Tuesday 28 June 2011


(Denis Tanovic, 2009)

War Correspondant dramas were common in the 1980s. Under Fire, The Killing Fields, The Year of Living Dangerously, Salvador; all focused on Western journalists in South East Asia or Central America, as if the only way for audiences in the first world to relate to the experiences of the people actually living and dying in Cambodia or El Salvador was for us to see one of us there, being traumatised by man's inhumanity to man. Well, Denis Tanovic's Shell Shock tells the story of a War Photographer and his suffering. And it's even set in the 1980s - meaning Dublin is dressed up in "The Joshua Tree" posters and buses that haven't been seen on its streets in over a decade and the nightclub scene features New Order as the background music - during the most infamous conflict between Sadaam Hussein's Iraq and the Kurds.
But it lacks the rage or the artistry of any of the films I mention above. Only the first act takes place in Kurdistan, and it is the best material in the film, highlighting the awkwardness inherent in taking photos of people suffering and dying only feet away. But it is also over-familiar, visually and dramatically, the usual grittily-shot desert scrub filled with grimy bodies, the struggle back to life from serious injury, Colin Farrell suffering beautifully with greasy hair and a beard.
The rest of the film, however, is utterly drab by contrast. As an attempt to portray post-traumatic stress disorder, it settles on a curiously confined setting in a depopulated Dublin, shot clinically but without any sense of style or any real visual interest.
Farrell's performance is partly to blame. Always most effective when asked to let his natural charm and charisma shine through - as he does in early scenes here- his interpretation of numbness is to do nothing. His face is immobile, his eyes blank. He can play mournful and has done so successfully in several films, but this is lower wattage and he hasn't got the wit or experience to make such a one note performance interesting. Paz Vega brings little to a nothing "girlfriend" role, leaving a scenery-chewing Chrisopher Lee as easily the best thing in the film, delivering tons of dialogue in a Spanish accent and plainly having a rare old time.
He is not enough to rescue the film, which has already settled into it's stiff, oh-so-serious torpor by the time he arrives. The last act revelations and flashbacks are predictable and banal, and it's all mediocre enough to make me wonder if the film that brought Tanovic to prominence, Yugoslav War black comedy drama No Mans Land, is as good as I remember.

Monday 27 June 2011


(Ivan Passer, 1981)

One of the great opening credit sequences sets the tone; a long fade from dark to a black & white slow motion shot of a parade approaching on a sunlit street. Ghostly mariachi band music muffled on the soundtrack and then Jack Nitzsche's eerie, haunting score oozes up: a disturbing mix of feedback, Glass harp, zither and electric strings picking out a melody of ghostly beauty. The image blooms into colour, a dancing girl at the head of the parade, her hair strikingly blonde in the sunlight.
Made at the beginning of the 1980s yet a true product of the 1970s, Passer's adaptation of Newton Thornburg's fine novel is a California Noir, downbeat and brokenhearted from start to finish. The plot has the simplicity of great genre storytelling: a handsome beach bum witnesses a man stuff a body into a dumpster one stormy night. When he realises it was the local millionaire business mogul, his crippled Vietnam veteran buddy refuses to let it go and they embark on a quest for some sort of justice. That synopsis sounds drab, but the glory of the film is in fact not the plot. The characters instead take precedence, and the twisted eternal triangle at the centre of the tale are unforgettable. Jeff Bridges, looking like the golden god movie star his interesting choices never quite allowed him to become, plays Richard Bone, the slacker-cum-gigolo whose refusal to commit to anything has left him cynical and empty. The only thing he seems to really care about is his friendship with Alex Cutter. Cutter, left with only one each of his eyes, arms and legs by the Vietnam War, is played with extraordinary rage, wit and energy by John Heard, whose career never again approached such heights. Here he makes Cutter hilarious, pitiful and terrifying all at once; lashing out at all around with a tongue sharp as razor wire, he is still a romantic beneath the bruised exterior, as his final play for an idealised justice reveals. The scene where he milks his injury and veteran status for sympathy with a Policeman after drunkenly thrashing a neighbours car is a rare light scene in an otherwise grim piece of work.
Lisa Eichhorn matches the men as Cutter's bitter, lonely alcoholic wife Mo, sharing a couple of devastatingly painful scenes with Bridges.
The plot moves slowly as instead Passer lingers with these people, allowing the discomfort and regret of their entwined lives to sink in. But when the plot does kick in late on, our emotional investment makes it wrenchingly powerful.
Passer's direction is inconsistent; often perfectly judged, he sometimes lapses into lazy tv establishing shots which seem out of place with the quality of the script and the performances. The climax, when it comes, also carries a whiff of 80s tv, but its ambiguity and bleak tone give it a haunting quality that Nitzsche's score only underlines.
One of the best Hollywood films of the 1980s.

Thursday 23 June 2011


(Oren Moverman, 2010)

The sort of handsome, tidy, serious, slightly old-fashioned independent film that fulfils its modest ambitions without much fat or any flights of pure visual expression, Moverman's debut is an assured piece of work; a beautifully calibrated drama following a "Casualty Notification Team" as they do the dirty, utterly thankless job of telling parents and spouses that their loved ones are dead. Set during the early years of the Iraq War, it avoids politics to focus on the experiences of the men fighting and dying and finds the ancient drama in that. It laces that with a buddy movie, as Ben Foster's injured, somewhat traumatised veteran and Woody Harrelson's cynical lifer grow from initial wariness to a warm friendship.
Their performances, alongside Samantha Morton's stunned widow and a great cameo from Steve Buscemi, anchor the film and give it real emotional weight, although Harrelson, bizarrely, delivers a similar performance to his work in Zombieland, albeit in an entirely different emotional context.
Some of the scenes of the men at work are unbearably tense and sad: Moverman is strong on textures and sensual details - an early scene of Foster dining in a restaurant with an ex-girlfriend is intent upon his intimate slurping and gnashing - and his camera generally stays tight to his characters. We feel like we are right there with them as they deliver awful news and witness people collapse when they hear it.
But it's all a little schematic and predictable, even if it ends in a satisfying, upbeat manner.

Tuesday 21 June 2011


(Martin Campbell, 2011)

Much as fanboys like to bitch online about movie adaptations not remaining faithful enough to original comic material, some super-hero movies are evidence of just why it's necessary to alter a few details to make a more successful movie. Martin Campbell's big, generic, over-familiar Green Lantern being one. It's extremely faithful to the details of the DC Comics character whose adventures it is based upon. And that's a big part of the problem.
Instead of streamlining the mythology, Green Lantern tries to fit too much in and ends up skimming over the surface of most of the harder sci-fi material, giving the sequences where our hero travels to the base-planet of the
Lantern Corps for a crash course in superheroing no dramatic weight and far less impact than they deserve. This is a Superhero who should carry a degree of awe when he appears. As the film tells us repeatedly, the ring is the most powerful weapon in the universe, capable of creating whatever the bearer can imagine, yet all Hal Jordan can come up with are big guns, giant race tracks, a massive fist and fighter jets. This is symptomatic of the lack of imagination displayed throughout. The scenes where he learns to use the ring play just like the instructional levels from a video game, and the rigorous adherence to a three act structure makes for a more predictable and forgettable narrative than is necessary.
Some scenes appear copied from Superman and Spider-Man, only less effectively delivered, and the central conflict - Jordan's reluctance to become a super-hero because he might not be good enough - makes a bore of our protagonist and wastes much of Ryan Reynolds' easy charm. The climax is perfunctory, even lazy, and characters - Jordan's family, bafflingly introduced in one scene apparently to humanise such a selfish hero, together with a criminally wasted Angela Bassett as a Government Scientist - disappear from the story without explanation.
There are good things. Mark Strong and Peter Sarsgaard are both working in a different, better film, Dion Beebe's photography glows when it's not lost in a CGI murk, and the effects are generally splendid.
But in a world where Super-hero films with the ambition and range of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight and Brad Bird's The Incredibles exist, that's not enough.

Monday 13 June 2011


(Asif Kapadia, 2010)

Prior to seeing Senna, and with absolutely no interest in Formula One, I struggled to understand how an arresting documentary could be made on the life of a Racecar Driver. Well, Kapadia tackles that head-on (no tasteless pun intended) by plunging the viewer almost directly into Senna's career in F1 with only the barest of preambles. In what serves as a brief prologue, we see him as a go kart racer, leaving Brazil, and then he is a young and inexperienced F1 driver, and we are in. Soon he is winning his first Grand Prix in spectacular style, challenging Alain Prost and making his name. The ease of the storytelling is perhaps the films great glory; KapadIa brilliantly uses his archive footage, finding its cinematic quality by recontextualising it, or slowing down a moment of stark, previously unnoticed beauty, or editing cleverly so that it is by turnsviually beautiful, thrilling and telling.
Chiefly of course, it always advances the story. And that story is a very human one, of a charismatic, mysterious young man who was driven always to try and excel, who came from privilege, believed passionately in God, yet drove a car as if he saw himself as immortal. Along the way, his rivalry with Prost takes over for a while, and their contrasting characters and approaches makes for a riveting documentary. Kapadia strips away the technical jargon and mechanical explanations of racing to focus on two things that can not change; competition and speed. The people in the film are all aware of the presence of these forces, and footage like the several incredible in-cockpit scenes make speed a visceral character in the film, something Senna attacks remorselessly until it finally kills him.
The interviews are sensitively intercut, the ending nicely-judged.

Sunday 5 June 2011


(Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2011)

An obvious and largely winning attempt to replicate the success of the original film by slavishly recreating every element that made it so popular, Kung Fu Panda 2 settles for efficiency rather than inspiration. That isn't a criticism; it works marvellously at extending snd deepening the world and characters of the first film whilst recreating the mix of faithful homage to Chinese Wuxia cinema and knockabout Jack Black comedy. Black is key to the tone here, always undercutting the intense drama or the sentimentality but allowing enough of it to remain that the film always has some emotional interest. The animation is fine, the action scenes thrilling, often beautiful, and well-conceived and choreographed in such a way that no live action film could possibly match, nicely mingling slapstick and action.
Gary Oldman is the villain, a role he could play in his sleep, and the whole thing races along from one set piece to another before an appropriately massive finale and the inevitable set-up for another sequel.

Friday 3 June 2011


(Jan Nemec, 1964)

The opening scene is extraordinary; two boys race away from a train onto a hill, stumbling and scrambling upwards as the camera keeps pace in one long, incredible shot. The photography is severe in its contrast, deep black and shining white, with no grey in the frame. We hear shouts of "Halt!" in German and gunfire. The camera has drawn closer until we are in the boys faces, crowding them as they climb, panting and panicked, still part of that same single take.
Nemec doesn't give us much more than that as the film progresses. There are extended passages following the boys through the forest, watching them sleep, gingerly test their injured feet and drink from a stream. Later they will come across a farm, where a woman gives them food and drink and their dry gums bleed as they eat. The final act watches a ragged group of jolly old hunters gather and hunt them like animals.
This could almost be set in any conflict in the last century, anywhere on earth, which is obviously part of the point. These boys are figures in a landscape, and their humiliating capture by the old men seems like a statement about the generational conflicts in 1960s Czechoslovaka as much as it does one about the plight of Jews during WW2 or Czechs in the Sudetenland, for all that flashbacks seem to reveal that the boys have escaped from a train bound for a Nazi Concentration Camp. Flashbacks are an important part of Nemec's methodology, with the first one coming right at the end of that opening shot, and they are mostly elliptical and given no context or explanation. Instead they are dreamlike slices of imagery and impressionistic memory fragments: one of the boys riding a tram through Prague, meeting a girl, running through a field. In the farmhouse sequence there are flashes of fantasy as the boy imagine attacking the woman, or her seducing him. These flashes offer a relief from the unremittingly visceral experience which constitutes the majority of the film. It is an at times feverish portrayal of physical trial, by turns beautiful, bleak, baffling and provocative. It is also a terrifically confident and original debut film from a director whose career never matched his great potential.

Thursday 2 June 2011


(Matthew Vaughn, 2011)

Once it's settled down into a regulation - if fun - Super-Hero blockbuster with heroes and villains set on a collision course in the massive climax, X-Men: First Class is no better or worse than most of the films released in it's sub-genre over the last decade. There is too much going on, some terrible cgi effects,and some impressive visual spectacle, all of it crammed into a ten minute sequence. But it works, nevertheless, because the first act in particular is a witty, superbly paced and nicely realised piece of expositional storytelling and character creation which lays out the conflicts and sets the stakes for all that follows.
Casting is key; Michael Fassbender finally takes on a movie star role as Magneto-to-be Erik Lensher, and the early sequences of his pursuit of Nazi War Criminals across the globe consciously evoke Connery-era Bond while providing the biggest charge in the film. Much of that is down to Fassbender, whose cold fury and dark charm make Ian McKellan's portrayal of Magneto in the earlier X-Men films look shamefully theatrical and hollow. James McEvoy matches him as Xavier, working a different sort of charm but never less than funny and appealing, and they share some of the film's best scenes. They are surrounded by a strong ensemble, with Kevin Bacon and January Jones lending class to stock villain parts, Rose Byrne all furrowed-brow seriousness as an awed CIA agent, and Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult giving the mutant angst some emotional impact.
The script creaks in places, but the first hour is so hyper-charged and stuffed with characters, locations and action, and Vaughn's hand so confident in his approach, that it positively gallops along, never really pausing for breath. The teen mutants - the "first class" of the title - are a weakness, each of them seeming utterly contemporary in a film set in the 1960s, none of them given much personality beyond their powers. But despite that, this is an assured, thoroughly satisfying summer blockbuster, and vies with Brian Singer's X-Men 2 for the questionable accolade of best X-Men film.