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.

Tuesday 9 October 2012


(Josh Radnor, 2012) Combining two distinct sub-genres of the romantic comedy: the "manic pixie dream girl" movie and the "stunted manchild is forced to find a new maturity through trauma" movie into a single entity, Liberal Arts is something of an odd beast. Its not really a romcom, in fact it's barely a comedy at all. For much of its running time it's a likeable romantic drama with a few obvious comic elements, such as Zac Efron's barefoot new age guru, dispensing wisdom and anecdotes to writer-director-star Josh Radnor's sensitive lead Jesse. Jesse, a thirtysomething graduate working in admissions at a Manhattan College, is tired of his lonely, book-filled life, and he returns to his old College campus in Ohio for his favourite Professor's (Richard Jenkins, who gets a couple of great scenes of quiet regret) retirement dinner, where he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) an 'advanced' 19-year old student. There is an immediate spark between them - signalled by their thoughtful expressions and off-key wit - which develops and deepens after they exchange precious, oh-so-sensitive letters about classical music, the beauty of the city and their states of mind. She invites him to return, and then things get really complicated. Radnor's film strains a little too hard for cinematic poetry, but its at its best when it stays modest, revealing a few of the simple truths of the disappointments and compromises of life in ones thirties. Its also a nice portrayal of bibliophilia; Jesse reads books constantly, as he walks in the street, and he and Zibby have their first real fight about her liking of a series of unnamed vampire novels and his snobbish dismissal of them. Olsen is charming and attractive in a role which could have been extremely grating, and Radnor is a likeable lead. A surprisingly strong parallel strand in the narrative has him counsel a depressive student he randomly meets in a coffee shop, and the film has a nice, believable ending. It is a small film with small pleasures, nice performances and a few small flaws.

Tuesday 2 October 2012


(Leos Carax, 2012) In a former life and almost two decades ago Leos Carax was the enfant terrible of French cinema. He was also a dazzlingly talented and ambitious young director. And then, following the failure of his underrated Melville adaptation Pola X in 1999, he stopped working. In the 13 years since there has only been a single chapter in the portmanteau film Tokyo, starring Carax's old cinematic surrogate, Denis Lavant as the bizarre, sewer-dwelling, shambling, flower-eating goblin known, seemingly, as "Merde". Well, now Carax is back. And so is Merde. He is one of the many identities assumed by Lavant's Monsieur Oscar in Carax's wild and baffling comeback movie, Holy Motors. Oscar is being driven around Paris in a white stretch limo to a series of appointments, for each of which he must adopt a different persona. In the limo he dons make-up, changes costume and tries on different wigs before slipping into a series of different scenarios. As Merde he terrorises a cemetery before kidnapping a model (Eva Mendes) in the middle of a fashion shoot. In another "appointment", he dons a motion capture suit, then performs a set of shadow-boxing-cum-dance-routine moves which are then turned into a cgi dragon-mutant sex scene. In another he is a concerned father picking up his teen daughter from a party. And an assassin executing a banker (also played by Lavant) outside a restaurant. An old man on his deathbed. A man reunited briefly with an old flame (Kylie Minogue). In between these scenes it is never entirely clear what else is "real", what is "performance", as the whole thing operates under something resembling dream logic. There is a musical interlude where Lavant leads a band heavy on accordions around the interior of a Cathedral. Lavant twice appears to murder himself. A boss appears to scold him about possible slipped standards. Some appointments seem to bleed into his own life in the back of the limo as he becomes tired and drunk. The encounter with Minogue begins like a chance meeting before - perhaps - transforming into something else. What it all means is the question many viewers will come away wrestling with, and it is one of the film's strengths that there are so many possible readings; it seems to be about the nature of cinema itself, and our relationship with it, about performance and the meaning of acting, about life in this era of rapid technological change, about mortality and death. It is a rich, baggy film, crammed with lovely moments and fascinating details, heavy with allusion and references. Though a couple of the appointments may stretch viewer patience - the nature of Holy Motors courting artificiality as a theme means that it struggles at a few crucial moments to earn any emotional response - it is entertaining and energetic throughout. Carax's direction is a lot less flashy than it was at his peak, but his confidence gives the film a steady rhythm and solidity which works well given the fantastic subject matter, and he retains his powerful eye. There is also a sort of joy here, joy in the glory of cinema itself, its ability to conjure up a world, a mood, an emotion in an instant of sound and image. Each of Carax's worlds here is precisely evoked, the emotion skewered within seconds. A couple of the episodes necessarily stand out; Merde and his encounter with Mendes is quite unforgettable in its combination of comedy, creepiness and strong visuals, and Minogue's melancholy song in the wreckage of a closed Department store is moving and oddly beautiful. But really, each of them contributes something to the overall mood, each of them helps make Holy Motors work, helps make it the unique beast it is. It feels at times like an attempt to sum up modern cinema, as if it was trying to include a little bit of everything, and only narrowly failing. Unique it most certainly is; I have literally never seen another film like it.