Wednesday 26 January 2011


(Tom Hooper, 2009)

More bromance than character study, with Peter Morgan's script decisively fudging the darkly alcoholic core of David Peace's intense novel and Michael Sheen adding a strange edge of camp to his portrayal of Brian Clough, what finally seals the mediocrity of Hooper's film is its inability to disguise its relatively low budget.
A back and forth time structure between Clough's glorious rise and inevitable fall makes it all a bit too dramatically predictable, and the football is given far too short shrift: the actors playing the Stars of the famous "Dirty" Leeds team of the 70s are too old, too fat, and never remotely convincing as professional athletes; and the brief snatches of games we are shown are violent pantomimes, lacking any of the beauty that Clough so admired in the sport. None of the players is granted a personality beyond sullenness and barely concealed contempt, anyway.
Hooper has an irritating penchant for gimmicky compositions when he isn't sticking to the resolutely symmetrical, but he does conjure some visually impressive scenes from the material and the grim atmosphere of mid-70s Yorkshire - all cigarette smoke and brown sauce - is vividly captured. The films strongest element is a fine cast of British and Irish character players surrounding Sheen, however, from Timothy Spall as the long-suffering Peter Taylor to Colm Meaney and Jim Broadbent as antagonists of different stripes.
Damningly, all of the best scenes and lines in the script come from Clough himself, and you can watch many of them on YouTube. Neithe Morgan nor Sheen can improve on the man they seek to portray, which is perhaps how it should be.

Monday 24 January 2011


(Michel Gondry, 2010)

Seeking to marry the wry irony and braying adolescent wit of some modern comedy with the Superhero genre is a brave - or foolhardy - venture. It also seems quite pointless. Superhero films skirt comedy in their every contrived and restricted aspect: plotting, characterisation, design, visuals, music are all tied to the conventions of the Comics medium, and mainstream comics, at that, often making for deformed cinematic texts. To try to gently tease that easily parodied side of the genre while also playing a deadpan buddy comedy overloads The Green Hornet. That it also has to fulfil the base requirements of the genre by including fight scenes and car chases and confrontations means that it's basically a strange mess, tonally confused, narratively awkward and emotionally hollow.
Gondry - obviously an original and distinctive talent - is marooned by the screenplay and he shoots the majority of the spectacle like a competent tv director. Three scenes bear his obvious imprint: a contract spread by word of mouth reproduced as a split screen symphony, a fight scene making virtue of Kato as a 3D effect in his own right, and a sped up sequence of Seth Rogen and a girl snogging their way through a garage full of classic cars.
But this odd concoction ultimately pleases nobody, since it partly fails in each of it's aims: it's neither a fine Superhero blockbuster, nor a hilarious comedy. Rogen, always good for an off-kilter one-liner, is never a likeable or convincing lead and Christoph Waltz lacks any of the menace or charisma evident in his villain in Inglourious Basterds. He is not helped by a a character with a single quirk (an obsession with how scary he is) instead of a personality. Cameron Diaz scarcely registers at all, leaving Jay Chou to steal the show as Kato, getting most of the best action scenes to himself.

Thursday 20 January 2011


(Paul Verhoeven, 1997)

Verhoeven's strange genius - an ability to mix the pleasures of trash seamlessly with more highbrow subtexts - reaches perhaps it's high point with this rollicking adaptation of Robert A Heinlein's 1959 novel. Broad satire of military fascism, propaganda masquerading as media and totalitarianism slips in between the gloriously gratuitous ultraviolence and gore; and the whole thing is giddily comic and absurdly funny. The cast (Denise Richards being the most famous example) are mainly beautiful and wooden - crude satire even there - transforming the emotional moments into often hilarious melodrama, while the strident, martial tone and the rudimentary characterisation carries the whole thing along at a rigorous clip.
And yet, Verhoeven is a fine craftsman, and he ensures that the action beats all play well. They work on their own terms; thrillingly shot and edited and with a canny awareness of what makes such material successful, they allow this clever film to work on more than one level.
He would try a similar approach a few years later in a different, perhaps more complex genre with the now-legendary Showgirls, . But that didn't work out quite so well...

Wednesday 19 January 2011


(Derek Cianfrance, 2010)

Cianfrance's brutally honest relationship drama gets it's details right, and it captures emotional tones with painterly precision. Falling in love; an experience hopelessly fudged by so many romantic comedies, here beautifully captured in a few short, telling scenes. The agony and frustration of a toxic relationship, all repetitive arguments and stubborn misunderstanding, here portrayed with awful, microscopic perception.
The structure is so simple and yet undeniably effective: alternating between the end of a relationship and the beginning, Blue Valentine offers us a glimpse of how these two people might be happy together, before crushingly revealing - never obviously, always subtly, through character and behaviour - how their choices and decisions have made them so miserable together.
Cianfrance shoots the contemporary scenes in claustrophobic close-ups so that we're right there in the tight gap between these people, the backgrounds a haze of colour and abstraction. The flashback scenes are grainier but the mise-en-scene is looser, more accessibly attuned to environment, giving audience and characters room to breathe.
Some of the many ironies are a little too on the nose - calling the motel room where much key action occurs "the Future", for instance - but the script is impressively crafted in its ear for the rhythms of casual speech. Particularly great is the perfect capture of the way conversations can get away from people, from banter to a supernova of an argument in a few Ill-thought phrases, and how these things acquire their own momentum.
Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are both extraordinary, capturing the contrast between their earlier youthful promise and joy and the weariness of later real life, and more besides, with beautiful naturalism. Grizzly Bear's music is a fine fit for the material, and Cianfrance proves he has a great eye and a feel for working with actors.
Finally, its quite emotionally devastating, and quite possibly the worst date movie ever.

Sunday 16 January 2011


(Larissa Shepitko, 1977)

Shepitko was a special, luminous talent. In The Ascent she transforms a seemingly simple tale of the flight, capture, interrogation and execution of some Belarussian partisans during WW2 into a Christian allegory and an investigation of faith. Her two protagonists cleverly represent different worldviews: one grimly determined to survive at any cost, the other arriving at a zen-like acceptance of his imminent death which Shepitko portrays as an almost Christ-like state of spiritual enlightenment.
She combines fine storytelling - the film works, in it's first half at least, as a genre piece, with battle scenes which are brutal and adeptly shot and edited - with superbly incorporated experimentation with sound and image. White noise rises up on the soundtrack at key points, and ambient sound is used similarly, often to signal a moment of spiritual ecstasy or revelation, while she uses a mobile camera often in the first act before opting for more static shots later in the film. The journey taken by the characters is echoed by this stylistic change, and also by a different palette; the first half is blindingly white, snow covering landscapes with dark tiny figures trudging through them. The second half is much darker, mainly interiors, allowing Shepitko to shoot her hero in glowing chiaroscuro as his spirit lightens with death approaching.
She was a filmmaker capable of pure cinematic poetry, as this film makes clear. And yet, her humanism is apparent too, because The Ascent is, as much as anything, incredibly moving. Her characters struggle with their fates, with the moral issues the Nazi occupation confronts them with, and Shepitko addresses most of it in the interrogation scenes, where a Police Inspector takes on each man and reads their characters precisely. He is the horror of collaboration personified, and we see the effect he has as the men and other condemned prisoners discuss their experiences and options in the hours before they will be executed.
That execution scene, when it comes, is an intense, almost unbearable scene of martyrdom and waste.
Shepitko died in a car crash in 1979. The Ascent was the last film she completed before her death.


(Joseph Kosinski, 2010)

Narratively slight - and by slight I mean utterly predictable, its each and every beat familiar from a hundred other Joseph Campbell-borefest post-Star Wars genre films with dully one-dimensional characters and a leaden adherence to screenplay structure 101 - Kosinski's sequel to Steven Lisberger's 1982 Tron resembles that film by creating enough visual wonder to just about compensate for it's shortcomings as a piece of storytelling. For here is a fully realised world completely suited to 3D; a beautiful world of digital sheen and neon slickness, arc lit and perfectly hi-def in every frame. It is exquisite.
It makes a couple of desultory attempts at relevance; the Microsoftesque firm at the centre of the story wants to maximise profits by cheating users, while the Flynns think access to software should be free to all, yadda yadda yadda. .Luckily Kosinski can do action competently, and when his film is really pumping, when Daft Punk's exceptional soundtrack is filling the air with beams of synth and beats as fat as a sumo, when figures leap and roll away from glowing discs or fly along upon motorbikes as if they're riding hockey pucks, and that computer screen sky sucks all the light out of the frame, it is almost breathtaking. A fine visceral and sensual experience then, even if the undoubted highlight is the opening Tronification of the Disney logo.