Saturday, 31 May 2014


(Doug Liman, 2014)

Edge of Tomorrow is one of those films that takes loads of elements from other films – images, ideas, plot points, character beats, clichés – and mixes them together in a new recipe. Just when you think there's too much going on, or something is cheesy, well then that's when somehow Liman makes it work, and then some.
It takes a time-loop plot, perhaps best seen in cinema in Groundhog Day, and sends Cage (Tom Cruise), a PR man given a rank in the US Army who is lacking any combat skills, into battle against an alien army known as Mimics, who are just the English Channel away from conquering all of Europe. This setting - a London quivering under the threat of invasion, an enormous army waiting to attack the French coast - suggests a hundred WW2 films, as does the D-Day style carnage that awaits the soldiers, all wearing augmented battle suits, when they land on the beach.
Cruise dies, terrified, but in doing so he kills a larger Mimic, and is covered in its blood as he dies. Turns out this was a special Mimic, an "Alpha", and he has acquired some of it's ability to Reset the day after death. And so he repeats that same day again and again, acquiring fighting skills as he goes, and finally encountering Rita, "the angel of Verdun", (Emily Blunt), a soldier famed for killing literally hundreds of Mimics in an earlier battle. Rita understands what he is experiencing, having been through it herself, and together they set about trying to use his ability to defeat the alien army and their own commanders, blind to the reality of the Mimic invasion.
Liman is one of that generation of American directors who is blandly accomplished - he can shoot action well, he can do character scenes, comedy, he has a fine eye for landscape...and yet a real sensibility is missing. But it means he can service an entertainment like this one perfectly well. The script is by the Butterworth brothers, Jez (who is a legitimately brilliant playwright) and John-Henry, alongside Chris McQuarrie, and though it is full of action, it is character-driven, as Cage grows more responsible and empathetic and Rita softens and lets him in. 
The leads have no chemistry but are both good in their own right - Cruise looks increasingly haunted and vulnerable as he ages, suiting this part, while Blunt has always possessed an inner fierceness which makes her ideal as the passionate warrior-woman. They are supported by a rich cast made up of some British character actors, with Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor and Bill Paxton all excellent as more vivid presences.
Only the predictable climax is something of a let-down, but even then the coda makes it work. This is summer blockbuster cinema done right - smart, well-paced, stylishly slick, utterly satisfying.

Friday, 30 May 2014


(David Ayer, 2014)

This nasty, sleazy little action thriller plays sort of like Ten Little Indians. If Ten Little Indians was unbelievably pumped full of steroids and tequila, high on liquid meth, tattooed on every square inch of skin, brutally foulmouthed and full of extraordinarily gory violence.
Breacher (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the leader of a DEA Special Operations team who specialize in penetration of Mexican drug cartels. His team is an assortment of hyper-macho assholes who constantly taunt one another but are handy in a firefight, and includes the likes of Max Martini, Josh Holloway, Terence Howard, Joe Mangianello and husband-wife team Sam Worthington and Mireille Enos.
Breacher’s wife and son have been kidnapped, tortured and murdered by a cartel, and after this Breacher has apparently lost it to a degree. In the first act, he and his team attempt to steal $10 Million of cartel money on a raid. Only somebody steals the cash from under their noses, and six months later, and one-by-one, they start showing up dead, in hideous ways: run over by a train while trapped inside a winebago, nailed to the ceiling of a house, etc.
While Detective Brentwood (Olivia Williams), the investigator on the case, tries to negotiate this crew of horrendously unlikable hardcases and figure out who could be behind the murders, the others scatter like rats, waiting for the Mexican death squad they imagine is gunning for them.
Ayer knows his way around macho dialogue, and he shoots each action scene for immersive effect, only occasionally sacrificing coherence in the process. There is a geeky obsession with procedure here; never have I seen a film quite so forensic about how a trained squad would sweep a room than this one. This is a film for fans of ultra-violent pulp; it is ugly, tremendously bloody,  appeallingly visceral. There are many firefights, a crunching car chase. Violence always feels only a beat away.
The cast look to be having a high old time, chortling and grunting their way through their preposterously macho dialogue, and this is perhaps the best Schwarzenegger has ever been, particularly in his scenes with an impressively butch Williams.
Ayer, then, is shaping up to be a truly reliable creator of intensely male b-movies; for disposable, tasteless violent pulp fun, there are currently few better.


(Ashgar Farhadi, 2013)

Another family drama from Farhadi, surgical in its precision as it observes the dynamics and tensions among a splintered family in Paris.
The complexity of the situation here is revealed piecemeal; Marie (Berenice Bejo) meets her ex-husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) at the airport off a flight from Iran, where he has returned to live. We have to infer much from the awkward conversation they have on the drive into the city. She has two daughters – from a previous marriage – but is currently seeing Samir (Tahar Rahim). He and his young son live in her house, but her elder daughter Lucie (Pauline Burnet) seems to hate him. His wife has been in a coma for six months following a suicide attempt, the reasons for which are mysterious - was she depressed or reacting to his infidelity with Marie? 
Marie and Samir are expecting a baby, and Ahmad has come to arrange his divorce from Marie so that they can get on with their lives. While staying with the family he acts as a lightning rod for their many conflicts while also counseling various characters and trying to keep out of it all himself.
While the script and scenario are purest soap opera, Farhadi stages it beautifully. His camera never ever draws attention to itself yet misses nothing – every half-glance, every wince, every gesture. And his cast reward that sort of attention, delivering a set of microscopically nuanced performances that make the pain and fragility of the situation depicted dreadfully evident. Bejo in particular is fabulous; stressed, vulnerable yet stubborn, and Rahim wears the hunted look of a man who does not quite know what he is doing or why. The child actors are just as good, giving their scenes an instant pathos which makes it all feel more important and emotional. If it lacks the quiet shock which was a big part of the appeal of Farhadi's last, A Separation, which depicted in detail an aspect of life in Iran which would be new to most Western viewers, it instead focuses on the lives of immigrants in Europe - working, getting by, enduring the same crises as everybody else.
It is a little too long, but the ending is beautiful; enigmatic, guardedly optimistic.


(Bryan Singer, 2014)

With their thunder well and truly stolen by the Avengers franchise, the X-Men films reach a seventh instalment, needing a reinvigoration. So they return to basic principles: Bryan Singer, director of the first two films, returns, as does most of his cast, joining forces with the cast of the prequel X-Men: First Class to create an Epic, time-travel superhero story based on one of the most beloved stories from over 50 years of X-Men comics.
And Singer brings some quality back with him; this is the best X-Men film since X2, and feels the most closely related to the comics in the entire series, filled as it is with geek references and easter eggs, its ragged, messy plotting fusing a few outstanding set-pieces together by leaning on the familiarity of its strongest characters.
The plot kicks off decades in the future, when shape-shifting, seeming unbeatable robots known as sentinels have ravaged the earth, killing mutants or anybody whose genes might produce a mutant somewhere down the line. X-Men fight them in little bands. At this point, an elderly Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) come up with a plan to use the phasing power of Shadowcat (Ellen Page) to send the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to drop into his younger body in the early 1970s, before the pivotal act which would kick off the sentinel programme can take place.
When he gets there, Wolverine must find the younger versions of the Professor (James McEvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) in order to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), creator of the sentinels. Along for the ride is Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and briefly - and thrillingly - Quicksilver (Evan Peters), whose slo-mo super-speed decimation of some security guards set to Jim Croce may be the best and wittiest action scene in this entire series.
The plot flits from New York to Paris to Washington, and from present to past to future, but Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg keep it all surprisingly comprehensible and the sheer amount of incident means that it never gets dull. Indeed, it fairly whips along without pause from the opening battle with sentinels to Wolverine's fight with Beast to the climactic cross-cutting of Magneto taking down the White House with a last stand in the future.
The fact that audiences know these characters so well helps immeasurably - the story just kicks in and rolls along without many introductions. The cast are probably a bit better than this material deserves; Fassbender and Lawrence, particularly, make their characters terrifyingly, believably intense. Exposition is nicely done, and Singer retains the ability to shoot big actions scenes stylishly. Oh, it can be terribly clunky, and the political and moral allegories of the first two films are now a distant memory, but as a blockbuster spectacle, X-Men: Days of Future Past succeeds splendidly.

Saturday, 24 May 2014


(Gareth Edwards, 2014)

Though it does finally reveal itself to be a movie about an enormous dinosaur fighting with a pair of colossal monsters in the middle of a city, Godzilla is an uncommonly intelligent, even poetic movie about an enormous dinosaur fighting with a pair of colossal monsters in the middle of a city.
Director Edwards brought a sense of haunting stillness and surprising beauty to his low-budget debut, Monsters, and he manages to replicate some of that here too, despite the massive budget and epic scope of this undertaking. What is perhaps most impressive however, is the way he is able to stay true to some of the spirit of the many Japanese iterations of Godzilla while making a film which is decidedly his own. That isn't to say that this Godzilla is entirely satisfying. Instead, for all its accomplishment, it is an oddly flat film, told at a curious remove.
Edwards borrows a lot from Steven Spielberg, introducing his creatures in stages, hinting and teasing, giving us a series of glimpses of Godzilla long before we see him proper. There is a a great deal of exposition early on, and Edwards handles it well, skilfully introducing scientists Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins, part of an organisation devoted to tracking Godzilla. In the opening scene, they find something else; evidence of the emergence of a prehistoric giant creature which has come from deep underground in the Phillipines. That creature heads for the nearest source of Nuclear radiation , which happens to be a Japanese reactor. Its arrival there causes a meltdown, and is covered up by the Government. A decade later, Edwards introduces a family drama to add a little human interest. The family are whats left of the Brodys. After his wife (Juliette Binoche) dies in the meltdown, and executive at the plant (Bryan Cranston) becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth behind the cover-up. His son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is dragged into this when he travels back to Japan to get his Dad out of jail. Together they discover that the creature, named a MUTO by the organisation, has survived the meltdown and has been feeding on the radiation until, fully grown, it is ready to mate.
It escapes a containment facility and heads across the Pacific towards a female MUTO somewhere in North America, creating havoc in Hawaii and summoning what the scientists believe is an alpha predator. Thus the scene is set as Godzilla sets about tracking and killing the two MUTOs while various human characters attempt to get out of his way or stop him entirely.
Those human characters are a definite weak point here. After the terrific early meltdown scene establishing the tragedy that defines the two Brody men, the stakes never seem quite so high. Instead the film seems to quietly work a theme of nature's absolute indifference to humanity, and it is as if the film itself shares some of that indifference. Edwards focuses, Terrence Malick style,  on insects in the background, dogs and wolves in Godzilla's path, the seagulls that cloud around him as he moves.
The people tend to stare dumbly at his enormity when he appears.
While the plot works overtime to allow Ford Brody to trail Godzilla across the pacific, he is never an interesting or compelling character. Part of that is down to Taylor-Johnson, a dull performer, but much of it is because the script gives him nothing but reactions to the situations he finds himself in. His wife (Elizabeth Olsen) is even less corporeal, a faint sketch of a character.
But Edwards still works some magic, engineering a handful of excellent set-pieces, imbuing some of them with that odd poetry he created in Monsters. The sequence where a squad of paratroopers HALO jump into a blacked-out San Francisco, trailing red smoke, is startlingly beautiful.
But soon after, the film focuses, as it must, on that enormous dinosaur, breathing blue flame at the two colossal monsters. And thats fine, and this is probably as good as any film about that could be, in one regard. But it is lacking something. For all that it is commendably devoted to shooting its monsters from a human-eye ground level, it seems to be lacking any humanity.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014


(Leonard Abrahamson, 2014)

Frank does many difficult things extremely well.
It is a black comedy which is, at it's core, about mental illness. Not only that; it addresses lots of the unpalatable truths of human interaction - insecurity, ambition, weakness, jealousy. And it is funny despite that.
It creates an interesting portrayal of musicians at work which lacks most of the usual cliches applied to musicians in cinema. And the music is pretty good, too.
One of it's central characters spends 95% of the story wearing a papier mache head. And this only makes him more hypnotic.
It follows Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a frustrated young office drone from a seaside British town with dreams of rock stardom from the time he encounters Soronpfrbs, an American band on a shambolic tour in a battered old van. Their singer and leader is Frank (Michael Fassbender), who constantly wears that head. He eats in it, sleeps in it, showers in it (wrapped inside a plastic bag). He also seems to be a sort of genius; improvising songs at will, inspired by everything, dragging the rest of the band along in his wake.
After their keyboard player attempts suicide, Jon fills in on keyboards for a gig in his hometown, then gets a phonecall offering him the role on a long-term basis. He travels to rural Ireland, where they set to work on an album, the recording of which takes months. During this time, the web of co-dependencies and rivalries in the band, mostly revolving around Clara (Maggie Gylenhall) grows more complex, as Jon pushes for a more commercial, "likeable" direction, surreptitiously filming their sessions and posting the results on YouTube, where they develop a cult following (this film makes excellent use of twitter as a comedic device). That following results in the offer of a gig at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas. But Frank starts to feel the pressure of performing before a large audience as the band starts to crumble around him, and Jon struggles to hold everything together.
Abrahamson has a gift for observation and for texture; and Frank is full of funny, precisely nuanced scenes in vivid locations, each of them ably captured. The characters seem like they are types, exaggerated for comedic effect...until the pathos starts to seep into this story, and the melancholy heart of Frank himself and of Dan (Scoot McNairy) becomes evident. This is contrasted with Jon's desperate desire to be a star despite a shortfall of talent, and Clara's manic need for control.
Occasionally we even see them play music, a sort of droning eclectic mix of post-rock and electronic experimentation that actually is interesting and good.
Fassbender is as magnetic as ever, using beautifully concise movement and body language to let that blankly surprised giant head act for him. It works. It's hard to drag your eyes away from him whenever he is onscreen.
Gleeson gives great support as the wide-eyed, painfully human Jon, while Gyllenhall is deadpan deliciousness as Clara, casually devastating with her brutal one-line dismissals. The script is full of sly wit, but it is tender to its characters too. All of this, and it still manages to say moving, near-profound things about creativity, inspiration and selfishness. It is magnificent, and quite, quite unique.

Saturday, 10 May 2014


(Jeremy Saulnier, 2013)

Saulnier's storytelling is the thing that elevates Blue Ruin.
A modest, tightly-focused little revenge thriller, it follows Dwight (Macon Blair, brilliant) from a few days before he learns that the man who murdered his parents twenty years before has been released from prison. Dwight is a drop-out. Bearded and long-haired, we first encounter him having a bath only to jump out the window when the owners of the house return. He lives in a battered old pontiac near the sea, scavenges food from bins, and reads by torchlight. The first 15 minutes or so where we follow Dwight through his days are a fine example of pure cinema - there is no dialogue until Dwight is informed by a kindly Police Officer of what has happened. Even then Saulnier lets the sound drop out as Dwight enters an altered state of sorts, from which he will never recover. He travels to his home state of Virginia, bent on revenge, and after that the film is about revenge, family, cycles, and violence. Saulnier shows the messy awfulness of it in visceral, ultra-close up detail. Once the killing begins, Dwight realises what he must do to end this blood-feud, bringing the film to a horrible climax.
The story is never terribly original, and the plotting is a little shaky at times, but Saulnier's deliberate pacing and the obtuse way he approaches certain scenes means that much of it is exceptionally gripping.
Focusing on Dwight's panicked, sweaty face in the foreground while we can see armed men moving, hunting for him, out-of-focus behind. Lingering on the procedural aspects of his planning to emphasise just how ordinary and out of his depth he is as he tries to procure a gun or to remove a crossbow bolt from his leg. Dropping us straight into the lives of a stressed single mother with little girls for a few minutes unexplained before Dwight's arrival reveals that she is his sister.
Blair has massive, expressive eyes, and the fact that so much of the film forces him to tell us how he is feeling purely through his facial expressions is one of its strengths.
It may be minor, but what Blue Ruin does, it does very well, serving notice that Saulnier may be a director to keep and eye on.

Monday, 5 May 2014


(Paul W.S. Anderson, 2014)

The influence of video games on Anderson's work is fascinating. It stands to reason, given that his reputation is founded on adaptations of two leading game franchises; Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil. But it is more interesting when he applies video game conventions to genres not traditionally associated with the form. So Pompeii stuffs the first two acts with gladiatorial combat - arena death-matches of the type featured in many games. Anderson shoots action well; eschewing the handheld, hyperactively edited style so common in modern action cinema in favour of nicely composed long take scenes. He spotlights the stunts and the movement, meaning that his fight sequences are always comprehensible and exciting on that basis.
The third act - after the eruption of the volcano and the transformation into a disaster movie - tips the hat to a different sort of game. Here Anderson's characters struggle to escape from the maze of the city of Pompeii as fireballs rain from the sky.
Those characters are problematic for their thinness. There is the hero, the Celt (Kit Harington) a British gladiator brought to Pompeii from the provinces. He falls in love - at smouldering first sight, naturally - with Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of a Pompeii businessman (Jared Harris), eager to gain the patronage of the new Caesar, represented by Senator Corvus (Keifer Sutherland), who many years before was responsible for the death of the Celt's parents when he crushed an uprising in Britain. The Celt befriends the badass gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinuoye-Agbaje) just before everything goes, well, up in smoke.
Anderson is good at cramming events into shortened time-frames, giving his movies an inbuilt clock, another video-game trope. So that last act of Pompeii, filled with people fleeing, fighting, chasing, is tremendous fun. The first two are more workaday. Surprisingly old-fashioned in its approach, the story makes perfunctory attempts at Roman political chicanery before Anderson's genre mash-up spin the wheel settles on a mix of gladiator movie, disaster film and tragic love story. The love story is given short shrift - it's never been a strength of this director - but the other two genres do fine, helped by the impressive, often stunning action scenes.
Harington and Browning look pretty, but neither has much of a character to play. Sutherland hams it up well enough, but Akinuoye-Agbaje more or less steals the movie, with his malevolent leer and fearsome growl. The cgi is impressive once the apocalypse comes, bringing tsunamis, earthquakes and ash-clouds blotting out the sun in it's wake.