Monday 31 December 2012


(Nora Ephron, 2009)

Really two movies in one, Ephron's film (perhaps unsurprisingly) adapts two books, twists them together into a sort of French plait, and just about makes it all work. It has the feel of a classic Hollywood entertainment; it's handsome, adroitly mixes drama and comedy, has a couple of strong roles for its leading ladies, and is never less than winning.
The twin storylines are shuffled throughout, usually in blocks of scenes, but occasionally within montages. The first follows legendary American cook/author/television personality Julia Childs (Meryl Streep) as she moves to Europe with her diplomat husband (Stanley Tucci) in the late 1940s, discovers French food and a sort of vocation as a cook and teacher, and begins to write her famous cookbook. The second follows Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a twentysomething on the brink of her thirties in contemporary New York who begins a project blogging an account of her attempt to cook every single recipe in Childs' book in one year.
For Powell, plainly struggling in a job that is a little beneath her after a promising youth, the blog gives her a focus and a vehicle for a writing talent she has almost abandoned, which is contrasted with the innocence and joy of Childs' attempt to become a cook buoyed by her own confident and enormous personality.
The pleasures here, then, are Ephron's often very witty screenplay, and her insistence on grounding the modern scenes in a recognisable - if very bourgeois - world of stressed commuting, tiring jobs, petty marital tensions and dreams that never really came true. Adams and Chris Messina (as her husband) are both charming as a perhaps too-perfect couple but their minor stresses ands problems are believably banal and contrast nicely with the Childs and their wandering across European cities due to his job, and more pointedly, with the spectre of McCarthyism and an inability to conceive a child which are more serious negatives in their married life.
Streep is characteristically fine, offering a great impression of Childs but not at the expense of any emotional subtlety, and Tucci is his usual reliable self, much of their work done against the backdrop of a picture postcard 1950s Paris, all golden sunlight and shuttered windows, again in sharp contrast with Powell's apartment above a Pizza parlour in Queens.
It all ends in blissful happiness and huge success, and is, of course, determinedly slight. But that is beside the point: it works extraordinarily well for the most part.

Saturday 29 December 2012


(Christopher McQuarrie, 2012)

Good things about Jack Reacher:
1. The return of Christopher McQuarrie to directing after a 12 year gap. His directorial debut, The Way of the Gun, is a blistering, nasty little piece of self-conscious pulp and it (together with his superb screenplay for Brian Singers The Usual Suspects) suggested he might be a talent to watch. Shame its taken this long for him to work as Director once more.
2. This is an unpretentious slice of genre from a director who understands the appeal of pulp very well. As such it recalls the action movies from previous decades in focusing on simple pleasures. There is a car chase here, reminding us that, done well, car chases actually don't have to be boring. It ends like any number of bad action movies, with the heroine, attorney Helen Rodin, kidnapped by the villains, and the eponymous hero (Tom Cruise) coming to save her. He does this with guns and combat acumen, basically, so that there are lots of fights and gun battles here too. No cgi, no green screens, no wires or trickery. Just stunts and exciting editing and cinematography.
3. This is the kind of film where the hero deliberately tosses away his weapon and the advantage it gives him in order to engage in a climactic fistfight with the chief henchman (Jai Courtney). In the rain. In a quarry. I mean this in a good way, of course.
4. For the most part, this is both a whodunnit and a whydunnit, with Reacher - who is ex Military police, and now wanders the Earth unencumbered by possessions or responsibilities - and Rodin investigating an ex-military sniper's seemingly random gunning down of five innocent pedestrians. All of that is beautifully established in an entirely wordless opening ten minutes or so, and McQuarrie reveals a gift for painless exposition throughout, introducing Reacher himself via a montage with a conversation about his mysterious lifestyle over the top, and filling in the sniper's character and history by similar means.
5. Werner Herzog plays the villain. He's only in about two scenes as The Zek, but he is terrifying here, one eye milked up, most of his fingers chewed off in a Siberian Labour Camp, the terror he inspires in his underlings evident in his first scene, where he has a whispered, horrifying monologue. More European directors should play villains in Hollywood action movies: Michael Haneke would work.
6. Its not set in New York or Los Angeles, no; this is Pittsburgh, a more interesting and gritty location, and one that the film - shot by the legendary Caleb Deschanel - uses to nice effect.
7. Its a little reminiscent of the attempts in the 1960s and 70s to adapt various series of crime novels to the big screen in that it doesn't entirely work, its not massively exciting, but its kind of cool anyway. Also: it seems aimed (mostly) at adults, not teenagers.
Bad things about Jack Reacher:
1. Yeah, we've seen it all before. Often on tv, in low budget action series. Its undeniably done better here, but not by that much...
2. Tom Cruise. He is famously miscast as the (in the books) 6"5 Reacher, but he gets past that by playing the character as an unremitting bad-ass, who generally has the smarts and skill-set to get out of any situation. The problem is more the effect his presence has on the rest of the film. Early scenes depicting him - his face as yet unseen by the audience - buying clothes in a shop virtually show the staff swooning behind the counter at his movie star looks. The same thing happens when he enters a bar. Later, he has a pointless topless scene, all the better to reveal his ridiculously buff 50 year old physique.
3. A brilliant supporting cast are largely wasted. Pike - the perfect Hitchcock ice-queen blonde a few decades too late, and a fine actress - is more a plot device than a character, David Oyelowo as the Detective on the case does more posing than performing, and the brilliant Richard Jenkins has nothing to do as Pike's D.A. father. Robert Duvall shows up late on and plays the same crusty old character he's played in the majority of his films over the last ten years or so, chuckling through lines that aren't all that funny.
So hey, the positives outweigh the negatives.

Friday 28 December 2012


(Christian Petzold, 2012)

The brilliance of Petzold's work to date is the way he imposes his precisely observed, muscularly realist style upon material that is usually the stuff of thrillers. He uses confident, spacious framing and superbly measured movement of the camera and editing to set a deliberate pace to each of his films. This is solid, near-faultless storytelling, slowly revealing the depths and passions of the characters depicted, detailing the nuances and turns of plot without artifice or trickery.
Barbara may be his best film; a tidy, intense little character drama which hides a gripping, emotionally charged thriller inside its folds like one of the title characters hidden packages.
Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) is a doctor, sent to work in a clinic in the Provinces of East Germany in 1980. She has applied to leave for the West, and suffered an incarceration and this exile for her sin against Communism. At the clinic, she is monitored for the state by her colleague Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) a sensitive, friendly man with his own history to account for his exile. As their relationship haltingly develops, Barbara is planning her escape to her lover in the West, but her emotional involvement with a couple of young patients makes things more complicated than she would like.
There is absolutely nothing ostentatious or showy about Petzold's work. Every cut and composition seems motivated purely by its value to the story he is telling. There is no generic iconography and no cues: no dramatic or emotive music (only diagetic music, in fact), no scenery chewing, no hamming, no massive plot twists or reversals. Instead he details the quotidian facts of his characters lives and work, and allows these details to build up to something more. The performances are understated and as subtle as the period detailing, which is founded on telling particulars: some wardrobe choices, the ubiquity of cigarettes, the automobiles and landline telephones.
Hoss and Zehrfeld are both quietly brilliant, suggesting their growing attraction (and much more) without doing very much, and Petzold is just as careful in how he underlines the effect of living under the watchful gaze of a Communist state. Everything is subtly effected - what people can buy, where they can work, who they talk to, how they live. It paints a disturbing picture of lives curtailed and bent by state interference without ever proselytzing.
The tension grows as the story progresses and Petzold ties together the various strands neatly and with considerable emotional impact in the last act, which is extremely satisfying, like the film as a whole.

Thursday 27 December 2012


(Jon Wright, 2012)

It's not easy to get horror-comedy right. Most films that straddle the divide between genres are either too funny to be scary or too scary to be funny. A notable exception is Tremors, Ron Underwood's 1990 b-movie classic.
Grabbers wants desperately to be Tremors. It apes it by focusing on a remote community filled with strong personalities, and subjecting them to an attack from a monster like something from a 1950s sci-fi film. In this case, the community is on Erin Island, off Ireland's West Coast. The monster is a tentacled alien sea creature. The characters are the local eccentrics and the two Gardai - Irish police - stationed among them. The comic twist is the poisonous effect that alcohol has on the creature, meaning that everybody has to get blind drunk to stay safe, a . They hole up in the Island pub during a storm and proceed to drink the place dry. But when they run out of drink, they know the creature will be coming.
This nicely high concept premise is generally well-delivered, and Grabbers, through massively formulaic, is fun throughout. It never quite reaches the heights of Tremors, lacking that film's wit and vigour, but it offers a few big laughs and lots of little ones too, along the way.
It starts off slow and quiet, quickly and precisely establishing place and character in the first act - with its many lingering shots of the beauty of the Irish countryside, it would function nicely as a tourist board film - before the Garda begin to realise the threat they are facing. Theres a healthy dose of self-awareness here, beginning with the story idea itself, but also meaning that the genre conventions are toyed with throughout; sometimes followed, others twisted.
The cast are solid and do justice to both the laughs and the scares, and given the relatively low budget, the fx here are superb. Its all quite satisfying, in a low key way; nothing special but consistently entertaining.

Sunday 23 December 2012


(Ben Wheatley, 2012)

There's a rare interest in Wheatley's work in the ancient Britain still visible underneath the edges of the modern nation. It's there in his last film, the superb horror thriller Kill List, which focuses on that old, weird pagan Island by depicting the strangeness of the modern landscape - the anonymity of new towns and retail parks, industrial estates and motorway hotels - in contrast with the corn fields, woodland and the wildlife that has been around for centuries. The horrific finale of that film shifts explicitly into pagan territory.
Sightseers is a very different film; written by its stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, its an extremely black comedy following their characters, Chris and Tina, a relatively new couple, as they take a trip through Northern England in a caravan, enjoying such attractions as the Blue John Cavern and a pencil museum. Along the way, Tina learns that Chris is a murderer who "just wants to be feared and respected", but is not above beating to death anybody who annoys him. Tina embraces her own homicidal side as they go, but tensions begin to effect their relationship too...
The travelogue structure allows Wheatley to depict that pagan Britain once again, as his characters trudge across fields, hug sacred stones, follow ley-lines, witness shamans sacrifice chickens, and visit ancient caves. Apart from the prologue, set in Alice's midlands home, where her domineering mother is appalled by their plans, urban Britain is entirely ignored by Sightseers. Instead, Wheatley ensures that the often grim landscapes of Yorkshire and Humberside look desolately stunning throughout; magnificently bleak in some scenes, and charmingly dull in others.
But the core of the film is the relationship between the two leads. Lowe and Oram are both fabulous here; funny and convincing, making their near-Dickensian caricatures feel more like living and breathing people than they have any right to. That's a problem with the film in general; so many of the middle class characters they encounter (and kill) are merely tissue-thin stereotypes it strains credulity and interest.
Countering that, Wheatley and his writer-performers try out a grab-bag of comic approaches. Here we get a bit of classic social awkwardness/comedy of embarrassment, a little slapstick, much grotesque violence played purely for laughs, some hilarious deadpan dialogue, and many quirkily memorable comic details. It variously recalls Nuts In May, Withnail & I and much recent dark British tv comedy. It mostly works, even if it runs out of steam some way before the end, and its not really saying much of anything beyond some generally clumsy light satire aimed at the British middle classes.
But it looks nice, has a great soundtrack - cover versions of Donovan's "Season of the Witch" memorably play over two of the murders - and Wheatley's direction is typically superb, as are the cast.

Thursday 20 December 2012


(Radu Muntean, 2011)

A patient, sensitive infidelity drama, Muntean's film is elevated by superb performances and a fine, insightful script.
It begins with a long scene depicting Paul (Mimi Branescu) and Raluca (Maria Popistasu) in bed together. They are natural, comfortable, plainly in love. As the scene draws on, we learn that he is a married man, that he has a child, and that she is his younger mistress. Each scene is like this to some extent. Shooting in a naturalistic master-shot style, Muntean finds his composition and allows the action to play out, sometimes in the medium distance, moving the camera rarely and never very far. Each take is lengthy, the actors handling long passages of dialogue and often quite subtle or difficult emotional states. And it builds and builds in emotional power. We observe Paul with his lover and with his family, and we watch as his discomfort with his dual life mounts. A long, incredibly awkward scene where his oblivious wife and lover meet is brilliantly done, the tension between Paul and Raluca beautifully captured through body language and a certain, barely perceptible awkwardness in the stilted words they use when they address one another. That scene is a turning point; afterwards Paul seems to realise he cannot go on this way, he must make a decision.
That in turn leads to a gruelling, magnificent scene where he and his wife battle it out. There is an honest and insightful portrait of a modern marriage here, with all its weary compromise and co-dependent partnership painfully detailed, but also a tenderness; for all his passion for his younger lover, Paul still loves Adriana (Mirela Oprisor), and does not want to hurt her.
Muntean's style here suggests authenticity without ever seeming forced or ostentatiously aiming for grittiness, and it asks a massive amount of his cast, who more than deliver. There is not a false note in any performance here. Everyone is understated, everyone is believable, their pain and confusion relatable and inimitably human.
Finally, it is quite devastating, just as suspenseful as any thriller in its emotional set-pieces, all the way to a superb, ambiguous final scene on Christmas Day.

Wednesday 19 December 2012


(Matt Reeves, 2010)

It's really only when you encounter the work of a really natural visual storyteller that the amount of directors who have no real facility with the visual aspect of cinema becomes clear. So many directors are efficient, telling a story by putting the camera in a position which effectively captures the action. Then there are directors who strain themselves seeking a ceaseless stream of beautiful shots - artful composition follows dazzling palette follows ostentatious camera movement...
And then you have someone like Matt Reeves, who with Let Me In, a remake of the superb Swedish horror Let The Right One In from 2008, suggests that he knows exactly how to tell a story with words and moving pictures.
Every shot in this film is beautiful in one way or other. Greig Fraser, the cinematographer, has been doing some stunning work lately, but Let Me In might remain his loveliest performance behind the camera. Reeves combines that beauty with a pleasing economy - he chooses the best shots to move his story forward, and each shot follows the last with clockwork precision. Thats not to say the storytelling here is predictable. On the contrary, its often surprising, even thrilling in its arty emphasis upon atmospherics and mood. All this, and there is even a little visual poetry in the films portrayal of wintry Los Alamos, mostly by night, the snow reflecting various sickly shades of yellow and green.
The plot simplifies and pares down what Alfredson's original took from the source novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, and in doing so, for me, fractionally surpasses that film. This may lack the genuine sense of otherness in the Swedish version, but it is more melancholy, more morally complex and more frightening.
The story is the same: in Los Alamos in the early 1980s, a lonely, horrendously bullied boy,  Owen (Kody Smit-McPhee) meets his strange new neighbour, Abby (Chloë Moretz), who has recently arrived with an older man who appears to be her father (Richard Jenkins). At the same time a local Police Detective (Elias Koteas) is investigating the murder of a local youth, found hanging from a tree, all his blood drained from his body. As Owen and Abby grow closer, he learns that she doesn't feel the cold, never comes out in the daytime, and doesn't eat any normal food...
Using vampirism as a metaphor for the pains of adolescence isn't a new idea, but it is particularly well done here. The bullying in this film is portrayed with real authenticity - it is awful, terrifying and senseless - and that, together with Smit-McPhee's understated, numbed performance, gives the seemingly minor tribulations of Owen's home and school life great power. The tension in each of the scenes where he is confronted by the bullies is brutal, giving the more outlandish scenes of the supernatural a very different, eerie charge. Reeves pulls off a couple of stunning set pieces: the scene where everything goes wrong for Jenkins' character on a trip to harvest some blood is magnificent; thrillingly executed and extremely clever in conception, and the swimming pool climax is similarly masterly.
The '80s are subtly evoked, the performances are all quietly excellent and the tension established in the prologue never really lessens, right up to the epilogue, which is beautifully ambiguous and tinged with melancholy.

Saturday 15 December 2012


(David Lean, 1945)

I first saw Brief Encounter nearly twenty years ago, in my teens. I liked it, admired some of its brilliant storytelling, recognised the qualities that made it such an enduring classic. But I didn't really get it. I was irritated by some of the details; how frightfully posh everybody sounds despite the fact that the lead characters are both supposed to be ordinary, middle class people. The strange pacing. The use of the beautiful but melodramatic Rachmaninov Piano concerto 2 throughout the film.
I rewatched Brief Encounter this week. I'm in my 30s now, with a family and a couple of decades of life experience I didn't possess then, loves and regrets and loss all in my past, and this time I got Brief Encounter. This time it seemed an almost profound commentary on life and love, on choice and duty, on emotion. This time it seemed clear that the film is a masterpiece.
Much of the credit for that must go to Noel Coward, who adapted his own play for the script. His dialogue is convincing, deeply human, and powerfully informed by a sense that he understands the emotions he is writing about here, the double edge of love and betrayal, the wretched frustration of letting love go for other reasons. This is a film written by a gay man in what was still an incredibly difficult time to be gay, and the power of a secret love gives the material an incredible charge of passion and genuine emotion, which is only made more effective by being played in such a clipped, repressed, thoroughly British manner.
His story is familiar and has a simplicity which becomes devastating: a man and a woman meet by chance in the cafe on a train station platform one night. They are headed in different directions, but another chance meeting, a week later, throws them together, and quickly, effortlessly, naturally, they fall in love. He is Alec (Trevor Howard), a doctor. She is Laura (Celia Johnson), a housewife. They only meet on five different occasions in the film, yet the storytelling choices made by Coward and Lean give those meetings a massive emotional wallop.
We witness the agony of their interrupted final moments together in the first scene, but they are presented from a neutral point of view, their drama playing out in the background of a group scene. Then the camera stays with Laura as she travels home, and Coward indulges her with an interior monologue, told as narration. Only now does her pain become clear. Later she recalls the relationship in flashback, imagining telling her warm, loving husband the whole story but actually keeping it to herself.
Lean cuts confidently and with precise sensitivity between tight close-ups of the lovers tremulous faces and longer shots of them against the dark brickwork of the station or moving through the towns crowds, emphasising the odd tension between their emotional life and the public face they present to the world when they are together.
All of this presents a powerful picture of suburban mores in 1945, when gossip was feared and people were used to putting their heads down and doing their duty. There is never really any question of Alec and Laura being together, indeed, they never entertain the prospect. They try to snatch what happiness they can from their stolen moments together, and both are plainly devastated when that ends.
The leads are brilliant here. Johnson carries the picture, so much of the story visible only in her large, tear-filled eyes, her pain and confusion absolutely convincing. Howard is more outwardly controlled, letting little emotion slip, but his facial expressions and body language in their parting scene are astonishingly effective at indicating just how this experience will ruin him.
The Rachmaninov is nicely used, its emotional tones colouring exactly the right scenes in the story, and Robert Krasker's cinematography is typically superb, evoking dark evenings in little England and crisp mornings in market towns with acute atmosphere and some beautiful shot selection.
For all the later joys in his oeuvre, Brief Encounter is perhaps Lean's greatest film, a near-perfect and timeless love story and an immensely powerful minor tragedy which has aged but never dated.

Monday 10 December 2012


(Martin McDonagh, 2012)

All self-indulgence should be as entertaining as McDonagh's follow up to In Bruges. And make no mistake, this is thoroughly self-indulgent, with its tale of a screenwriter hero named Martin (Colin Farrell) who is sick of typical Hollywood portrayals of violence and gets himself tangled up in a dog-kidnapping scheme gone wrong once it targets the pet of psychopathic mobster Charlie (Woody Harrelson). The dog-kidnappers are Charlie's friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) and Billy's friend Hans (Christopher Walken) and they end up in the desert, giving Martin advice on how his screenplay - also named Seven Psychopaths - should end, while hiding from Charlie and his gang. Along the way McDonagh gives us a series of fantasy sequences illustrating portions of Martin's screenplay and the stories people contribute in an effort to assist him while the main storyline continues along well-trodden Tarantino-esque lines.
That this is all so entertaining is purely down to a fine cast and to McDonagh's talent as a writer. He writes blistering dialogue, instantly shown in the opening scene as two mob gunmen wait around before a hit, discussing the minutiae of love and murder in what seems a deliberate thumbing of the nose at post-Tarantino cliches. McDonagh repeatedly criticises his own work, and this self-reflexism works better at some points than others; the criticism of Martin's female characters as "terrible" cyphers who only exist to be shot doesn't really excuse the lack of interesting women here, while Martin's wish that his film could just end with everybody off in the desert, talking, is borne out until it isn't.
He can do tension too, and specialises at finding the comedy in these moments, the instant when
nervousness and fear become a queasy sort of amusement.
The cast make so much of it work. Rockwell is tremendous, hilarious throughout - it is funnier than the majority of this years outright comedies - but also suggesting the power of Billy's friendship with Martin, while Farrell carries off the difficult straight-man role well. Walken, Harrelson, Linda Bright Clay and the likes of Tom Waits and Željko Ivanek in smaller roles all do great work with the character parts that McDonagh writes so well.
But really, this is a very slight entertainment, wicked and dazzling at times but also empty and strangely unsatisfying. McDonagh and his talented cast can do so much better.

Friday 7 December 2012


(Andrew Dominik, 2007) 

Can this beautiful piece of poetry really be only Andrew Dominik's second film? It's made with such confidence, such assurance, as to appear the work of some old master, returning to the Western one last time. But then, Dominik's debut, Chopper, was nothing if not assured. And there are other similarities between the two films - both studies of fame and its effect, both centred on complex, disturbed men all too aware of their own myths. Here Dominik recalls the great revisionist Westerns of the 20 year period from the late 60s through the early 80s - the likes of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, McCabe & Mrs Miller, Heavens Gate and Walter Hill's superb take on the Jesse James legend, The Long Riders. His film has the solemnity and seriousness common to those films, the relaxed yet deliberate pacing, the slightly askew characterisation. It is also great enough to stand in their company without suffering by comparison. Yet it also seemed greatly informed by the work of Terrence Malick in its patience and attention to the natural world, in its subtly persuasive focus on psychology.
Based closely on Ron Hansen's fantastic novel - and taking its narration and much of its dialogue verbatim from the book - and exquisitely photographed by Roger Deakins, Dominik has still somehow managed to make a Western with something original to say. For this is at heart the story of an obsessive fan, with more in common with todays world of stalkers and media saturation than the genre iconography may at first suggest. Perhaps the most incisive passages occur after the titular event has passed and we are shown the fate of Bob Ford, as famous in his time as Jesse James ever was, and struggling to deal with it, just as Jesse did. The still-life montages of landscapes and empty rooms, and the daguerrotype-style shots of Jesse in town and nature provide visual poetry to match the lyricism of Hansen's narration, and Pitt and Affleck both do career-best work, the latter in particular an absolute revelation. The delicate score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and the fine cast of young actors as Jesse's ragtag last gang (Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Garett Dillahunt, David Schneider) only make it all more expertly calibrated.
The films most interesting quality is its ambiguity - about its characters, most particularly. Pitt's Jesse is self-loathing, unpredictable, paranoid and lucidly aware of the narrowing odds he is facing; nursing a death wish, yet also charming, charismatic and attractive. He chooses Ford to be his killer, grooms him, and in so doing ensures that Ford is the one who has his character assassinated. The event makes Ford famous, yes, but also destroys his life. Ford gains our sympathy despite his creepiness, the ability he has to set people's teeth on edge merely by talking. This ambivalence in the authorial view of the central figures spreads through the narrative until the entire film is hung with it and the certainty of the title seems possibly ironic. The odd, fractured love story at the heart of this film gives it a black little heart which is beautifully and surgically exposed over the course of the precise, superbly textured narrative.
 As slow as molasses, maybe, but in this sort of Western, thats a good thing, and Dominick adds his name to the roll-call of directors who have made great Jesse James films alongside the likes of Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller, Phil Kauffman and Walter Hill.

Tuesday 27 November 2012


(Michael Haneke, 2012)

Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignanat) and Ann (Emmanuelle Riva) are an elderly couple who live in a large, ageing Paris apartment. In a single sequence of the couple attending the piano recital of one of Ann's old students, Haneke manages to communicate the strength of their bond, and their comfortably bourgeois lifestyle. And then, he tears it away from them; inch by agonising inch.
Ann suffers a stroke and an operation to correct the damage fails. She is paralysed down her right side and needs a wheelchair. Her condition steadily deteriorates. Georges, having promised that she will not return to hospital, patiently cares for her in their home until he cannot cope alone. Their daughter Eve (Isabelle Huppert) appears occasionally from her busy life in London and is appalled by what she finds, but Georges is dismissive. The ending is inevitable, and we are shown it at the beginning when police break down the door and discover Ann's body upon the bed.
Haneke keeps his style simple and undemonstrative, all the better to boost the power of such moving, universal material. He finds solid mastershots for almost every room in the apartment, lets cinematographer Darius Khondji light them with a muted, autumnal brand of realism, and more or less returns to them throughout the film, emphasising the numbing repetition accompanying Ann's slow decline with every shot of Georges shuffling through the same doorway.
Haneke's reputation for coldness, and even cruelty, seems absolutely unfair after this film, which is warm and empathetic throughout, which keeps its two leads in focus and monitors every emotional pulse within its elliptical structure, which is minutely callibrated and all the more devastating for it.
The few grace notes allowed to the couple once Ann's illness has set in only serve to make the long slide to death that much more painful, the loss of her dignity and sensitivity that much more unfair. They laugh together early on, and she comments "Its beautiful, life. So long." while looking through their photo albums, still appreciative of what she has, and has had. Later she is a mostly-mute, bedbound invalid, bellowing incoherently, spitting water at her husband when he tries to feed her.
Their daughter's tearful shock at her mother's condition reflects that of the audience - Haneke cuts out the transition to the time after her second stroke, when she deteriorates most rapidly, and so we suddenly jump to her struggling to form words and unable to move.
Georges response to all of this is even and calm. He keeps going, rarely losing patience, acknowledging how sad it is verbally to Eve without any visible emotion. Near the climax two scenes depict him exploding to some degree, and they are perhaps the most charged in the film, the most fraught with that repressed emotion.
There are also a couple of moments of extremely black comedy, which may be entirely necessary in such a grim story. But this is not a depressing film. It is too good, exhilaratingly so, to be depressing.
Somewhat reminiscent of Maurice Pialat's fine La Gueule Ouverte, Amour is a beautiful, wrenching drama. Its two leads are absolutely superb; fearlessly confronting their own age and its possible consequences, sadness and acceptance meeting in their faces.


(Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

The arc of Anderson's career is a fascinating one. The early films that are equal parts Mamet (crackerjack screenplays filled with brilliant dialogue and vivid characters), Scorsese (dazzling and ostentatious directorial pyrotechnics) and Altman (intersecting stories and overlapping soundtracks on tapestries tinted an odd mix of cynicism and profound sentimentality) served notice of a potentially massive talent. And, unlike so many boy wonder auteurs before him, Anderson has just about fulfilled that talent. He makes big, important, serious American films. He generates them himself, writing the scripts, and they are distinctively his films. Those powerful influences - and some newer ones; Demme, Welles and Kubrick, for instance - have been absorbed, and now he seems to be only himself.
His films are literary without ever compromising how intensely cinematic they are. They are never trivial, yet they can be funny. They are cerebral and yet gruellingly emotional.
These days his career seems more like that of a novelist than that of a director. He follows his muse where it leads him, from the intense sketchwork of Punchdrunk Love to the epic foundation myth of There Will Be Blood.
The Master is at heart a character study. It is still and patient, and perhaps even somewhat frustrating. Nobody learns anything in this film, nobody grows. The characters are never explained for the audience the way they are in many films. Anderson asks that we do some work, that we think about their motivations and their feelings. The Master is rewarding if you are willing to go with it. It is mysterious too, with depths in its detail that most directors could not even conceive of, never mind work them into a film such as this.
At its heart is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, magnificent), just out of the Navy in the years after WW2, and confused and purposeless in the Post-War World. Anderson elliptically shows us some of Freddie's experiences in service, enough to communicate some of his problems. He is an alcoholic who brews his own hooch from whatever is available - torpedo fuel, paint thinner - a habit that has him flee a migrant worker camp at one point after a man drinks from his concoction and dies. Phoenix plays Freddie as a man twisted by his own desire and frustration; his shoulders tense, waistband near his sternum, mouth a tight slash through which words are forced together in slurs, a laugh erupting from him when he's nervous.
The film itself seems as fascinated by what is at the root of Freddie's issues as Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) plainly is. Freddie stumbles, drunk, onto a ship carrying Dodd and his party down the California coast and through the Panama canal to New York city, and Dodd is intrigued by this "animal" who creates amazing potions and excites something within him. He claims they have met before but cannot recall where or when. There is an obvious homo-erotic subtext here but Anderson isn't interested in that. Nor is he really all that interested in "the Cause", Dodd's Scientology-like Cult which practices "applications" to regress subjects into past lives and is based around Dodd's writing. The Cause here is just another tool used to probe Freddie, to test his limits and arouse his passion, altough Dodd's circle provides an interesting dynamic, containing as it does Dodd's Lady Macbeth of a wife (Amy Adams) who disapproves of the arrival of this stranger and even his effect upon her husband; his disbelieving son Val (Jesse Plemons); and a daughter who flirts with Freddie before condemning him to her father.
Hoffman beautifully communicates Dodd's pomposity and his charisma, but more importantly he shows how this man feels a sort of envy for Freddie's surging impulsiveness, his "mischief". Dodd contains all his rage and frustration and they are only perceptible in a few instances - when he loses control during an argument with a dissenting voice at a party ("Pig Fuck!" he suddenly, shockingly yells) and when he and Freddie scream obscenities at one another after they are both arrested. He tries to "cure" Freddie, but perhaps only to keep this odd man around, to feel himself worshipped as his "Master". Their strange kinship is evident in a few shared scenes where they drink Freddie's mixture together and where they even wrestle. Their relationship is the engine driving the central passage of the film, bookended by scenes providing a sort of "origin" for Freddie's melancholy in the loss of a girl called Doris.
But then the film unpicks this too, and finally Freddie is left, fittingly, an enigma, ruined by the War.
This sort of characterisation is brave in an era where everything is explained to audiences, where pop-psychology is applied to every character. But then Anderson is a brave filmmaker. He treats Freddie like a real person, and so he is contradictory and driven by unknowable impulses.
He is brave too in the stylistic alteration he has made here. While the intense long takes remain, this is a film filled with equally intense close-ups. The camera pulls back on only a few memorable occasions. Otherwise we are trapped uncomfortably close to Freddie, watching him prowl, certain that an incident is close.
Anderson's style has become seamlessly controlled. The camera moves but never pointlessly. The cuts are natural, near-invisible. Jack Fisk's superb production design and Mihai Malaimare Jr's cinematography combine to form a convincing, textured portrayal of the 1950s. Jonny Greenwood's score is as atmospheric and unsettling as his work on There Will Be Blood.
But the key collaborator here is Phoenix, who seems to fully inhabit this part to a disturbing extent. In the final scene, a release and rapture for Freddie, we see him happy - almost certainly fleetingly - for the first time in the film. Perhaps that is what the character and his creator were searching for all along.
Whether that is the case or not, their quest is a beautiful, unforgettable one.

Saturday 24 November 2012


(David Twohy, 2009)

Writer-director Twohy, who made the fantastically effective sci-fi b film Pitch Black, here demonstrates that his understanding of genre dynamics extend to the more mainstream end of things - in this case a seemingly anonymously generic thriller.
The set-up is almost perfect in its bland familiarity: three couples cross paths in a remote area of Hawaii. The police are hunting a similar couple, wanted for a grisly double-murder in Honolulu, and suspicions are naturally aroused. Tensions and undercurrents crackle between them as they journey through the jungle to a famously isolated and beautiful beach.
This self aware spectacle is all kinds of fun, twisting and turning through revelations and double crosses all the way through, beautifully shot and edited and nicely directed by Twohy.
It plays oh so smartly with audience expectation and genre convention; Twohy knows precisely what should happen, and sometimes he even delivers it. Only upon reflection we realise that what we thought we saw is not what we actually saw.
That might make A Perfect Getaway sound like gimmickry, but it is solidly built upon great characterisation and strong performances: Timothy Olyphant has a great time as a loquacious "American Jedi" ex-Special Forces soldier, Milla Jovovich thrives away from the numbing repetition of fighting zombies in video game adaptations, and Steve Zahn shows he has some range beyond quirky smart-mouths for perhaps the first time ever. There is more there too, if you want it - a telling, well-observed study of coupledom, its compromises and shared understandings, and a believable, authentic portrayal of the weird chemistry of a holiday encounter: instant bonds formed between strangers and the tensions that ensue. Only here that all ends in gunplay, desperate chases through the tropical forest and knives flung through the air.
It is the kind of film that plays well on a first viewing but improves with subsequent watches - its layers and cleverness only truly revealed with an awareness of the final act reveals and reversals. Then it seems hilariously funny in its teasing of the viewer, as well as gripping and enormously entertaining.

Thursday 22 November 2012


(David O. Russell, 2012)

Its hard to say just what it is that makes Russell's films so distinctive, but distinctive they are. They feel like his alone, in approach, in style, in vibe. I think its a combination of elements. He has a nervy, almost hysterical angle on character. His people are not always likeable, but they are warmly, messily human; complicated, infuriating creatures with personality defects and evident flaws. His style emphasises this, with a fluid facility with handheld work notable in each of his last few films, the camera restless and mobile, indulging in lots of sweeping pans and long zooms. He loves to use classic rock on his soundtracks, too; Silver Linings Playbook makes beautiful use of Led Zeppelin's "What Is and What Should Never Be", for instance, during a manic episode suffered by Pat (Bradley Cooper).
Pat has just been released from a Mental Hospital into the care of his parents (Jackie Weaver and Robert DeNiro) after finding his wife in the shower with a colleague triggered a violent incident. That incident only revealed a long-undiagnosed bipolar tendency perhaps inherited from his father, who deals with his issues through an obsession with American Football and superstitions around the game. Pat is determined to improve himself for his wife, even though she has filed for a restraining order and left town (his repeated assertions of their love and happiness are the chief signifier of his instability). Meanwhile, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose husband has died, leaving her alternately depressed and manic - perhaps the first manic pixie dreamgirl who actually qualifies - and their initial spark is complicated by both of their disorders, their family situations, and Pat's delusional belief that his wife is waiting for him.
Russell makes the early sections feel like a somewhat frazzled black comedy, filled with dark humour, bitter dialogue, and the many tensions beneath the surface of this troubled family sporadically spurting to the surface. The film then slowly grows more emotional and moving, that bitterness receding to an extent even if it never really quite disappears. The ending is straight romcom, and while some may be disappointed by its outright conventionality, it feels like a triumphant victory over the forces of darkness after the territory plumbed by the material earlier on. Just to make it even more conventional, the last act also has a sport movie tinge, with Pat and Tiffany preparing for and competing in a Ballroom Dance competition, but that sequence is a great example of what makes Russell so interesting: though the stakes are high, he makes a joke of it, with a key move in the routine providing a big laugh.
This is a film focused intently on family, on the damage that our parents can do to us, but about how they can heal us, too. De Niro and Weaver are terrific as Pat's worried parents, the former doing his best work in about a decade. His own explosive issues have informed the way Pat has developed, and yet his love for his son is never in doubt. This is revealed in a handful of great scenes - a couple of emotional, farcelike showdowns in the family home and a tearful confession of fatherly neglect and regret - each of them nicely played without recourse to the usual mugging and stock mannerisms we have seen from the actor in role after role over the last few years.
It is also a film about the world now, with references to the way the economy crushes people, increasing the pressure of everyday life until mental and emotional problems become almost unavoidable. Pat suggests at one point that perhaps he and Tiffany and his friend Danny (Chris Tucker)
are the ones who have seen something the others are simply missing, and you feel the film may agree with him. It certainly sympathises. The world is a cruel, grim place, Russell seems to say, but there is the love of a family and the love between a man and a woman, and that can sometimes make it all alright. That might sound schmaltzy, but his sensibility rejects schmaltz and overt sentiment, preferring a tart view of humanity and a cynical laugh at their ludicrousness, which is a big part of what makes his work, and this film, so compelling.
Apart from all that, and returning to classic rock, has any director ever used Rare Earth on his soundtracks as much as Russell? I think not, and he should be cherished for that...

Tuesday 20 November 2012


(Steve McQueen, 2008)

McQueen, in his stunningly accomplished debut, displays an acute understanding of the power of the medium. Its there in the first scene. We follow a Prison Guard - employed in the Maze in 1970s Northern Ireland - through some of the moments of his routine. He bathes his bloodied knuckles in cold water. He smokes a cigarette. His wife makes him a fry-up. He checks his street for potential assassins and the underside of his car for bombs before leaving for work. All of it beautifully composed - the framing and lighting distinctively stylish. That and the sound gives it all texture and a truly sensual reality - the crunch of the Guard's toast is shockingly intimate, the rustle the fabric of a shirt makes as he dresses, the gush of tapwater into a wash basin. All of this means that when the focus shifts to the Republican Prisoners engaged in a dirty protest - not washing, smearing their excrement on their cell-walls, clad only in blankets - we can smell the filth, feel the maggots writhing on the floor. The violence of their beatings is given horrific weight in this film. The focus shifts again, to Bobby Sands, who would lead the hunger strike which would kill him after 66 days. Michael Fassbender is incredible in the role, and the later scenes, where his emaciated body seems to fade away before us, are almost unwatchable in their power and visceral quality. Its a formally brave film - McQueen uses long static shots brilliantly, but mixes them with tight close ups and moments of pure visual poetry. Perhaps the film's bravest gamble is the long central scene of Sands debating his intentions with a Priest (Liam Cunningham), which McQueen films in one ten minute long set-up. This puts the burden on Enda Walsh's dialogue and the two actors, and they are all up to it. It works, giving some context to the otherwise intensely focused story we are shown. It is even-handed, too: the murder of the prison guard while visiting his senile mother in a nursing home is perhaps the most brutal moment in the film. The final moments escape briefly into visual beauty before returning us to the cold, terrible reality of Sands physical collapse and death. Somehow it is too beautiful and exact to be depressing. The control and focus and austerity is reminiscent of Bresson, but the emotion evoked is much rawer than anything in his work. Its severity and formal precision makes most films about the Troubles (including Terry George's solid Some Mother's Son, also concerned with the Hunger strikers) look like contrived Hollywood piffle. McQueen looks a massive talent.

Thursday 15 November 2012


(Michael Winterbottom, 2012)

A lovely study of the quotidian stresses and agonies of a family separated by the imprisonment of the husband and father (John Simm), Everyday is moving and beautifully observed.
Director Michael Winterbottom has long had the rare ability to combine an almost verite sense of the real world - a sometimes drab place, without glamour or artifice, filled with normal people living casually uneventful lives - with an eye for the fleeting poetry of the now, for the beauty in a dull room barely lit through a smeared window, or the splash of energy on a city street, and that is powerfully in evidence here.
Winterbottom shot Everyday at intervals over a five year period, and Simm and Shirley Henderson (as his wife, struggling with raising their four children alone) are surrounded by non-professionals, and indeed, part of the unique joy of the film is watching the four children grow up over the course of the story. That sense of the passage of time, so often a phoney construction in cinema, here has the sting of reality visible in the maturing faces of its actors.
This is essentially a love story rooted in the routines and grind of family life, with the father notable mainly by his absence, and it is given a sort of intimate epic quality by the majestic landscapes of Norfolk where the family live and by an expansive, emotive Michael Nyman score. Scene after scene follows Henderson and her children engaged in the banalities of regular family life - getting up in the morning, commuting to work and school, bedtime, dinner, sunny days at the beach, supermarket shopping, and watching television. The tiny dramas of life - children staying out too late, fights in the schoolyard, a troubling flirtation from a friend which becomes an affair - are just part of the tapestry, of one thing after another, day after day after day. That is all given an added dimension in contrast with what we see of Simm's life in prison: the dull colours and harsh lighting, the extreme repetition and unbending routine, the small spaces and petty humiliations. These two worlds clash a few times - the family visit their father in prison, and he gets a couple of day release passes. Winterbottom brilliantly punctuates these sequences with the flat reality of the penal life Simm must return to afterward, and this repetitive structure takes on its own rhythm, formed from repeated shots and events - characters travelling on buses and trains and in cabs, Henderson awakening at the rude trill of an alarm clock, the fields around their house.
This film asks how can a family survive such a separation, and more piercingly, how a couple can remain in love without the traditional structures of family life to support them. This love story is odd and difficult but also tremendously moving. A couple of halting, beautiful love scenes are echoed by repeated shots of this man and woman clinging to one another, and walking surrounded by their children. In Everyday, that is a great happiness, the continued survival of the family a triumph of sorts over the world itself.

Wednesday 14 November 2012


(Ben Affleck, 2012)

Though it tries very hard to feel like a film from the era in which it is set - the end of the 1970s and dawn of the '80s - there is in fact something awfully 1990s about Ben Affleck's Argo. It is so careful and earnest in its attempts to be an adult entertainment - not too funny, not too political, not too talky, just exciting enough - that it instead feels slightly drab at times, despite its outlandish "true" story.
That story traces the attempts of CIA extraction specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck, sporting a true-to-period beard and semi-mullet which always look just a tad too styled) to smuggle six US embassy staff out of Tehran following the Islamic Revolution in Iran. His plan involves the creation of a fake movie project - the sci-fi epic Argo - which has a script, storyboards, production company and a couple of cynical Hollywood old-timers (Alan Arkin and John Goodman, sharing all the films best lines between them). Argo is to shoot in Iran and Mendez means to smuggle the embassy workers out as part of his film crew, the story being that they have been scouting locations in the country.
The action is split between intense conversations amongst groups of suited men in rooms, most with fringes and sideburns, arguing and blustering over their plans; and scenes of angry Iranians in the streets of Tehran. The Iranians we see here are generally granted no individuality, rather they are a shouty, scary mob, or intensely focused anti-American zealots, and Affleck shoots the Tehran scenes differently than those set in the USA. In Tehran the camera is jittery and handheld, the film grainier. The sequences in Langley and Washington are slightly smoother - the camera circles and roves insistently but without that same nervous energy, the more measured cutting amplifying this to an extent.
But then there are few real characters here. Affleck's Mendez has no personality, instead being fitted out with a series of gestures in the direction of one; he is separated from his wife and son, he drinks too much, he seems somewhat mournful. With other figures he has avoided the impression of shallow characterisation through casting - his actors are largely superb, and the likes of Bryan Cranston and Scoot McNairy give these people more meat than the script perhaps allowed for their bones.
That script is filled with great lines and snappy exchanges and Affleck keeps the whole thing pacy, particularly in the difficult expository sections of the first act. It is atmospheric too, with a nicely textured sense of that world, filled with cigarette smoke and creaking leather.
By the last act much of this has ceased to matter. By then the escape attempt has begun, and it is unbearably, giddily gripping and suspenseful. Affleck may lack a distinctive style or voice, but he is a fine craftsman, and his handling of suspense here is textbook stuff which works brilliantly in its every predictable, triumphant beat, twist and reversal.
This may be his most roundly entertaining and accessible film yet, but for me it is also his worst. The understanding of Boston so evident in Gone Baby Gone and The Town is here replaced by a touristic awe at Tehran, the relatively intense character studies of those films replaced by a more functional approach to characterisation. That this is still a soundly entertaining film is tribute to the skill of Affleck as a director, his excellent ensemble, and to Chris Terrio's script. While the actor-director has been (inaccurately) compared to Sidney Lumet on the basis of this film, a more telling comparison would be with Sydney Pollack, who also specialised in high-class middlebrow entertainments aimed solidly at grown-ups. Pollack turned out more than his fair share of classics over the years and I can see Affleck doing the same, if he continues to pick his projects wisely...

Saturday 10 November 2012


(Jacques Audiard, 2012)

Audiard here takes two of the stories from Craig Davidson's fine collection, "Rust and Bone", and fuses them into one gritty, emotional melodrama. That fusion shouldn't really work. The stories - one about a bare knuckle boxer, the other about an Orca trainer injured by an animal - are utterly different in tone and setting. But it helps that Audiard keeps few of the details from Davidson, and that so much of the story of this film is of his own invention, expanding upon what he has adapted from the book.
He transforms the material into a bruising love story. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is newly arrived on the French Riviera with his young son. They stay with his sister while he moves between jobs - as a bouncer and a security guard. Working at a club he meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) an attractive, possibly dangerous party girl. Later, she is crippled by an accident at work, and she contacts Ali again. Slowly, a strange relationship forms between them as both seek to find themselves once more.
The leads are crucial to the success of this film. Cotillard has more of the standout moments - her discovery that her legs are gone, her sexual reawakening and excitement at Ali's physicality - and she plays each with a sensitivity and rawness of emotion that is powerful and believable, but Schoenaerts is a fitting partner for her, making Ali a wounded brute, capable of surprising sensitivity and feeling yet also never far from an explosion. They make the union between the characters feel inevitable and fascinating.
Then there is Audiard's evolving style. He finds a key to each scene which makes it ring with a visceral sense of the truth of the moment - whether its the texture of the ground upon which Ali is fighting, a tooth spinning onto it, or the way he and Stephanie pant together during sex, or her flashes of memory of her accident, the water swirling with debris and blood. Every sequence has this exhilarating pulse of life in it. Some moments feel almost like the Dardennes tackling a torrid melodrama, others recall Michael Mann in their sensual poetry and attention to the fleeting beauty of the everyday. His use of sound is sublime too, and the soundtrack choices are particularly perfect, from Katy Perry to Bon Iver, each amplifying the emotional impact of the visuals they play over.
That is the main impression of any Audiard film; the emotion. Once the love story kicks in here, the muted chemistry between the principals becomes something far more powerful and intense, and the fine cast here make those feelings sting. The lovely moment when Stephanie returns to the Ocean Park to see old friends and communes with her Orca through glass is a great example of his art - it is beautiful, yes, with a natural sense of cinema, but it also feels emotionally wrenching. Just like this film, then.

Thursday 8 November 2012


(Leonard Abrahamson, 2004)

This modest Irish film is a tragi-comedy which follows 24 hours in the lives of the titular characters, a pair of childhood friends turned junkies, as they wander Dublin in search of money and their next fix. Sounds hilarious, I know. But it maintains an almost Beckettian grim humour from the first scene, when the duo awake in a wasteland behind the formerly notorious Ballymun estate. The tall one - they are never assigned names, and people greet them with "Alright Adam and Paul?" - finds himself glued to a mattress and the first words uttered are "Ah for fucks sake." They swear throughout, as do most of the people they encounter in the course of their day, which is extremely authentic to Dublin. The comedy mainly comes from the small one, who is the slapstick clown of the pair. He is clipped by a moped crossing the street: "Me fuckin leeggg!!" He hurts his hand trying to smash a car window: "Me fuckin hand!!" He throws up by the side of a motorway, he takes an emergency shit crouched in an alley ("I'm not wipin meself with a tayto bag") and he bungles an attempt at shoplifting, then cannot even open the milk carton he has escaped with. He maintains a pathetic, whining tone throughout. And yet he is the more sympathetic of the two, his puppyish eyes and dependence on his friend and constant repetition of "sorry" making him seem absurdly vulnerable and pitiful. He bemoans their life when they are at their lowest: "Why can't things be easy, just for once...and to be lucky?"

There is also comedy in the duo's slow-motion verbal ping-pong, underlined by their slack-mouthed, heavy-lidded, slow-blinking smackhead personas. The tall one is the boss, the thinker, and he carries an air of grim regret and melancholy, as if he knows what he is and is helpless to do anything about it. When they are reunited with their old friend, the now clean Janine (in a lovely, silent moment of imagined mental communion), it is suggested that he may even be the father of her infant child. But he is determined in his pursuit of their next high. He carries on, without looking back, dragging the small one in his wake. They are outsiders, always out of place in company, their smalltalk stilted and awkward. They meet some acquantances in a park and it is like a scene from a wildlife documentary - a pack including children, two women and a watchful alpha male are encountered by these two comedically predatory rogue males. The male, in due course, warns the pair off. But they are never sentimentalised or glamorized. They ruthlessly mug a downs syndrome boy they see waiting for a bus. They are close to stealing Janine's new tv. The narrative is sprinkled with suggestions about their role in the death of Matthew, an old friend and fellow junkie whose funeral they have attended a month before (and whose family they encounter). They seem stunned and unsurprisingly numb at the grief they encounter, their immersion in their own addiction blotting out all else for them. And the film, to its great credit, does not shy away from giving that addction a sort of climax. Adam and Paul do score, and their high is depicted as an extraordinary, blissful rapture. The film's colour palette briefly changes, as does the music, and the screen is aglow for one scene, full of light and vivid imagery. This high is eventually followed by the inevitable consequences, however, and they give the film a moving, low key ending, as do the terrific performances from Tom Murphy and Mark O'Halloran.
Adam & Paul perfectly captures the grey, grimy, litter-strewn streets of Dublin's Inner city, the working class heart that still beats on the outskirts of the tourist-choked area of the centre. Aside from the heroin scene, the colours are muted throughout, the skies overcast, the sunlight hazy and diffuse. Skin tone is mottled, colours lose their allure under the dull weather of an Irish midwinter. Abrahamson is a subtle stylist, seldom moving his camera but choosing his shots economically. He indulges himself with a few moments of hard urban poetry in his many compositions showing Adam and Paul as figures framed against a landscape, whether it be crossing a rain-soaked back-street or begging on a corner. He seems interested in modern Dublin and how it works as a city. Adam and Paul exist in the margins, flitting between mainstream lives. There they encounter a Bulgarian man, allowing Abrahamson to examine the complex relationship the Irish - a traditionally emigrant people - have with the Immigrants who have recently flooded their newly wealthy country. He exposes their prejudices ("Yeah, Our Country," the tall one says. "Fuck off back to Romania") before telling them that Dublin is a shithole, full of Romanians. Earlier, a homeless man has berated a store security guard by yelling "You wouldnt have thrown us out if we were black!" Adam and Paul, though definitely outsiders within Dublin, still see themselves above the foreigners filling its most menial positions, and even Irish people from outside the city - "Fuck off back to the country" they shout to another security guard.
Films set in the World's legitimately great citys often rely on a shorthand. Heres a shot of the Eiffel Tower. Look, its Big Ben, and theres a Red bus. That sort of thing. Nothing in Dublin is as instantly recognisable, except to its inhabitants. Abrahamson steafastly refuses any cheap establishing shot and avoids most recognisable landmarks to emphasise his heroes strange isolation. Until the High, that is, which occurs on one of the Liffey's bridges, and the haunting final scene, when one of Dublin's most recognisable Industrial structures towers in the background in what seems an ironic thumb of the nose at the very idea of such gestures. This contrarian streak is itself a very Dublin trait, and it may have helped Abrahamson make what is the greatest film about the city.

Monday 5 November 2012


(Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

There are things here to like. Young Quevenshane Wallis is magnetic and likeable as our narrator-heroine, Hush Puppy, and the majority of the others in the non-professional cast are fresh and believable in this world. Zeitlin's camera picks out a few stunning images, mainly of the Louisiana coast in all its astonishing, often desolate beauty. Some of the production design of the ramshackle structures in "the Bathtub", where Hush Puppy lives with her ailing, cranky father Link, is imaginatively, funkily visualised. And there is an unmistakeable, and powerful - if slightly cheap - pathos to that father-daughter relationship that carries the film through its more annoying later stretches.
And yet. This post-Katrina fantasy of a lovingly eccentric (fictional) community felt entirely fake to me, a piece of designer tourism with the aesthetics of a Levis advert, a contrived narrative and characters so cutesily eccentric they were at best silly, and at worst infuriating. This village lies on the wet side of a Louisiana levee, and when a great, Katrina-esque storm comes and the waters rise, the few remaining residents band together for survival.
This is all seen through Hush Puppy's eyes and overlaid with her naive, poetic, utterly overwritten musings about life and nature and meaning. They play like a bad attempt at Terrence Malick, and are compounded by Zeitlin's decision to depict the prehistoric Aurochs imagined (or are they..?) by Hush Puppy, thawed out by the melting of the ice caps and on the loose in the flooded Bathtub.
On top of that is a strangely bombastic, euphoric, awfully familiar indie-sounding score by Zeitlin and Dan Romer. The story ricochets across tones and registers - from seemingly realist drama to coming of age story to epic adventure - but never loses its essential tweeness, which becomes especially problematic when it attempts to address the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in its portrayal of the Bathtub family forcibly evacuated and blandified by a government who try to tame our heroine by putting her in a dress. This is a film which superficially seems joyous and simple, yet actually feels cynical and a touch laboured in its motives and stylistic tropes. It should be charming, but instead its charmless.

Sunday 28 October 2012


(Sam Fell, Chris Butler, 2012)

Another in the 2012 mini-wave of animated films for children utilising horror iconography and even, to some extent, plotting, ParaNorman is an outstanding piece of work, affectionate in its approach to the material to which it pays tribute, clever, exciting and engaging throughout.
It tells the story of Norman, a young boy who is a necromancer - he speaks to and sees the dead. Everywhere, all the time. For this he is bullied in school, fighting with his parents and sister at home, and a little bit lonely too. When his hermit of an uncle reveals that he has the same power, and that Norman must take over his duties, fighting off a prophesised Witches curse on the same day every year, Norman grudgingly agrees. Only he is too late, and his town is suddenly invaded by a mob of zombies as Norman and a ragtag group of his friends search desperately for a way to save their home.
Suffering from one of the usual problems affecting children's films - a need to hit too many bases with regularity, so that an action scene follows a scare, then is interrupted by a gag, all topped off by a moment of obvious character growth - ParaNorman has its own distinctive look and feel, which makes it play like a really original and refreshing piece of work. It lacks the fuzzy perfection of a Pixar product, and its top-motion style is utterly different from the approach of either Aardman or Tim Burton's school.
Instead, its design is quirky, even a little gritty, with a caricatured quality to the characters that allows the horror to work without ever becoming too frightening for the young target audience. There are a few neat references to various horror films, and some tremendous character work. It is reminiscent of the adventure films of the 1980s which were aimed squarely at teens and children; meaning that it feels almost as if it could have been written for a live action treatment, and benefits from that emphasis on a solid emotional base for Norman in his everyday life. The fantastic material then feels like a colourful extension of that world. The finale - Norman's final confrontation with the Witch - is beautiful, atmospheric and even a little moving.

Friday 26 October 2012


(Sam Mendes, 2012)

Skyfall is the classiest film in the history of the long and occasionally glorious Bond franchise. Avoiding the usual genre journeymen who have directed more or less every other official instalment in the adventures of 007, the producers have this time opted to hire Sam Mendes as director. And while Mendes is far from an auteur - he is, in a way, a sort of tasteful hack, with extremely good taste in collaborators - his presence does guarantee a certain pedigree. His films all play like high-quality, big-budget middlebrow entertainments, which is quite a rarity in dumbed-down, lowest common denominator modern studio film-making. He has in turn hired Roger Deakins as his cinematographer, ensuring that this Bond film is visually sumptuous, filled with breathtaking compositions, colours and camera glides, and textured in a way that makes it feel unlike any of the films that preceded it. There are still an awful lot of helicopter establishing shots of cityscapes - some of the visual conventions of the series are unshakeable, it seems - but Deakins finds some incredibly rich and evocative imagery in the exotic locations spread through the film. Mendes' name also attracts the sort of cast rarely seen in the Bond world, and so Skyfall features Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris in some new takes on iconic characters. Whishaw in particular is excellent as the boyish new Q, darkly witty and smug about his own intelligence to just the right extent, while Harris and Daniel Craig concoct a genuine chemistry in their scenes together.
Craig, who looks like a battered old kettle with big ears, owns the role of Bond by this stage, and his confidence in the part carries much of the film. The plot disables Bond in the pre-credit sequence ( a fantastic pursuit through Istanbul which might just be the films single standout action scene) and, much as predecessors Connery and Brosnan both endured in different films, questions his potency and efficiency for the majority of the first act.
Craig is at his best here - not coincidentally, the portion of the film where he is asked to do the most acting - with a convincingly hollow, haunted quality to his work. The script reassures him and us repeatedly that age is not necessarily a bad thing - nostalgia is a big part of the DNA of the modern Bond film, and this film positively wallows in it, with characters stressing that they like to do things the "old-fashioned way" and that "the old ways are the best ways", while the climax strips away all gadgetry and computer hacking to make it a battle between hunter and hunted in a very 19th Century, near-elemental landscape.
But the film itself really goes up a gear with the introduction of its villain, arguably the best in the franchises history. Victor Silva is an ex-agent with a grudge against M (Judi Dench) and a genius for hacking, and Javier Bardem makes him charismatic, hilarious and terrifying. Mendes aids that with a brilliant introduction, Silva exiting an elevator at the far end of a huge hall and walking towards a bound Bond while he tells a story about an infestation of rats, all in one shot. Their exchange thereafter is electrifying; sexually ambivalent and ironic, with Silva zeroing in on Bond's perceived frailties and identifying them as both mistreated by "Mommy".
The plot is simple - someone has stolen a hard drive containing the identities of all of MI6's undercover agents, and is threatening to reveal them week by week. At the same time they attack the heart of the Agency, blowing up the London Headquarters and hacking the computer networks. Bond, thought dead after that opening Istanbul operation, returns and is sent to find the source of the attack. The plot then takes him through Shanghai and Macau - and Silva's eerie headquarters on a deserted Island-City - before returning to Britain for its last act in London and the Scottish Highlands, where something of Band's past is revealed.
The writing is a strange mix of clunky lines and witty dialogue, but the acting and technical credits make it a consistent pleasure to watch.  It is the Bond film as a high-class heritage drama, ticking off boxes with class, beauty and humour throughout. But that status as a drama - not surprising from a director like Mendes - does suggest its possible flaw: it is relatively light on action.
What there is is beautifully handled - a fist-fight in silhouette against the Shanghai skyline is particularly memorable, and the usual jaw-dropping stunt work abounds - but after the credits, the first hour or so concentrates on the dramatic aspects, at the possible expense of the genre side. The climax corrects this, and the emotional kick delivered in the last act justifies Mendes' careful attention to characterisation and dramatic conflict in the early stages.
There is plenty here aimed straight at Bond fans, references to various scenes, moments and characters from across the series' history - one or two truly groan-inducing - but generally they are nicely worked into the material, and they only serve to make the overall product more satisfying. Skyfall operates then as a tremendously well-crafted, crowd-pleasing Bond film, indeed, one of the best in the series' history, which ends by pointing a new way forward for these films.

Wednesday 17 October 2012


(Bertrand Tavernier, 1980)

This unnervingly prophetic film is a product of an era when Science Fiction was still sometimes a genre for grown-ups. This is science fiction without any other generic component; with no aliens or spaceships or futuristic weaponry or fight scenes. Instead what we have are ideas and emotions, the stuff of drama.
Set in a near-future where natural death has been more or less cured by medicine, the story follows two characters. Ronny (Harvey Keitel) allows the television corporation he works for to install a camera behind his eyes. He can no longer sleep or dream, but everything he sees is recorded, forever. The purpose of this procedure is to allow him to monitor the rare death of an individual for a new show, "Death Watch". The chosen individual is Katherine (Romy Schneider). Except Katherine rejects the opportunity, preferring to die alone, with dignity, and goes on the run from the contract she has signed. So Ronny's boss (Harry Dean Stanton) dispatches him to find and befriend her in her last few weeks, and the show goes out as planned. But there are concerns about Ronny's health and sanity, and about Katherine's plans for her own demise.
The show "Death Watch" would sit comfortably on modern television schedules, and a few of the conversations in the film about the morality of the project (Katherine tells the tv executive: "For you, everything is of importance and nothing matters") play like editorials from todays newspapers.
That script, by David Rayfiel, is serious and earnest in an old-fashioned way, its characters patiently drawn, its pacing deliberate. Tavernier conjures up a thick atmosphere. Shooting in Glasgow in 1979, he has captured an industrial city as it ceases to function and just before the inevitable resuscitation of the 1980s, and so Death Watch is filled with lovely shots of this crumbling, once-magisterial city, its wastelands and backstreets, the skies above rolling with black unease.
If it is a trifle unrelenting in its gloominess - and Pierre William Glenn's photography ensures that it is never less than beautifully downbeat - well, that may be because it deals in big themes. Tavernier and Rayfiel are interested in death and our response to it, and their character study of Katherine finally suggests that for her, death is a rebellion against the dystopian world she lives in, where there is little capacity for either misery or joy. The final act - playing out by a Loch, where Katherine is reunited with her ex-husband (Max Von Sydow) has its own intensity of feeling, a genuine spring of regret and sadness which is extremely affecting.
It is, however, an odd film, tonally uneven and perhaps a little too ambitious. The moments of poetry sprinkled throughout do not always blend with the melodrama and contrivance of much of the material. But the cast is tremendous - Keitel's nervy presence contrasts nicely with Schneider's luminous spirit, and they both have terrific scenes with Dean Stanton - while Tavernier's direction is masterful throughout. He captures Glasgow and the Highlands with a few exhilarating crane shots, and chooses to film a chase through the docks in one long, incredible steadicam movement. His determination to be serious also works, ultimately, in the films favour, granting it a chilly gravitas denied to much science fiction.


(John McTiernan, 1999)

Even at his commercial peak, John McTiernan was bafflingly underrated as a director. A master of mise en scene, he has few equals in his use of space and movement. His action scenes were, in his pomp, elegant, beautiful and muscular, but crucially always coherent and well-organised. Die Hard  is perhaps the greatest action film of the 80s, transcending its own cliches even as it set them in stone for a hundred imitators, while Predator  is a thrilling, simultaneously bloated and pared down study of hunter vs hunted which manages to skirt Arnold Schwarzenegger's limitations as it faces him off against a creature even more alien and bizarre than he is.  The Hunt for Red October  is perhaps the only truly successful Tom Clancy adaptation and a great study in cinematic space, as McTiernan's camera prowls the confined setting of a nuclear submarine, but never forgets to keep its focus on the movie stars playing out the tense drama at the centre of the narrative. Even the mostly deservedly maligned Last Action Hero has it witty moments, and is a bravely self-reflexive move on the part of this particular filmmaker.

 By 1999, when he came to adapt Michael Crichton's early novel "Eaters of the Dead", itself a retelling of "Beowulf", McTiernan had lost most of his clout, and the filming and editing processes were bedevilled with problems and studio interference. It is to his credit, then, that the result is such a bracing adventure film, telling this Viking legend in the style of Kurosawa with style and wit and an epic feel.
Antonio Banderas is a Ahmed idn Fadaan, a Muslim poet and courtier who accompanies a band of Vikings back to their homeland in the barbaric , darkly alien North in order to combat a terrifying, all-devouring beast. Along the way, of course, he comes to appreciate their values, courage, friendship and loyalty, while they learn to appreciate him as a Warrior and man.
The action scenes are terrific - not least the commando-style Viking raid upon the lair of the "creature" and the final attack upon the Viking fortress, shot mainly in slo-mo as the rain pelts down, in apparent homage to Seven Samurai . But it is the smaller moments that best convince - Banderas gradually learning the Viking tongue just by listening and watching, his prayer before the final showdown, the Viking politics of challenge and combat put to cynical, hilarious use, their contempt for his tiny arabian stallion trumped by its athleticism...There is also a Hawksian sense of action as character here. By the end of the film, this merry band of Viking Warriors, so indistinguishable from one another at the outset, have become familiar and nicely shaded to us, without any real scenes of characterisation. The performances - mainly by a cast of semi-unknown European  and British actors - are crucial to this. Vladimir Kulich isn't especially expressive, but his bearing and dignity - and his sheer, extraordinary size - tell us enough about his Buliwyf. Banderas is a capable, likeable lead, and he seems somehow more human beside these outsized Scandinavians. Meanwhile Norwegian stage actor Dennis Storhoi more or less steals the entire film as Herger, the most approachable of the Vikings.
Considering its enormous budget, you would expect The 13th Warrior to look and sound good, and it doesnt disappoint; Jerry Goldsmith's score is one of the best pieces of work in the final years of his career, while Peter Menzies' cinematography is atmospheric and beautiful throughout.
A year later Gladiator would come out and sweep all before it, but McTiernan's film is just as good, if less overblown and more of a pure genre exercise. Now, what about a Directors Cut on DVD...?

Tuesday 16 October 2012


(Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, 2012)

Its a likeable film, Ruby Sparks. It has a great, impressively starry cast, it's directed with an energetic freshness and a nice sense of Los Angeles, it has a soundtrack filled with French language pop classics by Plastic Bertrand and Sylvie Vartan, and it makes something interesting from its premise.
That premise is quite high-concept. Calvin (Paul Dano) is a twentysomething novelist who became massively successful with his first book, published while he was still in his teens. Now, years later, he finds writing difficult, finds relationships more difficult, and lives in a beautiful house in the hills above L.A. with his dog Scotty, seeing few people beyond his Psychiatrist (Elliot Gould) and his brother Harry (Chris Messina). His loneliness is nicely evoked in the first act, in the way he talks to Scotty, the way he comports himself at a book event, the way he avoids his brother's questions. Following a simple writing task assigned by his shrink, he writes about a literal dream girl and finds himself enraptured by her. And then, incredibly, she appears, flesh and blood, in his house. Her name is Ruby (Zoe Kazan), and she is another in that recentish strain of "Manic Pixie Dream Girls" who have started to appear like nervous tics in indie romcoms.
The difference here is that Kazan (who wrote the script) and the directors Dayton and Faris know that this is what Ruby is, and they fully intend to interrogate this odd screen stereotype.
This is first signalled by Harry's response on reading Calvin's manuscript: "You don't know jack shit about women." he says, pointing out that girls like Ruby don't exist in the real world, that people are complicated, that women are mysterious creatures.
Ruby Sparks then functions along two parallel lines. One is a straight indie romcom; somewhat twee, nothing we havent seen before, with scenes of young love and passion, with pop music and exciting, colourful visuals. The other is far darker and more interesting, taking on the male gaze and relationships in general. Calvin idealises Ruby and is disappointed by her. He vows not to write/invent her anymore, but once their relationship begins to drift, he cannot resist the urge to fix them (by fixing her).
This is all an obvious metaphor for any relationship, but it works because the treatment of the fantastic elements of the story is so straight-faced, because the cast is so good, and because the pain, when it comes, seems quite real, quite true.
Dano makes Calvin a complex individual, whose lonely vulnerability in the first act is thrown into a slightly different light as we learn more about him, his control freak tendencies, his lack of interest in others. Kazan's Ruby is a typically annoying Manic Pixie Dream Girl early on, but her later articulation of sadness, emptiness and rage gives both the film and character another dimension. But it is the supporting cast who really lift the material; Messina is always good, in everything, and he is the most believably human person in the film, warm, funny, amazed. Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Gould and Steve Coogan all do great work too.
The whole thing is a mite predictable and the ending seems slightly out-of-keeping with what has gone before, but overall this is an enjoyable, surprisingly honest look at love and relationships, told through an interesting mix of fantasy and comedy.

Sunday 14 October 2012


(Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012)

Genndy Tartakovsky has been responsible for some of the greatest animated television of the last couple of decades. Most notably, he created Samurai Jack, a brilliant genre-mix (of sci-fi, action, samurai, western and comedy genres) marked by its great wit, brilliant use of genre clichés and stylishly simple animation. He followed that by creating the only truly worthwhile "Prequel" project for George Lucas' Star Wars series with his Clone Wars mini-cartoons. Since then, a few of his projects have fared less well both critically and commercially, and so we find him lending his talents to this Sony Animated film, one of an odd recent mini-wave of kids films utilising classic horror imagery and iconography (also including Frankenweenie and Para-Norman). It does contain the occasional flash of a trademark Tartakovsky visual wit, but crucially he had no real hand in the writing, and as such it plays as far less distinctive than any of the projects he actually originated himself.
The setting is clever - the hotel in question was created by Count Dracula as a haven for his many monster friends (the Werewolf, Frankenstein, Mummy, Yeti, Bigfoot, many zombies etc, all show up) but the narrative is as conventionally run along the lines of a predictable arc as the majority of family movies are at the moment. Here Dracula is trying to protect his only daughter Mavis from the terror of the human world as he sees it, while she as a typical teenager (118 years old) yearns for freedom and adventure. The arrival of a caricatured young American backpacker at the hotel adds complication; he and Mavis fall instantly in love, and Dracula must hide his true human nature from the other guests, and does do by making him up as "Johnny Stein", sixth cousin of Frank.
The best stuff here is in the detail; Tartakovsky throws a ceaseless stream of sight gags at his predictable, thin story, while a familiar voice cast never does anything particularly special or distinctive with their parts. There are a few nice references to the history of the horror genre and a great joke at the expense of Twilight late on, but generally this is the sort of animated film that reminds you of why the work of Pixar is cherished by so many.


(Walter Salles, 2012) I've got issues with Jack Kerouac's "On The Road". I read it at 17, and even then it seemed like I was too old for such a book, too cynical to be impressed by these tales of beatnik debauchery and striving for artistic greatness. I appreciated much of the writing but many of the attitudes and characters seemed silly to me. In a way, watching Walter Salles' adaptation of the novel (which benefits from a fine script by Jóse Rivera) persuaded me that Salles has a similarly conflicted relationship with the novel. For as much as On The Road is a faithful, respectful attempt to get a literary classic right, it is also an insightful, acute criticism of its own source material. Rivera and Salles get right to the heart of the materials preoccupations with a first act filled with jazz, drinking, drugs, lots of sex, Kerouac proxy Sal Valentine (Sam Riley) scribbling away feverishly in a notebook, and much conversation about creativity and freedom. Salles finds just the right idiom for it all; his mainly handheld camera, quick editing and a real attention to the textures of life in 1940s America all giving it an immediacy and intimacy, while the lovely photography courtesy of Eric Gautier ensures it carries an elegiac, poetic quality from the start. That allows for a deeper examination of the novel; specifically of its view and treatment of women. Every male freedom in On The Road is balanced by female pain, and Salles ensures that his camera catches every such instance. Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) leaves a trail of crushed and scorned women in his wake, swapping them like shirts, abandoning them on street corners and in apartments with his infant children, always seeking the next thrill with his buddies. Strong casting helps here. Kirsten Dunst and Kristen Stewart each give their role a charge of intelligence, disappointment and bitter heartbreak as two of Dean's wives, while Elizabeth Moss has one furious rant directed at Dean and one of his friends. Only Alice Braga - as an itinerant labourer briefly involved with Sal - and Amy Adams seem content in their lives, surrounded by children and her heroin addict husband (Viggo Mortenson, having a great time as Old Bull Lee, Kerouac's version of William Burroughs), who is the first one of the group who questions Dean's motives and saintliness. Hedlund is terrific as Dean. Just charismatic and interesting enough that his hold over so many people is believable, but with an edge of vulnerability and insecurity that makes him seem intensely human. Riley has less to do as Sal, but he gets across the watchfulness of a writer well, and the intensity of their relationship carries the film. The beauty of the photography and of the many desert landscapes, sunsets and mountain views certainly don't hurt, and even act as a partial explanation for the attraction of life on the road in this vanished America. There is also a strain of acute longing here, the cloying self-regard often obvious in Kerouac's writing transformed into something far more melancholic and interesting here. These are men in search of fathers - this made more explicit by a small change to the first line of the novel, emphasising a connection between Sal and Dean - and burying themselves in experience, travel and excess. Another aspect altered from the novel is the explicit homosexuality here; Dean is conflicted about his relationship with Carlo, but his scenes with an older travelling companion (Steve Buscemi) suggest his crushing need for intimacy with a father-figure, and the homophobia present in many of the books asides is exchanged for the good-humoured amusement seen in Sal's face on a few occasions. The story is thin, of course, following these friends as they criss-cross the country from New York to California via Denver, but it accrues emotional power as it follows the roads they speed down, until one final betrayal, in a vividly-evoked Mexico, has a particular sting. As a beat film, this is outstanding, Salles finding the perfect rhythym and register for such a story, intent upon the quiet moments, the lost moments of thought and regret. And as a literary adaptation, it is uncommonly intelligent and piercing. In all, then, this is a massively surprising success.

Friday 12 October 2012


(PAUL W.S. ANDERSON, 2012) The way to appreciate the work of Paul W.S Anderson is to rid oneself of some of the expectations we bring to most cinema. His films may lack some of what are commonly considered prerequisites for quality in narrative - his characterisation is perfunctory at best and weak at worst, his dialogue often sounds almost as if he has the actors in his movies reciting the most cliched lines from other films, his plotting often seems like he has taken the crudest possible way of moving his characters from one location to the next - but as a visual storyteller who deals unashamedly in pure spectacle his work is often close to magnificent. Resident Evil: Retribution is the fifth film in this franchise, based on the series of video games, and one of the pleasures here has been watching Anderson use the freedom the success of the earlier films granted him to widen his scope. As the series grows more apocalyptic and Epic, so Anderson's preoccupations and interests come more sharply into focus. He can do what he wants, to an extent, and so his films are riotous assemblages of gunships, sci-fi cannons, immense zombified mutants, kung fu and gore in a near-ceaseless stream of imagery. These films are about video games as much as they are inspired by them, and Retribution represents the peak of this tendency. Here, Anderson fills the story with video game "fake" City environments contained within a vast undersea installation, with boss battles at the end of extended action sequences, with an escalating sense of size and scale to each set-piece leading up to a final showdown with a seemingly unbeatable primary antagonist. He's not really interested in anything beyond a spread of genre beats familiar to fans, and so this film feels comfortingly familiar, from its use of a hardened and disposable bunch of mercenaries reminiscent of similar gangs in dozens of movies to the little girl who forms a bond with our heroine taken straight from the Ripley-Newt relationship in Aliens to the imense harvests of clones arrayed in vast chambers suggestive of The Matrix. The plot finds Alice (Milla Jovovich) escaping from an Umbrella Corporation installation with a little help from a motley group of warriors, and taking on monsters, zombies and undead soldiers on the way. This allows Anderson to indulge in all sorts of different action scenes - martial arts fights, carchases, massive gun-battles, sequences that mix all three - and here he really knows what he is doing. He has a great sense of cinematic space and arguably uses 3D as well as any director currently working, avoiding the usual blurry smudged weaknesses of the format and instead turning out scenes that are crisp and filled with slick brutality. He uses slow-motion with equal aplomb, and his partner and muse Jovovich is brilliantly adept in these sequences, spinning, leaping and kicking with relish and grace. He knows and understands the power of this sort of action and genre imagery, Anderson, and fills his cinema with it, so that women are simultaneously objectified - all clad either in bondage outfits or slinky dresses while they kick ass - and empowered by their centrality to his vision. The male characters here are all - with a single exception - secondary cannon fodder, obeying orders given by women. The final confrontation delights in having Michele Rodriguez beat the tar out of two of the mercenaries at the same time. Even the series' ultimate evil, the artificial intelligence of the Red Queen, is depicted in the form of a bratty little girl. Jovovich has fun here with the early manifestation of her character as a suburban housewife, and even manages to make her paper-thin bond with the little girl from this thread have a smidgen of emotional weight, but mostly she's here to make the action scenes look good, and she succeeds. Anderson does too, as his films are mostly made on relatively "medium" budgets, but he (and cinematographer Glen MacPherson) makes them look expensive, never disappoints his fans - he knows exactly what they want - and pumps them out with efficiency and an underappreciated degree of artfulness. He is like the Wachowskis without the commitment to subtext or the visionary quality; a talented b-movie auteur working in a disregarded sub-genre who will probably be appreciated for his gifts when he is gone. For all the flaws in his work, his films need to be seen on a big screen to be fully appreciated.