Saturday 31 December 2011


(Kim Ji-Woon, 2010)

Trust Korean cinema to produce a Serial Killer Thriller so unflinchingly brutal, intense and disturbing that it had to be cut for release in Korea itself. Unlike much recent Korean genre cinema, I Saw the Devil is tonally consistent. It is dark, mournful, frightening, and bristles with tension throughout.
The set-up is simple; a serial killer abducts and murders a young woman. Her fiancee is a Government Agent, and he tracks down the killer and begins a sort of game; beating and mutilating him, then releasing him before capturing, beating and mutilating him again. The question is: what happens when the serial killer gains the upper hand?
Kim Ji-Woon is a great pulp director, capable of composing scintillating action sequences, and there are a couple of terrific examples of that talent here. But he has been indulged somewhat both here and in his previous film, the messy if entertaining Western pastiche of The Good, the Bad and the Weird, and this film runs 140 minutes, at least 50 minutes longer than it needs to. That running time allows for a very deliberate pace, however, and scenes are allowed to breathe, tension seeping into the film gradually at certain points and exploding into savage violence. And it is savage; limbs and heads are lopped off, genitals hammered, stabbings and sashings are graphic and bloody.
The length also allows for a rambling story; an interlude with the serial killer's cannibal pal is particularly black-humoured and visceral. All this displays the quality of Ji-Woon's work; a startlingly precise command of texture and tone, visual muscle and sensitive collaboration with actors. Of course it helps that his leads are two of the biggest stars in Asian cinema; Choi Min-Sik and Lee Byung-Hun, both of whom are excellent here. They have something beyond genre cliches to chew on due to the first act, which is surprisingly emotional in it's portrayal of murder and the emotional trauma it causes, and which haunts the rest of the film, driving the action and the plot.
It should be a little excessive, and perhaps it is. It is certainly overlong. But it is tremendously well-made and brilliant in places; gripping, exciting and never remotely dull.

Wednesday 28 December 2011


(Jose Padilla, 2011)

Here is a schizophrenic production. Padilla's sequel to his controversial Elite Squad, which was accused of fascism due to its unblinking portrayal of Brazilian military police as apparently heroic defenders of public order in a chaotic state is an odd film. Partly its a staccato, panoramic documentary-style account of the unending corruption and violence which rules political life in Rio de Janeiro, its bent cops and murderous drug cartels. But it's also an amped-up action film, filled with fetishized assault rifles and shootouts in favelas, car chases and drive-bys, men screaming in one anothers faces.
As such it feels curiously unfocused for much of the time, then lurches into a vivid moment of mayhem whenever anybody brandishes a gun.
The thread holding it all together is the world-weary, Noirish voiceover by returning protagonist Rodrigo Mora as the head of the BOPE, the military police squad who handle SWAT style situations in Rio. He presents his world; both the warring factions pulling Rio apart and his personal problems which interlink later on.
The problem with this is that Mora's character is often absent for long stretches, his marital difficulties and problems with his son aren't given enough attention until late in the film, and many of the other characters are simple ciphers; figures who have a plot function but no personalities or interior life of any type.
Still, it just about all works. Padillas direction is confident and exciting, and his main character is Rio itself, a beautifully atmospheric city full of visually interesting contrasts. The cast is filled with great faces (even if some of them have nothing to do), Mora makes a doleful, intense lead, and Padilla knows how to stage an action scene. The burning anger which fuels the narrative is never forgotten, even at the height of the gunplay, and it elevates Elite Squad: The Enemy Within somewhat, gives it a soul most action films lack.

Tuesday 27 December 2011


(Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

Here is perhaps the most acute and suspenseful thriller of the year. Yet it arrives looking very much like a family drama. Opening with an Iranian couple arguing their cases before a judge in court as the wife seeks a divorce, and advancing in its early stages through a fluent, casually observant drama capturing the pressures and stresses within a middle class Tehran family, at a key point in the first act, A Separartion suddenly transforms into something quite different. A misunderstanding leads to a disagreement, offence is caused, someone is perhaps hurt, accusations are made and charges levelled, and from then on two families are set on convergent, antagonistic paths. The entire agonising situation is only worsened with each instance of pride, denial, anger and recrimination.
The story soon picks up a hellish momentum, its characters caught in their own war, the people around them seemingly collateral damage. All this happens without once straining plausibility, each character following their own obvious personality, every argument terrifyingly, cringe-inducingly credible in origin and progression, until it all reaches a certain pitch of pained suspense which is almost hard to watch. Farhadi is also scrupulously fair; moral equivalency is a theme here, and we see that all of the players in this ugly, sad little drama have their reasons. The many scenes set in the bureaucratic banality of the Iranian courts - plain, flatly lit civic offices, all weary officials, long corridors and shuffled paperwork - so effortlessly capture a familiar sense of place that you feel as if you might have been there yourself.
While this is brilliant - and it is - what truly lifts A Separation to another level is the way Farhadi views the world in which he sets his tale. He observes this world and all its many complexities of class, family, religion and the law and considers how these forces effect people. Many dramas and even a few thrillers make efforts to portray a world like the one we live in, but few do it with such convincing texture and precision. It is even rarer to find one combining that sort of intricate artfulness with a compulsively suspenseful narrative and rich, believable characters. Farhadi achieves all that. He also depicts the complexities of Sharia law without ever demonising it, and his film is a curt rebuttal of any stereotypical Western views on Iranian life.
Small, telling details are noted by his mobile, handheld camera. The class differences between the families are evident - but subtly recorded, never underlined - long before they become truly relevant, in Court. The children of the families are cast as witnesses to the carnage, quiet observers and consciences for their parents. Other figures wander onscreen occasionally, guests in the tapestry, adding character and grit to Farhadi's portrayal of Iran, which we see mainly in the form of the buzzing, suffocating immensity of Tehran and its endless roads.
The cast are all sensational, giving invisible performances which meld beautifully with the directors quasi-documentary style to create such a dazzling whole.

Saturday 24 December 2011


(Simon West, 2011)

Proudly a b-movie to the core, the way in which this Jason Statham vehicle understands the nature of its stars appeal is the key to its success. Statham is a slightly underrated actor who has been good in some more demanding roles, but he is more-or-less unmatched in current cinema as a brooder. In many of his action parts, he plasters on a grumpy scowl, exudes physical menace, struts about, full of shaven-headed machismo, growls tough-guy lines in his mid-Atlantic whisper, then kicks the hell out of people. Best not to ask him for too much emotion or even dialogue. His presence is refreshingly simple and lacking in irony. He's like Bruce Willis without the humour. Such simplicity is best suited to a certain kind of film; ideally the stripped-back, streamlined directness of a b-movie action film.
The Mechanic is just such a film. Its set-up is clear: Statham plays Bishop, a cool assassin who is devoted to professionalism. But after accepting the assignment to kill hs only friend and mentor, he weakens somewhat and takes on his friend's disappointment of a son as a protege, showing him the Hitman ropes. But of course that only leads to further conflict down the road..
Director Simon West has steered enough mega-budget blockbusters through the studio system wringer to understand what works in the action genre, and his assured touch makes The Mechanic a smooth ride. It is also disarming beautiful in places, full of lush sunsets and city skylines against coppered horizons, while the action scenes all deliver; each a brutal, nicely shot and edited piece of pure visceral impact, the kind of thing Stathham excels at.
Ben Foster adds another damaged and vulnerable loser to his growing collection, and he helps the movie to function, while also starting in a couple of terrifyingly bruising set-pieces; while Donald Sutherlands early appearance is perhaps the highlight of the entire film, dramatically speaking of course.
The script is clipped and intent upon its own momentum, so that Bishop has no back-story and is defined more or less purely by what he does. Which is probably as I should be in a Statham film.

Friday 23 December 2011


(Brad Bird, 2011)

Director Brad Bird has such a sparkling track record in animation - The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille is some run of work - and such a good reputation as the sort of artist who makes commercial, popular films which are also personal, that it wasn't all that great a surprise when Tom Cruise chose him to helm the fourth installment in his Mission Impossible series. And Bird does well here. While this may be his worst film as Director, it rivals Brian DePalma's original as the best in this series, a crisply directed, vigourous collection of sensational action sequences which gives the audience little time to consider its many flaws and implausibilities.
Chief among those flaws are the almost lazy story: IMF Agent Ethan Hunt and his disavowed team - an IMF for the austerity era - must stop a crazed extremist from starting a nuclear war. To do this they bounce across the globe; from Moscow to Dubai to Mumbai, and take him on in a series of fight scenes, attempted heists and chases. Most notable are Cruise's scaling the outside of The Burj Khalifa in Dubai, captured in a clutch of dizzying crane and helicopter shots by Bird. That scene is followed by a sharply edited, brutal fight scene which morphs into a car chase in a sandstorm. The villain is a little generic - he features rarely in the narrative, in fact - and most of the character material comes between the IMF team, where Jeremy Renner and Paula Patton are both slightly wasted despite emotional baggage in their back-stories, and Simon Pegg gets all the laughs.
Cruise is fine, and Robert Elwits photography, together with Michael Giacchino's score and the beautiful, atmospheric locations, ensure that it's aways a sensually pleasurable experience.

Sunday 18 December 2011


(Guy Ritchie, 2011)

If the prequel to this film was where Guy Ritchie finally found a mode suited to his limited talents, then here those talents are revealed to have reached some sort of natural ceiling. He possesses a fine understanding of modern cinematic techniques, which means he is entirely comfortable crafting big, empty blockbuster entertainment which moves fast, thrills often, and leaves the mind soon. But here the tricks and ostentatious stylistic tics which made his Sherlock Holmes seem relatively fresh are wheeled out again and the charm has not lasted. While the repeated use of slow motion - the action cranked down then up and mixed with jump cuts during fight scenes and instances where Sherlock makes his great leaps of observation and deduction - works in some cases but not others, it reaches an absolute nadir in a scene where the heroes flee Morarty's lair as his men mortar them and the forest around them explodes. In this scene it stands totally revealed as a pointless stylistic exercise; a distraction from plot, character, even meaning.
Which is a shame, in a film stuffed with actual characters. Downey Jr's Holmes is not Conan Doyle's, but he is a vivid, entertaining chance for the actor to have fun and play around, and he is a generally entertaining watch, given all of the best lines. Jude Law seems more relaxed as Watson here than in the last film, letting his looks and charm work, and his easy chemistry with Downey Jr more or less carries the film. Jared Harris puts that odd, coldly intelligent presence to good use as Moriarty, a genuine match for Sherlock, as he should be, which gives their contest a nice balance, but Noomi Rapace has little to do in the token female lead, as Ritchie whips his heroes from one set-piece to the next.
This is an aggressively designed film, with big sets, outrageous costumes and that near-generic burnished blue steel and copper-grey palette seen in so many modern blockbusters becoming almost oppressive here; it makes the carnival of Victorian London and the romanticism of nocturnal Paris look the same as one another, set in some generic world created by an over-indulged production designer. Worse still, both look the same as Moriarty's German munitions factory and the Swiss Castle of the climax, all caught in a samey parade of places rendered mere dreary backdrops for cgi and anachronistic martial arts.
Just as in first film, Hans Zimmers fantastically eclectic score is the strongest aspect here, making a mild diversion seem more fun than it is.

Friday 16 December 2011


(Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)

Alongside all of its other qualities and its flaws, Kenneth Lonergan's second film, the contemporary drama Margaret, does something few films even attempt. It tries to portray a consciousness on film, in the form of a character study so deep and searching that it addresses the very concept of "the self" in all its contradictory and bewildering complexity. Anna Paquin's Lisa is a self-conscious, precocious teenager from the Upper West Side of Manhattan who is very slightly responsible for the death of a woman in a traffic accident. Traumatised by this incident - the accident and it's aftermath are portrayed with vividly brutal impact by Lonergan - Lisa sets about trying to shed some of the guilt she feels, and in the process, almost casually damages the lives of various people around her.
Margaret is much more than this, however. It is also a song of the city, a polyphonic study of bourgeois Manhattan in the years after 9/11, a study of moral equivalency, and a consistently high-minded piece of work which makes explicit reference to Shakespeare, Opera and poetry (the title comes from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem) while beautifully specialising in long scenes where hyper-articulate, particularly literate characters struggle to express themselves, pointing up the fact that another theme here is the inability of people to connect and relate to one another in the modern world.
All of that might sound a little indigestible or pretentious, but it never plays that way. Lonergan is such a gifted, skillful dramatist that his scenes and characters are almost intrinsically arresting and true, and he consistently creates interesting scenarios which play out in surprising and intriguing ways. This is so obvious because the material and setting are familiar from dozens of films and novels, but Lonergan's approach is never remotely generic, even when dealing with story lines as cliched as some of the many that unfold during Margaret's near two and a half hour running time. For example, Lisa's relationships with two young men - the stuff of a hundred teen comedies and indie dramas - play out as confused, selfish collisions full of confusion and misunderstanding on both sides, casually heartbreaking, funny and silly expressions of her solipsism and selfishness on one hand, but authentically replicate the mixture of casual and earth-shatteringly important crucial to adolescent romance. It helps that the film is elliptical, somewhat enigmatic (though how much of that is down to the film's long history of difficulty in the editing room may be a worthwhile debate) and given to flights of visual poetry when it surveys the city's streets and skyline, sometimes in slow motion.
Visually, Lonergan generally sticks to an unobtrusive classical style, but his storytelling is strong, and he trusts his estimable cast to do his fine script justice. They more than deliver, with Paquin magnificent in the lead, making us care about a character who is often thoroughly unlikable. With stars like Mark Ruffalo and Matt Damon solid in smaller roles , it's less celebrated actresses like Jeannie Berlin and J. Smith Cameron who excel alongside Paquin. Lonergan seems to write nothing but great characters, though, with most every role of substance given shades, depth, a personality, one of the qualities which really elevates Margaret above other dramas. Lisa's mother, for instance, is given enough scenes to be regarded as a lead in her own right, as Lonergan records her new relationship with a Colombian man (Jean Reno, slightly miscast in an odd mis-step), her nervousness about the opening of her new play, and her difficulties as a single mother. Even the briefest character moments are perfectly weighted by Lonergan; with Damon's despairing self-criticism following an encounter with Lisa humanising his character in a way nothing else had. So many voices crowd the canvas here, and the breadth of the films scope is echoed by the sound design, which often allows the conversations of strangers and passers-by to bleed into the mix and emphasise the press of humanity in the city.
There are flaws here, and some may find it overlong and a little too obvious at times, but I think Lonergan is a major artist, with ambition, vision and a uniquely-defined voice, and nobody else is making films quite like this one at present. This is American cinema as art, yet there is great entertainment to be had here, in a film which is accessible, complex, provocative and finally, quite stunning.

Wednesday 14 December 2011


(Andrew Niccol, 2011)

It may be an obvious, somewhat leaden metaphor for the inequalities of the capitalist economies currently dominating the Western World, but the high concept which is the basis for In Time is also a deft recurrent narrative mechanism. Niccol's film is set in a near future where people have been engineered to cease ageing at 25, at which point an internal clock starts. Time can be bought and sold, earned and stolen, and running out of time means the end of your life. The rich live in Time Zones of marble, steel and glass, requiring months and even years for access, while the poor live and die day by day in run-down, industrial ghettos.
The idea that all of the characters might be minutes from running out and need to find more time works like a little adrenaline jolt to the story, giving it a boost whenever the pace slackens.
But Niccol keeps it quite pacy, turning it into a slightly Hitchcockian man-on-the-run thriller, sketching in the details of his sci-fi World as the plot flies past. That world is a little reminiscent of the world from his superior Gattaca; utilising real, contemporary locations skilfully to suggest this near future. The lovely, pin sharp photography of Roger Deakins helps immeasurably with that process, and is especially impressive at capturing the art deco Noir world of the ghetto after dark, abandoned warehouses and desolate neighbourhoods awash in the yellow glow of streetlights.
Niccol finds a couple of strong set pieces in his material; a fine car chase and a fight for time - akin to an arm wrestle - between Justin Timberlake's hero and Alex Pettyfer's "Minutemen", a gangster who makes his living stealing time from others, and the story does roll along speedily throughout. But the love story between the principals is perhaps the chief component of the third act, and neither of them has much of a character to work with. Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried are empty, pretty wind-up toys here, given motivations but no depth, their actions driven purely by the story, and this is a near-fatal flaw.
There is much good here; from Cillian Murphy's haunted, layered performance as a Time-Keeper after the lovers, to the little ironies and details of Niccol's world - the way everybody runs in the ghetto, the use of the phrase "clean your clock" - to Craig Armstrong's atmospheric, pulsing score; but the void where its two protagonists should be prevents it from ever becoming really excellent.
It remains a well-paced, visually dazzling fun sci-fi thriller, most admirable for its attempt to make the current Ecomomic climate a subject for escapist entertainment.

Thursday 8 December 2011


(Martin Scorsese, 2011)

If you love cinema, its hard to see how this film will fail to move you. For here is one of Scorsese's hymns to the power of cinema itself, a celebration of the magic of movies, the power they possess to bring dreams to life. Usually he infuses his documentaries on film - one on American Cinema, one on Italian - with his wonder and enthusiasm, but the subject matter of Hugo allows him to fill this film with the emotion of his own relationship with the medium, and in doing so the last act acquires a thrilling, almost awed sense of excitement as Scorsese does away with framing devices and simply shows us some of the work of George Melies, that pioneer of early fantasy cinema.
The framing device is a kids film; the story of Hugo Cabret, a young orphan living in a Paris Train Station in the 1920s. He resides in secret quarters in the ceiling, moves around inside the Walls, spying on the merchants who man the shops and keeping the clocks running. While trying to fix an automaton as a way to reconnect with his recently-deceased father he becomes involved with the mysterious and grumpy old man who owns the toy kiosk, which eventually leads to the magic of cinema and Melies.
In many ways this plays like the sort of thing Tim Burton would make. Slightly less gothic, perhaps, yet set in a detailed fantasy-world version of the past, with an overtly stylised aesthetic evident in the design, costumes and photography which - together with the need for a Steady supply of 3D effects - means Scorsese indulges in many pointless vertiginous swoops of his camera through space. The pallette is a little familiar; all rusty yellows and marine blues, and the editing is often sloppy, the entire film overlong.
It does feature some superb cinematic storytelling from Scorsese, in the scenes where we see the life of the station from Hugo's point of view in sequences reminiscent of Hitchcock's Rear Window. There are plenty of laughs here, many of them courtesy of Sacha Baron Cohen, who finds just the right pitch between realism and cartoon comedy for his character, the villain of the piece for so long, yet one who remains complex and sympathetic.
Yet Scorsese ensures that the comic tone and the derring-do necessary in a Childrens adventure don't prevent the hefty emotional kick of the climax, which plays upon themes of memory and creativity and rests upon the invention of Melies for its visual quality.
The cast, peopled mainly by strong British talent - Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer, Ray Winstone - in even the smallest roles are generally strong, though the young lead, Asa Butterfield, overacts horrendously throughout.

Tuesday 29 November 2011


(Terence Davies, 2011)

Terence Davies seems one of those artists who only truly operates at full capacity when he is intimately, personally connected with his material. His early work, all of it nakedly autobiographical, is where he built his reputation, and is extraordinary. He arrived seemingly fully-formed; a confident style in place, his thematic obsessions obvious straightaway, and Still Voices, Distant Lives and The Long Day Closes are both fully realised and quite masterful in their mining of Davies' own boyhood experiences in Post-War Liverpool. Since then, his feature work - adapting Classic novels for The Neon Bible and The House of Mirth - has been stylish and powerful, in a muted, repressed fashion, but lacking the spark of greatness of his first films.
The same could be said of The Deep Blue Sea. An adaptation of a Terrence Ratigan play, it finds Davies back in his favourite era - "around 1950" - meaning that the period recreation is fastidious, beautiful and just a smidgen enbalmed. While his period films are all located in a precisely detailed world, it is the soulful quality to that world which makes it so warm and distinctive, and that is evident here too, in the impromptu singalongs in cosy pubs and a Tube platform turned Blitz bomb shelter, in the small kindnesses of strangers. Yet the beautifully darkened pallette and the finely arranged set design - all of it making Weisz's red coat seem to glow in the dark - are a trifle suffocating in their perfection.
The story is a study of a dying relationship. Weisz's character is trapped in a polite marriage with an older man (Simon Russell Beale, splendid), a Judge dominated by his spitefully puritan, wealthy mother. When she meets a dashing, emotionally immature ex-RAF pilot named Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) she discovers the pleasures of physical passion for the first time and her life is changed. She leaves her husband and moves in with Freddie but his limitations make them ultimately incompatible, and in the opening scene we see her attempt suicide.
Weisz is tremendous throughout, presenting a complex, intelligent woman, bewitched by sexual rapture and all too aware of how it is ruining her life, perceiving his flaws but not caring, ashamed of herself yet desperate for him still. Hiddleston plays Freddie as a big child, all sunshine and jokes in good times, but throwing tantrums and storming off when it gets difficult.
Though Davies does a good job opening out the play, chopping up the chronology, using a stunning and mostly wordless opening sequence to relay much of the backstory, the fact the the majority of the action occurs in two locations makes it hard to forget the theatrical origins of the piece. That means it's hard to know who is responsible for the slightly chilly emotional tone; Davies or Rattigan. This is a world with a generally calm, stiff upper lip surface, broken by Hester and Freddies passion, but mainly containing it's emotional storm deep within.
Somehow that translates into a film where we watch the characters struggle with strong feelings while feeling little ourselves.
That is a small sin in such a controlled and confident piece of cinema which frequently reaches sublime heights, but it is still a sin.

Friday 25 November 2011


(Bennett Miller, 2011)

In the end Miller's film, which scrupulously bends over backwards to avoid all of the cliches of the Sports Movie, all those slow motion turning points and dropped out soundtracks and inspirational music uses and unlikely heroes, in the end it surrenders to the power of those cliches and indulges in just about all of them, and it's a suitably glorious moment and testament to the power of the genre.
Partly it's so satisfying because of the quality of what has gone before. Moneyball takes what seemed like difficult material in Michael Lewis' non-fiction account of how General Manager Billy Beane revolutionised Major League Baseball through a new statistics-led system of player identification; and turns out a smartly middlebrow, just stylish enough adult entertainment.
It works well because Miller and the script by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin do a fine job with the set-up, wittily explaining the problems faced by Beane and his cash-strapped club, the Oakland Athletics, and just-as-wittily depicting the reasons for and manner of his conversion to a radical new approach. Early on Beane's own character is accounted for, to an extent, by a series of flashbacks, structured like memory fragments, which show his youthful promise and hopes,then detail the painful dwindling into mediocrity of his career. After that the film becomes a story of a radical with a vision and his struggle for acceptance.
The actual baseball footage is brief and snatched until the team reaches a game where it can possibly break a record, and then Miller brings out the cliches and wallows in some suspense and emotion. But generally, he stays focused on character and the intimate drama of this odd industry, aided by a terrific cast.
Brad Pitt plays Beane as confident and relaxed within himself, but with an undertone of disappointment and a slight edge. He indulges in his old trick of always ensuring his character is eating or drinking something - he knows that chewing, spitting and sucking all keep his otherwise immobile face interesting in certain scenes and when he has no foodstuff to work with, he chews on his lips - but this is a rare contemporary role in which he allows the golden boy of old to come out, his natural handsomeness emphasised by big hair and soft lighting. His very attractiveness, that Redfordian thing he's always had, is a big part of his movie star appeal, and it helps make his character here likeable and worth watching.
Jonah Hill and Phillip Seymour Hoffman both excel opposite him, and Miller keeps it all visually diverting enough to make an audience forget the fact that this is a dry, small, arty film about statistics, largely shot in ugly offices and dull locations.

Tuesday 22 November 2011


(Tarsem Singh, 2011)

This is where modern mainstream cinema has brought us: this bizarre twisting of Greek mythology filtered through a collision between video game narrative (journey, fight, boss fight) and slick advertising imagery, all of it pumped up on steroids and as homoerotic as Tom from Finland. Thankfully that slick advertising imagery is the work of Tarsem Singh, a director with an actual, distinct and individual visual sensibility. His narrative chops are more open to debate, since each of his films so far (confused serial killer thriller The Cell and quite unclassifiable fantasy The Fall) have been problematic as Exercises in storytelling. But he makes each and every frame of Immortals look truly magnificent. The film is a triumph of design; sets, costumes, weaponry; they all look superb and Singh lights and frames all beautifully.
As if to celebrate this, he often resorts to slo-mo, emphasising the aesthetic pleasures to be had in his tableaux. But instead, he just exaggerates the film's airless, constricted beauty, the obviousness that this is a movie fantasy with no relation whatsoever with the real world. This doesn't look, sound or feel like the real world, which makes it's efforts at grittiness - in the violence, in some of the emotional content - almost laughable.
The story is familiar and familiarly ludicrous; evil king Hyperion is conquering all, his scarred, masked troops raping, murdering, pillaging. He's the kind of villain who's so evil, he casually kills his own men at regular intervals. He wants a magic bow in order to free ("unleash" is the term preferred by the script here) the Titans, only Zeus and his family of Gods looking on from Olympus aren't happy about that and so they prod Theseus (Henry Cavill), a blandly efficient Warrior with a grudge, into his path to lead the fight. Along the way Theseus meets and deflowers Phaedra (Freida Pinto), a virgin oracle, and bonds with Stephen Dorffs buff, wisecracking thief.
The script is clunky and often comically earnest as its characters discuss free will and fate while deciding whether or not to involve themselves in the big battle, and the uneven cast doesn't help. Rourke plays it like it's Sophocles, though he cops Brad Pitt's "eat something in every scene" trick, Cavill and Pinto are seemingly involved in a secret contest to see who can be the most beautifully wooden (which doesn't help their scenes together) and much of the rest of the cast seem content to flex their muscles and pout.
Singh puts together a few good action scenes, and it is always quite entertaining in its delirious way, but it's an odd film, memorable more for what it does wrong than what it gets right.

Sunday 20 November 2011


(Justin Kurzel, 2011)

Kurzel's film, based on the real-life "Snowtown Killings" which shocked and horrified Australia in the late 1990s, is a hypnotic, gruelling study in sustained dread. The genius of it is that the actual horror of the violence and murder is seldom glimpsed - though the few scenes in which it is are agonising and unforgettable - and instead, Kurzel does his work through tone, texture and atmosphere.
He is gifted enough to find the eerie, spartan beauty in the drab Adelaide suburbs, all local authority bungalows, scrubland dotted with rubbish and bowed people smoking in dingy rooms, his compositions and a particular cool palette - sickly yellows, greens and browns, washed out greys and blues - still capturing a world with a realist eye without sacrificing any visual poetry. The pulsing of the tense, disturbing score by Jed Kurzel helps with this, making some of the many scenes filled with quiet, telling but banal dialogue exchanges positively seethe with menace.
The film is split in two. The lead-up to the lead characters discovery that his mothers new boyfriend, John, is a killer; his own involvement in Johns murders and the long, scary aftermath. The second half reels in its own daze, traumatised by the awful horror of the deeds it has recorded, just as our youthful protagonist is. The acting is uniformly excellent, subtle and naturalistic, emotion all locked down and clenched.
If the subject is that old chestnut: the banality of evil, well it's seldom been quite so well treated as it is here. John Bunting is an everyday monster, manipulative, extremely clever in his playing of those around him, targeting the weak and isolated, charming others. He quickly becomes monstrous, and each scene in which he figures in the second half of this film is an ordeal of tension.
It seems amazing that this film comes so soon after another grim Australian crime drama centred on a young man struggling against the influence of a psychopathic patriarchal figure, David Michod's Animal Kingdom.
Both powerful, artful pieces of work, neither a particularly easy watch.
Snowtown never gives the audience an inch, ending not with the apprehension of the killers - which would be cathartic - But with the most sinister, morally conclusive closing of a door in cinema nice the end of The Godfather, followed by some dry captions. It's just a final gut punch after a series of such blows, but you have to admire Kurzel's artistry in delivering such a vicious beating.

Saturday 19 November 2011


(Shaun Levy, 2010)

It starts out as a gentle, funny, nicely observed little comedy of suburban family life. The first 20 minutes follow Carell and Fey's married couple through their daily routine with two jobs and two children, hectic mornings of breakfasts and lunch preparation, chronic exhaustion and endless planning plus the odd night out together in the same suburban restaurant. They have a little chemistry, both are obviously great comic talents, and the material rings true. It seems a promising start.
Then it all goes wrong. A 1980s style high concept plot kicks in involving a mob boss, corrupt cops, a D.A. with fetishes, and a stripper-cum-hooker and her lowlife boyfriend who are blackmailing them with a flash drive full of compromising pictures. This leads to dull, silly chase scenes, our protagonists mugging a lot and lots of hysterical screaming.
It's at its best whenever it slows down to allow the film we glimpsed at the beginning back in - a long argument in a car after she has gone all girly-flirty with a buff Mark Wahlberg where they admit some fears and desires, most notably - but those moments are too rare as it settles for awkward plot turns all leading towards a predictable, happy ending. A surprisingly heavyweight cast in the smallest supporting roles (Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Wiig, Ray Liotta, James Franco, Mila Kunis and William Fichtner all show up) makes it all a bit more bearable, but the anonymous visuals and music add nothing, and by the end, despite a few big laughs, it all feels too long a an hour and a half.

Wednesday 16 November 2011


(Andrea Arnold, 2011)

All adaptations of classic novels should be so alive and so emotional as Arnold's extraordinary reading of Emily Bronte's book. Dispensing with the majority of the dialogue and instead placing the narrative and expositional weight on the imagery Arnold and her prodigiously gifted DP Robbie Ryan conjure from the bleak beauty of their Yorkshire locations, this is a visually stunning experience from start to finish.
And experience is the right word. Arnold favours dozens of close-ups and a fantastically detailed sound mix which make Wuthering Heights a startlingly sensual and visceral piece of work. Both the intense physicality of the moors, all howling winds, scratching bracken, clattering rain, fog and distant cloudbursts together with the small human sensations of life there, lived inside dark houses lit by roaring fires and trudging through mud, are vividly conveyed.
This is a film that feels almost as if it were made by the Moors themselves, so primal and brutal is its sensibility. But it is never less than thrillingly beautiful, filled with miraculous captures of fleeting nature and wonderful compositions of Arnold's many fine tableaux.
All of that is never at the expense of the characters or story. Arnold's approach highlights the simplicity and power of her purely visual storytelling, with much of the first half, in particular, told through wordless scenes of human interaction. We see the growth of the feeling between Heathcliff and Cathy in many mute scenes, much of it articulated through tone and mood. There is more dialogue and more traditional dramatic content in the second half, but Arnold keeps it poetic and elliptical, stark and heavily textured.
Her star-free cast is excellent, with the two actors playing Heathcliff in particular (Solomon Glave and James Howson) required to suggest so much buried emotion, both rage and love, through consistent passages. Howsons glare - and the fact his big dark sad eyes undermine it every time - give him the perfect effect for the hard but vulnerable creature Heathcliff has become.
But the true stars here ar Arnold herself and the locations, both of whom are wonderful.

Monday 14 November 2011


(Martin Scorsese, 2011)

Following the success of his superb, epic Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home, Scorsese addresses another icon of 1960s rock in this near three and a half hour film on the "quiet Beatle", George Harrison.
In general, it's masterfully executed, focusing intently on the spiritual quest that characterised Harrison both as artist and human being, filled with brilliant archive footage and previously unseen photographs, narrated by key players in interviews and soundtracked by some of Harrison's best music.
It appears to assume some level of knowledge about Harrison's career, often skipping exposition in favour of a more reflective, elliptical or poetic portrayal of an event or phase in his life and is roughly structured around a few key moments: the formation of the Beatles, their rise to superstardom, his discovery of Indian mysticism, the breakup of the band, the making of "All Things Must Pass", the Concert for Bangladesh, his involvement in film production, the Travelling Wilburys, the assault by a deranged intruder that nearly killed him, and his death from cancer. That's a fascinating, full life, and Scorsese fills in around it with some equally fascinating details and snippets. But there are frustrating exclusions and some things are absolutely fudged. Harrison's life as a rock star who "loved women" is kept tellingly vague (his widow is a Producer), and most of his post-"All Things Must Pass" material is ignored. As far as this film is concerned, Harrison spent the last three decades of his life noodling in the studio, gardening, going to parties and meditating.
Then there is the related structural problem. One decade in Harrison's life - the 60s, the time he spent with the Beatles - dominates his reputation and legacy, but it has been exhaustively chronicled, and is dealt with in the first half here, while the next three decades take up the remainder. And Harrison, as talented a songwriter and musician as he was, was only the third greatest writer in the Beatles, and the more compelling figures of Lennon and McCartney each warp the narrative with the magnetism of genius whenever they feature.
But there are some fabulous moments here, from McCartney's thick scouse impression of a childhood friend describe George's hair as "like a fookin turban" to Olivia Harrison's chilling, shocked description of their struggle with a crazed attacker, to sundry clips of Harrison's own dry wit. And the music, of course, is fantastic.

Wednesday 9 November 2011


(Joachim Trier, 2011)

Here is a stunning film by a young director unafraid of taking on the big questions of everyday life; a film engaged with what it is to be alive and still young in the modern world. Trier's second film, a loose adaptation of the 1931 French novel "Le Feu Follet" by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, follows a day in the life of Anders, a middle class, thirtysomething recovering junkie who has wasted most of his life in one long party of excess and oblivion, hurting those he loves, wasting his talent as a writer. After ten months in a residential clinic, and with only two weeks of his treatment left, he is considered "cured", and given a days leave to travel into Oslo for a job interview.
While in town he visits some old friends, looking to reconnect, hoping to settle up and make peace with a few. For in the opening scene we have seen Anders leave the bed of a young woman and attempt to drown himself in a lake near his clinic. It seems clear that he still intends to commit suicide - he is plain about his reasons with his friend Thomas - but he also seems to be searching for a reason not to, drifting with the currents and rhythms of his hometown, repeatedly leaving messages on the answer phone of his ex-girlfriend, listening to his friends list their own problems.
As Scandinavian portrayals of depression go, Oslo, August 31st is far more affecting and articulate than Lars Von Trier's Melancholia and is rooted in a more recognisably textured, densely detailed real world. Indeed, this is a great city film, with Oslo itself as much a lead character as Anders is, and Trier ensures we see lots of it, from rolling parks to posh suburbs, slick cafes to busy city thoroughfares. Trier has an eye for the beauty in a city scene, and the scenes in the still empty dark streets of the early morning are particularly fine in their eerie poetry.
He also has a fine feel for character and dialogue, and the scenes in which Anders confronts his old friends and acquaintances all crackle with feeling and intelligence. They swap tales of middle class problems, ennui and "trivialities"; the way friendships dissolve and social excitement recedes, the way people "disappear into motherhood", how hard entering your 30s is for a woman when men bring 20 year-olds with "perky tits" to parties, all of it instantly recognisable to anybody in the affluent West of a certain age. This all allows for a proper consideration of the existential questions at the heart of the film, as Anders and his friends consider why they are here and what happiness is. Through all this Anders struggles with his own emptiness, alienation and temptation, and Anders Danielsen Lie is superb in the role, a raw wound of self-pity and pain in certain scenes, always sympathetic, complex and full of recriminations, but also difficult to actually like.
A couple of brilliant passages widen the film's concerns beyond Anders and his little circle of modern bohemians. The film opens with archive and home video footage of Oslo over the last few decades as an aural montage of people recall their memories of the City from their youth. This is instantly moving - everybody hoards such impressions of time and place, one of the implicit subjects of the film as it wanders through the City later. At another point, Anders sits alone in a cafe and lets the conversations of his fellow patrons wash over him. We hear snatches, as people laugh and whine and relay arguments, and Anders, traumatised by an abruptly self-destructive end to his job interview, is suddenly anonymous, his concerns and problems acquiring some universality.
This may all sound uncompromisingly bleak, but Trier is such a confident, skilful director that it always remains exhilarating in its beauty and human scale. In addition, it's thought-provoking, gripping and quietly profound. Trier even throws in a burst of Aha on the soundtrack as Oslo heaves into view for Anders, approaching in a taxi, without altering the pitch-perfect tone, and that must take some doing.

Sunday 6 November 2011


(George Clooney, 2011)

Clooney follows his sober, earnest, meaningful work on Good Night and Good Luck with another sober, earnest, meaningful drama about politics and the media, only this time his conclusions are darker and more despairing, his style a little blander and less distinctive.
His film centres upon young campaign Organiser Stephen (Ryan Gosling), involved in campaigning for a charismatic, free-thinking Governor, played by Clooney himself, to receive the Democratic Presidential nomination. Stephen starts off idealistic and passionate, and this story basically traces through his political coming-of-age as he grows more and more disillusioned. In this regard, Gosling is fine casting, convincing as the starry-eyed young hotshot politico and skilfully suggesting the pain of his rude awakening, the slight smugness of his screen presence a good fit for the character.
It's a film filled with people in suits having intense conversations in dull, realist locations and makes plain Clooney's admiration for the smart, adult political films of the 1950s and '60s and the influence of a director like Sidney Lumet on his work. Here the direction is absolutely at the service of the script, giving it all a confined, intimate feel which is true to the theatrical roots of the piece (its an adaptation of the play "Farragut North" by screenwriter Beau Willimon), and placing the onus squarely on the actors and the words they say. The actors are uniformly strong; Clooney suggesting the complexity and compromise of even the most shining public figure, Evan Rachel Wood transforming what could have been a mere plot device into a character I doubt was on the page, and Max Minghella, Marisa Tomei and Jennifer Ehle all strong in smaller parts. Two supporting actor stalwarts predictably steal the film, however; Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti play rival Campaign managers, their visceral dislike obvious in an early scene, and each is magnetic and believable throughout. Hoffman's lack of vanity is as ever a strength, his belly hanging over his belt as he rants about loyalty and betrayal. Giamatti is more reptilian, proud of his endgame even as he laments his own cynicism.
Cynicism is the key feeling here. Politics is incredibly cynical, this film tells us. It is full of cynical people and it makes even the innocent cynical, if it doesn't destroy them. This cynicism is necessary, it's the only way to win, to make a difference. This slightly simple-minded thesis is perhaps the film's greatest flaw, alongside the scripts tendency to indulge in speechifying. Characters seem to line up to make long speeches at one another, many of them fine pieces of writing, but lacking the crackle of the back and forth dialogue exchange which dominates the film.
Add to that the sense that its all a little over-familiar, a little too easy, and a little middle-of- the-road, and Clooney's achievement in fashioning such a solid piece of grown-up entertainment seems lessened a little bit. But only a little. This is a serious, well-made film with something to say, and it's full of good acting and fine scenes, which in the modern climate of American cinema, is no small thing.

Saturday 5 November 2011


(Steven Spielberg, 2011)

For all that Spielberg and Peter Jackson's spectacular and expensive adaptation of Herge's popular creation has it's many pleasures, it never quite feels right. It never quite feels like Tintin. It feels as if they sought to make a Tintin film, were denied the rights by Herge's estate, and instead made a blatant knock-off in which everything is extremely similar, but nothing is really how it should be. Given that they weren't denied the rights and that most of the details of Tintin's distinctive fictional world are here recreated with painstaking detail and love, that's something of a major worry.
Part of the problem is the animation. Using the near photo-realistic motion capture and cgi technology beloved of Robert Zemeckis allows for massive invention and precision in so many of the visual particulars that it's easy to see why it appeals to filmmakers. But it also means that the "uncanny valley" is a problem throughout, one only complicated by the decision to render many of the characters - Captain Haddock, most obviously - in a sort of realist-caricature style. It also has its drawbacks in the areas which seem initially like Pluses. Athmosphere seems like something that can be painted into the corners of a scene, augmented by accenting the detail of the objects in a room, sharpening the colours of a palette, softening the lighting, allowing shadows to run longer. But it's more complex than that. The scenes of exotic North Africa and the middle East in the Indiana Jones movies are effortlessly, pungently atmospheric in a way simiiar scenes in this film are not. The Indiana Jones films were made on location, in ancient towns and baking deserts. Here, most everything feels hermetically sealed, without any grit or soul. The same problem afflicts the many, often brilliantly conceived, thrillingly "shot" action sequences. The level of detail and inventiveness is truly incredible, but that somehow only emphasises our distance from such patently made material, and is indeed even a distraction.
The screenplay, by the dazzling trio of Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish and Steven Moffat, is solid, working a traditional Tintin mystery and a Spielbergan set-piece roller coaster into the same film and making it work, and seamlessly for the most part, though there are a few clunky lines scattered throughout. The cast is impressive, everybody nailing the spirit and personality of hs character. And there are some nice visual gags and slapstick here, together with many beautiful images. But the whole thing, which is breathlessly paced most of the way, ends in a horrendous anti-climax, followed by the inevitable threat of a sequel. And while it may work to some degree with its target audience of 10 year old boys, as Spielberg adventure films go, this is strictly second rank.

Tuesday 1 November 2011


(Ronald Neame, 1966)

Odd how certain films are accorded Classic status, while others, sometimes more deserving, slip through the cracks to some extent.
Gambit is a clever, funny and suspenseful caper film from the mid-sixties. It's romantic, always nice to look at, and a rewarding narrative experience. Yet it's far from acclaimed as a classic. Perhaps it's a little too self-consciously clever in its Twisty-turniness. Perhaps the combination of Michael Caine and Shirley Maclaine in the lead roles doesn't have the requisite old school star power of something like Charade, say.
It should be a classic, I think. Detailing the carefully planned heist of an ancient sculpture from a reclusive North African Billionaire (drolly played by Herbert Lom), Gambit is always imaginative and interesting in it's approach.
It is also a catalogue of the pleasures of studio filmmaking at just the moment when they were about to evaporate under commercial and artistic pressure, in the mid to late 1960s. But this film is shot in lovely, thick technicolour on beautifully designed sets filled with actors in glamourous costumes. The instances of location shooting - the opening long shot of the streets of Hong Kong through the windscreen of a moving car is superbly vivid and evocative - enrich the sense of place and atmosphere.
The story is slight and familiar, but the storytelling is superb. The opening act depicts the heist going like clockwork, all the elements falling perfectly into place. MacLaine doesn't speak a word in this entire sequence, a mute doll until 27 minutes in when the story evaporates and we see that we have been shown Caine's plan as he would like it to happen, before he has actually met MacLaine. The rest of the film depicts the actual truth of the plan, ruined and adjusted throughout by complicated, awkward reality.
If the difference between how we imagine - or wish - life were and how it actually is is the real subject of Gambit, well the presentation is just as important. It slips in a little romance, a little suspense, some nicely comic moments, and always remains light and colourful.
And it is headlined by a couple of proper movie stars, MacLaine doing a variation on her kooky, vulnerable dame with a tough streak, while Caine lets his slightly reptilian looks and natural charm both work for his character, who flips from charming to selfish thoughout. They have enough chemistry to make their relationship charm, just like the film itself.

Monday 31 October 2011


(Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

Bathed in the red of blood from its very first scenes, which segue into a really extraordinary first act of non-linear emotional and tonal free association, told loosely from the point of view of Tilda Swinton's character. She is struggling with grief and regret and trying desperately to drag herself through a "normal" life while continuously assailed by memories of her past life; a transcendent moment at a surreal tomato festival in Spain, the glow of passion from the early days with her husband, the bright bubbliness of her daughter. And Kevin.
Kevin is a near-Satanic presence in that first act, a screaming infant, a scowling toddler, a brattish boy and finally a knowing, sarcastic teen. The relationship between mother and son is central to the film, and both Swinton and Ezra Miller rise to it in their scenes together, a delicate duel between two combatants locked in a love/hate dynamic.
That is over-simplistic, which Ramsay's film never is. Rather it is ambiguous in the right places and elliptical throughout, refusing exposition and doling out backstory piecemeal so that when the extent of Kevin's act is revealed - though we already know what he has done - still it carries a huge emotional shock. The fractured sequence when Swinton arrives at Kevin's high-school and we see hysteria and bodies on gurneys, lit by the red light of emergency vehicles, is purgatorial, for we know that for all her anxiety worrying about her son and his safety, her situation is about to get much worse. Her numb shock in the aftermath - a state that pulses through the film in scenes of her echoed responses to the world and it's distant banality. She finds a job, a house, shops, feeds herself, tries to avoid the parents of Kevin's victims, all of it without feeling, Swinton's face frozen with shock.
The dominant emotion for a long stretch is dread. Much of this film feels like Horror, partly because we know what Kevin will do.
Ramsay never tries to explain his actions; his final "explanation" in the surprisingly cathartic last scene, feels authentically random and true. He doesn't know. Though obviously a psychopath, the "adult" Kevin is complex and resists easy labelling, self-aware enough to have a nice, quotable rationale ready for media consumption. Miller is charismatic and beautiful but there is a darkness to his presence which works beautifully with the character. Swinton is even better, making a difficult character sympathetic and explicable throughout, her pain and confusion always evident.
But this is a directors film, and Ramsay, one of the most distinctive talents in modern cinema, is always in control, displaying her great eye and compositional sense (ably abetted by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey), drawing good work from her cast, precisely controlling the tempo and pacing of her narrative and editing, and, as she's done in each of her films, working a terrific soundtrack against her story and imagery. There are a couple of slight missteps - Swinton scrubbing the red paint from her house is a little too obvious a metaphor for my liking - but for the most part, We Need To Talk About Kevin is a gruelling, acute, hugely impressive piece of work from a truly exciting filmmaker.

Sunday 30 October 2011


(David O.Russell, 1999)

David O. Russell's Three Kings is an unashamedly political film. Russell benefitted from several years of hindsight in his treatment of the first Gulf War. He could more or less say what he liked about it, so his film is highly critical of that Bush Government's treatment of Iraqi rebels who rose up against Saddam when it became apparent that he was losing the War. But Russell was savvy in his criticism - he veiled it in a terrific action comedy which felt, at the time, unlike just about anything else anyone was doing. Indeed, watching the film now it looks like a masterpiece of sorts. It has aged extremely well.
In recent years, American cinema has profited handsomely from the collision of Indie creativity with Studio money. Russell is a great example of this faustian phenomenon. His debut, Spanking the Monkey is a sweatily well-observed, pitch black incest comedy, made for not a lot of money. He followed it with the broader Flirting With Disaster for Miramax, but despite the presence of bigger not-quite stars (Ben Stiller, Tea Leoni) his work managed to retain some of its independent edge. Its there in the off-centre characterisation, the portrayal of America as a zoo for neurotics of various shades. Three Kings is something else entirely. A mega-budget semi-Blockbuster with some rising stars and the backing of one of the big studios in Warner Bros, it asked a lot of a young Indie director. But it was worthwhile. His film manages to feel like a big action movie with an indie sensibility, a fairly unique beast.
Early on, everything is comic. That first shot of featureless desert horizon punctured by the incongruously surreal vision of a young Iraqi waving a white cloth from atop a small bunker/hill, the helmet of a US soldier in the bottom corner of the frame; sets the tone as just slighty askew. This is not how big studio War movies start. That this movie will be different is only underlined by its first dialogue, beginning an instant later, and shouted across the desert floor, a dunderheaded, repetitious exchange between grunts, part Beckett, part Abbott & Costello.
Russell treats the grunts with a cynical detachment - he likes his heroes, you feel, but he is aware that they are all flawed individuals. His montage of their victory celebration paints them as jingoistic, meathead fratboys, a depiction much of the remainder of the film works hard to balance. Even so, there is something of the Coens in his sensibility, the notion that he feels somewhat superior to his characters and periodically cannot resist patronising them, even sneering at their idiocies. The conversation about "perfectly good substitutes" for racial terms of abuse for Iraqis is a good example. Russell was clever enough to cast likeable actors, however, and his film is structured cunningly so that the action and drama kicks in suddenly, and the audience is dragged along with the narrative's momentum, the heroes abruptly established as such.
The comedy, while it lasts, is a mixture of effects. Russell uses whatever may produce a laugh: slapstick, satire, sight gags and funny dialogue all feature. This is a film which depicts an exploding cow, while also featuring a character mistake bullion for "them little cubes you put in hot water to make soup" and employing a sudden, and frankly, quite brilliant cut to Chicago's "If You Leave Me now" in the tense preamble to an action sequence. Russell makes it all work, and it makes the film feel richer, more electric.
If Three Kings has a direct ancestor, it is Kelly's Heroes, Brian G. Hutton's 1970 Clint Eastwood vehicle about a heist by a platoon of GIs in Nazi-controlled Italy. That too was an action-comedy, though it entirely lacked any political dimension and it's action was far tamer than Russell's. He had never directed action before, and as a result those sequences are often sloppy and obviously the work of a director new to this type of material. And yet this inexperience is a boon - the action scenes are entirely lacking in the baggage of a seasoned pro, they seem almost to come without influences. As a result they feel fresh, with more impact and resonance than most action scenes. Russell signals his intentions with the early scene in which Clooney explains how a bullet can cause sepsis and the camera zips into and out of a body like an invisible scalpel, capturing the spurt of bile from a ruptured organ from the inside. Russell takes this violence seriously, it seems, he feels every bullet, and he seems determined to ensure that audiences do too. This pays off later when we see the anatomy of the escalation of the initial gunfight, the camera woozily cutting and panning across the spaces between combatants as a domino effect of thunderous shots and visceral impacts pulses through a town square, leaving men dead. Later on, characters we care about will be shot, even die, and Russell wants us to feel that too, to see the lunacy of it all.
Stylistically, the film is mainly handheld, giving it a jittery immediacy. The colours are washed out, bleached by the desert sun, most obviously in the earlier scenes. This over-exposed look has been much imitated since. Russell also indulges in some strange, almost disturbing frame compositions, and makes a few references to other movies - that first action scene is notable for its self-consciously posed close-ups of Clooney and Ice Cube, filtered light discolouring them, clouds streaming by unnaturally fast overhead. These shots seem like ultra-pop homages to Sergio Leone (which makes sense, given the duel that has just occurred) , and stand out because they are so different to the way the rest of the film is shot. Is Russell underlining that this is the moment priorities changed for these men, or ironically mocking their own possible self-images as bad-ass American fighting men? The way Russell portrays Clooney's character as a cool customer throughout, the latter suggestion seems unlikely. He gives the men credit for following their consciences, the poor treatment afforded to Iraqi villagers snapping them out of their greed and forcing them to intervene. Here he sets the standard so many later Iraq films cling to - he lauds the men on the ground while attacking the politicians. But this is not a simple issue and Russell does not avoid its complexity, either. He makes it clear that these men are conflicted about helping the rebels in the longer term, beyond the initial situation in the town square. Indeed, they are more or less blackmailed into lending aid after their own lives have been saved. Wahlberg's character emerges from a torture-and-lecture session with more empathy for everybody - he is in severe shock - and falls in line with the others, who have all seen the light during their journey. At the end, the Rebels and their safe passage seems more important to the men than the gold. Of course Russell undercuts this with the final hint that even then, some of the gold was looted.
Much of the political context is made explicit in the dialogue. The film has an entire subplot about one Reporter searching for a story amidst a sea of reporters earching for stories, and indeed begins and ends with TV news report footage. As if that was too subtle, a character says "This is a media War" at one point. Clooney refers to "Bush" with a near-visible sneer, and uses him as a figurehead, with great irony, in his speech to rouse rebellion : "God bless America and God bless a free Iraq!" The speech fails, a possible allusion to the co-opting of American patriotism together with Iraqi nationalism. Clooney's superior, played by a brusque Mykelti Williamson, asks him a prescient question when he wonders what the purpose of the War was, if not to dethrone Saddam: "What do you wanna do, occupy Iraq and do Vietnam all over again?" But the most chilling scenes of political comment are the torture sequences wherein Said Taghmaoui's Captain tortures Wahlberg's frightened grunt for no particular reason. He just seems to want to teach him a lesson. And he does, pouring oil down his throat to ensure he understands the real motivation for the War. Wahlberg's dazed replies to his enquiries: "to maintain the stability of the region" etc, his lack of understanding of why he is there; are perhaps Russell's most pointed comment on his countries role in that conflict.
One of Three Kings other great strengths is obvious in that scene - this is unequivocally a film about the modern world, about how we live now, how things are and will be. American cultural imperialism is a given, so alongside torturing Wahlberg, Taghmaoui wants to discuss Michael Jackson with him, all the while awkwardly - and hilariously - using American slang terms to address him : Bro, Mymainman. His men watch MTV on stolen Kuwaiti televisions and risk their lives for Levis. Everybody has an intimate knowledge of Lexus models and Easy Listening tapes hide in Arab cars. Then there is the casual and brilliant realism of many of the references in Russell's dialogue - his soldiers discuss American Football, cars, religion, are at first awed by the violence they encounter. Ice Cube is a devout Christian, Spike Jonze an ignorant hick ("from a group home"). When Wahlberg rings his wife she asks him if she should apply for a job for him. The leader of the Iraqi rebels was educated in the US. Clooney ends up as a consultant on Hollywood action movies. This density of detail gives the movie texture, allows its narrative to breathe because the characters feel real and lived-in. Again, this makes their eventual loss and peril more affecting, meaning that the climax has a real power to it. Even better, Russell ends with a euphoric little coda, and perhaps the best ever, only-slightly ironic use of U2 in film.

Saturday 29 October 2011


(Steven Soderbergh, 2011)

Taking a particular subgenre of the popular 1970s disaster movie, the pandemic thriller, and thoroughly modernising it, Soderbergh, together with his screenwriter Scott Z Burns, demonstrates again that there are few better filmmakers in America currently making adult entertainments. Contagion is a procedural, a precise account of how a virus spreads through the world, and also an account of how the bodies put in place by the human race identify it, classify it and eventually counter it. But it is also, in it's inimitably Soderberghian, chilly way, an utterly gripping thriller. We see people we like put at risk and tested by this virus, we wonder who it will take next, and the deaths of two major stars tell us early on that nobody is safe. Then we are with the scientists racing to create a vaccine in order to save not one, but millions of lives.
Then there is the fact that it is an epic. Almost casually epic, a globetrotting, international story with a massive cast of speaking parts and at least five separate and equally important narrative threads running simultaneously. And nobody - except perhaps Micahel Mann - captures the real world, "the now" quite as well as Soderbergh does. Each location feels different and distinctive, from Hong Kong to the American Midwest, largely due to Soderbergh's ability to pick up on detail and texture in his environments.
Detail is crucial here; early on the camera lingers an almost subliminal beat longer on certain objects and surfaces until the viewer queasily realises that these are all subject to communal touch; a bowl of peanuts on a bar, a door handle, a handrail on public transport. Later the visceral fear of germs, and by extension of other people, is vividly communicated in the arc following Damon's character, immune to the virus himself but terrified his teenaged daughter might get it.
He is as solid as ever, but each of the stars here dials down the wattage on their starpower in order to slip seamlessly into the impressive ensemble. Jennifer Ehle is perhaps the great standout, but she too is outshone by the film's focal character and protagonist; the virus itself.

Thursday 27 October 2011


(Glen Ficara & John Requa, 2011)

Playing By Heart is a 1998 comedy drama, directed by one Willard Carroll, with a surprisingly starry cast. Sean Connery, Angelina Jolie, Ryan Phillippe,, Jon Stewart, Dennis Quaid, Madeilne Stowe and Gena Rowlands are all part of the impressive ensemble. It's blandly shot, set to an eclectic soundtrack of pop songs, and set in the most middle class, glossily attractive parts of Los Angeles. It's a portrayal of a disparate group of characters in the city and their relationships and struggles with love. Its like a less ambitious, less accomplished, less interesting spin on superior multi-character LA dramas like Robert Altman's Short Cuts, Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia or Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon. Those films all grapple with multiple themes and deeper trends, with knotty social and emotional problems, and ultimately with life itself. Not Playing By Heart. It's about love, nothing more, nothing less. And that's ok. Love is a worthy and profound subject, and has inspired thousands of great works of art, from pop songs to poetry to novels to cinema. I'm just not sure that the romantic comedy is the genre best suited to discussing it. Well, perhaps the auteur-driven romantic comedy. Creative intelligences like that Woody Allen or Albert Brooks have done it with conspicuous success in the past. But the slick romcom, all effortlessly nice fashion, unconvincingly spacious homes, identity-less, boring music and predictably conventional storytelling? That sort of risk free, lazy film is all about love. But the form seems to prevent any sort of deeper consideration of the subject as a theme. The superficial and narrative elements never go far enough. Love is strange, but worthwhile, is the greeting card conclusion many such films seem to settle upon.
Crazy Stupid Love even includes the word in its title, and its characters openly discuss love as an intangible and an ideal on a couple of occasions. It centres around an interlinked - of course - collection of people in LA. Steve Carell plays a fortysomething whose wife, played with customary class and rawness by Julianne Moore, asks him for a divorce on a date one night. Sent reeling back clueless onto the singles scene he meets a dapper young stud, played by the effortlessly smug Ryan Gosling, who instructs him how to dress, talk and pick up women, before he himself falls in love. Meanwhile Carell's 13 year-old son is in love with his 17 year-old babysitter, who loves Carell and the links and contrivances go on.
There are moments of truth and some laughs in a script which sporadically pops with wisdom on the reality of marriage, for instance, or the cruelty of singledom. The attractive cast makes much of it work much better than it should; Carell's sincerity is nicely-deployed, and contrasts well with Gosling's preening self-regard.
Ultimately, however, it all climaxes in a series of farcical confrontations and public declarations; the kind of thing, in short, that happens exclusively in romcoms. It may provide narrative satisfaction, but it shortchanges the films seeming ambition to examine love as a theme. All that's left, then, are the superficial pleasures; the music, the clothes, the locations, and a couple of decent belly-laughs.

Sunday 23 October 2011


(Jeff Nichols, 2011)

It's a nice idea; take a modern recession-era family drama and splice in some of the horror of an Old Testament tale. Sit back and wait as modern concepts of sanity and reason are torn apart. Writer-director Nichols here confirms what his first film, Shotgun Stories, suggested; that he is one of the brightest young filmmakers working in America today. He takes this material and filters it through a unique sensibility; his eye for the huge skies gaping above Texas is matched by skill in composing frames set in the bland spaces of modern suburban and smalltown America. And his principal actors are magnificent. Michael Shannon easily evokes the sheer dread his character begins to feel when his dreams take a turn for the apocalyptic. Nichols here reveals an unexpected facility with horror imagery; these dreams are tense and eerie, even terrifying, and they haunt the first half of the film, particularly when the character begins to hallucinate too. Shannon's queasy expressions play with tremendous power when set against his usual menace. This is a man fighting for his mental health, yet gripped with faith that his visions might just be true.
Nichols complicates his situation by sketching in the delicate financial tightrope his family walks and making clear how crucial to that his regular pay check and healthcare cover is. Jessica Chastain is called upon mostly to react to Shannon's madness and suffering, but she creates a layered character out of what could be a cypher; she is frightened but tough, loyal and protective, and she has a couple of scenes of stunning power. Her facial expression in the final scene is brilliantly loaded, believable and ambiguous.
They are given solid support by the underappreiated Shea Wigham in another barely-literate hick role, which somehow only adds to the authentic, textured quality of Take Shelter, a tremendously assured, gripping and beautiful film.


(Matthieu Kassovitz, 2011)

Kassovitz's return to directing after his disastrous adventure in Hollywood with Babylon AD is this canny political thriller-cum-action movie, based on a real incident in the South Western Pacific French Territory of New Caledonia in the 1980s. The writer-director plays the main character, a Captain in the GIGN (basically the French equivalent of the SAS) who is dispatched to New Caledonia to negotiate the release of some local Gendarmes who have been taken hostage by Kanak rebels and are being held in the jungle. Except a key presidential election is only days away and this little conflict becomes just another way of scoring political points. The Army gets involved, human rights get trampled beneath jackboots, and the chance for negotiation starts to recede.
This portrayal of the way Politics directly affect human lives is probably the most impressive aspect of the film. Much of the central section involves Kassovitz's character in meetings, on the phone, arguing for communication instead of violence. A turning point is the moment he watches Mitterand and Chirac use and distort the reality of the situation in a televised debate, which is itself distorted by the camera, finding the pixelised faces in ultra-tight close-up, the voices thick through the tv speakers. Its from that point that he knows that violence is inevitable. The French military structure is cleverly depicted; a General who is quite aware of how he is a political pawn is nonetheless gung ho and eager for his men to find some combat, unwilling to cede any ground to the "terrorists". The despair of the more sympathetic gendarmes and GIGN men is vividly felt. Kassovitz ensures topical relevance with the references to the French Governments refusal to negotiate with terrorists, too.
All this would be uninteresting if not for the thriller aspects; an opening flash forward tells us that all ends badly, and from there on, an onscreen countdown (D-Day -10 etc) and the ominous rhythms of Klaus Badelt's score keep the tension high. But perhaps not quite high enough; despite the evident sincerity behind Rebellion, it is ever-so-slightly plodding. Kassovitz was once a director whose films burned with the ecstasy of cinema (La Haine is one big whoop of joy at the possibilities and excitement of the medium itself) but here he seems to be channelling a middling 1970s military drama. There is little visual excitement or lyricism, as Kassovitz opts to maintain a realist gaze, but his script is not rigourous enough for that to work. The early procedural sequences of the GIGN travelling to and arriving in New Caledonia and encountering the army are the best passages in the film; confident, pacy and gritty. The problems begin once our hero - and the film - gets bogged down in political networking and machinations. It gets baggy and (undoubtedly intentionally) repetitive, but essentially loses the punch of the intense jungle sequences. Even those start to drag once the scrupulously even-handed script shows us some of the tribal politics of the Kanaks themselves. This film is too careful, too sober, too earnest.
And that exciting director who made La Haine, what happened to him, I wonder? Did the grind of big action filmmaking with Vin Diesel crush the joy from him? Tellingly, he shows up twice in Rebellion. Two action scenes, one a recreation of the initial assault, broken down step-by-step by a witness, in a scene reminiscent of a moment in Three Kings. And the final assault, recalling 84 Charlie Mopic, Children of Men and a thousand video games as in a long, gruelling, disorienting single shot we follow close by Kassovitz as the confusion and terror of a firefight breaks out in the jungle. In those moments, Rebellion feels exciting, even impassioned. For too much of the rest, it feels choked on its own sincerity.

Tuesday 18 October 2011


(Lars Von Trier, 2011)

Lars Von Trier is a truly dazzling talent. His facility with the cinematic medium is comparable with any director working today, and he pursues his individual interests - obsessions, really - across each film with an impressive focus and intensity. I just wish his obsessions were more interesting. Von Trier suffers from episodes of clinical depression and his last two films, this visually ravishing melodrama and the horror of Antichrist, are both attempts to explore and/or represent this condition in film. Its not that depression isn't interesting - although to those lucky enough never to have been afflicted, it isn't - but Von Trier has little to say about it, instead settling for an impressionistic portrayal of the state itself.
Melancholia is split in two. The first half is a quite brilliant account of a long Wedding reception which displays just how casually Von Trier's exceptional talent is deployed. There's an effortless quality to the way he lays out the players and traces the tensions and strains between them, which centre around Justine, played with a wounded, truthful sullenness by Kirsten Dunst. The bride, Justine cannot shake off the depression threatening to derail the entire celebration despite the efforts of her new groom (Alexander Sarsgaard), worried sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and assertive, confident brother-in-law John (Keifer Sutherland).
She wanders the halls and grounds of John's mansion, sleeping, having a bath, rejecting her new husband a few times, brutally insulting her Boss and having sex with his assistant on a golf course in-between interludes where she returns to the reception and attempts (badly) to play the happy bride. The probable foundations of her troubled character are all too evident in the personalities of her divorced parents, both present. In what may be the most terrifyingly wrinkled, gravel-voiced ex-couple in film history, John Hurt plays her fun-loving, possibly alcoholic father, while Charlotte Rampling is her destructively bitter mother. Neither offers her any comfort.
All this is lent a different cast by the prologue; a series of vividly captured slow-motion tableaux of apocalypse, most of them referencing the imagery of Northern European art and featuring some of the characters we are about to meet.
Von Trier encourages a sort of catatonic rhythm throughout the first part, reflecting Justine's view of the world in its peaks and fugues. She seems obsessed with gazing at the sky and notices the absence of a certain star which will become key.
This is the focus of the second half: Justine's sister Claire and her journey towards a state of grief and depression close to that of her sister. That absent star was hidden behind the planet Melancholia, which is approaching Earth, though scientists are certain it will pass by. While Claire frets about the possibility of impact, Justine reacts with a weary acceptance, having expected this all along. Some of Justine's dialogue may accurately reflect the experience of depression but it makes for almost silly viewing: meatloaf "tastes like ashes", Earth is "Evil".
Claire's growing hysteria is nicely played by Gainsbourg, who is well-suited to a role as one of Von Trier's brutalised heroines having already excelled as one in Antichrist, and her situation is more relatable to a general audience: her fear for her Son's future and battle to allow John to reassure her.
Of course we know all will end badly. We've already seen the world end, Earth swallowed in a collision with the immense Melancholia, but Von Trier is good enough to ensure we watch all this and hope that it was somehow wrong, a bad dream. His film is an involving, ambitious drama and a beautiful piece of cinema, stunningly shot and scored to the rapturous, portentous strains of Wagner's "Tristan & Isolde".
It may be about depression, but it's just too beautiful and full of the vitality and swarming detail of life and humanity to actually be depressing. That in itself is a sort of triumph.

Monday 17 October 2011


(Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant, 2010)

A glossily warm coming-of-age comedy-drama set in a 1973 New Town suburb of Reading and therefore, presumably semi-autobiographical to some extent, Cemetery Junction never quite works.
The premise is classically familiar; three friends, stuck in dead end jobs, plan to escape, to travel, to live exciting lives elsewhere. They are near generic, stereotypical character types: the handsome, funny dreamer, the brawling bad boy from a broken home, and the oddball comic relief. Over the course of the simple narrative, each learns a lesson and grows as a person. It's that kind of film, deliberate, derivative of many better films, and possessing an almost painted-by-numbers quality in it's determination to hit each one of the expected narrative and emotional beats of the smalltown Bildungsroman.
Thats not to say it's without its pleasures; as one would expect of the creators of the sublime UK version of The Office and Extras on tv, there are some spiky character moments here, some finely observed instances of social tension, a few acutely textured scenes which feel true and real. While the three boys can be funny together in a laddish way, the best comic moments are provided by Gervais himself as the factory-worker father of one, casually racist, xenophobic and ignorant, squabbling with his mother over his own success while sermonising to his son from the dinner table. Ralph Fiennes is effortlessly fine as a quietly loathsome working class boy made good, Emily Watson does an awful lot with very little in perhaps five short scenes, and there are a few big laughs.
But the dissonances created by the style and approach are a massive distraction. Gervais has claimed that Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" was the single greatest influence on the film, and that sense of a mythic American angle on memory, youth and backwater lives fits oddly against the time and place depicted. Britain in the 70s was a troubled, grim place, and cinema generally portrays it as such. But here there is a warm glow of nostalgia, and despite the few gags mocking the assumptions and attitudes of the time, this is an unequivocally fond portrayal of the era.
It all ends with a mad dash to catch a train, a will-they-won't-they resolved, and great use of Led Zeppelins "The Rain Song".
Indeed, the brilliant soundtrack of 70s hits is perhaps the best aspect of the whole film; more movies should use "Crazy Horses" by the Osmonds.


(Ami Canaan Mann, 2011)

Odd that Mann so obviously invites comparison with the work of her father - and producer here - Michael Mann, by choosing to work in the genre with which he is best associated, Crime, with this noirish modern procedural.
Her style cribs from his too, a risky influence, given that attempts to copy such a distinctive style leaves certain directors with films which resemble nothing so much as television drama. Mann, while lacking the acute visual poetry of her father's superior eye, displays enough talent here to avoid that. While she likes to use inserts and near-abstract cutaways to begin scenes in place of establishing shots, just as Michael does, she directs scenes with a muscular confidence and fine sense of rhythm and timing absent from the work of many of his imitators.
This story suits her, with a very masculine sensibility at play following two Texan Detectives working on possibly interlinked cases of abducted and murdered girls in the Industrial backwater of Texas City. There is little exposition early on and we piece together the relationships and backstory as we go.
Little humour here, either, everybody furrowed of brow and intense of gaze. This is the kind of film where the cops return home at night and instead of watching tv or playing xbox, they brood intensely in the kitchen or grimly watch the rain. Though this makes for a few feverish, near self-parodic moments, it does help to build the tension, which rises steadily throughout the film. Indeed, Mann's talent is best discerned in mood, with an impressively sustained atmosphere of sweaty suspense and an indelibly textured portrayal of place; from the eerie alien landscape of the killing fields to the bleak industrial structures on the edge of town.
Her work with actors is less assured, but much of that is down to the material. These characters are largely one-note, constrained by the film's obsession with a single, dreadful case.
Sam Worthington is fine as the younger Detective, with plenty of scope to fume and bristle, while Jeffrey Dean Morgan's more soulful side is indulged by his character's missionary suffering. Stephen Graham registers vividly in just a few scenes, while Jessica Chastain is required to be angry in her every moment. All are overwhelmed by the mounting mood of foreboding and the shadowy blacks of the photography.
The plotting is mostly predictable but Mann enlivens proceedings with a couple of viscerally impressive set pieces.

Monday 10 October 2011


(Woody Allen, 2011)

Opening with a loving near three minute montage of static shots of many of the most familiar and touristy parts of central Paris seems more foreword than prologue; a statement of theme. Paris is lovely, Paris is inspirational. That's it. Allen seems content with that, adding the admittedly minor theme of the power and fallacy of nostalgia later. But then this is a film of modest scale; modest laughs, modest pleasures, modest ambition. It's minor key period Allen, with less substance than any of his other excursions into the past, and a disconcerting dose of fluffiness to it, which might partly explain why it's been his greatest commercial success for decades.
The high concept: a Hollywood screenwriter with hopes of becoming a serious novelist vacationing in Paris with his fiancee and her parents finds himself transported back to that City in the 1920s each night at midnight, partying with the likes of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso and Dali, and having Gertrude Stein critique his book.
Based around such an insubstantial gag - Wilson's Gil professes shock to meet his many heroes in the flesh as they live up to their popular images - Allen has fun with his material, having Hemingway go on about hunting, War, boxing and bravery at any opportunity, while Dali (played by a single scene-stealing Adrian Brody) is obsessed with incorporating a "rhinoceros" into his work and hangs out with Bunuel and Man Ray. There is a light love story, with Marion Cotillard displaying yet again just how great she looks in a 1920s frock, but the scenes of the tensions between Gil and his fiancee (a spiky Rachel McAdams) together with realistically strained social events with her parents and friends are probably the best in the film. The social unease, foibles and pretensions of pseudo-intellectuals are Allen's true, natural subject matter, and he shows an ease whenever he approaches that territory absent from much of the rest of the somewhat contrived narrative here.
Still, it's mildly entertaining, Michael Sheen is terrific as a classic pretentious Allen romantic rival, Wilson is a surprisingly natural Allen hero, and the sensual pleasures are manifold; from some lovely Cole Porter on the soundtrack to Darius Khondji's cinematography, an attractive cast rounded out by Carla Bruni and Léa Seydoux, and of course the beauty of Paris itself. Which is where we - and Allen - came in...

Thursday 6 October 2011



(Masaki Kobayashi, 1962)

It's only when you see a film as set upon savaging the assumptions and hypocrisies of the Samurai class - and by extention, of the Samurai genre - that you realise just how romanticised the Samurai has been by popular culture, and primarily, by Japanese cinema. The noble Warrior, living and dying according to a strictly defined code of honour, is an attractive and romantic ideal, and one many films have celebrated and underlined. But Samurai, like Knights in Medieval Europe, were trained warriors whose chief purpose was to maintain the status quo in the class structure, protecting the Rich and their interests from the mass of the people, who had nothing.
In Harakiri, Masaki Kobayashi approaches this truth. His film positively bristles with an angry contempt for the way of the Samurai. The story is folded into quite a complex double-flashback structure, following the hard times that have befallen a samurai and his family, which drive him to ask at a clan's house for permission to commit seppuku in their courtyard. Then the same happens with another Samurai; older and calmer, he seems to have another agenda. Once he has a captive audience awaiting his dramatic act, he recounts his life and reveals his real reason for requesting seppuku, and it involves revenge..
Kobayashi is a supreme stylist and this film is quite magisterial. Beautiful compositions make the most of the hard lines and grids of period Japanese rooms and brilliantly express the power dynamics in the many intense conversations captured by his camera. That camera moves in slow, slight increments, helping to build up the tension through over two hours of patient, precise storytelling. And that storytelling damns the samurai, exposing the injustice, cruelty and inflexibility at the heart of a society in thrall to such a violent and restrictive cultural phenomenon.
That would not be enough if the dramatic elements did not work in their own right, but work they do. This is primarily a tragedy, driven by the samurai code, and it contains a couple of agonising sequences: the first, almost unwatchable seppuku, performed by an impoverished young samurai with a bamboo sword, and later, the discovery of his fate by his wife and father-in-law. The performances are slightly overheated but that seems operatic through the lens of Kobayashi's surgical directorial vision, and it all leads up to an inevitable and incredible climactic explosion of violence and swordplay, which manages to be both cathartic and tragic.
Most importantly, it's a tremendous ending to an extraordinary film, a film which is moving, beautiful and riveting.

Monday 3 October 2011


(Pablo Larrain, 2010)

There is a peculiarly subtle beauty to Post Mortem, Pablo Larrain's second attempt to address the moral degradation of Chile during the military coup and subsequent dictatorship of the late 1970s and 1980s. The first act is a wonky, obtuse sort of relationship drama with shards of blackest comedy. Larrain stages scenes elliptically, enigmatically, his superb compositional sense and the sickly yellow caste of each image ensuring that his film is visually arresting from the off. But as we watch protagonist Pablo stumble through a sad pursuit of his neighbour, Nancy, a fading, bitter cabaret dancer, we are made aware of the powerful forces moving beneath the narrative. The first shot in the film, after all, is a moving shot from a camera mounted in the undercarraige of a tank, which plants a seed of disquiet instantly. There are later references to protests - Pablo and Nancy drive straight into a march - overheard political conversations, characters showing unexpected passion in reference to public events, and most chillingly a flash-forward to Pablo transcribing Nancy's autopsy, a scene that grants power to moments like the one when he warns her to be careful as they dine - somewhat baffled by the menu - in a Chinese restaurant after she has angrily commented to a watress. But Larrain denies us context and withholds explanation; the flash forward sits in the middle of the narrative, unacknowledged, unheralded. The political issues are never articulated or described. Things are hinted at and suggested, no more. The strange isolation of Pablo and Nancy's faltering relationship is reflected in the rhythms of their conversations and Larrain's staging of them and underlines how removed they are from wider events.
Then the turn comes and the horror begins to grow. The State mortuary where Pablo works is slowly overwhelmed, corpses begin to fill the corridors. Nancy's house is raided, her family abducted, while Pablo showers only a few metres away (in a neat though somewhat on-the-nose metaphor) unable to hear anything. By the film's climax we are aware that Pablo's new moral corruption is entirely in keeping with that of Chile itself and Larrain's calm, eeriily smooth camera takes it all in; the empty streets, the piles of bodies on metal trollies, the generals at the autopsy of the deposed President, whose head is open at the skull, revealing a mass of gore; and the emotional explosion of Pablo's colleague, Sandra at the relentless tide of death brought to them.
Through all this Pablo remains something of an enigma, a ghost of a man, pale and lonely, only really revealing the depth of his feelings for Nancy in the incredible extended final shot when he decides her fate, and his own. Alfredo Castro carries much of the film as Pablo, his watery eyes and weary body language extremely expressive of this man trying to keep his head down and grab hold of love while his world destroys itself, while Antonia Zegers makes Nancy a complex, believable human being.
The true star here, however, is director Larrain, whose grasp of framing, pacing and mood are hypnotically persuasive and give this film a slowly building power which is quite unexpected and extremely impressive.