Sunday, 29 December 2013


(J.C. Chandor, 2013)

Amongst other things, All Is Lost plays like a direct reaction to writer-director J.C. Chandor's debut, the talky stock market drama Margin Call. That film was full of characters and sodden with dialogue in impersonal created spaces - offices, corridors, automobiles.
All Is Lost features virtually no dialogue. And the majority of it takes place in the open, on the vastness of the ocean.
Robert Redford plays the nameless protagonist, awoken aboard his yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean by a collision with a floating shipping container. A gaping hole in the side of his boat is letting in water. He acts quickly, ingeniously escaping the container, and sets about making repairs. Aside from an opening voiceover wherein he apologises and says he will miss people, all that we know about Redford's character we learn from observing him doing things: he is utterly defined by his actions. He climbs the mast, pumps out the cabin, eats from a can, smiles at a sunset, falls asleep while reading, tries to fix the radio, goes overboard but survives...this all places a heavy burden on Redford as performer, and he is perhaps the best he has ever been here; telling us all we need to know through sighs and wrinkled scowls as his situation gets progressively worse from scene to scene...
Chandor's story is wonderfully grim. Hope is offered to his hero on a few occasions, then brutally crushed. The logic with which things fall apart is similarly precise. There are a few poetic asides - Chandor occasionally pulls away from the action on the boat to show us a view from below - this tiny craft bobbing in the immensity of the sea. We see shoals of fish swim nearby. Redford scans the horizon for another vessel - he is dwarfed by the expanse of water, the hugeness of the sky above, his struggle for survival rendered petty and small by the magnificence of nature itself.
This potent, utterly gripping survival tale works completely as a narrative experience, but it is also simple enough to offer many different allegorical interpretations. The ambiguity of the ending only emphasises this further.
Ultimately though All Is Lost establishes Chandor as an interesting young American director, and offers Redford his first great role in years.

Saturday, 28 December 2013


(James Ponsoldt, 2013)

Set within the usual movie-world of a High School in smalltown USA, complete with keg parties, proms, graduation and caring teachers, what really separates The Spectacular Now from most other teen movies is the acuity of its focus.
That focus is all on Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a loquacious, charmingly hedonistic senior who has just been dumped by his girlfriend, the smart, pretty Cassidy (Brie Larson) and finds himself approaching the first real turning point in his life. High School is ending, and Sutter, who is popular and seems genuinely happy with his life there, doesn't know what to do with himself. He is surprisingly drawn to the pretty, shy Aimee (Shailene Woodley) and they begin a tentative romance. But Sutter's own nature presents a problem to most everything in his life, and a long-awaited meeting with his absent, deadbeat father (Kyle Chandler) further complicates things.
Much here rests on Teller's performance, and he is exceptional, creating a character who is evidently charismatic but always sympathetic, despite the frequent idiocy of his behaviour. He matches the film - Ponsoldt has created a world which, while portraying an environment familiar from many teen movies, feels more authentic than most, both emotionally and dramatically. Teller is soulful and warm, like the movie, and Woodley is his equal, making Aimee a complicated girl, clever but bewitched by this charming youth and his sudden interest in her.
There are many lovely moments here - Sutter's intense, complex relationship with Cassidy, who knows she has to move on to allow her adult life to begin, but just can't let go, is always nicely observed and played, and Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Jason Leigh get one great scene each. The moments where Sutter and Aimee connect and grow closer always feel true and touching, and Ponsoldt is good on atmosphere and feel; this is a movie that feels as if its set in the real world, which is still rare in this genre. It always looks good - casually lush photography which never shies away from the spots and blemishes on the faces of its lead characters - but what is most notable is the emotional effect. Sutter's journey initially feels minor, even trifling, but it gathers weight and is moving by the last scene.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013


(Cary Fukunaga, 2011)

For all that Fukunaga was meant to infuse another hoary old literary classic with some modern style and crackle, his adaptation of Jane Eyre feels much like the majority of period melodramas made over the last decade or so. Yes he pulls off some nicely inventive shots, yes the cinematography is impressively rich and textured, but that makes surprisingly little difference to the narrative experience. Its still a load of familiar plot developments and characters - most of them so common in this particular genre they are beyond cliche - with actors working hard to make stiffly formal period appropriate dialogue sound natural.
This adaptation takes a few liberties with the novel; mainly through emphasis and emotional weighting, but is otherwise quite faithful.
What elevates it is the cast. Mia Wasikowska is terrific as Jane, and her chemistry with a similarly excellent Michael Fassbender as Mr Rochester carries the film. These are both tricky roles - Jane is a saintly sufferer, Rochester unlikably grumpy but ultimately loveable, and the way the actors conjure their mutual passion in very few dialogue-heavy scenes is remarkable, and finally quite moving. The likes of Jamie Bell and Judi Dench offer good support.

Saturday, 21 December 2013


(Adam McKay, 2013)

This overlong sequel resembles the now-classic original Ron Burgundy film in that it is extremely hit-and-miss. But the hit rate has undeniably dropped while the pacing has slowed, the plotting has more-or-less evaporated, and the characters remain largely (often extremely funny) caricatures.
Here Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell, also co-writing) finds himself working at a new venture; 24-hour News Network GNN, funded by a maverick Australian millionaire and run by a sassy black female executive Linda Jackson (Meagan Goode). He and his news team of oddballs (Paul Rudd, Steve Carrell and David Koechner) revolutionise television news with a single broadcast, replacing stories with gossip, titillation and jingoism, and become massive celebrities along the way.
The satirical edge to that account of the evolution of tv news is probably the best thing here, but Ferrell and McKay make sure to fill out around it with lots of business. Most obviously (and reflecting his increased status) Steve Carrell's Brick is given much more to do, resulting in some of the biggest laughs here, especially when he meets Chani (Kirsten Wiig) and is instantly smitten. Like the original, this feels like a series of linked sketches, and some sketches work far better than others: the interlude after Ron has been rendered blind is inspired, as is his meeting with the family of Linda Jackson, during which he talks what he imagines is "black". The likes of James Marsden as a smarmy rival anchorman and Greg Kinnear as his wife's new lover both do well with their parts.
But while it is bloated and suffers from intermittent longeurs, I can imagine that this is a film, like the original, that will only improve with subsequent viewings.

Sunday, 15 December 2013


(Declan Lowney, 2013)

The opening fifteen minutes of Coogan's first big-screen Alan Partridge production are the highlight of the film. They depict Partridge, still every inch the pumped-up, insecure, awkwardly semi-aware "presenter" bore familiar from several classic UK tv series in his natural environment; presenting an afternoon music & chat radio show on Norfolk radio while living in Norwich. The show sounds abysmal but is beautifully observed, Partridge joshing and judging his way through it alongside a sheepishly wry sidekick, playing classic hits and making dreadful puns, bantering with callers while his younger, hipper co-workers mock him behind his back.
This material is so good because it gets right to the core of what makes Partridge such a joy: the minute attention to human foibles, pomposity and prejudice. Coogan knows people, and Partridge allows him to move between sharp caricature and agonising realism with dazzling fluidity. This is the appeal of teh tv shows and its the appeal of the early stages of this film.
The problem with Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is that sooner or later, an actual plot has to kick in. In this case its a plot including an armed siege, police SWAT teams and Partridge plunged in at the deep end. And it's not bad. It remains funny throughout, no matter how silly the storyline gets, with a couple of set-pieces that showcase Partridge at his best (worst?): his peacock act once he realises he has an audience outside the siege, for instance, and his rambling story about karaoke and retitling Brian Adams "Summer of '69" "Summer of '29". It is rare to see Coogan in such a straight-ahead comedic role as this in cinema, but here he gurns and grimaces and pulls faces throughout, and his judgement is usually terrific about what he can make work.
The rest of the cast is solid, the plotting workable, and the direction no more than efficient, but none of that really matters: they all exist to support Coogan in delivering his greatest creation in a vehicle for cinema, and it just about works.

Saturday, 30 November 2013


(Ruairí Robinson, 2013)

One of those genre films that plays mainly like a compendium of memorable moments from other genre movies, this lowish budget sci-fi horror just about has enough merit to stand alone as an efficient piece of pulp hokum. That is mainly down to director Robinson, whose style is tough, direct and pleasingly classical, together with an impressive cast in roles that seem underwritten.
The plot focuses on a group of astronauts entering their last 24 hours stationed on a Mars base where they collect samples and conduct experiments. They are pretty stock types: Elias Koteas is defined by the fact that he is the leader, Liev Schreiber is the closest thing to a stock hero, with his square-jawed insistence on always doing the right thing and his heroic flaw, Romola Garai is the "normal" human being among them, Olivia Williams is the cynical, grumpy bitch, Johnny Harris the weak coward who you know will fold at the worst possible moment, their other colleagues even more forgettable.
Well, of course that last sample-collecting excursion goes wrong, and astronauts are turned into zombies, attacking their friends with power tools and anything else near at hand while the dwindling survivors desperately defend themselves inside besieged labs and tunnels. There is much business in airlocks and worry about spacesuits, and the practicalities of life on Mars - energy sources, dust-storms etc - are dealt with cleverly.
Robinson handles the scares well enough, but it never feels different enough, or distinctive enough to make that sufficient. The early scenes suggest Alien in their concentration on a group of colleagues just doing a job in an extraordinary environment, but once the genre make-up changes, the main influence appears to be John Carpenter's near-perfect The Thing, where paranoid, terrified professionals turn on one another and the dread steadily mounts. But The Last Days on Mars is nowhere near as good as those films, even when it finds the right pitch and tone as its flawed, frightened characters struggle to deal with what is happening.
The cast make these scenes work, and the film is satisfyingly bleak in its unsentimental equanimity about disposing of characters, and has a nicely ambiguous ending. With the right script, Robinson could do good work in genre cinema. This ain't the right script.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013


(Jamie Linden, 2012)

Gathering together a genuinely impressive cast for his debut as writer-director, Linden tells a loose, modest, at times extremely charming story in the same vein as The Big Chill and The Return of The Secausus Seven and Beautiful Girls, returning a bunch of old friends to their hometown for a Highschool Reunion a decade on and observing the ensuing emotional revelations and collisions with a gentle, affectionate eye.
In doing so, he goes for broad types, and so we have Chris Pratt, stealing most of the laughs as the ex hellraiser and bully, now somewhat gone to seed as the suburban father of two, Justin Long and Max Minghella as the ex-Geeks still in love with the beauty queen (Lynn Collins), Brian Geraghty bringing his new wife who is shocked to discover that he acted like a black guy throughout Highschool, while most of the emotional ballast is carried by Oscar Isaac as the rock star still in love with the one who got away (Kate Mara) and Channing Tatum, who has not seen his first love (Rosario Dawson) since their traumatic split ten years before.
There are lovely moments here of universal humanity; a few big laughs and a couple of good musical sequences. But Linden always seems more comfortable with the romcom elements; and the film comes most vividly to life during the scenes between the excellent Isaac and Mara. The moment when he sings  his big hit single for karaoke at a late night dive bar (which she has never heard) and she realises it is about her is beautifully acted by Mara. The cast are the films real glory, lending it a classy finish which it perhaps does not deserve.

Sunday, 24 November 2013


(Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)

There's a long, sensational sequence in Brian DePalma's Mission To Mars where two astronauts attempt a risky, complicated manoeuvre while on a spacewalk. DePalma films it in long takes, his camera emphasising the immensity of the cosmos around his tiny characters.
Gravity takes that sequence and stretches it out until it fills the entire film - one extended survival set-piece, filled with intense moments of peril and superbly orchestrated spectacle.
Cuarón demonstrated an ability to utilise quite unbelievably long takes without sacrificing any of his storytelling abilities in his last film, the magnificent Children of Men, and here he pushes that even further, telling this story in a lengthy series of single shots, his cgi-assisted camera looping and circling through space around his astronauts as they scramble desperately to hold onto life in a place where there is literally nothing to hold onto.
The story opens with a brief procedural section as we observe three astronauts on a spacewalk hundreds of kilometres above Earth. Matt (George Clooney, his affable confidence put to great, unexpectedly moving use) zips around with a new jet-pack, amusing Houston (the voice of Ed Harris in a double reference to both The Right Stuff and Apollo 13) with oft-told anecdotes, while Ryan (Sandra Bullock) struggles with the nausea that comes with zero gravity and the installation of her own technology onto a satellite. A few minutes in, everything goes wrong. A destroyed Russian satellite has created a chain reaction and a field of debris is approaching in orbit, travelling at thousands of miles an hour. When it hits, only Ryan and Matt survive, and they need to use his jetpack to make it to the International Space Station, a hundred miles away. But the debris field is coming back around, and theres no guarantee they'll be able to get off the ISS once they get there.
What it boils down to is a grim, determined struggle for survival against horrible odds, which Ryan must overcome alone as one problem is succeeded by another, then another, each of them arriving with an awful feeling of inevitability.
So for all the brilliance of its technical achievement and its unique evocation of a world seldom seen with this sort of vivid realism in cinema, it is the smallest, most human dimension which registers most powerfully here. Ryan develops as a character through her actions, her ingenuity and refusal to give up, her essential, moving humanity, meaning that the audience is rooting for her from very early on.
But this is also a film about light, about the odd quality of the light in space, where it bounces off the luminous globe hanging nearby, where it feels unfiltered and pure. And about space, in both senses, the stars and cosmos and how beautiful they are, but also about how we perceive the space around us, all our certainties torn away by the infinite abyss of zero gravity, no up or down, everything around. Lubezki's photography is beautiful, and the ultimate tribute to the elegance of his and Cuarón's methodology is that after a while you forget to notice it and just focus upon the story. The long takes just become the way the story is told until something breathtaking happens - the destruction of the ISS is a truly stunning sequence, filled with moments which seem like they can not possibly be topped - until they are; and these scenes are anchored, as always, by Bullock's fine performance.
The camera spends an inordinate amount of time centimetres from her face, inside her helmet - among other things, Gravity is a fine exploration of how claustrophobia and agorophobia can co-exist - and she responds with an unusually subtle performance. Ryan is a character who hides her emotions, and so her implosion and recovery are harder to to read, but Bullock makes sure they're there, and Cuarón emphasises a few with zero gravity as a hook: making her tears float towards the camera, for instance. He also posits her as a sort of everywoman, using her as an element in the frame for a foetal shot and for another final shot likewise evoking Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, where her rise from the primordial ooze suggests nothing so much as man's evolution to a race able to fly among the stars...
Gravity, then, may be thematically slight, even modest, but Cuarón knows exactly what he wants to achieve, and he makes everything about this film work. It is taut, beautifully made in every particular, and probably the best pure rollercoaster ride we've seen in a few years.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013


(Ridley Scott, 2013)

Just like No Country For Old Men, the last dark Tex-Mex thriller written by Cormac McCarthy, The Counsellor is plotted like a boilerplate action thriller from the late 80s. Double-crosses, shady middle-men, emotionless contract killers stalk this neo-Western landscape, mingling with the "normal" people foregrounded by the story.
In this case Michael Fassbender plays the titular (nameless) hero, investing in a massive drug shipment from Colombia via the Mexican cartels alongside his associate Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt). But Reiner's mysterious girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) is making her own moves, which result in the wrath of the cartels descending on everybody. Suddenly the Counselor, always so self-assured, is desperately trying to survive and protect the woman he loves, the innocent Laura (Penelope Cruz). But the cartels are an inescapable evil, and nobody gets out of this story clean.
McCarthy's theme is the existence of evil, our relationship with and perception of it, the way it can seem unreal until it lands in our lives in a splatter of blood, implacable and unyielding, and nothing we care about means anything any longer, and Scott does that theme justice, and then some.
As such, this is a pitch black nightmare of a film, dressed up in designer threads, full of beautiful cars and magnificent houses and its starry cast, but keening a mournful, insidious death-song under its breath. As the cartels - drawn out by a coincidence after the Counselor performs a simple favour for the son of a client, a rather unsubtle statement on the nature of chance in the cosmos - close in, McCarthy's thesis becomes obvious. Evil is real, inescapable, utterly corrupting. There is no escape, no bargaining, no heroic rescue or confrontation.
The journey taken by Fassbender's character is dreadful, his fate devastating, and the actor - always so committed - makes us feel every step of his descent until he is choked by his own despair. Early on he is rather the straight man, moving from one long, metaphor-laden conversation with a colourful supporting character (the likes of Bruno Ganz and Toby Kebell each take a scene) to another as McCarthy nudges at his themes and suggests ideas. Later on, it becomes clear that this is the film, its story mainly told in long dialogue scenes wherein people philosophise and Fassbender tries to keep up.
All the while Ridley Scott keeps it looking slick and occasionally stunning, capturing the outskirts of Santa Fe with a dusty grittiness and finding his characters swimming in their excess and glamour. The actors make McCarthy's often baroque, overwritten dialogue work. Pitt and Bardem do especially well with their monologues, and only Diaz slips at all, her Malkina a touch one-noted and cartoonish.
But then as written she is a very pulp character, the uber-capable femme fatale, the whore to Cruz's Laura, very much the flawless Madonna; and I think it would take an extremely strong actress at the peak of her powers to bring such a creation convincingly to life.
For all its thematic baggage, this is still a thriller, and Scott throws in a couple of thrilling action scenes to buoy up the talkier passages. But it is the talky passages, direct from McCarthy's script, that really stick. Two days later this film is still with me. That would be recommendation enough, but this is a superb film; provocative, fascinating and powerful, beautifully made and with its own ideas.

Sunday, 17 November 2013


(Drew DiNicola & Olivia Mori, 2012)

Big Star are the cult American band, virtually unknown while they existed (though each of their records was glowingly reviewed) but developing a devout following of obsessives throughout the 80s and 90s until their status changed, and they now seem one of the most influential bands of the last few decades of rock music. That in itself wouldn't make for much of a film, but the fact that they were a fascinating mixture of personalities, and emerged from Memphis, a complex and interesting city in its own right, and one absolutely essential to the history of American popular music, makes their story a lot more enthralling. Then there is the music: DiNicola and Mori are wise enough to know that every ten minutes or so they need to stow the talking heads and just let the music tell the story - then Big Star do the rest, and they do it superbly.
Formed by Memphis rich kid Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops wunderkind Alex Chilton in the early '70s, Big Star emerged seemingly fully formed with the sublime Number One Record. The music on that album is almost perfect - exciting, muscular and precise, its melancholy heart jostling with an exhilarating appreciation for the possibilities inherent in the dynamics of rock music. It didn't sell. Bell, depressed by the way most of the credit went to Chilton, left the band, and Chilton drove them on to the even better second album, Radio City, before a shrinking line-up staggered through excess and self-indulgence to record their dark and fractured Third/Sister Lovers. After that Chilton squandered his talent in a series of jokey provocations, Bell tried in vain to get a deal and ended up working in a restaurant, and the legend of Big Star grew.
This film details the lifespan of the band, features lengthy interviews with bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens, makes excellent use of some fine archive photos, and devotes a long time to the lives of the principals after Big Star ended. The recent reunion tours are depicted as a nice little reward to Chilton and Stephens, years after the fact, and a line of rock critics queue up to explain quite why they never had the success they deserved even as the film does a solid job of explaining the promotional and distribution issues responsible.
The early death of Bell - in a car accident at 27 - and Chilton's death in 2010 make this a story with two ghostly absences at its centre, though a couple of wry Chilton radio interviews feature, and producers, engineers, relatives and friends fill out many of the crucial details of the story. It is a sad story, really, one of potential left unfulfilled and thwarted ambition, but it is also full of humour and fascinating people.
It is never depressing, chiefly because the music is so good. For all that some time is devoted to Bell's issues with Christianity and his sexuality, every time a Big Star song plays loud, everything feels just fine. Such is the power of great art.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013


(Alan Taylor, 2013)

The success of the Marvel project - a vast, overarching series of interlinked blockbusters starring the companies most famous characters (with the exception of the X-Men and Spider-Man, owned by rival studios) has begun to sink into the films themselves. The Avengers was such an enormous success that there is a winning feeling of confidence flowing through the two post-Avengers Marvel movies; Iron Man 3 and now Thor: The Dark World. If Kenneth Branagh's original film had the difficult job of introducing a fiddly concept to the general public, Taylor's film dives headlong into the complex mythology of the character and his world, presuming that they will already like and know the character enough to go with it.
So this film is a fast-paced romp through the sci-fi, fantasy and super-hero genres; tremendously assured in its world-building, layering detail onto our understanding of Asgard and the nine realms while awkwardly positioning a familiar plot involving the death of the universe due to an ultimate weapon into place. Christopher Eccleston, largely wasted, plays Dark Elf Malekith, very much a Star Trek villain in the wrong universe, seeking the Aether, an ancient substance that can transform matter into dark matter. This brings him into contact with his old enemies on Asgard, where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his Warriors Three have been striving to bring peace to the nine realms after the actions of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in the first film and The Avengers. Then there is Thor's love interest from the first film, Jane Foster (Nathalie Portman) still lovesick for the Asgardian in London, where she stumbles across a strange red substance...
While the spectacle is a given, what works well in the two Thor films is the humour, twinkling away at the ridiculousness of the concepts, but never making fun of them. This is a big part of the appeal of Hemsworth's performance - he is charismatic, but funny about it, charmingly aware of himself - but also of the film itself. The way Foster is introduced - on an awkward date with Chris O'Dowd, asking about her "guy trouble" and nicely oblivious to the fact that the guy is a Demi-God - is a good example of this. Thor crumpling himself into a car and jealously asking about this rival (Fosters response: "Seriously?") extends the joke, and the lightly "realistic" response of many smaller characters to the outsized events occurring around them frames the action in a pleasingly ironic light.
Yet it still works very nicely as pulp. The fight scenes are plentiful and pleasurable, the design and effects making this version of Asgard even more expansive than the one we saw in the original film. The smaller Asgardian characters - Rene Russo's Frigga and Idris Elba's Heimdall, particularly - are given great action beats, while Hiddleston's Loki gets to strut his stuff. He and Hemsworth have great chemistry, and the decision to team them up is a solid one, giving the film a very different dynamic.
Of course it all comes down to the usual super-hero bullshit: destruction of property, a one vs one fight involving huge punches, and a final powerful effort. But it's always staged well, and that Marvel confidence sells it.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013


(Woody Allen, 2013)

Still formally adventurous and thematically ambitious, still capable of moments of sublime comedy, the main element of Woody Allen's late work which is substantially different from his classic era is the strong dose of pure bitterness laced through much of the material. Blue Jasmine may just be the best example of this.
A twisted character study of a New York socialite, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) after her world is destroyed and she finds herself living with her semi-estranged sister (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco, here Allen balances comedy and drama very effectively. Pitching Jasmine in at the deep end of a new life surrounded by her sister's children and boyfriend, Allen then pitches the audience into Jasmine's own mess of a past, depicting flashbacks to a privileged Park Avenue life alongside her ex Hal (Alec Baldwin), who ruined it all by getting arrested for stealing and spending millions of the other peoples money.
As the story progresses Allen and Blanchett illustrate Jasmine's degree of complicity via a series of short, telling scenes depicting her in her natural Manhattan environment where she shops, hosts dinner parties, and relaxes in the Hamptons, then contrast it with her new Bay Area life, working as a receptionist for a lecherous dentist, going to adult computer courses, drinking incessantly and rowing with Chili (Bobby Cannavale), her sister's mechanic boyfriend.
Allen is brilliant at winding his themes around his characters and story, but Blue Jasmine throws up a more problematic area: his discomfort with working class characters. His San Francisco seems populated mainly by New York Italians in vests who like to drink beer and have inarticulate conversations, and though this patronising tone is addressed - these characters are often seen as morally and sensually superior to Jasmine and her tribe, and her undisguised snobbery is never validated - it still feels an awkward misstep for the film.
For so much else is clever and stylish here. Allen casts his films beautifully and everyone in this is superb, the photography by Javier Aguirreasarobe is subtly textured throughout, and the direction is as measured as ever, the storytelling nuanced and mature. But Blanchett holds the film together, delivering an immensely powerful performance lacking in any vanity. Her Jasmine is a monster, a sympathetic victim, a mess and inimitably human throughout. She is magnificent, in what is one of Allen's most interesting and darkest films.

Monday, 7 October 2013


(Ron Howard, 2013)

Peter Morgan's screenplay for Rush is painfully, unbelievably obvious. It starts with a dual voiceover from lead characters Nicki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and Peter Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), both of them attempting to define what makes a Formula One driver tick in the way only somebody announcing a bad movie voiceover ever would. Then, tired of having his leads actually tell us who they are, he puts them in dramatic scenes and has them basically tell everyone else what they are thinking. But that's alright, because everyone else is telling them what they're thinking back; this is how coversations work in Peter Morgan-world. When all this gets a little too subtle for the audience, he wheels the voiceovers back in to explain it all over again.
Hunt and Lauda were rivals and opposites in late '70s F1. Hunt the beautiful, reckless playboy, Lauda the driven perfectionist - in real life they were close friends (they  even shared a flat) but Rush reduces them to co-dependent enemies, defining themselves against one another.
Leads Brühl and Hemsworth almost salvage Rush. They are basically playing two different types of asshole, but they make these men sympathetic and human, despite the on-the-nose script (which reaches a nadir during their first extended conversation, where they basically lay out their conflicting philosophies for each other) and Howard's direction, which tries far too hard and adopts far too many modern approaches in order to make the numbingly repetitive races more visually interesting.
Anthony Dod Mantle, a cinematographer of exceptional talent, falls prey to the cheap trick of using filters to portray period (the '70s are a bit yellow, a bit flat in their lighting) while Howard loves montages to portray Hunt's endless shagatons and Lauda's obsessive need to get everything right.
It's never quite boring, no. There are a few fine sequences, and some gripping race action.
But it never quite feels like it has much of a point, either.

Saturday, 5 October 2013


(Kevin MacDonald, 2013)

How I Live Now presents WWIII from a single viewpoint. That viewpoint belongs to Daisy (Saoirse Ronan), an annoying American teen spending a summer in rural England with her cousins. Daisy has issues - ignored by her father who has remarried and is enjoying a new baby, she mourns the mother who died giving birth to her, and we overhear the white noise of her thoughts, a stream of unfocused anger and self-help tips. But her cousins are joyously unsupervised (their mother is tellingly absent working on some "peace process") and Daisy is soon won over by their chaotic, fun lifestyle. She also falls in love with the eldest, the intense, moony Edmund (George MacKay), as the world appears to open up to her. MacDonald shoots all this to best emphasise the picturesque beauty of rural England; sunlight through trees, streams twisting alongside fields, children skipping across meadow. These scenes of rural idyll are scored to the likes of the Fairport Convention and Nick Drake, and the beauty of it all makes it unsurprising - unavoidable, perhaps - that Edmund and Daisy should fall so hard for each other.
And then the bomb falls. One scene is interrupted by a sudden rush of wind, a distant whomp, and then a rain of ash. The children freeze, the quiet horror of what has happened evident even to them. London has been bombed, the war begun.  Soon the power will be gone, the food run out.
After that the army will come, separating girls and boys. Daisy and her young cousin Piper wind up on a work farm, but Daisy has told Edmund she will return to the house, and driven by her love for him,   she and Piper desperately attempt to gain their freedom.
The last act of the film is harrowing and unbelievably dark for what is otherwise a teenage coming of age romance. The scenes of war, when they do come, are beautifully effective for being limited to one viewpoint. Daisy barely has any idea of what is going on - tv and radio speak of terrorists, poisoned water supplies, and the countryside is transformed into a sinister landscape like something from a 1970s UK television show (Survivors, most obviously) - grimly pretty, filled with threatening strangers, burning houses, eerily abandoned towns and clapped out land rovers. The glimpses we get of the enemy are frightening but vague; we don't know who they are or where they're from, but they kill young men, rape women and burn villages down.
Through this world Daisy and Piper trek; driven remorselessly by Daisy's need to see Edmond again. The all-consuming nature of her passion for him is skillfully evoked by MacDonald and his trio of screenwriters, but more specifically by Ronan and MacKay, whose mute physical chemistry is aided by her charisma and his introspective charm. The link they forge early on carries the emotional load through the ordeal of the third act, making the climax surprisingly emotionally charged and moving.
Daisy's character arc feels hard-won and true, not mandated by screenwriting rules, a rarity in a film based on a young adult novel.
Ronan's commitment plays a big part in that, but it is MacDonald's direction that makes the film feel so gritty, its textures so vivid and distinctive. He includes one too many montages, but How I Live Now is beautiful, tough, and strange. He has had an odd, schizophrenic career, from his many high-quality documentaries (Touching the Void, most impressively) to his somewhat anonymous but generally decent feature films, which makes him seem like an exceptionally capable craftsman without much of an individual voice. There are worse things for a director to be.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013


(Daniel Algrant, 2012)

From a distance, a dual biopic of Tim and Jeff Buckley seemed like a thoroughly bad idea.
Two beautiful singer-songwriters with magnificent voices, both dead tragically young: it appeared a recipe for biopic cliche disaster. Which makes Greetings From Tim Buckley a very pleasant surprise indeed.
It focuses on a few crucial days in the life of Jeff Buckley (Penn Badgely) in 1991, when he travelled to New York from California to appear at a Memorial concert for his father Tim (Ben Rosenfield). At the same time the story flashes back periodically to the period in Tim's life around the birth of his son, while he gigged on the road, slept with women in motels and generally lived like any musician in the 1960s probably would.
Narrowing the focus this way pays off - Jeff is portrayed as a damaged, needy, spontaneous young man, riddled with issues about his father and still discovering how best to use his talent. Over the few days in New York, he and Allie (Imogen Poots) begin a tentative relationship, and we largely see him through her curious, quietly baffled eyes. Badgely does well to show just how selfish and annoying Jeff could be without ever seeming unsympathetic, and he excels in the music scenes - a sequence where he performs a medley of Led Zepellin 3 acapella in a record shop is probably the best in the film.
Though Tim is kept at a remove by this narrative, Rosenfield makes him a melancholy presence even as he works his way through a big rock star cliche.
The music is key, of course. The climax is provided by the concert where Jeff comes good and seems to make some peace with his father's memory and songs, but there is also an exhilarating scene where he and Gary Lucas jam on what would become "Grace". That's probably the most conventionally "biopic" moment here, but it feels quite loose and casual, as does much of the rest of the film.
It's nicely acted and surprisingly emotional; Jeff's arc is all about acceptance and empathy, and that is a difficult journey for him in this story. Crucially it is soundtracked by a couple of brilliant Tim Buckley songs too, though Jeff's music is absent.

Friday, 20 September 2013


(Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, 2013)

Self-indulgent but largely in a good way, This Is The End takes a load of actors most famous for their work in comedy, asks them to play "themselves", then maroons them inside a designer-pretentious modern L.A. house while the End of Days happens outside.
Some of what follows is very, very funny.
It starts off a quite different movie. Jay Baruchel, Seth Rogen's old friend from Canada, arrives for a week staying with his friend in L.A. Baruchel plays the only "normal" character in the film, his responses recognisable and relatively convincing, and he is reluctant to go to the showbiz party at James Franco's fancy new house.
Seth drags him along, and there is a brilliant party scene filled with excrutiating scenes of awkwardness, broad comedy as a coked-up Michael Cera debauches himself, some skillfully integrated characterisation and a series of dazzling cameos.
Then beams of light crack open the sky and lift people into the heavens, an earthquake strikes, a massive hole opens up in the ground outside swallowing up most of the party-goers, fires consume Hollywood, and the group retreat to Franco's house to wait it out.
After that its a study of friendship under pressure, with these exaggerated personalities and their big egos clashing over how to divide up the food, who sleeps where, the nature of the situation and who goes out for supplies.
There are a few hilarious sequences - a conversation about not seeming "rapey" overheard by Emma Watson, for instance, pretty much every conversation involving Danny McBride, playing his usual boorish creep, and when the situation ventures into horror territory there is a surprising amount of comic mileage in scenes of the men running around screaming in terror. But it is about 40 minutes too long, many of the comic ideas fall flat, and there is an inevitable air of smugness to it all.
That however comes hand in hand with audacity and bravery - this is a crazy idea for a film, but it works, and is even occasionally inspired. Plus you get to see James Franco (as game as the entire cast) eaten by cannibals.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013


(Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

Sorrentino finally hits his stride with The Great Beauty after a string of dazzling oddities and beautiful misfires. His talent has never been in doubt and each of his previous films is worthwhile, but here, for the first time, he feels like a mature artist, the energy and chutzpah of his style tamed and directed so that it services his subject matter.
That subject matter appears to be Rome itself, though the city is more like one of the film's main characters. The principle is Jep (Sorrentino muse Toni Servillo), a 65 year old socialite and writer who drifts around Rome's upper-class parties and events, unruffled by all the debauchery, hypocrisy and idiocy he witnesses. Instead Jep seems amused by it all, keeping a group of friends around him but somehow always a solitary figure.
The real subject is the change that comes over Jep soon after his birthday; he begins to reminisce, he wonders at lost opportunities and past mistakes. Death is on his personal horizon, and Sorrentino plays with this theme in ways both subtle and obvious; there is plentiful Catholic imagery (Jep lives in a building between a Convent and the Colisseum) and a fine extended set-piece at a funeral.
There are many set-pieces. This is an episodic tale, following Jep through his days and nights and occasionally meandering off to follow a supporting character for a scene or two before circling back to the brilliant Servillo, who always suggests the intelligence and soulfulness of his character.
That soulfulness is crucial, for it informs the film as well as the lead. The Great Beauty, as a Sorrentino film, is filled with breathtaking camera moves and excessive sequences (the early party scene, though brilliantly put together, goes on a minute or so too long). Many scenes unfold without dialogue, and this director is so good at that - he cuts these scenes to music with such virtuosity it seems only a matter of time before he makes a musical - that they are all pure pleasure.
But like his other work, such ostentatious style can feel exhausting. This is where The Great Beauty excels. From early on Sorrentino allows a little melancholy into his film.
It bursts into colour when the widower of Jep's first love comes to tell him that she has died, and the two old men weep together in a stairwell. From then on Jep is a little lost, and memories, dreams and reveries (he imagines the ocean in his bedroom ceiling) mingle with the many surreal sights thrown up by his social life, a mixture of sadness, satire and wry amusement informing it all. That sadness brings with it soul, a sense of longing that seems even present in the many slow beautiful crawls across Rome at sunset and down its streets after dark.
In a film seemingly deliberately referring to La Dolce Vita, such unexpected sadness is bracing, and in fact it makes some scenes in the later stages extremely moving. But balancing that is always Sorrentino's scathing portraits of members of the Church, the Intellectual elite, showbiz types and fading nobility - this is a portrayal of Berlusconi's Italy with some real savagery in it.
It is also one of the great Rome films, and one of the best Italian films of recent years.

Saturday, 14 September 2013



(Steven Knight, 2013)

Hummingbird is about as close as Jason Statham gets these days to working in non-genre cinema. That is to say it's still a genre film, it just has fewer action sequences than the majority of his films do. In their place there is much more dramatic content which requires a lot more from him as an actor, and he delivers fairly well, giving a sensitive, sustained and committed reading of a particular shade to his usual grim and ultra-violent hero.
He plays Joey, an ex Special forces soldier who has escaped from a Military Asylum after an incident in Afghanistan and is living rough in the streets of Central London. A violent encounter leads him to take shelter in the vacant Covent Garden apartment of a photographer, and while recovering there, Joey begins to put his life back together. He finds work as an enforcer for the Chinese mob, using his earnings to help the mission for the homeless run by Sister Cristina (Agata Buzek), while searching for the killer of his friend Isabel. Of course, he and Cristina develop feelings for one another, and Joey's past is never very far away.
While it initially seems like it might be a boiler plate Statham revenge actioner, Hummingbird eventually emerges as a love story between two damaged people. Joey and Cristina's story is told against the complicated tapestry writer-director Knight paints of modern London, here luminously shot by old master Chris Menges as a neon-slicked nocturnal city. This tale takes in protection rackets, prostitution, the restaurant trade, the art world and the police, and Statham broods his way through all of it, only occasionally allowed to explode into violence. He and Buzek have some chemistry, and their relationship is oddly touching despite the awkward set-up of some entirely cliched material.
But Statham's very presence seems to tug the film in another direction; for all it's evenly paced seriousness and the many talky scenes about emotions and plot, it almost feels as if it wants to be an action film, and Knight correspondingly stages the few brutal fight scenes with vivid panache.
Still, it's an interesting change of pace for the star, and it reveals a few more emotional registers within his range, even while it is much more entertaining when he is hurting people.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013


(David Twohy, 2013)

The first act is unexpectedly magnificent. Twohy and Diesel's Conan-in-space, Richard Riddick, finds himself marooned on an inhospitable planet; left for dead by the Necromongers from the last, wildly ambitious movie about the character, the overstuffed Chronicles of Riddick.
Injured and vulnerable, he survives through ingenuity and sheer badassness, taking on various creatures, the elements and the landscape as he does so. This sequence is largely wordless but for a spare noir-ish narration in Diesel's gravelly croak, and Twohy excels with this pure cinematic storytelling; Riddick in survival mode is utterly compelling.
In the second act he activates a beacon at a remote Bounty Hunter station, summoning two separate teams of hardened killers who come for his head (literally). Jordi Molla is all hissable villainy, while Matt Nable offers a more heroic character (along with a nice link with Pitch Black). Their teams fare less well - Riddick picks them off one-by-one, until the third act reruns Pitch Black, forcing an unlikely union against vicious alien beasties.
There's little original here then, but Twohy understands this material so well, and delivers it with such brio and wit, that Riddick actually constitutes one of this years better genre entertainments. It is stripped down and sleekly efficient - characters are swiftly defined, action drives the plot forward, tension is nicely sustained and set-pieces all deliver. The design and visuals are familiar too: this is a planet filtered with a sort of burnt sepia, and the tech is all battered and gritty in the usual post Star Wars fashion, but it undoubtedly works.
Diesel has yet to find another role as well-suited to his persona as this one, and he seems to thoroughly enjoy himself throughout. The supporting cast - Nable especially - offer vivid readings of various macho stereotypes
In this era when most spectacle movies are really b-movies with big budgets and bad scripts, it is a relief to see a b-movie that is honest about its status, made by a filmmaker who understands the genre. And in the first half hour here, he has made something exceptional.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013


(Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2013)

Take your typical American Independent movie from the '00s, if there is such a thing. You know what I mean - made by people who know and love Wes Anderson, and have some of that off-kilter wit, but also love early David Gordon Green, maybe even a bit of Terrence Malick, and some awareness of poetic realism in general - picture that kind of movie. The kind of movie that gets shown at Sundance and maybe wins an audience award, because, despite all that quirkiness, its basically a crowd-pleaser with a heart of gold. Picture it, if you can.
Now, picture that movie out on it's own, minding its business, and suddenly - Boom - it has a meet-cute with your classic American coming of age teen movie. We're talking a movie that has seen American Pie and American Graffiti, Dazed & Confused and every John Hughes joint. A movie with all those movies in its DNA. A movie in love with the conventions of the classic teen movie.
So, they meet-cute. Snappy dialogue, awkward tangents and strained silences because our '00s indie kid is so afraid of screwing this up. But he doesn't. He and Miss Classic Teen movie have an amazing night of passion, and 9 months later, a beautiful little baby enters the world. That baby - half inis, half teen classic - is Kings of Summer.
Only it's better than that. It's hilarious, for one thing, the biggest laughs supplied by Nick Offerman as the grumpy father of Joe (Nick Robinson) a 15-year old who is sick of life at home with Dad since his Mom died, and yearns to escape. He enlists the help of his best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso), suffocated by his parent's micro-management of his daily life, and they are joined by the bizarre Biagio (Moises Arias) as they set about constructing a house from scrap and stolen items in woods outside their town. All this will be complicated by Kelly, Joe's longterm crush, and the fact that the police, media and their parents are searching for them.
Most of the biggest laughs come from the vivid, cartoonish supporting characters here, from Offerman's deadpan aggression, to Megan Mulally as Patrick's cheesy Mom, a pair of intense smalltown cops, and, most consistently, from Arias' Biagio, an inspired loon, whether dancing on a pipe, speaking Italian to a snake, declaring himself gay because his lungs fill up with fluid or sneaking up on his two friends.
The problem is the sheer quantity of cliches the plot includes - that teen movie DNA is undeniable, and it compromises much of what is great about the film through its ordinariness.
The main plot - the friendship of Joe and Patrick, its rise and fall, is well-observed, and even a little touching in its resolution, but the beats feel slightly mechanical, plot designed to carry characters from a to b. Vogt-Roberts direction is fine, if sometimes a little sitcom-esque in its determination to forge off on offbeat comic tangents.
Balancing that is the terrific photography - with many stunning shots of the sunny woodland this looks unlike just about any other teen movie - the laugh-per-minute rate, which is surprisingly high, and the soundtrack. Any movie that starts with "The Cowboy song" by Thin Lizzy is doing something right, after all...

Sunday, 1 September 2013

48 HRS

(Walter Hill, 1982)

The formula established by 48 Hrs., usually referred to as the "buddy cop" movie, would go on to become one of the most popular and successful templates in commercial cinema in the 1980s. But viewed today, 48 Hrs. stands out from most of the films it influenced.
That's because Walter Hill, at that point, was in the middle of an incredible run of genre films, beginning with Hard Times in 1975 and continuing through The Driver, The Warriors, Southern Comfort and, in 1981, The Long Riders. Each of those films is the work of a brilliant action craftsman; they are all accessible yet a little arty too, with some abstraction, a witty understanding of genre conventions, and an inventive, exciting, even poetic approach to shooting violence.
48 Hrs. is more obviously commercial, and yet Hill's sensibility elevates it, gives it a grit and a darkness which make it feel more adult than most films of its type.
The plot unites ragged mess of a San Francisco Cop Jack Gates (Nick Nolte) with convict Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) after an escaped convict (James Remar) and his partner (Sonny Landham) kill a couple of detectives. Hammond and Gates bicker, brawl and develop a wary, grudging respect for one another against a vivid San Francisco backdrop, while they violently hassle cowboys in a country bar, bully the girlfriends of the criminals they seek, stakeout a long-stay garage and drive Gates' enormous sky blue Cadillac all over the city.
As always Hill exhibits a great eye - some of the compositions and lighting during the final shootout in a misty Chinatown are fabulous - and his action scenes are thunderous and reliably visceral. But the script - co-written by Hill, Larry Gross and action specialists Steven De Souza and Jeb Stuart - is also surprisingly smart and frank. The characters are a mix of utterly archetypal and realistically complex. The villains are cartoonish bad men, set on murder and mayhem, and Nolte's Police Chief yells at him in his every appearance. Women are given short shrift too. The lovely Annette O'Toole plays Gates' girlfriend, and though their relationship is founded on a believable dynamic based on tension over commitment and her resentment about working in a bar, that translates as her mainly arguing with him. While every role of note is filled with a high-quality supporting player, its the leads that have to carry the film, and these two are more than capable. Nolte plays it dead straight, making Jack a shambling mess, all impulse-control issues and gratuitous swearing (some of the racist abuse he tosses at Hammond is shocking). In fact, Jack is a bit of an asshole, which makes his interaction with the annoying Hammond all the more entertaining. Hammond was a prototypical Murphy role - all attitude, fast-chatter and grinning charm, he is ever-likeable and funny too.
That doesn't mean the film is a comedy - though it often throws up laughs in the scenes where Reggie and Jack bicker. Generally it is extremely tough and dark. Gates and Hammond fight hatefully, nobody ever cooperates with the police, violence is always close. But all that just makes its noirish world more convincing and interesting as a venue for this ind of story.

Saturday, 31 August 2013


(Fred Cavayé, 2010)

Cavayé is brutally efficient in his storytelling. Point Blank is a brisk 84 minutes, and within 15 minutes of its hectic opening scene, everything is set up, each character established, the plot already motoring along. His style is correspondingly lacking in frills, almost perfunctory. There is no poetry here - a single tableau of a car against the fragile light of dawn seems almost shocking for its ostentatious beauty - but then Cavayé tells stories of a world without poetry, a cold, urban world, a violent world of fear and close death, a world of crooked cops, desperate innocents and cynical criminals. He tells those stories well.
Here he focuses on Samuel (Gilles Lellouche), an auxilliary nurse who has the bad luck to work on the ward where a gangster (Roschdy Zem) is recovering after an accident. When his gang kidnap Samuel's pregnant wife and threaten to kill her unless Samuel can get the man out of hospital, he finds himself on the run from both the police and some criminals, and forced into a strange alliance with his erstwhile patient.
When the opening shot depicts a man with a gunshot wound bursting through a door as he flees a couple of gunmen, you can guess that pace is going to be important to the way a film functions, and Point Blank is unrelentingly pacy. Cavayé is great at establishing characters in short scenes with a few lines of dialogue and some expressions and nuances which inform our immediate understanding of how the relationship dynamics work, and so we care about Lellouche's Samuel after a couple of scenes showing us the warmth of his relationship with his Spanish wife (Elena Anaya) and professionalism and humour at work. And we need to care about him as so much of the success of the film will depend on an audience desperately hoping that he gets away.
It helps of course that Lellouche is such a fine everyman. In sharp contrast to the unflappably cool Roschdy Zem, he seems truly tested by his ordeal, and the actor portrays his panicked determination and essential vulnerability with casually truthful believability, not least after the central action sequence, a long chase on foot through the Paris Metro, which ends with him vomiting in the street. That sequence works well, but Cavayé's blandly anonymous style and Klaus Badelt's usual Zimmer-aping score make it and a few other set-pieces feel very much like the kind of thing we see regularly in Hollywood cinema. That wouldn't be a problem if Cavayé's narrative skills weren't so singularly spartan and muscular.
But as it is, this effective thriller feels like it could and perhaps should be a bit more than that; if it was Korean, for instance, it would certainly have a distinctive style that would be instantly recognisable and different from anything still offered by American commercial cinema. Cavayé settles for a Hollywood approach to a Hollywood-style story, and that seems a bit of a shame to this viewer.


(Victor Erice, 2006)

The film essay as tone poem, Erice working his obsessions into a lovely contemplation of the power of art, memory and time, cinema and imagination.
It recalls Chris Marker in places as the filmmaker whispers his narration, sad and wise, over lovely black and white photographs of San Sebastian in the 1940s. We can just perceive Arvo Pärt on the soundtrack, and Erice's elegant mastery is obvious in how poetically he fits it all together; his voiceover, these tableau and the music eloquently, expressively suggest the themes he addresses.
The subject is his first encounter with cinema. In 1946, at the age of five, he saw Sherlock Holmes and the Scarlet Claw in a now-vanished palatial cinema near the beach in San Sebastian. He was terrified but enraptured, and he reflects on how time has treated that experience, what happened to the filmmakers, why that film was so resonant in a destroyed post-Civil War Spain, and how his memory has nurtured the whole experience.
It is a gently beautiful film, fascinating and moving; Erice is a master.

Friday, 30 August 2013


(Shane Carruth, 2012)

In case his singular, incredible debut Primer wasn't enough proof, Upstream Color makes it clear that Shane Carruth is a visionary artist unlike just about anybody else working in modern cinema. In any cinema, ever, for that matter.
His technical command appears absolute, and combined with a uniquely poetic style - a little reminiscent of modern Terrence Malick but with key differences - it makes for cinema that is beguiling, impressionistic, visually stunning, and hypnotic. Consider the level of control required by Carruth; he wrote, produced, edited, photographed, scored, acted in and directed this film. This is genuine auteurism, and the artistic success of the result is a persuasive argument for the value of the multi-hyphenate.
It also means that Upstream Color is a film for grown-ups; it makes few concessions to a general audience. There is no exposition, and the storytelling is elliptical, driven by a free associative style which feels symphonic, and determined as much by tone and cumulative effect as it is by plot.
The story centres on Kris (Amy Seimetz, extremely moving) a graphic designer who has her life destroyed by an encounter with a thief. No ordinary thief, however. This one uses a drug harvested from blue orchids to infect roundworm. These roundworm then infect his victims from inside, rendering  them utterly suggestible to his commands. He has Kris turn her house into equity which he takes, empties all of her bank accounts, and helps himself to her collection of valuable coins. When he leaves, she is lured by a mysterious pig-farming sound recordist, who surgically removes the roundworm and implants it in one of his pigs. She returns to her life, unaware of anything that has happened, to find herself fired from her job, penniless and nursing a strange anxiety alongside several unconscious obsessions.
When she meets Jeff (Carruth), they find themselves drawn together, and it gradually emerges that something similar may have happened to him. The question then becomes: what has happened to them?  And how can they find some measure of peace together in the aftermath?
Like Primer, that plot contains a few ideas straight from sci-fi, but Carruth sets it within the real world, and his poetry is that of the beautiful mundane. He uses depth of field with an acute understanding of just how a focus pull can effect the way an audience takes a scene, and the long wordless passages here are Pure Cinema at its most effective. The scenes of the stumbling, detached courtship between Jeff and Kris are more meet-eerie than meet-cute, and their co-dependency as a couple becomes both moving and disturbing largely because of Carruth's visuals.
That is not to underestimate his skill as a dramatist; there are scenes here filled with a very human messiness, and the theme of alienation from the modern world and its cold public and private spaces bubbles under the surface here, alongside explorations of our relationship with nature and the way we are affected by sound.
The result is almost overwhelming; emotional, somewhat baffling but always gripping, it showcases Carruth's talent in all of the disciplines he has taken up. His score is by turns powerful and intriguing, his photography bold and startlingly impressive, the editing precise and poetic.
If the film is enigmatic and filled with secret depths, then that seems a positive thing as well, this masterful piece will surely repay obsessive fans and repeat viewings. But based on a first viewing, it is a cinematic rapture; lovely, disturbing, mysterious.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013


(Antonio Campos, 2012)

Shot by shot, scene by scene, Campos is a formidably talented and intelligent filmmaker. Simon Killer is an ambitious, brilliantly made art film about a young American (Brady Corbet) in Paris after a traumatic breakup with a longterm girlfriend. The first act is terrific - Simon floats lonely and isolated around a wintry city, trapped behind the wall of music in his ever-present iPod earphones. What little the audience learns about his life and character comes from Simon himself, and he turns out to be quite an unreliable narrator indeed. He studied neuroscience in College, specifically the relationship between the eye and the brain, and much of the narrative here is centred on the gap between perception and reality. Not only what Simon perceives - he has a thing for objectifying women - but how people see him as one thing when he is in fact somebody altogether different. This only really slowly emerges when he meets and seemingly falls for Victoria, a beautiful, alluringly mysterious prostitute (Mati Diop). Here the film moves into another, less successful mode, with far more plot, as Simon convinces Victoria to begin blackmailing some of her clients, and the lies and manipulations begin to mount up. 
Campos' stylish direction ensures that even when the narrative becomes a tad too predictable and repetitive the film remains a fascinating, pleasurable experience. There is a lot of Michael Haneke here, in the precision of the framing and the control of the agonisingly slow zooms. Much of the action occurs in nocturnal Paris, starkly lit in a sickly yellow by sodium vapour lamps, and other scenes - notably in the club where Simon meets Victoria - are bathed in crimson. Simon is often isolated at the centre of the frame, but Campos likes to play with his framing; objects block out crucial information, faces and expressions are withheld from the audience. He favours long takes with fixed master shots, and over the course of the film this creates a claustrophobic sense of intimacy with Simon, who is revealed to be, at the very least, a sociopath.
Corbet is a strange presence and not quite a lead, but he has a half-glimpsed intensity that works very well for the character here. His performance grows more effective and unsettling as his character gets increasingly desperate. Diop is excellent as Victoria, her mix of vulnerability and strength evident in her very first scene, and their relationship - so unlikely in the abstract - is entirely convincing in its needy codependency. 
There are numerous other pleasures - the soundtrack is brilliant, Joe Anderson's cinematography is tactile and frequently stunning, and it is one of the great films of modern Paris, capturing something of the cities often chilly beauty.
But the main impression is of Campos' virtuosity; how he creates and maintains such a disturbing mood, how impressionistic and disciplined his style is, how he uses arty techniques without ever seeming pretentious.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013


(Brian DePalma, 2012)

It might be better if DePalma took this seriously, but he never does. But then he's evidently an intelligent man, and the screenplay for Passion - written by DePalma himself, based upon Alain Corneau's 2010 French thriller Love Crime - is relentlessly ridiculous, full of unbelievable characters and hugely silly moments. DePalma plays the whole thing like a cut-crystal black comedy, encouraging leads Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace to ham it up (to occasionally very funny effect - McAdams in particular has a marvellous time as an uber-bitch) and indulging in his more baroque flourishes with real relish.
It is superficially a thriller. McAdams plays a manipulative, machiavellian advertising agency executive whose relationship with her protege (Rapace) evolves from rivalry to murder via flirting, love triangles and inter-office game-playing.
While the first act is a strangely stilted little drama, set in an unnamed City with a definite air of Euro-pudding, it improves once it goes up a gear in the later stages. The noir elements become more pronounced, the stylistic approach becomes bolder and more obvious, DePalma wheels out a couple of his famed set-pieces, one involving some ostentatious split-screen technology, and Pino Donaggio's previously irritating, overly-busy score suddenly makes a sort of Bernard Hermann pastiche sense.
But it remains curiously airless and thoroughly stupid, for all that it gestures at commenting on modern visual communication and female relationships. Really all it seems interested in is DePalma's own superb technical control. Without a strong screenwriter, his visual gifts often lead him down thankless paths, and so it has proven here.
The performances do little to help - both actresses stumble, for all that they seem to be having fun - and veteran Almodovar collaborator Jose Luis Alcaine's sharp cinematography only makes it all feel even more coldly clinical than it needs to be.
It seems a long time since DePalma made Femme Fatale...

Monday, 26 August 2013


(Brian De Palma, 1987)

The Untouchables was released in the US in June 1987. That marks it out firmly as a Summer Blockbuster, or at least states that it was intended as one by its studio. But it seems to possess an insane pedigree and class for a Blockbuster. Directed by a controversial auteur who has always had one foot in the arthouse (Brian DePalma), written by one of America's greatest living playwrights (David Mamet), with a score by Ennio Morricone, costumes by Armani and a cast including two of the Twentieth Century's great male screen icons (Sean Connery and Robert DeNiro) alongside a couple of then up-and-coming new stars (Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia), the film almost seems too good to be true. And it has the temerity to be incredibly entertaining, with two fantastic DePama set-pieces, while also slyly getting in its digs at the hypocrisy of American political policies, both in the Prohibition and (by extension) Reagan eras.

It is a film of great moments and great scenes, which lessen the impact of its structural problems. After the departure of Connery's character, the narrative never really recovers the same drive, though DePalma's Odessa Steps Train Station sequence distracts the audience in the immediate aftermath of his terrific death scene. But we are buoyed by the numerous brilliant moments we have already witnessed. There is DeNiro's baseball bat wielding "enthusiasms" speech (based on an actual Capone execution of two seditious mobsters), wherein he seems to allow himself to coast and grimace and leer, almost caricaturing his own persona to highly entertaining effect. DePalma ends the scene with a beautiful aerial shot, too. Then there is Connery's selection of Andy Garcia's character for a place on the team, baiting him with ethnic slurs, until Garcia pulls a pistol on him and sticks it beneath his chin with the words: " Its better than you, you stinking Irish pig." Garcia is shy and charming here in a way he never really recovered in his career, grinning as Connery praises him. 

Then there is the gun battle on the Canadian border, in which Charles Martin Smith distinguishes himself in a berserker attack on two trucks of mobsters - DePalma depicting shotgun blasts as resulting in pink clouds of blood hanging in the air, Morricone turning in something akin to a Classical Western score, Connery ending a chase-scene with a volley of gunfire into the air and the words "Enough of this running shit." And then there is the exemplary first person POV stalking of Connery before he is assassinated, the director amusing himself with his facility with the medium itself, a filmmaker with enough maturity to take on a project like this, without the auteurist quirks and motifs of much of the rest of his work, and turn it into arguably his best "popular" film. 
But the best scene is a brief exchange of charged dialogue between Connery and Costner, sitting in a church-pew, captured by DePalma in a showy two-shot. Because it demands - and gets - the best from Mamet, from the two actors, and from the Director. It sets the tone for what is to come, defines the battle at the heart of the film, and lays out the crucial dynamic between the hero and his mentor. Later, just before they bust down a door into one of Capone's distillerys, Connery tells Costner that once the door is open, there can be no turning back. But really, that moment is already passed. It came when Connery laid out the fight for him and Costner asserted his desire for it.
Mamet is a proud son of Chicago, and there is a lot of that city's working class hard-boiled straight-talking in his dialogue. But much of his work as a Screenwriter for hire feels like the hackwork that it undoubtedly is, his touch barely discernible, as if he is trying to lose what makes him distinctive, subsuming himself for the good of the project. However, there is the sense that he feels something more for The Untouchables, key to the mythic history of his hometown as the story is. So his script is full of great one-liners, most of them given to Connery, and a couple of classic Capone monologues. It is also commendably tight and well-paced for much of its running time, excellent in establishing its characters concisely, and makes its odd conclusion - Ness has to break the rules, by murdering a man, in order to win - a crowd-pleasing moment. 


(Neill Blomkamp, 2013)

I love when a movie starts with a low burble of 1980s synthesiser. Which is exactly how Neill Blomkamp's Elysium begins.
After that, it dips a little. Sun-hazy scenes of children in a dystopian future Los Angeles and rapid world-building clutter the first act, establishing a 2154 world where the rich (mainly white) citizens of Earth have fled to Elysium, an orbiting "habitat" on a space station where there is constant sunshine, no sickness and none of the nasty Latinos who fill the overpopulated slums of Earth. That is where we find Max (Matt Damon) one of the children from those sun-hazy scenes. An ex-con now working in a factory, an industrial accident leaves him with only days to live, and Elysium and its miraculous machines becomes his only hope. To get there he undergoes surgery fusing him with an exoskeleton, giving him strength the equal of the droids patrolling both worlds as sentinels. But Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and the vicious Kruger (Sharlto Copley) stand in his way, and the need to get the terminally ill daughter of his old friend Frey (Alice Braga) to Elysium doesn't make it any easier.
The allegory here is perhaps too obvious and too simple, but at least Blomkamp is trying to say something, at least his film has something on its mind beyond its explosions and weak, predictable character arcs. Because for all that it is thematically a little trite, its major flaw is the cheesiness of much of its drama, from the awkward characterisation of players like Wagner Moura's frequently unintelligible gang boss Spider, to the dull, overly simplified politicking on Elysium itself involving Delacourt and William Fichtner's hollow cartoon of a spineless executive. The scenes showcasing Max's daily life recall similar scenes in other sci-fi films (last year's tepid Total Recall remake, for instance) without ever transcending them.
But Blomkamp is at home with action. He understands how it works and how to work it. He can make an action sequence really sting, and once the story proper gets underway here and Max is in motion, the film takes on its own momentum which renders some of the other complaints largely irrelevant. Blomkamp shoots action scenes which are coherent (a rarity in modern spectacle filmmaking), visceral and thrillingly nasty. Violence in his world has consequences. People get hurt, faces get pulped. But he is able to combine that brutality with a gee-whiz quality, indulging in cool shots and relishing the process of the fights he is depicting. Max is an amateur throughout, a little out of his depth even when augmented, which helps lend a pleasing edge of suspense to the climactic face-off with Kruger. Their fighting styles are individual too; Max doesn't really know what he is doing even as he grows more confident in his new strength, whereas Kruger is a specialist and perhaps overconfident as a result.
That they have an (immensely satisfying) final showdown indicates how well Blomkamp understands the needs of the action genre.
Damon is a massive boon to a film like this; an undoubted movie star, he combines a charismatic watchability with an everyman quality, and he has the acting chops to pull off Max's desperation and his slow journey towards acceptance of what must happen. Copley (as usual?) chews scenery throughout, but he does offer a scary sense of unpredictable threat which contributes to the tension of the last act. Jodie Foster, on the other hand, makes a series of terrible decisions, speaking in a weird accent, opting for oddly inappropriate or campy line-readings which rob her pivotal scene of much of its intended impact. Alice Braga is typecast here as the spunky-yet-soulful Latin spitfire we've seen her play many times before.
The technical credits are all strong, with the production design particularly inventive; underlining the allegory, this is a future-world that looks very much like now, and the differences between Earth tech (worn down, gritty, industrial) and Elysium tech (slick, seamless, digital) only add to the palpable textures of Blomkamp's film. That helps when it comes to the body horror element of the plot, which, as in his previous film, the similarly interesting but flawed District 9, is one of the strongest passages here.

Saturday, 24 August 2013


(Marius Holst, 2011)

A period-Scum with a little Tigerland thrown in. Filled with prison movie cliches; only here they're done without any of the feverish pulpiness which can make them so enjoyable and exploitative. Here they're played utterly straight. "Straight" is an inappropriate word - theres a sizeable portion of intense homo-eroticism here, as in many examples of the genre, creating odd, interesting dissonance with the sexual abuse sub-plot that becomes important as the story draws on. But this is a strangely stolid product for a borstal film, wearyingly ardent in its need to be a prestigious piece of cinema, it is handsomely photographed, nicely, oh-so-seriously acted, and largely effective in its straightforward, emotive, manipulative storytelling.
The plot tells you all you need to know: in the early years of the Twentieth Century, the arrival of a strong-willed, charismatic new boy eventually leads to a violent uprising at a harshly disciplinary Norwegian Island borstal.
By the time that uprising occurs, the audience is willing it to happen, desperate to see the worm turn, eager to see some justice done. It perhaps overdoes things by adding to that a portrayal of friendship and a tragic twist, but it is generally a strong, well-made piece of storytelling.

Thursday, 22 August 2013


(Patrick Hughes, 2010)

Young city Cop Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) and his wife relocate for personal reasons to the Outback town of Red Hill. On his first day on the job, he forgets his gun, antagonises his new boss, the Inspector Old Bill (Steve Bisley), who virtually rules the town, and finds himself in the middle of an emergency when feared ex-tracker Jimmy Conway escapes prison and heads straight for town, seemingly bent on some sort of vengeance.
Explicitly evoking the mood and narrative tropes familiar from a host of classic westerns, Hughes emphasises these similarities through the use of a Western-style soundtrack and some wonderful landscape cinematography. The Outback here is wild, brutal and beautiful, people isolated against its expanse and beneath its immense skies. When night comes, it comes as a black void above the huddled little town. The first act is paced like a Western - slowly and patiently establishing the setting and characters, allowing the tension to build during seemingly innocuous scenes until it bursts to life with Jimmy's arrival. Even then, it takes its time, preferring to generate suspense than indulge in spectacular action scenes. Hughes understands what works in genre filmmaking, meaning that there is a really effective mix here of Western iconography, thriller suspense and short, brutal modern action sequences. The characters may largely obey the considerations of a formula just as slavishly as the storyline, but for the most part, that approach works extremely well, and the tension holds throughout the second and third acts despite the regularity of the action scenes and the plot revelations and reversals breaking it up.
It may be extremely predictable, but it is generally very well done, with strong performances and beautifully effective direction from Hughes.
A modest, likably intense little b-movie then, with more impact than many bigger budget films in the same genre.

Friday, 16 August 2013


(Wong Kar-Wai, 2012) 

I get the feeling that Wong Kar-Wai could take any story and turn it into a film about Tony Leung mooning around in period Hong Kong, remembering the various women in his life.
That’s not a bad thing; somehow director and star often seem capable of alchemy when they work together. But it doesn’t always make for an entirely satisfying experience.
Take The Grandmaster, for instance. It is Wong Kar-Wai’s first attempt at a martial arts film since Ashes of Time almost 20 years ago. That film is a bizarre, barely coherent clash between a directors sensibility and the demands of a genre. The result is delirious, beautiful and never entirely successful.
The Grandmasters is more accessible. It tells a story, following a handful of “grandmasters” – expert practitioners of different schools of Kung Fu – across a few decades in the early 20th Century. They include Yip Man (Leung), Gong Er (Zhang Zhiyi) and"the Razor"(Chang Chen). While other biopics have made much of how Ip Man resisted the Japanese, here his life as a warrior and his importance as a symbol and cultural figure is barely explored. The prologue features an extended and stunning battle between him and dozens of men at night in the rain. While this fight scene – visceral, beautiful and brilliantly choreographed – seems inspired by and then surpasses the climax of The Matrix Revolutions, it is entirely lacking in context of dramatic weight. It is unsurprising that this scene was used as a teaser for the film, since it works just as well as a standalone scene. Indeed it is never really explained who, when or why Ip was fighting those men.
Instead in the first act we alternate between learning about the contentment of his domestic life and the political strife in the Kung Fu community, where ageing masters try to settle upon dynamic new leadership while spreading understanding of the different styles across their immense country.
The narrative follows this pattern, elliptically cutting between different lives, times and places. Ultimately it focuses (but only to an extent) upon the relationship between Yip and Gong Er, whose early fight functions as a sort of consummation of a love that is never really acknowledged until it is too late.
There are problems with this approach. In his other work, Wong invests the characters with such intensity and emotional truth that when the romantic longing kicks in – as it always must – it feels earned and powerful. Here it feels a little tacked on, as if he was attempting to give a typical martial arts film some of his own personality with mixed results. You can almost feel him straining hard to find some resonance in this material, and the resulting thematic hollowness is the result. The way the narrative flips – that fight between Yip and Gong functions almost as a passing of the baton – makes it feel like two films stitched uncomfortably together.
But at least they’re two ravishingly beautiful films: the whole thing looks unbelievably good. Phillipe Le Sourd's cinematography is fabulous; and Wong chooses to shoot many of the fights indoors, ensuring that a rich, chocolatey palette predominates, an unusual look for a wuxia.
His cast are superb; Leung as deep and charismatic as ever, Zhiyi carrying much of the emotional weight and doing it easily. Both excel in the terrific martial art sequences, which do achieve some poetry amidst the flurries of lyrical physical action. Indeed, many directors more generally associated with the genre could learn a great deal from how these fight scenes are handled – always visually impressive, they never sacrifice physical coherence of visceral impact.
But this feels like Wong Kar-Wai compromised, trying to be something hes not. It is still lovely and full of good things, but it never feels quite right.