Friday, 31 May 2013


(Neil Jordan, 2013)

Neil Jordan makes films about the supernatural that specialise in atmosphere and eerie subtleties instead of shocks or sustained terror. This seems to be a good thing; there are more than enough horror films being made at the moment loaded with long passages of tension punctuated by sudden frights, just as there are plenty of gory shockers filled with blood and violence. But nobody else makes the kinds of films Jordan makes - visually lovely, often quite complex in their consideration of their themes.
Byzantium features both blood and violence, and plenty of each. It tells the story of Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), a 200 year old mother-daughter team of vampires, constantly moving from dingy British town to dingy British town, fleeing the pursuing clutches of a cabal of male vampires led by Darvall (Sam Riley). When the cabal gets uncomfortably close to catching them, they find themselves in a fading seaside resort, staying in an old hotel named Byzantium with Noah (Daniel Mays). Eleanor is chafing against their lifestyle and struggling with the burden of her memories, and her life becomes more emotional when she meets Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). Meanwhile, both women need to feed on blood regularly, and the mysterious "Brotherhood" is closing in...
The strange thing about Jordan's approach is that it makes for "horror" films that aren't remotely frightening. But then that doesn't appear to be his intention. He makes these films feel like fairytales, playing up the mythic elements and emphasising the power of the archetypes he is dealing with.
In Byzantium he plays against some audience expectations. His vampires don't fear sunlight or sleep in coffins. But they do need an invitation inside to enter a residence. While Eleanor only kills elderly people who are "ready", Clara kills the powerful who prey upon the weak. They hitchhike and Clara works as a lapdancer and prostitute to earn money, while Eleanor, eternally 16 years old, goes to school. Many of these elements and twists on the traditional mythology are familiar from the recent surge of vampire films, and Byzantium's script, adapted by Moira Buffini from her own play, never really elevates any of them or says anything new. It does contain several of the motifs and ideas Jordan has addressed before in his career, but this story is just a little too convoluted and stretched to work as well as his best work does.
It tries to include not only an angst-ridden teen romance suggestive of Twilight and Let the Right One In but detailed flashbacks to the Georgian period when both women became vampires reminiscent of Jordan's own Interview With the Vampire. All of this is overlaid with a literary voiceover by Eleanor, who repeatedly writes their story then throws away the pages. The seaside setting is a reminder of Jordan's little-seen The Miracle. 
The most interesting sequences here are the ones investigating the Irish origins of the "ancient Gods" the Brotherhood worship, referencing the neamh mairmh of Irish folklore, and involving an Island off the Irish coast where there are so many birds they almost blot out the sun, and rivers of blood signal the transformation of a character from human to undead. The scene where Riley's Darvall and his friend and Captain (Jonny Lee Miller) travel there is almost Lovecraftian in its mix of awe and mystery.
Byzantium also contains a fascinating feminist reading of the genre - these women defy the brotherhood and are hunted purely because they broke a rule. In response, Clara uses her sexuality to survive, and she is the most energetic and active figure in the narrative.
Jordan has an attractive style - classical but arty, based on strong compositions and a sensible amount of cutting - and he can conjure atmosphere as well as anybody working today. He is helped immeasurably by the fine cinematography of Sean Bobbit to ensure that this film vividly suggests the textures and varying tones of the down-at-heel resort town in the present day and the same place in the Georgian era. The colours are rich and soft throughout, the lighting crepuscular.
And yet the whole thing never quite gels or hangs together; despite all these positives it works only fitfully. Jordan is a distinctive and capable enough filmmaker to make all of his work worth seeing, but there seems to be an undeniable shortfall between Byzantium and some of his earlier, better films.
The strong cast here help make it a pleasant, involving experience all the way through. Yet it always feels as if it could have been much more.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013


(Chris Wedge, 2013)

Epic feels almost randomly generated. Taking a bunch of predictably appealing elements from various sources in its adaptation of a William Joyce book and applying the formula which has by this point come to absolutely dominate American Animated cinema, it succeeds in being utterly mediocre in more or less every regard.
A young girl (voiced by Amanda Seyfried), mourning the loss of her mother, comes to live in the country with her semi-estranged, work-obsessed father. His work involves attempting to prove that his theory - that the natural world is home to a society of miniature beings - is correct, and this gives him little time for parenting. Their reunion goes badly, and just as she is about to leave she is miniaturised and finds herself in that society of tiny beings, who, it turns out, ride upon birds, talk to insects and are at war with a race of lizard-like beings named Boggins. The Boggins spread decay while the Leafmen, led by Ronin (voiced by Colin Farrell) battle them mainly using the power of their Queen (Beyonce Knowles) who can spread and control plant life. So the girl becomes involved in their battle, and learns the ways of the Leafmen, in the process flirting with the cocky and irresponsible young warrior Nod (Josh Hutcherson), bantering with a stock comic relief slug and snail double act (Aziz Ansari and Chris O'Dowd) and - of course - coming to realise what is truly important in life. This is interspersed with a series of variable action set pieces involving aerial battles, fearsome field mice and generic martial arts, a few attempts at visual poetry (a ride upon the antlers of a deer), and some telegraphed messages about responsibility and family.
While it's never bad, it's never particularly good, either; too much of it seems familiar, too much of it formulaic. For all that the animation is brilliant, that really isn't enough anymore. Pixar and Studio Ghibli have set the bar far too high for animation in the last decade or two for something like Epic to be seen as anything more than solid.


(Steven Soderbergh, 2013)

Something about Matt Damon seems to bring out the black comedian in Steven Soderbergh. Think of The Informant! and its quietly hilarious depiction of escalating and mammoth self-delusion. Or even his role in the second and third Oceans films, where he is the most hapless and insecure of the leads, his part in their schemes the most comic and bizarre. In Oceans Thirteen he wears a false nose for the heist itself, and he again finds himself with an augmented proboscis in Soderbergh's Behind The Candelabra. Though the film is centred around Liberace, the Las Vegas Entertainer, Damon plays Scott Thorson, the actual protagonist of the story. He is a young Californian hunk who becomes Liberace's (Michael Douglas) live-in lover, companion and chauffeur in the late '70s. Soderbergh's film traces the rise and fall of their relationship from early bloom to late decay, all the while painting a picture of the bizarre bubble of kitsch and wealth Liberace's celebrity allowed him to live in.
The director's intelligence is evident in the way he chooses to present that world; filming in rooms of such overwhelmingly oppressive bad taste they make your teeth ache, he maintains a classical style, allowing the production design to do the work. His camera moves little, his compositions are simple and understated. He sticks to two-shots to capture conversations, occasionally giving us a wider view of the ridiculous opulence of an immense room.
As befits a production made for HBO, its a deceptively small, intimate film, intent mainly upon the relationship between these two men, opening out only a few times throughout. This becomes an issue between the characters - Thorson eventually wants to go out and meet people, whereas Liberace ("Lee" to his friends) is content to stay at home, except for the occasional visit to a glory hole in a sex shop. Later this is briefly switched when Lee asks for an open relationship, only to grow furious when he suspects Scott is seeing somebody else. They both have their issues - Lee first wants to adopt Scott, then pays for him to have plastic surgery so that they look more alike (hence Damon's nose), while Scott becomes addicted to diet pills and pays his dealer with jewellery he steals from Lee's house.
All of this is given a sort of sheen of deadpan hysteria, capped off beautifully by Rob Lowe as Lee's plastic surgeon, his own face stretched so tight he seems to have no eyes, his tone a sort of glazed amusement at everything he hears. The facelift he gives Lee means that he can never fully close his eyes, meaning that Scott finds him snoring one night, eyes half open
If their early courtship is unconventional, the way they fall apart is far more recognisable - jealousy, boredom, another person -  and the two leads are superb at evoking the pain and complexity of it all.
While Douglas brings a pretty decent Liberace impression to life, with frequently hilarious results, Damon, miscast (he is nearly 20 years too old) on the surface, does much more interesting work as Thorson, suggesting his neediness and early naiveté and tracing the way that shifts through exposure to wealth and privilege.
He is a complex mess; claiming he is "bisexual" ("Well I haven't met the part that likes women", Lee replies) and finding anal sex "repugnant" while shunning his foster-parents despite loving them, writing songs and bemoaning the fact that all Lee's entourage hate him, his peculiar situation is clearly difficult. His resultant addiction and desperation seem like a natural progression for this vulnerable kid from a harsh background, and his late collapse is nicely, furiously played by Damon. The likes of a brilliant Rob Lowe, Dan Akroyd and Scott Bakula do good work in the background as the many figures around the outskirts of their life together.
By the end, the black comedy has mostly ebbed away to be replaced by a melancholy sense of loss and regret. But Soderbergh ensures it remains a black comedy to the end, indulging in a final musical set-piece, as Thorson imagines Lee singing "The Impossible Dream"and flying off the stage.
That it is largely a true story seems almost unbelievable.



(Olivier Assayas, 2012)

I like how Assayas has followed his "International trilogy" - three films intent on our newly digital world, on technology and the way it has altered the very spaces around us - by, amongst other things, reaffirming an interest in the analogue world in his last three films. Something In the Air is set mainly in France, but with a few excursions across Europe and into Asia in the year or so following the student riots in Paris in May 1968. And though it is undeniably interested in the revolutionary politics of that period - there are plenty of scenes here where characters debate Trotskyism and the petit bourgeoisie - it is more of a rambling stroll across a young man's life at a certain specific point.
The element of autobiography is pronounced here; Gilles (Clement Metayer, slightly blank in a pretty way) is a young man from a comfortable background, who wants to be a painter or filmmaker. His father is involved in the production of adaptations of Simenon's Maigret novels (Assayas' father worked in tv) and when he gets sick, Gilles is torn between helping him, his own desire to be an artist, and his friends' political engagement.
Assayas chronicles all of this in ellipses, and what this film captures beautifully is the slow tumble of the events and people that form a life, the way figures disappear and follow their own threads, the way they come back, and the way some attachments are lasting. Assayas observes his young middle class characters as they become impassioned about the "struggle", but none of them ever really risk much through their graffiti and firebombing - they have nice homes and families, they still go to school and university, they travel seemingly casually. And yet the filmmaker avoids the easy satire of the situation.
More dangerous are their romantic relationships - Gilles loves his ex, Laure, throughout the film, even while he is with Christine (Lola Creton, whose neutral beauty matches Metayer's), and his friend Alain falls for an American girl at an Italian commune. Assayas shows us the peaks and dips in these affairs, all casual cruelties and youthful lust, but never ignores the way logistics and choices interfere with emotions - his people criss cross one another as their lives take them away and return them as each tries to decide what they want.
The film is excellent on the details - what it feels like to listen to Syd Barrett on vinyl in a bedroom-cum-studio. What it feels like to lie in the grass with a girlfriend in the hills outside Florence. The books people read, places they stayed, conversations they had; it all feels convincing and lived, and Assayas has always had a gift for atmosphere; Something In the Air is vividly evocative. If the acting is a little uneven, the technique on display is fabulous, and a terrific soundtrack helps enormously.
It is still somewhat unsatisfying. Assayas is telling a story about false starts, missteps and hesitations, and so his film seems purposely formless; for all that some moments are genuinely moving or poetic, the overall effect is odd. Compelling, but distant.

Monday, 13 May 2013


(JJ Abrams, 2013)

Strange that after expending so much energy to create an entirely different (but consistent in continuity terms) branch in time for his reboot of Star Trek, Abrams goes straight back to the well here, lifting scenes, situations and characters directly from the greatest of the original run of Star Trek films, Nicholas Meyer's 1982 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
And early on, you almost believe he might pull it off. This film is so confident and bold from the off, dropping right into the action as Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Ships Doctor "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban) flee an alien race during an attempt to save their nascent species from destruction by an active volcano. Kirk and Bones are such strong, archetypal figures that no introduction is necessary - this does feel like an episode in a long-running series at that point. The other familiar characters are all introduced in the same scene; science officer Mr Spock (Zachary Quinto), who is ying to Kirk's yang, communications officer Lt Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg), alongside the more thankless Misters Sulu (John Cho) and Chekhov (Anton Yelchin). Also introduced is Abrams' breathless, epic approach to action scenes, all spectacle, lens flares (more on those in a moment) and ceaseless movement, interrupted by the occasional awed shot of something massive (usually in this film an enormous spacecraft).
Then the plot kicks in; a Federation agent named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, utterly stealing the film) appears to be waging a one man terrorist campaign against the Federation itself. After losing his mentor Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) in one of Harrison's attacks, Kirk and the Enterprise are dispatched to the Klingon homeworld to hunt him down. Only everything is much more complicated than it at first appears, and even Harrison has more to him than is obvious on the surface...
Welded to all of this is a learn-and-grow character arc for Kirk which never really makes much sense for the character or the film. Pine is good - his Kirk honours William Shatner but is very much his own take - but the film doesn't need this story of his realisation of what it takes to be a leader, and the final act sequence between Kirk and Spock, nodding shamelessly towards the far superior scene in Wrath of Khan, is a curiously hollow moment. Wrath of Khan has 20 years of weight pressing upon the relationship of its Kirk and Spock, and the fact that the actors were ageing gave it an undeniable resonance this film cannot hope to replicate. Instead the explicit invitation to compare Star Trek Into Darkness with that older film does Abrams' film few favours.
That is not to say its a complete disaster. The cast are all good, nailing their roles in a few instants. The action rolls along in a pleasurable surge of incident and colour. Abrams' style is mixed; sometimes beautifully concise, others shockingly ugly. His use of lens flares remains a problem, but he can tell a story, and he puts his budgets up on the screen. Its just a bit of a shame he squandered this much of a budget on this story, already so well told once before...

Saturday, 11 May 2013


(Jeff Nichols, 2012)

Mud feels like an instant classic.
Nichols' third film gets so much right, and so little wrong, and it also presents a side to him not particularly evident in his first two movies; he now appears one of the leading talents in American cinema, with a fantastically broad range and formidable storytelling skills.
Those are easy to see in the first few scenes of Mud, especially in the effortless way he paints in this world. Here is the American South presented as a vivid, real place, in the form of a small town with all its drag strip bars and chain restaurants, contrasted with the life of the river which has an almost mythic presence within the film. Nichols is good on the subtle and obvious differences between the two. Our 14 year old hero, Ellis (Tye Sheridan, outstanding) lives and works on that river with his mother (Sarah Paulson) and fisherman father. Nichols uses the family to express the conflict between town and country. Parental marriage breakdown centres around Mom's desire to give life in town a try, while Ellis ("I ain't no townie!") wants to stay on the river and work with his dad, despite the attractions of the many girls in town.
The main plot revolves around a discovery Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) make on a small island in the river. There's a boat hanging suspended in a tree, deposited there by a storm. And a man living in it. His name is Mud, and as played by Matthew McConaughey he is a silver-tongued charmer with a love of tall tails and a gospel delivery. He wears crosses on his boot heels, a pistol in his waistband, and is hiding after the murder of a man. He claims to be waiting to meet his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and persuades the boys to bring him supplies, and, eventually, ferry messages to her. But there are sinister, armed men in town looking for him, State troopers setting up roadblocks in order to trap him, and his old friend and neighbour of Ellis (Sam Shepherd) says he's not to be trusted and the boys should stay away. But by then, of course, its already too late...
As a naturalistic portrait of adolescent male friendship, Mud is terrific; sensitive to the subtle nuances and unspoken bonds, never forced in the way it traces the quiet refusal of emotion boys specialise in. And it uses the mysterious forces driving adult lives to cast so much light on the world of Ellis and Neckbone; Ellis is a romantic, yearning for a girl in town, hopeful his parents will rediscover their love for one another despite his father's cynicism, and the story Mud tells him appeals to him because of its old-fashioned certainty about true love. Then we learn the truth about Mud and Juniper, and Ellis' heartbreak is shattering and almost visceral. Meanwhile Neckbone seems more pragmatic, guided by his loving but relaxed Uncle (Michael Shannon), until we realise that he will do more or less anything his friend asks of him.
Nichols has a nice eye and a superb gift for tone and place, but here those gifts appear to have been internalised. Instead, he realises to what extent this story is about faces, and he keeps his lens close to his cast throughout.
Despite the feeling of intense mounting suspense, then, there is enough time to delve into Mud as a character. Mud is a liar, yes, but his fantasising is always pointed and intriguing, and the audience feels as attracted to him as the two boys are.

Sunday, 5 May 2013


(Shane Black, 2013)

It is startling just how many of the situations and beats familiar from Shane Black's previous work - most celebratedly as a screenwriter on action classics, yes, dammit, classics like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boyscout - are present and correct in Iron Man 3.
There's the Christmas setting, a Black obsession. There's the scene where the hero, captured, bound and seemingly hopelessly doomed, calmly tells the evil goons holding him that they're dead, then proceeds somehow to make good on his word. There is also a scene of a mismatched pair of action heroes - in this case Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark and Don Cheadle as James Rhodes, better known as War Machine, or in this film; the Iron Patriot - bickering amusingly in the middle of much action mayhem.
But more than that, Iron Man 3 has that Shane Black feeling to it, an ability to seem quick-witted and sharp-tongued while dealing in material that seems slightly heavier than anything in the first two Iron Man films, a creative approach to the chaotic destruction demanded by the genre which works because the emotions and audience experience of those kinds of scenes is so well-understood by the storyteller, and the sense that the storyteller in question is just as interested in comedy as action, and indeed, prefers to see the two working in harmony.
Black has always been excellent at the sort of satisfying action beats that a truly great genre film needs, and curiously, that may be where Iron Man 3 is weakest. Super-hero films - Nolan's Batman trilogy apart - inescapably boil down to a scene where cgi characters fight, and what matters then is how well the film sets up that sequence, and how capably it delivers it. The Avengers, for instance, is ok in the set-up, but just about overwhelms the audience with the scale of the climactic action scene, whereas the first two Iron Man films, both directed with vaguely anonymous efficiency by Jon Favreau, returning here in a small part, are good in the set-up but fudged in the climax. Black gets a lot right here - his dialogue (the script is co-written with Drew Pearce, creator of the brilliant and underseen UK superhero sitcom No Heroics) is consistently funny and clever, his villains (Guy Pearce at his smarmiest and Ben Kingsley, surprisingly funny as the kind of Mandarin created to bait fans of the source material) are relatively interesting and their connection to Stark gives the film a nice charge, and the film is full of great, quirky little details that make it feel less of a corporate product than its predecessors.
And the challenge of the superhero genre seems to have brought the best out of him in some ways; he finds inventive ways to make Stark the underdog, and the scenes where he has to fight superpowered thugs with little more than some semi-functioning technology and his considerable wits are the best and most involving action scenes in the movie.
The story finds Stark after the cosmic events of The Avengers having panic attacks while a terrorist named the Mandarin bombs seemingly random targets and a corporate Scientist rival (Pearce's Aldritch Killian) is tinkering with technology provided by an old one-night stand of Starks (Rebecca Hall). Her work seems to allow the body to heal itself, providing Killian with an army of unbeatable soldiers.
It ends up with Stark out of action and hiding out in small-town Tennessee where he teams up with a young boy to repair his malfunctioning armour and get to the bottom of teh mystery of the Mandarin.
Odd scenes stand out for their quality; the bits with Stark and the boy, which should be awful, are instead funny and charming, and an action scene after the bombing of Air Force One is absolutely terrific. Downey Jr owns the role of Stark to the extent that his portrayal almost seems more definitive than the character in the comics - and has massively influenced that character - and Black writes well to his old collaborator's strengths; he knows how to emphasise Downey's wit yet still make him likeable.
As a director, he's similar to Favreau - not much visual identity is evident in his work, but he doesn't get much wrong. And yet, it all comes down to the usual smash-fest in a dockyard, like so many action films, and though it is never boring, I couldn't help but wish I was seeing a bit more of Shane Black and a bit less of Marvel.
Even under corporate and genre constraints he does consistently entertaining work, but off the leash he is capable of so much more. Maybe next time...

Thursday, 2 May 2013


(Pablo Trapero, 2012)

Pablo Trapero has grown more assured and dextrous as a storyteller with each successive film. And yet, as his films have become increasingly ambitious and confident, it seems he receives less and less attention outside his native Argentina. His early status as a wunderkind of the New Argentine cinema was founded on the gritty, low budget social realism of films like Crane World and El Bonaerense. Critics, in particular, like their social realism gritty and low budget. Trapero still makes social realist cinema; its just that these days his budgets are bigger, and his craftsmanship means that he can stretch the money further than most. White Elephant, for instance, is a slick, beautiful, dazzlingly made drama of life in a Buenos Aires slum as seen through the eyes of a couple of Priests. That those priests are played by International arthouse stars Ricardo Darin (as Father Julian, the Parish Priest for the slum) and Jeremie Renier (as a Belgian traumatised by an incident of murder in the Amazon we glimpse in an elliptical opening scene) is another difference with Trapero's early work, where unknowns in major roles added a seeming level of authenticity.
Both Renier and Darin are terrific here - even if the latter is somewhat underused - as is Trapero's wife and muse Martina Gusman as a social worker with whom Renier's priest falls in love. But the most impressive aspect of the film is its casually epic look at the daily life of this barrio, built as it is around the immense skeleton of an abandoned and unfinished hospital building and constructed mainly of shacks made of cinderblocks, plywood and corrugated metal. Drug gangs engage in open armed warfare in the underlit alleyways by night, but in the daytime the place seems to hum with companionable affection and happy, social humanity.
The priests say mass, baptise children, give last rites to gangsters, help out addicts, give out food and try to organise the construction of some better housing, all the while dealing with Church politics and their own demons. Trapero shoots much of this on location in sinuous, breathtakingly long takes, his camera following these characters as they walk the streets and pathways, peaking in an incredible sequence when Renier's priest visits the lair of a Druglord and passes through level after level of security , past wounded henchmen and drug factories, the camera following him every step of the way. This material is fascinating, moving and at times extremely gripping, depicting a world I had never seen before with warmth, humour and empathy.
Trapero is great at unblinking realism, but since the excellent Born And Bred in 2007 his films have been increasingly good at capturing the (often existential) angst and suffering of his lost characters, and White Elephant is no different.
Both Renier, with his crippling survivors guilt and his feelings for Gusman's character, and Darin's struggles with his own anger and mortality are given poetic expression by Trapero's camera and the impressive actors. Nothing is ever made too obvious or too overt, the storytelling is often entirely wordless; and yet, we never doubt what is happening or how these characters are feeling.