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.