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.