Saturday, 21 February 2015


(Ava DuVernay, 2014)

David Oyelowo is astonishing in Selma. It can't be easy to play a historical figure whose voice and mannerisms are so ingrained in public consciousness, but Oyelowo makes his Martin Luther King Jr a breathing, flawed, emotional human being, never seeming to worry about the icon. King here is calculating, funny, worried, righteous but also as authoritative and charismatic as the man must have been. When Oyelowo has to orate before a crowd, he is inspiring and rousing. When he has to charm a smaller group, he can do that too. But he is perhaps best in the moments when his personal life is threatened by the march of the Civil Rights movement and its opponents attempts to squash it. The revelation of his infidelity and the panic in his eyes when he and his wife (Carmen Ejogo, also excellent) discuss it makes King vulnerable and believable in a way nothing else here quite does.
Aside from that magnificent lead performance, Selma is an interesting film.
Basically a piece of prestige Oscar-bait, it seems edgy thanks to the (still topical) racial content of the story it tells, but that edginess is entirely absent from the style or storytelling. Director DuVernay instead settles for an extremely conventional approach, often lapsing into hackneyed scenes and moments. There is that honeyed period look to everything here, reminiscent of Driving Miss Daisy or Forrest Gump in its warm portrayal of the South in the 1960s. There is the often cringeworthy use of music. If for the majority of the first act, DuVernay eschews any music at all, creating a terse, factual tone, when it starts to seep in, she abandons all semblance of taste, and runs a gospel-folk number over a key scene of marching and violence. Her treatment of the death of four young girls in a church bombing also feels somewhat off; she depicts them within a scene of almost Spielbergian perfection and innocence, and her cutting underlines what is about to happen before it actually does.
The story follows the efforts of King and a group of his colleagues to organise a protest march from the town of Selma to Montgomery in Alabama in order to encourage Lyndon B Johnson's Government to introduce a change to the laws of the nation, allowing blacks to vote without interference or difficulty. This is met with imprisonment, police brutality and intimidation, until media coverage sparks public outcry and Johnson seems forced to act.
A huge cast of black actors are all impressive, and despite the sporadic moments of tonal uncertainty, DuVernay generally maintains great control over this material - this is a film impressively content to linger on long conversations between activists over policy decisions and political strategy.
That is to say; Selma rarely patronises its audience, instead assuming that they will follow it wherever it goes. It is also nicely restrained; sorrowful rather than coruscatingly enraged about the awful events it depicts.

Friday, 20 February 2015


(Michael Mann, 2015)

Nobody but Michael Mann could possibly have made this film.
In his later, digitally shot movies, Mann's narrative brusqueness has become something more refined and deliberate; a seemingly premeditated step towards abstraction. This echoes the visual abstraction that has always been a part of his work, but has become more pronounced since his decision to embrace new technologies. In Blackhat, exposition and character development are either rattled off in a let's-get-this-done hurry or faded out mid-dialogue; lines crucial to the plot are mumbled, figures given no time to establish who they are before they are processed through the film. And yet, to a grown-up, attentive viewer, it always make sense. I never wondered what was going on, or who was who, or why they were doing what they were doing, because Mann is such a bold, confident visual storyteller. He tells his story through sounds and images. The meltdown at a Chinese Nuclear plant, so crucial to the plot, is depicted, thrillingly, without any dialogue whatsoever.  In this sequence, Mann shows us how information flows across a network between computers with dizzying tracking shots across the landscapes of hard drive interiors, where data washes over his speeding camera like a wave, the whole thing resembling nothing so much as an action scene from Tron. This is pure cinema, and it is wonderful.
The story traces the efforts of a small team of American and Chinese agents to find and capture a "blackhat" computer hacker responsible for that meltdown and some financial market chaos in the US. To this end they recruit Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a jailed hacker and college roommate to the Chinese Commander of the operation, Chen Dewai (Wang Leehom). Hathaway soon proves his worth as they follow the trail from America to Hong Kong and Jakarta as the stakes grow increasingly higher.
In some ways, this plays like a compendium of Mann's tropes and obsessions. There are images, plot points, and characterisations here familiar from his other films, even a few phrases hardcore fans will recognise ("That's what you're doing, isn't it, you son of a bitch?"). The themes are a constant. He has always addressed the difficulties of communication in the modern world, and likes to contrast that idea with a romance which is instinctual and near-wordless. In Blackhat, Hathaway and Chen's sister Lien (Tang Wei) conduct a courtship composed chiefly of glances and gestures before they end up in bed together. This - like much of the material in Mann's universe - is the stuff of deepest cliche, and yet Mann does it so well, and with such earnest poetry, it is impossible not to be compelled by it. A sequence here of Hathaway noticing the details of Lien's beauty as they travel together to a meet is beautifully evocative and detailed - Mann is one of modern cinema's great sensualists, and moments like this one recall Wong Kar-Wai.
This film is filled with such moments. If this director is celebrated as a visual stylist, it is with good reason. Few filmmakers have directed architecture as well, and here he captures cites in spare, devastatingly beautiful shots, yet is generally more interested in the faces and bodies of his cast. Hemsworth is all swagger with a hint of melancholy, and as such is perfect for this part, and his chemistry with Tang Wei gives their romance a charge and grip which is crucial in the final act. Viola Davis does an awful lot with a small but crucial role and the way Mann stages and shoots her last scene is beautiful.
That is the thing about Mann; he makes a film like this, about the cold violence and loneliness of the modern world (among other things), and he makes it look ravishing. His use of digital tools allows for a new sort of cinematic beauty, one no other director has really grappled with yet - the halogen glare of a highway at night, the glitter of a cityscape at sundown, the murk of dawn through apartment blinds. And then of course, is his way with action. Blackhat is, after all, an action film. And he retains that ability to immerse us in the action, starting with a fistfight in a Koreatown restaurant, shot the same way he handled a few of the fights in the magnificent Ali - the camera so close to the combatants it judders with impact, and continuing through a handful of blistering gunfights in various urban spaces that are terrifyingly visceral and brutal.
Through all this we stay close to Hathaway, another in a long line of Mann's existential romantic heroes, and though this narrative has been hugely refined, all inessentials removed in favour of textures and poetic detail, it is still gripping and moving, still more intelligent than most American cinema ever dares contemplate. Mann occupies that blessed spot where the multiplex meets the arthouse, which is why his films so often flirt with commercial failure, and also partly why they are so impressive.
Blackhat isn't quite the perfect statement of Heat or the late masterpiece of Miami Vice, but it isn't far off, either.

Thursday, 19 February 2015


(Gina Prince-Blythewood, 2014)

It took me a while to figure out exactly what it is about Beyond the Lights that feels so blessedly, brilliantly old-fashioned. It's not that it tells an old, classic love story wherein rising pop star Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), isolated by the spotlight and struggling to express who she really is from behind the image created mainly by her driven, domineering mother (Minnie Driver) one night attempts suicide and is saved by LA cop Kaz (Nate Parker). He saves her by intensely telling her he "sees" her and a bond is formed that haltingly, touchingly, turns into romance. Yes, that comes straight out of The Bodyguard, as do a few of the scenes of backstage bitching and power struggles. The world portrayed her is scrupulously modern, too, with the importance of twitter and youtube hits made plot-points. But what is really old-fashioned is the sincerity of it all.
There is little new here, but it is all done with such emotional intensity that it feels fresh; these days romance is too frequently fodder for rom-coms and Nicholas Sparks weepies, but here it is the subject of the movie. This love story is about how love changes the people involved. Kaz, like Noni, is in the shadow of an ambitious parent (Danny Glover). In his case, his political ambitions have been stirred by the exposure the incident with Noni creates, but when the two lovers find one another, they also find themselves, even if the plot demands a few reversals and obstacles must be overcome.
The cast are excellent, which is a big part of why this never feels remotely like a tv movie. Mbatha-Raw is convincing both as the sexy R&B babe of her public image and the sensitive Brixton girl smothered beneath, while Parker brings a shy integrity to his man of few words. Minnie Driver is frightening as Noni's mother, and Prince-Blythewood directs them all with a great eye for the nuances and subtleties of body language and eye contact, as well as a good feeling for texture and mood.
Her script makes a virtue of its cliches: when Noni and Kaz escape the spotlight for a beachside idyll, it is affecting to watch them really get to know each other and fall in love. Kaz's reaction to an insult from Noni's rapper ex-boyfriend is funny and believable, for all that it is purest soap opera. And finally, the last act and it's revelatory voyage of self-discovery (for both characters) is moving and never less than entertaining.
It also says interesting things about our relationship with celebrity and the way we fabricate fame and drama, without ever becoming didactic.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015


(The Wachowskis, 2015)

Jupiter Ascending is gleefully ridiculous, and great fun in places. A bizarre mix of princess fairytale, epic space opera and palace court politics, spliced with some anti-corporate thematics, it fudges some of the material you would expect the Wachowskis to get right. The action scenes - from the directors of The Matrix, which contains some of the greatest action scenes in history - are generally incoherent, frequently boring (incoherence does breed boredom), and never all that rousing.
The story follows Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a Russian Immigrant in modern Chicago, after she discovers that she is an exact genetic match for the former Intergalactic Queen, and therefore rightful owner of Earth. Of course she discovers this when various aliens come hunting her, and Cane (Channing Tatum), a half-wolf, half-human warrior rescues her. This is all tied up with the political/corporate maneuvering of the Abrassix clan (Eddie Redmayne, Tuppence Middleton and Douglas Booth), each of whom wants Earth to farm human beings for their cells, which are used to prolong life across the galaxy. Jupiter learns all this much as the audience does, in-between bouts of (an underwritten, undercharged) romance with Cane and being (repeatedly) rescued by him. His old bee-spliced comrade Stinger (Sean Bean) becomes involved too, battling lizard-men and hairless shape-shifters on earth and in space as they try to keep Jupiter alive.
The Wachowskis pull off some fine genre beats here despite the sluggish action film-making, and their world building is bold and ambitious; this is a cosmos filled with ravishingly beautiful worlds, references to Brazil (complete with Terry Gilliam cameo) and little flashes of wit (explanations for the extinction of the dinosaurs and crop circles). But there are repetitive plot-points - can Cane save Jupter before she marries Titus, sealing her doom? Can Cane save Jupiter before she signs away all rights to Earth, sealing everyone's doom? etc. The story may avoid the typical male power-fantasies so beloved of much sci-fi, replacing it with a girl asked to decide on the fate of her family versus that of the human race, but the mix of that with a hidden Princess archetype is an awkward one.
The English thesps ham everything up, which is possibly the right tone for this sort of material. Tatum and Kunis are both movie stars; beautiful, charismatic and eminently watchable, but neither of them feels quite right here. Kunis has the wrong sort of look and spiky tomboy presence for this role, while Tatum's character is largely a heroically brave blank. Their romance never convinces, robbing the movie of much last reel emotional weight (aside from the stuff about the Earth being farmed and all of humanity dying, of course).
But still, this is an interesting, imaginative, barking mad attempt at a sci-fi Epic, even if much of it doesn't remotely work. At least it tries.

Friday, 13 February 2015


(Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)

It's rare these days that a film stays with me quite the way Inherent Vice has. Circling slowly in my brain, key scenes echoing, ambiguities illuminating, lines of dialogue repeating. It is a wonderful mess; a combination of pitch-black comedy, stoner slapstick, sly satire, grimy sunshine noir, and romantic drama. Anderson, it seems, can do anything, and here, in adapting the novel by Thomas Pynchon, he more or less abandons traditional plot in favour of an episodic series of encounters between Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, brilliant as ever), a hippie P.I. in 1970 Long Beach and various eccentrics and personalities he encounters in the course of an investigation.
That investigation is for his ex-girlfriend (ex old-lady in the parlance of the film), Shasta (Katherine Waterston, glowing) who presents him with the disappearance of her current boyfriend, real estate mogul Wolfman (Eric Roberts), and involves him in a hilariously complex web of nazis, black power militants, loan sharks, surf horn players, smugglers, dentists and FBI men. Complicating this is the strange mutual dependence Doc and local police detective Bigfoot (Josh Brolin) share, his relationship with a horny Assistant D.A. (Reese Witherspoon), and the fact that he is clearly still in love with Shasta. That love - and the loss and regret with which is entwined - give the often idiosyncratic, distinctively odd encounters of much of the rest of the film a powerful resonance. Doc is hurting, wearing a baffled look of suffering, even as he trades quips with actors like Owen Wilson, Martin Short and Benicio Del Toro, and Anderson keeps the camera trained on Doc's face, allowing us to confront the darkness in Phoenix's work. It makes for a slightly claustrophobic, densely layered film, and the way all these characters mount up only increases that sense. Doc takes on another case - then another - and yet all three turn out to be related.
Much of this is narrated by his friend and earth mother, Sortilège (Joanna Newsome), who also seems to accompany him, in spirit at least, as he drives around L.A., and who appears to possess some sort of second sight.
Anderson's work here is subtle and restrained, classical and always effective, with few of the flourishes from his earlier work. He charms some exceptional performances from his cast. The standout is probably Brolin, who imbues Bigfoot with pathos and humour ("Moto panacuku!!" has been in my head for days now) and even a hint of tragedy. Waterston is also fantastic in her scenes; careful around Doc and trying to squash her own feelings, and yet, still, somehow, in a manner unique to this movie: a femme fatale.
That is the thing; I've never seen a movie quite so unique. You can see influences, but Inherent Vice has its own tone and register, its own rhythms and flow. And they are oddly bewitching. Doc and Shasta are at the heart of this film, their relationship, its dissolution, the damage it caused, and that is as true in the last scene as it is when we first meet her. The edge of pain running through that storyline gives Inherent Vice it's peculiar charge, and echoes the theme of the souring and death of the hippie dream.
That forgets the key to the film: it is so much fun. Hilarious, informative, provocative, sexy, it even ends with a scene of grimy, ugly violence, before immediately undercutting that with a joke about the situation.
A great film from a great filmmaker.

Friday, 6 February 2015


(Matthew Vaughn,  2015)

Kingsman makes sure that you know it has the James Bond films in mind from early on, and there are several explicit references. But this film, based on a comic book, accordingly takes a much more comic book angle on the material, making everything even bigger and broader and sillier than most Bond films usually go. It even has a dig at modern 007 - too serious, apparently - and so here that serious nature is replaced by ludicrous action scenes and some lame gags. It actually bears more resemblance to the recent G.I. Joe films than any Bond movies.
The story follows young petty criminal Eggsy (Taron Egerton) after he is saved from prison by Galahad (Firth), an agent of the titular organisation. Firth sponsors him to enter the recruitment process for a new Kingsman, run by Merlin (Mark Strong) while he investigates the scheme cooked up by Internet Billionaire Valentine (Samuel L Jackson). That scheme involves culling the majority of earth's population, and gives rise to one impressive action sequence, where Firth's dapper, old-school agent kills about two dozen people in a berserker fury. Like all of the action scenes here, that one is almost ruined by an over-reliance on CGI, and throughout the film flirts with being a tasteless and embarrassing mess. It has a particular weakness for the obvious; from the choice of music to the product placement to the action beats to the gags, there is nothing surprising or witty here, just a whole lot of boxes being ticked. Some of those boxes work and are undeniably satisfying to watch; others are cringe-inducing and eye-rollingly dumb.
There is also a streak of class warfare running through the plot, with prole Eggsy taking on the Oxbridge Elite and showing them that a pleb can have what it takes, but even that is messy, what with the way the film fetishises upper-class British culture.
The performances barely matter, but Jackson and Firth have fun, while Egerton does what he needs to do. It is massively overlong, but scattered sequences are enjoyable and funny.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015


(Stuart Murdoch, 2014)

Personal passion projects are always something of a worry. By their very nature they suggest self-indulgence, and that is certainly the case for God Help the Girl, written and directed by Belle & Sebastian singer-songwriter Murdoch and inspired by his recent girl-singer-focused side-project.
That is not to say it is bad; it certainly is not. In fact, it has several winning elements and a great deal of breezy charm, but it is also occasionally amateurish and overwhelmingly twee.
It fuses two hugely different narrative strands and moods into one often-awkward confection. In the first, Eve (Emily Browning, carrying the film) struggles with depression and an eating disorder and tentatively mounts a recovery through music. In the second, Eve and her new friends Cassie and James (Olly Alexander) spend a quirky summer lolling around the leafy Victorian suburbs of Glasgow, talking about music, playing it the odd time and generally doing not very much.
Thats it. The songs are generally good, the routines worked out for them sometimes less than that, and much of it feels like it was made by an undergraduate high on the Nouvelle Vague and Jacques Demy. But: it is earnest in an old-fashioned, determinedly unfashionable (despite all the hipster window dressing) manner, and that gives it a quiet integrity and soul which makes it likeable. Murdoch stages some scenes with wit and style.
The actors are winning, which makes a few of their more adolescent conversations just about bearable, while others are touching in the naked vulnerability on display. And everything looks great, from Glasgow to the costumes to the cinematography; vibrant and energetic and pretty all the way through.