Monday 30 January 2012


(Drake Doremus, 2011)

A refreshingly simple tale of long distance young love, Like Crazy is slight but affecting.
Based on writer-director Doremus' own early-20s relationship with an Austrian girl living in London, it follows the relationship of Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Ana (Felicity Jones) after they meet at University in Los Angeles. Instead of returning home to London in the Summer as her Student Visa demands, Ana stays in L.A., and that decision massively affects the rest of both of their lives, as she is later deported and barred from re-entering the US. Thus she and Jacob are forced to endure a long-distance relationship with all it's inevitable strains and temptations.
Doremus, keen to ensure a loose, casual versimilitude suited to the youth of his characters, used a semi-improvised approach, and the film is filled with nicely unforced moments. The early scenes, as the couple fall in love, are realistically dependent on nuance and expression, while the later sequences of their relationship cracking due to the distances opening between them are more about the silences themselves and the nuances implicit in what they hide from one another. This approach risks cliche, and some passages here are cringeworthy and over-familiar, but there is much charm too in the film's earnestness and emotional openness. Yelchin and Jones both do strong work, their evident chemistry making their passion believable throughout, and their pain and loneliness during their spells apart rings painfully true.
One scene in particular, where their wary, self-protective distance crumbles into weepy open declarations of need over the telephone, is terrifically acted by both. Doremus aims for a direct, at times elegiac visual poetry, and at some points he definitely gets there; but too often Like Crazy settles for something like advertising imagery, pretty pictures of beautiful young people creating ideal memories. It does have a terrific sense of place, from London in summer to Santa Monica, and some emotions besides the central relationship are beatifully captured; the good-humoured protectiveness of Ana's middle-class parents, for instance, or the brutality of Jacob's recurrent dismissal of his girlfriend in Ana's absence, played by a radiant Jennifer Lawrence.
But it's main problem is also perhaps it's great strength. All it really wants to say is that love hurts, and it says that very well indeed.

Sunday 29 January 2012


(Joe Carnahan, 2012)

An adventure tale so primal and simple it could have been told with little alteration at any point over the last three centuries, The Grey finally sees Carnahan make good on the promise he displayed with the terrific Narc a decade ago.
A plane carrying some Oil Workers crashes in the wastes of Alaska and the few survivors have to contend with the elements and, worse, a hungry and aggressively territorial wolf pack as they make their way South on foot. They are led by Liam Neeson's bruised, melancholy "salaried killer", whose job was to protect the Oil Workers from the wildlife at Camp, making him the closest thing they've got to a survival expert. But the wolves and the weather start to pick them off one by one and they start to turn on one another as the chances of survival recede..
It's too seldom American cinema produces Action films which satisfy on a visceral, sensual level as thrilling entertainments, and yet offer something more substantial in addition. Carnahan's film works throughout as a thrilling adventure - almost a survival horror, in it's unblinking portrayal of the physical and psychological toll the experience has on its band of survivors - yet it also stands as a sober, serious consideration of mortality and how we process and regard it. The group of crash survivors are a well-drawn collection of characters, finely acted by a macho cast, each allowed a few grace beats in the face of their own death. The conflicts and bonds between them are given a strong, believable dynamic from the start.
The crash scene is terrific: simultaneously frightening in it's bewildering maelstrom of tumbling sensation and thrilling; and the mens reaction to that horror, their stunned shock and grief, echoes through the first half of the film. Only their horrified awareness of the reality of the threat offered by the wolves shocks them out of that state. Neeson's character begins the film in his own grief; suicidal and intoning a noirishly downbeat narration of despair to a beloved and lost wife we see in flashback, and his leadership is an abject failure, since their numbers dwindle right from the start.
The wolves - heard more than seen, and usually only glimpsed as dark shadows in the trees and snow or howling snapping teeth and claws - seem as much a symbolic, existential threat as a physical one, and their relentless pursuit forces these men to reveal their vulnerabilities and fears. This is what makes The Grey surprisingly moving. The mens humanity is revealed in the moments before they die, making their fates - some awful, some almost noble - seem all the more tragic. The often long dialogue scenes where they discuss life, love, death and God are borne along on a sort of hard-bitten poetry; the authentic wisdom and repressed emotion of working class men opening up to one another.
Of course, this is still an action film and Carnahan gets all of the set-pieces just right. The wilderness itself is a vividly rugged presence, the men struggling even to walk across stretches of it, and each encounter with the wolves is disturbingly elemental (the highlight is a scene where multiple pairs of eyes appear glinting in the darkness). The photography, by Masanobu Takayanagi, is a grainy symphony of smudgy earth colours and off-white skylines, the script perfectly judged and paced. And Neeson is a fine lead for this sort of material, effortlessly convincing at the physical stuff but also soulful and Intelligent enough to carry the dramatic scenes.
But Carnahan is the star here, concocting a film that works brilliantly as a genre piece without sacrificing any emotion or intelligence.

Thursday 26 January 2012


(Steven Spielberg, 2011)

Steven Spielberg's gifts and his flaws are so bound up in one another, it can be hard to divine exactly why some of his films work, and why others do not. War Horse is a perfect example of that.
For the last few years Spielberg has seemingly been engaged in a project to make "old" films by modern means. War Horse, then, could very well have been made in the 1940s or 50s. That period entirely suits Spielberg in that it is entirely sexless, warmly, unashamedly sentimental, and founded on simple but extremely strong visual storytelling. It uses the horse of the title, named "Joey" by the boy who raises and trains him on Dartmoor in Devon, to string together an episodic series of vignettes along the front during the Great War. Joey is sold to a Cavalry Officer who rides him into battle, then used by the Germans as an ambulance horse and to pull Artillery, then found by a sickly French girl, then bonded over by an Englishman and a German in No Mans Land..this way we get a sort of panorama of the War.
The source material is a Childrens novel by Michael Morpurgo, and it has the simplicity and directness of the best material for children. But in some ways that brings out the worst in Spielberg. The characters are all cardboard cut-outs, the good guys all warmth and kindness, the bad guys all cruelty and pure meanness. The sentimentality is at times overwhelming, the world Spielberg creates idealised and as simplified as the characterisation. This is a First World War somewhat softened for a general audience, the true horror and gore suggested rather than shown, as Spielberg acknowledges the brutality and harsh reality of War but largely, and characteristically, chooses to focus on the essential decency of the people who populate his world.
And yet, he remains a singularly talented storyteller, and there are passages of effortless brilliance here, filled as it is with beautiful imagery, compulsively watchable, and, despite that wretched sentimentality, much that is extremely moving. The characters may be cartoonishly broad, but they are played by a brilliant cast of British actors with class and wit, and the nature of that episodic structure dictates that none of the stories drags on for too long. The horses, of course, are fabulous.

Thursday 19 January 2012


(JC Chandor, 2011)

What Margin Call does so well is make an audience understand the broad themes of what happened in the Stock Market crisis in 2008. That it also manages to make of that hellish mess an involving drama seems a minor miracle.
It does that through good writing and some brilliant acting. Indeed, the quality of the cast testifies to the potency of debutant writer-director JC Chandor's screenplay. He follows 36 hours in the life of Junior risk analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who watches his boss (Stanley Tucci) get laid off in the morning, takes a file from him as he leaves - with the warning "Be careful" - runs the numbers that night, and realises that his firm is on the edge of financial Armageddon. From there, the crisis grows and climbs the links of the companys chain of command, through Peter's cocky-but-decent boss (Paul Bettany) and his boss, the tired and lonely veteran of the industry with both a beloved dog dying of cancer (canine symbol ahoy!) and moral objections to what is happening (Kevin Spacey), then up to the smooth young CEO (Simon Baker) before the company owner, a cynical old Billionaire who sees it all as a grand game (Jeremy Irons) is choppered in for a meeting of shareholders at 4AM.
These actors each get a moment or two to grandstand; a speech here, a dawning realisation there, a snippy argument then. Chandor is excellent on the polite, guarded politics in each room, the seniority and rivalry driving every conversation, but even better on the way this bombshell lands; the shock on their faces as they realise what is about to happen and what it means. Spacey probably has the greatest emotional journey to undertake, and he is the best he has been in a long time here, fragile with middle-age, his sometime bitchy ferocity gone soft and flabby with worry and guilt.
Perhaps wise to the publics cynicism about bankers and traders, Chandor is also careful to ensure that these people question themselves and their purpose in the face of crisis; Tucci recalls the practical difference he made in an earlier career as an engineer, Irons and Spacey both make separate arguments about their existence being worthwhile, even necessary. Meanwhile, Bettany gets to say "Fuck normal people" in a rant about public complicity.
All of this is tightly written, and the actors plainly relish the material. But Chandor cannot make this tale of offices and corridors visually exciting, for all his aerial views of nocturnal Manhattan. It is efficiently, often boringly directed, the single factor that makes me think it would work better as a theatrical piece than as a solid (or middling) film.

Wednesday 18 January 2012


(Steven Soderbergh, 2011)

Steven Soderbergh is such a professional, so technically gifted, so intelligent, and so interested in cinema. It seems at times he can do anything. His career has spanned genres and styles, and he more or less excels in each of them. But I think the intellectual in Soderbergh sometimes sabotages the commercial filmmaker. Instead of a classic "one for them, one for me" strategy, he combines the two, crafting big studio-funded genre entertainments with their own hidden agendas and themes. Oceans 12 is perhaps the best example. A sequel to Soderbergh's purest entertainment (and biggest hit) filled with megastars and at massive expense, Soderbergh turns out an utterly post-modern compendium of sketches and set-pieces loosely linked by a baffling, almost mockingly complex plot in which the cast get to mug, enjoy Europe, and play themselves, while Soderbergh indulges in some beautiful stylistic experiments.
Haywire is another Soderbergh experiment. Driven here to put MMA fighter Gina Carano in a movie, he fills the cast with male stars for her to batter, then has old collaborator Lem Dobbs write a non-linear espionage tale to link the fight and chase sequences.
His interest is plainly in those action sequences, and they are correspondingly terrific. Avoiding the immediacy of the handheld-and-fastcutting style (best seen in the Bourne films) Soderbergh instead displays Carano's acumen by shooting mid-shots and editing only when necessary. We see her pull off these flips and kicks and Soderbergh's shot choices let us know instantly that its real as we see her execute moves only a real expert would even attempt. That those moves are integrated into fights which are brutal, plausible and thrilling is one of the joys of the movie. These fight scenes have real impact - when Soderbergh does cut during hand-to-hand combat, he does it either for a purely narrative reason (so we can tell exactly what is going on) or for maximum visceral effect. When Carano kicks Michael Fassbender straight through a door in the middle of the most viscious of these fights, Soderbergh shoots that in two set-ups, wih one quick cut between them. And we feel that door go. Furniture and bones break, and Carano has to earn every victory.
There are a few adrenalinised chase sequences here too, but it is in the dialogue scenes in-between that the intellectual in Soderbergh - and in Dobbs - is most evident. There's something a little too arch and removed about all the exposition and the way the generic characters are established, something secretly arty in the absence of establishing shots and off-hand loingo, something a bit reminiscent of Anton Corbjin's The American, something a little ashamed of fully embracing the pulp world this tale belongs in.
That is no problem for me; I love movies that sit firmly where the art house meets the pulp genres, but I can see it preventing Haywire from being any sort of hit.
Who cares, though? There are numerous other pleasures here. If Carano is a little stiff in some of her scenes, she is thrillingly, obviously utterly convincing in motion. That cast of hunks are all solid - Tatum and McGregor get the most to do, and both do it very well - the locations are atmospherically sketched in (though it was odd for this Dublin boy to see the banal familiarity of his hometown become the venue for SWAT pursuits and rooftop chases), Soderbergh's photography (under his pseudonym Peter Andrews) is stylish and lovely throughout, and David Holmes' update of a Lalo Schifrin score is magnificent.

Saturday 14 January 2012


(Steve McQueen, 2011)

I love Steve McQueen's style. Theres something magisterial in his compositional sense, and the way he likes to find a single, telling angle on a scene and lets it all play out without editing away gives his work a pleasingly deliberate rhythm. That aspect of his approach reminds me somewhat of both Hou Hsiao Hsien and M Night Shyamalan, but his work has it's own character. There is a coldness to his sensibility, which makes the strong emotional currents which surface near the end of both Hunger and Shame all the more surprising and effective.
You don't expect to be moved after work that is so chilly, intellectual and alienating. And yet you are.
Shame is mainly a character study of Brandon (Michael Fassbinder), a young single executive at a successful Manhattan firm who also happens to be a sex addict. This infects every facet of his life; he goes to work where his computer is "filthy" with pornography. On the way in his searing stare at a married woman on the subway turns into a wordless flirtation-cum-seduction. At home he masturbates, hires escorts, picks up girls in clubs, and has webcam sex with strangers. His life - he has an addicts steady routine - is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of his equally damaged sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan), a neurotic screw-up of a lounge singer who promptly sleeps with his married lech of a boss (played with a nice edge by James Badge Dale) and sets up messy camp in his scrupulously neat apartment, forcing him to confront some emotional issues through her own extreme neediness.
McQueen sets all this in a Manhattan seen through the prism of Brandon's own alienation. He lives in a bubble of his own desire and shame, and this is a wintry, curiously depopulated New York which seems almost timeless; Blondie and Tom Tom Club songs play in clubs (the titles - The Genius of Love, I Want Your Love and Rapture seem almost to mock the loveless Brandon) and the gay club where he ends up during a climactic binge could have come from William Freidkin's 1980 Cruising.
Brandon's relationship - or lack thereof - with Manhattan is stunningly captured in a scene where he goes for a late night run to escape the sounds of his sister and boss in his bed. In a single long tracking shot McQueen follows his run through the city, blocked off by the classical music in his headphones and his own focus and speed.
Fassbinder and Mulligan are fearless and raw throughout, Fassbinder in particular plumbing depths within himself few actors could access. He is never better than in the quietly comic scenes with an attractive co-worker he dates and actually seems to care about. A restaurant date is repeatedly interrupted by an eagerly attentive waiter, and a subsequent sexual encounter rapidly degenerates into agonisingly painful tension when Brandon cannot perform. His final plunge to absolute despair is convincing and moving, and McQueen has tied his addiction to universality by ensuring we see that Brandon drinks a lot and likes the odd narcotic. Any scorn one may have for sex addiction is rendered irrelevant by a close reading of Shame. Brandon is sick, spiritually and emotionally, and anyone can understand that and empathise with the pain and emptiness he seeks to escape from in modern life. Fassbinder's final oblivion is beautifully played in a cracked orgasmic rictus of utter horror which is an amazing piece of acting.
The film is not flawless, but it is still magnificent in places. The implied events in Brandon and Cissy's past are slightly reductively played, though always coy and never explicit. As well as McQueen and the cast, Harry Escott's score and Sean Bobbitt's pin-sharp cinematography are both superb and ensure that this remains a classy piece of cinema thoughout.

Thursday 12 January 2012


(Joe Carnahan, 2010)

How to walk the fine line between silly and stupid? Ask Joe Carnahan, who manages to make his adaptation of the massively successful 80s action series irredeemably silly without ever quite tipping over into stupidity. He gets the tone just right; the particulars of the plot, the iron cast cliches of the Globe-trotting heist-cum-conspiracy involving mercenaries, the US Military and the CIA: all this is played absolutely straight, all tough guy dialogue, fast-cutting and slick visuals. But the iconic characters of the four members of the A-Team themselves, while reproduced quite faithfully from the tv show, are cartoonishly appealing and leavened with only the slightest traces of realism.
We have Liam Neeson as Col. Hannibal Smith, the cigar-chomping man with the plan, Bradley Cooper letting his smug smoothness carry his work as Lt Templeton "Faceman" Peck, UFC star Quinton Jackson as Bosco "B.A." Barracus, the hard man with a fear of flying, and Sharlto Copley as Murdock, insane pilot and comic relief. Copley gets most of the funny bits, and his Murdock has a genuine edge of suicidal mania absent from the original. Patrick Wilson's villain is witty and interesting by the standards of the genre; CIA Agent as ivy league City trader, he invokes Call of Duty, appreciates combat acumen and code names as "awesome", and is generally a post-Tarantino reading of the standard action movie villain. Jessica Biel has less of interest to do, but she gets perhaps the film's single funniest line (it works better in context): "They're trying to fly a tank".
The story is an origin story; depicting the first time the four characters work together, and how they are framed and imprisoned for a crime they didn't commit, it skips from Mexico to Iraq to Germany to Los Angeles and takes in nocturnal raids on convoys, assassination, prison escapes and gunfights in city centres.
The real silliness, however, is reserved by Carnahan for his set-pieces. The aforementioned tank-flying is inspired, but each of the big action scenes manages to combine thrills with laughs. Only the climax - a big face-off in the classic action movie setting of. Dock - is a slight letdown, with too much shoddy cgi (and even then, that is almost balanced by a couple of fine action and character beats).
Carnahan directs all well - though it strays too FA towards visual incoherence on a few occasions - it's funnier than many comedies, and it contains the them from the tv show.
But more than that, all you really need to know: they fly. A tank.

Tuesday 10 January 2012


(Michel Hazanavicius, 2011)

As a piece of cinematic storytelling, The Artist is largely quite outstanding. Silent film is unforgiving in this regard. Denied the crutch of dialogue or sound effects, a director must get his visuals right in a silent film or risk audience boredom, or worse; alienation. And Hazanavicius does get it right. His loving tribute (pastiche is another appropriate term) tells a clear, simple and fairly predictable story with precise, muscular and evocative visuals. The characters are broad, recognisable archetypes; the setting is iconic and vivid, and familiar from our pop-culture memory.
It is the story of Silent Movie Star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), whose fall from fame and success is entwined with the rise of Peppy Miller (Berenice Barejo), a young starlet whose life sporadically and memorably brushes against his as the coming of "talkies" to Hollywood changes both of their lives and careers.
The leads are both excellent in the hyper-expressive, pantomime fashion demanded by the absence of any sound, and the film is careful to retain some of the naturalism of modern cinema, evident in patches of performance from both stars. This is an issue; The Artist tries very hard to get Silent Cinema right, and that means that the few moments it gets wrong are jarring. To nitpick; some of the visuals are too sharp for the soft look which is prevalent, there are a couple of "modern" camera angles and movements, and the soundtrack by Ludovic Bource, which is generally superb, makes extended and jarring use of Bernard Hermann's score from Hitchcock's Vertigo. But it is brilliantly paced, stylishly shot and designed, and has a warm-hearted sense of the World and character which makes it immensely likeable. The counter-argument would run that such warmth prevents any true drama or bite, this is a film uninterested in grit or realism; it seeks glamour and escapism, and it finds them.
Making Silent movies the subject allows Hazanavicius to play with some of the conventions of that mostly defunct genre, but he never really investigates these, just uses them - with some wit - for his little gags and references.
It all works, for the most part. It may be undeniably slight, and empty, but it's pretty, and funny, and satisfying, in its way.
All that, and I never even mentioned the dog...

Monday 9 January 2012


(Tsui Hark, 2010)

Give ridiculously-prolific director Tsui Hark a starry cast and a big budget and you just know the result will be something interesting. Here the result is a marvellously inventive and energetic potboiler, full of the pleasures of mainstream Chinese cinema.
The story follows Detective Dee (played with wit and humour by Andy Lau) who has been imprisoned for opposing the Reign of an Empress. When her coronation is threatened by the deaths - due to apparent spontaneous combustion - of a couple of her pet Politicians, Dee is released to use his unparalleled detective skills to solve the case.
Of course that means many lengthy Kung Fu sequences, choreographed, imaginatively for the most part, by Sammo Hung. It also means a talking stag, some slapstick, a little muted romance, and throughout, an impressively mounted grand spectacle.
Utilising sporadically shoddy cgi, Hark conjures a vivid period world to life here; a thriving, bustling Chinese city which makes for a fine backdrop to the huge action set pieces he orchestrates. It is a tad overripe, but that is balanced by how consistently ravishing and unabashedly entertaining the whole thing is.

Thursday 5 January 2012


(Tobias Lindholm, Michael Noer, 2010)

R is everything a prison film should be; taut and pacy, grim and compelling, suspenseful and violent. The narrative superficially recalls Audiard's superb A Prophet, but it doesn't have that films ambition or transcendent qualities, settling instead for a pulp intensity which makes it a rewarding genre experience.
The story follows Rune, a young man beginning his first spell behind bars who finds himself in a Wing with a hardcore of experience lifers, most of them bulky, tattooed, shaven headed and utterly intimidating. They steal from and bully him from the off, his life a grinding series of humiliations and petty terrors, and he even has to attack another prisoner for them, in a starkly terrifying sequence of brutal violence, pity and fear. Finally, beginning to understand the hierarchies and systems around him, Rune devises a way to involve himself in the Prisons drug trade, and is suddenly a player. But that only makes everything even more complicated.
Shot in a confident mix of gritty, intimate close-ups and wide shots revealing the bleak dimensions of the Prison building itself, and with no music save a storm of electro-feedback which rises up tunelessly at regular intervals, Lindholm and Noer ensure their film is relentless in it's forward momentum, its protagonist propelled endlessly forward through one awful scenario after another.
The performances are uniformly convincing, mainly from a bunch of terrific Danish character actors, and the story works with something like the spring-coiled mechanism of a beartrap; you feel the ending coming, in all its awful inevitability, and it is grimly satisfying when it happens.

Monday 2 January 2012


(David Fincher, 2011)

An object lesson in what a strong director can bring to questionable source material.
Stieg Larsson's mega-bestseller and the literary phenomenon it sparked - the rest of the Millennium trilogy - were posthumously published, which may well account for the repetitive sloppiness of much of the writing. The Swedish adaptation from 2009, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, plays like a tv movie, stylistically mundane, dramatically plodding, enlivened only by Noomi Rapace's performance as Lisbeth Salander.
Salander is the key to the success of the books. A truly iconic lead character, excitingly modern (a bisexual goth-punk hacker-biker) yet with an uncomplicated moral worldview and the aggressive personality required to take on the evils which cross her path, any filmmaker who gets her right has a good chance of making a watchable film. Well, watchable isn't enough for Fincher. Currently operating at something like peak level, in that few other directors on earth so consistently excel on a scene-by-scene basis, he (alongside screenwriter Steve Zaillian) elevates and inflates this parlor detective story into a dark, classy thriller, full of incidental pleasures.
They also get Salander right. Much of that is down to strong work from Rooney Mara, who makes her a little more vulnerable than she is in the books or in Oplev and Rapace's version. Only a little vulnerable, however. Her righteous vengeance upon her rapist case worker and final heist are infused here with an almost mischievous sense of fun. She enjoys getting her own back, it seems, and is unapologetic about her looks or difficult personality. The slight, slow thaw we see in her here is down to her relationship with her research partner, and she communicates much behind Salander's consistent poker face.
Daniel Craig is solid as Larsson's glamourised self-portrait, Mikael Blomkvist, coasting along on his now-unquestionable leading man qualities, and displaying a good ability to let us see him figuring things out. The rest of the cast - mainly a solid roster of experienced British thespians - are effortlessly convincing, with the (somewhat jarringly) single Scandinavian Stellan Skarsgaard as good as ever.
The real star here, of course, is Fincher. Evoking the chilly Swedish winter with an enviable, thrillingly textured feel for place and mood, he makes his film unfailingly beautiful without it ever seeming ostentatious or without any effect upon his storytelling. The soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross helps a lot, a series of atmospheric pieces, hammering percusision, and queasy synth effects combining nicely with Fincher and Director of Photography Jeff Cronenweth's sublimely lit and composed frames.
It may be a largely dazzling experience, then, but there are flaws here. The running time is grotesquely extended for such a disposable thriller, the almost exploitative nastiness present in passages seems damagingly at odds with the theme of "Men Who Hate Women" (the Swedish title of the novel), and there is the unmistakeable whiff of Murder She Wrote or even Scooby-Doo in tired scenarios like the killer explaining his own motivations and methods to his intended victim (and, obviously the audience).
Worst of all, Fincher is such a great talent, a project like this feels like a waste of him. Hopefully he'll do something riskier and more interesting next time..