even includes the word in its title, and its characters openly discuss love as an intangible and an ideal on a couple of occasions. It centres around an interlinked - of course - collection of people in LA. Steve Carell plays a fortysomething whose wife, played with customary class and rawness by Julianne Moore, asks him for a divorce on a date one night. Sent reeling back clueless onto the singles scene he meets a dapper young stud, played by the effortlessly smug Ryan Gosling, who instructs him how to dress, talk and pick up women, before he himself falls in love. Meanwhile Carell's 13 year-old son is in love with his 17 year-old babysitter, who loves Carell and the links and contrivances go on.
There are moments of truth and some laughs in a script which sporadically pops with wisdom on the reality of marriage, for instance, or the cruelty of singledom. The attractive cast makes much of it work much better than it should; Carell's sincerity is nicely-deployed, and contrasts well with Gosling's preening self-regard.
Ultimately, however, it all climaxes in a series of farcical confrontations and public declarations; the kind of thing, in short, that happens exclusively in romcoms. It may provide narrative satisfaction, but it shortchanges the films seeming ambition to examine love as a theme. All that's left, then, are the superficial pleasures; the music, the clothes, the locations, and a couple of decent belly-laughs.

Sunday, 23 October 2011


(Jeff Nichols, 2011)

It's a nice idea; take a modern recession-era family drama and splice in some of the horror of an Old Testament tale. Sit back and wait as modern concepts of sanity and reason are torn apart. Writer-director Nichols here confirms what his first film, Shotgun Stories, suggested; that he is one of the brightest young filmmakers working in America today. He takes this material and filters it through a unique sensibility; his eye for the huge skies gaping above Texas is matched by skill in composing frames set in the bland spaces of modern suburban and smalltown America. And his principal actors are magnificent. Michael Shannon easily evokes the sheer dread his character begins to feel when his dreams take a turn for the apocalyptic. Nichols here reveals an unexpected facility with horror imagery; these dreams are tense and eerie, even terrifying, and they haunt the first half of the film, particularly when the character begins to hallucinate too. Shannon's queasy expressions play with tremendous power when set against his usual menace. This is a man fighting for his mental health, yet gripped with faith that his visions might just be true.
Nichols complicates his situation by sketching in the delicate financial tightrope his family walks and making clear how crucial to that his regular pay check and healthcare cover is. Jessica Chastain is called upon mostly to react to Shannon's madness and suffering, but she creates a layered character out of what could be a cypher; she is frightened but tough, loyal and protective, and she has a couple of scenes of stunning power. Her facial expression in the final scene is brilliantly loaded, believable and ambiguous.
They are given solid support by the underappreiated Shea Wigham in another barely-literate hick role, which somehow only adds to the authentic, textured quality of Take Shelter, a tremendously assured, gripping and beautiful film.


(Matthieu Kassovitz, 2011)

Kassovitz's return to directing after his disastrous adventure in Hollywood with Babylon AD is this canny political thriller-cum-action movie, based on a real incident in the South Western Pacific French Territory of New Caledonia in the 1980s. The writer-director plays the main character, a Captain in the GIGN (basically the French equivalent of the SAS) who is dispatched to New Caledonia to negotiate the release of some local Gendarmes who have been taken hostage by Kanak rebels and are being held in the jungle. Except a key presidential election is only days away and this little conflict becomes just another way of scoring political points. The Army gets involved, human rights get trampled beneath jackboots, and the chance for negotiation starts to recede.
This portrayal of the way Politics directly affect human lives is probably the most impressive aspect of the film. Much of the central section involves Kassovitz's character in meetings, on the phone, arguing for communication instead of violence. A turning point is the moment he watches Mitterand and Chirac use and distort the reality of the situation in a televised debate, which is itself distorted by the camera, finding the pixelised faces in ultra-tight close-up, the voices thick through the tv speakers. Its from that point that he knows that violence is inevitable. The French military structure is cleverly depicted; a General who is quite aware of how he is a political pawn is nonetheless gung ho and eager for his men to find some combat, unwilling to cede any ground to the "terrorists". The despair of the more sympathetic gendarmes and GIGN men is vividly felt. Kassovitz ensures topical relevance with the references to the French Governments refusal to negotiate with terrorists, too.
All this would be uninteresting if not for the thriller aspects; an opening flash forward tells us that all ends badly, and from there on, an onscreen countdown (D-Day -10 etc) and the ominous rhythms of Klaus Badelt's score keep the tension high. But perhaps not quite high enough; despite the evident sincerity behind Rebellion, it is ever-so-slightly plodding. Kassovitz was once a director whose films burned with the ecstasy of cinema (La Haine is one big whoop of joy at the possibilities and excitement of the medium itself) but here he seems to be channelling a middling 1970s military drama. There is little visual excitement or lyricism, as Kassovitz opts to maintain a realist gaze, but his script is not rigourous enough for that to work. The early procedural sequences of the GIGN travelling to and arriving in New Caledonia and encountering the army are the best passages in the film; confident, pacy and gritty. The problems begin once our hero - and the film - gets bogged down in political networking and machinations. It gets baggy and (undoubtedly intentionally) repetitive, but essentially loses the punch of the intense jungle sequences. Even those start to drag once the scrupulously even-handed script shows us some of the tribal politics of the Kanaks themselves. This film is too careful, too sober, too earnest.
And that exciting director who made La Haine, what happened to him, I wonder? Did the grind of big action filmmaking with Vin Diesel crush the joy from him? Tellingly, he shows up twice in Rebellion. Two action scenes, one a recreation of the initial assault, broken down step-by-step by a witness, in a scene reminiscent of a moment in Three Kings. And the final assault, recalling 84 Charlie Mopic, Children of Men and a thousand video games as in a long, gruelling, disorienting single shot we follow close by Kassovitz as the confusion and terror of a firefight breaks out in the jungle. In those moments, Rebellion feels exciting, even impassioned. For too much of the rest, it feels choked on its own sincerity.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011


(Lars Von Trier, 2011)

Lars Von Trier is a truly dazzling talent. His facility with the cinematic medium is comparable with any director working today, and he pursues his individual interests - obsessions, really - across each film with an impressive focus and intensity. I just wish his obsessions were more interesting. Von Trier suffers from episodes of clinical depression and his last two films, this visually ravishing melodrama and the horror of Antichrist, are both attempts to explore and/or represent this condition in film. Its not that depression isn't interesting - although to those lucky enough never to have been afflicted, it isn't - but Von Trier has little to say about it, instead settling for an impressionistic portrayal of the state itself.
Melancholia is split in two. The first half is a quite brilliant account of a long Wedding reception which displays just how casually Von Trier's exceptional talent is deployed. There's an effortless quality to the way he lays out the players and traces the tensions and strains between them, which centre around Justine, played with a wounded, truthful sullenness by Kirsten Dunst. The bride, Justine cannot shake off the depression threatening to derail the entire celebration despite the efforts of her new groom (Alexander Sarsgaard), worried sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and assertive, confident brother-in-law John (Keifer Sutherland).
She wanders the halls and grounds of John's mansion, sleeping, having a bath, rejecting her new husband a few times, brutally insulting her Boss and having sex with his assistant on a golf course in-between interludes where she returns to the reception and attempts (badly) to play the happy bride. The probable foundations of her troubled character are all too evident in the personalities of her divorced parents, both present. In what may be the most terrifyingly wrinkled, gravel-voiced ex-couple in film history, John Hurt plays her fun-loving, possibly alcoholic father, while Charlotte Rampling is her destructively bitter mother. Neither offers her any comfort.
All this is lent a different cast by the prologue; a series of vividly captured slow-motion tableaux of apocalypse, most of them referencing the imagery of Northern European art and featuring some of the characters we are about to meet.
Von Trier encourages a sort of catatonic rhythm throughout the first part, reflecting Justine's view of the world in its peaks and fugues. She seems obsessed with gazing at the sky and notices the absence of a certain star which will become key.
This is the focus of the second half: Justine's sister Claire and her journey towards a state of grief and depression close to that of her sister. That absent star was hidden behind the planet Melancholia, which is approaching Earth, though scientists are certain it will pass by. While Claire frets about the possibility of impact, Justine reacts with a weary acceptance, having expected this all along. Some of Justine's dialogue may accurately reflect the experience of depression but it makes for almost silly viewing: meatloaf "tastes like ashes", Earth is "Evil".
Claire's growing hysteria is nicely played by Gainsbourg, who is well-suited to a role as one of Von Trier's brutalised heroines having already excelled as one in Antichrist, and her situation is more relatable to a general audience: her fear for her Son's future and battle to allow John to reassure her.
Of course we know all will end badly. We've already seen the world end, Earth swallowed in a collision with the immense Melancholia, but Von Trier is good enough to ensure we watch all this and hope that it was somehow wrong, a bad dream. His film is an involving, ambitious drama and a beautiful piece of cinema, stunningly shot and scored to the rapturous, portentous strains of Wagner's "Tristan & Isolde".
It may be about depression, but it's just too beautiful and full of the vitality and swarming detail of life and humanity to actually be depressing. That in itself is a sort of triumph.

Monday, 17 October 2011


(Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant, 2010)

A glossily warm coming-of-age comedy-drama set in a 1973 New Town suburb of Reading and therefore, presumably semi-autobiographical to some extent, Cemetery Junction never quite works.
The premise is classically familiar; three friends, stuck in dead end jobs, plan to escape, to travel, to live exciting lives elsewhere. They are near generic, stereotypical character types: the handsome, funny dreamer, the brawling bad boy from a broken home, and the oddball comic relief. Over the course of the simple narrative, each learns a lesson and grows as a person. It's that kind of film, deliberate, derivative of many better films, and possessing an almost painted-by-numbers quality in it's determination to hit each one of the expected narrative and emotional beats of the smalltown Bildungsroman.
Thats not to say it's without its pleasures; as one would expect of the creators of the sublime UK version of The Office and Extras on tv, there are some spiky character moments here, some finely observed instances of social tension, a few acutely textured scenes which feel true and real. While the three boys can be funny together in a laddish way, the best comic moments are provided by Gervais himself as the factory-worker father of one, casually racist, xenophobic and ignorant, squabbling with his mother over his own success while sermonising to his son from the dinner table. Ralph Fiennes is effortlessly fine as a quietly loathsome working class boy made good, Emily Watson does an awful lot with very little in perhaps five short scenes, and there are a few big laughs.
But the dissonances created by the style and approach are a massive distraction. Gervais has claimed that Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" was the single greatest influence on the film, and that sense of a mythic American angle on memory, youth and backwater lives fits oddly against the time and place depicted. Britain in the 70s was a troubled, grim place, and cinema generally portrays it as such. But here there is a warm glow of nostalgia, and despite the few gags mocking the assumptions and attitudes of the time, this is an unequivocally fond portrayal of the era.
It all ends with a mad dash to catch a train, a will-they-won't-they resolved, and great use of Led Zeppelins "The Rain Song".
Indeed, the brilliant soundtrack of 70s hits is perhaps the best aspect of the whole film; more movies should use "Crazy Horses" by the Osmonds.


(Ami Canaan Mann, 2011)

Odd that Mann so obviously invites comparison with the work of her father - and producer here - Michael Mann, by choosing to work in the genre with which he is best associated, Crime, with this noirish modern procedural.
Her style cribs from his too, a risky influence, given that attempts to copy such a distinctive style leaves certain directors with films which resemble nothing so much as television drama. Mann, while lacking the acute visual poetry of her father's superior eye, displays enough talent here to avoid that. While she likes to use inserts and near-abstract cutaways to begin scenes in place of establishing shots, just as Michael does, she directs scenes with a muscular confidence and fine sense of rhythm and timing absent from the work of many of his imitators.
This story suits her, with a very masculine sensibility at play following two Texan Detectives working on possibly interlinked cases of abducted and murdered girls in the Industrial backwater of Texas City. There is little exposition early on and we piece together the relationships and backstory as we go.
Little humour here, either, everybody furrowed of brow and intense of gaze. This is the kind of film where the cops return home at night and instead of watching tv or playing xbox, they brood intensely in the kitchen or grimly watch the rain. Though this makes for a few feverish, near self-parodic moments, it does help to build the tension, which rises steadily throughout the film. Indeed, Mann's talent is best discerned in mood, with an impressively sustained atmosphere of sweaty suspense and an indelibly textured portrayal of place; from the eerie alien landscape of the killing fields to the bleak industrial structures on the edge of town.
Her work with actors is less assured, but much of that is down to the material. These characters are largely one-note, constrained by the film's obsession with a single, dreadful case.
Sam Worthington is fine as the younger Detective, with plenty of scope to fume and bristle, while Jeffrey Dean Morgan's more soulful side is indulged by his character's missionary suffering. Stephen Graham registers vividly in just a few scenes, while Jessica Chastain is required to be angry in her every moment. All are overwhelmed by the mounting mood of foreboding and the shadowy blacks of the photography.
The plotting is mostly predictable but Mann enlivens proceedings with a couple of viscerally impressive set pieces.

Monday, 10 October 2011


(Woody Allen, 2011)

Opening with a loving near three minute montage of static shots of many of the most familiar and touristy parts of central Paris seems more foreword than prologue; a statement of theme. Paris is lovely, Paris is inspirational. That's it. Allen seems content with that, adding the admittedly minor theme of the power and fallacy of nostalgia later. But then this is a film of modest scale; modest laughs, modest pleasures, modest ambition. It's minor key period Allen, with less substance than any of his other excursions into the past, and a disconcerting dose of fluffiness to it, which might partly explain why it's been his greatest commercial success for decades.
The high concept: a Hollywood screenwriter with hopes of becoming a serious novelist vacationing in Paris with his fiancee and her parents finds himself transported back to that City in the 1920s each night at midnight, partying with the likes of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso and Dali, and having Gertrude Stein critique his book.
Based around such an insubstantial gag - Wilson's Gil professes shock to meet his many heroes in the flesh as they live up to their popular images - Allen has fun with his material, having Hemingway go on about hunting, War, boxing and bravery at any opportunity, while Dali (played by a single scene-stealing Adrian Brody) is obsessed with incorporating a "rhinoceros" into his work and hangs out with Bunuel and Man Ray. There is a light love story, with Marion Cotillard displaying yet again just how great she looks in a 1920s frock, but the scenes of the tensions between Gil and his fiancee (a spiky Rachel McAdams) together with realistically strained social events with her parents and friends are probably the best in the film. The social unease, foibles and pretensions of pseudo-intellectuals are Allen's true, natural subject matter, and he shows an ease whenever he approaches that territory absent from much of the rest of the somewhat contrived narrative here.
Still, it's mildly entertaining, Michael Sheen is terrific as a classic pretentious Allen romantic rival, Wilson is a surprisingly natural Allen hero, and the sensual pleasures are manifold; from some lovely Cole Porter on the soundtrack to Darius Khondji's cinematography, an attractive cast rounded out by Carla Bruni and Léa Seydoux, and of course the beauty of Paris itself. Which is where we - and Allen - came in...

Thursday, 6 October 2011



(Masaki Kobayashi, 1962)

It's only when you see a film as set upon savaging the assumptions and hypocrisies of the Samurai class - and by extention, of the Samurai genre - that you realise just how romanticised the Samurai has been by popular culture, and primarily, by Japanese cinema. The noble Warrior, living and dying according to a strictly defined code of honour, is an attractive and romantic ideal, and one many films have celebrated and underlined. But Samurai, like Knights in Medieval Europe, were trained warriors whose chief purpose was to maintain the status quo in the class structure, protecting the Rich and their interests from the mass of the people, who had nothing.
In Harakiri, Masaki Kobayashi approaches this truth. His film positively bristles with an angry contempt for the way of the Samurai. The story is folded into quite a complex double-flashback structure, following the hard times that have befallen a samurai and his family, which drive him to ask at a clan's house for permission to commit seppuku in their courtyard. Then the same happens with another Samurai; older and calmer, he seems to have another agenda. Once he has a captive audience awaiting his dramatic act, he recounts his life and reveals his real reason for requesting seppuku, and it involves revenge..
Kobayashi is a supreme stylist and this film is quite magisterial. Beautiful compositions make the most of the hard lines and grids of period Japanese rooms and brilliantly express the power dynamics in the many intense conversations captured by his camera. That camera moves in slow, slight increments, helping to build up the tension through over two hours of patient, precise storytelling. And that storytelling damns the samurai, exposing the injustice, cruelty and inflexibility at the heart of a society in thrall to such a violent and restrictive cultural phenomenon.
That would not be enough if the dramatic elements did not work in their own right, but work they do. This is primarily a tragedy, driven by the samurai code, and it contains a couple of agonising sequences: the first, almost unwatchable seppuku, performed by an impoverished young samurai with a bamboo sword, and later, the discovery of his fate by his wife and father-in-law. The performances are slightly overheated but that seems operatic through the lens of Kobayashi's surgical directorial vision, and it all leads up to an inevitable and incredible climactic explosion of violence and swordplay, which manages to be both cathartic and tragic.
Most importantly, it's a tremendous ending to an extraordinary film, a film which is moving, beautiful and riveting.

Monday, 3 October 2011


(Pablo Larrain, 2010)

There is a peculiarly subtle beauty to Post Mortem, Pablo Larrain's second attempt to address the moral degradation of Chile during the military coup and subsequent dictatorship of the late 1970s and 1980s. The first act is a wonky, obtuse sort of relationship drama with shards of blackest comedy. Larrain stages scenes elliptically, enigmatically, his superb compositional sense and the sickly yellow caste of each image ensuring that his film is visually arresting from the off. But as we watch protagonist Pablo stumble through a sad pursuit of his neighbour, Nancy, a fading, bitter cabaret dancer, we are made aware of the powerful forces moving beneath the narrative. The first shot in the film, after all, is a moving shot from a camera mounted in the undercarraige of a tank, which plants a seed of disquiet instantly. There are later references to protests - Pablo and Nancy drive straight into a march - overheard political conversations, characters showing unexpected passion in reference to public events, and most chillingly a flash-forward to Pablo transcribing Nancy's autopsy, a scene that grants power to moments like the one when he warns her to be careful as they dine - somewhat baffled by the menu - in a Chinese restaurant after she has angrily commented to a watress. But Larrain denies us context and withholds explanation; the flash forward sits in the middle of the narrative, unacknowledged, unheralded. The political issues are never articulated or described. Things are hinted at and suggested, no more. The strange isolation of Pablo and Nancy's faltering relationship is reflected in the rhythms of their conversations and Larrain's staging of them and underlines how removed they are from wider events.
Then the turn comes and the horror begins to grow. The State mortuary where Pablo works is slowly overwhelmed, corpses begin to fill the corridors. Nancy's house is raided, her family abducted, while Pablo showers only a few metres away (in a neat though somewhat on-the-nose metaphor) unable to hear anything. By the film's climax we are aware that Pablo's new moral corruption is entirely in keeping with that of Chile itself and Larrain's calm, eeriily smooth camera takes it all in; the empty streets, the piles of bodies on metal trollies, the generals at the autopsy of the deposed President, whose head is open at the skull, revealing a mass of gore; and the emotional explosion of Pablo's colleague, Sandra at the relentless tide of death brought to them.
Through all this Pablo remains something of an enigma, a ghost of a man, pale and lonely, only really revealing the depth of his feelings for Nancy in the incredible extended final shot when he decides her fate, and his own. Alfredo Castro carries much of the film as Pablo, his watery eyes and weary body language extremely expressive of this man trying to keep his head down and grab hold of love while his world destroys itself, while Antonia Zegers makes Nancy a complex, believable human being.
The true star here, however, is director Larrain, whose grasp of framing, pacing and mood are hypnotically persuasive and give this film a slowly building power which is quite unexpected and extremely impressive.