Monday, 31 December 2012


(Nora Ephron, 2009)

Really two movies in one, Ephron's film (perhaps unsurprisingly) adapts two books, twists them together into a sort of French plait, and just about makes it all work. It has the feel of a classic Hollywood entertainment; it's handsome, adroitly mixes drama and comedy, has a couple of strong roles for its leading ladies, and is never less than winning.
The twin storylines are shuffled throughout, usually in blocks of scenes, but occasionally within montages. The first follows legendary American cook/author/television personality Julia Childs (Meryl Streep) as she moves to Europe with her diplomat husband (Stanley Tucci) in the late 1940s, discovers French food and a sort of vocation as a cook and teacher, and begins to write her famous cookbook. The second follows Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a twentysomething on the brink of her thirties in contemporary New York who begins a project blogging an account of her attempt to cook every single recipe in Childs' book in one year.
For Powell, plainly struggling in a job that is a little beneath her after a promising youth, the blog gives her a focus and a vehicle for a writing talent she has almost abandoned, which is contrasted with the innocence and joy of Childs' attempt to become a cook buoyed by her own confident and enormous personality.
The pleasures here, then, are Ephron's often very witty screenplay, and her insistence on grounding the modern scenes in a recognisable - if very bourgeois - world of stressed commuting, tiring jobs, petty marital tensions and dreams that never really came true. Adams and Chris Messina (as her husband) are both charming as a perhaps too-perfect couple but their minor stresses ands problems are believably banal and contrast nicely with the Childs and their wandering across European cities due to his job, and more pointedly, with the spectre of McCarthyism and an inability to conceive a child which are more serious negatives in their married life.
Streep is characteristically fine, offering a great impression of Childs but not at the expense of any emotional subtlety, and Tucci is his usual reliable self, much of their work done against the backdrop of a picture postcard 1950s Paris, all golden sunlight and shuttered windows, again in sharp contrast with Powell's apartment above a Pizza parlour in Queens.
It all ends in blissful happiness and huge success, and is, of course, determinedly slight. But that is beside the point: it works extraordinarily well for the most part.

Saturday, 29 December 2012


(Christopher McQuarrie, 2012)

Good things about Jack Reacher:
1. The return of Christopher McQuarrie to directing after a 12 year gap. His directorial debut, The Way of the Gun, is a blistering, nasty little piece of self-conscious pulp and it (together with his superb screenplay for Brian Singers The Usual Suspects) suggested he might be a talent to watch. Shame its taken this long for him to work as Director once more.
2. This is an unpretentious slice of genre from a director who understands the appeal of pulp very well. As such it recalls the action movies from previous decades in focusing on simple pleasures. There is a car chase here, reminding us that, done well, car chases actually don't have to be boring. It ends like any number of bad action movies, with the heroine, attorney Helen Rodin, kidnapped by the villains, and the eponymous hero (Tom Cruise) coming to save her. He does this with guns and combat acumen, basically, so that there are lots of fights and gun battles here too. No cgi, no green screens, no wires or trickery. Just stunts and exciting editing and cinematography.
3. This is the kind of film where the hero deliberately tosses away his weapon and the advantage it gives him in order to engage in a climactic fistfight with the chief henchman (Jai Courtney). In the rain. In a quarry. I mean this in a good way, of course.
4. For the most part, this is both a whodunnit and a whydunnit, with Reacher - who is ex Military police, and now wanders the Earth unencumbered by possessions or responsibilities - and Rodin investigating an ex-military sniper's seemingly random gunning down of five innocent pedestrians. All of that is beautifully established in an entirely wordless opening ten minutes or so, and McQuarrie reveals a gift for painless exposition throughout, introducing Reacher himself via a montage with a conversation about his mysterious lifestyle over the top, and filling in the sniper's character and history by similar means.
5. Werner Herzog plays the villain. He's only in about two scenes as The Zek, but he is terrifying here, one eye milked up, most of his fingers chewed off in a Siberian Labour Camp, the terror he inspires in his underlings evident in his first scene, where he has a whispered, horrifying monologue. More European directors should play villains in Hollywood action movies: Michael Haneke would work.
6. Its not set in New York or Los Angeles, no; this is Pittsburgh, a more interesting and gritty location, and one that the film - shot by the legendary Caleb Deschanel - uses to nice effect.
7. Its a little reminiscent of the attempts in the 1960s and 70s to adapt various series of crime novels to the big screen in that it doesn't entirely work, its not massively exciting, but its kind of cool anyway. Also: it seems aimed (mostly) at adults, not teenagers.
Bad things about Jack Reacher:
1. Yeah, we've seen it all before. Often on tv, in low budget action series. Its undeniably done better here, but not by that much...
2. Tom Cruise. He is famously miscast as the (in the books) 6"5 Reacher, but he gets past that by playing the character as an unremitting bad-ass, who generally has the smarts and skill-set to get out of any situation. The problem is more the effect his presence has on the rest of the film. Early scenes depicting him - his face as yet unseen by the audience - buying clothes in a shop virtually show the staff swooning behind the counter at his movie star looks. The same thing happens when he enters a bar. Later, he has a pointless topless scene, all the better to reveal his ridiculously buff 50 year old physique.
3. A brilliant supporting cast are largely wasted. Pike - the perfect Hitchcock ice-queen blonde a few decades too late, and a fine actress - is more a plot device than a character, David Oyelowo as the Detective on the case does more posing than performing, and the brilliant Richard Jenkins has nothing to do as Pike's D.A. father. Robert Duvall shows up late on and plays the same crusty old character he's played in the majority of his films over the last ten years or so, chuckling through lines that aren't all that funny.
So hey, the positives outweigh the negatives.

Friday, 28 December 2012


(Christian Petzold, 2012)

The brilliance of Petzold's work to date is the way he imposes his precisely observed, muscularly realist style upon material that is usually the stuff of thrillers. He uses confident, spacious framing and superbly measured movement of the camera and editing to set a deliberate pace to each of his films. This is solid, near-faultless storytelling, slowly revealing the depths and passions of the characters depicted, detailing the nuances and turns of plot without artifice or trickery.
Barbara may be his best film; a tidy, intense little character drama which hides a gripping, emotionally charged thriller inside its folds like one of the title characters hidden packages.
Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) is a doctor, sent to work in a clinic in the Provinces of East Germany in 1980. She has applied to leave for the West, and suffered an incarceration and this exile for her sin against Communism. At the clinic, she is monitored for the state by her colleague Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) a sensitive, friendly man with his own history to account for his exile. As their relationship haltingly develops, Barbara is planning her escape to her lover in the West, but her emotional involvement with a couple of young patients makes things more complicated than she would like.
There is absolutely nothing ostentatious or showy about Petzold's work. Every cut and composition seems motivated purely by its value to the story he is telling. There is no generic iconography and no cues: no dramatic or emotive music (only diagetic music, in fact), no scenery chewing, no hamming, no massive plot twists or reversals. Instead he details the quotidian facts of his characters lives and work, and allows these details to build up to something more. The performances are understated and as subtle as the period detailing, which is founded on telling particulars: some wardrobe choices, the ubiquity of cigarettes, the automobiles and landline telephones.
Hoss and Zehrfeld are both quietly brilliant, suggesting their growing attraction (and much more) without doing very much, and Petzold is just as careful in how he underlines the effect of living under the watchful gaze of a Communist state. Everything is subtly effected - what people can buy, where they can work, who they talk to, how they live. It paints a disturbing picture of lives curtailed and bent by state interference without ever proselytzing.
The tension grows as the story progresses and Petzold ties together the various strands neatly and with considerable emotional impact in the last act, which is extremely satisfying, like the film as a whole.

Thursday, 27 December 2012


(Jon Wright, 2012)

It's not easy to get horror-comedy right. Most films that straddle the divide between genres are either too funny to be scary or too scary to be funny. A notable exception is Tremors, Ron Underwood's 1990 b-movie classic.
Grabbers wants desperately to be Tremors. It apes it by focusing on a remote community filled with strong personalities, and subjecting them to an attack from a monster like something from a 1950s sci-fi film. In this case, the community is on Erin Island, off Ireland's West Coast. The monster is a tentacled alien sea creature. The characters are the local eccentrics and the two Gardai - Irish police - stationed among them. The comic twist is the poisonous effect that alcohol has on the creature, meaning that everybody has to get blind drunk to stay safe, a . They hole up in the Island pub during a storm and proceed to drink the place dry. But when they run out of drink, they know the creature will be coming.
This nicely high concept premise is generally well-delivered, and Grabbers, through massively formulaic, is fun throughout. It never quite reaches the heights of Tremors, lacking that film's wit and vigour, but it offers a few big laughs and lots of little ones too, along the way.
It starts off slow and quiet, quickly and precisely establishing place and character in the first act - with its many lingering shots of the beauty of the Irish countryside, it would function nicely as a tourist board film - before the Garda begin to realise the threat they are facing. Theres a healthy dose of self-awareness here, beginning with the story idea itself, but also meaning that the genre conventions are toyed with throughout; sometimes followed, others twisted.
The cast are solid and do justice to both the laughs and the scares, and given the relatively low budget, the fx here are superb. Its all quite satisfying, in a low key way; nothing special but consistently entertaining.

Sunday, 23 December 2012


(Ben Wheatley, 2012)

There's a rare interest in Wheatley's work in the ancient Britain still visible underneath the edges of the modern nation. It's there in his last film, the superb horror thriller Kill List, which focuses on that old, weird pagan Island by depicting the strangeness of the modern landscape - the anonymity of new towns and retail parks, industrial estates and motorway hotels - in contrast with the corn fields, woodland and the wildlife that has been around for centuries. The horrific finale of that film shifts explicitly into pagan territory.
Sightseers is a very different film; written by its stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, its an extremely black comedy following their characters, Chris and Tina, a relatively new couple, as they take a trip through Northern England in a caravan, enjoying such attractions as the Blue John Cavern and a pencil museum. Along the way, Tina learns that Chris is a murderer who "just wants to be feared and respected", but is not above beating to death anybody who annoys him. Tina embraces her own homicidal side as they go, but tensions begin to effect their relationship too...
The travelogue structure allows Wheatley to depict that pagan Britain once again, as his characters trudge across fields, hug sacred stones, follow ley-lines, witness shamans sacrifice chickens, and visit ancient caves. Apart from the prologue, set in Alice's midlands home, where her domineering mother is appalled by their plans, urban Britain is entirely ignored by Sightseers. Instead, Wheatley ensures that the often grim landscapes of Yorkshire and Humberside look desolately stunning throughout; magnificently bleak in some scenes, and charmingly dull in others.
But the core of the film is the relationship between the two leads. Lowe and Oram are both fabulous here; funny and convincing, making their near-Dickensian caricatures feel more like living and breathing people than they have any right to. That's a problem with the film in general; so many of the middle class characters they encounter (and kill) are merely tissue-thin stereotypes it strains credulity and interest.
Countering that, Wheatley and his writer-performers try out a grab-bag of comic approaches. Here we get a bit of classic social awkwardness/comedy of embarrassment, a little slapstick, much grotesque violence played purely for laughs, some hilarious deadpan dialogue, and many quirkily memorable comic details. It variously recalls Nuts In May, Withnail & I and much recent dark British tv comedy. It mostly works, even if it runs out of steam some way before the end, and its not really saying much of anything beyond some generally clumsy light satire aimed at the British middle classes.
But it looks nice, has a great soundtrack - cover versions of Donovan's "Season of the Witch" memorably play over two of the murders - and Wheatley's direction is typically superb, as are the cast.

Thursday, 20 December 2012


(Radu Muntean, 2011)

A patient, sensitive infidelity drama, Muntean's film is elevated by superb performances and a fine, insightful script.
It begins with a long scene depicting Paul (Mimi Branescu) and Raluca (Maria Popistasu) in bed together. They are natural, comfortable, plainly in love. As the scene draws on, we learn that he is a married man, that he has a child, and that she is his younger mistress. Each scene is like this to some extent. Shooting in a naturalistic master-shot style, Muntean finds his composition and allows the action to play out, sometimes in the medium distance, moving the camera rarely and never very far. Each take is lengthy, the actors handling long passages of dialogue and often quite subtle or difficult emotional states. And it builds and builds in emotional power. We observe Paul with his lover and with his family, and we watch as his discomfort with his dual life mounts. A long, incredibly awkward scene where his oblivious wife and lover meet is brilliantly done, the tension between Paul and Raluca beautifully captured through body language and a certain, barely perceptible awkwardness in the stilted words they use when they address one another. That scene is a turning point; afterwards Paul seems to realise he cannot go on this way, he must make a decision.
That in turn leads to a gruelling, magnificent scene where he and his wife battle it out. There is an honest and insightful portrait of a modern marriage here, with all its weary compromise and co-dependent partnership painfully detailed, but also a tenderness; for all his passion for his younger lover, Paul still loves Adriana (Mirela Oprisor), and does not want to hurt her.
Muntean's style here suggests authenticity without ever seeming forced or ostentatiously aiming for grittiness, and it asks a massive amount of his cast, who more than deliver. There is not a false note in any performance here. Everyone is understated, everyone is believable, their pain and confusion relatable and inimitably human.
Finally, it is quite devastating, just as suspenseful as any thriller in its emotional set-pieces, all the way to a superb, ambiguous final scene on Christmas Day.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012


(Matt Reeves, 2010)

It's really only when you encounter the work of a really natural visual storyteller that the amount of directors who have no real facility with the visual aspect of cinema becomes clear. So many directors are efficient, telling a story by putting the camera in a position which effectively captures the action. Then there are directors who strain themselves seeking a ceaseless stream of beautiful shots - artful composition follows dazzling palette follows ostentatious camera movement...
And then you have someone like Matt Reeves, who with Let Me In, a remake of the superb Swedish horror Let The Right One In from 2008, suggests that he knows exactly how to tell a story with words and moving pictures.
Every shot in this film is beautiful in one way or other. Greig Fraser, the cinematographer, has been doing some stunning work lately, but Let Me In might remain his loveliest performance behind the camera. Reeves combines that beauty with a pleasing economy - he chooses the best shots to move his story forward, and each shot follows the last with clockwork precision. Thats not to say the storytelling here is predictable. On the contrary, its often surprising, even thrilling in its arty emphasis upon atmospherics and mood. All this, and there is even a little visual poetry in the films portrayal of wintry Los Alamos, mostly by night, the snow reflecting various sickly shades of yellow and green.
The plot simplifies and pares down what Alfredson's original took from the source novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, and in doing so, for me, fractionally surpasses that film. This may lack the genuine sense of otherness in the Swedish version, but it is more melancholy, more morally complex and more frightening.
The story is the same: in Los Alamos in the early 1980s, a lonely, horrendously bullied boy,  Owen (Kody Smit-McPhee) meets his strange new neighbour, Abby (Chloë Moretz), who has recently arrived with an older man who appears to be her father (Richard Jenkins). At the same time a local Police Detective (Elias Koteas) is investigating the murder of a local youth, found hanging from a tree, all his blood drained from his body. As Owen and Abby grow closer, he learns that she doesn't feel the cold, never comes out in the daytime, and doesn't eat any normal food...
Using vampirism as a metaphor for the pains of adolescence isn't a new idea, but it is particularly well done here. The bullying in this film is portrayed with real authenticity - it is awful, terrifying and senseless - and that, together with Smit-McPhee's understated, numbed performance, gives the seemingly minor tribulations of Owen's home and school life great power. The tension in each of the scenes where he is confronted by the bullies is brutal, giving the more outlandish scenes of the supernatural a very different, eerie charge. Reeves pulls off a couple of stunning set pieces: the scene where everything goes wrong for Jenkins' character on a trip to harvest some blood is magnificent; thrillingly executed and extremely clever in conception, and the swimming pool climax is similarly masterly.
The '80s are subtly evoked, the performances are all quietly excellent and the tension established in the prologue never really lessens, right up to the epilogue, which is beautifully ambiguous and tinged with melancholy.

Saturday, 15 December 2012


(David Lean, 1945)

I first saw Brief Encounter nearly twenty years ago, in my teens. I liked it, admired some of its brilliant storytelling, recognised the qualities that made it such an enduring classic. But I didn't really get it. I was irritated by some of the details; how frightfully posh everybody sounds despite the fact that the lead characters are both supposed to be ordinary, middle class people. The strange pacing. The use of the beautiful but melodramatic Rachmaninov Piano concerto 2 throughout the film.
I rewatched Brief Encounter this week. I'm in my 30s now, with a family and a couple of decades of life experience I didn't possess then, loves and regrets and loss all in my past, and this time I got Brief Encounter. This time it seemed an almost profound commentary on life and love, on choice and duty, on emotion. This time it seemed clear that the film is a masterpiece.
Much of the credit for that must go to Noel Coward, who adapted his own play for the script. His dialogue is convincing, deeply human, and powerfully informed by a sense that he understands the emotions he is writing about here, the double edge of love and betrayal, the wretched frustration of letting love go for other reasons. This is a film written by a gay man in what was still an incredibly difficult time to be gay, and the power of a secret love gives the material an incredible charge of passion and genuine emotion, which is only made more effective by being played in such a clipped, repressed, thoroughly British manner.
His story is familiar and has a simplicity which becomes devastating: a man and a woman meet by chance in the cafe on a train station platform one night. They are headed in different directions, but another chance meeting, a week later, throws them together, and quickly, effortlessly, naturally, they fall in love. He is Alec (Trevor Howard), a doctor. She is Laura (Celia Johnson), a housewife. They only meet on five different occasions in the film, yet the storytelling choices made by Coward and Lean give those meetings a massive emotional wallop.
We witness the agony of their interrupted final moments together in the first scene, but they are presented from a neutral point of view, their drama playing out in the background of a group scene. Then the camera stays with Laura as she travels home, and Coward indulges her with an interior monologue, told as narration. Only now does her pain become clear. Later she recalls the relationship in flashback, imagining telling her warm, loving husband the whole story but actually keeping it to herself.
Lean cuts confidently and with precise sensitivity between tight close-ups of the lovers tremulous faces and longer shots of them against the dark brickwork of the station or moving through the towns crowds, emphasising the odd tension between their emotional life and the public face they present to the world when they are together.
All of this presents a powerful picture of suburban mores in 1945, when gossip was feared and people were used to putting their heads down and doing their duty. There is never really any question of Alec and Laura being together, indeed, they never entertain the prospect. They try to snatch what happiness they can from their stolen moments together, and both are plainly devastated when that ends.
The leads are brilliant here. Johnson carries the picture, so much of the story visible only in her large, tear-filled eyes, her pain and confusion absolutely convincing. Howard is more outwardly controlled, letting little emotion slip, but his facial expressions and body language in their parting scene are astonishingly effective at indicating just how this experience will ruin him.
The Rachmaninov is nicely used, its emotional tones colouring exactly the right scenes in the story, and Robert Krasker's cinematography is typically superb, evoking dark evenings in little England and crisp mornings in market towns with acute atmosphere and some beautiful shot selection.
For all the later joys in his oeuvre, Brief Encounter is perhaps Lean's greatest film, a near-perfect and timeless love story and an immensely powerful minor tragedy which has aged but never dated.

Monday, 10 December 2012


(Martin McDonagh, 2012)

All self-indulgence should be as entertaining as McDonagh's follow up to In Bruges. And make no mistake, this is thoroughly self-indulgent, with its tale of a screenwriter hero named Martin (Colin Farrell) who is sick of typical Hollywood portrayals of violence and gets himself tangled up in a dog-kidnapping scheme gone wrong once it targets the pet of psychopathic mobster Charlie (Woody Harrelson). The dog-kidnappers are Charlie's friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) and Billy's friend Hans (Christopher Walken) and they end up in the desert, giving Martin advice on how his screenplay - also named Seven Psychopaths - should end, while hiding from Charlie and his gang. Along the way McDonagh gives us a series of fantasy sequences illustrating portions of Martin's screenplay and the stories people contribute in an effort to assist him while the main storyline continues along well-trodden Tarantino-esque lines.
That this is all so entertaining is purely down to a fine cast and to McDonagh's talent as a writer. He writes blistering dialogue, instantly shown in the opening scene as two mob gunmen wait around before a hit, discussing the minutiae of love and murder in what seems a deliberate thumbing of the nose at post-Tarantino cliches. McDonagh repeatedly criticises his own work, and this self-reflexism works better at some points than others; the criticism of Martin's female characters as "terrible" cyphers who only exist to be shot doesn't really excuse the lack of interesting women here, while Martin's wish that his film could just end with everybody off in the desert, talking, is borne out until it isn't.
He can do tension too, and specialises at finding the comedy in these moments, the instant when
nervousness and fear become a queasy sort of amusement.
The cast make so much of it work. Rockwell is tremendous, hilarious throughout - it is funnier than the majority of this years outright comedies - but also suggesting the power of Billy's friendship with Martin, while Farrell carries off the difficult straight-man role well. Walken, Harrelson, Linda Bright Clay and the likes of Tom Waits and Željko Ivanek in smaller roles all do great work with the character parts that McDonagh writes so well.
But really, this is a very slight entertainment, wicked and dazzling at times but also empty and strangely unsatisfying. McDonagh and his talented cast can do so much better.

Friday, 7 December 2012


(Andrew Dominik, 2007) 

Can this beautiful piece of poetry really be only Andrew Dominik's second film? It's made with such confidence, such assurance, as to appear the work of some old master, returning to the Western one last time. But then, Dominik's debut, Chopper, was nothing if not assured. And there are other similarities between the two films - both studies of fame and its effect, both centred on complex, disturbed men all too aware of their own myths. Here Dominik recalls the great revisionist Westerns of the 20 year period from the late 60s through the early 80s - the likes of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, McCabe & Mrs Miller, Heavens Gate and Walter Hill's superb take on the Jesse James legend, The Long Riders. His film has the solemnity and seriousness common to those films, the relaxed yet deliberate pacing, the slightly askew characterisation. It is also great enough to stand in their company without suffering by comparison. Yet it also seemed greatly informed by the work of Terrence Malick in its patience and attention to the natural world, in its subtly persuasive focus on psychology.
Based closely on Ron Hansen's fantastic novel - and taking its narration and much of its dialogue verbatim from the book - and exquisitely photographed by Roger Deakins, Dominik has still somehow managed to make a Western with something original to say. For this is at heart the story of an obsessive fan, with more in common with todays world of stalkers and media saturation than the genre iconography may at first suggest. Perhaps the most incisive passages occur after the titular event has passed and we are shown the fate of Bob Ford, as famous in his time as Jesse James ever was, and struggling to deal with it, just as Jesse did. The still-life montages of landscapes and empty rooms, and the daguerrotype-style shots of Jesse in town and nature provide visual poetry to match the lyricism of Hansen's narration, and Pitt and Affleck both do career-best work, the latter in particular an absolute revelation. The delicate score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and the fine cast of young actors as Jesse's ragtag last gang (Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Garett Dillahunt, David Schneider) only make it all more expertly calibrated.
The films most interesting quality is its ambiguity - about its characters, most particularly. Pitt's Jesse is self-loathing, unpredictable, paranoid and lucidly aware of the narrowing odds he is facing; nursing a death wish, yet also charming, charismatic and attractive. He chooses Ford to be his killer, grooms him, and in so doing ensures that Ford is the one who has his character assassinated. The event makes Ford famous, yes, but also destroys his life. Ford gains our sympathy despite his creepiness, the ability he has to set people's teeth on edge merely by talking. This ambivalence in the authorial view of the central figures spreads through the narrative until the entire film is hung with it and the certainty of the title seems possibly ironic. The odd, fractured love story at the heart of this film gives it a black little heart which is beautifully and surgically exposed over the course of the precise, superbly textured narrative.
 As slow as molasses, maybe, but in this sort of Western, thats a good thing, and Dominick adds his name to the roll-call of directors who have made great Jesse James films alongside the likes of Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller, Phil Kauffman and Walter Hill.