Wednesday, 31 July 2013


(Richard Marquand, 1983)

The Jedi-Sith material here really works. In fact, Luke Skywalker's (Mark Hammill) line when he finally rejects the Emperor and his offer of Intergalactic power is, I think, the best and most moving in the entire Star Wars series, carrying as it does the weight of a long-running storyline, and representing the ultimate triumph of good over evil. "I am a Jedi, like my father before me." That line gave me chills on this, my umpteenth viewing (though perhaps my first in a decade). It is just a shame that so much else made me cringe.
The first act is fine; a little too derivative of the Tatooine scenes in Star Wars: A New Hope in its sci-fi exotica and array of alien beasties, but with a strong spine of story as the rebel gang from the first two films combine to rescue a frozen Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from Jabba the Hut. It features a fine swashbuckling action scene on the skiff above the Sarlac pit, though the brief, brutal disposal of Boba Fett remains a frustration; sometimes George Lucas really didn't understand the appeal of his own creation. Marquand may be the most anonymous of the three directors to have made a Star Wars film; his work here is competent and sporadically slick but never any better than that.
The second act follows Luke back to Yoda on Dagobah while the Rebel plan to attack the new Death Star is laid out. It's here that the strange disconnect between the preceding The Empire Strikes Back and this film becomes evident. The spiky screwball relationship between Han and Leia (Carrie Fisher), perhaps the strongest element of the previous film, here seems tame and underwritten, almost as if the decision was made to change the course of a particular arc. Harrison Ford, so great in the first two films, looks uncomfortable here, and Han seems tired and a little self-parodic in his bravado and squabbling with Chewbacca. Leia is similarly declawed by this script, while Lando (Billy Dee Williams) never really had any personality in the first place, besides calling Han "old buddy" repeatedly. That leaves Luke and the droids. R2D2 is as central to the plot as ever - the notion that he is the true hero of the entire series is a persuasive one, given how often he makes key contributions to events - while C3PO gets a decent little showcase when he tells a wowed Ewok audience the story of the previous films in the saga, complete with Darth Vader breathing.
Ah yes, the Ewoks. The original story set the Endor action on the Wookie homeworld, but Lucas changed his concept, the assumption being that he saw the endless merchandising possibilities presented by introducing a race of warrior teddy bears to his saga. When I was 8 I loved the Ewoks. They were funny and seemed cool. As an adult, the mix of cuteness and sentimentality (one Ewok mourning a fallen comrade) is off-putting and feels decidedly at odds with the darker elements of the series. This is only made more obvious by the way the third act (brilliantly) cross-cuts between three distinct fields of action: we have Luke in conversation with Emperor Palpatine (Iain MacDiarmad) and Vader whilst simultaneously the Rebel fleet is battling an Imperial Armada near the Death Star and on Endor, Han, Leia and the Ewoks are fighting Stormtroopers.
The conversation between Skywalker and the Sith Lords eventually, inevitably turns into a lightsabre duel and the emotional turning point for all six of the Star Wars films, and Hamill does well in such an emotionally intense scene. Only for Marquand and Lucas to cut away to teddy bears fighting bad guys. Such is the nature of Star Wars, and the Ewoks are really the origin point of the disastrous introduction of Jar-Jar Binks in the prequel The Phantom Menace.
Likewise, Return of the Jedi is the film where the nature of what constituted Star Wars changed. After the relative sophistication and emotional complexity of The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas took a step back, dumbed down a little, introduced more kid-friendly elements, and watched the cash pour in. And while it looks often brilliant in comparison to many of the summer blockbusters which it influenced, it is an oddly frustrating, broken-backed film in its own right.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013


(Noah Baumbach, 2012)

Frances (Greta Gerwig) is a 27 year old dancer, barely making a living in New York but sustained by her sunny personality and her friendship with roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Only, early in the film, after Baumbach has beautifully established how important this friendship is ("We're like an old lesbian couple who don't sleep together anymore"), Sophie moves out and up, leaving their Brooklyn rental for a Tribeca place with a colleague, and growing more serious about her relationship with the boyfriend Frances dislikes. Frances, bereft and quietly heartbroken, spends the rest of the movie drifting from apartment to apartment, sleeping in spare rooms and on sofas, returning to her parents in California for Christmas, spending a weekend of exquisite loneliness in Paris on a whim, her career never going where she wants it, no boyfriend appearing to replace Sophie, her debt growing and income shrinking.
That is the story, such as it is. Baumbach and his co-writer Gerwig present this beautifully detailed character study in sketches. We see Frances in various different situations, observe how she plays off different people. She rarely seems to fit in, and trying so hard to do so only worsens it so that there are a few scenes here of precision agony, Frances tying herself in knots socially; with a newly independent Sophie, with affluent friends at a dinner party, with her boss. Much of this material recalls the "mumblecore" scene from which Gerwig emerged - we have endless snatches of middle class hipster twentysomething dialogue, some of it very funny, some of it utterly irritating. But Baumbach has developed into a truly accomplished filmmaker and he has the confidence here to reflect the dual influences of Woody Allen (always present in his work) and the Nouvelle Vague (some Delerue features on the soundtrack as a tip of the hat) - hence his film, which seems almost shapeless, has its own subtle arcs and motifs.
While it plays with a beautifully featherlight quality it is surprisingly weighty on the way a person's 20s can just drift by, on the way friendships change and maturity kicks in, on what we want and what we feel we need. Frances, shocked by Sophie's "dumping" of her, takes much of the film to recover, and the way she deals with her pain and how it effects her is nicely indicated by Gerwig, in what is a fabulous performance. While Frances is undeniably annoying at times, she is also funny and sympathetic and entirely human. Her drunken speech on what she expects from love is a great little moment in a film full of great little moments.
There are also a few truly rapturous, bigger moments (Like Frances' race down a Manhattan street to Bowie's "Modern Love"), captured stunningly by cinematographer Sam Levy in glorious black and white. Baumbach has always had a greater sense of cinema than many filmmakers with similar interests in the quiet drama and comedy of people talking, and so he treats us to a few lovely sequences. Frances in Paris, Sacramento and back at Vassar are all similarly lovely set-pieces, and they all combine to make for what might be Baumbach's best film. Funny, brilliantly observed, visually lovely and quietly moving, Frances Ha is fantastic.

Monday, 29 July 2013


(Johnnie To, 2012)

Johnnie To's second film made in mainland China is broadly more typical of his recent career than last years Romancing In Thin Air. Drug War is a police procedural chronicling the attempts by Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) and his unit to best capitalise on the fact that Hong Kong drug manufacturer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) has fallen into their hands following an explosion at his factory. Using his reluctance to die by lethal injection - the fate reserved for drug traffickers and suppliers in China - they mount an improvised undercover operation in the hopes of snaring his partners. But Choi is unpredictable, his partners are extremely dangerous and mysterious, and the stakes are high for all involved.
The shift from To's usual locations in the teeming colour of Hong Kong's streets to mainland China seems to have prompted a matching stylistic shift - Drug War is a little less ostentatious in its camerawork and photography. There are fewer sweeping crane shots and startling compositional juxtapositions than in much of his work. Instead the style suits the story: terse, clipped and pared down, To shoots these locations with a great feel for the nuances of place and atmosphere. The plot mostly occurs in wintry Northern Chinese ports. The palette is grey and steely, and the action is mostly set on anonymous super-highways and in ugly industrial areas on the edge of massed urban sprawl. Surveillance technology and mobile communications are key to the plot, and To subtly uses that to make his criminals somehow seem more human than his cops. These police officers are coldly dedicated, constantly scanning cellphone and cctv screens, with no evidence of personal lives, whereas Choi mourns his dead wife with underlings who obviously regard him with warmth and respect. Indeed, Choi's survival instinct, which is foregrounded right to the last scene, may be the most recognisable human characteristic on display here. The cast are suitably low-key, but Koo and Honglei are both great, a magnetic pair of opposites, both intense and charismatic.
To gets around the censorship which is an issue for all films made in mainland China by embracing it; he peels away all but the basics. The setting is stark, extraneous detail excised. The police are driven and efficient, their loyalty to the state unquestioned. The mobsters are decadent, greedy. This allows him to make some quietly critical points - there is a single fantastic shot of a group of police officers scrabbling for cash while Choi literally burns money as a funeral rite.
The plot also suggests that the police - with their wealth of surveillance techniques - are always in control of what is happening until the climax pulls the rug out from beneath them in an epic running gun battle beside a primary school. It presents the Hong Kong mob as almost cartoonish figures, only semi-competent at the best of times. While the police are portrayed as almost inhumanly hyper-professional, the criminals here are grotesques, from Haha's buffoonery to the junked-up truck drivers Choi vents his frustrations upon to the two deaf-mutes running one of his factories.
But that makes them no less deadly, and To showcases his skill with action in two sequences of gunplay, each of them masterful studies in the coherent physical geography of violence.
These scenes are dazzling flourishes in a film which is otherwise superbly controlled and relentlessly gripping; an intense, superb piece of intelligent popular entertainment.

Thursday, 25 July 2013


(James Mangold, 2013)

I can't figure out James Mangold. He seems one of those directors who exists to make the auteur theory seem like nonsense.
Not that he doesn't have consistent thematic interests and concerns - he seems to like stories focusing on individuals at the heart of a storm of events, and he obviously appreciates some 1970s grit in his cinema - but that his films vary so shockingly in terms of quality. His first two films as writer-director promised a great career. Heavy is a sensitive, layered character drama, full of great performances. Copland is a gripping and underrated police corruption thriller, mixing in some Western tropes and a few iconic '70s stars for good measure while dragging a career-best performance from Sylvester Stallone. And then Mangold stumbled. A few times. Girl, Interrupted, Identity and Kate & Leopold are all confused failures, and although the commercial and critical success of Walk the Line suggested redemption, to my eyes, it is a prime biopic bingo movie, stuffed with cliches, overplayed, and never as interesting as the events it dramatises.
After that he went genre again, with the excellent, classical Western remake 3:10 to Yuma, then the nightmarish mess of compromise and tonal shifts that is Knight and Day. Which brings us to The Wolverine. Rewritten by the talented Scott Frank and the not-so-talented Mark Bombeck from Chris McQuarrie's (reportedly far grittier and more down-to-earth) original script, it aims to rejuvenate the labouring franchise career of Wolverine/Logan (Hugh Jackman) after the disaster of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Here he is summoned to Tokyo by the terminally ill business tycoon whose life he saved while he was a POW at Nagasaki on a certain day in 1945. Logan is a mess when we meet him here; still struggling with his role in the death of Jean Grey at the end of Brett Ratner's excreable X-Men: The Last Stand, he has visions of her in his sleep, and basically suffers through his immortality. Well; Japan changes that, plunging him into a gangwar involving yakuza, Ninja, a mutant scientist named Viper, and introducing him to Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Ultimately, after a long spell without his healing factor, Logan learns he has a reason to live, after all. That reason is basically fighting masses of disposable henchmen - here he takes on tattooed, suited yakuza mobsters and an army of ninjas. Mangold is a serviceable action director, no more, setting the most memorable fight scene here atop a speeding bullet train. The finale finds Logan facing off against an enormous armoured samurai battle-suit, and there are a few other martial arts setpieces scattered through the film.
None of them are terrific, however. Instead, The Wolverine is average for most of its duration, dipping into troughs of downright dull all too often. Mangold evidently tries hard to sell the character moments, and Logan's angst is delved into too many times in scenes which are too familiar and mannered to seem anything more than self-parody. The romance occurs during a brief idyll by the sea, but it plays like it came right out of a screenwriting manual, and for all Jackman's commitment and understanding of the role, the emotional material here sits awkwardly with the super-hero stuff. Logan is tortured by his past and inability to die - until its time to kick as, at which point he just kicks ass. That might not be so bad if it was tunning, breathtaking ass-kicking. But it's not.
There are far too many minor characters wheeled in the push plot developments, and despite some nice technical credits - it always looks and sounds good- The Wolverine is a dull, oddly compromised super-hero movie.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013


(Edgar Wright, 2013)

As befits the final film in the "Cornetto" trilogy, The World's End is a genre mash-up with a thematic focus on friendship and extended adolescence. Just like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, its distinctively English comic approach to genre works brilliantly throughout. But it adds a little something - it is darker, deeper, more resonant and moving.
Written by leads Simon Pegg and Nick Frost alongside director Edgar Wright, the story follows five late thirtysomething friends from the Southern English town of Newton Haven as they return home for another go at the "Golden Mile", the legendary pub crawl they last attempted as teenagers. The whole thing is the idea of Gary King (Pegg, better than he has ever been), who still dresses, talks and thinks as he did back then. He rounds up the old gang, all of them having moved on with their lives - Oliver (Martin Freeman) a slick estate agent, Peter (Eddie Marsan) a car salesman, Stephen (Paddy Considine) a building contractor and Andy (Frost) a solicitor. They are reluctant, but out of a mixture of sentimental nostalgia and pity for Gary, they agree to return. Old tensions rise to the surface during their  awkward crawl, however, before everything gets a lot weirder - Newton Haven seems to have undergone some sort of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers type of episode, and soon the five are fighting and running for their lives.
With an entire cast populated with excellent British comic actors, The World's End is strongly characterised throughout; this is crucial when the comedy subsides somewhat in the last act and the science fiction comes to the forefront. The five principals create a nice and believable group dynamic, each tension sensitively traced and nuanced, their shared memories perfectly judged in their mix of self-mythologising and rueful embarrassment. 
But this is never a drama - it is always funny. There is a level of satire here, in the portrayal of a globalised world (cleverly referenced in the climax), loads of running gags and some brilliantly witty dialogue. The climax comes down to a very Douglas Adams argument between drunken men and a logical alien, and Wright knows how to put together an impressive action sequence on a relatively modest budget. Perhaps the only real disappointment here is that his direction feels somewhat muted after the tour-de-force of Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, but his storytelling is as seamless and powerfully simple as ever.
And any minor complaints should be balanced against how much more emotional and painful this film feels than the other "Cornetto" instalments. Gary King is a great comic creation, but there is a genuine melancholy to him too, and the other four "Musketeers" bring this out with delicacy and even some universality. The ending is dark too, but it feels earned and right somehow, without ever sacrificing laughs.

Monday, 15 July 2013


(Dan Scanlon, 2013)

It's pretty good, Monsters University. It's funny, its characters are well-drawn and sympathetic, its plot is gripping, and it is chock-full of beautiful images and knockout set-pieces.
But this is Pixar, and it is becoming increasingly obvious that for Pixar, pretty good isn't good enough.
That is another way of saying that this might be the formerly infallible animation studio's safest, tamest, laziest film yet. Even the mostly-reviled Cars 2 took risks - it was an outright delirious rainbow-hued piece of toddler-bait, with fewer concessions to parental entertainment than any previous Pixar production.
But Monsters University feels somewhat painted by numbers. It has all of the requisite Pixar ingredients, but they never quite combine into the dazzling Pixar classic people have been awaiting since Toy Story 3 ended.
Underlining the fact that this film (just like Cars 2) is a blatant piece of advertisement, devised mostly to sell toys and merchandise, the story is a prequel, introducing us to Mike and Sully during their college years in the Scare School at Monsters University. They hate each other at first, but are forced together by circumstance, and the film then pits them against various other characters in a long intra-sorority competition, allowing it some of the suspense of a sports movie. As such I think it has more montages than any other film I've ever seen, each of them nicely scored by Randy Newman, lots of great sight-gags slipping by. The montages never hold up the sentimentality you always know is coming, and it comes in a double-barrelled climax, which, like every Pixar climax, somehow manages to be thrilling, beautifully choreographed, touching and funny.
But beyond that, that other dimension so often present in earlier Pixar work is absent, and this film, more than any other, makes me worry that its never coming back.

Friday, 12 July 2013


(Guillermo Del Toro, 2013)

For all the acclaim his more "personal" (read: arty) films have received, I like Del Toro best when he's working in commercial cinema. There his love of monsters, his exceptional design sense and imagination are kept the right side of self-indulgence by the conventions and demands of genre. His two Hellboy films are inventive, funny, odd blockbusters precisely because he has to funnel his own imagination into a rigid structure. Likewise Blade II, probably his most uncharacteristic film, is still a taut, satisfying superhero-horror. Even The Devils Backbone, more arty and personal, is a chilling ghost story as much as a drama of Spain in the Civil War era.
Pacific Rim, then, seems like it cannot possibly be one of his personal films. It gives Del Toro his biggest budget yet, after all, and he makes sure every dollar is up on the screen. But it feels utterly personal. Del Toro is a huge genre afficionado, and this film is a mash-up of Japanese giant monster movies, anime, WW2 fighter pilot flicks, disaster films and modern blockbuster cliches. More than that, there is a real sense of joy here, which is perhaps the main quality differentiating Pacific Rim from all the other cynical, tired examples of disaster porn released every summer, this one included.
Set in a battered, beautifully textured very-near future it reveals a world in which an inter-dimensional portal named the Breach has opened in the seabed beneath the Pacific Ocean. From it have emerged immense monsters, named Kaiju (Japanese for huge beast) which destroy coastal cities, killing thousands. Humanity respond with Jaegers (the German for "hunter"), equally immense robot-warriors piloted by two people, psychically linked by "the drift". But the Kaiju, who are classified, like storms, by their size, keep on coming, getting bigger and more successful in their battles with the Jaegers. Del Toro and his screenwriter Travis Beacham tell this story through a series of reliable tropes familiar from a hundred other movies.
For example, the story focuses on the experiences of Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), an ex-Jaeger pilot traumatised by a pre-title loss, lured back by his old boss, the taciturn Stacker Penticost (Idris Elba) who has his own hidden emotional issues and a plan to use the decommissioned, dwindling Jaeger programme to close the Breach once and for all. Raleigh has to quickly adapt to a new co-pilot, Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) who wants to avenge her parents' death in a Kaiju attack years before. Raleigh has to deal with resentment from the other Jaeger pilots and prove himself and his partnership with Mako. Meanwhile, a pair of squabbling comic relief scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) study Kaiju body parts in an attempt to understand what the creatures actually want, and end up involved with black market Kaiju organ trader Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman).
There isn't much new there besides Beacham's knack for creating some wonderful names for his characters. But Del Toro approaches it all with a loveable, wide-eyed earnestness and enthusiasm. The world is filled with telling, nifty little details and lived-in textures, suggesting an entire, fully imagined universe beyond what we see here; and both Kaiju and Jaegers are brilliantly designed. Each battle between robots and creatures is thoughtfully choreographed and bigger in scale than the last. And the scale of these scenes is genuinely awesome - these fights feature Jaegers picking up cargo liners to beat Kaiju around the head with them, monsters erupting from inside buildings, bridges snapping like twigs, and at one point, a fight in the outer atmosphere. The Jaeger pilots all have their own fighting styles - something underlined when Del Toro throws in a few fistfights between pilots at ground level - making each battle a fascinating clash in styles. If all that attention to the detail of how a giant robot would fight a massive monster sounds boron, then Pacific Rim is not the film for you. Skyscrapers topple casually, but this is a film without the flippant disregard for life on show in Man of Steel or Star Trek: Into Darkness. 
Instead here we are shown and told about the evacuation of populations - and hear that the inland "safe zones" are the preserve of the wealthy, the sort of resonant detail tossed off by Del Toro that really gives the movie a rich sense of self -  and see numerous shots of fleeing, terrified civilians. Gratifyingly, Del Toro is a classicist in style, so Pacific Rim, while superficially akin to the Transformers films, is always coherently shot, and the action scenes are visceral and gripping without any of the hyperactive editing or ostentatious shotmaking of those films. When a Kaiju rips off a Jaeger's arm here; you understand exactly what has happened, and how. It is a thoroughly impressive and often beautiful visual spectacle.
Where it is problematic is in its approach to characters. As the above plot synopsis suggests, there is a corniness here in conception and plotting reminiscent almost of something like Independence Day in its sense of naiveté and old-fashioned story virtues. These characters mouth some truly awful dialogue and face some excrutiatingly melodramatic choices, all of it played totally straight and with no little intensity and almost no humour (although some of it feels almost self-parodic at times). Hunnam's inconsistent performance doesn't really help, either; it feels as if he can't decide to play the macho badass or the hollow shell of a man, and instead winds up at an ill-defined somewhere in-between.
But the tone; that evident love and investment into the material, that just about pardons these segments and renders these problems beside the point. The point here is to watch huge monsters fight huge robots, a spectacle done with as much wit and intelligence as it could possibly be. The few shards of pure Del Toro imagination which appear in the last act - particularly the glimpses of the world of the Kaiju, not unlike the Lovecraftian visions of the climax of Hellboy.
As dumb, massive blockbusters go, it doesn't really get much better than this.

Friday, 5 July 2013


(Ben Wheatley, 2013)

Seemingly aiming for a very modern mash-up of Jodorowsky, the Wyrd Albion horror movies of the '70s (Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan's Claw, most obviously), Tarkovsky's Stalker, The Wicker Man, The Trip, Winstanley and Peter Watkins' Culloden, Wheatley's fourth feature is a technically masterful psychedelic odyssey.
Set, as so few films are, during the English Civil War, it focuses on a battle-weary group of men crossing the fields of the West Country who come under the influence of Michael Smiley's sinister, commanding necromancer O'Neill (in the first real hallucinatory moment, the men literally drag him into the film on the end of a thick rope). Starving, the men eat the many mushrooms growing around the field Smiley is searching for buried gold, and as he works to psychologically manipulate and destroy the meek scholar Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), the psychedelics really kick in and the men appear to drift inexorably into insanity.
Gloriously shot on a small budget in crisp monochrome by Laurie Rose, the film is almost entirely set in that field, and as such there is just a whiff of tv production about it. All the fog and smoke drifting across the screen cannot disguise the limited scope of action here, nor can it really distract from the absence of any real substance.
Wheatley, whose filmography grows more interesting with each film, shoots and cuts the whole thing with inventive, punkish energy, and the score, with its pagan, tribal drumming, is compelling. Some of the men's desperate, increasingly fevered exchanges are interesting, and the performances by the entire cast - particularly Smiley - are impressive. The central freak-out, when the black and white imagery intensifies and strobe effects cut the film up into a nightmarish assault on the senses, is a fantastic passage of pure cinema.
But it all amounts to very little. It plays like it was made by somebody who wanted to make a cool little cultish oddity, and knew exactly how to deliver that, but had absolutely nothing to say.
Which is fine, and the film is enjoyable on a purely sensory level. But I can't help but feel that it is also something of a missed opportunity.