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.