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.