Thursday, 25 June 2015


(Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)

This starts off with a string of barely connected narrative threads about the residents of Timbuktu dealing with a newly installed Islamist government who have imposed Sharia law. Women are forced to wear gloves, men short trousers. Music and football are banned. Fighters patrol the streets brandishing kalashnikovs.
Shot simply, with an even rhythm and an eye for a lovely composition, Sissako's story gathers power as it moves. We know that this will all probably end badly for all involved (there are a few instances of foreshadowing early on), but it is the warmth and joy of the lives portrayed here that gives the film such impact. A cattle farmer lives in simple contentment with his wife and young daughter in the desert. An old holy man gently argues in the Mosque with armed Islamists.
The pacing is so steady, so patient, that the slow rise in tension is almost subliminal. The effect of the Islamists - at first portrayed as almost comic in their ineffectual bumbling - becomes more serious, more invasive, more frightening.  A girl is forced to marry a foreign mujahadin. A woman is caught singing and flogged in the street. A couple of adulterers are buried up to their necks in sand and stoned to death. The final act is devastating and utterly inevitable.
There are earlier scenes of purest cinema: a football match played by boys with an imaginary ball, as music rises on the soundtrack. Even the frustrated mujahadin blowing the tips off desert plants with a burst from an AK47. For all that this film demonises militant fundamentalism, these men are never cartoons; instead they are as complex and human as anybody else in this lovely film.

Sunday, 21 June 2015


(Colin Trevorrow, 2015)

Making a sequel to a film directed by Stephen Spielberg is challenging enough; in most cases you have to compete with huge success. But it is that much worse in a genre where success is partly defined by the effect of the set-pieces. Spielberg remains one of the best ever directors of suspense, and there are a handful of set-pieces from the twenty year old Jurassic Park which are immortal because they are so well conceived and directed.
So Trevorrow took on Jurassic World (effectively Jurassic Park 4) presumably aware of these factors. And, to give him some credit, the set-pieces in his film are probably the best sequences. He steals shamelessly from Spielberg, as well as James Cameron (there are a couple of blatant Aliens nods here) and the scenes in question benefit from that thievery. Once the stage is set for man vs dinosaur and Trevorrow can cut loose in a series of thrilling scenes of panic and stalking, Jurassic World feels like a decent summer blockbuster.
But films have to be more than just a loosely linked line of action scenes. They need to include characters. Jurassic World doesn't do so well here. Set in a new, functional and thriving Dinosaur theme park established on the same island as in the original film, the principals are all sketches composed mainly of stereotype, shorthand and outright cliche. First we have the two brothers (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) sent to visit their Aunt, who runs the park, while their parents divorce proceedings are sorted. The elder is a moody, hoodie-wearing teen, constantly staring at either his smartphone or the teenage girls in the park and impatient with his little brother's immaturity. The younger is sensitive and geeky, loves dinosaurs and worried about the future of their family. Once the mayhem begins, they are imperilled a few times, then reduced to running mannequins, fleeing from one dinosaur to another, dragged behind adults. The actors do alright, but the boys are boring cyphers. The adult have a little more to chew on. There are supporting characters, each easily summed up in a phrase: Vincent D'Onofrio as a hubristic, hawkish exec at an arms manufacturer, set on weaponising velociraptors (guess how he dies!), Omar Sy as a sensitive Velociraptor keeper, appalled by these plans, Irrfan Khan as the Billionaire owner of the park, torn between the ideals of wonder and the bottom line of profit, Jake Johnson as the dinogeek who runs the systems at the park clad in a vintage Jurassic Park t-shirt, his work-space lined with dino-toys and most obviously, Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard as our hero and heroine.
She is the boys' workaholic Aunt, portrayed as tightly wound and a little inhuman, until her nephews are in danger, at which point the humanity in her is revealed. Her repartee with Pratt's Navy vet Velociraptor trainer is a bit stilted, despite the natural charm of both actors. Pratt plays this character mostly straight - his job for the first half is to warn the suits that they keep making mistakes, and for the second is to run, shoot and rescue people. Perhaps the most interesting thing in the film is the dynamic between him and his pack of velociraptors - he has positioned himself as the alpha, and the confusion of the animals when confronted with a rival alpha in the form of the movies big bad, the camouflage-using, thermal-radiation sensing, many-toothed, extremely intelligent genetic hybrid Indominus Rex is nicely played. Meanwhile Howard does her best with an awful character; though her thaw from ice queen to lioness never really works.
What we're left with then are the action scenes. Twice we see groups of heavily armed military personnel go hunting the Indominus, the second accompanied by raptors, and these sequences are undeniably effective. The attack by a huge armada of pterodactals and pteradons on a fleeing crowd of people may be better for spectacle and sight gags (Trevorrow works in a few nice ones).
But this is ultimately a frustratingly workmanlike blockbuster; moving pieces and people not place for the big money scenes, and mostly disposable for the rest of the time.

Monday, 15 June 2015


(Wes Ball, 2014)

For the first two acts, this is quite a taut and brutal little genre film. That is if you can forgive the way it fulfils every Y.A. consideration to an almost parodic degree, and the way its violence is toned down to allow its target audience to see it on a big screen.
Teenagers forced to play a bloody game, a chosen one protagonist who doesn't really understand what is going on, enemies and allies among his peer group that echo nothing so much as high school, mysterious, cruel adults; a hint of romance, nature vs technology as a motif, a young innocent's all there, ticked off. But those first two acts are quite pacy, embed the exposition well, and feature a few decently effective spills and thrills.
This is more solidly a sci-fi action film than the likes of The Hunger Games and Divergent (it may be relevant that this film, with its hero rather than heroine, is aimed squarely at a boy rather than girl demographic), and it has moments of horror in the scenes of the Greavers, genetically engineered cyborg-spiders that patrol the maze. It is nice to look at, the effects are fine, and the young cast do quite well with the material.
But then the final act begins to solve some of the mysteries, and it all gets quite tedious and wearyingly predictable, from who dies to how to that final ambiguous scene. And the promise of the sequel just ruins everything.

Saturday, 6 June 2015


(James Kent, 2015)

Though it plays and feels very much like a modern BBC period production - all tasteful costumes and furnishings, semi-repressed passions and clipped accents - Testament of Youth works much better than that suggests. It has an earnest, even stirring sense of passionate feeling absent from much period drama. That is probably because it is about the effect of the First World War on a generation of young Britons, and as such, much of the story is suffused with a sense of loss, sadness and grief. Not only that, but here we see that effect through the eyes of a woman.
Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) is a headstrong, intelligent young woman who yearns to go to Oxford, and needs no husband. And then she meets her brothers friend Roland (Kit Harington) and falls in love; at first tentatively, and then in a headlong rush of romance, poetry and excitement. These scenes are full of sensual details reminiscent of a sort of watered down Malick or Wong Kar Wai. Sheets blow on lines, heathers ripples in the breeze, there are extended shots - fleeting, as if in memory - of Roland's arm and neck. While Vikander is sensational, Harington is a little dull in that first act, but improves during the passage when he returns, traumatised, on leave, and Vera has to shock him back to her.
And then, of course, he dies. As does her brother and all of his friends. WW1 destroys the world and the people she loves, and as she has signed up as a nurse and witnessed horrors of her own, it almost destroys her too.
Vera's journey is dark and full of pain, and Vikander is fearless in confronting that. Just as good and in fewer scenes is Dominic West, as her stiff-upper-lip father, who collapses upon losing his son. Taron Egerton is all charm and enthusiasm as that brother and Hayley Atwell brings a welcome touch of lightness to the role of a businesslike matron on the front. The structure nicely evokes the sense of an innocent world destroyed by an epochal apocalypse, and though Kent reveals a sensitivity to performance in his direction, he never formally echoes this, which is something of a shame.
But still; stolid and solid as this is, it always works, and is consistently powerful and impressive.

Thursday, 4 June 2015


(Andrew Bujalski, 2015)

Bujalski pulls an abrupt hard left after the uniquely bizarre wonders of Computer Chess with this relatively slick rom-com. And yet the slickness is all in the production design and the sharp digital photography; underneath it feels strangely of a piece with his earlier, so-called "mumblecore" work, where people try to find happiness and stumble through relationships.
In this case those people are Danny (Kevin Corrigan), a stoner and recent divorcee who inherits a fortune from his estranged mother and has absolutely no idea what to do with it, so he spends it paying strangers off Craigslist $200 to fix his huge tv and decides to hire a personal trainer to get him in shape. That leads him to the gym owned by Trevor (Guy Pearce), who lives in shorts and a t-shirt and talks an awful lot about achieving "goals". He and Kat (Cobie Smulders) have an awkward relationship, having had an "unprofessional" affair some time before. When Kat becomes Danny's trainer, he is smitten, and that complicates her relationship with Trevor.
Classic eternal triangle stuff, then? Well; not really. The film seems to be heading one way before moving off in another entirely, portraying a realistically complex entanglement of friends, colleagues and lovers. These are people unsure of what they want or afraid to try and get it, people who blow their chances to communicate with one another repeatedly. Recognisably normal human beings, in other words.
Corrigan seizes a rare lead role with glee and plays Danny as a confused but likeable clown. Pearce is dryly hilarious as Trevor, and Smulders is perfect as Kat, all temper tantrums and spontaneous gestures she herself doesn't understand. Their relationship, filled as it is with conflict and longing, is beautifully nuanced by Bujalski, whose skill as a writer is growing.
Visually, he remains a little less convincing, although the way this film becomes more intimate and plays with space in his compositions is subtle and pleasing.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015


(Alex Ross Perry, 2014)

Listen Up Philip features a narration - nicely spoken by Eric Bogosian - explaining the thoughts and feelings of the characters in what I assume is meant to be a parody of a pompous literary style, perhaps the style for which protagonist Philip (Jason Schwartzman, excellent) gains increasing fame and success during (and after) the events chronicled in the film. With that in mind, it's hard to understand whether the grammatical errors and thuddingly clunky writing in that narration are a deliberate thing, meant by Perry to indicate that Philip isn't half as clever as he thinks he is; or if they're just proof that Perry himself isn't half as clever as he thinks he is.
That throws up the question of just how auto-biographical this film is. It does follow the relationship difficulties suffered by a young artist in the aftermath of his first success. He slowly withdraws from his relationship with Ashley (Elizabeth Moss), who has supported him during years of struggle. He basks in the attention of Ike (Jonathan Pryce) a legendary, Roth-like New York novelist many years his senior, who himself loves the adoration and intense devotion of his young protege. He falls into a relationship with Yvette, a teacher at the upstate college where he gets a teaching job, thanks to Ike.
Throughout it all, Philip is insufferable; arrogant, misanthropic and pretentious. You watch it wondering why anybody wants anything to do with him.
Schwartzman plays him with no vanity, only a hint of self-absorbed melancholy. This is a young man who has read too many novels about romantic outsiders, but can't quite mange to make himself one. He's just selfish asshole. In that he resembles Pryce's Ike, who has ruined every relationship he's ever had due to his own ego, and alienates his own daughter (Krysten Ritter, an open wound of childhood trauma and neediness) with another diatribe here.
The only moments in the film away from egotistical artists are the passages focusing on Moss' character as she comes to terms with losing Philip and finds herself once again. She is fantastic here, subtle and moving in her halting attempts to rebuild her life and ego after his abrupt move upstate.
She has one moment - a series of emotions rippling across her face in the aftermath of her finally crushing any possibility that she and Philip might ever be together again - which is probably the best moment of screen acting I've seen this year. If the rest of the film is a darkly funny, quietly excruciating, often finely-observed literary-style comedy-drama, her storyline is uplifting and speaks of the light, beautiful moments in a life. The kind of thing we see in cinema all to rarely.