Tuesday, 23 September 2014


(Scott Frank, 2014)

A Walk Among the Tombstones is a classical - almost generic - detective noir. And in the modern filmmaking climate of bombast and narratives so post-modern they're self-reflexive without even knowing it, that makes it feel almost radical in its purity and simplicity.
Adapted by writer-director Scott Frank (who has had success with tricky crime adaptations like Out of Sight and Get Shorty in the past) from one of Lawrence Block's long-running Matt Scudder novels, it casts Liam Neeson as the hero, a recovering alcoholic and ex-NYPD detective who now works as a private and unlicensed investigator. Refreshingly, Scudder is not the invincible super-warrior Neeson has played in the Taken films. Instead he is made a little vulnerable by his continued attendance at AA meetings. He takes a couple of beatings here, though his dry wit and fearlessness more than compensate in ensuring he still feels like a hard-boiled tough guy. Neeson is a rare action actor who is equally comfortable with emotional drama, and he gives Scudder a weighty soulfulness and melancholy. That is mostly expressed in the scenes depicting his relationship with TJ, a precocious street kid who fancies himself a detective.
The case brings a streak of nastiness to the film that all the best detective stories really need; throwing a tarnished white Knight into opposition against pure evil raises the stakes massively, and here that pure evil is in the form of two men who abduct the wives and girlfriends of drug dealers and traffickers and torture and kill them. Scudder is put on the case by Kenny (Dan Stevens), a middle class trafficker who paid the ransom demanded by the voice on the telephone and then had his wife delivered in small bags. Digging deep he discovers that these men are serial kidnappers, their depravity shocking.
It all leads, of course, to the sort of extreme ultra violence and gunplay that led Scudder to quit the police, and which Frank shoots with the same sort of classical precision which characterises most of the films old-fashioned virtues. It feels a little like the sort of modest crime adaptation that thrived in the '60s and '70s - Frank knows how this sort of pulp works, understands its pleasures and delivers them. He gets how important the villains are, he can see how crucial a strong sense of place is, and his film takes the time to do both these things right. It is tight, atmospheric, and commendably streamlined in its accurate recreation of the world of Block's novels. It's good to see a star like Neeson use his profile to get a film like this made.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014


(Anton Corbijn, 2014)

A modern spy story -  meaning it details the obsessive efforts of a small team of intelligence operatives to halt the activities of Islamist extremists -  A Most Wanted Man deals in the classic iconography and conventions of a Cold War thriller. It is set in an Autumnal Northern European city - Hamburg, in this case. Its characters are rumpled and cynical, broken by their profession. People smoke a lot, drink even more, conduct meetings beneath motorway overpasses and in waste ground. Betrayal is a constant possibility.
Lead Gunther (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) trails a traumatic, career-destroying disaster in the Middle East, where an American error blew his Intelligence networks and agents who trusted him died. Banished to Hamburg, his small team spots the arrival of a Chechen with links to terrorism. Gunther spots a way to use him to trap some much bigger game; a famed Muslim activist named Dr Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), who uses his charitable works to conceal links with Al Qaeda.
The plot follows Gunther's attempts to keep his superiors and rivals within German Intelligence at bay while also fending off the CIA (personified here by Robin Wright's cold, sharp agent). At the same time he is using a Liberal immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams) to manoeuvre the Chechen into helping capture Abdullah.
Corbijn directs it all with a great feel for architecture and place - the 60s block where Gunther's team are based is a beautifully brutalist location - which helps lend it a nice chilly feel. The people are guarded and paranoid, driven by duty and mostly untroubled by conscience until everything goes wrong, which it does in every spy story ever. This is a Le Carre adaptation and Gunther is a classic Le Carre hero - more of an idealist than he initially seems, excellent at his job, not the smoothest of politicians. Hoffman is typically superb; his wheeze convenys more emotion than most actors can manage in long monologues.
Although this is the type of film where everybody speaks English in a German accent, it is never less than utterly convincing, and it builds up slowly into a quietly riveting thriller for grown-ups, no set-pieces, just engrossing dialogue scenes.

Saturday, 13 September 2014


(Ridley Scott, 2005)

Balian: You go to certain death.
Templar: All death is certain.

If Kingdom of Heaven - the Directors Cut, not the manifestly inferior theatrical version, which is 45 minutes shorter - starred anybody other than Orlando Bloom in the lead role, it would be one of Ridley Scott's very best films. Bloom has never been better than in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where he is required mainly to seem unearthly and beautiful - Legolas doesn't really have any personality in the realistic sense. He is a heroic ideal, and Bloom, blessed with his good looks, manages that without difficulty. In much of his other work he is similarly required to look pretty, but he is hopelessly out of his depth when asked to express any actual emotion. In Kingdom of Heaven, where he is asked to handle huge emotions - grief, despair, love - he is blank-faced. His single expression is a sort of empty smoulder - he seems to have walked off the set of an aftershave commercial. His character, Balian, is driven through the film by a search for his faith, yet Bloom looks like he's searching for his iPod and isn't all that bothered if he finds it or not.
It's a pity, because he is surrounded by a truly classy cast of mainly European supporting actors, most of whom seem totally at home in the Medieval World Scott painstakingly, beautifully creates. Liam Neeson, David Thewlis, Jeremy Irons, Kevin McKidd, Martin Csokas and Brendan Gleeson all have big masculine presences, and Bloom seems dwarfed by all of them in his shared scenes. Eva Green is a fascinatingly complicated leading lady here, and Edward Norton offers a somehow Brando-esque but very effective voice performance as the masked Leper-King, Baldwin.
This is a complex, thematically ambitious epic, spending much of its running time detailing the political and religious divisions which beset the factions within the Holy Land during the Crusades. It is also an exploration of ideology and of the difference between faith and religion. That could be dull, but screenwriter William Monaghan, who wrote the dazzling dialogue for The Departed, shows that he can do the same for a vastly different world here, though there are a few clunky exchanges. Its contemporary resonances, dealing as it does with a battle in the Middle East between Christian and Muslim forces, are unavoidable and well-handled. It is fair-handed, with Saladin, the Commander of the Saracens, played by the charismatic Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud, emerging as one of the best and most likeable characters, while many of the Christians are plainly rabid animals using their religion as justification for slaughter.
The real glory of this film, though, is Ridley Scott's direction. It seems a synthesis of much of what he has done before - the reconstruction of Old Worlds in Gladiator and 1492 and The Duellists is here attempted on an even bigger canvas, and it is achieved more vividly and more beautifully than in any of those films. The ferocity of the battle scenes in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down is replicated here, again on a bigger, more beautiful scale. The contrast between the wintery mud and misery of Continental Europe in that era with the exotic melting pot of the Holy Land is brilliantly evoked. Indeed, the whole thing is textural masterpiece, always sensuous and visceral, with moments of pure poetry scattered throughout the story.
Its commercial failure is still no surprise. Aside from the gaping hole at its heart where a leading man should be, it's flaws are obvious and even its strengths are partially uncommercial - it is more complex and adult than any of the other modern epics, its conclusions about religion and war too ambiguous for popular acceptance. If Gladiator used a simple revenge story to great effect, Kingdom of Heaven has no such basic structure, its tale of a man searching for faith and redemption far too interior to drive such a big narrative emotionally. The film it most reminds me of is Anthony Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire, another Epic with a miscast leading man and a downbeat, complex tone.

Friday, 12 September 2014


(Kelly Reichardt, 2014)

Reichardt's brand of hushed, precise art cinema proves a surprisingly good fit for a paranoid thriller here. Following three novice Environmental terrorists as they plan and execute the destruction of a dam in Oregon, Night Moves concentrates on the cross-currents and dynamics between these people, most effectively as the tension mounts in the hours before the bombing and as their paranoia grows in the aftermath.
Shot mostly in muted, autumnal hues, Reichardt is as sensitive as ever to the landscapes in which she sets her story. But her camera is also attuned to the faces and body language of this trio.
Their plan has come from Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), a tightly wound, humourless young man who lives in a Yurt on a farming co-operative. His awkward gracelesness is nicely, subtly contrasted with the chattering charm of Dee (Dakota Fanning), a little rich girl who funds some of Josh's smaller acts of rebellion but finds herself unprepared for the real-life repercussions of their bombing. They are joined by an old friend of Josh's, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), an ex-Marine, ex-Con who handles the explosives and deals with their situation better than his co-conspirators.
The film steadily follows their preparations as they buy a boat and fertiliser, make explosives and get into position. We get glimpses of their differing philosophies and reasons for doing this; Josh's anger about salmon dying so people can charge their iPods, Harmon on the bloat of Portland into the countryside, and Dee on how industrial fishing is destroying ocean bio-diversity. That all makes their actions seem righteous and motivated, but there is the unmistakable sense that they do not know quite what they are doing. In the aftermath, Reichardt allows Josh's boss to casually destroy the meaning of their act when he calls it "theatre" and we can see in Josh's eyes that - after a tragic and unexpected consequence has struck him - he doesn't even disagree.
The atmosphere is thick with angst and tension, and that only increases once the act has taken place and Josh is spiralling, worried about his accomplices and the future. The ending is ambiguous and haunting in a way that provides a perfect fit with the quiet tone of the film.

Saturday, 6 September 2014


(Adam Wingard, 2014)

The sort of lowish budget genre mash-up that makes mega-budget blockbusters look really inept. Many of those movies can't get one genre right, but here Wingard and screenwriter Michael Barrett manage to successfully, gleefully combine a few in a nifty, modest little thriller with wit, style and impact.
Dan Stevens is beautifully used. His character, the too-nice-to-be true soldier David, returns to the U.S. after a stint somewhere in the Middle East and checks in on the family of his friend who has been killed in action. Only there is something off about David. Something studied and watchful, and when he is left alone, his face reverts to a malevolent scowl. These are the best passages in the movie; as David sets about getting to know this family and helping them in his own way, Wingard focuses on Stevens' piercing blue eyes and the actor emphasises his own bland charm until it becomes something vaguely sinister. He brutally, spectacularly beats up the bulles who have been making teen nerd Luke's life hell, listens to Dad's (Leland Orser) work woes, shares tales of their deceased son with Mom (Sheila Kelley) and accompanies Anna (Maika Monroe) to a party where his studly decency and decisiveness in dealing with the arrival of an angry ex-boyfriend goes down very well.
But Anna is suspicious, and soon people start to turn up dead, and we learn that David is not quite what he seems, and that there are serious, extremely armed people after him.
The last act, then, transforms into a mixture of shoot-em-up action film and stalker film, but Wingard handles both genres well. The finale takes place in a high school gym set up for a Halloween Ball, including a Halloween maze and lots of dry ice, and there are moments referring to everything from John Carpenter and The Terminator to The Hitcher and Hitchcock. A big set-piece gun battle decimating an isolated farmhouse is nicely done, and the whole thing makes a virtue of it's few locations and small cast, upping the tension through an intense focus on the dynamic within the home of one family after they invite one guest to stay.
Wingard directs with style and precision - there is a vivid, warm colour palette here and some beautiful compositions, and the '80s-esque electro soundtrack by Steve Moore helps to build a thickly suspenseful atmosphere.