Thursday, 28 July 2016


(Paul Greengrass, 2016)

Taking the original Bourne trilogy as a distinct sub-genre, Jason Bourne then attempts a sort of paint-by-numbers rendition of that sub-genre's greatest hits. So we get a hyper-kinetic fist fight, an insanely destructive car chase, Bourne taking out teams of agents while their bosses are confused in a control room, glimpsing him on cctv; Bourne feeling morose about his past sins. It gets worse: in that fist fight, it starts out hand-to-hand before Bourne (Matt Damon) improvises a weapon in response to his opponent (Vincent Cassell) drawing a knife - just as he did in both of the first two Bourne films.
Only in this case, none of those familiar elements is especially well done. Instead they feel tired, secondhand, even pointless.
That is always a risk with a sequel so far after the event: it feels unnecessary. It has been 9 years since Damon and Greengrass collaborated on The Bourne Ultimatum, and though original trilogy screenwriter Tony Gilroy sought to spin the franchise off in an alternative direction with the convoluted, Damon-less The Bourne Legacy, they did make a satisfying complete series of films. Tonally similar, thematically linked but distinct, and with a nicely shaped narrative, the Bourne saga could have just ended there and it would have been fine. But he has made too much money for Hollywood to allow that.
So here he is, and the storyline that drags him back into the open within the film seems unworthy of the character. It is complicated and dumb, involving the Mark Zuckerberg-like Riz Ahmed and some new software he has designed, which the CIA (spearhead here by Tommy Lee Jones) hope to use to help them to spy on everybody, all of the time. Bourne (living a life as a bare-knuckle street fighter, much like Rambo at the start of Rambo 3) is contacted by Nicki (Julia Styles), who tells him that he needs to see some files she hacked from the CIA, since they explain some more about his past. So now he's on the run, trying to uncover more about his own life, while new CIA tech-head (Alicia Vikander) is convinced he can be brought back in and her boss (Lee-Jones) and his pet assassin (Cassell) are bent on killing him.
Basically, much here is utterly boring. Too many conversations in control rooms, board rooms, hotel rooms. Bourne barely features, showing up at each action scene then more or less disappearing again after he's inflicted maximum damage and completed one ridiculous feat of physical daring and ingenuity. But the stakes feel low and forced, the existential questions underpinning the original films totally absent and replaced by bigger, louder, dumber set pieces.
Those set-pieces and the excellent cast keep this watchable through the long dry stretches. Damon - now the greatest movie star of his generation - grimaces and grunts and looks sad when he needs to do so, but he feels a bit too good for this role now.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016


(Joachim Trier, 2015)

It is so rare these days to see an English language drama made by a director with a real exhilarating feeling for the possibilities of cinema.
Much of what is acclaimed and viewed as quality drama is naturalistic and kitchen sink in approach, utilising handheld camera, chronological editing, low or found lighting and verging into melodrama by accident rather than design. It is influenced more by TV than cinema. Trier takes another approach: his movie always feels like cinema. It is ambitious, frequently beautiful, allusive, literary, mysterious.
It is also superb.
The story tells of the aftermath - 5 years after, in fact - of the death of a famous war photographer (Isabelle Huppert). Survived by a schoolteacher husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) and two sons, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), who is beginning his own family and struggling to come to terms with that, and Conrad (Devin Druid), a high schooler nursing his own obsessions and insecurities, a new exhibition and accompanying article in the New York Times by Richard (David Strathairn) raises the issue that Isabelle's death was in fact a suicide. Conrad - 12 at the time - is ignorant of this fact, and while Gene and Jonah struggle with their own feelings about the ghost haunting their lives and the women sharing them (Gene is having a secret affair with a colleague, while Jonah runs into an old girlfriend while in hospital for the birth of his first child), they must also decide how and if to tell Conrad about the reality of his mother's death.
That makes the story sound far more melodramatic than it is. Trier in fact makes it just like life: at times funny, sometimes profound, lovely and dreamlike. These characters all have rich inner lives, and Trier is brave and empathetic enough to follow them off on tangents to investigate. So we are treated to Gene's inner monologue when he and Hannah (Amy Ryan) connect at a party. He allows the girl Conrad has been obsessed with to narrate their brief moment together, though the perspective is obviously Conrad's. We get glimpses of Isabelle's life and her depression and joy. We see her death in slo-mo, and the bomb blast which almost killed her a few years before.
There are flashbacks to her visit with Jonah in College, the strange erotic moment they share in the bathroom. Then there are the naturalistic conversations, the Skype calls, the tense moments over breakfast cereal. Trier plays with perspective and narration. He slips elliptically between time frames without explanation, as if somebody is remembering all of this.
And it works beautifully. This is an utterly superior family drama. But also an excellent art film, about life and how it feels to be alive. The real subject of all art, perhaps. And one Trier excels at tackling.

Sunday, 1 May 2016


(James Watkins, 2016)

This is so bad.
Elba plays Briar, a walking cliche. A US Government agent seen as ill-disciplined, insubordinate and reckless, he is also plainly amazing at his job. Which is beating people up and looking hard. Though his bosses don't understand that, and they've pulled his ass out of Baghdad after an Op went wrong and compromised a source. I can barely write this shit; I don't know how the actors can stand to say it. Elba looks grim and growls a lot.
He doesn't have an actual character here. Nobody does. They just pull faces at one another, sometimes in sync with the dialogue, often not.
Anyway, Briar finds himself in Paris and eventually lumbered with an American pickpocket (Richard Madden) whole actually lives in a garret. They are embroiled in a cockamamy scheme dreamt up by a French SWAT team which involves bringing the city to its knees through a combination of hashtags (no, seriously, there is a line of dialogue that says "The hashtags will tip it over"), rioting and wanton bombing.
Briar has other ideas. His bosses shout at him. He shoots people and chases them. He doesn't really do one-liners, even. Kelly Reilly slums it through a few scenes as his understanding boss. She literally looks asleep during one scene. Which would be fine but she has to speak dialogue. Madden does a nasal American accent and his character reacts to stuff happening around him. I can't remember anything else about him. He has a beard? Thats it.
The bad guys are swarthy Mediterranean types, and we all know you can't trust them.
After a few scenes that are recognisably set in Paris - look, thats the Eiffel Tower out the window! - most of the film looks like it was shot in an industrial estate on the outskirts of Bucharest. A crowd of rioters parade down what looks like an alley behind some lock-ups.
Luc Besson must see this type of Eurocorp rip-off and laugh his socks off.
Elba is being talked up as the next Bond, and he shares the right kind of bruising physicality with Liam Neeson, but aside from that his action hero chops aren't tested here by the fact that he only registers as a figure against landscapes, and never as a human being in any recognisable way.
There are at least two redeeming action scenes: Elba chasing Madden along rooftops, and a five-way fight scene in the back of a police van.
Otherwise: this is worse than every Jason Statham movie ever.


(Joe & Anthony Russo, 2016)

Considering all of the moving parts, characters in motion, plotlines and subplots, action sequences, back story, expository conversations, locations and ideas in Captain America: Civil War, the movie is a relative model of economy and forward momentum.
In some ways it is an incredibly dense mess: much of it would make no sense to anyone who doesn't already know the Marvel Universe or these characters, and its structure is broken backed; four huge action scenes break up the 140 minute run-time, but the movie seriously drops down to first gear in that first hour as pieces are moved around the board, agendas established, themes nursed to life.
Once it gets going its popcorn pleasures are manifold, and the details are purest geek pleasure.
It has twin plots which entwine from early on. In the first, following the opening battle between the Avengers and mercenaries led by CrossBones (Frank Grillo) leads to civilian casualties, the Governments of the world conspire to introduce the Sokovia Accords, registering and controlling enhanced activity. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr, who seems more this character than himself at this point), shocked by the results of his actions and possibly grieving the end of his relationship with an unseen Pepper Potts, supports the deal and tries to sell it to the Avengers, who are split. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), bruised by following orders that he disagreed with in his last film and his experiences with powerful men in WW2, refuses.
At the same time, Zemo (Daniel Brühl, sinister in a way I never suspected he was capable of) is busy incriminating Cap's old friend Bucky/the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) for the attack on a Viennese conference established to ratify the accords.
That attack effects the life of King of reclusive African country Wakanda, T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, excellent), and suddenly it is a race to find the Winter Soldier. That in turn leads to a battle between the forces amassed behind Stark and Rogers, which include the likes of Avengers members Vision (Paul Bettany, doing well with his few big moments), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), but also newcomers Ant Man (Paul Rudd, stealing every scene he's in) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Meanwhile Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) do their best in different ways to stop Rogers from getting himself killed.
Miraculously, the movie gives each of these characters at least one big moment without ever losing focus on the friendship between Rogers and Bucky or the conflict between Rogers and Stark. The big airport super-hero free-for-all involves more or less every character and uses them beautifully. In fact, one of the real pleasures of this movie is its action sequences. Using John Wick directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch as a second unit team here really pays off in some incredibly brutal, imaginative action scenes. The airport fight allows everybody to use their specific powers to best effect, but there are smaller moments that have just as much impact - Rogers and Bucky fighting a German SWAT team in a stairwell and trying not to kill any of them is notable, as are any of the fights involving Black Panther.
This is also the first film to get Spider-Man perfectly right: introduced as a a geeky teenager in a small Queens apartment, Holland captures the character's motormouthed humour but also his moral certainty, and his scene with Stark in his bedroom is a definite highlight. He also shines in the action scene, both for his ceaseless chatter and for the way the movie captures his superhuman athleticism and amateur technique.
But that scene comes with the final act just beginning, and it ultimately reduces the action to just Stark, Rogers and Bucky, in an intense climactic battle. And it works because these are characters the audience has come to know and care about, and the Russos have shaped this narrative enough that their conflict is made personal and painful.
And underlying all this is a level of geek-pleasing detail which is frankly awesome. From Wakanda's Vibranium (which is what Black Panther's suit is made from) to William Hurt returning as General Thunderbolt Ross, to the references to Hulk and Thor and Loki, to the spark between Vision and Scarlet Witch, Ant Man's (and Spider-Mans) starstruck response to Captain America, the moments involving Peggy Carter and her niece Sharon (Emily Van Camp), which culminate in a kiss with Rogers and a brilliant bros-giving-respect look from Falcon and Bucky, whose own relationship is similarly deftly observed, to Spider-Man irritating everybody he fights through his constant talking, and Martin Freeman as a smarmy Everett K Ross, together with the Howard Stark references and the Vision's theory that the heroes power has invited challenge, the texture of ideas and details here is so thick and rich that it becomes its own sort of text.
Captain America: Civil War is all the best of Marvels films, and some of the worst too. Which means its a superior piece of blockbusterdom, and then some.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016


(Jacques Audiard, 2015)

The way Audiard combines poetic realism with gritty genre material remains unique in modern cinema. Dheepan may not be his strongest film, but it is still sensitive, riveting filmmaking.
It follows a Tamil Tiger soldier who escape Sri Lanka by pretending to be married to a young woman likewise seeking escape. They pretend a young orphan girl is their daughter and find themselves in a banlieue on the outskirts of autumnal Paris. Dheepan works as the caretaker for their housing estate, his 'daughter' learns French at school, while his 'wife' fearfully, confusedly hides away from the world until a job is found for her cooking and cleaning for a disabled old man. As they negotiate life in a country where they do not speak the language (they all appear to be fluent in English, and the woman talks of escaping to her cousin in London), they realise that some facts of life are universal. In this case that includes the men with guns who rule the estate - gangs of drug dealers patrolling the rooftops and stoops. But Dheepan was once just such a man with a gun, and traumatised as he is, it is not long until he is forced to use violence to defend those he has come to love.
That Taxi Driver-ish ending is impressive and hard won by a film that builds character and place patiently and with a fine eye for two hours. Audiard paints these three people with fine strokes; Dheepan himself is proud and in pain, widowed and mourning two children, shellshocked by the war which killed his entire unit, he stoically works and learns and falls in love with the woman pretending to be his wife slowly and despite himself. She is more complex; angry and at odds with her environment until her job allows her to find who she is once again. The scene where she seduces her 'husband' is erotic and realistic in just the right amounts.
The girl meanwhile noisily adapts.
Audiard details all this with his usual intimacy; allowing us into the characters heads at moments, showing the way they perceive things, the subjective truth of moments revealed and then snatched away again. At the same time we learn the life of the estate, its patterns and rules, its geography.
All this pays off in the bloody, dreamlike chaos of the climax.
Which is - brilliantly, surprisingly - followed by a blissfully happy ending.

Sunday, 17 April 2016


(Jeff Nichols, 2015)

Nichols' "voice" makes perfect sense here, applied to a sci-fi thriller which refers to Spielberg's sci-fi cinema of the late '70s and early '80s; like J.J. Abrams' Super 8, Midnight Special seems hugely indebted to E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as well as John Carpernter's Starman.
The difference is that while Abrams is a skilled mimic, Nichols has his own sensibility and style. It is artier than most mainstream Hollywood cinema, patient and precise, with much attention paid to tone and mood. Visually he uses almost-Hawksian simple set-ups, eschewing flashy cutting or ostentatious angles.
Each of his films is imbued with a strong sense of emotion, perhaps at the expense of plot. So here there is no exposition, meaning that the audience is involved in an intriguing game of catch-up from the start. We meet two men, on the run from the authorities across the South of the U.S. with a little boy in tow. The boy wears swimming goggles and headphones. They travel by night, the driver wearing night-vision goggles so that their car travels in darkness. They use cardboard to blackout motel room windows in the daytime. The Government is searching for them, as is the cult they appear to have escaped. The boy is spoken of in reverent terms by cult members, and appears to have powers of some sort. One of the men (Michael Shannon) is revealed as his birth father.
Nichols lets the details come slowly, focusing instead on the mood of desperation and fear around the fugitives. This is really a story of a father's struggle to protect his child, and as such it accrues tremendous emotional power as it moves with gathering speed towards a climax. The sci-fi elements are all sudden shocks in the story, and the naturalism of the setting and playing gives them an awesome effect; a scene at a gas station is interrupted by a shower of falling satellite debris. Shannon is woken from sleep by the house being shaken off the ground by the light shooting from his sons eyes. The boys touch kills patches of grass.
While the film is without any Spielbergian sentimentality, it does try for Spielbergian awe, and the context and tone helps it achieve something like that. It is a slow burn that sparks to life impressively.
Nichols is great with actors as ever. Shannon, Edgerton and Dunst are all excellent, while Driver shows good range as the Government expert on their trail. Perhaps most impressive is the cinematography of regular Nichols collaborator, Adam Stone; he paints a muted, wintry picture of the Southern States by night, lit by halogen and headlamps.

Sunday, 10 April 2016


(John Carney, 2016)

I was brought up in 1980s Dublin. I went to a Christian Brothers all-boys Secondary school in a rough area. I loved music; as an escape, as a release.
Sing Street, then, spoke to me in a way few films do. The story of a 15 year old middle class boy transferred from his posh school (the way the Christian Brothers contemptuously refer to "Jesuits" gets across something hilarious and profound about Irish culture in two syllables) to a much rougher one nearby and escapes the brutality and bleakness of life in '80s Dublin through pop music is joyous and funny throughout, but in a very Irish way, it is never blind to the realities of the world it portrays.
That means that Carney shows how Dublin - perhaps the poorest capital city in Europe in the '80s - was subject to deprivation and social issues.
The background to the story is filled with absent parents; alcoholism, heroin addiction, mental health issues. Shot on location around Dublin's working class inner city, Carney sets much of the story in the council estates that ring the city centre. Here they are full of graffiti and litter; crumbling and in undeniable disrepair. But the story seems all set in summer - sunshine fills this film until the last scene, and the day-glo '80s fashions both accentuate this lightness and positivity and are given a strange context by the daylight; velvet suits and goth make-up look beautifully ridiculous in a street in afternoon sunlight.
Our lead is Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), whose parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle-Kennedy) are enduring a crumbling marriage and reduced economic circumstances. He moves to Synge Street Christian Brothers school, where he is bullied both by students and staff (the film subtly acknowledges the abuse that was still a feature of such schools in that era) and is only saved when he sees Raphina (Lucy Boynton) on the steps of the Girls Home opposite the school. To impress her, he invents a band on the spot and invites her to star in their video. So then he has to recruit band members, write a song and make a demo.
Things snowball from there, as the band (Sing Street) improve and bond, while Conor and Raphina develop a connection. All the while Conor is guided by his stoner dropout of an older brother (Jack Reynor).
Just as in his breakthrough Once, Carney is perhaps most at home with the scenes of musical discovery - the bits here where Conor and his bandmate Eamonn write songs together are full of a sense of excitement and potential - and Conor's love of music runs parallel with his love of Raphina. The romance works even if both leads are slightly miscast. Boynton is suitably beautiful - she is meant to stand out in '80s Dublin, and she does - but her accent wavers all over the place. Walsh-Peelo never has the charisma or complexity of a lead. Indeed, Reynor blows him off screen in their shared scenes. But he does well with the musical scenes and much of the comedy, a lot of which is carried by the supporting characters.
The richly detailed world here is what makes the film work so well. Each character has an inner life, every detail makes sense. The music is lovely, and the cut from Hall & Oates' "Maneater" to the boy's rip-off is a brilliant moment. The ending is feel-good in the best way, and the themes of brotherhood and creativity are nicely developed throughout.
Plus: it is really funny.

Monday, 28 March 2016


(Zack Snyder, 2016)

Forced to try to make super-hero movies in a different way to Marvel, Warner Bothers and DC have gone all-in on grim and gritty. That might be in part an attempt to duplicate the success Christopher Nolan experienced with his Dark Knight trilogy, which embraced the darker aspects of Batman mythology, largely eschewing any humour, campness or fun along the way.
Snyder already aped that approach with Man of Steel, and here he brings in his own interpretation of the "Bat of Gotham" to set up the extended Universe DC presumably feels is their right, looking at the industry-altering success Marvel has enjoyed with its unending flow of Marvel Universe product.            
And that approach has its strengths. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (explicitly nodding to the hints of the coming Justice League in a few scenes here) is positively stuffed to the gills with stuff. With easter eggs, characters, gadgets, dialogue, cgi, mythology, action, exposition, technobabble, ephemera, spectacle: just stuff. It also has more ideas than any Marvel film, which may be another of the legacies left by Christopher Nolan.
It's just that in his films, the ideas are foregrounded. Indeed, if his Batman trilogy has a major flaw, it is an inability to balance the demands of an action spectacle with his own desire to engage with big themes. Well, Zack Snyder can do the action spectacle in his sleep. But the big themes are a different story. He allows his characters to expound upon the nature of heroism and power, but that's it. The film doesn't pursue these ideas in any meaningful way. Instead, Snyder flicks through them en route to another big slugfest action sequence. And so the tone isn't earned by the story it frames, and it just seems slightly, unnecessarily grim.
But then perhaps this is the perfect superhero film for the modern world; teetering on the edge of anarchy (glimpsed in a Batman nightmare filled with more Darkseid-shaped easter eggs), split between those who worship powerful figures (Snyder conjures one lovely scene where revellers at a Mexican Day of the Dead festival bow and stretch to touch the Kryptonian) and those who despise them (Batman is feared and seen as a myth), mired in bureaucracy (a surprising amount of plot is spent dealing with import permission) and secretly run by the powerful mega-rich.
Snyder is as visually assured as ever. This is perhaps best seen in the way he shoots Batman - an early encounter with two beat cops treats him like a horror character; seen in blurred background and shadow. The later take-down of a warehouse full of armed thugs is the closest approximation of the Batman I grew up reading I have ever seen. Mixing tech and fighting acumen, it is easily the best action scene in the film; thrillingly shot and cut without resorting to slo-mo, Snyder's personal visual tic.
The cast is strong, which helps carry some of the more shockingly badly written scenes. Ben Affleck makes for an appealingly tired and sombre Bruce Wayne, (a somewhat underused) Cavill is more confident as Clark/Superman, and Amy Adams makes Lois more vulnerable than she was in Man of Steel. Jeremy Irons is a nicely sardonic Alfred, while Gal Gadot is magnetic and does well with no real part in her handful of scenes as Wonder Woman. Jesse Eisenberg plays Lex Luthor as a damaged manchild, a super villain in word and gesture before ever becoming one in deed, all titters, furies and whimsically murderous asides and impulses.
The plot is an awkward thing. It shows that this was a movie conceived in a panic just days before it was announced as a way to combat the empire-building of Marvel. The narrative hoops screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S Goyer jump through in order to get the two titular heroes face-to-face feel formidable, and the first act is a wonder of fleet exposition and character introduction. After that though it starts to grind a little. Too much going on, too little of it as interesting as it should be. Affleck is good in all of his scenes, but then he has the best character to play. The climactic confrontation is impressive, but instantly gazzumped by the arrival of the cgi Doomsday and Wonder Woman to complete the "trinity" at the heart of the DC Universe.
The cosmetic debt to Frank Miller's the Dark Knight Returns is outweighed by the debt to the (terrible) Death of Superman by Dan Jurgens, which may just sum up the issues with Snyder's film.
But its issues, such as they are, are interesting. This film is a fascinating mess.

Sunday, 13 March 2016


(Pierre Morel, 2015)

So hilariously generic in its particulars that it plays almost like a parody, The Gunman is a pretty waste of an awful lot of acting talent.
Sean Penn plays the action lead here, but he is not really fully committing to a Liam Neeson career revival which this was obviously envisioned as. Instead, he co-wrote the screenplay and presumably ensured that this otherwise stock Euro-spy action thriller has some worthy stuff about mining in the Congo and multinational culpability. He's in good shape for a middle-aged man and does well with the action stuff, but director Morel seems more concerned with making everything look painterly than mounting effective action sequences.
Then there's the fact that the characters are all flat and underwritten. And no matter how charismatic Idris Elba, Javier Bardem and Ray Winstone are, they can't make puppets any more realistic. Only Mark Rylance really animates his role. The love triangle is awful - pointless and desultory.
The locations look great, Morel has a fine eye and a nose for ambience, and there are a few divertingly well-done action beats, but overall, and considering it is based on Manchette's The Prone Gunman,  this feels like a major missed opportunity.

Friday, 26 February 2016


(John Hillcoat, 2016)

A Cops and Robbers movie!
Hillcoat gathers a really impressive cast here, and embeds them in a world thick with macho atmosphere and sticky Atlanta, Georgia authenticity. Matt Cook's screenplay was on the Black List a few years ago, and it's easy to see why: it's full of great pulp characters and moments, and ripe for muscular action treatment. Hillcoat delivers in that department, opening the film with a heist carried out by Michael Belmont (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Russell Welch (Norman Reedus), two ex-military contractors now working for hire for the Russian Mob in the sinister form of Kate Winslet's cold gang boss. Russell and Michael enlist Russell's junkie ex-cop brother (Aaron Paul in another loser role) and he in turn calls in dirty cops Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr) for the heist on a downtown bank, focused on recovering a single safety deposit box. The heist goes wrong and attracts the attention of burned out detective Allen (Woody Harrelson). Meanwhile, the gang have to perform another job, and the decision is made to kill a cop as a massive distraction - the police band code for this is a 999 - and the chosen victim is Chris (Casey Affleck), an Iraq-war veteran and nephew of Allen, recently transferred from a cushy suburb to the gangs unit, where he and Marcus make for uneasy partners.
Along the way, Hillcoat throws in an extended police raid on a projects gang den, the second heist and a handful of tense confrontations in great urban neo-noir locations. He plays with colour and composition. Lost of reds, lots of reflections, visually portraying the bloodiness and duplicity of this world.
The whole thing is more or less ludicrously macho, all shape charges and assault rifles, but the characters are surprisingly rich and convincing for a world as pulpy as the one, and the excellent cast (Ejiofor, Affleck and Winslet in particular) make it extremely compelling.
It's grim - but then isn't every Hillcoat film - but always entertaining.

Saturday, 20 February 2016


(Stephen Fingleton, 2015)

The Survivalist aims to depict a post-apocalyptic world without any of the iconography or mythology of the Road Warrior school of post-apocalyptic action. It focuses on one man living alone on a tiny farm hidden in Northern Irish woodland. When we first encounter him he is disposing of the corpse of an intruder, and we sense this is not the first time. He tends to his crops, sleeps, eats, masturbates. He is twitchy and paranoid about more intruders, and as we learn, he is right to be. This is - as it always is after an apocalypse in fiction - a world of Darwinian principles. Only the very strongest survive. Two women arrive. Mother and daughter, they say. They want food, perhaps a nights shelter. They trade sex with the younger woman for both. Meanwhile they plot to take the man's gun and his home away from him.
Fingleton carefully observes the shifting dynamics between these three people. The watchful, cunning older woman. The man's wariness soften as he develops feelings for the girl. The girl realise who she may be better off siding with. Eventually, other intruders come. They are armed. Loyalties are tested, realities faced. There is little dialogue, no non-diagetic music. We hear the characters breathe, the wind in the trees. We watch their eyes watch one another.
The space is precisely mapped out by Fingleton, the arena of the shed the three share, the clearing where the man confronts an intruder, the stream nearby. The pacing is deliberate, controlled. This is a slow world. No need to rush it. It acquires a mesmeric quality.
Martin McCann is excellent as the man, so stoic that any flicker of feeling in his eyes has a seismic effect. Mia Goth is just as mysterious as the young woman, while Olwen Fouere seems to have stepped from some medieval myth; wise and frightening, she possesses an unforgettable face.
This is tense, beautiful, though-provoking. Its quality makes a virtue of a small budget and modest ambition.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016


(Brad Peyton, 2015)

As a fully-fledged disaster movie made in the era where cgi makes more or less anything possible in cinema, San Andreas seems to take much of its narrative dynamic from gaming.
The dull family dynamics and relationships come from the disaster movies of yore alright - Dwayne Johnson's Rescue Helicopter Pilot is forced to search for his daughter (Alexandra Daddario) with the wife (Carla Gugino) he lost as a result of his inability to deal with the death of another daughter some years before, just as a series of massive quakes rocks California, largely destroying Los Angeles and San Francisco. Daddario is trying to escape the city with a couple of British brothers, injecting a cynical note of teen romance into the story.
Meanwhile, the Seismologist (Paul Giamatti) who has been predicting the Quake is stuck in his CalTech lab, trying to get the word out about the coming disaster through a reporter (Archie Panjabi).
But the way the set-pieces are put together feels like it has come from a computer game. Each scene features a series of ridiculous escalations. Johnson can't just save Gugino from a rooftop L.A. restaurant. The roof has to have collapsed. Flame has to explode through piles of the rubble. A nearby skyscraper has to collapse. A dust cloud must shoot up, almost enveloping them. The flight out must be around a series of skyscrapers, wobbling and shedding concrete like trees shed leaves in autumn.
A later escape out of the San Francisco bay over the oncoming tsunami can't just be as simple and dramatic as just an enormous tsunami. No. It has to involve a cargo liner appearing directly in their path atop that tsunami at just the wrong moment. Escaping the liner can't be enough. Metal shipping containers have to start toppling off the liner all around their tiny boat.
And so on.
Johnson and Gugino are fine - though they say "Oh my God" an awful lot - but it is overlong, under-dramatic and never all that interesting.


(Stephen Frears, 2015)

The first act here strikes an odd balance. It portrays Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster)
as a sympathetic protagonist, forced into doping because if he wanted to win, well then that was the only way. Everybody else was doing it, so why shouldn’t he? Especially when he has had to fight off cancer, a time in his life depicted as an awful battle  in grim, shadowed hospital rooms.
Lance’s return sees him convinced that doping is the only way, and he embraces the work of his Doctor Michele Ferarri (Guillaume Canet) and is rewarded with seven consecutive tour de France victories.
He is friend to Presidents and celebrities, adored for his charity which raises millions for cancer research, happily married with children, and one of the greatest athletes on Earth.
Only David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) is disgusted. If everybody can see there is something wrong within cycling, then everybody is happy to stay silent. But Walsh cannot. He rants and asks questions, and it is then, when he is backed into a corner, that we see another side of Lance. He bullies, threatens, sues. He uses cancer and his charity as a shield. He gets away with it. Until he doesn’t anymore.
The procedural aspects of this story are its most interesting element.
How Armstrong and his team doped, how he escaped detection for so long. But director Frears and screenwriter John Hodge want this to be something of a character study, and that is where the film comes somewhat unstuck.

Armstrong loves winning, loves a battle. But that doesn’t explain him, explain his controlling aggression, explain the way he destroys those who oppose him. Ben Foster does his best, but when his Armstrong looks into a mirror he seems like an empty puppet. These filmmakers don’t understand this man. And that leaves the film curiously hollow.


(Sean Mewshaw, 2015)

So say Bon Iver had died after that one (good) record. Or say Elliott Smith had only made that early acoustic record. And then died, leaving a small body of work and a wife (Rebecca Hall, good as ever) behind to guard his legacy. And she’s trying to write a book about him but shes too close and too involved and still mourning, and she can’t do him justice, alone as she is in her rural house with the ghosts of their life together and his home-made recording studio. Then this New York intellectual professor of pop culture (Jason Sudekis) shows up, writing some arty-farty tenure application academic book, and they hate one another straight away, but she relents and asks him to write the biography for her. And he agrees, eager for a scoop and needing the money, and moves in, and of course, of course, slowly, but not too slowly, they fall for one another.
Only there’s still the ghost of that dead, seemingly perfect genius singer-songwriter, and he has his theories and her memories and the oddball eccentrics of her small town life, including her family and his life in New York, and so so many hurdles before they can be together.
Oh and it’s a gentle comedy-drama. Most of the drama coming from his one-liner responses to those small-town eccentricities and her withering contempt for his big city ways. Most of the drama from her continued grief for her dead soul mate.
The leads are appealing and believable and they make a cute couple. It’s nice. Agreeable. You could watch it on a plane. The songs – by Damien Jurado – are pretty.


(Tim Miller, 2016)

Odd how many superhero movies forget to be fun. They’re so busy being important and earth-shattering and awesome that they forget the central joy of the genre; it is fun. Well, not Deadpool. Deadpool strains every sinew in order to keep the audience entertained throughout. Generally that’s through humour, with a string of groan-inducing gags and one-liners mixed into all the slapstick and pop-culture references. And of course the post-modern fourth wall breaking, a long-time feature of the character’s comic book appearances. This Deadpool, played charmingly by Ryan Reynolds, knows he is in a superhero movie, stops to talk to the audience, acknowledges genre conventions and alludes to budgetary constraints and Reynolds’ own checkered career.  Some of this works really well (the audience I saw Deadpool with audibly enjoyed the movie more than any movie I have seen in a long time) and sometimes it doesn’t. The plot is a slight thing, mostly told in mid-fight scene flashback by Deadpool himself, aka Wade Wilson, a mercenary who has just fallen in love with his prostitute soulmate Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) when he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Desperate, he volunteers for experimental procedure controlled by Ajax (Ed Skrein) and Angel Dust (Gina Carano), bestowed with the ability to feel no pain and super strength respectively.
This procedure will activate his latent mutant gene, but only after a series of grisly tortures. In the aftermath, Wilson is hideously ugly but also virtually unkillable, with a Wolverine-style healing factor to add to his pre-existing skill with gun and sword. He also has a score to settle with Ajax, which he does by killing his way through a series of underlings.
Set in a corner of the X-Men universe (but also featuring a big visual wink to the Marvel Universe), Deadpool also brings in Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, if only to allow its hero to poke fun at their team and attitudes. But then this is a character who works best when he has somebody to talk to and bounce off, and his scenes with them are among the best in the film.
The action scenes are fine and there are a lot of them, and if the script is frequently crude, a little too broad and unfunny, well Reynolds has the comic chops and timing to sell it anyway. Crucially it nails a tone. It doesn’t quite feel like any other film in the superhero genre, certainly not like any of the films which have parodied the genre in the past. Its violence and post-modern sensibility make it a different beast, as does its surprisingly sincere love story and seedy little setting.
Oh yeah: and it’s fun.

Monday, 8 February 2016


(Ana Boden, Ryan Fleck, 2016)

Boden and Fleck are such careful filmmakers, it tends to make their films play at an odd remove. Here they take this scruffy little genre hybrid - two gamblers meet cute, bond, and set off on a road trip to earn some more money, all the while watching their own relationship change and twist with each revelation and decision - and make of it a scrupulously middling indie movie, distinguished mainly by excellent performances by Ryan Reynolds and (especially) Ben Mendelsohn as the gamblers.
They are intelligent directors, and Mississippi Grind pays the right kind of attention to setting and location, so that the film feels thick with place. But even that feels careful, a little by the numbers; there are nicely weighted shots of locations in each town, as if programmed by a computer versed in filmmaking 101. A late reveal of the identity, occupation and character of Reynolds' mother should be crushing, but it feels cynical. The final splurge is refreshing in its outcome, but feels oddly like a coda, after Mendelsohn has earlier shown his truest colours with lies and risks taken to support his gambling habit.
But those performances are worth it; Reynolds showing a melancholy and darkness behind his charm, Mendelsohn all last-chance desperation and blown-out self-awareness. They have genuine chemistry, too. And if overall it never lives up to Altman's California Split, well: what does? More of a problem is how a movie like John Dahl's Rounders feels more alive and full of characters.

Thursday, 14 January 2016


(Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

Tarantino sells tickets. Meaning Tarantino - ever since his third film, Jackie Brown, at any rate - can do whatever the hell he wants. Self-indulgence wasn't exactly far away from projects like his double movie spaghetti-western-kung-fu-ninja revenge movie, Kill Bill (I & II) or his bizarro cinema-kills-the-nazis WW2 Mission movie, Inglorious Basterds.
With The Hateful Eight he's decided to make an Agatha Christie-style Murder mystery in a locked room. This despite the fact that he is shooting on epic 70mm. In a location set in a blizzard on a stunning Wyoming mountain. In a film that lasts three hours.
Like I said, Tarantino can do whatever the hell he wants.
The titular Eight are gathered together at Minnies Haberdashery, a stagecoach stop which is mysteriously lacking its owners. We first meet a stagecoach, carrying legendary bounty hunter John "the Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell rocking a John Wayne drawl) and the prisoner he is taking in chains to hang in Red Rock, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as they pick up two passengers traveling through the snow on foot, Major Marquise Warren (Samuel L Jackson), who is another legendary bounty hunter, and Chris Mannix, an ex-Confederate Guerrilla and unrepentant racist, who is on his way to his post as new Sheriff of Red Rock.  In this opening chapter, the tone of the film is set. Westerns are meant to be slow, but Tarantino takes that to ridiculous extremes. Each conversation is filled with loquacious tangents and long, sometimes brilliant speeches. The actors are clearly loving it, and some fare very well indeed (Goggins, Roth and Jackson best of all), but it feels like another 2 or 3 drafts were needed to find the essential film within this great shaggy beast.
The length and copious dialogue (and a nice Morricone score taken partly from rejected portions of score from Carpenters The Thing) does create tension, but Tarantino partly breaks that with his usual structural playfulness, flashing back to ear lie run the day, showing an event from a different perspective...
Most of this happens after the stage arrives at the haberdashery and there encounters four men, waiting out the storm. Both Warren and Ruth believe at least one of them is an accomplice of Daisy's, set on freeing her, and of course, they are correct. But it takes two more hours of those long speeches and anecdotes for the whole thing to resolve itself in some hilariously graphic (and surprisingly uninspired) slo-mo and spluttery violence.
There are a bunch of great moments, a few big laughs, and lots of great acting (or at least great line delivery), but throughout I was thinking how Delmer Davies or Budd Boetticher would have told the whole story, better, in about 82 minutes.

Thursday, 7 January 2016


(Adam McKay, 2015)

It starts out all Goodfellas-by-way-of-amped-up-1990s-Oliver Stone; rapid changes in film stock, music pumping, loads of voiceover, exposition but delivered with wit and gags and style; angry and exhilarated and loud and energetic.
Thats lasts about 15-20 minutes, and then The Big Short settles into what it actually is: a sort of real life financial heist story. Oh, every so often McKay throws in a little splash of post-modernism - here's Selena Gomez or Margot Robbie or Anthony Bourdain, as themselves, explaining some complex financial concept in layman's terms, here's Ryan Gosling's narrator figure addressing the camera - but mainly it stays on the straight and narrow, and just tells its story.
Luckily that story is inherently interesting. How the global financial crash came about is just one more story beat here; and when Steve Carrell's Mark Baum realises what is about to happen and is sent reeling away from a restaurant, stunned by the knowledge, The Big Short reaches a nice pitch of hysterical black comedy and sober despair at what was allowed to happen. His character has his own Fund, and he and his team bet wildly against the housing market at the behest of Gosling's slick trader Jared Vennett. They have been beaten to the punch by oddball genius hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who defies all his clients and incurs at least one lawsuit by doing the same thing a year or so earlier. Then there are the two small town traders who happen across this deal and, aided by their ex-Wall Street Hotshot neighbour Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) buy into the same game.
From then on, its just a waiting game, and McKay conjures impressive tension, considering the fact that we all know what eventually happens.
In the interim McKay shows his characters shock at just how rigged and corrupt the banking industry in the USA was back then, but always keeps the actions and locations varied - Wall Street is prominent, but his characters visit Miami condos, Vegas casinos, Devon Pubs and lap-dancing clubs along the way. Even if the humour is pitch black, he drops the odd bombshell of realism to shock the audience: Pitt chiding his young proteges by recounting the human cost of what will happen being perhaps the highlight.
The starry cast makes it all that much more painless. Gosling can play smug and slick in his sleep, Carrell makes Baum's emotional implosion not only queasy but touching, Pitt is convincingly eccentric, and Bale steals the film with his surges of energy (soundtracked to heavy metal drumming) and inability to socially connect.
McKay keeps it busy and colourful, and ends on a nice note of triumph for his heroes, but defeat for his country, which is probably as it should be, with this story.

Sunday, 3 January 2016


(John Magary, 2015)

The way Magary makes The Mend feel loose while keeping it commendably tight is a small miracle.
That begins with the first "act" (this feels loose and fluid enough that the notion of a three or seven act structure has no relevance whatsoever) wherein the camera observes a party at the New York apartment of Alan and Farrah (Stephen Plunkett and Mickey Sumner), a 30something couple with bohemian friends. We first meet them in the middle of an argument about sex, and the strains in their relationship - perfectly believable, banal little strains which will be uncomfortably recognisable to anyone who has ever had a relationship - are instantly evident, as is the genuine feeling between them. We have already met Alan's older brother, Mat (Josh Lucas in perhaps his best ever role), a sociopathic bullshitter who gets thrown out of his girlfriend's apartment in the first scene and reels across the city, an absolute raging mess of issues until he winds up at the party.
Alan and Farah leave on vacation in a rush the next morning, unaware that Mat is still there, unconscious in their back room. When he awakens, he moves in, then moves in his girlfriend and her son. And then Alan returns suddenly, Farrah having left him, and the brothers' difficult relationship is put under new and intense strain.
All of this is taken in by Magary in a detached, almost remote fashion. His characters supply the energy and emotion, while he follows them around and misses not a nuance or a wince. His film recalls the work of Arnaud Desplechin (in style) but Mat is a character straight out of Mike Leigh - a manchild without any verbal filter or sense of social graces, like a toned-down American version of David Thewlis in Naked.
But all of the characters in The Mend feel as well-observed as Matt; the film's cornerstone seems to be the way personality traits are passed down from parents, and Alan is as messed-up as Mat, albeit in a more polite and acceptable manner. Their father looms over the action, discussed by an old friend at the party, appearing to Alan in a hallucination, mentioned by both as points of comparison. The films women are just as complex; Farrah dealing with her relationship issues in a more adult way than her partner, and Matt's girlfriend Andrea (Lucy Owen) struggling with her feelings for him while also trying to raise her boy. The way Matt responds to a natural and growing intimacy between Andrea and Alan is both hilarious and spot-on. That is the film's best quality; it manages to be both well-observed and savagely funny. The characters may not be all that likeable, but they are sympathetic, and their foibles and outrages are genuinely funny.

Saturday, 2 January 2016


(Christopher Smith, 2010)

Christopher Smith's Black Death follows a disillusioned monk (Eddie Redmayne) and a jaded bunch of Mercenaries during the 14th Century plague outbreak as they journey into eerie marshlands in search of a town reputedly free of infection. Financed and shot in Germany, Smith's film works off some uniquely British influences. It seems to refer to three cult classics which all investigate the old, weird Britain of isolated rural communities and surviving pagan traditions; The Wicker ManBlood on Satans Claw and Witchfinder General. In Smith's film, the Mercenaries, led by Sean Bean's iron-willed homicidal zealot, are searching for Witchcraft and they get that and more in this creepily mellow community (a sidelong suggestion of contemporary New Age worship is set with the costume design). The directors three previous films were all horror movies and he does a fine job here of maintaining a sense of dread and foreboding throughout, though the avoidance of the supernatural and ultimately human nature of the evil they encounter adds to this film's pessimistic impact. The coda is devastating, and if Black Death does have some aesthetic ambition, it's heart seems resolutely pulpy. It's battle scenes are filmed with real relish and gory aplomb and Smith has described it as a "medieval men on a mission movie" which is as good a description of half of its appeal as any I can formulate. There are quieter, almost meditative moments in Black Death, however, and passages of it reminded me fleetingly of Andrei Tarkovsky and most particularly his extraordinary Medieval Epic, Andrei Rublev. In other words, this is a fascinating little movie.


(Dave Boyle, 2015)

In what feels like direct opposition to much modern neo-noir, Boyle's film does noir in an old-fashioned, serious manner: slowly, patiently, methodically. That's not to suggest it isn't stylish. It is visually lovely, filled with strong compositions and a palette of muted colours. Boyle's storytelling adds to the strong sense of atmosphere created - this is a quiet, thoughtful piece of cinema.
It centres on best-selling Japanese mystery writer Aki (Ayako Fujitani) who returns to her college hometown of San Francisco, depressed and somewhat suicidal. There she meets a mysterious man, they connect, and then he abruptly disappears. Her halting investigation into his sudden absence eventually intersects with that of a small-town sheriff (Pepe Serna), searching for a man he hit with his car one misty night who later absconded from hospital. This leads them into a murky world of smuggling, money, and identity theft, and it quickly becomes obvious that neither of them really knows what they are doing.
It is refreshing to find a genuine mystery in a noir - one with plenty of dead ends and false starts - but then so much about Man From Reno is surprisingly refreshing. The story starts off as a drama, building the character of Aki, giving us a few glimpses into her past, and making her sympathetic. Likewise the sheriff - a nice man who seems to be good at his job, and who loves his daughter. The mystery only comes into focus about 30 minutes in, and it is almost another hour before the two leads meet. Fujitani and Serna are inspired casting choices; she is all sad eyes and watchful regret, he all laid-back, aged wisdom and nagging worries. The few moments of suspense are nicely-handled, increasing Aki's sense of paranoia.
The whole thing has a quality lacking in modern neo-noir: soulfulness. There are few references to pop culture, barely any violence. Instead there is some emotion in these characters. Aki misses the love of her life, long dead, whose writing gave her the career she has today. The sheriff seems resigned to his daughter leaving him for a place at the FBI. Violence seems to exist in a different cinematic universe from these people.
This means that when it comes, it has devastating, jarring impact. The ending is fantastic.

Friday, 1 January 2016


(Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson, 2015)

Kaufman has the priceless ability to engage with his themes - usually some combination of love, isolation, fear of death, loneliness and depression - with the lightest of touches, concealed within his stories, which are accessible, funny and dramatic. He also seems equipped with a high concept generator: man discovers a tunnel into John Malkovich's mind? A service which can help cure heartbreak by wiping out all memories of a lover? An ongoing theatre project which replicates the banalities and profundities of a mans life?
Here the concept is part of the execution. David Thewlis voices Michael Stone, a bestselling motivational writer, whose book on customer service, "How Can I Help You Help Them?" has brought him to Cincinnati to speak at a conference. The character, like everybody else in the film, is played by a detailed stop-motion puppet. Everyone else he encounters - the taxi driver, speaking in platitudes about his city and its delights, the hotel concierge, the waitress in the bar, his ex-girlfriend, his wife and little boy  - is voiced by Tom Noonan, varying his tone and pitch only fractionally throughout.
As a metaphor for Michael's isolation and solipsism, this works beautifully, and really pays off in a nightmare sequence in the third act. Michael is desperate for connection with another person, and is thrilled when he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a phone centre manager who has travelled to the conference just to hear him speak. They have quite a touching romance for one night, and then - well - how it goes captures the arc of most romantic relationships, and says some pointed things about expectations and the way individuality and selfishness affects such interactions.
It has that beautiful and distinctive Kaufman feeling; melancholy yet quietly hilarious, profound yet everyday. The details are where much of the humour lies, both in the character work, the background - the Fregoli hotel, where Michael and Lisa meet, is a nicely expressionist location - and Johnson's work with the puppets is lovely.
It finishes on a note halfway between sadness and realistic acceptance and feels somehow optimistic. No mean feat in a film with such sad ideas about life and love. But then that is the Charlie Kaufman effect.