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.