Wednesday, 30 December 2015


(Ron Howard, 2015)

Ron Howard's Meh-factor cannot be denied. Doesn't matter what the raw material is. The story which allegedly inspired Moby Dick? About a whaling vessel sunk 2000 miles out in the Pacific by a vengeful white whale , so that its crew had to drift for months in small boats, enduring starvation and eventual cannibalism in order to survive? That kind of yarn should make a cracking movie. Howard turns in an ok one.
A cast of exciting British and Irish thespians, from old hands like Brendan Gleeson and Cillian Murphy to youngsters like Tom Holland? Should be creating a savage, human drama. Here their characters seem like the plainest of archetypes, and the actors work overtime to make more of them than that. A genuine movie star with charisma and acting ability, in Chris Hemsworth?  He never really seems less than that, dominating the film with his athleticism and presence, even if his character too is defined by a single trait - a terrible temper. That temper leads him to make a decision in the heat of his first confrontation with the great whale; one which he might regret.
He plays Owen Chase (a hero must have a heroic name), first mate on the Essex, a whaling ship out of Nantucket in the 1820s. He has only been denied the captaincy because of politics, and his relationship with the captain, Pollard (Benjamin Walker), never recovers, and indeed poisons the atmosphere during their first year at sea. An eventual desperate gamble in order to ensure a good harvest of whale oil is what leads them into the path of the white whale and the ensuing tragedy.
Anthony Dod Mantle's work as cinematographer here is absolutely stunning; he depicts the oceans as a terrible living thing, the skies reeling above in a phantasmagoria of hues and colours, from the sunlight battering the men in their boats to the fires illuminating the wreck of the Essex by night.
The story takes a great deal of time establishing its world and (limited) characters, and reaches a peak around halfway, with the whale attack sequence.
It is certainly too long, and feels as if its unbalanced structure is partly to blame for that. The second half patiently traces the mens voyage home and the most awful moments of their ordeal.
So what is it that makes Howard such a pedestrian filmmaker? I think he is so resolutely Hollywood that his films coast by, content with being entertaining, never taking risks or surprising us.
He is a solid storyteller, but there is not one moment of transcendent visual style here. Not that a film should have such a moment, but this film seems made for it, especially with a DP like Mantle on-board. Contrast that with Peter Weir's nautical masterpiece, Master & Commander: the Far Side of the World. That film has tons of narrative yet still contains a few tangential moments of purest visual poetry. Howard seems to lack such poetry. The way he portrays Nantucket is also entirely Hollywood; it seems too cluttered, too busy, too respectful of the production designers and costumers, and never feels like a real place. Even his work with actors is just good enough: this role should have drawn on previously unplumbed depths in Hemsworth. But instead he grows a beard and loses some weight, but always remains a beautiful, charismatic movie star. Then there is that awkward, entirely cliched and unnecessary framing device, wherein Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) interviews an aged survivor of the Essex (Brendan Gleeson). Two great actors reduced to a bunch of pointless scenes that add nothing at all, really, to the film or any of its themes.
While it may be entertaining - as are most of Howard's films - it seems a strange way to short sell such strong material. It also has the unique misfortune to be a historical survival adventure movie released in the same month as Inarittu's The Revenant, to which it compares extremely badly.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015


(Hou Hsiao Hsien, 2015)

I love seeing the world through Hou Hsiao Hsien's eyes.
But that means slowing down, paying attention, giving oneself to the images.
His mastershot style is quiet and still and precise, and it magnifies nuance and gesture. Once you become attuned, it gives certain scenes incredible power. I suppose the flip-side to this is that if you do not become attuned, then his films must seem unbearably tedious.
The Assassin is a nuxia - an entry in the "female knight" sub-genre in the Kung Fu genre. It stars Hou muse Shu Qi as Yianning, banished from her home province as a girl to save herself after she reacts badly to some inter-family politics. In the interim she has been trained as a deadly assassin, but she lacks the ruthlessness required of the profession, although her skills are "matchless". Her Mistress dispatches her back to her home province and back to her family, where she is to kill the Ruler of the province (Chang Chen), to whom Yianning was once betrothed. This is both punishment and test, and embroils the assassin in the complex court politics of 7th Century China.
Aside from some text at the start, there is very little exposition explaining this, and what does come is mostly revealed in two quiet conversations, around a half-hour into the film. Hou is insisting that an audience pay attention to this film, that you must strain even to attain the most basic comprehension of the plot. His elliptical storytelling makes that difficult at times, especially where the internecine plotting is involved, but the broad strokes of the story and the characters are quite simple.
Shu Qi's character is still in love with Chang Chen's, and the only question really is how she will deal with the consequences of her actions (or inaction).
When other Chinese auteurs have taken on the wuxia genre, from Wong Kar Wai to Zhang Yimou, each of them bows to the stylistic conventions. Not Hou. Yes he features martial arts fights, but they are as elliptical as everything else here. The editing rhythms may change - quiet a jarring, if exhilarating, new development in his oeuvre - but these never feel like fights for their own sake. Yianning may be a matchless warrior, but she takes no pleasure in her skill, and her moves are efficient and precise, reminiscent more of samurai swiftness and finality than much I've seen in the wuxia genre. Hou shoots her in different ways in each fight; in an unusually tight mid-shot for one, her athleticism obscured (a decision he insists was due to Shu Qi's inadequacies as a martial artist), barely glimpsed in another, her opponents toppling like skittles from her limbs, in an elegant dance-like exchange in a battle with a golden-masked female assassin for yet another. And sometimes he doesn't shoot her at all; he cuts away from one fight to a long shot so that we can barely glimpse it among some distant trees, and stages another off-screen, lingering instead on another two characters. Her performance is quiet and contained but it gathers a great deal of power as the story develops. Chang Chen - always a charismatic presence - is allowed to show more obvious emotion, but his best scene is the one where he quietly confides in his concubine about who Yianning is, what she might mean to him evident in his voice and face.
This is a mesmerising, mysterious film, heavy with repressed emotion, its characters bounded by the social structures represented so beautifully by the period finery all around them, and also by Hou's lovely framing. Only Yianning is really free to choose her fate, and Shu Qi is accordingly the character we follow as she moves through and across the screen throughout the film, alone but at liberty.
All this and I have not mentioned what most reviewers focus on: this is a startlingly beautiful film. It is also an at-times-forbiddingly arty one. But worthwhile.

Sunday, 27 December 2015


(Tom McCarthy, 2015)

Spotlight has a great real-life story as raw material. It also has an outstanding cast of character actors and movie stars all committing fearlessly to this treatment of that story. What it does not have is a writer-director with any real feel for cinema.
That's not to say there is nothing to recommend in Spotlight; it is an engrossing, beautifully-acted procedural, with plenty of finely-observed details that bring the story and world to life. It's screenplay has some nice moments and a few fine characters.
Previous true-life procedurals like All the Presidents Men and the Insider combined sharp scripts and great actors with bravura direction. It's just that I don't think McCarthy is capable of "bravura". He is fantastic with actors, and this film is really well paced, giving out just enough exposition to keep an audience interested but never enough to slow things down so much that they might become bored.
The story follows a specialist team of reporters at the Boston Globe as they investigate a story of the Catholic Church and it's decade-long cover-up of paedophile priests. Those reporters are played by the likes of Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams while Liev Schrieber appears as the new Editor of the Paper, an outsider and Jew, who pushes for the story to the displeasure of most of the city, it seems.
McCarthy shoots it all like it's television. From 1997. Flat, "realistic" lighting, dull blocking and compositions. The camera moves little, and never with any real sense of purpose, either thematic or aesthetic. It feels as if he has learned to direct from a book of How to Direct. Directing: a Fools Guide, perhaps?
It's a shame, because this could and should be an important film about a hugely controversial topic. Instead it is a mediocrity; never bad - its far too tasteful for that -  but never great either.

Friday, 25 December 2015


(Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu, 2015)

The Revenant starts with a sudden, brutally violent attack upon a trapper camp by a war party of Arikara Indians in 1823. Arrows abruptly appear in throats, blood spurts, and all of a sudden a pitched battle of horrific violence and chaos is underway. Obviously inspired by his work on Birdman, Inarittu shoots all of this in what appears to be a single, awesome take, as the men fight, die and begin a panicked retreat towards their boat on the river, the Indians in pursuit.
Shot by the genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, this scene reminded me of nothing so much as the work of Terrence Malick. His masterful The New World, also shot by "Chivu" created an utterly immersive, 360 degree world upon the American Frontier, and Lubezki's camera patrolled it incessantly, as it does here. Only the world summoned up by Inarittu has a lot of Sam Peckinpah in it too - it is tough and masculine, filled with big and peculiar characters and terrible deaths, a sense of relish for the violence and suffering on screen.
This focus upon action is new for Inarittu. It is also quite refreshing. His earlier work was often weighed down by a pompous sense of seriousness, of a director with an undergraduate understanding of the world filled with conviction that he had important things to say. Babel is perhaps the nadir of his work, a trite and simplistic thesis on communication, interconnectedness and the modern world.
The Revenant too strains for seriousness, but it is taciturn film, entirely wordless for long stretches, and Inarittu reduced to images is a much more impressive director than the man who relied on vacuous screenplays to communicate his themes. On one level, this film is an absolutely incredible action film, with its plot concerning a man struggling to survive in an unbelievably harsh environment and his quest for revenge after he is left for dead, and watches his son murdered. Only Inarittu fills it with long, slow scenes glorying in his sensational landscapes, and sequences revealing the state of mind of his protagonist, Glass (Leo DiCaprio), as he is haunted by memories of a massacre in an Indian village, the death of his wife and his own actions to save his son.
The action scenes are outstanding: both that stunning early battle, a later pursuit across a plain, an extended and terrifying bear attack, and the final confrontation each contains a few genuinely jaw-dropping moments, and they help make this an entirely gripping experience, for all that its director has greater pretensions.
The ferociously committed performances are a great boon, too. DiCaprio does most of his work without dialogue, and still manages to convey his agony and fierce will to survive with just his face and body language. Tom Hardy, as the man who betrays him, unveils another funny voice and accent, but creates a weak, believably complex antagonist in his Fitzgerald.
The likes of Will Poulter and Domhnall Gleeson match them in smaller parts.
For all that, Lubezki is undeniably the film's true star; his work here is sensational, and this is truly an every-frame-a-painting movie. For all the effort that Inarittu devotes to creating a strong thematic content here - his suggestions that Tarkovsky as an influence say it all - this film is amazing. Powerful, beautiful and riveting, it is hard to shake off.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015


(Todd Haynes, 2015)

I should have loved Carol.
I love stores of passion denied, of love faced with formidable obstacles.
I love cinematic storytelling that centres on the craft of directing. And this film is beautifully directed. Haynes' artistry seems at a new level here, and he plays with focus, colour and perspective impressionistically, communicating his characters inner states with nuance and soulfulness throughout the film. He does not waste a single shot, either, and more or less every shot is lovely.
Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett are both superb as the women who fall in love in 1950s Manhattan. Mara in particular finds depths and harmonics within her lonely, complicated young photographer that give her emotional collapse late in the film unusual power. Blanchett is doing her thing - strong and superficial, but vulnerable - and nobody else does that as well as she does, of course. There are supporting actors of incredible class like Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson, in interesting, layered roles.
This world feels real and lived in, with texture and detail that enhances and underlines the main story lines and themes.
And yet: I didn't love Carol. It felt a little one-noted and simplistic. Its view of the world as a mausoleum where even love is a melancholy, grim experience was wearing and exhausting to me. The relentlessly dour atmosphere only increased that sense, as did the absence of any humour or joy in the world Haynes depicts. It is undoubtedly a beautiful and beautifully crafted film, but I felt more respect for it than love.

Monday, 21 December 2015


(Ryan Coogler, 2015)

The confidence and assurance Coogler demonstrates in the leap from his debut, Fruitvale Station, a small-scale independent film, to Creed, a big studio boxing drama and a reboot-sequel to the Rocky series, is truly startling. And not only is he confident; he is successful - this is a superb piece of studio film-making, made with wit and style, engrossing, exciting and affecting throughout.
The story follows Adonis "Donny" Thompson (Michael B Jordan, showing the movie star chops needed to carry a whole film on his shoulders), illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, as he gives up his white collar world in Los Angeles and travels to Philadelphia, where he convinces his father's old friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to help train him. Donny must battle his old demons - of course, this is a boxing movie - while Rocky deals with his. Along the way, too, there are a couple of epic boxing matches.
The only real issue Creed has is pacing; at just over two hours it is a little overlong, and it feels as if the whole movie restarts after Donny's first real fight, when Rocky confronts his own problems. Aside from that, it is a beautifully crafted example of the boxing genre. Donny is an interesting character, fighting because he feels he needs to, and his relationship with Rocky is touching - mutual surrogacy which is finally acknowledged, and needed by both men. He also has a sweet romance with Biancha (Tessa Thompson), a singer whose progressive hearing loss gives her character a never-overplayed thematic resonance for Donny, with his issues with making his mark while he has time, and Rocky's obsession with the past and future.
While cramming in two lead storylines - one for Donny and one for Rocky - creates some of those pacing issues, it also allows Stallone to shade this portrayal of his oldest character with some lovely notes of melancholy and regret. This is probably his best acting work, and he retains that old movie star presence, now deepened by age and sadness, which gives this film a nice depth of flavour.
But it stands and falls as a boxing movie, and what is so exceptional is the way it embraces each and every boxing movie cliche (most of them pumped up by Stallone in the Rocky series) and yet transcends them. There are training montages, of course. Donny screws up and comes perilously close to losing everyone he loves. There is a run through the streets of Philadelphia.
But Coogler is an exciting talent, and he knows the power of a moving camera and comes up with some interesting angles on familiar material. He shoots Donny's first big fight in one extended shot, lending it the elegance and power of a great dance sequence in a musical. Whenever a possible opponent for Donny appears on-screen, his career stats appear beside him, like something from a computer game. That Philadelphia run is mainly in slo-mo, with motorbikes racing around Donny as he sprints. Donny and Biancha first connect in an upside-down shot, lying on her floor, listening to her music. The way the dialogue drops away as the referee addresses Rocky and Donny in the dressing room, and all we can hear is the crowd above.
Donny's sudden and panicked need to go use the toilet before his first fight is typical of this film - slight twists on familiar material, freshening it up. The climactic bout is shot in a more modern style, lot of movement and impact cuts, but it is done about as well as it can be done, and it follows the emotional arc familiar from this series to exhilarating effect.
All of this and the clear-eyed way it regards issues of ageing and legacy make this an unusually intelligent studio franchise film, and one that is almost entirely successful.

Sunday, 20 December 2015


(J.J. Abrams, 2015)

I am one of Generation Star Wars.
Seeing the first two films in a double-bill around 1982 was a formative event in my childhood and, lame and corny though it sounds, helped to turn me into the person I am today. I accept the value of the myth created by George Lucas, I understand how it has shaped and turned popular culture, and in some ways, I've been waiting for this film for thirty-odd years. I know I brought a few metric tons of baggage into the cinema with me when I went to see The Force Awakens.
With that said, this is a good piece of genre entertainment, not a great one. The narrative is a bit of a mess, but so many other elements are excellent that they offer no little compensation. The story focuses on the search for a vanished Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), a quest which involves both sides of a conflict in a galaxy now overseen by a Republic. Those sides are the Resistance, led by Leia (Carrie Fisher), now a General; and the First Order, an Empire-worshipping army led by Supreme Commander Snoke (voiced by Andy Serkis) whose leadership includes a new version of the Darth Vader-Grand Moff Tarkin duo in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Commander Nux (Domhnall Gleeson). That suggests one of the issues with this film: it has a karaoke feel to it, with almost every single element recalling or referring to one from the original trilogy.
Take the heroes: Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a scavenger who we first encounter alone and shiftless on a desert planet, just like Luke at the start of Star Wars. Finn (John Boyega) is a scrapper who makes one decision after another and winds up up to his neck in the Resistance, despite starting the film as a Stormtrooper. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is a cocksure, witty X-Wing Pilot, seemingly blustering and improvising his way through sticky situations, just like Han Solo when we first encountered him.
Speaking of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), he and Chewbacca show up too, going about their roguish smuggling business and drawn back into a conflict centred around the Force, just like they were in Star Wars.
Not only that; there is basically a new Death Star. There is a climactic light sabre duel. There is an X-Wing dogfight with Tie Fighters. There is a snowy planet. There is a cantina scene, complete with odd music. There is a wise old alien who knows more than she lets on and dispenses advice, informed by her awareness of the Force. There is the death of an old, mentor character at the hands of a younger character, who was once close to him.
Abrams takes Star Wars itself as a sub-sub-genre; sci-fi by way of space opera, and as all that quotation and repetition suggests, he is extremely faithful to the conventions of that sub-sub-genre. Perhaps too much so, in that this film is never really surprising, with even its twists reminiscent of twists from the original trilogy. But then a massive part of the pleasure here is that this film feels like Star Wars in a way none of the prequels really did.
And then there are the virtues that Abrams brings: he has always been good on character, and the characters here are fascinating. Take Kylo Ren's volatile brattishness (he is just the way Anakin Skywalker should have been in the prequels), soulfully played by Adam Driver. Or Daisy Ridley playing Rey and her gradual awakening to who and what she may be (accusations that her character is a "Mary Sue" seem ignorant of the "hidden Prince" trend which has been popular in the fantasy genre for decades, and of which she seems a prime example) as a frightening and then exhilarating journey. John Boyega's Finn, meanwhile, is the most entertaining of the three, finding himself while wisecracking and double-taking the whole time. The older characters, meanwhile, show up just like old friends, the changes in them moving and amusing in equal measure. Harrison Ford in particular seems to be having a good time as Solo, and he manages to play a few difficult moments with a lot of emotion and wit.
Abrams other chief strengths are aesthetic - his films are usually incredibly pacy, and The Force Awakens whips along throughout its two hour twenty running time, never really pausing for breath. That is useful, when the story is as messy and occasionally stupid as this one is. Another compensation is the visceral physicality of his storytelling. There have never been moments in Star Wars films like some of the shots here - Tie Fighters appearing against the sun, Storm Troopers waiting in a shuddering drop-ship.
Above all, Abrams knows how to make his films fun. The Force Awakens is stuffed with gags, great action beats, nice character moments and rich detail, and it is entertaining from start to finish, with a few passages which have resonance  and emotion throbbing through them. It also sets up Rian Johnson's Episode VIII in a manner which suggests it has a great chance of becoming another Empire Strikes Back. Lets hope so. For now, The Force Awakens is a definitive statement - Star Wars is back, and it's good again. Whew.

Friday, 18 December 2015


(Matthew Vaughn, 2010)

Aaron Johnson, who does just fine, is wrong for the title role here. A valid comparison would be the casting of Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man. Maguire is geeky-looking, slightly bug-eyed, not too tall or pretty or athletic. He could have been the nerd Peter Parker is meant to be. Johnson, on the other hand, is obviously a handsome boy, and a geeky afro and pair of specs don't really change that. He's also too jocky - tall, broad-shouldered, fit. A young leading man, in other words. Anybody who is cast as a young John Lennon , which is a role requiring a brooding, charismatic, smouldering kind of teen, is wrong for Kick Ass.
Nicolas Cage, on the other hand, finds just the right film for that chihuahua-on-acid energy of his. Here he doesn't feel like he's wandered in out of his bubble of celebrity where its ok to marry Elvis' daughter because hey, you're a big fan and where you should say yes to every film that goes over a certain figure for your salary. Here he feels like he's caught the tone of the film just right, like he even exemplifies it. His Adam West impression is funny for a few seconds, he has plenty of action scene experience, and he doesn't jolt us out of the film with any bizarre line-readings or twitches for once. This and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans in the same year or so constituted a  sort of mini-comeback, since in New York City, Kick Ass was mostly shot in London, and there are times when the difference between the two cites is all too apparent. London and New York look different, basically. The architecture is different, the street furniture, the shopfronts, the alleyways...Vaughn and his people do well dressing up locations, for the most part, but this New York just feels wrong. It never coalesces into something that feels like a real city, with all its vague locations - lumber warehouse, drug dealers pad in council estate, suburban high school - and for all is references to NYC, the attitude and spirit of the place are utterly absent. It feels plastic. It feels like the generic "Metropolis" which is home to Superman, and is an obvious analogue of New York without being tied to the actual New York in any way. It feels more comic book-influenced then the same city does in Raimi's Spider-Man films. But this is the film that purports to be a realistic view of Super-heroes. Here New York is full of knife-wielding muggers, and there are plenty of darkened alleyways, just like in my 70s Marvels. In some films, geographical uncertainty can work well. David Fincher's Seven, for instance, is set in an unnamed city which we assume is New York for the first two acts of the film. But at the end, as three characters drive out of the city and into the countryside, they drive through the sun-blasted scrub of what can only be California, and the city seems suddenly more likely to be Los Angeles. This small detail shakes an audience a little, rocks its preconceptions and expectations about what it is watching.
I generally hate when films are shot in one place and set in another, though the strange atmospherics of an everycity can be effective in the right hands. Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut was famously shot in a London standing in for New York, while Vancouver finds itself repeatedly impersonating American cities, often badly. Lost is a treasure trove of city masquerades, as Honolulu impersonates everywhere from London to Seoul to LA. But Lost does it either very well or horrendously badly. Either way is somehow better than the just-slightly off attempt made by Kick Ass.
The most interesting material in both comic and film is in the early scenes, before the arrival of Hit Girl and Big Daddy into the narrative. Here Millar and Vaughn take on the concept of the Super-Hero and its application in a cynical, frightened world, but also a scattershot approach to modern culture, from viral video to cash-in merchandising. Then Hit Girl and Big Daddy show up, and it all turns into a big ridiculous stupidly entertaining action scene. Betraying the influence of both Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Jason Pierson's Body Bags, their characters are hilarious and fun and yet they are a big part of some of the film's problems. In the first act, they are somewhat uncomfortably crowbarred in to a story which is not theirs. And then later Hit Girl's central role is undermined by the fact that she is entirely without an interior life - we see her kill and maim and flip and stab, we see her beaten and shot, but we never have the slightest idea what she is thinking or feeling. This reduces her to a pretty black sight-gag, a flash of Japanese anime in the film's DNA, or perhaps a slightly offensive reduction, a character created purely for fanboys, which is never a good thing. Kick Ass himself, by comparison, is all interior life, as his voiceover fills us in on his every thought and aspiration, rendering him without mystery or much nuance. A better actor than Johnson might have given him more shades of despair or horror, but he remains a two dimensional creation throughout.
The film is the very epitome of the modern genre spectacle. In a post-Tarantino world, that means that it is broadly post-modern, casually fascist and directed with an efficiently anonymous "stylish" sheen. It is also more concerned with being fliply funny than with being an effective action film, sacrificing emotional impact on several occasions for a gag. It has a scene with a heavy video game (read: First Person Shooter) reference in Hit Girl's night vision POV massacre, lots of martial arts and insane gunplay, and a soundtrack littered with pop culture ephemera and rescued trash - Sparks, Joan Jett, the Dickies' version of the Banana Splits theme, the Prodigy's sampling of Manfred Mann and a very Tarantino usage of Morricone's "For A Few Dollars More". In other words, it feels like a DVD movie, the sort of film made for Chapter Selection where you can rewatch favourite scenes and moments.
The worst material in the climactic scenes is not from the comic. The comic stays gritty and horrifying whereas the movie finally aims for purest fantasy in a sort of betrayal of its own earliest impulses. Its a shame.
What Kick Ass is, unexpectedly, is a great portrayal of adolescent male friendship. The protagonist says of himself that he "just exists, like most teenagers". He and his two best friends seem like the film's most authentic element, to me. Their warm camaraderie, based on mutual geekiness and constant ribbing, reminded me of my relationship with my friends at that age. Comic shops, sexual frustration, continual teasing of one another, not belonging to any of the teen tribes - all evoked lightly and wittily. Even if the film has little use for this side of its character, its brilliantly done while it lasts, before the costumes and the fight scenes come out.


(Paul McGuigan, 2009)

Notable elements of Push:
- A likeable performance from Chris Evans as telekinetic Nick Gant, wasting his powers as a hustler in Hong Kong after the opening flashback reveals his tragic back-story (similarly telekinetic father killed by Government goons the Division). Evans is effortlessly sympathetic and amusing when he needs to be, and he makes a frustrating character that much more tolerable.
- Hong Kong itself, all buzzing energy in the streets and markets, nimbly captured by McGuigan's camera.
- The world of this film is like a mini Marvel or DC universe, but here it tries to establish that universe and its rules within the boundaries of a single two hour film, making it overstuffed and hard to follow.
- There are some imaginative treatments of super-powers and their potential uses; Cliff Curtis uses his power of suggestion to live a continual party lifestyle, for instance, rather than trying to save or conquer the world.
- The final set-piece is set in the skeleton of a half-completed skyscraper (cliche), involves two telekinetics throwing power-assisted punches at one another while Chinese gangsters die in their dozens around them, and still manages to be tremendously dull.
- An under-developed, unconvincing, half-arsed romance between Evans and Belle, which takes attention away from the far more interesting friendship between Evans and Dakota Fanning's clairvoyant.
- McGuigan directs with a good feel for place and tone and an efficient handle on action scenes.
-Djimon Hounsou has entirely the wrong sort of presence for the role of Big Bad in a film like this, and that severely weakens the balance here.

Thursday, 17 December 2015


(John Crowley, 2015)

To this particular Irish emigre, Brooklyn seems so Irish in a multitude of ways; in its mixture of repression and melancholy, its often hysterical humour, its gentle beauty and, perhaps most of all, in its surging undertow of strong emotion.
It tells the defining Irish story of the 20th century: the story of a young person emigrating to America. Eilish (Saoirse Ronan, as brilliant here as ever, and making a serious play for the undisputed title of finest actress of her generation) has little future n Enniscorthy, Wexford, and so she leaves her sister and mother behind for a new life. In Brooklyn she lives in a boarding house for single Irish girls, policed by fearsome, hilarious landlady Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters, brilliant) and spends her days working in a department store. At first her loneliness and homesickness are cripplingly painful, but eventually the kindly priest who arranged her emigration (Jim Broadbent, joint the Tom Cruise school of awful Irish accents but otherwise beautifully gentle) sets her up with night school classes in book-keeping and she meets a kind, sweet young Italian boy, Tony (Emory Cohen) at a dance. But sudden tragedy at home means she has to return, and while there she realises her prospects have changed, and Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson) challenges Tony's place in hr affections.
Nick Hornby's script is a sensitive, nuanced adaptation of Colm Toibin's novel, and Crowley's direction of it is exquisitely measured and careful. He isolates Eilish in frames in her early days in Brooklyn, small, pale and mouselike amidst the colour and bustle and brashness of America. Ronan understands this and she plays Eilish's slow flowering with lovely subtlety; it's in her body language, in her sudden readiness to smile. The visuals also depict the difference between the starkness of Ireland and the busy New World adeptly; the colours in Ireland are pale, chilly, catholic. America seems warm and bursting with life.
All of this only amplifies the quandary that becomes the emotional crux of the film: Eilish and her choice of men and futures. She is smarter and more sensitive than lovely Tony, but he represents a new start, away from the gossip and small-mindedness of Enniscorthy. Jim - played by Gleeson as a quiet, watchful man - is perhaps better-suited to her, but he has the baggage of her past in his wake.
the film allows both of them to be sympathetic, and the draw of home and her mother only makes the decision harder for Eilish and the audience. Michael Brook's beautiful score really earns its money in that last act, as that surge of emotion kicks in.
Its perhaps a shame that it takes so long for stakes to raise to that level, as early on things tend to drag somewhat, but this is generally a lovely, little film, and what it does, it does very well.

Sunday, 13 December 2015


(Peter Sohn, 2015)

The Good Dinosaur plays almost like the Pixar equivalent of a b-movie. That is to say it is made with all the care and craft lavished on each Pixar film, but it feels like more of a genre piece than most. It is an adventure film for 6-year olds, basically a quest Western with dinosaurs following young Arlo as he seeks to find his way back home to his (Apatosaurus) family ranch after  being swept away in the nearby river. Along the way he encounters various oddball characters in the wilderness, including a family of T-Rexs led by Sam Elliott who ranch buffalo, some cultish hyena-like Pterodactyls (led by Steve Zahn) and a human boy who he names Spot. They bond as they go, of course. For a Pixar film, this is surprisingly light on gags. Instead, it focuses on visual spectacle, and a couple of scenes of appealing oddness - the "trip" sequence is something I never thought I'd see in a children's film. The action scenes are intense and exciting, with nature itself as the big bad. It is classy, beautiful, and it works.

Saturday, 12 December 2015


(Steven Spielberg, 2015)

Whether you love or hate Steven Spielberg, it is impossible to deny his talent as a visual storyteller. The talky dramas which are scattered throughout his later career (Lincoln being the most recent example) are chiefly interesting for the ways in which he tries to keep them visually exciting. Sometimes it can feel as if he is struggling against his material rather than attempting to adapt it.
That is not the case with Bridge of Spies, which feels like a large-scale '60s prestige drama, all big themes and important moments. Spielberg treats it that way, shooting it with a respect for classicism which is pleasing and which works.
The script - written by Joel & Ethan Coen, whose presence is evident in a few repeated phrases, alongside Matt Charman - is a little disjointed in its transition from the USA to East Berlin and different phases of the story crank into place without any elegance of subtlety (never a Spielberg strength, to be fair).
Tom Hanks does his honest, intelligent thing as Jim Donovan, a Brooklyn Lawyer chosen to defend Soviet Spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) when the Government, his family and an angry public all just want it to be done and dusted. But Jim takes this duty seriously  and makes the trial a problem, securing life imprisonment for Abel when execution looked likely. This means that a few months later, when the Soviets capture SpyPlane pilot Francis Gary Powers, Jim is the man chosen to travel to East Berlin - as the Wall is being constructed - and negotiate an exchange.
Much of the action, then, revolves around men (invariably) engaged in important conversations in various rooms. Spielberg focuses on keeping it handsome, coherent and well-performed, all of which it is. When the screenplay gives him a chance to cut loose, he takes it: making Powers' shooting down a short, frightening vignette, and showing the capture of US student Frederic Pryor on the very day the wall is erected. His feel for place and atmosphere is still precise and nuanced, for all that he puts a Hollywood sheen on every shot and moment. At this point in his career, Spielberg's strengths are his weaknesses, and that storytelling ability sometimes seems too smooth and too easy ( a late shot of children climbing a Brooklyn fence chiming with an earlier shot of people scaling the Berlin Wall is a groan-inducing moment).
The cast help keep the many expository scenes flow painlessly. Rylance is especially superb, making Abel goo-humoured and melancholy; inimitably human.
Classy grown-up Hollywood entertainment, then, and I would expect no less of Spielberg.

Monday, 7 December 2015


(Yorgios Lanthimos, 2015)

There are some brilliant ideas and moments here. The central conceit is the kind of thing that shows how imaginatively conservative so much cinema is: it imagines a world where single people are sent to a hotel in order to pair off within 45 days. If they do not, they are transformed into the animal of their choosing. Some evenings, they head off to a local forest to hunt "loners", rogue singles who have forsworn relationships and live off the land. David (Colin Farrell), recently abandoned by his wife for another man, arrives at the hotel with his brother in the form of a dog, and befriends a man with a limp (Ben Wishaw) and a man with a lisp (John C Reilly), while eluding the affections of a desperate woman (Ashley Jensen). Halfway through the action shifts to the forest as David joins the loners. Here, and against the rules, he falls for a woman who is short-sighted, like him (Rachel Weisz), but if the leader (Leá Seydoux) finds out, they will be in danger.
This is all told in a series of deadpan scenes with flat, affectless delivery of dialogue, Lanthimos' coldly controlled style, and a severe score of several pieces for string quartet sawing away in the background.
While there are some moments of brilliant comedy, much of the success of the material is down to the cast. Farrell and Wishaw do extremely well at halting and awkward loneliness, while Olivia Coleman is another standout as the matter-of-fact hotel manager. Weisz's voiceover is played for some big laughs too, but the story takes a strange turn towards the climax and becomes surprisingly moving.
The allegory at the heart of the story is a little too broad and vague to sustain an entire narrative, even if sometimes it becomes more precise and pleasingly cynical. There are shots here at online dating logarithms, tinder and our cultural acceptance of couples over singles which are often provocative, but much of it is too scattershot to have much of an effect, for all that it is still witty and accessible.It occasionally hints at making more profound statements about human attraction and repulsion - why we need other people and what it does to us - but never quite commits to that.

Monday, 30 November 2015


(Gaspar Noé, 2015)

I wasn't really prepared for how much of a French film Love would be. A French film in the archetypal, cliched sense, I mean; it is basically an endless series of scenes of characters talking intensely about themselves and each other and their relationships, only lacking the wit or depth of Rohmer, say. Instead Love inserts (no pun intended) a bunch of explicit sex scenes, one every five or ten minutes, which don't really do anything to change the story or the characters, and don't really reflect the themes in any significant way, either.
The story shows us a day in the life of Murphy (Karl Glusman) (whose life is full of things going wrong - subtle, Gaspar!), a young American wannabe filmmaker in Paris. He has had an unplanned baby with a girl, Omi (Aomi Muyock) and feeling trapped, falls down a rabbit hole of memories of Electra (Klara Kristin), his old girlfriend, and possibly the love of his life, though those memories are decidedly mixed. Electra's mother has contacted Murphy, fearful for her suicidal daughter, and Murphy remembers a sequence of their sexual encounters and conversations and arguments as he tries to deal with her loss and his new situation.
The script is frequently terrible - Noé writes like an undergraduate - and his unprofessional cast aren't up to elevating the material. That leaves Noé himself. And thankfully, he knows exactly what he's doing. He has always had a strong visual sensibility and here his often painterly lighting and symmetrical compositions - this is a film shot with 3D in mind - make for an utterly visually distinctive experience. The sex scenes are posed and arranged with the audience in mind, removing any air of realism, however "real" they may be, but this ensures that they are regularly beautiful. Glusman spends 95% of the film dead centre of the frame, and despite the fumbled nature of the script it still feels like Noé has touched on a few universals here. There are scenes that feel true in their sordid little emotional confrontations, their petty jealousies and passionate desires, exchanges that are fuelled by real feeling and real love.
But it feels self-indulgent, as if the thing that Noé most needs at this point in his career is a producer, somebody to rein him in and tell him what is working and what is not. Otherwise he just follows his own odd muse, and the result is this odd mess of mastery and masturbation.

Thursday, 26 November 2015


(Danny Boyle, 2015)

In Steve Jobs, director Danny Boyle mostly stays out of the way. This is writer Aaron Sorkin's movie, and Boyle is wise enough to realise that and attempt a just-subtly-stylish-enough film version of a Sorkin script that plays way theatrical, with its 3 locations, its artificially tightened timeframes and its triple echo three act structure. So no hyperactive editing or wild camera angles. Mostly just nicely shot talking heads in well-blocked, intelligently-framed scenes.
The performances, then, take much of the weight. The story focuses on Jobs (Michael Fassbender) at three crucial moments in his life: in 1984, in the minutes before the public launch of the Macintosh. In 1988, after Jobs has been fired from Apple and is about to launch the Black Box for his own company, Next. And in 1998, as he launches the iMac.
Each sequence is shot on different stock, set backstage at a different event centre, as Jobs jousts with his marketing executive and "work wife" Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), meets his old friend and colleague Steve "Woz" Wozniak (Seth Rogen), banters with engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and deals with Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels). All this while preparing to face hundreds of people and the worlds media. And dealing with Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterson) the mother of his child, and with the child herself, as a cute 5 year old, needy 9 year old, and complex, wounded teen.
Sorkin's script portrays Jobs as a difficult egomaniac who is worth it; he's a genius. And Fassbender nails that - intelligence bubbling beneath his face, impatient and baffled by people, always rushing towards the future he feels like only he sees. Winslet and he share a few emotional scenes, but the biggest and best confrontations are with a raw Woz, demanding some recognition for his generation of engineers and telling Jobs without hesitation how much of an asshole he is, and Rogen is terrific. Just as good is Jeff Daniels, moving from fatherly to antagonistic to regretful over the course of the film.
For his part, Jobs changes. He begins believing he's right, and ends up absolutely certain of it. along the way he might just learn a bit about people, or at least himself.
Theatrical yes. But that is not a problem with actors like these saying words like this.

Friday, 20 November 2015


(James Ponsoldt, 2015)

This is a modest film. Which is odd, since it attempts a portrayal of David Foster Wallace (played here, quite well, by Jason Segal), perhaps the greatest novelist of his generation, and one of the most interesting thinkers of his time. That portrayal comes in the form of a record of the trip he takes in the company of David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), who is interviewing him for a piece in Rolling Stone magazine. So, the majority of the film captures the two men deep in conversation: about art, about literature, about women and work, America and children, movies and food, New York and tv, college and sports, parents and dogs.
And - the odd shaft of Wallace with or wisdom, direct from Lipsky's book, aside - much of it isn't all that interesting or entertaining. Wallace struggles with how to present himself, how to avoid seeming pretentious or annoying, while Lipsky struggles with his own admiration and envy for his subject, while also needing to remain a cold-eyed assassin about a man he comes rapidly to feel affection for. The best material here has more or less nothing to do with the fact that the film is about David Foster Wallace; it is instead the scenes when the two men spend time with two women in Minneapolis, the last stop on Wallaces's book tour. Wallace struggles in these scenes with his own feelings of jealousy as Eisenberg's Lipsky seems to easily charm one of the women, an old college friend of the novelist. Eisenberg, blessed with such an easy command of social awkwardness in its many shades, vividly expresses Lipsky's unease and careful probing while Segal perhaps overdoes Wallace's regular-guy qualities. Ponsoldt avoids pyrotechnics, following the trail carefully to the emotional peak of the last act, capturing a wintry MidWest and a grey Minneapolis with economy.
Perhaps most pleasingly, the score is full of 1990s indie rock.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015


(Mario Bava, 1968)

What elevates Danger: Diabolik above many other cult films of the 1960s is the direction of Mario Bava. A great visual stylist - most evident in his giallo work - Bava is a little more controlled here than in much of his output, perhaps sensing that in this case, he can simply allow the sets and wardrobe to take much the burden of style.
He still pulls off many audacious moments and his sense of movement and colour is still intact and striking. The campy story adapts an adventure by Italian comic book legend Diabolik (John Phillip Law), basically a super-villain who resides in a series of underground caves, performs elaborate heists and escapes and likes to have sex with his beautiful girlfriend Eva (Marissa Mell) upon all the money he's stolen when he's not planning thefts or playing tricks upon the police.
The dull bits of the plot focus on the efforts of various policemen and politicians to catch Diabolik, but the fun scenes are all the moments showing him in action. Whether it's scaling a castle turret or foiling police pursuers with a giant mirror, everything Diabolik and Eva  do is a strange mixture of funny, sexy and cool. While some moments are dated, it has aged remarkably well. Again, this is down to Bava's visual sensibilities; the way he stages and shoots action scenes, his economical camera movements, his beautiful use of colour.
John Phillip Law is a little wooden but Bava makes great use of his distinctive eyes, and even better use of Mell's voluptuous beauty - few genre films take such unambiguous delight in the physicality of their leading lady as this one.To underline the debt to the Bond series - Danger: Diabolik mocks and parodies a few of its contemporary influences - Thunderball's Adolfo Celi is well-cast as a crime boss who likes to drop those who have crossed him through a trap-door on his private jet.
The Ennio Morricone score is, obviously, superb.

Monday, 2 November 2015


(Guy Ritchie, 2015)

Guy Ritchie's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was always going to have to work exceptionally hard to win me over, seeing as it was not Stephen Soderbergh's The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which had always sounded like just my kind of thing.
Ritchie must have liked the sound of that project too, because his movie takes much of its style and approach straight from Soderbergh's "Oceans" movies, most particularly the misunderstood oddball masterpiece at the midpoint in the trilogy, Oceans Twelve.
This is an origin story, detailing the first encounter between 1960s spies from different sides of the Iron curtain. We have suave, confident CIA man Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, assured) and stubborn, man-mountain KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). They first clash in East Berlin, where Solo spirits out Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from under Kuryakin's nose, before they learn that they are to team up and work together in order to locate some nuclear warheads about to be sold to Neo-Nazis in Italy. The warheads are in the possession of Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), so the two men and Gaby go under cover, in an effort to find out their location.
The story is thin and feels like the kind of thing that did happen in the 1960s tv series upon which this is based, but there are some factors which make the film a pleasing watch despite this. While Cavill has shown the ability to carry a film in the right role (one where he flies and wears a big red S on his chest), he's never shown any sign of a sense of humour before now, but his Solo is a witty bad boy who hides that beneath a smooth veneer, impeccable taste and great manners. He has chemistry with Hammer's Kuryakin, who deals with anger issues through violence. He in turn has a few good scenes with Vikander's Gaby.
Ritchie has always been great with style. He understands framing and editing, his sense of rhythm is excellent, and his films always look wonderful. And here that facility is at its fullest expression; he makes '60s Italy look a shining wonderland. He seems to have cast his leads because they all look so good together (this applies to Elizabeth Debicki as the villainess too), and they are all beautifully dressed throughout, captured by some divine John Mathieson cinematography. It seems to nod to some '60s spy capers too, and the breezy, often-quirky approach is only bolstered by Daniel Pemberton's fabulous score, full of period touches, and very reminiscent of David Holmes' work for Soderbergh.
Yes it's fantastically empty, but then so are most action blockbusters, and at least this one doesn't pretend to be serious by being solemn. Instead, Ritchie amps up the style. He's not even really interested in the action scenes. He shoots a speed-boat confrontation between Kuryakin and some goons as glimpsed occasionally in the background as his camera lingers on Solo, who has broken into a lorry and sits in the drivers seat eating a sandwich and drinking wine. Another one he fragments into a dizzying series of split-screens, before melding two back together. Another takes place utterly offscreen. And yet it entertains: it is funny, cool, exciting.

Sunday, 1 November 2015


(Aleksey German, 2013)

You know the sequences in Spaghetti Westerns where the director (be it Leone or Corbucci or Sollima or Petroni) exposes the audience to the truth of the West by showing us ordinary life? It may just be twenty seconds before our protagonist rides into town, or a glimpse into the dark corners of the saloon he's just wandered into, but it is generally there, in every Spaghetti Western, continuing to demythologise and revise the classical view of the old West. Usually it consists of extras with "interesting" faces, scratching themselves, squabbling, stuffing food into rootless gobs, being lazy or lustful or disgusting, featuring sweat-stained clothes and gleaming, stubbled, frequently misshapen people, with exaggerated sound design so that every grunt and muttering is audible. This is what the world is like, these sequences seem to say; full of filth and brutality and idiocy, signifying nothing.
Well Hard to be a God is like that. Except it is set in a Medieval world. And it lasts for three long hours.
The sci-fi basis for the story - from the novel by the Strugatskys - is laid out briefly, then basically ceases to be relevant as German gets carried off by his self-indulgent - if genuinely astonishing - technical brilliance. The film follows Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolink) on a journey across the planet Arkanar. Discovered years earlier by scientists at a Medieval stage in its development, an experiment was carried out to try to spur it into a renaissance. Only the experiment has backfired disastrously and the culture has utterly rejected intellectualism. Men have been hanged, the university closed down, and a war has broken out. Don Rumata wanders among these people, who fear the power of his armour and weapons while he remains indifferent, beyond caring.
German shoots all this in beautiful, shining black and white in his signature long-take style, and the way he seems to have constructed a flawless 360 degree reality around his camera is stunning. But that effect wears off after half an hour or so, while the film runs for another two and a half, repeating itself over and over and over. Don Rumata passes something vile or awful, the camera lingers briefly, perhaps he interacts - though rarely in any way "dramatically" - and then he is moving on, to the next iteration of the same thing, the same thematic point, restated. And though I know that that itself is German's point; that nothing changes or progresses, that mankind is doomed, I was bored after that first 40 minutes or so, and that lasted right up until the last ten minutes, when the rhythm and the action changes.
All the technical accomplishment in the world cannot make up for how utterly humourless and grim this film is.

Friday, 30 October 2015


(John Maclean, 2015)

Slow West feels like an attempt to revive the quirky revisionist Westerns of the 1970s. Not the big ones, or the ones that matter, like the work of Leone or Peckinpah or Eastwood, even. It feels more like an attempt to capture the spirt of films like Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand (1971) or Robert Benton's Bad Company (1972). As such it is patient and loose, talky and random, its plot only really kicking in for the last act gun battle which is the most acute the film ever gets, and the first time Maclean really gets to grips with critiquing the genre while also making Slow West feel like a Western. It's an unusual, interesting film, if not always a successful one.
Kodie Smit-McPhee plays Jay, a young Scot who has travelled across the Atlantic after his lost love, Rose (Caren Pistorius), who has fled their homeland with her father after an unfortunate manslaughter has made them fugitives. Jay is an innocent and idealist, and he is lucky to survive the West long enough to run into Bounty Hunter Silas (Michael Fassbender, on charismatic cruise control). Silas agrees to keep him safe until he reaches his destination, in exchange for $100, all the while planning to collect the large bounty on both Rose and her father's heads. But he begins to warm to the kid, and the situation is complicated by the arrival of Ben Mendelsohn as Silas' old outlaw buddy and his pack of jackals, also after that reward, and set on tailing the duo until they get it.
In place of a plot, Maclean sends his characters on a picaresque, episodic journey through the West, encountering plenty of oddball characters and situations as they go. That keeps it entertaining, and it is always lovely (Robbie Ryan, Director of photography, is MVP here) but it always feels a little frustrating too - like it could be more powerful or more incisive.
But as a debut film, it is accomplished and never dull. Fassbender and Mendelsohn both feel right at home in a Western milieu - hopefully some day they will have a vehicle better-suited to demonstrating that.

Thursday, 29 October 2015


(Sam Mendes, 2015)

Is it working in the theatre for so long that has made Sam Mendes suspicious of good-old-fashioned entertainment? Is it the pursuit of art? For in both of his Bond films, each of which is easily among the best-looking (in truth they are probably the two most beautiful films in the series) and best-crafted in the history of the franchise, he hasn't been satisfied simply to make A Bond film. No. He had to go and make THE Bond film. Twice. He had to make his films significant, with a lasting effect upon the Bond mythos. But part of the point of Bond is that nothing really has a lasting effect.
James Bond Will Return...and it will always be that way, whatever way the end of Spectre will have you thinking.
At least Mendes makes up for it by getting so many of the details so right. Spectre falls apart in the third act (which is a bit of a perfunctory mess) but for almost two hours of its (hugely overlong) two and a half hour running time it offers thrills, romance, gags and lots of in-jokes and references to keep Bond fans more than happy.
The plot pleasingly ties up all three of Daniel Craig's previous 007 outings and links them through the villain in this entry - Christoph Waltz as Franz Oberhauser (who has a new name, revealed in the last half-hour), a face from Bond's past and head of SPECTRE, a criminal organisation bound on controlling the information of all the worlds leading intelligence agencies or something else just as vague. Bond goes rogue in pursuit of this organisation, prompting an excellent pre-credit sequence on the streets, rooftops and in the skies of Mexico City. This scene contains a lengthy and stunning single shot, following Bond through the streets, into a lift, then a hotel room and out onto rooftops, which is, cinematically, one of the greatest moments in the 24-film franchise.
It also leads Bond to Rome and Monica Bellucci, surely born to play a Bond girl and lending class to a nothing part, then onto Austria, Tangiers and a meeting with the Proust-monickered Madeleine Swann (Leá Seydoux). Along the way he encounters Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), engages in a terrific fist-fight on a train (referencing at least three prior Bond moments, most obviously From Russia With Love), a car chase through Rome and some aeroplane destruction in the Alps before finally coming properly face-to-face with Waltz's bad guy at a secret HQ in the Sahara.
The sheer volume of references and allusions to Bond history (Waltz's character has a cat and earns an eye-scar, Mr. Hinx unavoidably compares with OddJob from Goldfinger) gives the whole thing a karaoke quality, but again, Mendes seems to understand that if you do the little things right, then not much else matters with Bond.
So: the action scenes are generally terrific, the highlight being that brutal train fight. Craig has chemistry with both his leading ladies, making his attachment to Madeleine at least somewhat believable (not that believability is relevant in Bond films, which by this point seem to float along on a sort of dream logic). Waltz is terrific as the Big Bad, utterly humourless, yet childishly taunting Bond about all that he has taken from him, while a near-mute Bautista is more menacing than any villain in the other Craig Bonds. Every scene between Bond and Q (Ben Whishaw, brilliant) is excellent - funny and fond, injecting a little British sitcom comedy into things, while his moments with Moneypenny (Naomi Harris) are almost as good. These more domestic characters are given something to do by the secondary villain; Andrew Scott as Denbigh (Bond chastens him "C"), whose designs on all the worlds information make him very much a post-Snowden villain. The locations are beautiful and speed by, and the whole thing goes by so fast it never bores over that long running time.
As for Craig - he utterly owns the role of Bond by now. His Bond is cold but soulful, incredibly efficient (he avoids a fight here by pointing at a guard and saying, "Stay") but handy with the odd cruel quip.
It is James Bond done well, and what more can you ask of a James Bond film?


(Guillermo Del Toro, 2015)

I have a problem with a group of filmmakers who often seem to put production design before storytelling. Oddly, all of them favour a sort of gothic "stylishness" in their work: elaborate sets, lush costumes and rich lighting combine with overripe narratives, bad dialogue and ostentatious camera motion. Tim Burton is perhaps the high priest of such cinema, joined on occasion by the likes of Terry Giliam. And sometimes Guillermo Del Toro.
Del Toro switches from the more action end of pulp (Hellboy I & II, Blade 2, Pacific Rim) to a more gothic, personal sensibility (The Devils Backbone, Pans Labyrinth) every few films, and in Crimson Peak he is - ever the synthesist - paying homage to Hammer and Mario Bava among others, with the story of a rich young woman, Edith (Mia Wasikowska, playing a dull character but still sympathetic) lured from her comfortable life in Buffalo NY by dashing, sensitive Sir Thomas Sharp (Tom Hiddleston). HE woos her against her suspicious father's wishes, and when her father is mysteriously murdered, she marries Thomas and leaves America only to arrive in a sort of Gothic Disneyland in the form of his crumbling, spooky mansion in 'Cumberland". This he shares with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Of course there are strange goings-on at the mansion. Ghosts prowl the halls, the clay beneath is seeping up through the floor (the house itself seems to bleed), and Lucille and Thomas both act strangely.
Crimson Peak is not remotely the horror film it has been sold as. There are no real scares here; rather it is a gothic romance with some violence and thrills along the way. And while I find Del Toro's visual imagination pedestrian and predictable in this mode, this film is still ravishingly beautiful (credit to cinematographer Dan Lausten for that), and fun it its silly way.
The performers give it conviction. Charlie Hunnam (as the white knight set on rescuing Edith) and Hiddleston are both a little stiff and awkward but that suits the material. Chastain has a great time as Lucille, particularly in the last act, when truths are revealed and Del Toro can indulge himself.

Sunday, 25 October 2015


(S. Craig Zahler, 2015)

I knew Zahler was a novelist before I checked his bio. The first two acts of Bone Tomahawk are full of scenes that play out much longer than they would in the majority of movies; Zahler lets us watch his characters talk the way a novelist would. Not in that Tarantino way, asking us to marvel at the wit and quality of the dialogue, but in a manner designed to increase our knowledge and understanding of the characters. We spend an hour and a half in their company before the stakes are suddenly raised, and - unlike in so many horror films - we actually care what happens to them.
That means that the first half of the film does feel a little post-Tarantno, a little like Deadwood (which Zahler has criticised in interviews), a little lazy and self-indulgent. Zahler's writing is fine, but it is his cast that sells the dialogue. Kurt Russell always feels like a natural fit in Westerns, and he is excellent here as an unflappable, confident Sheriff. Patrick Wilson presents yet another in his series of precise studies of masculinity under fire, before emerging in the climax as the true hero of the film. Matthew Fox turns the soulfulness of his presence into a shield, playing an amoral, unlikable killer with unplumbed depths. All, however, are outshone by Richard Jenkins in the Walter Brennan role, the loquacious old-timer who can barely keep quiet for 5 seconds and whose mutterings often contain great insights. These four set off on a journey ("Ride out to their doom!" as the hilarious, right-on-the-money end credits ballad would have it) after Wilson's nurse wife and a young deputy are abducted from the town jailhouse one night.
Their abductors are identified by the town's token Native American as a nameless, inbred tribe of cannibalistic troglodytes who live in caves days ride away and who are fearsome and savage. The men's journey is slow and detailed, their personality clashes and interactions containing longueurs and entertainment both, before the last act when what has been a lightly quirky Western with some comedy transforms into a brutally gory cannibal horror film. Zahler fills the script with interesting details; from a half-crippled Wilson's dialogue with God as he prepares to enter the troglodytes valley, to the cannibal's having whistles of bone sewn into their throats to aid their howling communication, to Fox revealing his back-story as he faces death, this is a beautifully imagined world which makes light of its modest budget.
Only the somewhat flat photography and constant reliance on mid-shots ( there is rarely a sense of the physical scale common to westerns here) let it down a little, while the spring use of a score helps in that last act when the tension starts to rise. Generally, it feels startlingly unique for a mash-up of such familiar genres, and is an interesting, entertaining watch throughout, questioning tropes and mythology as it goes.

Sunday, 18 October 2015


(Ridley Scott, 2015)

The Martian may be the first time that Matt Damon has truly embraced his movie stardom. The role of Mark Watney, NASA Astronaut mistakenly believed dead and abandoned alone on the surface of Mars, mainly asks that he use his most essential qualities: his likeableness, his charisma, his sense of easy humour. At least half of the movie is Watney alone, engaged in one of the many tasks that will prolong his life (farming potatoes using his own excrement as fertiliser, travelling to pick up an old drone probe, scavenging, counting & rationing supplies, fortifying his habitat) while he talks to the camera or in voiceover. It relies on us liking Damon and wanting him to be ok. He has always had an everyman quality. It is what makes his Bourne a sort of anti-Bond; he fits in, disappears, seems incapable of the devastating violence he unleashes on enemies. And here it lends this survival tale an inbuilt suspense. We need Watney to be alright because we like him so much; he is funny and oh so human.
Ridley Scott directs with relatively anonymous efficiency. Perhaps he has built so many worlds on-screen that he does it now sleekly, without too many ostentatious shots, but this is trim and adept, and seems to trust in an excellent script by Drew Goddard and a classy supporting cast to hold up their end opposite Damon. That cast includes a few vivid cameos from the likes of Donald Glover as a geeky astro-physicist who discovers a quicker way to get Damon home, Michael Pena and Jessica Chastain as the most memorable of his crew-mates, and a potentially great comedy troupe of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kirsten Wiig, Sean Bean and Jeff Daniels as the NASA executives dealing with the fall-out and complications of the whole saga.
To the films credit, the material on earth is just as interesting as the Mars material, and the whole thing stands as a superior, utterly enjoyable piece of Hollywood hokum.

Saturday, 10 October 2015


(Denis Villeneuve, 2015)

When a really good genre film comes along, we realise just how crap and childish most genre cinema truly is. Sicario is an outstanding genre film; tense, beautifully made, lovely to look at (Roger Deakins!), and engaged in geopolitical reality without ever becoming dull.
We see most of the story through the eyes of FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, superbly hollow-eyed and traumatised throughout) after the discovery of dozens of corpses in the walls of a Phoenix house. That is the opening scene: an intensely charged suspense sequence as Macer's team enter the house and encounter some resistance, discover the corpses and trigger a booby-trap. Here the tone for the film is set; quiet, patient, horribly gripping and visually acute, Villeneuve using a magisterial style reminiscent of mid-period Michael Mann to pin this world to the screen.
Macer is recruited to an inter-agency task force and is led to believe she will be working with the DEA. But quickly she realises that Matt (Josh Brolin, just the right combination of jocularity, smug knowingness and chilling calculation) is a CIA agent, and that the mysterious Colombian Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, showing that all-too rarely-glimpsed movie star charisma of his) may be something altogether worse. Together with a team of Delta Force soldiers they travel in a convoy into Juarez in Mexico to extradite a Drug Baron, hoping to draw out the mysterious lord of his cartel. But Macer is shocked by just how off-reservation and illegal their activities are, and struggles to justify her involvement to herself and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), all the while getting more emotionally involved with the case.
Sicario is provocative in its structure. While the first two acts are firmly Blunt's in that they seem to take her physical and moral viewpoint , the last act shifts and suddenly Alejandro is controlling the narrative, and the certainties of Macer's views on the drug war melt away. Matt complicates this throughout. Though unlikable, he seems an arch-pragmatist, focused on results and nothing else, dismissing all moral considerations entirely. Then we have Reggie, dismissed by Matt as simply a "lawyer", who doesn't trust any of them and only wants to ensure his partner is ok.
The story revolves around a series of tremendous set-pieces; most notably the Juarez run, which erupts into a firefight at the border. Jóhann Jóhannsonn's score is at its subtle best here. It rejects melody, instead rising up like a murky cloud of ambient noise, all moans and shivers, employing the dread that hangs in the air of the film. and which culminates in the mission Alejandro was engaged in all along.
This is a great genre film; cynical, sharp and exhilarating, it is also utterly satisfying.

Sunday, 4 October 2015


(Justin Kurzel, 2015)

Macbeth is - by something like common consent - the most cinematic of Shakespeare's plays. It is noirish in its dramatic setting, dark actions and darker characters, its blood and witchcraft and murder and seduction. It is also uncommonly tight for Shakespeare; taut and relatively pacy. It has a tortured anti-hero, a femme fatale, a few rich supporting roles.
And yet: so many of the screen adaptations of the Scottish play mess it up. Too slow, too literal, too gothic, too stagey, too handsome, too cheap, too silly. Always off somehow. Only Roman Polanski really made a decent fist of turning it into a movie (Orson Welles' seems the least of his Shakespeare adaptations to me) and even that bloody, energetic iteration is a little stiff and awkward.
Well: Justin Kurzel seems to have been commendably focused on making his Macbeth work as a movie. He and his three writers throw out material that doesn't work, and recontextualise whole other scenes, sharpening some themes, abandoning others. His movie is ravishing; an every-frame-a-painting piece of cinema with brutally fine acting from a great cast.
Director of photography Adam Arkapaw films medieval Scotland with pin-sharp precision as if it was a post-Apocalyptic wasteland. There is life here, but somehow the landscape seems desolate, either battered by rain or baking under the sun. The early battle scene is an orgy of slow-motion blood and spittle in the air, intercut with the clamour of the carnage and Macbeth, still on the battlefield, hypnotised by the sight of the Wyrd Sisters.
The boldness of Kurzel's version is in making some definitive decisions about how Shakespeare's ambiguities should be read. So here, Michael Fassbender's Macbeth is firmly a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; hallucinating corpses (the dagger which appears to him is in the hand of a dead youth from that opening battle) and unable to control his seesawing emotions, he is easily swayed by his wife. For her part, Marion Cotillard's Lady Macbeth is mourning the loss of her own child. The film's opening shot is of the body of the Macbeth child, lying upon a funeral pyre. Both Cotillard and Fassbender play it as naturalistically as they can, mumbling and whispering much of the dialogue. There is no declaiming, little attempt at iambic pentameter. Some lines vanish in an attempt to make scenes more believable and flowing. Fassbender is best in the early stages; numbed and hollow. Later he gets a little more mannered and hammy, but he is never less than magnetic. Cotillard is beautifully vulnerable and emotional.
The rest of a terrific cast match them, especially an (as usual) intense Sean Harris as MacDuff. All contribute to the sense of mounting dread throughout, as does the score by Jed Kurzel and Arkapaw's immense work, which make Macbeth work as a movie in a way that too few Shakeseare adaptations can match. It is beautiful, emotional, visceral and exhilarating.
It is also confirmation that Kurzel is a great talent.

Friday, 2 October 2015


(Ramin Bahrani, 2014)

99 Homes isn't really a thriller, although it feels like one from the very first scene. Bahrani establishes a tense atmosphere with an opening crawl away from a dead man sitting in his bathroom, the rifle he used to end his own life in his hands, blood splatters on the wall, and through the house from which he was being evicted. Policemen move around, his wife and children wail as he is stretchered off. And in the middle of it all is Michael Shannon's Rick Carver, a real estate agent and developer who was the one evicting the man on behalf of the band which now owned his property. Bahrani follows him outside, through an angry phone call and a sarcastic, devastating exchange with a coroner, all of it soundtracked by a blunt, electronic rhythm. A feeling of dread has arrived, fully-formed, with this film. It never really lessens.
We see a little of Carver's life and business before he is evicting Nash (Andrew Garfield) from the family home where he lives with his mother and young son. Nash is a roofer, and in the 2008 of the film, the construction business has just collapsed, leaving him without a viable income. He and his family end up living in a motel after a horribly upsetting eviction. But he goes looking for Carver, believing some tools stolen, and instead, ends up working for him. Carver, impressed by his competence and initiative, promotes him rapidly, and soon it is Nash himself raking in money and evicting baffled families.
So 99 Homes is a deal-with-the-devil story, focused intently and fascinatingly on real estate chicanery in the world after the financial collapse of 2008. We see the details of the scams Carver and Nash run, and hear many of Carver's justifications. But Bahrani - a director whose films have always examined the reality of the American dream - ensures that we don't miss the other side of the equation. From the raw agony of Nash's mother and son when they lose their home, to the pitiful state of an elderly widower with nowhere to go and no family to call, this film is furiously moving about the human cost of the situation and furiously angry about the reasons for it.
The dread that settles in the opening scene does come to a head, but before that we get the spectacle of a terrific Garfield and a monstrous Shannon battling for the soul of the film. Both excel, and Bahrani's character doesn't miss a nuance. He is a director building a strong and undervalued body of work, and this may well be his best film yet.

Friday, 25 September 2015


(Ed Zwick, 1994)

It's not easy to adapt author Jim Harrison to the screen. A filmmaker as vital and distinctive as Tony Scott found that out with Revenge. And if he couldn't quite translate the timeless macho poetry of Harrison to film, what chance did a director as plodding and insipid as Ed Zwick have?
Based on Legends of the Fall: absolutely no chance. Harrison's novella is both spare and epic, but Zwick's movie is instead turgid and ridiculous, an episodic and at times cringeworthy soap opera with beautiful landscapes and bad performances.
Brad Pitt plays Tristan, beloved middle son of Col Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins). They live on a Montana ranch along with Ludlow's American Indian employees, who bring Tristan up as a half-brave with a respect for nature and a certain intolerance for the ways of white society. His older brother Alfred (Aidan Quinn, giving the best performance in the film, full of pain and anger) is more conventional, while the plot is kicked off when the youngest, Samuel (Henry Thomas) brings home a beautiful girl who bewitches all three brothers. She is Susannah (Julia Ormond), and she falls for Tristan, of course, beginning a long series of scenes in which Ormond and Pitt appear to be competing to see who has the shiniest hair.
Samuel wants to go off to fight in WW1, so Tristan goes along to protect him, fails, and takes his revenge by crossing no mans land after dark and scalping Germans. When he returns to Montana, he and Susannah comfort each other after their loss in the most predictable, soft focus way possible, then he goes off travelling the world to quiet "the bear inside him", leaving her to wait at home at the mercy of a smitten Alfred.
In 1994, Pitt had not yet realised that acting meant more than just posing, flexing his cheek muscles and biting his lips. He is awful here; a vacant, beautiful model. Ormond is little better, causing you to wonder why any of the three brothers would be interested in her.
Both are outdone by Hopkins, who gets to play a post-stroke Ludlow as a shambling invalid, and slices the ham thickly here.
Zwick's direction never dodges a visual cliche, from the slow motion during key scenes to the honeyed cinematography, and the score and script all combine to make this feel somehow neutered.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015


(Andrew Haigh, 2015)

British cinema can be so adept at the intimate small-scale middle-class drama it is frightening. Is it to do with the fact that the genre is so popular on UK television? Or the preponderance of classy, stage-trained thespians in the British industry? It seems to me that something in the British character - the boiling emotions beneath the still surface - is perfectly suited to these stories, and 45 Years is a fine example of this sort of story.
Jeff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling) are an elderly couple, living comfortably together in a nice little house in a beautiful, rural corner of Norfolk. They listen to digital radio, read literature, eat healthy, recycle, walk their dog Max, and are planning for their imminent 45th Anniversary party. And then Jeff receives a letter in the post from Switzerland. In 1962 he and his then-girlfriend Katya, were trekking together through the Alps when she fell into a crevice and died. Now, decades later, her body has been discovered, perfectly preserved inside a glacier.
This news unmoors Jeff, and slowly a distance develops between the couple as Kate begins to see the things she has never known about him, and suspects previously undiscovered motivations for some of the decisions which have shaped their life together.
All of this is patiently, subtly observed over the course of five days as they go about their normal lives. We see them meet friends for lunch, shop, eat dinner, chat before bed, go for walks, and yet the shadow of Katya looms larger and larger, especially after Jeff begins to dig about in the attic for photos of his old love and Kate begins to check into what he has been looking for.
The script is nicely modulated; gentle and polite, and yet the sense of tumultuous inner lives is awakened from the moment when Jeff calls his old love "my Katya" in the moments immediately following his opening of the letter. Most of the heavy lifting is done by Rampling and Courtenay, both communicating so much in their pauses and hesitations and the soulful, wary hurt in their eyes. Rampling is particularly astounding and Haigh rewards her with a stunning final prolonged close-up where we can see the seismic emotions beneath the surface of her face.
The intensity of their work and the delicacy of Haigh's script and direction allows the film to go beyond just their relationship in its gaze; it investigates age and memory, regret, love and commitment. It is all terribly middlebrow in its careful reticence, and even so it becomes quite powerful by the climactic party scene. And yet the real star of the film is probably the beauty of the winter light as it falls upon the fields and broads of Norfolk; a very English look for a very English treatment of this story.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015


(Brian Helgeland, 2015)

There's something sordid and seedy in the best British crime cinema. Something smalltime and banal. Try as it might, British crime cinema cannot grasp the glamour and slickness of American gangster films. Often, the attempt to produce a British equivalent is what creates a different, eccentric sort of magic.
Legend is conspicuously lacking in any such magic. Written and directed by an American (Brian Helgeland, who has great form in the genre, having adapted both LA Confidential and Mystic River) it never feels authentic or indeed, in any way "right". It relentlessly, almost nauseatingly glamourises the Kray twins (both played here by Tom Hardy) and presents the East End of London in the 1960s as a pretty, twee little neighbourhood playground lacking in any true poverty. In much of this, it is indebted to the spectre of Goodfellas. Like that film and its many imitators, Legend gets around the problem of tons of exposition with a voiceover. Here that features Francis (Emily Browning), Reggie Kray's girlfriend then wife, guiding the audience around their world of nightclubs, casinos and East End pubs. That wouldn't be so bad, if Helegeland didn't try to imbue Francis' narration with a sort of hard-bitten depth that never feels comfortable and instead is often cringe-inducingly trite. She actually refers to the "secret history of London" at one point, a sure sign of a writer who has fallen in love with his research (I wish that applied equally to his visuals, where London is all West End bright lights and East end red-brick terraces).
Another Goodfellas-ism is the way the entire film is caked in period music. Only Helegeland doesn't have Scorsese's ear for matching scene to song, and here it often feels as if he's left his iPod on shuffle.
Tom Hardy almost redeems the film in his dual roles. He is mannered but magnetic, making charming, handsome Reggie a down-to-earth heartthrob with a flair for combat and a head for business, who spends much of his time posing through a cigarette. Ron is a different proposition, literally insane, craving violence and awkward in most social situations, he gives the film most of its great scenes. Browning does well in an underwritten part and the supporting cast is filled with quality British character actors mouthing the kind of dialogue familiar from a dozen bad UK crime tv shows.
For all those problems, Legend is entertaining. The story of the twins is a fascinating one, and this film is just as engaging as Peter Medak's grittier The Krays was, even as it offers less depth and fewer answers.

Monday, 7 September 2015


(Nima Nourizadeh, 2015)

American Ultra probably looked great in the conceptual stage. A small-town stoner and his girlfriend wind up dodging assassins and kill-squads in a sleepy anonymous North Carolina town. Give it a few nasty action sequences, a little comedy quirk, charmingly convincing performances from stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristin Stewart, and some millennial style from director Nima Nourizadeh and we should have a winner, right?
But it never really works. The tone lurches unpredictably around from scene to scene. It looks and feels like it should be an action-comedy, but there is barely any comedy, and what there is, isn't particularly funny. The action scenes are peculiarly bloodthirsty and violent without ever really becoming exciting. The moment where Eisenberg discovers that he is actually a highly trained sleeper agent killing machine feels ripped straight out of The Bourne Identity but here it lacks any of the adrenalised glee of that moment. Supporting characters aren't fleshed out enough - wasting an actor like Walton Goggins on a one-dimensional psycho called "Laugher" (he laughs a lot) is particularly unforgivable even if a late speech tries to humanise him - though Topher Grace is good as  his usual smug self in the villain part.
Eisenberg and Stewart are both fine too, rekindling the chemistry they showed in the vastly superior Adventureland, but even their relationship is a narrative mess. A twist halfway through and the resultant emotional explosion feels like the film hasn't earned it, and is never in keeping with the light tone some scenes attempt.
There are some great ideas here, a few big laughs and some good scenes, but it's not enough to stop the whole thing feeling like an undercooked dud.

Sunday, 23 August 2015


(Josh Trank, 2015)

Fantastic Four tries to do something different with the superhero genre, it really does. It aims for a considered, somewhat dark and gritty approach to the genre in stark contrast to the two (commercially successful) Fantastic Four films from the '00s. It tries to update the material, making it relevant for modern audiences. It also goes for a character-first angle on this super-hero origin story, largely eschewing action until the last act.
But it doesn't work.
There are too many weak spots and outright mistakes here, too many obvious compromises for it to ever feel like a film entirely confident about what it wants to be. The much-reported creative tensions on set and in post-production (which sound far more entertaining than anything in the finished film) are evident in the way the trailer is filled with shots and moments absent from the actual film and the way certain moments feel rushed and fudged.
The comic book - at its best - is as much sci-fi as super-hero, a story of science explorers, full of other dimensions and alien races, held fast by the familial bond and bickering of the four principals. The film at least retains that to some extent. Focused mostly on Reed Richards (Miles Teller, never entirely convincing as the super-genius the character is meant to be) who is attempting to create a teleporter from the moment we first see him, collaborating with local tough kid Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell, so sparely used he is basically in a cameo role) as fifth graders in his garage. Seeing his genius, he is recruited by Professor Storm (Reg E Cathey), whose son Johnny (Michael B Jordan, appropriately cocky) and adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara, probably most convincing of any of the leads) are also involved in the programme to create a teleported similar to Reed's. The final scientist is Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebell, fine as the most interesting character, but still one who represents a grotesque mishandling of perhaps the greatest super-villain in the genre), an arrogant, genius with contempt for the powers that be.
Together they open a path to another dimension, but in the process all five are given powers and abilities which make them superhuman, with Victor turned into a powerful madman bent on the destruction of the world.
Yes, this is the type of super-hero film where the villain wants to destroy the world, the kind of failure of imagination that hurts a film so set on doing things differently as this one is. Another problem is how quickly all this happens. The film spends an age on exposition - who wants what and why, how they're trying to get it, etc - then rushes through the important part, where people become superhuman, and positively speeds through the final confrontation, which never in any way earns its own sense of climactic importance or apocalyptic emotional tone. We barely see these characters as super-heroes, and this is a true origin story, ending as it does at the first moment when they are together as a team. But this has its frustrations too.
In a film where action is at such a premium (in this genre, that is a bizarre decision), when it comes it better be memorable. And here it never is. The final confrontation is one of those vague face-offs with flying rocks and energy being tossed around. The inventive possibilities of some of the character's powers (Reed's stretching ability, Sue's telekinesis) are only very briefly explored, and virtually abandoned by the ending.
It looks dull too, that 'gritty' approach manifesting itself as an overly dark colour palette and the sort of burnished steel production design too common in modern blockbusters. The source material in contrast is as bright and poppy as super-hero comics get.
Perhaps most damningly, you just know that if Marvel Studios (rather than 20th Century Fox, who own the rights to these characters) had made this film, it would be much much better, and far more fun.

Saturday, 22 August 2015


(Phil Joanou, 1990)

State of Grace came out in 1990, something of a banner year for mob stories in Cinema. Goodfellas, The Godfather Part III, Abel Ferrara's King of New York and another Irish-Mob movie, Millers Crossing were all released in 1990, and in the midst of those heavyweights, State of Grace got a little lost. But its a great little movie, surprisingly intense, dark and serious, and featuring three terrific performances from its leading men. it tells the story of Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) and his return to Hells Kitchen, the Irish neighbourhood of New York where he grew up running with teen hoods Jackie and Frankie Flannery (Gary Oldman and Ed Harris). Only now Noonan is an undercover cop, charged with bringing down the burgeoning empire built by Frankie, and Jackie is the neighbourhood psycho. Noonan soon rekindles his relationship with their sister, Kathleen (Robin Wright-Penn) and his loyalties are inevitably torn between duty and friendship. While that sounds like your stock undercover cop movie, its the gravity and intensity of the storytelling that makes State of Grace so memorable. Joanou has never put his visual sense to better use than he does here, with his camera conjuring up a vivid sense of Hells Kitchen in all its seedy glory, the gentrifying elements just beginning to crawl in alongside the taverns and the old tenements. The screenplay, by playwright Denis McIntyre, is resolutely serious and dour - it recalls the work of writer-director James Gray in its unremitting focus on the moral dilemma facing Noonan - and the story drifts inexorably towards a tragedy suggested from the first moments by Ennio Morricone's mournful, beautiful score. While Penn does his young-DeNiro thing and Ed Harris is as magnetic as ever, Oldman delivers what is possibly his best ever performance. If, in recent years, he has played one caricature too many, one shallow villain too many, revealed that manic grin one time too many, here he played a character who demanded such a performance. Jackie Flannery is a force of nature, prone to eruptions of ultra-violence, but loyal and sentimental and charming at the same time. Oldman makes him terrifying and hilarious and real, and he owes every psycho part he has gotten since to this performance. Joanou really gets to flex his directorial muscles in the films climax, an amazing slow motion gunfight in a bar while the St Patricks Day Parade passes by outside. Its a really self-conscious set-piece, the director calling attention to himself in the most obvious fashion possible, but it works brilliantly, somehow retaining the mood and style of the film while simultaneously exploding it.

Friday, 21 August 2015


(Gary Ross, 2003)

The choice of David McCullough - his voice probably best known from a variety of Ken Burns' documentaries - as narrator is instructive about Gary Ross' aims for this film, and also about its flaws. The first act - and brief passages later on - is dominated by McCullough's narration over black and white photographs of the period. This was real, Ross seems to be telling us, this is important. This is no silly made-up story. This matters.
The story of the rise of the champion US racehorse Seabiscuit explicitly treats him as a metaphor for America itself during the great depression, seemingly taking a tip from the horse's owner (played here by Jeff Bridges) who publicised him as the horse of the people, an underdog who represented the way every American has a second chance.
That first act is problematic - Seabiscuit takes a long time getting to its actual story, so busy is it with context and background. After that, Ross hits a series of classical, reliable old beats. This film is handsome - too handsome in a rich, oaken way for a film set partly during the depression - has a classy score, courtesy of Randy Newman, a great cast, all of whom are good; and doesn't miss out on any sports movie cliches at all. So there are slow-motion climaxes, disappointments at crucial junctures, last minute comebacks, personal demons resolved through sporting effort, etc etc.
It works in the way that such films always work. Those cliches are so popular entirely because of their efficiency. But that is somewhat at odds with the straining for seriousness of the documentary passages.
And the closing narration, courtesy of Maguire, about fixing each other, is an embarrassment.

Thursday, 20 August 2015


(Thomas Arslan, 2013)

The first scene depicts a group of prospectors in a canoe, then trekking along trails through dense forest before they pan for gold in a creek. The lighting is dark, the palette a collection of rich muddy browns and deep greens. Trees and undergrowth dominate each of Arslan's precise, patiently gliding shots. We see barely any sky and the prospectors are faceless, hunched, their hats obscuring their features. This land has almost swallowed them, it seems.
This sets the tone for the rest of the film, which focuses on the ways the landscape drains and breaks down a group of Germans on an exhibition up the Klondike in Canada in the late 18th century, in search of gold. Among their party is Nina Hoss, as usual communicating oceans of emotion with the tiniest of facial adjustments. The group is riven with tension from the start, and as the road gets more difficult, that worsens.
For a film about process, what it is perhaps best at is interpersonal relations; the way the group falls slowly apart, the way certain people try to dominate, the way others allow them. It is also excellent on landscape, using the wild Canadian expanses partly for their beauty but mainly as a sort of claustrophobia trigger. Arslan makes sure to film the party moving, on horseback, with the entirety of the background entirely composed of woodland, and he does this over and over. This makes the forest seem threatening and malevolent, an impression only echoed by Daniel Carlson's (Neil Young in Dead Man-style) guitar-playing.
There is little tension, no humour and only one spurt of action, but this is still a sort of slowly hypnotic experience, and brilliantly made.
That is not to say there is no incident - the repetitive nature of shots of the characters on horseback beating on through the wilderness are broken up by uncomfortable conversations, failed hunting expeditions, accidents, improvised surgeries (a memorable scene), encounters with Indians who are characterised as cynically though understandably doing everything for money, and the odd random encounter with other prospectors. The scene where a man wanders through their camp without a word at twilight is haunting and beautiful.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015


(Noah Baumbach, 2015)

Screwball. I have read this film called a screwball comedy. But really, aside from a dominant female protagonist and some lightning-fast repartee, it doesn't have much screwball about it at all.
It is a sort of a farce, wrapped up in a character study (or two).
When Tracy (Lola Kirke, excellent) finds herself lonely and miserable at college in Manhattan, she follows her mother's advice and calls up Brooke (Gerwig), who will become her step-sister after their parents imminent marriage. Brooke is an energetic, creative young woman about town and jack-of-all-trades, teaching a cycling class, interior decorating, singing with a band, tutoring children inmates. She is also deeply pretentious and self-absorbed. Tracy finds herself fascinated and energised by this young woman, and resolves to aid her in her plan to persuade her ex-boyfriend to invest in her new restaurant project.
The first act rattles along when it should be light and frothy. Baumbach chops up scenes and there is always lots happening - we see Tracy's first weeks at college over the credits, then her introduction to Brooke's world is a blur of places and people. Despite this Gerwig makes Brooke a magnificently realistic monster - funny and clever but desperate and selfish at the same time. Her solipsism is made bearable by her wit and capacity for saying unbelievably oblivious things. Tracy's other world - a college where the literary society is a big deal and her roommate is a bitch - is vividly sketched in, the '80s cuts on the soundtrack (and Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips' score) recalling The Rules of Attraction and a slew of '80s movies.
Mistress America is full of great lines and character beats throughout but it only really kicks into high gear with the central comic sequence in the third act, when Brooke and her "posse" arrive at her exes house and she tries to pitch her restaurant to him and his wife (who happens to be her ex-best friend and sometime "nemesis"). Here Baumbach orchestrates the behaviour of eight characters through a few brilliant scenes and conversations, complete with mini-arcs and climaxes, and hilarious throughout. Just as in While We're Young (released before but completed after this film) he teases themes without ever really properly investigating any. So Mistress America is about friendship and inspiration, creativity and generational conflict. But only a bit. Really it's about the brilliance of Greta Gerwig. And the music of Hot Chocolate.