Saturday, 26 January 2013


(Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

Bigelow has always been an exceptionally talented director, and to my money, at least three of the movies she directed before her years in a sort of career wilderness (Near Dark, Point Break and Strange Days) can safely be called "great". But at the moment she is probably riding a wave unlike any she has ever before seen in her career. The critical success of the masterfully focused and incisive The Hurt Locker meant that her next project carried a massive level of expectation. And, given the chance to choose her own subject matter, she has moved away from pure genre material and chosen to take on more of an "A-Picture" in the form of Zero Dark Thirty.
This film, written again by her Hurt Locker partner Mark Boal, traces the tortuous attempts of the CIA to find Osama Bin Laden across the Middle East for over a decade. It focuses on Maya (Jessica Chastain, superb) a rookie agent who lands in Pakistan in the early stages of the hunt and stays with it - while others burn out and fall away - until the job is done.
As such, it is absolutely crammed with scenes of people talking intensely in offices and corridors, stuffed with (mostly fascinating) procedural detail and filled with a bewildering array of character actors and familiar faces in even the smallest moments.
Bigelow's previous work has often focused upon characters suffering from an unhealthy obsession with somebody else, but this film is perhaps the ultimate expression of that theme. Maya has nothing in her life but her determined pursuit of "the Sheik", and a personal loss only increases her ferocious determination, yet her colleagues come and go, get promoted and die while she stubbornly follows a single theory.
There are basically three sections. In the first, Maya works with Dan (Jason Clarke), interrogating prisoners and using torture to obtain the smallest scraps of information. These controversial torture scenes are unflinchingly brutal and their very presence stains the efforts of the Americans through the rest of the film. It seems insane to me that anyone could say that this film glorifies torture or credits it with a role in the death of Bin Laden, especially since the crucial lead comes from a piece of information obtained by a combination of trickery and kindness to a detainee.
The second section follows Maya as she works her theory - involving the importance of a single courier, who she believes represents a direct link to Bin Laden - over years of investigation and toil, climaxing in the efforts to find the man in Pakistan.
The final, often suffocatingly tense section focuses on the preparation and execution of the mission to kill "Geronimo" by a team of Navy SEALS (most notably Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton, but also fleetingly featuring Scott Adkins and Frank Grillo) , all watched by Maya from a distance.
This structure allows Boal and Bigelow to address a few big themes. America and its place in the world is an explicit subject, but just as important is an urgent critique of the way men see - and more importantly, don't see - women in the workplace, and there are numerous interesting themes and ideas cropping up throughout the film, from the bureaucracy of power and embassy politics to the uncertainty  of risk assessment and the personal toll taken by obsession.
Bigelow is brilliant at quickly evoking time and place, and this film beautifully fixes the atmosphere of market squares in Abbatabad and teeming streets in Karachi and Islamabad, while also reeking of the smell of Embassy offices and stakeout vehicles. Boal nicely sketches character in few sequences so that characters like Kyle Chandler's station chief, Edgar Ramirez's Field Team leader and Jennifer Ehle's agent are all vividly rendered without any awkwardly expository scenes. The fine cast is obviously helpful here, and the strength of the work from some sensational actors in tiny parts is a big component in the success of the film, as is the score by Alexandre Desplat, which remains subtle until the action amps up at the climax, when it suddenly recalls John Barry in its stirring urgency, and the typically excellent cinematography by Greig Fraser.
And it is incredibly successful. It manages to be both epic, with dozens of locations and characters spread over the course of a decade, while remaining somehow intimate and pared-down. It is 160 minutes long, but it feels pacy and streamlined, is gripping throughout and manages to rise to highs of emotional impact at crucial junctures. It is never dumb or patronising, yet its ambiguities are provocative and mean that it lingers long in the mind after its haunting final scene. It is always clearly a thriller, yet it echoes films like Zodiac, All the Presidents Men and The Insider in generally avoiding the cliches and tics of that genre, and it works just as well as a drama until it shifts into a different gear and setting for the last reel.
That last half hour delivers on the climax supplied by history, and it is an extraordinary set-piece; grittily textured, precisely paced and utterly intense, it reminds us of what a talented director of action Bigelow has always been.
It is only in the last few years that she has been acknowledged as a great director beyond genre, but Zero Dark Thirty makes that abundantly clear. It is the best type of American cinema - accessible and popular yet ambitious and personal. The best mix of arty and entertaining, really, and something of a masterpiece.

Monday, 21 January 2013


(Quentin Tarantino, 2012)

Django Unchained seems, at least superficially, to be Quentin Tarantino's most conventional film. The Tarantino of the dazzling early work, all chronological shuffling, extended dialogue scenes and unusual frame compositions, has slowly faded away over the years and movies since. Here he crafts a somewhat predictable revenge Western, with all the familiar genre beats, shootouts and showdowns demanded by the genre.
And yet it is never quite so simple with Tarantino. For this is quite possibly the Tarantino film most loaded with meaning and subtext, its action-blockbuster status smuggling a ferociously angry assault on slavery and the way cinema has treated it into the world's multiplexes almost without warning.
Beyond that, he takes the stuff of cult cinema - Django Unchained is stuffed with references to Spaghetti Westerns which delighted this particular fan of that sub-genre - and somehow turns it into mainstream gold, combining them with allusions to the relatively few films made about slavery, a bit of Peckinpah, and twisting it all around his own distinctive story-telling sensibility.
The story is simple. Bounty Hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, plainly born to speak Tarantino dialogue) needs the help of slave Django (Jamie Foxx) in order to track down three outlaw brothers. He frees the slave and after they have collected the bounty they team up for a winter of wandering, hunting and killing. During this period, King teaches Django his trade and agrees to help him find and free his wife Brunhilda (Kerry Washington) who is now the property of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who lives a life of debauchery surrounded by a large court of cutthroats and sycophants on his immense plantation "Candieland" in Kentucky, enjoying Mandingo fights, having runaway slaves torn apart by dogs, and watched over all the while by his chief house servant Stephen (Samuel L Jackson, superb in the first real part he has had in far too long). When Django and King arrive at Candieland, they have a foolproof plan to emerge alive with Brunhilda. But Stephen misses nothing, and he has his own plans.
While undoubtedly around 40 minutes too long, Django Unchained is bloody, rambunctious entertainment throughout. If Tarantino needs to work with an editor or producer unafraid to tell him that certain sequences need to be cut, his writing and gift for crafting a brilliant scene are as matchless as ever.
He retains his extraordinary ability to create tension and then stretch a sequence beyond breaking point through simple conversation and orchestration of the visual elements and this is one genre that organically creates opportunities for him to do just that. Even the scenes that feel a little redundant - a debate between members of a hooded posse on the eyeholes in their hoods is the most glaring example - are frequently inspired; mixing comedy and tension in that effortless Tarantino manner.
If the film has a real weakness, it is an odd one. The hero and heroine both feel somewhat underwritten. Django himself has little personality beyond a truculent desire for revenge and his love for Brunhilda, and we spend so little time with her that she never comes into focus as anything other than an ideal. Indeed, this film has fewer strong female parts than any of Tarantino's other films, which can only partly be explained by the (traditionally intensely male) genre. The other male parts are more impressive - with Schultz and Stephen representing particularly nuanced characterisations.
The soundtrack is a fabulous collection of Spaghetti Western themes by the likes of Morricone, Bacalov and Ortolani, mixed with a few nicely-deployed hip hop tracks, and Robert Richardson, generally a bit of a one-trick pony (his tic is to massively overlight characters from above) makes it all look handsome in a gritty, aged, woodily textured way. Tarantino throws in a few early crash zooms precisely like the ones common in spaghettis, ensures that every gunshot injury gets a ludicrously bloody squib, and generally looks after the details even when the grand narrative drifts a little.
Despite its flaws then, Tarantino knows what he is doing, and he delivers laughs, a handful of terrific action sequences, and a strong love story, all of it based around a clear-eyed view of the horrors of slavery. Like most of his movies, Django Unchained works, and then some.

Sunday, 20 January 2013


(Miguel Gomes, 2012)

The second half of Tabu is a near-magical slice of romance. Romance both in its portrayal of a rapturously passionate love affair, and in its love for cinema itself, for its power to capture and stir emotion. The first half, on the other hand, is an awkwardly arty contemporary drama which is slightly stilted and yet has a subtly powerful effect when juxtaposed with what follows.
The whole thing is beautiful to look at, captured by Gomes' cinematographer Rui Poças in stunning black and white. This is startlingly pretty - emphasised by Gomes' lovely compositions - in the first half, but once the story shifts locale it becomes even more so.
That first stage follows Pilar, a middle-aged retiree in Lisbon, as she lives a quietly melancholy life, and is drawn into the decline of her elderly neighbour, Aurora. Aurora lives with Santa, a carer/maid of African descent employed by Aurora's unseen daughter. She is paranoid and agitated, believes Santa is spying on her and using witchcraft, and she rambles about crocodiles. Pilar, meanwhile, attends political rallies, weeps at movies, is friends with an artist who is in love with her and is expecting a young Polish woman (conspicuously a fellow Catholic) as a houseguest. When Aurora's condition radically worsens, she mentions a man from her past she would like to see, an Pilar sets out to find him. When he arrives he tells the women their story, of a love affair in Colonial Africa in the 1960s with a tragic ending...
While the first half is a conventionally shot and played arthouse drama, the second half is a virtual silent movie, the reconstructed memories of one character, told in detailed, poetic voiceover. There is no dialogue, only sound effects and music. The two parts echo and comment on one another in clever and provocative ways. Pilar's life in drab modern Europe is almost apologetic - she protests politely, is quiet about her faith, and reticent in her personal relationships. The scenes in Africa show us what she may have been apologising for - this is a romantic frontier on the edge of a violent death, and functions here as the perfect location for the flowering of forbidden passion. Gomes nudges the politics in his story, mentioning the rebels in Africa throughout as part of the backdrop to the love story, but finally suggests that this love - an adultery regarded by both lovers as monstrous - can only thrive against the backdrop of the even more monstrous sin of colonial rule.
For all that, Tabu is funny, witty, wholly eccentric and moving, and Gomes is a filmmaker with a fully-formed sense of the world and how he wishes to represent it, evident in both his visual style and his storytelling, which is filled with interesting choices and provocative moments. That view of the world includes art in telling ways, and as well as that cinephilia - this film begins with an excerpt of a fictional film upon which Aurora worked during her time in Africa, itself telling a metatextual story of love among Europeans in that continent - Gomes indulges in his love of music, underlining a couple of rousing Portuguese covers of Phil Spector songs and making the lover in the flashback story the drummer in a band (who are seen, a little bizarrely, playing the Ramones "Baby I Love You" at a garden party). Art, here, is seemingly one of the aspects of life excused the stain of the sin left by Colonialism.

Thursday, 17 January 2013


(Ruben Fleischer, 2013)

Gangster Squad plays like somebody saw The Untouchables and L.A. Confidential and thought: I can do that.
Only they couldn't.
Instead what they made was a dumbed-down, simplified version of similar material. This is James Ellroy for the Playstation generation; what it takes from Ellroy and classic gangster pictures are the superficial things - the hats, the suits, the cars, the art deco architecture, the tommy guns. What it misses out is what makes Ellroy so good and so distinctive - the vicious characterisation, the sprawling narratives, the gaudy peppering of sex and violence, the intensity, the wit.
This is a film that manages to do everything it does badly. A massive climactic tommy gun battle is tedious and predictable. The romance between Ryan Gosling's charming detective and Emma Stone's moll is dull and somewhat perfunctory. Ganglord Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, channelling a villain from Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy) intimidating then having inept underlings murdered in creative ways is second-hand and cliched. The scene where Josh Brolin's heroic cop O'Meara rounds up his squad is laughably silly, as is his voiceover narration ("Evil can only thrive when good men do nothing") while his relationship with his pregnant wife is copied more or less verbatim from The Untouchables but lacks the sincerity and charm of the equivalent scenes in that film.
The story follows the establishment of an off-the-books squad of Los Angeles cops in 1949, brought together in order to wage covert war against the massively powerful and ruthless mobster Cohen.
In reality the story lurches along from one middling action scene to the next, doling out cardboard character beats in between. It all looks very slick and pretty; too much so. These cops are immaculately tailored, their cars gleaming, hair beautifully coiffed. Every twist and turn is telegraphed, and Fleischer mainly seems to be showcasing his own ability to handle a big property like this one perhaps in the hopes of landing a big studio blockbuster as his next movie.
The real shame of it is the immense waste of that cast, filled with great faces and huge talent as it is. Only Penn really registers. Brolin is boring, Gosling seems to be parodying himself, and nobody else has enough of a character to really play. Instead they just concentrate on looking good and advancing the plot, much like the film itself.

Friday, 11 January 2013


(Leonard Abrahamson, 2012)

What Richard Did establishes its world effortlessly in its first scene. Three teenagers drive through the more affluent suburbs of Dublin's Southside - the streets are wide and tree-lined, the houses big Georgian red-bricks - and cockily, affectionately chat teenaged rubbish at one another. They stop at a supermarket to stock up for a party and on the way out they mock the working class accents of the women working on the tills, the first sign that their privileged lifestyles might have some negative effects on their attitudes and personalities. Then we get to know them better. The leader is Richard (Jack Reynor), who is every smug alpha male rugby-boy I met in University in Dublin rolled into one, only more so. Because Richard is perfect; good-looking, popular, protective of younger acquaintances, friendly and funny, the Captain of the rugby team, great to his parents ("My beautiful boy" his Dad (Lars Mikkelsen, who has one genuinely devastating scene) casually calls him), effortlessly charming and at ease in every conceivable situation, he moves like a King through his social group, making introductions and resolving disputes. He wears his entitlement lightly, with absolute confidence and self-assurance
We see him fall in love with Lara (Róisín Murphy), girlfriend of teammate Conor (Sam Keeley), and the fallout from all this leads to a violent confrontation at a house party one night , where somebody dies. The rest of the film sticks closely to Richard as he deals with guilt and fear and denial and his world and all its comfortable certainties basically evaporates around him.
Abrahamson has shown his sensitivity and subtlety in his previous films but here he reaches a new level; What Richard Did is beautifully concise and understated throughout. The teenaged relationships showcase the usual bawdy humour and amiable camaraderie but there is also a healthy dose of ennui here, young people whiling away hours with not much they really need to do.
And so they drink and sleep together and obsess over their relationships, and in its depiction of their rituals and social habits, the film absolutely nails a specific set of bourgeois youth from the Dublin 4 postcode (Richard makes a joke about "D4 teenagers binge-drinking" at one point).
There is great subtlety here, too, in the fact that Conor has a bit more of the country about him (his parents have thick rural accents) than his upper middle-class teammates, and celebrates his birthday in a GAA club, establishing him as something of an outsider from the off. And truth, in the many wordless scenes between the young lovers, sitting and lying together before jealousy and a hint of irritated boredom inevitably enter the picture.
Abrahamson is a minimalist, his style never overbearing, shots that opt for ostentatious beauty notably rare. The film is mostly shot in a flat, realist, almost Scandinavian light, and the main arthouse cliche it fulfils is its alternately twinkly and ominous score. It is engrossing throughout and provocatively haunting; its ambiguous ending has stayed with me to a surprising extent.
The performances are fantastic; Reynor is a magnetic centre, his face filling the screen for a good portion of the running time, and we can read every thought and feeling there. The largely teenaged cast of friends and acquaintances acquit themselves just as well.
On top of all this, it works nicely as an allegory of the moral decay apparent in Ireland during and after the boom; a country unsure of what to do with its prosperity and ultimately choosing to turn a blind eye to its more unsavoury aspects. But this theme, while never subtle, can be disregarded if one chooses to do so. What Richard Did works equally well with or without it.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013


(Ang Lee, 2012)

There are breathtaking moments in this film; Ang Lee remains capable of that much.
Mostly these moments are purely visual. If, in his best work, this filmmaker has shown the capacity to unite visual poetry with a narrative complexity and interesting characters, here the pseudo-spiritualism of the oversimplified story (for which we can blame the author of the source novel, Yann Martel) defeats him to some degree.
The first act of Life of Pi is a series of parable-like vignettes of the title characters boyhood in India, the lessons he learns, the ways in which he grows. He has a stern but loving father, a mocking older brother, and a saintly, beautiful mother. He falls in love with a lovely girl. The world is colourful, exotic, interesting, eternally romantic. Then he and his family move their zoo across the Pacific to Canada, the ship they are sailing in sinks, and Pi is shipwrecked, alone on a life-raft with a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. The rest of the film chronicles their battle for survival.
Lee remains a classy and gifted visual storyteller, and it is testament to those gifts that despite the cardboard characters and the ridiculous situation, Life of Pi is never actually boring. Indeed, the survival passages are quite gripping inbetween the many moments when he opts for sheer lush visual splendour, indulging in a series of sequences that look like they have come from a screensaver - the still ocean reflecting the orange sky above, luminescent jellyfish glowing around a gleaming whale at night, seas of meerkats, Pi watching the liner sink to the ocean floor from beneath the churning waves. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda does some fine work here, and he and Lee also combine for some inventive 3D shots throughout.
But none of that is enough for me, not from a director capable of so much more. I understand the attraction here and see the way the new-agey simplicity of the story can gain power until it is truly moving; to some. But for me, Lee has abandoned complexity and nuance here in favour of spectacle and a gooey glob of pure emotion, when previously I had always credited him with enough craft and intelligence to be able to carry off both.  A shame.            

Thursday, 3 January 2013



(Sergio Sollima, 1967)

Sollima is arguably the most interesting of the major Spaghetti Western directors; mainly due to the contradictions and dissonances in his work. Faccia a Faccia is a great case in point. Here is a spaghetti western - a sub-genre famed for its shocking violence - which, for most of its running time, actively shuns action and bloodletting. Sollima cuts right into the middle of one gunfight, just after the shot has been fired (the shot sounds almost as if it was timed to signal the cut), cuts away from another to focus on the faces of two spectators, and doesn't show anything (save the aftermath) of the epic battle which most films would be keen to use as the climax.
Sollima was, in other words, a director with quite peculiar instincts. Which may be what makes his work so fascinating. When he does film violence here, he makes sure that it counts. The biggest action scene is a gunfight that erupts after a bank robbery goes wrong, and Sollima ensures that the deaths in that fight are earned and have some emotional weight. He seems far more interested in the planning and build-up to the robbery. That he captures in one amazing sequence as Brad Dexter (Gian Maria Volonté) describes his plan to the gang in voiceover, and we see them arrive and take position in town, one by one - all in a single take. Indeed, the most impressive aspect of Sollima's style is the subtle dynamism and effectiveness of his blocking in tandem with the few, minor camera moves he executes. Another great scene sees the Bandit Beauregard Bennet (Tomas Milian) watch as six gunmen arrive to kill him. He is sitting on a porch and the camera pans around from behind him as the men arrive in pairs from three separate directions. There is an appealing grace and musicality to moments like this which is the real joy in Sollima's work.
The other element that makes his work seem so distinctive is his interest in politics - this is very much a political Western. Not quite in the way that the "Zapata Western" films written by the great Franco Solinas are, but Sollima ensures that his characters, Dexter in particular, have obvious political stances.
The plot is basically a slow identity-switch. History Professor Dexter moves to Texas to aid his tubercular lungs, where he encounters bandit Beauregard. They form an uneasy alliance, become friends, and slowly effect the way one another think. In time, Dexter becomes the leader of the gang and displays marked fascist inclinations - his orders must be obeyed unquestioningly, and he expects decisive, strong men to follow him. Meanwhile Beauregard begins to see moral dimensions to his actions, and his hesitation to kill a child is what bungles a crucial bank robbery. All the while the two are being pursued by the undercover Pinkerton Siringo (William Berger), setting the stage for a quintessentially Spaghetti three-way desert showdown.
Sollima is a more old-fashioned director than his revered Italian peers Leone, Corbucci and Damiani. His pacing is more deliberate, and more classical than is common in much of this sub-gnre (he has spoken of the influence of Samurai film on his approach). But he makes fantastic use of some stunning Spanish locations and he draws good performances from his leads. While Berger is a touch wooden, Milian is all method sneer as Beauregard, doing his best in a role that is perhaps a touch underwritten (there is no establishing scene showing us quite how despicable he is as an outlaw - we only hear about it - robbing his journey of some of its potential emotional power). Volonté, meanwhile, moves from a quiet, slightly fragile figure to the more familiarly fearsome performer by the end of the film, raping, murdering and torturing with abandon. His face loses its sickly pallor, he begins to strut, and becomes a magnetic presence.
The final element which makes Faccia a Faccia quite unmissable is Ennio Morricone's strident score, from an era when he was churning out several masterpieces a year. Like the film, his work here doesn't quite reach that status, but it is still typically brilliant.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013


(Ridley Scott, 2010)

While there is an unmistakeable whiff of something very much like contractual obligation about Robin Hood, that does not mean it is without its pleasures. It is that rare beast, a Summer Blockbuster aimed mostly at grown-ups. As such its extremely wordy - the machinations detailed in the opening act in order to set up the plot are nothing if not torturous, as Dukes plot with Kings who betray Barons and double-cross cousins against the backdrop of Anglo-French tension, political infighting and taxation disputes. All this happens while we are still getting to know the principals, Robin Longstride, a Northern Archer campaigning in France with King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston, tearing lumps of ham off with his bare hands) , and Marion Locksley (Cate Blanchett), an independent war widow who runs the lands owned by her infirm father-in-law (Max Von Sydow). They eventually meet after much complication, and finally Robin learns who he is and what his destiny must be. Strangely, considering its title, this is not really a "Robin Hood" film.
It ends just as Robin and his Merry (more bawdy, in this case) Men become outlaws, pursued by the Sheriff of Nottingham (an underused Matthew MacFadyen) and enemy to King John (Oscar Isaac, terrifically loathsome throughout) and living at one with nature in Sherwood Forest.
Before that it feels almost as if Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland had in mind a different story altogether, and decided to link it with the Robin Hood legend just because they could.
The Robin Hood film it most resembles is Robin and Marian, Richard Lester's superb 1976 elegy for youth, love and heroism lost. That comparison does this film no favours, but it does borrow some of the gritty textures and much of the material with Richard Lionheart in France. Bizarrely it yokes all that to a plot centred around the Magna carta, recasting Robin as a more outright freedom fighter than most narratives do, and throwing in a massive battle on a beach for its climax.
Despite being about 45 minutes too long, it just about works. Scott understands this sort of Epic filmmaking, and nobody visualises it quite like him - this is a film full of casually beautiful shots and sequences, and cinematographer John Mathieson does some staggering work. There are battles and banquets, hissable villains aplenty and dashing heroism, and an incredibly classy cast in even the smallest roles, from Mark Strong as the main villain to William Hurt as a sympathetic court advisor.
But this sort of thing really rests upon the leads; and Crowe and Blanchett make an extremely convincing and likeable couple. Crowe can do this sort of macho hero role in his sleep, and though his accent is all over the British Isles, he is one of the only movie stars we have who has true star quality and actual acting ability, and he combines them here. He and Blanchett - that rarity, a leading lady around his age - have significant chemistry, and she is just as powerful and commanding as he is.
Even when all the mayhem around them is clattering awkwardly along,  an obviously impersonal corporate product and something of a mess from a director capable of so much more, the leads keep the focus intimate and real, and the film benefits massively from that.