Sunday, 28 December 2014


(Mike Leigh, 2014)

Director of photography Dick Pope's attempts to paint with light - an obvious nod to the subject of this sprawling biopic - make Mr. Turner easily Mike Leigh's most beautiful film. For a director most obviously acclaimed for his studies of modern British life, class and morals, it is telling that I find his period dramas effortlessly superior to his films on contemporary themes. Part of that is his approach to setting and texture; Leigh's historical dramas are visceral and earthy, keeping his characters front and centre, never distracted by the costumes or locations many examples of this particular genre obsess over. The caricatures which litter his work also fit better into this period world where class seems so much more starkly demarcated than in the complex landscape of modern Britain, where some of Leigh's characters are impossibly stagey, self-indulgent creations, walking embodiments of the flaws in his improvisation-and-rehearsal-to-create-a-script approach. There is still some of that in Mr. Turner, to be sure; a particular weakness for a funny voice or a gurning facial expression is a real Leigh signature, his fallback when he needs a laugh.
It's even there in Timothy Spall's fine lead performance - his Turner grunts more than he speaks, often to great comic effect. A telling character detail, yes; but also a decision made by an actor that does not always work.
Mr. Turner elliptically, messily chronicles the last quarter century of the artists life; already an illustrious and controversial master, he is increasingly eccentric, pursuing his art and his passions with little regard for anything else. He has several complex relationships with women; (barely) endures the death of his father, meets with patrons, friends and rivals, and paints, paints, paints, using food and spit to achieve the effects he needs.
This is a dense film, full of detail and characters and complicated inter-relationships and mysterious ambiguities, and though it sprawls in several directions, it always feels controlled and even concise; Leigh knows what he wants to show us of Turner, his visionary genius allied with his difficult personality, his charm with his sentimentality (it does feel a little autobiographical at times). The ellipses largely help the film avoid traditional biopic problems - it is rarely predictable. It feels like life, a life lived by a genius, a full, singular life. Spall is crucial here, letting us see the fleet, quick mind of this man trapped inside the "gargoyle" he sees in the mirror, together with his at-times overwhelming emotional intensity, and the supporting cast are mostly terrific too.
A lovely score by Gary Yershon helps illuminate something of Turner's melancholy and obsession, but it is only fair to return to the work of Pope. This is a film about a man obsessed with light, and Pope and Leigh seem to have understood that light is central to not only Turner, but cinema. Their film makes that case eloquently enough.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014


(David Wain, 2014)

Great gags and inspired scenes are studded through They Came Together. The best of those, oddly, are the ones that aren't parodying romcom cliches, the ones that have their own internal humour.
Like the scene where the boss of Paul Rudd's Joel finds himself unable to remove his superhero costume at a fancy dress party - shot by Wain in a series of frantic takes as he contorts his body, his face more and more crimson -  and shits his pants, then denies any culpability, having left his soiled costume on the bathroom floor. Or the many random moments of exaggerated behaviour, like Molly's (Amy Poehler) Mom propositioning Joel as a "test" then casually revealing herself as a White Supremacist.
But the film is chiefly a parody of romcoms, and as such it gets so much right, ticking off cliches and conventions as it goes along. Told in flashback by Joel and Molly from a restaurant dinner with another couple, it winks at the audience consistently and from the first moment with it's acknowledgement that New York City is like the "third character" in their story. The problem is that while many of these cliches are presented in hilarious contexts, not all of them are, and it's not enough just to notice conventions; you need to use them somehow, and Wain doesn't do that quite enough.
His cast are a great help, delivering a series of arch "bad" performances full of mugging and telegraphed emotions. Rudd and Poehler have genuine chemistry, which keeps this watchable even as it gets bogged down in a series of short sketches with an at-times-tiresome narrative link. Some gags become funny through repetition (characters constantly say "Shit!" to themselves after somebody else has left, while in other situations, stop people from leaving just so they can say "Thanks.") while some fall flat instantly, but overall this is a pleasantly clever comedy. It's just not quite funny enough.

Monday, 22 December 2014


(Jennifer Kent, 2014)

An instant horror classic, The Babadook has the wit to combine a beautifully arty ambiguity with some outright chills. Basically, it has its cake and eats it.
First and foremost a study of the stresses and exhaustion of parenthood, the story follows Amelia (Essie Davis, excellent), a widow with a young son who is struggling with his behavioural issues. The boy, Samuel, (Noah Wiseman) is obsessed with magic tricks, but also terrified of the monsters he believe live under his bed and inside his wardrobe. Samuel's father died in a car accident while driving Amelia to the hospital to have Samuel, and so his upcoming birthday is laced with sadness for her, still mourning her husband, and exhausted from years of dealing with her sons night terrors.
These are worsened when he presents her with a storybook about a top-hat wearing monstrous shadow called the Babadook. She dismisses his fears, but then, as Samuel's problems increase socially and in school, and Amelia sleeps less, she begins to hear strange noises, and could that be a top hat in the shadows...?
The first half of the film thickly layers atmosphere into it's wonderfully designed chief location - Amelia's house is a spookily gothic old Georgian semi, pooled with darkness at night. Even the scenes set beyond the confines of the house are claustrophobic and closed off, increasing the sense that Amelia and Samuel have nowhere to go. Kent has a fine eye for colour and composition, and there are scenes and shots here which develop with breathtaking precision from banality to creeping terror. An utterly brilliant sound design is key to that - the soundtrack often a sea of ambient sound which combine to gripping, disturbing effect as Amelia struggles to keep a grip on her sanity. The second half of the film features a shift - the horror becomes more explicit as Amelia's suffering increases and the Babdook begins to feature more heavily.
As it does so, Kent pulls off something tricky - we start to question whether it is in fact Amelia's mind that is slipping, of if there is a Babadook inside the house.
A couple of the scares are beautiful because there are no jump-tactics here; rather they are creepy and intensely frightening. Amelia answers the phone to the Babdook in the middle of the day. Amelia sees it in the living room of the old woman next door while washing up.
Kent maintains this ambiguity right up until the last scene, but neither aspect of the film suffers. It works beautifully as a study of a fracturing psyche but just as well as an elegantly designed, cracking little horror film.

Friday, 19 December 2014


(Shawn Levy, 2011)

Take Rocky, add a little sprinkling of The Champ, and then; add robots.
That sounds truly awful, I know. But Real Steel works on it's own, oh-so simple terms. Based on a Richard Matheson story - always a good thing - it is set a few years in the future, when boxing has been replaced by robot boxing, allowing for far more violence and carnage in the ring as machines pound and rend one another into scrap metal. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is an ex-contender, now plugging his way from one debt and one robot to another, never catching a break, living off the goodwill of his ex (Evangeline Lily). Then his 11-year old son (Dakota Goyo) shows up, and Charlie does a deal with the husband of the boy's Aunt - he will spend a summer with Charlie, who will then give him up and be rewarded with a $50,000 payday. All Charlie cares about is the money.
But the boy loves robot Boxing as much as he does, and they bond over the potential of Atom, an old, battered sparring bot they find one night in the scrapyard.
Atom is built to take punishment, and with the modifications made by the boy and Charlie's knowhow, he starts to win fights and develop a reputation. All the while, father and son are growing closer as they drive back and forth across the country, and Charlie's bad luck seems to be changing. Then there is the seemingly invincible super-bot Zeus on the horizon, built to spot patterns and counter them, but perhaps not quite so comfortable against human spontaneity and creativity.
There is nothing new here; not a scene or character or idea or emotion or gag. But what there is, is effectively done. The fight scenes are exciting, nicely manipulative, and well-shot. The gushing sentiment of the father-son scenes is affecting. This sort of underdog tale cannot miss unless it's done really badly, and this one is not.
As robot boxing movies go, in fact, I imagine you can't do any better...

Tuesday, 16 December 2014


(Morten Tyldum, 2014)

A film where the subject is so intriguing that despite a somewhat bungled execution, the final product is still engrossing and utterly watchable.
A biopic of sorts, focusing on Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch, excellent but operating well within his comfort zone of twitchy aspergers sufferers) during the years of WW2 when he worked at Bletchley Park attempting to break the Enigma code. The film goes into a fair amount of detail about exactly what was involved in that process - Turing's attempts to create a computer which would be able to process quickly enough to work out the code vs his colleagues more old-fashioned efforts at cryptography - while also highlighting his social unease and habit of irritating everyone around him with his superiority and inability to understand basic politeness.
There is a framing device - Turing's arrest in 1950s Manchester for homosexual acts, which would lead to hormone therapy and his eventual suicide - and also a series of flashbacks to a key relationship with his first love at boarding school, and a voiceover which it transpires is Turing telling his story to a police detective, making it all feel a little overstuffed.
There are nice distractions - Keira Knightley is good as Joan Clarke, a colleague and fleeting fiancé, while Mark Strong and Charles Dance are both perfectly cast as Government suits, as is Matthew Goode as the perfect opposite of Turing (charming, smooth, at ease with himself) with whom he must learn to co-exist. It is handsome, has a few nice gags, and is an interesting study in how some of the elements which make Hollywood dramas and biopics so dreadfully predictable and cringeworthy can also be the moments that work, the scenes that move you. The potency of cheap, easy drama, as it were. The eureka moment, for example. The scene where Turing learns of the death of his schoolboy crush. His hamfisted proposal to Joan, and their bitter split.
Jostling alongside all of this are a few interesting ideas about intelligence and responsibility, chief among them perhaps the notion that it is right and in the best interest of all that scientists make decisions for the rest of us about life and death, based purely upon statistics. This is the great fear and paranoia upon which a million sci-fi stories have been based: that the scientists think they know better than us, the bovine herds living oblivious to the way the world works, and that they will ultimately make a decision which will kill or save us all.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014


(Kevin MacDonald, 2014)

MacDonald is now that rare thing; an excellent genre craftsman who never makes a bad film. His work in fiction - setting aside his excellent documentaries -  goes from pretty good (State of Play, How I Live Now) to excellent (The Eagle). He has a skilful way with actors and a feel for textures which makes each of his films smell and play very differently.
Black Sea is an old-fashioned men-on-a-mission movie transplanted into the submarine genre. As such, it features a great cast of grizzled character actors playing strong, instantly recognisable types. Jude Law (attempting a passable Scottish accent) is Robinson, fired by his long-term employers at the start of the film, sulking in his dingy Aberdeen flat (MacDonald finds the poetry in the net curtains dancing the breeze) and missing his ex-wife and son, who left him because he was at sea too much. An old colleague suggests he take on a dangerous job - leading a team into the black sea in search of a Nazi U-boat that sank during the Second World War, stuffed with tons of gold.
They have to get the backing of a wealthy patron, recruit a team of Brits and Russians, buy a second-hand submarine, and evade the Russian fleet en route to the gold. Only their team contains one shifty psychopath (Ben Mendelsohn, good as ever), a weaselly Corporate American (Scoot McNairy, doing Paul Reiser in Aliens, and doing him pretty well) and a bunch of Russians and Brits who do not trust one another and cannot communicate. Tensions rise as their journey begins, and inevitably lead to death and disaster.
The cast, MacDonald's intense direction and a taut script by Dennis Kelly mean that early on the tension settles in like an extra actor and it is never off screen. This is one of those submarine films that is excellent on the sheer terror of the alien world beyond the sub's hull ("Just cold, black death", as Michael Smiley's character puts it, sharing all of the film's best lines with David Threlfall) and features a terrifying diving sequence alongside some equally eerie shots of the sub cutting through the murk. Those scenes only increase the claustrophobic feverishness of the paranoia crackling between the men onboard, all of them familiar from the sort of mission movies that were popular four or five decades ago. I mean that as a compliment; Black Sea is a great little yarn, suspenseful, gripping and unexpectedly funny in places.
It is also a study in working class rage - Robinson is motivated by fury at "them", the men who have ruined his industry and taken his career, and he inspires his men with promises of wealth, only to find himself turned and somewhat corrupted by so much beautiful gold, captured by MacDonald glimmering and reflecting across his wide-eyed face. A mission movie for our times, then, and a thoroughly satisfying one, the odd lapse in plot logic aside.

Friday, 5 December 2014


(Tommy-Lee Jones, 2014)

A modern Western that feels literary, in that it flirts with the baroque pulse of Blood Meridian or Butchers Crossing, The Homesman is something of an oddball wonder from writer-director-star Tommy-Lee Jones. It comes frustratingly close to greatness, however, before fudging that somewhat in the third act.
The beginning is startlingly bold: it sets out to look at something Westerns generally ignore - the brutality of life on the frontier for women. We meet Mary Bea Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a tough and capable spinster, working on her own neat Nebraska claim. When a gentleman neighbour comes for supper, she desperately proposes marriage, which he rejects on the grounds that she is plain and bossy.
We also meet three other women; each of them losing their grasp on sanity due to the harshness of their life on the plains. Jones has a way with a surreal, memorable image - here we see a woman walk naked from a house in the snow, nursing a baby on her breast, then casually toss the infant into an outhouse toilet. Each woman's condition is signalled with similarly cinematic economy. The story finds Cuddy volunteering to transport all three women back East to family, and she is joined by Jones' Briggs, a plain-speaking scoundrel with a mysterious past who she comes across left to hang from a tree in the middle of nowhere.
It then becomes a strange mix of elements - picaresque odyssey, darkly comic buddy film, savage western - held together by some beautiful imagery, and the fine chemistry between the leads. Swank is never too kind to Cuddy, who is always, and sometimes annoyingly, herself. Jones plays the kind of part he could play in his sleep, and he does it well.
His direction is better; beautifully textured and patiently paced, The Homesman feels quite unlike anything else, some of its baffling twists defying logic and prediction, but each working on its own terms.


(John Carney, 2013)

Carney returns - sort of - to the winning formula he chanced upon in the modern classic that is Once, creating another not-quite-romance of two lost characters who find and save one another through the healing power of music.
Ruffalo is a down-on-his-luck A&R man and producer who, on the day when he has been fired from the label he co-founded, drunkenly chances upon singer-songwriter Knightly in a Greenwich village bar, falls in love with her song and suggests she sign with him. She is there after being dumped by her long-term boyfriend (Adam Levine) who has been propelled to sudden rock stardom by the inclusion of a song in a hit movie, leaving her behind as he changes and sells out. Rejected by his old label, Ruffalo suggests they make an album live in a variety of famous Manhattan locations, allowing Carney to shoot the city in all its summertime glory, while Knightly and band run through a series of catchy Gregg Alexander tunes on rooftops, subway platforms and in central Park..
Along the way, of course, there is growth, and healing, and a few good gags (James Corden responsible for many of them). It is poppy and light, and yet Carney insures that there is some consideration of the issues central to art; self-expression, authenticity, the impact of success.  Knightly remains true to her music throughout and ultimately rejects the chance of romantic rapprochement after realising that her ex feels differently about the importance of songs, and a coda suggests that her way will ultimately prove successful too. Meanwhile Ruffalo is redeemed by finding new music to love (the original title of the film was the fitting Can a Song Save Your Life?) which unites him with his estranged wife and daughter.
It is nicely shot to make a pin-sharp New York look fantastic, the cast are perhaps a bit classier than it deserves, and it is strangely resonant in its low-key tackling of some of the ideas and issues central to most everyday lives. Most importantly, it understands music, how we feel and feel about and experience music, how important it is, how musicians live surrounded by it.