Saturday, 25 February 2012


(Oren Moverman, 2011)

By this stage plenty of films have attempted to adapt the work of James Ellroy. And they get various aspects right: the plotting may be impossible to replicate fully in all its insane detailed density, but movies get close when they're willing to trust in epic length and huge casts. His world: a brash, widescreen pulp America, filled with sleaze and amorality, is easier to recreate and seen in all sorts of American genre entertainment. His characters - those unforgettable bad White men, doing violent things in the name of the law - are archetypes, and though nobody does them quite as well as Ellroy, they too are not uncommon in crime movies and thrillers, where rendered badly they register only as cliches.
What it is obviously impossible for any film to really capture is Ellroy's prose. His mature style is simultaneously both extraordinarily pared-down and hyper-inflated, a jazz-like series of short sentences and phrases that verge on self-parody while remaining utterly evocative, often feverish and absolutely distinctive.
Rampart - written by Ellroy himself, together with director Moverman - actually makes a decent fist of finding a filmic style to match Ellroy's writing. Moverman shoots and cuts this story of a corrupt LAPD Patrolman sliding ever closer to his own destruction with a fluid, sensual poetry. The colours alternately seem washed out and over-exposed; nicely reflecting the moodswings undergone by Woody Harrelson's lead, and there are elliptical moments and enough material devoted purely to mood and effect that the film has a strongly-felt identity of its own; this is feverish, like Ellroy, caught up in its own downhill slide, spasmodically violent, very macho in a damaged, inwardly vulnerable way, and strangely, lushly beautiful.
The cast are of a similarly high standard. In what amounts to an arty character-study, Harrelson is thrilling; funny, frightening, falling apart, he lets us see this intelligent man realise that he can't stop himself, showing us how trapped he is by his own personality and how it's too late to drop the act. He is backed by the classy likes of Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche and Ice Cube, but only Robin Wright gets enough screen time to really challenge Harrelson's dominance of the film.
The narrative is where Rampart suffers; it substitutes a long slow slog downward for a plot, making it feel overlong and tonally samey. Luckily, the acting and direction just about compensate. As The Messenger, their first collaboration, suggested Moverman and Harrelson make a fine director-actor team, and long may they work together.

Friday, 17 February 2012


(David Cronenberg, 2011)

Theres not much trace of what most would see as typical Cronenberg in A Dangerous Method. No body horror, few disturbing ideas, no violence, either physical or psychological. Neither is this mor of the arthouse pulp of his recent collaborations with Viggo Mortensen - Eastern Promises and A History of Violence. Instead it seems far more representative of the work of its screenwriter, Christopher Hampton. Adapted from his play, "The Talking Cure", it is a classy, largely tasteful, very serious, literate and intelligent, earnest historical drama. There are flashes of Cronenberg; the subject matter allows for some investigation into the nature of insanity, and the sadomasochism in the sex scenes is made slightly edgy by virtue of bring shot in exactly the same, straightforward manner as everything else here. Cronenberg opts for a sober, classical style which verges on anonymous but remains handsome and appealingly slick throughout. An underrated quality of Cronenberg as a director is the brilliance of his storytelling, and he retains that ability here; transforming a slightly stagey, extremely talky piece into a compulsively watchable drama.
Hamptons screenplay helps, with some sparkling exchanges between it's principals. Michael Fassbinder and Mortensen play Freud and Jung in a story about their relationship and the crucial role played in it by a patient of Jungs, a hysterical young Russian Jew (Keira Knightley) who becomes his first great success, then his lover, and then a protege of Freud's in Vienna. Knightly is embarrassing, frankly, during the early scenes which depict her in the throes of hysteria - gurning, panting, feverishly working her underbite in the most contrived and "acted" manner imaginable. She grows into the part and is better later on as a mature woman with regrets and internal conflict. Fassbinder is the lead and as excellent as ever: believably intelligent, powerfully conflicted and finally bruised and tested by his experiences. Mortensen, meanwhile, portrays Freud nicely as a complex mixture of vanity, intellect, insecurity and charisma. The scenes shared by the two men fairly crackle with tension and intellectual excitement. For all that, this would be a thoroughly dry, cold pleasure were it not for the suprising power of the love story which gives the film its emotional climax.
Even so, it is quite dry, exercising the mind more than the heart. But then that isn't an entirely bad thing in a cinematic culture as dumbed-down as today's.

Thursday, 16 February 2012


(Sean Durkin, 2011)

Is this an art house drama with elements of a horror film, or a horror film framed within the borders of an art house drama?
Whatever else it may be, Durkin's film is a tremendous exercise in subtle, slow burn dread. Sliding beautifully back and forth between two time frames, Martha Marcy May Marlene begins when Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) steals out of a farmhouse in the Catskills at dawn, plainly terrified of those she is leaving behind. She calls her estranged older sister (Sarah Paulson), who collects her and brings her to the lakeside country house where she and her architect husband (Hugh Dancy) spend weekends and holidays. Over the next few days they will be baffled, frightened and angered by her bizarre behaviour while she tries to cope with her memories of her life and slow brainwashing as part of Patrick's (John Hawkes) cult on the farm. Then there is also her fear that Patrick and his people will track her down. And given her knowledge of their nocturnal invasions of isolated country houses, that is not a pleasant prospect.
Based around an astonishing performance from Olsen, Durkin's film is a terrifically well-modulated piece of work. While the tension seldom lets up from the opening moments, when the ambient noise on the soundtrack informs us correctly that this will be an ambiguous, disturbing experience, individual scenes contain some fine black comedy and character work. Durkin's time structure allows him to play scenes and even passages off against one another to occasionally superb effect.
If he seems to agree - to some extent - with Martha's speech to her brother-in-law, dryly observing the conspicuous wealth on display in their cathedral of a house and criticising it as the "wrong" way to live, his telling use of detail would effectively bury Patrick's "family" if the narrative didn't make it impossible to see them as anything other than horrendously twisted already. Hawkes plays Patrick as a twinkly, charismatic, folksy preacher, with a hint of violence in the inner steel seen only a few times - memorably - in his interaction with them. He is magnetic throughout, whether lecturing, manipulating, or singing a Jackson C Frank song with a guitar on his knee.
Poulson and --- almost match him, sketching the nuances of the complex web of relations -formed of tension, politeness, curiosity and regret - in their own house nicely.
But really this is Durkin's film, and he does an incredible job, managing to suggest much of the unease coursing through the narrative veins through his compositions and cutting, without ever compromising on the visually poetic images. Plenty of negative space dominates the framing, isolating Martha against sky or wall, just as she is generally isolated by the story and her inability to open up to others. Durkin largely portrays both Patricks farm and Martha's Sisters house as beautiful idylls where people work simply, surrounded by nature, without any bad behaviour or negativity. These scenes can be dull, but here Durkin makes the countryside appear honeyed, lovely. The late reveal changes the complexity of that entire thread and indeed, of the film, and these isolated houses appear terribly vulnerable and even a little sinister.
This may in fact be the film's most impressive quality. Martha Marcy May Marlene is ambiguous throughout. Ambiguous in the best way; it allows you to decide for yourself. The abrupt, open ending is the most obvious example of this, and it means that it doesn't matter if this film is an art house drama or a horror film; it is simply stunning.

Thursday, 9 February 2012


(Alexander Payne, 2011)

Topped by George Clooney, self-consciously pushing himself in a dry, worthy piece of Oscarbait work, this middlebrow comedy-drama (more drama than comedy) is the worst thing Alexander Payne has done. Overlong, a little dull, ploddingly paced and too dependent on Clooney's Voiceover for both exposition and thematic content, it is however winning in parts, mainly due to a fine cast.
Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian real estate attorney who discovers that his wife has been cheating on him only when he has to spread the news that her recent coma (following a boating accident) will end when they pull the plug on her life support machines. He juggles this strain with two troubled young daughters while also preparing to decide exactly what to do with thousands of acres of land which has belonged to his family for generations.
Payne is a gifted cinematic storyteller - his camera unobtrusive, his scripts witty, his work with actors frequently superb - but his sensibility can be a problem. There is a pronounced misanthropic strain in his work, rendering many characters as mean little caricatures, and in The Descendants, that is mixed with an earnestness which is less characteristic.
This is a film concerned with big subjects: death, family, marriage, legacy. But, though it addresses those themes directly, it is often groaningly obvious about doing so. Clooney's line (in voiceover, of course) about families resembling archipelagos is particularly memorable for these wrong reasons. Likewise, Payne's attempts to mix tragedy and comedy generally don't work, being neither funny nor moving.
The use of Hawaii - the real Hawaii, where normal (well, sorta) people actually live - as a backdrop is probably the most distinctive aspect of the film, and there are a few outstanding performances. Robert Forster transforms a crudely written grumpy old man role into a sharp, complex take on grief, while the two newcomers playing Clooney's daughters are both fine.
Clooney is a bit more problematic. Still taking parts where he can show his range this far into his leading man career, he makes all the right faces here but is still somehow a little unconvincing. You feel he never inhabits his roles. His approach is much more old-fashioned, which can appear stagey and thin when surrounded by the casual attempted authenticity of so much modern drama. His comedic run to the house of friends is a lowlight, reminiscent of the kind of thing he has done for the Coens, without their bite or originality. And when the scene finally comes when he breaks down, it is so predictable and tame it is as if Payne is deliberately trying to steal his leading man's thunder. Clooney summons tears and gets the tone right, but the writing is hideous; affected, unconvincing, a little turgid. Like the film in general.


(Breck Eisner, 2010)

A blandified, more formulaic remake of George Romero's ferocious anti-establishment 1973 horror-satire of the same name, The Crazies is a surprisingly effective b-movie shocker. The theme Romero hammered in his version - that a terrifying strain of biological weapon infecting the population and making them murderous psychotics only leads to an even worse response from the Government and military, who instantly begin exterminating innocents throwing the very title of the film into question as in; who are the Crazies here? - just about survives the translation, if only implicitly, since the film follows the same curve. Romero depicted the politicians and Generals as they tried to contain the problem but Eisner's version is more focused on the affected small town.
This version is aided immeasurably by two leads who lend it instant class and more substance than one might expect; Timothy Olyphant has an old-fashioned politeness to his machismo, while Radha Mitchell is a fine, powerful actress here reduced to the usual catalogue of screams and rictuses. Their relationship is the main point of emotional contact for an audience, and the film gets that much right.
It also gets many of it's set-pieces right; they are unoriginal and mainly utterly predictable, but the mechanics are well-achieved, the scares efficient. Eisner directs with a slightly anonymous ease, his storytelling strong throughout.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012


(John Flynn, 1977)

Probably better-known these days as one of Quentin Tarantino's favourite films than for any other reason, Rolling Thunder was originally written by Paul Schrader in his 1970s pomp, just a year after the (similar in a few respects) triumph of Taxi Driver. The screenplay was rewritten by journeyman Heywood Gould, but Schrader retains a credit, and you can hear his voice throughout the film.
His story follows Air Force Major Charles Rane (William Devane), who returns to San Antonio, Texas after seven years in a Vietnamese POW Camp. His homecoming sees him rewarded by his grateful hometown with a silver dollar for every day of his incarceration, a new red chevy, and the news that his wife is leaving him for another man. Things get worse when a gang of thugs invade his home, torture him for the whereabouts of those silver dollars - the meeting between his hand and a garbage disposal is unforgettable - then murder his wife and child and leave him for dead. So Rane sets out for revenge with the help of an old POW buddy (Tommy Lee Jones) and Mexico and gunplay inevitably ensue.
That plot makes the film sound like a typical piece of 70s B-movie pulp, and that is what Rolling Thunder is. But it is more interesting than a synopsis suggests. Alongside the sleaze and nastiness and the casually racist portrayal of Mexico, its depiction of its Vietnam veteran protagonists presents them as almost inhuman. Both Devane and Jones constantly - and with no little foreboding - wear sunglasses, their eyes hidden, faces unreadable. They are damaged men, utterly desensitised by the violence inflicted upon them. This gives rise to a few amazing scenes. If Devane's explanation of how to survive torture and consequent homoerotic re-enactment with his wife's lover is disturbing, then his explanation that he is "dead", that they had taken something from him and he would never feel anything again explains both that and his entire performance. He underplays throughout, mostly expressionless, only really seeming to come alive in the scenes of violence. His insistence upon living in the garden shed as if it were his cell in Vietnam contrasts with Jones' prison; he is suffocating within the warm embrace of his family, his haunted eyes flat in response to their banalities. Like Devane, his glee at the apocalyptic violence of the climax is nicely, frighteningly played. Where Devane is prickly and complicated, Jones is beautiful, magnetic.
But Rolling Thunder does succeed as a piece of pulp, too. Director Flynn works with a lean, muscular economy, like Walter Hill, only lacking his ambition and imagination, but with a similar gift for staging and even, at times, for composition. Noirish lighting and precise cutting add to the murky atmosphere, and the action scenes are terrific; brutishly, graphically violent and blunt in their clarity. There are some fine pulp details, too: the hissably awful villains, Devane sharpening his claw until it is a blade, Jones' lack of response with a whore turning into delight once the gunfire starts, and the gratuitous nudity at various points.
Easy then to see just what Tarantino likes so much.

Monday, 6 February 2012


(Josh Trank, 2012)

It's one of those ideas so simple and obvious it seems impossible it hasn't been done before: a found footage super-hero movie.
Well, Chronicle takes that concept, mixes in a little high school drama and a touch of horror, and turns in a gripping little genre film made on a relatively low budget without any stars which has far more impact than most big budget superstar-fronted blockbusters.
It follows three Seattle teens who gain telekinetic powers after an encounter with something of alien origin in the woods. They have quite archetypal personalities, nicely revealed through narrative as we see them gain strength and confidence with their new abilities; Steve is cocky, likeable and popular, Matt is sensitive and nice, and Andrew - whose mother is dying and whose embittered alcoholic father lives off benefits after an accident at work - is damaged, lonely and emotionally volatile. Andrew is also recording everything on his new video camera, allowing Trank to put it in unlikely scenes and places as one of the boys is gradually corrupted by his new power.
That found footage aspect is inventive throughout and just about pushed to its limit; but it is also, unpredictably, a great vehicle for this story. The super-hero action fetishised by the studio genre films which are largely responsible for much of it has little margin for error in terms of effects and visuals. If it isn't great, it's generally awful, with no middle ground. But the found footage approach, in contrast, is extremely forgiving: the scenes of superpowers here are lo-fi, snatched, caught from a distance or in a blur on video or security camera. That provides instant verisimilitude and immediacy to the action climax, which has a sense of genuine awe and scale absent from bigger films.
It also has a hefty emotional kick; these characters are developed enough, their world recognisable enough that we care about and empathise with them. The likeable work of the three leads is a big part of that, as is the snappy pacing and smart tonal changes which characterise the narrative.