Tuesday, 31 July 2012
(John Hyams, 2009) John Hyams can really shoot action. Universal Soldier: Regeneration is filled with scenes highlighting this talent, indeed it seems at times designed as a showcase for Hyams' ability to make a familiar fight scene a visceral, almost elegantly flowing sequence. As such, it's a superior example of the truest brand of modern B-movie, the direct to DVD (DTV) action flick. It stars two DTV giants in Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, reprising their parts from Roland Emmerich's more mainstream 1999 action sci-fi blockbuster. Van Damme is Luc Devereaux and Lundgren Andrew Scott, both reanimated, augmented and near-superhuman "Universal Soldiers" who are reactivated when an Eastern European terrorist group kidnap their Presidents children and threaten to blow up what remains of Chernobyl's old reactors. The terrorist group are in cahoots with Dr Colin (Kerry Shale) who has created a new, even more powerful brand of super-soldier embodied here by MMA fighter Andrei Arlovski as a brutal, relentless, Terminator-esque presence capable of ceaseless, spectacular violence. The story exists mainly to move these characters (and the American soldier played by another MMA fighter, Mike Pyle) into position for a series of one-on-one confrontations and face-offs, but it commendably does this with virtually no flab, few poorly-written dialogue scenes, and some terrific use of the amazing Bulgarian location (an enormous, unused iron factory, convincingly standing in for Chernobyl). It also makes good use of it's principle actors; Van Damme has always had a sad-eyed melancholy to his presence, and here he spends the first hour of the film in a fog of sorrowful confusion before busting out the ultra-violence in the last act. Lundgren, on the other hand, is a more intimidating, if mischievous presence, and his character here is given an eccentric twist in his brief appearance which suits the performer. What suits him (and Van Damme) more is action, and they share an extended fight scene like somethingfrom a Godzilla film, destroying rooms and walls as they go. Arlovski has even more action, and he is a convincingly destructive physical performer, all of his hammering blows and crunching smashes captured precisely by Hyams' camera. Hyams films much of the action - including a couple of the fight exchanges and a commando attack upon the terrorists - in long, sinuously mobile camera moves, but is not above a more fashionable adherence to rapidly-cut chaos. He retains the ability to keep his material coherent, however, a prized gift in an action director. His fight scenes are often a mix of impact cuts and mid-shot one-take captures, highlighting both the athleticism of his actors and his understanding of what works best in this sort of film. His understanding of space and movement, allied to the lovely timing of his editing - there are few jarring cuts in the whole film - is what makes these scenes feel so fluid and watchable. His father - solid, occasionally inspired genre craftsman Peter Hyams - acts as his cinematographer here, and the film has a consistent, defined aesthetic throughout which is rare in the DTV field. Hyams career is definitely worth watching - on the right script, with a bigger budget, he could potentially make a great action film.
Friday, 27 July 2012
(Barney Platt-Mills, 1971) The story told in Private Road is an old one. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl slowly drift apart. End. Such a simple basis for a film could result either in something timeless or something cliche and dull. In the hands of writer-director Barney Platt-Mills, Private Road achieves a unique sort of timelessness; it is naturalistic and yet poetic, satirical yet gentle and funny yet painful too. The boy is Peter (Bruce Robinson), a young writer with a Public School accent who lives with his middle class bohemian mates in Notting Hill, smoking dope and plotting the revolution. He meets the girl, Ann (Susan Penhaligon) at his agents office, and their relationship lures her away from the bourgeois life she shares with her oh-so-square parents in Esher, Surrey to share a flat with Peter in London. Yet they find domesticity amplifies the differences between them, and their relationship starts to suffer. Forty years on, Platt-Mills film looks way ahead of its time. Social realism intent upon the middle classes and young people searching for a new way, it is almost casually shot and performed, but the director has a strong enough visual sense to conjure up a handful of stirringly beautiful shots throughout, from the young couples night walking the streets of a London (which is vividly captured throughout), to their getaway in the wilds of Scotland. It is also unashamedly arty; elliptical, unafraid of letting the camera just sit and observe, it allows its central relationship to develop subtly. Their early days are shy, tentative, filled with long silences while they stare at one another. Later those silences take on a different meaning alongside the suggestion that these people have nothing to say to each other. Robinson and Penhaligon create indelible characters who both ring utterly true - his laid-back, relaxed bearing changing as life and responsibility effect him, and her sweetness revealed as protecting a slightly more calculated nature. Platt-Mills surrounds them with vivid characters; his best friend Stephen, whose wacky good humour evaporates into drug addiction, another friend whose political activism brings him a humourless girlfriend, Ann's pompous, concerned, powerless parents. But it is the effortless trickle of the narrative that most impresses. Small things happen, they mount up, and lives gradually change. While Ann's parents may be slightly too caricatured, the main characters are tenderly satirised too, refusing to follow the life model of their parents but unsure of just what the alternative might be, and perhaps more conventional than they assume. Platt-Mills observational abilities are tremendous too; his camera watches Ann eat a bread roll over dinner without comment or dialogue, watches Peter's face as he drives home at night from Ann's parents house, all of his certainties unravelling. These young people want a new sort of personal freedom, but they're unsure of just what to do with it. The triumph of Private Road is that it locates this struggle within a universal story - boy meets girl - and does so with such charm and resonance.
Wednesday, 25 July 2012
(Olivier Assayas, 2010) Setting aside the politics, the approach to history, the glamour of the violence and the globetrotting for a moment, I love Assayas as a stylist. As befits a director who admires Michael Mann and Hou Hsiao Hsien and Vincente Minelli, Assayas is a stylist whose ability to infuse his scenes with a sensual charge is vital to the success of his films. The very first minutes of Carlos bear this out; the first shot is of a man rising naked from bed, a woman beside him. He dresses in the gloom and she sits up to smoke. You can smell that room, the chill on their skin, the warm sheets. The man meets a violent fate outside and that event is given weight by the reality of what has preceded it; this sets quite a tone for Assayas' Epic. The next scene finds the title character (played with authority by Edgar Ramirez) arriving in Beirut, and again that city is beautifully, swiftly evoked, a whirl of colour, the back of a taxi drivers head. We are located in this narrative already, we are there with this young, cocky Venezuelan who wants to head his own cell of terrorists in Europe. Almost 6 hours stretch before us. And they are the quickest 6 hours of cinema I have ever experienced. Part of a small but important group of films seemingly influenced by the likes of The Wire (I would suggest that Soderbergh's Che and Fincher's Zodiac are other high-profile examples of this school of cinema) to adopt a sort of Epic Intimate Historical realism, cataloguing events with little authorial viewpoint made overly explicit, allowing the flow of history to develop its own rhythm and meaning, Carlos benefits from its superb, innately fascinating choice of subject matter and its classy pedigree. The central passage - Carlos' 1975 attack on and seizure of the Vienna OPEC conference - is a riveting, pacy, brilliantly made mini-movie of its own, and it is often the tangents and solos of the material that bring its long stretches to life; Angie's (Christoph Bach) escape from the "Revolution", Nada's (Julia Hummer) fate, and Carlos' acquiring some middle-aged flab and bourgeois certainty in Budapest. But it is Edgar Ramirez's spectacular performance which holds the whole enterprise together. Ramirez portrays a complex man, passionate, intelligent and flawed, aware that sometimes he was shallow and weak but also vain and sensitive to his image. The scene in which Carlos first murders a man - a long, sweaty suspense set-piece - brings out the best in him as we see it all dance in his eyes through his mounting fear and exhilaration. But he and Assayas ensure that Carlos' private life is just as interesting as his "career". His many women and travels, his difficult relationships with various colleagues, all made human and grippingly real in this telling. We are with his Carlos throughout, maturing from ambitious freedom fighter to symbolic legend and beyond. The rest of the cast match Ramirez all the way, and Assayas' direction is always calm and stylish, assured and flawless in its capture of tone and atmosphere. For such a big undertaking, its a remarkably coherent work, Assayas' use of a superb Post-Punk Soundtrack and his stylish storytelling giving it an easy accessibility surprising in a film with such a complex story containing multitudes of characters and locations.
Saturday, 21 July 2012
(Christopher Nolan, 2012) It is worth establishing one thing straight away: Christopher Nolan makes blockbuster cinema on a level beyond most filmmakers. Not just a financial level - though the film in question cost a rumoured $250 Million to make - but in terms of the epic scale of his vision, the relative intelligence and complexity of his material, and his unquestionable command of the cinematic medium. That obviously doesn't mean he makes flawless films, and indeed all of the films in his Batman trilogy have their problems. But overall, they are quite a remarkable achievement: tonally and thematically consistent, beautifully made and performed, and somehow combining Nolan's personal preoccupations with a mass popular appeal. A big part of that is down to the character at their heart. Batman is for me the great fictional creation of the 20th Century, a character who has gone beyond fiction to become a mythic archetype, which is why so many utterly different interpretations of the basic template all work across so many different formats and media, from video-games to comic books to cartoons and novels. Nolan's vision of the character retains most of the obviously iconic elements and locates him in a gritty, superficially "realist" universe where many of the issues he faces are very topical; terrorism, economic turmoil threatening law and order, political corruption. The Dark Knight Rises takes on all of these themes at once, but it suffers from Nolan's greatest weakness as a serious filmmaker (and he evidently sees himself as a very serious filmmaker indeed) - he gestures at his themes rather than actually investigating them in any meaningful way. So this film is "about" terrorism in that it works as a function of the plot and characters actually discuss it in a few heavy-handed scenes foregrounding the directors ideas, but it never actually burrows into that theme or really says anything about it. If anything, while the film explicitly comes down on the side of its hero Batman (Christian Bale), Nolan seems more interested in and excited by the actions of its villain, the terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy). Finally, while Nolan may condone certain fascistic tendencies evident in the best treatment of Batman as a character - there is much discussion here, as in The Dark Knight, the second and best film in this trilogy, about what a man must do when the law is not enough anymore - it may be best to ignore the films simplistic politics and instead concentrate upon its worth as a Super-hero film, which is great. But Nolan does his best to make that impossible, making politics and a resonant echo of the "Occupy" movement so central to his films story. While Batman Begins stole much from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's superb "Year One", the Batman comic he cribs from most recurrently here is Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns". Several key plot points come direct from that source - Gotham as a virtually lawless battleground, Batman's return after an absence - and even a few of the smaller, better moments innthis story are lifted from Miller, such as the moment a senior police officer realises Batman is back and remarks to his partner "You are in for a show tonight!" That story unfolds eight years after the end of The Dark Knight. Batman has been dormant for that long, Bruce Wayne a recluse, lurking in the East Wing of Wayne Manor. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) has been eaten away by the lie he and Batman perpetuated at the end of the previous film, even if that lie has ensured no organised crime in Gotham for most of the previous decade. Meanwhile, Bane is planning to destroy the City piece-by-piece, physically isolating it, depriving it of a Police Force, crippling its infrastructure and financial Market, and a devious cat-burglar, Selina Kyle(Anne Hathaway) has entered Wayne's life, luring him back out into public after so long, where a member of his company's board (Marion Cotillard) attempts to revive a dormant but dangerous clean energy project he dropped some years before. From there the plot only grows more complicated - and occasionally silly - over the two and a half hours of running time, but it rises to a superbly orchestrated final act of more or less ceaseless action. The ending is satisfying and even a little moving for a lover of the Batman character. Batman fans may feel a little shortchanged - there is not all that much Batman in this film. It is more firmly Bruce Wayne's story. But what Batman there is is far more assured than he has been in the previous two films; Nolan seems to have finally realised how best to use his hero when he is in costume and in action. Action is a strange weakness for a director of action blockbusters to have, but it has long been Nolan's major technical flaw; while he creates imaginative, impressively scaled action sequences, his direction of them is flat and relatively uninspired, and his editing has been - at times - downright bad. Not here. The Dark Knight Rises contains the best fight scenes in the trilogy in Batman's two brutal face-offs with Bane, and the scenes of outright warfare on the streets of Gotham are massive, exhilarating and full of the sort of iconic shot-making for which this director has always had a particular gift. This film has also learned from The Dark Knight and there are fewer instances where everything stops while the characters discuss the themes, while those instances are more seamlessly integrated into the action. Nolan has the happy ability to maintain a sense of tension and dread throughout his films - they never ever feel boring, even when nothing of note is really happening onscreen - which is down to his intelligent use of the camera, strong editing decisions and the constant prodding from Hans Zimmer's score, here based around a primal pounding and tribal chanting which are repetitive but also somewhat hypnotic. The cast are generally strong; Bale knows this character by now, finding both the rage and sadness in him to great effect, while Hathaway makes her Selina Kyle an attractively morally ambivalent figure until her conscience is stirred by Batman's example. If their relationship is paradoxically sexless, well that is down to another of Nolan's blind spots as a filmmaker. He doesn't really do humour, and he doesn't really do sex. They're just not part of his worldview, making the scenes here of an attractive man and woman clad in rubber entirely serious and chaste (in stark contrast to Tim Burton's take on the same scenario). The veterans in the cast are all superb - Michael Caine carries much ofnthe films emotional weight, and he is as good here as he has been in anything for years, but Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman (as Batman's Q, Lucius Fox) are almost as good. Joseph Gordon Levitt is solid as John Blake, a conscientious young cop who is largely more of a function of the plot than a character, while Cotillard is good in a similarly limited role. Hardy, his face mostly hidden by Bane's mask, is great as a physical presence, but most of the rest comes down to his eyes - memorably flashing in a few scenes - and the oddly supercilious voice he has created for his villain, which works only some of the time. This film suffers from the absence of a villain as iconic and well-defined as Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight. It suffers in few other regards. Wally Pfister's cinematography is truly remarkable here. He carries off Nolan's magisterial, muscular style with ease, conjuring up a series of beautiful images but always keeping the storytelling tight and fluid. The combination of the IMAX compositions with Hans Zimmer's thunderous, often ludicrously bombastic score is viscerally shaking; this is what spectacle cinema can be, this film seems to say, as it leaves you pinned to your seat. The cast is filled out with recognisable faces in virtually every role, giving some indication of how highly Nolan is regarded in Hollywood these days. And really, it's easy to see why. He has taken a moribund Super-hero franchise and made it into something interesting and provocative without ever sacrificing any commercial appeal.
Friday, 20 July 2012
(Daniel Nettheim, 2011) Julia Leigh's superb, evocative novel upon which The Hunter is based does a fine job in balancing the demands of a thriller with a finer sort of literary character study. Her protagonist empathises with the beast - the supposedly extinct Tasmanian Tiger- as he finds its tracks and follows its progress across the vast, beautiful Tasmanian wilderness. He has been sent to capture it, to take DNA samples, by a shadowy corporation, and he stays with a local woman and her two small children. Their father has disappeared in the same wilderness, and as he spends more time in the area, the Hunter finds himself developing feelings for the widow, the children, and his quarry. Nettheim's film doesn't change any of that. The hunter here, played by Willem Defoe with a haunted, hunted quality which resonates beautifully with the material, softens gradually to the two children who seem to trust and like him immediately. Frances O'Connor is less well-defined as their mother, though her optimism and gentleness is attractive in a world portrayed as beautiful but cruel. The other locals are all threats, from Sam Neill's snooping family friend to the environmentalists hired to find the Tiger for themselves and the local loggers, who threaten and intimidate the outsider. Defoe has an outsider quality - with that cranial face, those big teeth and those hooded eyes he sometimes seems more Orc than man - which makes him perfect for this role, and he is very good here. The major element of the books success the film is unable to recreate is his internal shift from purposefully business-minded to sympathy with the Tiger. We see him track it and see it through the eyes of te small boy, who draws pictures of the creature, but that is not enough to really communicate any change in him. What it does get right is the paranoid tension that grows throughout the narrative. The hunter finds signs that he is being watched and followed. He finds traces of the missing man, who may have been his predecessor in the hunt. He feels a presence in the trees. Nettheim makes sure that the many lovely shots of man in stunning landscape carry a sinister, brooding charge, and the spectacular country make his job an easy one in this regard. His film is a slightly arty, nicely paced and visually stunning quasi-thriller which is, for all it's strengths, never quite as memorable or gripping as it might be.
(William Friedkin, 2011) Matthew McConaughey is astonishing in Killer Joe. In the title role, as Detective Joe Cooper, a cop with a sideline in paid assassination who gets mixed up with a damaged White trash family somewhere in Texas, he displays the sort of magnetic cold-eyed charm which, in this sort of pulp, always means that a character is holding down some sort of inner violence. And so it proves. McConaughey twists the courtly old-fashioned Southern politeness which is a big part of his persona until it is a disturbing, off key element of his character; this man is too polite, too precise in his language for the environment he inhabits. When he reveals the other side of his nature later on, it is not remotely surprising. Rather it is oddly satisfying, firstly to see McConaughey live up to all that promise as an actor. And secondly to see a film pay off and deliver after lots of tension. Based on a Tracy Letts play - the stage bound source material is still evident in the few characters and locations, and more particularly in the way the final act all occurs in a single setting, in one long unbroken scene - and adapted for the screen by the playwright, Killer Joe is the blackest comedy imaginable, a post-Tarantino slice of Southern trailer-park noir, based around a handful of great performances and Friedkins solid, if somewhat anonymous direction. McConaughey might be the single-most enthralling element, but he is given strong backing by Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon and (especially) Juno Temple as Dottie, the oddball innocent/savant of a daughter Joe takes a liking to. Letts' characterisation is bold in its simplicity, and his people talk in spellbinding little riffs and exchanges, many of which are drily hilarious. Friedkin ensures it is splendidly atmospheric - the art direction for the trailer in which so much action occurs is just about perfect - and tense from the moment Joe enters the picture and the plot is set in motion, but it is perhaps guilty of trying too hard to be weird, struggling for a Lynchian blend of quirk, sleaze, humour and violence which is particularly difficult to achieve. If Killer Joe never quite makes it, it is at least nasty and generally enthralling. The whole thing rises to a quite brilliant final scene of horrific, hilarious violence, and what is quite frankly the best use of a piece of fried chicken I've ever seen in a movie.
Tuesday, 17 July 2012
(Steven Soderbergh, 2012) Few directors make films so acute and intelligent about the way we live now as Steven Soderbergh. It's partly the way he shoots. And he does shoot, acting (under pseudonyms) as his own cinematographer and editor. The control this gives him over the visual character of his films means his interest in capturing something of the fleeting, instant beauty of the modern world is evident in much of his work. Magic Mike, which has discomforting elements reminiscent of the romantic comedy, is partly a lifestyle movie, dedicated to revealing the glamour of a life far removed from what most in the audience would consider normal. And Soderbergh is skilled at making that life look truly beautiful. His film follows a 30 year old stripper-entrepreneur (Channing Tatum, wholly winning here) over three months of summer in Tampa, Florida, as he introduces an unemployed, aimless hunk (Alex Pettyfer) to his particular form of showbiz, questions his own future, and becomes attracted to his new friend's sister (Cody Horn). The story is set in a sunkissed corner of the US, and these young strippers move in a world of designer apartments and beach houses, pounding nightclubs and parties on sandbanks, drive immense 4x4s and mix with beautiful women. Soderbergh gives all of that the allure it demands. Soderbergh also captures the time and place with a fluid vividness and attention to detail and texture that gives the story a resonance on an intimate, everyday level. Whereas many modern films set in glamourous worlds feel unreal, impossibly perfect and set-dressed, Soderbergh ensures this film feels like it's set in our world. And yet, while Magic Mike seems to celebrate it's protagonists lifestyle, Soderbergh instead critiques it. The scenes of the strippers performances are shot in a manner reminiscent of the fight scenes in his last film, Haywire; master-shot displays of virtuoso skill and athleticism. A couple of them are played for laughs, and the film never shies away from the darker side of the sex industry; the injuries, the drugs, the lonely lack of a future. Only the undeniable homo-eroticism is never acknowledged, though it may be utterly implicit in the numerous instances of muscled men dancing together. This is decidedly a film for the austerity era; Mike is stymied in his entrepreneurial ambitions by cold economic reality, and there is an ever-present hard-scrabble quality to his daily activities, carrying a wad of notes in his pocket, juggling his businesses. His journey to self-discovery and escape is compelling and beautifully played by Tatum, while his friend "The Kid" is on the opposite trajectory, more or less becoming Mike. Pettyfer plays his character with just the right amount of cockiness creeping into a slightly blank lack of definition. Both are outshone by Matthew McConaughey, stealing every scene he's in as Dallas, the owner of the strip-club and a natural showman and preacher, all oiled pecs and hyperbolic southern charm. The weakest element is the love story - partly because Horn is a little stiff (but then so is her character, it might be argued) - which comes to a disappointingly predictable, if familiarly satisfying, conclusion after a few interestingly and realistically ambiguous early exchanges between its mismatched pair. Overall, however, Magic Mike is an almost casually great piece of American movie-making; brilliantly made and stylishly gripping toughout.
Sunday, 15 July 2012
(Paul W.S. Anderson, 2011) By following the broader outlines of Alexandre Dumas' classic tale in his adaptation, Anderson just might have succeeded in making The Three Musketeers his most roundly entertaining film. Dumas' novel is so familiar that the strength of its archetypes and beautifully simple plot construction are beyond doubt. The way principle hero D'Artagnan (Logan Lerman, who plays him as a bland, sexless, even Bieberesque teen idol type) meets each of the three in turn, all of the heroes defined along the way, then teams up with them against Richlieu's Guard, is a miraculous piece of storytelling, and it survives more or less unchanged through every adaptation. Here Anderson casts three beefy Brits as the legendary Musketeers. Athos (Matthew Macfayden), Porthos (Ray Stevenson) and Aramis (Luke Evans) are introduced as a sort of elite commando squad, on a mission in Venice to steal some old plans by DaVinci for a flying war machine. Here Anderson establishes the films distinctive aesthetic; composing his shots in 3D, he emphasises the awesome scale and elaborate ostentatiousness of the royal buildings which house much of the story. He has always had a good way with a clean, clear action sequence, and here he keeps the swordplay visceral and simple, often using slow motion to punctuate a particularly well-choreographed passage. There is also a definite steampunk element to the design of gadgets and weapons, from the airships which are the most significant departure from Dumas to Athos' clockwork ninja gadgetry in the opening scene. The characters are generally simple, there for their impact in the action scenes and the varying shades they bring. The Musketeers are differentiated through their fighting styles - Athos is efficient, brutal, and Macfayden plays him with a mournful air, while Stevenson's brawny Porthos is all jolly brute force and Evans makes Aramis a precise, stylish fighter and the quietest, most cerebral of the three. They are joined in the action scenes by Anderson's muse, Milla Jovovich, as Milady, here an ass-kicking acrobatic spy with a penchant for betrayal. Anderson and his screenwriters (among them Andrew Davies, who has much experience of adapting classic novels) follow much of Dumas' plot and add in their own elements and twists. The immature but goodhearted King (Freddie Fox, comic to just the right degree) is there, Richlieu (Christoph Waltz, on cruise control) is the evil mastermind, and D'Artagnan has the usual love interest in the form of the Queen's Lady-in-waiting, Constance (Gabriella Wilde, whose pretty woodenness matches Lerman's blandness). The villains are the strongest element; Orlando Bloom has a high old time as the foppish, moustache- twirling Buckingham, and Mads Mikkelsen gives eyepatch-wearing Rochefort a scarily dead-eyed intensity. It is all nicely paced, ripping at speed through the story and forcing much of the plot through action scenes, there are several good gags (James Corden plays the comic relief), it always looks wonderful, and if it never matches Richard Lester's classic 1970s Musketeers movies, it is a solid, occasionally inspired attempt at a modern spin on this classic family adventure film.
Saturday, 14 July 2012
(Patricio Guzmán, 2010) At first, it's easy to be skeptical about the analogies Patricio Guzmán draws in Nostalgia for the Light. This film essay takes on the seemingly disparate subjects of astronomy and the horrors of the Pinochet era in Chilean history. It suggests that the astronomers searching for the key to the existence of the universe in the observatories of the Atacama desert - the driest place on earth, but also one which gives them, and Guzmán's camera, incredibly clear images of the spinning cosmos - have something in common with the mothers and sisters of the "disappeared" political prisoners from Pinochet's Chile, still out digging in the arid ground of the Atacama for the bones of their loved ones. But Guzmán is so delicate in his poetry and so gentle in his thesis, layering his ideas slowly atop one another, that his film is utterly persuasive. Not only that; it is also luminously beautiful and extremely moving. Guzmán begins on a little personal note; describing his boyhood love of the stars in an isolated, innocent Chile, then moving on to touch upon his pride in the "revolution" which occurred later (presumably in reference to the Socialist era under Salvador Allende, subject of another Guzmán film) and which was ended by the coup which led to the dictatorship of General August Pinochet. The slow build to his central idea is crucial; the quiet, reasonable mournfulness of his narration tying in beautifully with Guzmán's fine imagery - unlike many documentary filmmakers, he has a real eye for a shot and a sense of rhythm in his editing - is almost hypnotic. He talks about the Atacama as an elemental place while his camera underlines it's alien immensity. His interview subjects - an Astronomer, then an archeologist - discuss the parallels between their professions, both digging through the past in search of a deeper truth. Here Guzmán allows his cosmic vision to become even more expansive, as the astronomer discusses the impossibility of the present, and the micro-fractional gaps between sensation and conscious thought. Then Guzmán moves onto the darker side of the Atacama, and how Chile has an upsetting reluctance to tackle the negative aspects of its history. His next interviewee is a survivor of one of Pinochet's concentration camps. From here Guzmán steadily allows more emotion into his film. Visually he contrasts shots of mummified human remains with views of constellations and galaxies, the grain of a human skull cut in between shots of the surface of the moon. He interviews the women who dig in the desert, and their bravery and hope are profoundly moving, especially when set against the shots of mass graves and the closing wall of faces of the dead. Finally he interviews an astronomer whose parents are among the disappeared, brought up by her Grandparents and given a love of stargazing by her Grandfather, and her life and spirit inject a note of optimism into the film. Not that it is a depressing experience; on the contrary, the articulate, completely human subjects Guzmán draws out of themselves all provide positive images of Chile and its people, and there is an odd universality to these subjects; Guzmán is examining mortality and our search for answers as much as anything, just locating his essay in a uniquely Chilean context. In other hands, such a subject might have been grim, or dull, or pretentious. But Guzmán is simply a masterful filmmaker - his epic documentary The Battle of Chile is a magnificent must-see - and he makes Nostalgia for the Light a film unlike any other; visionary, sublime and compelling from start to finish.
Wednesday, 11 July 2012
(Antoine Fuqua, 2010) There are three intertwined story threads in Brooklyn's Finest, each of them seemingly attempting to pack in more cliches than the others. Each focuses on a different cop. There is the ageing beat cop Duggan (Richard Gere), burnt out and cynical and with no life beyond the job, with only seven days to retirement. Then there's the Vice Detective Sal (Ethan Hawke), bowed beneath the financial responsibility of raising a family to the extent that he begins to steal money from drug busts. And finally there's Tango (Don Cheadle), so deep undercover with a drug gang that his old life has disintegrated and he has begun to doubt which side he's on. These three characters are set on a collision course, of course, but not before the plot has forced them through some tortuous scenes familiar from a dozen cop movies and tv shows. There are plenty of double-crosses, macho standoffs, shootouts in drug nests, nagging wives and hollow cops staring out of windows, alongside all the gangsta posturing and reactionary New York Cop braggadocio. Duggan's only friend is a prostitute he frequents and has fallen in love with. Sal is increasingly frenzied and unpredictable in his desperation. Tango has to get off of undercover before it destroys him, but his loyalty to a gang lord who has saved his life (Wesley Snipes) is a conflict for him. All of this familiar genre storytelling can only end one way - in gunplay. This is a story only violence and death can resolve, and sure enough there are bullets and some major characters don't make it. It seems to take the position that being a cop in a city with as much moral compromise as New York - or at least Brooklyn - is an impossible job, and one that destroys any who attempt to do it, but its approach is a tad too pulpy and a little too generic to say anything interesting about the issues it raises. Instead it settles for obliterating them with gunfire. What makes it watchable - to the reasonable extent that it is - are the performances. The dialogue in the script is serviceable, with a few compelling speeches, but the three leads each give it a dose of intensity and charisma that jolts it along. Hawke has the showiest part, all sweaty angst, and Cheadle is a powerful presence, but Gere is perhaps the standout, exuding a moral weariness and armouring himself with a jaded detachment which is only given more potency by the movie star aura he still possesses. He is slightly mannered , but his storyline is the least well-assimilated here, but that may help it and him. The supporting cast is classy, filled with alumni from The Wire alongside the likes of great character players like Ellen Barkin, Will Patton, Vincent D'Onofrio and Lili Taylor - none of them given much to do - but Fuqua makes it all look a bit too slick, all shining surfaces and pretty lights. He has directed enough action films to know how to make an action scene pop, but the kind of grit and complexity the world the portrays here demands is absent in his direction of this story, and that's a shame.
Tuesday, 10 July 2012
(Gavin O'Connor, 2008) Gavin O'Connor doesn't really do original. His films - from drama Tumbleweeds to sports films Miracle and Warrior, to this police corruption drama - hit all the usual, expected beats, feature predictable, familiar characters and plot-points, and generally offer solid storytelling and entertainment. What he does well is emotion. Pride and Glory is a derivative, cliched police procedural, familiar in it's every particular, but, while it never approaches the power and intensity of Warrior, O'Connors best film, it still truly sings at certain points. That is partly down to O'Connor's style; he works in a gritty, you-are-there register, atmospheric, tonally downbeat and generally realistic, eschewing any flourishes but the occasional touch of visual poetry. There is a definite and pleasing '70s vibe to the material and the approach. He also casts extremely well. Here he has assembled an impressive array of macho character actors (the likes of Frank Grillo, Shea Wigham and John Ortiz) to back up his leads. Those leads are Edward Norton as Ray, a New York police detective who has been working a desk job following an unspecified trauma from some past raid gone wrong, but finds himself - at the behest of his father (Jon Voight), an alcoholic veteran - working on an investigation into the shooting of three cops during a drug raid. His discovery of serious corruption inside the Precinct run by his brother (Noah Emmerich) leads him into conflict with his brother-in-law Jimmy (Colin Farrell), a rogue dirty cop who does deals with drug lords, arranges hits and tortures innocent people for information. The leads all relish their big confrontations, but those scenes are part of O'Connor's problem as a dramatist; he seems to think in terms of operatic confrontation, actors screaming as they eyeball one another. It works when the actors are as good as the ones on show here, though the best moments belong to the ever-impressive Jennifer Ehle as the terminally ill wife of Ray's brother. Her silent despair as she watches her sleeping children one night is perhaps the films most piercing moment. Aside from that, it's very much a collection of scenes reminiscent of other scenes in better movies. Cops bust down doors, cops refuse to be intimidated, cops have regretful conversations with estranged wives. Nocturnal meets occur in deserted industrial areas. The Irish-American mileau of dingy bars, drunken sentimentality and suffocating family is nothng new, but is nicely evoked. The violence is vivid but not especially memorably-staged. The cast are all fine; Farrell and Norton give their all to characters who are limited by generic necessity, Emmerich is as good as he ever is, bowed beneath the weight of his sadness and regret, while Voight powerfully plays another in a long succession of old lions. At over two hours, it's far too long, with pretensions of saying something about the law and justice, when really it's merely a powerful little family drama with some pulp in its DNA.
Monday, 9 July 2012
(Lynn Shelton, 2012) L A screen credit as "Creative Consultants" for the principle cast members in Your Sister's Sister is the chief indicator that it's been worked up and developed through heavy rehearsal and improvisation, but that much is also quite evident in the film itself. The naturalistic dialogue, mostly - but not entirely - lacking in any stagey hyperbole or melodramatic contrivance, is the engine for everything. As a director, Shelton keeps it simple, fixing her camera upon faces as people talk. This style is absolutely suited to her chosen mode of low-key comedy drama, measured, intimate and keenly observant as it is. Occasionally she cuts away for a little scene-setting. In this film that means a few sequences of silent shots of a luminously beautiful Island off the coast of the Pacific Northwest of America in Autumn or winter, mist on the water, sun through the pines. The story follows Jack (Mark Duplass), lost and depressed a year after the death of his brother, after his friend Iris (Emily Blunt) sends him off to her fathers isolated summer house to figure out his life. When he arrives there he finds her older sister (Rosemary DeWitt) recovering from a traumatic break-up. Iris' subsequent arrival throws up a complicated web of emotional tensions and secrets between the three. The story is simple and some of the conversations that move it forward are funny, others interesting, most repetitive and fluid in a convincing way. Many feel true to these characters. So much rests on the shoulders of the cast. Duplass is fine; getting most of the laughs but capable enough with his dramatic scenes, he has a likeably normal charm. Blunt plays a spin on her slightly-quirky-but-hot persona and does it well, though she seems a little panicked during a few of the (presumably more) improvised sequences, while DeWitt quietly walks away with the movie, creating the most vivid and affecting character of the three. She is strong but grieving, intelligent yet vulnerable, and her emotional response to the films climax is what makes it just about work. But only just about, for Shelton's ending is the films big flaw, seeming to have been imported straight from some more mainstream romcom with all its contrivance and neatness intact. Still, for the majority of it's running time, this is an enjoyably modest comedy drama, built around three strong performances.
Friday, 6 July 2012
(Marc Webb, 2012) Setting aside the question of whether this "reboot" of a character last seen in cinemas only five years ago is even necessary - Colombia Pictures has to release a Spider-Man movie every five years or else they lose the cinematic rights to the character, which is all the answer you need - let's first focus on the question of the need for yet another origin story. Well, the greatest Super-hero characters all have suitably great, resonant origin myths. Batman, Superman, the Hulk and Spider-Man - the characters absolutely everybody knows - each possesses a unique, powerful beginning. Get that tale right - and The Amazing Spider-Man does, for the most part - and you have the basis for a solid piece of genre filmmaking, and maybe something more if all the necessary constituent elements line up just right. Spider-Man is at heart a fundamentally teenage character, and in such a power fantasy the emotional elements are familiar from other genres: angst, isolation, alienation, heartache, social awkwardness. Webb's film gets all of that right. Indeed, it's strongest material is the non-superhero stuff; this film opts for Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) as Peter Parker's Midtown High love interest, and perhaps unsurprisingly given the directors form with romcoms (his previous film was 500 Days of Summer) the scenes of their faltering romance are by far the best in the film. Andrew Garfield is terrific as Peter; more cool outsider than the kooky geek Tobey Maguire played in Sam Raimi's trilogy; and he and Stone have genuine chemistry. Their relationship is sweet, believable, and finally even a little moving, with just a note of the foreboding necessary in any such romance in the Super-Hero genre. Garfield is great at all the pain Peter endures, funny when he needs to be, and communicates the euphoric rush his powers bring him, but in his scenes with Stone he is all vulnerability and longing. She is set up as perfect for him, smart, brave, strong and beautiful, and her characters look is a geek-pleasing homage to the John Romita-drawn Gwen of the comics, with the same hair and love of knee-high socks and boots. The other supporting characters have been beautifully cast; the warmth and cozy affection of Peters life with his Aunt and Uncle is nicely played by Martin Sheen and Sally Field so that when he loses it, the loss feels immense, and Denis Leary gives Gwen's Police Captain father a decency and crotchety intensity which works perfectly for the character and serves the plot. All of that gives the film a surprisingly hefty emotional kick, especially in the last act, but the Super-hero material is generally less successful. Not the action scenes; the cgi-assisted sequences of Spider-Man and the Lizard (Rhys Ifans, decent if a little rote) in whirling, acrobatic combat are thrilling enough, the scenes of our hero mixing it up with policemen and common criminals far grittier and more effective, and the web-swinging passages are vertiginous and occasionally beautiful. But the plot is a mess; filled with gaping holes, evidently cut to ribbons in the editing suite (how else to explain the way several seemingly key threads - most notably the story of Peter's parents - absolutely disappear without explanation?), and consisting of a series of derivative, overly familiar beats. The heroes origin is tied up with that of the villain, the threat eventually effects an entire city, the exposition which sets up that plot is on the dull side while the villains descent into madness, is, rather, humanised in a tortured, cliched manner: all common factors in lesser Super-Hero films. It helps that everything looks nice, Webb aiming for an edgier, slightly more realist look than Raimi's stylised comic book world but keeping it all glossy with the help of Michael Bay's old cinematographer John Schwartzman, but James Horner's score is unremarkable. There is one formula in Super-Hero genre franchise creation; the first film can be solid, so that the second can be much better (see Raimi's trilogy, Brian Singer's X-Men films and Nolan's Batman series for good examples). Let's hope Webb can stick to that, since he's got the soild - if a little uninspired - first part out of the way already..
Wednesday, 4 July 2012
(Lu Chuan, 2009) In his 1961 review of Gillo Pontecorvo's Holocaust drama Kapo, then critic (now much-lauded Director) Jacques Rivette did not summarise the plot or give a close reading of the aesthetics except to describe one scene and more specifically one shot: "Look however in Kapo, the shot where Riva commits suicide by throwing herself on electric barbwire: the man who decides at this moment to make a forward tracking shot to reframe the dead body – carefully positioning the raised hand in the corner of the final framing – this man is worthy of the most profound contempt." Lu Chuan's City of Life & Death made me think of Rivette's criticism, which is raised whenever a Holocaust film or any film about real-life instances of man's inhumanity to man is released. This film is a somewhat impressionistic portrayal of the rape of Nanking, one of the great war crimes of the Second World War and a source of continued tension between China and Japan to this day. The first half is an elliptical, almost dreamlike, floating account of the Japanese conquest of the city, full of ferocious battle sequences and unwatchable mass murder. The second half shows the way the Japanese ran the conquered, half-destroyed city: by executing hundreds of civilians, sytematically raping women and throwing children out of windows. It is often difficult to watch so much unending brutality, and this is where Rivette's criticism is relevant, for Chuan's film is also incredibly beautiful. The sumptuous black and white photography summons up a series of indelible, unforgettable images: small boys playing war with abandon in the ruins, surrounded by corpses, mere seconds after the firefight they just participated in has ended; a chapel full of keening, terrified refugees shrinking from a handful of Japanese soldiers ; the tips of executed mens heads above the sand as their executioners dance around them, flattening the grave. Chuan is a new sort of Chinese filmmaker, combining the depth and artistry of the 5th generation with the technical mastery of a modern Hollywood director, and his approach here is radical. He does not linger too long on any one character, his narrative always moving along, observing all, context developing as the story progresses. And yet he is even-handed - the film has been massively controversial in China due to the humanity it allows its Japanese characters. I can't agree with that criticism or with Rivette. This is a profound, magnificent , difficult film.
Tuesday, 3 July 2012
(David Fincher, 2007) The film where Fincher grew up. A tense and engrossing study of obsession and failure, a whodunnit which doesn't really care whodunnit and a policier which meticulously depicts the procedural elements of a serial killer investigation at a crucial point in the 20th century, Zodiac is Fincher's best film. Its also the first where he allows the narrative and themes and characters to take priority over his directorial pyrotechnics. The pyrotechnics, the insane virtuosity, they're still there, they're just better integrated into the film, best seen in a series of remarkable crane shots, and an overhead tracking shot which is breathtaking but doesn't ever pull the viewer out of the story. Instead Fincher focuses on the details and in the process builds a convincing portrait of a time and place as much as he focuses upon the Zodiac investigation. The texture of Zodiac is thick with America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the mainly unseen and unremarked upon social and political upheaval of the era. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhal) works as a political cartoonist and we glimpse some of his work in passing, but he is more interested in Zodiac, as if seeking escape from his own job. His obsessive investigation gives the film its baggy structure, with extended episodes focusing more on the Official Investigation by various Police Detectives and Departments, and a few chilling recreations of the crimes themselves. We hear suggestions of the schism in American society on a talk radio programme. There are references to the pop culture of the times, too. Detective Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) was the real-life basis for Bullitt, and he is seen attending a special police screening of that other classic portrayal of the SFPD, Dirty Harry (which was partly inspired by the Zodiac case). The soundtrack is full of the music of the period, most of it put to perfect use, in particular Donovan's ever-creepy Hurdy-Gurdy Man - which I don't think I'll ever be able to hear again without thinking of this film, a signal of how well it was used. But mainly we are buried under the details of the case, just like the films protagonists. Each of them is ruined by it, defeated by its blind alleys and dead-ends. Fincher's film is heavy with scenes depicting men talking in offices and on telephones, and yet it manages to build and maintain suspense for two and a half hours. In this it recalls Alan J Pakula's magisterial All the Presidents Men (the deep-procedural aspect also suggested the influence of The Wire, always a good thing). The photography by Harris Savides is frequently beautiful, but it also vividly captures the lighting in the open plan offices of the SF Chronicle and the police department, contributing to the flat, banal tone which suggests the crushing repetitive dullness of the work these men are involved in. David Shire's subtle score is a direct reference to the films of the 70s Zodiac apes. Its few scenes of outright suspense are confidently, expertly staged and handled by Fincher, proving that he is best when holding back. The cast - illuminated by turns from Robert Downey Jr, Anthony Edwards and Elias Koteas - is uniformly great. Most impressive of all, perhaps, is the sidelong way this approaches a Big American subject, its narrative steadily circling a few characters lost in a maze of detail and crumbling because of their inability to find a way out. The film is about the case but also about technology, how we feel about it and how it fails us (there are many references to mimeographing and early fax machines and a key plotpoint hangs upon the expertise of a handwriting specialist), and about the evil that seemed almost to hang in the air in the culture of the 1970s. It possesses a strange kind of density which reminded me of the work of Don DeLillo and Christopher Sorrentino's novel "Trance" (both of which investigate a similar era in US history). The density comes from the aggregation of detail, the depth of characterisation, and the polymathic tangents the narrative constantly threatens to follow before doubling back. All the while, we never lose sight of the evil at the centre of the story, which seems to baffle Fincher just as much as it baffles his characters. In seemingly keeping his focus so narrow, Fincher, together with screenwriter James Vanderbilt, is able to paint a panorama of a 20 year slice of history, and do it beautifully. This is a Great Film.