Monday 26 September 2011


(Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)

The film Drive reminded me of most is Stephen Soderbergh's Out of Sight. Not because they have anything at all in common in terms of story or style, mood or look. They don't. But because they are adaptations of fairly strong crime novels - in this case, of James Sallis' pared-down, hypnotically taut getaway-Noir story - which are elevated somewhat by directors with a thrilling sense of the cinematic.
Even then, elevated may not be quite the right word. Drive is a cracking genre entertainment, even if much of it is slightly over-familiar. The two films it has been most regularly compared with, Michael Mann's Thief and Walter Hill's The Driver, are both unavoidable points of reference. Just like Refn's film, each is a Neo-noir focusing on an existential romantic loner forced to choose whether to follow their code or discard it when an emotional attachment becomes a dangerous liability. But where Mann articulates the choice and makes it explicit and Hill turns it almost abstract while giving his world some of the grit and complexity of real life through a few characters and details, Refn instead opts to emphasise only the surface of his heroes situation. This is a movie movie through and through, and so we intuit that Goslings unnamed "Driver" follows some unspoken code, because we have seen similar characters do the same in similar films. This is pop-existentialism, without the seriousness or earnest ambition of Mann or Hill. For many, that can only be a good thing, for it makes Drive an easily accessible, narratively unpretentious film.
The simplicity of the set-up, the fairy-tale archetypes and the satisfyingly predictable genre beats give Refn time to focus on the style, and he has become a fine stylist. From the first scene, a forensically procedural account of the Driver at work, the visceral joy of driving is vividly present, and the sense of Los Angeles as seen through European eyes provides a pungent sort of cool which is only amplified by the 80s-esque electro pop on the soundtrack and Cliff Martinez's atmospheric score. Refn is excellent on the small, quiet moments, lingering just enough on Gosling and Mulligan during their (wordless) moony growing intimacy to let it register.
This all means that when violence intrudes into the story in the second half, it does so with a savage kick, and the shocking gore that follows - head-stampings, eye-stabbings, face-shootings - is all executed with near-unbearable power.
Gosling is all studied cool and charisma, suggesting just enough interior life to make it work, Mulligan may be slighly miscast but gets though on that lovely face and some clinging innocence, while stalwarts like Ron Perlman and Bryan Cranston offer excellent work in full-colour character parts. The stand-out performer, however, is Albert Brooks, frightening and believably cynical as a movie producer turned gangster.
Oddly, Brooks was also cast against type in Out of Sight, in which he also excelled.
Just like that film, Drive emerges as a dazzlingly executed piece of pure genre pleasure, and another fascinating cornerstone in Refn's growing career.

Wednesday 21 September 2011


(Gavin O'Connor, 2011)

There's a certain strain of boxing movie that works by depicting the underdog struggles of a protagonist, repeatedly striking him down, one piece of bad luck after another, his personal life just a series of problems until boxing is all he has left, the only pure thing and the only possible source of redemption available to him. The kind of movie that works by making us sympathise with its hero so much that we are desperate for him to win that last fight, until the tension is unbearable and only a euphoric moment of victory will break it. The Rocky films are the pumped up cartoon versions of this archetype, and Gavin O'Connor's Warrior is a film fully aware of the power of all those cliches and determined to push them as far as possible.
It follows not one but two MMA fighters, estranged brothers, each with his own hard luck story and reason for fighting, both haunted by childhoods scarred by their alcoholic father, as their destinies lead them towards an inevitable showdown in a massive Atlantic City "Single Elimination" Cage-Fighting tournament.
Three things elevate Warrior. O'Connor made one of the better Sports movies of the last decade with the winning 2004 Kurt Russell vehicle Miracle, and he has an obvious understanding of the emotional dynamics of this sort of material. The backdrop to the MMA material here is a world in the grip of an economic depression, with financial ruin - the words "foreclosure" and "bankruptcy" are mentioned at a bank, while people work two jobs and a couple argue about spending - the engine driving one fighter onwards. This world feels recognisable and intimate, and it gives Warrior much of its sting. The rest comes from the cast. The central trio of alpha males are all terrific in different ways. Hardy lets that quicksilver charisma flow, and his character, wounded and full of rage and violence, is probably the best in the film, his arc the most compelling. Edgerton is the family man, fighting a losing battle with debt and unsure of his own skills in the cage, but willing to take any punishment in order to win. His sad-eyed looks are perfect for the part. Nolte is as good as ever as their father, and he has a couple of astonishing moments of emotional breakdown which almost feel too raw here.
All these elements combine to make this a film filled with emotion; gritty and suffering, its climactic sequence, when the brothers meet in the cage, is an astonishingly moving fight sequence, echoing the ferocity of a couple of earlier emotional showdowns between these characters. And while it's undoubtedly utterly contrived and horribly manipulative, Warrior works brilliantly. The MMA sequences are intense, exciting and visceral, and each of them has some emotional resonance and narrative importance. O'Connor doesnt waste a second, aware that he needs all the time he can get if he's going to make us cry.

Tuesday 20 September 2011


(Baz Luhrmann, 2008)

It must have seemed a good idea; a big, rousing, handsome old-fashioned Epic about Australia when it was still an emerging Nation in the first half of the Twentith Century. It is a good idea, if it was done right. If this had been directed by an Australian director - Peter Weir, say - with the right sensibility for that kind of romanticism and that sort of Epic sweep, then Australia might have worked very well indeed.
But it's not. It's directed by Baz Luhrmann, a post-modern artist who presents everything in quotation marks, whose undeniable eye is perhaps best suited to advertising, and whose use of digital imagery in his previous day-glo films means that he was always likely to attempt to use it again here. Everything feels off. There are some impressive sequences and Luhrmann does manage some arresting imagery; from the Western-style shots of the massive cattle drive across the outback to the carnage of the Japanese attack on Darwin. But there are some awful cgi-assisted scenes, too, and the candy-coloured palette is a step too far towards sentimentality (as is the hideous misjudgement represented by the use of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow") in Luhrmann's apparent attempt to give every scene a magical glow.
The story has enough sentiment already in its focus on a vulnerable half-Aboriginal child, and the simplicity of the adult relationships depicted don't help. Nor do the principals. Australian Jackman sounds like he's putting on a bad Aussie accent, while a Kidman beamed in from movie-star central where people have little contact with real life or the world as we know it, her face frozen rigid with botox atop a sickeningly spindly frame gives an utterly one-note performance.
They are not entirely to blame, however. The script gives them little to work with, and David Wenham and Bryan Brown fare little better with pantomime villains. Luhrmann has painted well in broad strokes before, where he can fill in around the edges with irony, humour, a little razzmatazz and smoke and mirrors, but this is a genre and a tale requiring a good dose of earnest emotion, of solid storytelling and characterisation, and he is simply not equipped to make that interesting.
Which makes Australia, for all its excessive length and spectacle, a long and slightly embarrassing bore.

Saturday 17 September 2011


(Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

Beyond the perfection of the costumes - all those tweedy suits, starched shirts and heavy fabric coats - and the beautiful drabness of the production design in general, what effortlessly establishes the atmosphere of London in 1973 in Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of John LeCarre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the grain. Graininess in the image provides immediate texture and suggests a period setting, while also hinting at the fog these characters operate in, straining to see one another and identify motivations across gloomy, smoke-filled rooms.
This spy game story is quite stunningly directed by Alfredson; thick with mood and a vivid sense of its various places - from chilly, paranoid Cold War Budapest to a seedy Istanbul - and full of memorable images and compositions, this is the work of a director who has a muscular sense of the power of cinema.
Tracing the effort of ousted spymaster George Smiley to find the mole at the top of British Intelligence, the plot is revealed mainly through a long series of hesitant, loaded conversations. Characters speak little but say much, requiring strong work from a dazzling cast of British actors, amongst whom Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong register most forcibly. Gary Oldman delivers his best work in years, reining in that explosive energy he usually surfs through empty roles upon. Here instead he seems bowed and tired, his quiet routine portrayed in an early montage by Alfredson which tells us all we need to know about this man without a word of dialogue. Indeed, Smiley does not speak forthe first fofteen minutes of the film, and yet we watch him and assess. His power as an actor is translated into the intelligence we can see behind his glasses and the pain one particular betrayal explodes inside him, communicated only in a sort of strained expression and a barely perceptible sagging of the shoulders. He has two scenes which are more obviously spectacular: a long monologue about his single encounter with Karla, the Russian Spymaster who is Smiley's nemesis, and his final encounter with the unmasked mole, wherein he raises his voice - almost shockingly - for the first time.
The set-pieces are few but effortlessly gripping, and the oh-so-English atmosphere of repressed emotion, of strong feelings never exposed, means that the seismic vibrations under the surface of these characters becomes peculiarly moving as the story progresses. This is a tale of ruined people and doomed romantic notions as much as it is of political machination and secret plotting, and it delivers a strong, almost unexpected emotional charge.
That is mainly down to that exceptional cast and Alfredson's direction, greatly assisted by Hoyte van Hoytema's fabulous photography, which is so strong on texture and detail. I came away with certain small images in my head, the sort of detail that makes a world live onscreen: the scratch of a knife buttering toast, the misty shock of Smiley's morning swim in Hampstead, glasses and hair perfectly in place, the drip of a bead of sweat from a waiters brow onto a table-cloth, the glassy light of the US intelligence bulding in stark contrast to the Circuses colourless dullness, and finally; all these alpha male faces in close-up, evaluating, hiding, plotting.
This is the spy thriller as art house drama, but it succeeds in both regards. Stylish, gripping, quietly devastating, it's a stunning piece of cinema.

Monday 12 September 2011


(André Øvredal, 2010)

Displaying all of the strengths and all of the weaknesses of the "found footage" horror sub-genre, Troll Hunter is based around a clever little idea. Trolls exist in Norway, and the Government there employs a Hunter to control outbreaks from Troll territories while covering up their existence with stories of bear attacks and natural phenomena. The film then, purports to be the footage captured by a trio of students who follow the Hunter, believing him to be a poacher. Only he is sick of his lonely, brutal, underpaid job, and quite keen to share the trolls' existence with the world...
Øvredal's film is most notable for the droll humour throughout, alongside the incredible, bleak beauty of the wild Norwegian landscapes. The plot is the usual episodic trail familiar from other found footage films, marked by an unmistakeable "and then" quality. The Hunter and students encounter a series of trolls in various locations and these sequences are mostly quite effective; the effects are fine, the trolls nicely designed and cleverly conceived, the emotions of the characters believable - from initial euphoria at the existence of the creatures to stark terror - and the scale of the narrative builds steadily throughout. But there is no tension or suspense, nothing in the least scary - a devastating flaw in a horror film - and little emotional attachment to the characters. It's a minor genre film, neat and efficient for the most part, but lacking in depth or resonance.

Saturday 10 September 2011


(Ben Wheatley, 2011)

Right from the off, the score and sound design make Kill List a gruelling, intense experience. The images and narrative present us with a family in the semi-rural outer suburbs of an English City. A nice, large enough house and garden don't prevent tension between husband and wife, and they argue bitterly a couple of times in the first act, her furious at his refusal to work and bring in more money, him nursing some trauma from a mercenary job in Kiev. The style edges close to poetic realism, the dialogue semi-improvised, the performances casual and authentic-seeming.
But the soundtrack tells us that something else is going on: washes of industrial feedback seep out, prolonged mists of quietened white noise play almost subliminally, disturbing synthesiser tones and low, eerie squeals and screams echo low down in the mix. Then a supporting character casually and bafflingly carves a rune in the back of a bathroom mirror and the seed of unease is decisively sown. The film becomes a brooding hit man thriller, though one always insistent upon the banality of the World these men move in, following them as they work their way through the titular list, finding what looks like a child pornography ring and dispatching some targets in scenes of extraordinary gore and visceral impact: a hammer is taken to a skull, a face smashed in against a wall. But things get weirder and more complicated and the ending, which is built to in a few scenes of escalating terror, is a gut-wrenching horror scenario, resonant and beautiful in an awful and devastating way.
The scenes of banal domesticity early on ground the film and together with director Wheatley's intimate style - lots of handheld close-ups and obtuse cutaways to the tellingly messy details of these characters everyday environments - mean that when the later violence and horror erupt we are shaken by the way they tear into the surface of this recognisable, ordinary world. That the sound design means a sense of dread runs throughout gives the many scenes of the industrial outskirts and forgotten urban spaces a disturbing cast. Never have old lock-ups, suburban cottages and chain hotels seemed so convincingly sinister. This is a film partly about the way we can still glimpse the old, weird, pagan England peeking out around the edges of "exurbia". It's there in the protagonist cooking and eating the rabbit his cat has left slashed and dead in his back garden. And there in the shot of him in the solitary lit window of a nocturnal
travelodge, waving at the inexplicable sight of his partners ex, standing in the middle of the countryside in a dinner dress and waving at him. And there too in Wheatley's slow motion sequence of the family play-fighting in the garden, a piece of foreshadowing at its subtlest and most creepy.
Gripping, intelligently played and told, shot by a filmmaker with his own style and concerns, and finally, bleakly devastating, Kill List is a brilliant British genre film.

Friday 9 September 2011


(David Gordon Green, 2011)

How on earth did David Gordon Green, whose first two films - George Washington and All the Real Girls - were both sensitive, poetic, undeniably arty portrayals of the small-town South in America, how did he travel the distance to being director of Your Highness?
For here is a strange concoction; a quite brilliantly exact pastiche of the fantasy and sword & sorcery films of the 1980s, which skewers the tonal and narrative conventions of that genre and then yokes them to a stoner comedy - even the title is a weak joke - full of dick jokes. I mean that literally; the film makes much of the fact that one of the heroes wears a Minotaur penis around his neck for much of the climax. Some of the comic material is very funny, much of it is shockingly tasteless - the Jim Henson-style puppet who is a pedophile and molested Franco's hero as a child is one major lapse - and all of it is crude and obvious.
Most of the cast play it totally straight, allowing Danny McBride the majority of the big laughs as he gives yet another rendition of his usual inadequate, idiotic braggart persona. Even then, there is a limit to the number of times McBride saying "Shit" in a bad English accent is funny, and there are various spins on that gag throughout; Justin Theroux as a curiously underwritten and unfunny villain says "Motherfucker" as comedy-punctuation at the end of a stock villain speech.
It all ends in a big, generally straight action scene. Greens direction is competent and artfully recalls the 80s films which inspired this script, but all trace of the young genius with a unique sensibility and way of shooting the world has gone, and for all that Your Highness is sporadically amusing, that's a shame.

Monday 5 September 2011


(Jon Favreau, 2011)

This would be a far better experience if you went in blind, unaware of the premise or even of the title, which does sum up the content in three words in a blunt manner which made some audiences who saw the trailer laugh out loud. For it begins as a Western, and the first fifteen to twenty minutes are like a handsome, well-cast, classically shot, slightly overfamiliar modern take on that great old genre, laying out a cast of genre archetypes and their relationships with moderate style and some soildly old-fashioned storytelling.
Then, some spaceships show up and this is suddenly a mash-up of Western and sci-fi.
The sci-fi content is minimal and rudimentary; there is a big spaceship full of aliens, they fly little spaceships and kidnap humans, they look like frogs with muscular, hulking bodies, and they have blasters which render the six-shooters and rifles the men carry largely ineffective.
The narrative takes the form of a pursuit - a group of men seeking to rescue their abducted loved ones - and that allows for a quick tour of some other Western cliches as they encounter a group of bandits and a tribe of Indians on their journey, together with one nicely Herzogian surreal image, that of a massive Mississippi wheel barge lying upside down on the desert floor.
It's all a little overlong, but the pacing and style feels appropriately leisurely for the Western side of this story, and if the final battle is slightly over egged and predictable in its every dramatic beat, Favreau gratifyingly maintains the classical approach throughout, never descending to the manic cutting and chaotic continuity of so much modern blockbuster cinema.
His cast are never really stretched by the material. Daniel Craig does his blunt instrument tough guy thing - and does it well - while Harrison Ford gives yet another rendition of the grumpy old man persona he has fallen into over the last decade or so. The others, a grizzled ensemble including Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine and Clancy Brown, are good value in the smaller parts.
There is a slightly pedestrian quality to Cowboys & Aliens which means it doesn linger long in the mind. But it is handsome, occasionally thrilling and always watchable, which is more than could have been expected from any film with such a title.