Wednesday, 23 April 2014


(James Gray, 2013)

James Gray deserves the same status as the most beloved and acclaimed directors of his generation. In terms of talent, he is right up there alongside the Andersons, for instance, both Paul Thomas and Wes.
He will, however, never be fashionable, you feel. He is a classicist, and there is something serious and sober in his work which is slightly out of step with modern taste.
The Immigrant, perhaps more than any other film, is the fullest expression of that classicism. An old-fashioned melodrama in terms of its plotting, it is muted and quietened by Gray until its passions are deep beneath the surface, only visible in the occasional eruption of violence or raw feeling from its characters.
Gray instead finds much of that feeling in the beautifully haunted eyes of his leading lady. Cotillard has something of the silent movie siren about her, and he is able to locate the pain and longing in that face, which takes up much screentime here.
The story centres on Cotillard's Iwa, a Polish immigrant who arrives with her sister Magda at Ellis Island in 1921. Magda is immediately dragged away, suspected of suffering from tuberculosis, and Iwa is to be deported back to Europe when she is spotted by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who pays off a guard and takes her back to his house. He offers her work, but is gradually revealed to be a pimp, who first takes Iwa on as a dancer in his troupe at a club, then arranges for her to become a prostitute. All this time she is saving money to rescue her sister, and further, brighter hope arrives in the shape of Emil (Jeremy Renner), a magician who is kind and poetic and takes an instant shine to Iwa.
This is all patiently, calmly paced by Gray, the story moving forth only in increments. But what beautiful, magical increments they are. Shot by Darius Khondji on a relatively low budget, The Immigrant looks ravishing; it's evocation of the tenement world in '20s New York is shocking but utterly compelling. That tenement world is crucial to Gray's work here; this is a creation myth of the American Dream, and it plumbs very deep.
Gray's style is unfussy, classical, but his superb eye allows the odd dazzling composition (such as the ones that begin & end the film). However, his favoured shot here is of Marion Cotillard's face. So much rests on Cotillard here, and she is sublime. Though the film demands that she remains still and reserved for much of the running time, her eyes signal all of the repressed emotion she is suffering, all the pain and shame and loneliness. Renner is a charming match for her, but Phoenix's glowering pimp is a more interesting character. In love with this girl, he nonetheless makes her a prostitute, twists and manipulates her and does his best to ensure she stays by his side.
That sort of psychological complexity - and the arthouse trappings - is what makes such an old-fashioned film feel so thrillingly contemporary. Gray's talent and ability as a storyteller is what makes it so hypnotic.
A magnificent film.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014


(Steven Knight, 2013)

Locke is based around such a simple premise that the execution has to be more or less perfect or else it fails utterly.
Tom Hardy is Ivan Locke, a foreman on a massive Birmingham building project who is driving down the M6 to London at night in order to be with a woman (Olivia Coleman) who is about to have his baby. While he drives he makes and takes a series of Bluetooth phone calls. It emerges that the baby is the product of a one-night stand and Locke barely knows the woman. He is leaving his project the night before a massive and massively important concrete pour, possibly jeopardising a $100 Million operation by leaving it in the hands of Donal (Andrew Scott), and virtually guaranteeing his own dismissal.
His wife and two sons are waiting for him to come home and watch football with them, but events force his hand, and by the time he reaches London, he hopes to have settled everything, both professional and personal.
Hardy is the only actor we see, sat behind the wheel of his BMW for most of this film, the others just a series of evocative voices on the other end of the line. He is strapped in, which helps, somehow, forcing us and Knight to focus upon his face and head, and guaranteeing that every tic and slightest expression has a seismic impact. Hardy is sensational here, portraying a good, principled man as he rapidly watches his life fall apart, all because of one mistake. We watch as his Locke goes from efficiency to despair, and Hardy sells it all. This is an intimate, precise study of this man, and much of the credit for that should go to the leading man.
Knight plays his part too, ensuring that Locke remains surprisingly, impressively cinematic throughout. The constant funnel of light that is the motorway is frequently beautiful, and Knight shoots Hardy from a variety of angles, colour and shadow passing across his face in lovely washes.
And it all works; works so well that what is essentially a small-scale family drama has accrued the level of tension and suspense more commonly experienced with a thriller. A giant step forward for Knight from Hummingbird, and further evidence that Hardy is currently one of our greatest screen actors.

Monday, 21 April 2014


(Marc Webb, 2014)

Here's a dumb move too many super-hero movies try to pull: make the villain sympathetic.
The source material rarely bothers. Oh, there are many sympathetic (or at least rounded, human) super-villains. But then there are also hundreds of thousands of super-hero comics from which they come. O the few dozen high-profile movies in the super-hero sub-genre, it is staggering how many attempt to make the super-villain somebody we can relate to. But who wants to relate to a villain? We can admire their energy, wit, style, intelligence, efficiency, combat acumen...but relate to them as people?
Partly it's to attract actors. They want interesting characters to play, with layers and emotional beats and moments. But they should know better. The truly memorable villains aren't memorable because they are sympathetic. Heath Ledger's Joker? Terence Stamp's General Zod?
In Marc Webb's sequel to his vaguely redundant Amazing Spider-Man, Jamie Foxx's Electro suffers from just this problem. Introduced as a humble electrical engineer at Oscorp (the Evil Corporation at the heart of this particular reading of the Spider-Man mythos) named Max, he stutters with a bad haircut, unappreciated, exploited and ignored. A chance encounter with Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) makes him an uber-fan, and soon afterwards he is given electricity powers by a pretty familiar accident at work. His second encounter with Spidey leaves him feeling betrayed, and out for revenge on the wallcrawler and the world.
Here's another common super-hero movie issue: too many villains. Webb stuffs in the Green Goblin (Dane De Haan) and the Rhino (Paul Giamatti in what is effectively a hammy cameo, or a hammeo if you will) on top of Electro. They all face our hero in an overstuffed last act, and all this on top of a subplot about the disappearance of Peter Parker's parents when he was a child, the return of his boyhood friend, Harry Osborn, and his ongoing difficulties in terms of his relationship with Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone).
That is where Webb's real focus lies, and as is the case with each of the Spider-Man films, the material with Peter's private life is far more compelling than any of the cgi super-hero battles. Gwen is the love of his life, but having promised her dying father that he would keep away from her, lest she come into danger, he is in constant conflict with himself. Stone and Garfield are the best things here, and their genuine chemistry brings each of the scenes they share to life in a way the rest of the film struggles to match. Their relationship feels complicated and warm in a real, human way, giving the events of the last reel surprising emotional punch.
Aside from that, its a middling super-hero movie. Some good gags, a few nifty action scenes, a great evocation of what it might be like to web-sling through Manhattan, and far too much time devoted to dull villains and their back stories and nefarious planning. Webb's style is the very definition of emptily stylish, but he spends what feels like an awful lot of time creating effects suited to 3D screenings.
Stone and Garfield make it just about worthwhile, but really, this is no better than the worst Raimi Spier-Man film, the third. And that is a problem.

Saturday, 19 April 2014


(John Michael McDonagh, 2014)

Brendan Gleeson is a great actor. And with John Michael McDonagh he seems to have found a writer-director who understands how best to use him, who sees the depths in him and is able to access them in his work.
Their first film together, The Guard, found the wicked humour in Gleeson, and let him deadpan his way through some hilarious dialogue, while never losing sight of the intelligence in his eyes. Here, McDonagh allows him to brood and think, and his expressive face and clear body language lets the audience in on what he is thinking.
And that in turn allows McDonagh to consider his big themes - faith and atheism, the Church and god, the meaning of religion itself - through his leading man. Gleeson plays a "good priest" in a small Sligo parish. Informed in a confessional in the opening scene by an unseen Parishioner that he will be murdered "Sunday week" as vengeance for the abuse the man suffered at the hands of a Priest as a child, he spends the week seemingly as he normally would. This provides an episodic structure but also allows McDonagh to portray not just the Priest but also his community as he visits troubled parishioners and they visit him.
They include a cynically aetheistic Surgeon (Aidan Gillen), an imprisoned serial killer (Domhnall Gleeson), a former banker who made millions from Celtic Tiger Ireland (Dylan Moran), a cuckolded butcher (Chris O'Dowd) and a few more. Gleeson dispenses advice, tries not to judge, gives the last rites, and argues theology with many. The Catholic Church is fair game in modern Ireland, seen as child abusing, greedy and fascistic, and Calvary reflects this nicely, in the many bitter barbs aimed Gleeson's way by his neighbours.
The most emotional storyline involves the arrival of his daughter (Kelly Reilly) wearing bandages on her wrists from a recent failed suicide attempt, and his attempts to deal with this while his own mortality hangs over him. McDonagh writes terrific dialogue, and that combined with an excellent cast allows the often simplistic archetypes which constitute his characters to burst to life here. They challenge, amuse and touch Gleeson and his own brilliance means that his struggle with their eccentricities and biases is always clear and involving.
McDonagh is a classicist in style, and his film is filled with simple, powerful compositions, artfully contrasting the huge skies and bleak beauty of Sligo with some startling stylised interiors. Mainly though his camera focuses on Gleeson. The big man can carry any film if allowed to, and given this script he works more than a few wonders.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014


(Gareth Evans, 2014)

Given a bigger budget and a lot more confidence, Evans returns to the world of The Raid, taking his hero (Iko Uwais) and placing him in an undercover cop story which starts off as a prison movie, then transforms into a gang war story, never once losing sight of the fact that at heart, its really a martial arts fight movie.
It has the same flaws as the original. Evans writes, directs and edits, and two out of three ain't bad, but he's not much of a writer. The plot here is simple - a hoary old tale of jealousy, betrayal and turf disputes - and yet Evans manages to make it bafflingly opaque and difficult to follow. It doesn't help much that there are no real characters. Uwais' Rama is the good guy, and that's about all the personality he's given. The villains are defined by their props - the dangerous young half-Arab Bejo (Alex Abbad) wears shades, gloves and carries a cane - or, in a Tarantino-esque notion, by their weaponry. Except Evans doesn't write dialogue or personalities like Tarantino, so the fact that he features a deaf girl who fights with a pair of hammers and her partner who uses a baseball bat like its a samurai sword works only in the fight scenes.
But then that does seem to be all he cares about. And some of those fight scenes are extraordinary: unbelievably violent, hilariously extended, cartoonishly gory...and yet; beautifully choreographed and brilliantly shot and edited. People fight with fists, knives, machetes, guns, cars. They fight endlessly.
Everything is grotesquely bloated around those fights - Evans seems to believe that his film is somehow deeper than it actually is - but those fights make this film worthwhile. They go with many of the cliches of martial arts cinema, just as The Raid did, but they work despite those cliches, almost by overloading them. Evans goes further and more outrageous than most filmmakers would dare. He flips cameras upside down, follows people through shattered windows and into tumbling cars. He manages to use shaky, immediate handheld cameras in some scenes for visceral impact but rarely sacrifices coherence to do so.
It's everything else that lets the film down. Truly great action films feature great action scenes, of course. But they make you invest in those scenes. You care about who wins, who survives, what happens. Evans isn't quite capable of that just yet. You watch his action scenes dazzled by the technical virtuosity and the physical feats on display. But you don't really care about anything beyond that.


(Sydney Pollack, 1977)

Bobby Deerfield - critically reviled and commercially disastrous upon its release in 1977 - is ripe for a remaking as a Nicholas Sparks-style youth weepie, starring Zac Efron and layered with pop music, aimed at teenage girls.
Bobby Deerfield was made in 1977, when they still made movies for grown-ups. It is based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, was directed by the consistently classy Sydney Pollack, and stars Al Pacino, arguably the great actor of his generation,  and Marthe Keller, a Swiss actress whose onscreen presence is complex and adult. It's an interesting film. A romantic melodrama with only three real characters, it sluggishly meanders along for the first two acts before the drama kicks in in the last 40 minutes and it becomes an accomplished tragedy.
Pacino is the titular Deerfield, an American F1 driver in 1970s Europe. He lives with his adoring girlfriend (Anny Duperey), but seems uninterested and untouched by more or less everything around him; yes men, mechanics, advertising executives. He wears sunglasses perpetually to avoid being 'mobbed". Indeed, an early scene finds him embarrassed and nonplussed by the arrival of his brother, seeking to arrange some inheritance issues. He seems determined to avoid any kind of emotional scene. This may be to do with the way his work brings him face to face with death, though he claims not to think about it.
The first race sequence is shot by Pollack documentary style - immersive and expansive, giving the audience a feeling for the atmosphere at a massive F1 meet. Pollack undercuts this almost instantly by cutting tight in on Pacino's eyes as he waits to start and eliminating the sound. This is a movie about this enigmatic, guarded man, not about racing, it seems to say.
Another racer crashes and dies in that race, and while Deerfield obsesses over the cause of the crash he visits an injured survivor in a Swiss clinic. There he meets Lillian (Keller), the very definition of the manic pixie dreamgirl before the term was ever coined. Impulsive, poetic, maddeningly unpredictable, she tags along South into Italy and over the course of their long drive he finds himself fascinated by her.
Eventually - after some routine bumps - they fall in love, and he discovers that she is dying, setting up that climax.
Pollack's direction is terrific - he makes Europe and its vistas look spectacular, while generally isolating Pacino in his big widescreen frames, underlining his solitude. There are long dialogue scenes here, filled with eccentric anecdotes and kooky attitudes, and Keller is somewhat miscast. Her cold beauty aside, it seems unbelievable that Deerfield would fall for her, when her behaviour is so irritating and baffling. But this is an ambitiously romantic story, full of grand gestures - balloon rides and picnics in the Tuscan countryside - and once Pollack gets his couple together, the story gathers its own emotional power.
Pacino is good with what he has been given, but both characters remain sad mysteries to us, a suggestion that they are perhaps underwritten. That is part of what makes Bobby Deerfield such a flawed, confounding film.

Saturday, 12 April 2014


(Sam Raimi, 2002)

Raimi is a director perfectly suited to comic-book material. He is unafraid of camp; in Spider-Man he and screenwriter David Koepp wholeheartedly embrace some awfully camp dialogue, and it works. He understands the power of pulp imagery, and he knows how and when to use it - unlike some directors who take on the superhero genre and try to make it slick, or beautiful, or arch, Raimi shoots it as brightly-lit, visually exciting pulp. Which is as it should be, and which suits this particular superhero beautifully.
This is an origin story. The familiar origin story of Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire), entwined with that of his villain the Green Goblin (Willem Defoe). It is also a relatively early example of the huge super-hero film; and that means it works in a slightly different way to many of the films that followed it (even its own sequels). It gets its characters and emotional dynamics just right: Maguire is brilliant as Peter Parker, sensitive, bright, unsure of himself, always feeling guilty, and finally exhilarated to cut loose inside his costume. His love for Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is delicately played and moving by the end of the film, as is the pivotal role played in his emotional growth by his Aunt and Uncle (Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson). Less successful is the material about the Green Goblin, which is a bit too camp in places, and lacks the emotional basis of the Spider-Man storyline.
The action scenes benefit from Raimi's fine eye and sense of rhythm, but the effects are occasionally dodgy, and strangely enough, there perhaps aren't quite enough action scenes.
That the final confrontation comes down to a simple slugfest is nicely true to a classic Spider-Man/Green Goblin story, and places the emphasis firmly back on the raw emotions of these characters.
Raimi would go on to perfect his approach to this genre with his next Spider-Man film a few years later.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014


(David Mackenzie, 2013)

Mackenzie's talent and control is evident in the first few moments of Starred Up. His camera follows 19 year old Eric Love (Jack O'Connell, sensationally good) as he is led into a prison building by a series of Guards. He is searched, he is dressed, he is ordered about, he is locked up in a cell. The camera observes all this from middle distance, calmly, without much judgement in its placement or the editing of the measured shots. And yet it is handheld, and soon, once Eric erupts into the violence that has seen him "starred up" (prison slang for what happens when a young offender is transferred to an adult facility for repeated violence), it is right in the middle of the action, juddering and whiplashing about as men smash into men. This combination of a sweaty handheld immediacy and a more controlled distance is a tricky one to navigate, yet Mackenzie does it seemingly effortlessly.
And more; his use of depth of field to suggest the levels of this prison - doorways within doorways, cages behind netting, gate after gate under balcony beyond bars - is subtle and brilliant, while the queasy palette of the building and its walls; entirely sickly yellow and pallid green, nicely captures the sickness of the system running this place. He has taken a good screenplay and directed the hell out of it.
That screenplay was written by Jonathan Asser, based upon his own experience of working as a voluntary therapist at a London prison, and it follows Eric after his arrival at the same prison holding his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a respected con on a life sentence. Eric is puffed up with cocky aggression, determined to stand up for himself in this hostile environment, and angry at the world for what it has done to him.
O'Connell plays him as a clever, insecure little brooder, liable to volcanic rages, and it is the genius of his performance that midway through the second act we begin to soften towards Eric, and recognise him as teh vulnerable kid he is. That is partly because he has been identified as such by  Baumer (Rupert Friend), a voluntary therapist who works with a group of prisoners and takes Eric on despite his challenging attitude.
Slowly Eric changes, but the prison is the same (literally) cutthroat world it always was, and politics among prisoners and guards may threaten his existence there.
Brimming with imminent violence and stifled terror, Starred Up is a bruising, intense watch. The father-son relationship underpinning much of the drama gives it a little more emotional heft than many films in the genre, allowing it to transcend the many cliches it deals in. Asser's unique perspective on the material helps too, allowing him to analyse the violence and machismo of his characters - a confrontation in one of Baumer's sessions is one of the most realistic I've ever seen - while Mackenzie understands its allure and usefulness in the creation of tension.
All of this would be little use without the performances of O'Connell and Mendelsohn, ably supported by Friend. They make it intimate and personal, messy and painful, in a way few prison movies can be.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014


(Darren Aronofsky, 2014)

This is the Old Testament by way of a 1970s Prog Rock double album. More post-apocalyptic than Before Christ, Aronofsky's vision is dark and emotional, visceral and soulful, his film occasionally engrossing, often silly, always interesting.
It tells the story of Noah from his childhood to the time when his sons are set upon repopulating the world, after the flood. The most compelling and resonant passages all come in the lead up to that cataclysm. Aronofsky paints a picture of a barren, ruined world, where Noah (Russell Crowe, one of the few leading men with the right presence for a biblical epic) and his small family struggle to survive in the wilderness, never eating meat, only taking what they need, avoiding the violent men from the industrial cities who are descendants of Cain. Then Noah has a vision from "the Creator" (the word God is never uttered in this film) of the world destroyed by water. He travels to see his ancient Grandfather Metuselah (Anthony Hopkins) for advice, and realises he must build an ark to protect all of the animals once the waters come.
In this he and his family (Jennifer Connolly as his wife, Logan Lerman as the sulky Ham, Emma Watson as the incest-avoiding Ila) will be aided by the Watchers, rock giants who were once Angels, now imprisoned inside their rocky forms. They need help and protection, for Warlord Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) and his forces are bent on entering and claiming the ark when the rains come.
All of this is involving, with some impressively epic imagery by Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique, working well alongside Clint Mansell's magisterial, mighty score.
The flood, when it comes, is awesome, preceded by a big battle scene involving men and Watchers and...
Its just all such nonsense, more sword and sorcery than Bible in tone and visual design, and though there are many good things (Crowe remains a magnetic presence throughout, Iceland looks magnificent, there are some vivid and visceral textures) it rarely, for all its modern psychology, feels all that much more interesting than the Biblical epics of the 1950s. Oh, there is a "relevant"ecological theme, and Aronofsky pulls off one stunning scene (Noah recounts creation as Aronofsky somehow melds the theory of evolution with Christian orthodoxy) but once the film settles down in its third act to everybody on the Ark as Noah goes off his rocker because of what he's had to do and still may need to do, it loses most of what made it different and even slightly distinctive. Is there any profundity here, presumably Aronofsky's chief aim? It is too bombastic, too ambitious in conception - here are angels returning to heaven, here is the serpent in the garden, etc - to really allow for any consideration of profundity in the real world. The closest it comes are the moments when you can feel the influence of Terrence Malick most vividly, when Aronofsky doesn't seem bent beneath the weight of all that Bible he's bearing. It is still somewhat impressive, but then so were those 1970s Prog Rock their way.