Wednesday 27 February 2013


(George Miller, 1981)

A solid argument can be made for director George Millar as perhaps the greatest storyteller in 1980s cinema. That argument would revolve - for the most part - around Mad Max 2.
The international success of the first Mad Max film afforded Miller the opportunity to make his sequel bigger and better in more or less every way.
And so he goes for broke; by the start of this film society and civilization have entirely broken down, allowing him to utilise the beautiful emptiness of his Australian Outback locations to represent this post-apocalyptic world.  Ex cop and "shell of a man" Max (Mel Gibson) is now every inch the Road Warrior of the title, roaming the wasteland in his souped up police car in search of food, gasoline and weapons, battling with gangs of marauders for possession of anything valuable in the wilderness.
Max comes across a Gas pumping station transformed into a fortress and being protected by a group of survivors (dressed in white, brown and beige) from a terrifying army of leather-clad marauders outside. Covetous of all that petrol, Max volunteers to help the defenders in their attempts to escape to the Coast with the oil...
Among other things, Mad Max 2 is the finest Western of the '80s. It may lack (most) Western iconography, but all the elements are there, in disguise: a lone hero with his own distinct code of honour and a reluctance to join a community, an isolated Fort besieged by savages, incredible widescreen desert landscapes, and long, brilliant action sequences. Miller includes a few genre signifiers to make it clear: many of the weapons used come straight from Westerns, from Max's shotgun to the bows used by the defenders. The marauders, while generally wearing (hugely influential) mixes of biker and bondage gear, are often given Mohawks and Mohicans, and the massive final action set-piece recalls nothing so much as the central action scene in Ford's Stagecoach, with the heroes vehicle pursued and attacked by a mobile band of aggressors.
But what is really impressive here is the stylish economy of the storytelling. So many of these scenes are pure cinema - no dialogue, no exposition, just sound and movement. Miller's compositions are fabulous (cinematographer Dean Semler does great work here too), his editing tight as a drum, and he pulls off a number of bravura shots which never feel remotely ostentatious. This is reflected in the story. The plot is simple, the characters bold and mythic. Villains who never speak a word of dialogue are given vivid personality through body language, wardrobe, performance and Miller's direction. Indeed, near-mute characters such as the Feral Kid and Wez are uniquely memorable and iconic, and the elemental sense of mythic weight behind this story partly explains just why it was so influential (it kicked off a wave of cheap post-apocalyptic action movie imitators).
But if that sense of starkly generic world-building was relatively easy to emulate, then Miller's awesome approach to orchestrating and mounting action scenes was not.
The organic nature of the stunt-work and the fact that we know these are real cars being driven by real people gives these action scenes an impact largely lost in the contemporary cgi era, and also demands a level of ingenuity and invention from Miller which is perceptible. The climactic chase here is a stunning example of sustained craft - visceral, thrilling and hilarious, it maintains an unbelievable level of spatial coherence throughout, as multiple mini-threads and arcs criss-cross and collide during a fifteen minute sequence. Miller demonstrated that this sort of impressive control of big action storytelling with a mythic ring to it could be applied to Childrens cinema with his later work on the Babe films and Happy Feet, but this film remains his masterpiece, and is easily one of the greatest action films ever made.
It helps that the cast is filled with unfamiliar Australian faces and that Gibson was at his most beautiful and charismatic in the early '80s - he smoulders and scowls his way through the film in magnetic fashion, as only a true movie star could.

Sunday 24 February 2013


(Dan Mazer, 2013)

A couple of things about I Give It a Year make sense as soon as you realise that writer-director Dan Mazer is best-known as Sacha Baron-Cohen's co-writer on Ali G, Bruno and Borat. The way the laughter isn't really spread throughout the film but comes in sharp little spikes, for one thing. Mazer is great at constructing comic set-pieces that gather momentum and grow funnier as they go on; he is great, in other words, at writing sketches. And so this film is full of them; neat, almost perfectly-formed scenes based around a single, hilarious comic conceit, which the film then pushes as far as it can go. Take the scene where Chloe (Anna Faris) is involved in a threesome with two of her co-workers at a charity and it turns into a wrestling match studded with excrutiating dirty talk, brilliantly played by the actress as a piece of sustained, undignified, unsexy slapstick. Or the scene where Josh (Rafe Spall) attempts to pantomime his way through "Dr Quinn Medicine Woman" in a game of charades by referring to the word "quim" and relentlessly pointing at his mother-in-law and her mother's genitals.
Another thing is the way Mazer introduces a host of brilliant, classically British comic grotesques - generally caricatures - as fleeting supporting characters. Olivia Coleman, for instance, is dazzling as a deranged marriage counsellor. Likewise, Stephen Merchant steals every scene he's in as Josh's best friend Dan, unable to stop himself rabbiting on about anything inappropriate that enters his head.
This is all overlaid atop what is quite a generic romantic comedy setting and storyline:
in a London of cute pedestrian streets, hip bars and cool restaurants, Josh and Nat (Rose Byrne) struggle with their first year of married life, having tied the knot only seven months after meeting. Their differences seem daily more relevant and they are both tempted to stray - Josh by his girl-next-door ex Chloe, Nat by the suave Guy (Simon Baker). Their problems are only magnified by their friends and families, especially Nat's sister Naomi (Minnie Driver), happily miserable with her husband (Jason Flemyng).
Mazer dusts off a series of ancient "men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" observations about the sexes (he leaves the seat up and makes lame jokes, she gets song lyrics wrong and hates his family) and his film is curiously unbalanced. While Josh is a bit of a pratt, his side of the story involves a sympathetic, touching relationship with Chloe, genuinely the one who got away, and their mutual affection and shared sense of humour, together with warm performances from Faris and Spall, makes the audience root for them to get together. That's in sharp contrast with Nat and Guy, who are both beautiful but a little humourless, and whose relationship - played out in corporate spaces, plush hotel suites and factory floors as coldly, superficially slick and smug as their characters - is meant to be based upon a chemistry absent between the two actors.
Like most romantic comedies, the soundtrack here is full of pop songs, only in this case many of them are awful covers of songs which only make you think: Damn, I wish they'd used the original version here...
But Mazer's sensibility is sharper than that evident in the majority of films in this genre, there are some big laughs here, the cast is generally excellent, and it is all nicely paced. Mazer obviously understands the pitfalls of the romcom, and while he avoids most of them, it proves beyond him to avoid all, which is a bit of a shame.

Saturday 23 February 2013


(Terrence Malick, 2012)

Since his return to cinema with the sublime The Thin Red Line in 1998, Terrence Malick has refined and honed his style into something utterly singular, ambitious and earnest. Nobody else makes films quite the way Malick does; and in Tree of Life and To The Wonder he has arrived at a newly personal place in his work, semi-autobiographical but still pursuing the themes which have been present since Badlands and Days of Heaven in the 1970s. In doing so, he has slowly lessened his reliance on narrative. His mature films are intent on other qualities, the stories elliptical vehicles for Malick's ruminations on nature, faith, love and death.
To The Wonder is basically a love story: it begins in Paris, depicting the blossoming relationship between an American named Neil (Ben Affleck) and a vivacious Frenchwoman, Marina (Olga Kurelyenko). That relationship is tracked by Emmanuel Luzbecki's ceaselessly mobile camera through the boulevards and parks of the city, and onto the "wonder" of the title, Mont St Michel, which the couple visit and admire in silent awe. When Neil returns to the USA, Marina and her young daughter Tatiana accompany him, but they are out of place in the wide spaces and new suburbs of the Great Plains, and when they return to France, Neil rekindles a relationship with Jane (Rachel McAdams), an old flame. But Marina misses him, and they marry to ensure she can stay in the States with him, a move which does not solve the problems between them. Meanwhile, their Parish Priest (Javier Bardem) is experiencing his own crisis of faith.
That makes it sound more interested in plot than it is; instead Malick is interested in movement, light, and his usual questions about the mystery of existence. Here he equates the love between a man and a woman with the love between human beings and God; both being relationships filled with yearning and doubt. In voiceovers Kurelyenko wonders at her own capacity for love and the mystery of her lover's thoughts, echoed by Bardem's curiosity about God's love for his creations. The often extraordinary visuals follow all these characters in something like a ballet; Malick soundtracks everything to a wide range of classical music, and we watch people as they twirl and circle one another, coming together for embraces and caresses, then separating. The states of the central relationships in this film are always evident through the body language and mise en scene, and never through the dialogue - there is barely any - or the voiceovers, which are always thematically relevant but rarely give us any story information.
Affleck speaks only a few words in the entire film, and spends much of his time skulking slowly in the corners of the frame, basking in the light cast by Kurelyenko and McAdams. That doesn't really suit him as an actor - his best work has come in roles where he is fast-talking or boorish (Dazed & Confused, Boiler Room, Good Will Hunting), but his awkward hesitancy fits with the character in a way. He is meant to be a little uncomfortable with the natural spark and uncomplicated spontaneity of the women in his life, and his bent, embarrassed shuffling around them communicates this nicely.
It is startling throughout how adept Malick is at visual shorthand and just how much he is able to suggest with his fluent editing.
Many of the criticisms of this film - and there have been many - have called it self-parodic, but that is the danger of a style so distinctive and an authorial voice so focused as Malick's. He dares to make serious films about profound subjects; he asks what is love, what and where is God, what does it mean that we need such a deity, how can the world be so terrible and yet so beautiful at the same time...and he asks these questions in a hushed, awed whisper, unashamed of its own need. He never answers his queries, either (but then how could he?), understanding instead that sometimes it is enough to pose the right questions.
His visuals have become instantly recognisable, and the way he has managed to divorce them from any narrative content seems to be what makes his work so difficult for many to take. To The Wonder is full of his trademark magic hour sequences, of beautiful, seemingly random shots of nature, of endless shots of Kurelyenko, in particular, dancing and cavorting through fields and on beaches.
Here she is revealed as one of the great beauties of modern cinema, and her intuitive performance carries a good deal of the film. She has some background in ballet, which suits Malick's apparent aims here - in seeking to break from traditional narrative forms he has made his recent films feel more like the musical pieces he has used within them, and she is his lead dancer here, her movements and body-shapes expressing ideas more simply and beautifully than any clumsy dialogue could. The other star here is the sun, glimpsed dipping below the horizon or through a haze of cloud, throwing shadows in long grass or bathing lovers in morning light. For Malick it - and nature, by extension, here seen not only through landscape but in buffalo, horses, bugs on a window - suggests the very presence of God in the physical world.
Let us not forget; this is the first Malick film set wholly in the modern world, and without the supporting excuse of a historical setting, some of his reliance on gesture, on whispered invocations and such self-conscious poetry might seem jarringly unmoored to some viewers, but to me they seemed absolutely magnificent. He addresses modernity fleetingly - Affleck seems to work as some sort of environmental scientist, and we see him take readings and measure levels of lead in water, the suggestion being that the Earth itself has been poisoned by man and his doubt, greed and lust. Shots of his leading man trudging across quarries and up to his knees in mud offer a dissonant echo of earlier shots of the lovers on the sand at Mont St Michel and in the streets of Paris.
There is always that sense with Malick; however much detractors can claim that his work seems almost randomly generated, his guiding intelligence is obvious behind every image. His is a cinema of ideas and of sensuality, of meaningful beauty. Which is a nice way of describing To the Wonder, I think.

Friday 15 February 2013


(Judd Apatow, 2012)

Judd Apatow needs to hire an editor who has the guts to tell him "No." This is 40 suffers terribly from his power and status and his own ability to indulge himself. His films have always been a little bloated and overlong in comparison with most comedies, but at least The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up had appreciable structures and some drive. This is 40 is an almighty mess of floating, interlinked doodles on the same subjects for the first hour and a half, before pulling a smidgen of narrative momentum together in the last act. In a young director who hadn't been responsible for billions of dollars of box office grosses as director and producer, that wouldn't be tolerated. But Apatow most likely has final cut on his movie, and if he wants to include numerous overlong scenes featuring his children improvising or linger a touch too long on his wife's (admittedly very fine) lead performance, then who is going to tell him to stop? Nobody is, evidently...
It doesn't help that the film is so nakedly autobiographical. Taking the characters of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) from Knocked Up, This is 40 chronicles their dual mid-life crisis as they both reach their 40th birthdays in the same week. They live in what - in most lives - would qualify as a mansion in an obviously affluent Los Angeles suburb, the house beautifully furnished and decorated and filled with electronic devices (every family member seems to have their own iPad), they drive beautiful cars and own their own businesses - he a retro Record Label and she a boutique. They have two daughters, one just entering adolescence, the other missing her suddenly too-old-to-be-friends big sister, and each has issues from relationships with their fathers. From here, Apatow introduces a large cast of friends, relatives and employees, and finds a few great scenes and moments from the result. But too often he instead spends overlong sequences embellishing slight observations on the quirks of early middle age. Much of this material has the sting of truth to it, as do the many gags and takes on long-term relationships, but too much of it is vaguely fuzzy and dull; a sort of lifestyle movie-making with a sheen of low-key edginess which is not enough to make it worthwhile.
Perhaps other elements are enough: Rudd and Mann are both superb, funny, sympathetic and believable people with layers and personalities even as their lives and angst are vaguely contemptible in all their ease and luxury. The supporting cast is a little ostentatious in its flagrant waste of performers, but the likes of Albert Brooks, Melissa McCarthy and Megan Fox all register well.
Apatow's films are always admirable for being about the world we live in now, even as they are so narrowly focused on a particular social group and setting, and This is 40 is no different. But a little less would have been good; if this had been 90 minutes it might have been a bracing, sharp, witty 90 minutes. As it is we have a baggy, middling but occasionally inspired and waaaaay overlong movie which feels like a DVD directors cut (one can only imagine how long that will be)..

Wednesday 13 February 2013

(Pablo Larrain, 2012)

So many things are great about Pablo Larrain's No, it's hard to know exactly where to begin.
Let's start with Larrain himself. It's always gratifying to see a director who has shown immense talent and potential in his work suddenly go up a gear. And with No, Larrain does just that. While the first two installments of his Pinochet trilogy, Tony Manero and Post Mortem, are both queasy, bleakly beautiful arthouse dramas which demonstrate their directors level of control, magnificent eye and well-developed sensibility, No is something entirely different. Here Larrain embraces populism, with an audience-friendly narrative, engaging lead and an (ambiguously) happy ending.
Of course, history dictated what that ending would be, and it may have also dictated (to some extent) what style Larrain would use in filming this story. But the degree to which the director embraces that style is transformative. Larrain opted to shoot No on Sony U-Matic videotape, the format favoured by Chilean television news in the 1980s. This means that the film effortlessly evokes the period - an effect only increased by the hairstyles and fashions on show - and also allows Larrain to incorporate lots of library footage of Pinochet, rioting and the actual "Yes" and "No" campaign tv spots.
It's an ugly format and yet Larrain embraces it wholeheartedly, finding the beauty in its simple, coarse blocks of colour and inability to process bright light without blowing through the image. He repeatedly has his characters disappear in washes of hard sunlight or bathed in strobing glow between trees as they walk.
Where his last two films are both oblique looks at the Pinochet era, each focusing on a disturbed, lone male who exemplifies some of what troubled Chile during those years, No is a more direct address to history. It is far less obscure, perhaps because Larrain had no role in the writing of the screenplay; it details the efforts of the "No" campaign in the 1988 plebiscite in Chile to wrest power from the dictator Pinochet. Each side was given a 15 minute slot every day for a month on late-night tv to make their pitch. The focus is on Rene Saavedra, a recently-returned exile (Gael Garcia Bernal) and successful advertising executive who is approached by the "No" campaign to work as a consultant. Despite being himself an exile due to his father's political beliefs (explaining Bernal's Mexican accent) Saavedra is apolitical; indeed we see him use the context of the political situation to his advantage pitching an ad campaign to some corporate types early in the film. That same pitch is repeated when he finally comes to show the No coalition his plan for their campaign, in a slightly on-the-nose moment - Larrain's film is as much about modern Chile as it is about Chile under Pinochet. The moment he is dramatising is the moment when everything was commodified and politics became marketing, and though his film has a happy ending, it is drenched in bitter irony. The end may justify the means, but the end of the film was not the end of Chile. The final scene gives a clue to the future of the country - we see Bernal pitching a campaign, yet again using the same empty political phrases, side-by-side with his boss Guzman (Alfredo Castro, so superb in Larrain's earlier films) who masterminded the "Yes" campaign. This pitch is for a soap opera, pure escapism, based around glamour and sophistication, suggesting the superficial capitalist society Chile would become.
This story allows for many tones and moods, and by turns this is a political drama, a dark comedy, a relationship drama and a conspiracy thriller. Aided by that powerful central aesthetic and a vivid sense of place, Larrain makes it all work. Just as in his other films, here he adeptly plays off the personal and the political. Saavedra is separated from his wife, who returns sporadically to see their son and spit accusations at her ex (when we first see her she is being beaten by the police). She is a genuine street revolutionary who sees no value in what he is doing, and his powerless pain whenever she is around is nicely played by Bernal, who is as sensitive and charismatic as ever here. Despite his character being an advertising hotshot - there are definite echoes of Mad Men in many scenes - Saavedra is also something of an everyman. He is terrified once the "Yes" side and the forces of Government turn their gaze upon him, and his house is broken into at night, his son threatened. He is even more terrified to be caught up in a riot later. Through him, still something of an outsider in Pinochet's Chile, we see this world in all its compromise, horror and denial, and we see vividly why it needed to change.
Well-acted by a terrific cast and with a script which manages to be both incisive and wide-ranging, and benefitting from some exceptional direction from Larrain, No is brilliant.

Monday 11 February 2013


(John Hyams, 2012)

He may not get the respect or acclaim he deserves, but make no mistake; with Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, John Hyams fully announces himself as one of the most interesting directors currently working in American genre cinema.
His action chops have long been evident; he shoots fight scenes with a fluid mix of shots and approaches - slo-mo, fast-cutting, classically clear compositions, handheld fluency - but those scenes are always visceral and cohesive. The fight scenes here are remarkably brutal, even gory - axes take fingers and toes, the hero John (Scott Adkins) knocks the top of a mans head clean off with a baseball bat - yet Hyams ensures that the gore is always clear in its origin and thats the dimensions of the violence are generally physically defined. One move flows into the next and from the one before, and the editing choices are dictated by the dynamics of movement, of action and reaction. This is most relevant during the last twenty minutes of the film, a quite brilliant rolling action scene depicting John infiltrating the lair of villain Luc Devereaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and battling his way, one at a time, through his army, much of it done in a single, extraordinary take. There is also a fantastically destructive fight between Adkins and Andrei Arlovsky in a sporting goods store which would be good enough to climax the majority of martial arts films.
But Hyams' sensibility is increasingly fascinating too. This film is a bizarre genre hybrid - if it surrenders to its basest action instincts in the last reel, in the first two it establishes a singular mood and worldview unlike just about anything else, ever. It has a mood of sustained dread which makes it feel nightmarish - tellingly, the first shot is from the point of view of John as he is woken from sleep - and much of the action occurs in a depopulated netherworld of hookers, strippers, mercenaries and grotesques through which John stumbles, as confused and ignorant as the audience.
It follows John as he wakes from a coma after witnessing his family murdered by Devereaux in the gruelling opening scene. As he tries to discover more about who he is and what has happened to him, a parallel story details Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) and his attempts to recruit an army of the genetically-created "UniSols" from the other films in this franchise, to serve under the command of Devereaux, here depicted as an enigmatic Col. Kurtz figure. Meanwhile John is discovering that he may not be quite "normal", as his past acts are revealed and strangers try to murder him.
In a film like this, the acting barely matters, but Adkins has a vulnerability to him that suits his character until he remembers what he is capable of and starts to rack up a ridiculous body count. Van Damme and Lundgren have little to do but Hyams makes good use of the icon each represents.
The many ambiguities contained in the story work beautifully - the more John learns, the more complex his situation becomes - and feed into the brilliantly bitter ending, which allows for the catharsis of a final confrontation and then upends it with a vicious little coda.
It may be a little cheap and clumsily written in parts, but this film is as challenging and cynical as action cinema gets. I can't wait to see what Hyams does next.

Sunday 10 February 2013


(Hirokazu Koreeda, 2011)

Koreeda has emerged over the last decade as one of the leading directors in world cinema, with a distinctive, subtle voice. Still Walking, his Ozu-like 2008 family drama, may well be his masterpiece, but even when working in a more minor key, as in I Wish, he proves more than capable of crafting an immensely poignant, beautifully observed story of childhood and family.
I Wish centres on two young brothers, Ryu and Koichi. Their parents separated 6 months before and they live apart, in different cities, with one parent each, talking on their mobile phones every week or so. Koichi is older and more sensitive; he wants the family back together again. Ryu is wilder and more happy-go-lucky - though he misses his brother and mother, he enjoys his new life and friends. Still, he supports Koichi's plan to observe the moment when the new bullet trains linking their cities will pass for the first time, believing that at this moment, wishes will be granted. From this premise, Koreeda spins a story which is wide-ranging and intimate, taking in dozens of minor characters and illuminating their lives for a few moments at a time as he depicts the boys different lives, their relationships with friends, parents and teachers, as well as their friends' families and parents. We watch Koichi's grandfather - a retired baker - attempt to create a new cake to compete with a popular new bakery chain after a drunken night with his friends, and his father's band endlessly tune up. Meanwhile one of Ryu's friends wants to be an actress but is jealous of the pretty girl in her class with similar ambitions, being  denied the consolation of disliking or badmouthing the girl, since she is so pleasant. Then there is the elderly couple who take in the children on the night of their adventure and are reminded of their own daughter, long grown up and gone. All of these stories and more move slowly across the screen, and Koreeda gives each character some inner life, a spark of truth and mystery which is utterly convincing and affecting.
As ever, his gaze is calm and precise, his storytelling measured. He keeps his visuals cool and neutral, without a single showy element, alternating nicely composed medium and close-up shots, emphasising the ordered, layered world of the Japanese suburbs the boys ands their friends move through. The acting is beautifully naturalistic throughout, not least from the fantastic children in the cast. They create some big laughs with their immediate responses - there is a lot of Edward Yang in this film, from its effortlessly multi-stranded narrative to its warm, gentle tone of quiet amusement and melancholy.
The sequence where the children arrive at a vantage point to observe the trains passing - which has a little deadpan suggestion of childrens adventure films to it, with its detailed account of their heist-like preparations and their mildly desperate search for shelter at night - is marked by a lovely montage of images of the moments and objects which have led Koichi to this instant, signalling a moment of growth, maturity and acceptance for him.
The film is full of moments of quiet truth and beauty, of emotions held in check and little acts of kindness, of affection and understanding. Koreeda may well be the greatest humanist at work in contemporary cinema, and we are blessed that his skill as a writer and director is so well-matched with his sensibility.
This is a lovely film.

Saturday 9 February 2013



(Thomas Arslan, 2010)

It is baffling to me that Thomas Arslan, director of a film as accomplished and riveting as In The Shadows, remains relatively unknown to Anglophone audiences. To the best of my knowledge this film - alongside the rest of Arslan's work -  never received a release either in the UK or US, which perhaps explains this anonymity, but in no way excuses it.
In The Shadows is a gritty, stripped-down crime drama, following Trojan (Mišel Matičević) , a professional criminal recently released from prison. He immediately sets about finding a new score through old contacts and settles on an Armoured Car Robbery arranged through an old flame. At the same time another old associate has men hunting for Trojan across Berlin, and a dirty Cop is watching him in order to figure out what his next job could be.
That might make the film sound like a turgid, exciting genre film. But it plays more like a precisely tooled realist drama, lacking any hyperbole or excess. Arslan's storytelling cuts right to the bone of the narrative; characters speak only when they need to (many scenes unfold without any dialogue at all), his camera shuns ostentatious motion, his palette is muted, the music low key. Crime is never sensationalised here; Trojan is a cool, focused professional, and the film takes its tone from his approach. He is violent when he needs to be, but it is calm and precise violence, almost minimalist, and the film again adopts his approach.
Arslan is plainly fascinated by the procedural aspects of the criminal life, and Trojan's meticulous routines and movements are observed in detail throughout, even as his inner life is a mystery. The same could be said of all the characters here - we observe them, and pick up what we can from minute details. Trojan and his old partner Nico (Rainer Bock) share a fondness evident through the silent trust and respect for one another's professional skill, but exchange only a few sentences on their personal lives. Trojan's relationship with his Lawyer fixer sees them end up in bed together, but even there he seems reticent and contained.
All of this  - and the attention it encourages us to pay - makes every action register seismically, and suspense builds slowly from the opening scene of the film. Arslan depicts the life of Uwe Bohm's dirty cop in enough detail for his threat to be evident, despite Trojan's remarkably effective criminal lifestyle. His character - played by Matičević with great magnetism and physical presence - is reminiscent of a host of archetypal existential loners in noir over the decades, most notably any of Jean Pierre Melville's hyper-professional criminals, but also Robert Parker's Stark and the driven, solitary thieves at the centre of Michael Mann's crime films.
In The Shadows lacks the depth of Mann's work, but as well as offering a tense and gripping crime story, it is a fine City film - Berlin is a character here, as inscrutable as all of the others - and is an admirably fleet 85 minutes, not a second of which is wasted.


(Rich Moore, 2012)

If you have children and watch a lot of the many animated films produced by Hollywood these days,  then the emotional arc they invariably follow can become wearyingly repetitive. That stock formula wherein a character learns a valuable lesson about what really matters to them while being led astray by their own basest desires or a dangerously attractive bad influence: that seems central to every kids film I see. And I see just about all of them, these days.
Still, some can deliver that formula beautifully, and some cannot. That depends on a number of different factors; the storytelling is crucial, the strength of the characters, the wit, the tightness of the plotting. Well, Wreck-It Ralph is excellent in just about all of those categories.
Set in the world of a 1980s arcade game, the film centres upon Ralph, the bad guy in a game called "Fix-It Felix Jr", a Donkey Kong rip-off. After the arcade closes each night, the video game characters live on inside the dormant machines, and it is the richly imagined world of their lives which is perhaps the film's strongest single element. Ralph, fed up with 30 years of being shunned inside his own game, decides to head off in search of some heroism. His quest leads him through violent Space Marine Sci-fi First Person shooter "Heroes Duty" and then "Sugar Rush" a candy land-set Kart Racer game, where he meets Vanellope, a "glitch" and fellow outsider. Meanwhile, Fix-It Felix, the hero from Ralph's game, is desperately searching for him so that he can return and stop the game from being declared out of order, and the Commander of the Space Marines is also in Sugar Rush, hunting an escaped Cy-Bug which Ralph unwittingly took with him.
Thats quite a lot of plot to cram into under two hours, and it means that Moore's movie zips along like one of the video games it depicts, stuffing in countless sight-gags and references to games for the adults without ever stinting on the slapstick and toilet humour for the kids. The multi-socket adaptor powering all the consoles is here revealed to house a Game Central Station, where "homeless" Q-Bert avatars beg for change and off-duty combatants from Street Fighter go to drink. There are cameos from characters from Mario, Pac Man, Frogger and many more in these scenes, and the way flashbacks are rendered in different resolutions, and some characters flicker like older game pixels are the sorts of details that give Wreck-It Ralph a feeling of a richly textured, deeply imagined world most reminiscent of the one seen in the Toy Story films.
All of that - and the sensitive, nicely judged voice work from John C Reilly and Sarah Silverman - helps immeasurably when it comes to selling that familiar emotional arc in the somewhat overstuffed, hyper-frenetic last reel.
Feeling much more like a Pixar production than any Disney film in recent memory, Wreck-It Ralph is a an immensely entertaining family film with layers and laughs in equal measure.

Thursday 7 February 2013


(Steven Spielberg, 1993)

Here is one of the oddest blockbusters Spielberg has made; a mix of compromise and genius which soars in parts and limps along in others.
The first act is all exposition. Characters are introduced - and by the standards of the modern event film, these characters are finely drawn, with actual personalities and motivations before dinosaurs mean that there is only one appropriate motivation: survival. The cast, composed mainly of grown-up character actors, certainly helps. That is another quirk of this film, produced when the summer blockbuster season was only about a decade old and still establishing its own rules; the cast seems relatively ancient. If this was made now, chances are the principals would all be in their late teens or early twenties. But here we get Sam Neill in the Harrison Ford role as the reluctantly dashing palaeontologist Dr Alan Grant, Jeff Goldblum as the awkwardly witty refusenik mathematician Ian Malcolm and Laura Dern as paleobotanist Dr Ellie Satler. The supporting cast is filled out with classy character faces like Samuel L Jackson and Bob Peck, and they handle much of the expository heavy lifting, telling us all about the Island, setting up the carnage to come.
Spielberg balances out all the maturity on show with two children at the centre of the story. They are Billionaire Richard Hammond's (Richard Attenborough, distractingly trying a twee, almost comic Scottish accent) grandchildren, come for a preview ride around his amazing new attraction; a safari park where genetically engineered (cloned, in effect) dinosaurs replace standard animals. The trio of doctors are there for the same experience, but their visit coincides with a terrible storm and an attempt to profit from some corporate espionage by a disgruntled employee which deactivates power - and electrified fences - at just the wrong moment.  Dinosaurs - including a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a pack of terrifying, cunning Velociraptors - are now on the loose, and any mammals in the park are fair game, including Dr Grant, on the run through the tropical forest with the two kids.
The exposition is such a demand here that Spielberg even sets aside five minutes to have the Park itself deliver it. We witness the educational part of the tour, wherein a cartoon character gives a presentation on how the dinosaurs were created. Through all this, it's hard not to grow impatient. We want to see the dino-mayhem we know is coming, and these scenes don't create tension, they just set the scene efficiently.
The effects, though a little dated, remain stunningly impressive, and Spielberg uses them with a sense of organic storytelling and timing that is possibly his greatest gift as a filmmaker. He integrates the cgi superbly, giving us glimpses of dinosaurs before a sweeping awed shot allows them to dominate the frame, John Williams' euphoric theme rising up as audience and characters are joined in a sense of wonder. And then, he begins to up the tension in the first scene depicting the T-Rex. That is a masterly construction of suspense, beautiful choreography of elements and terrific direction which has lost none of its power to thrill, terrify and amuse. And Spielberg is one of the few directors capable of crafting scenes which do all three at once. It is testament to his skill that he is able to make a film aimed squarely at families so scary; there is no gore here, but the chase and stalk scenes are genuinely tense and gripping, especially once the film ramps up in its last act. In that portion of the film, the Velociraptors take centre stage, and there is much Jaws-like suspense as the children (especially) hide and flee. In these scenes Spielberg feels fully engaged. You can almost feel his mind working, figuring out the best ways to drag audiences wherever he wants them to go, and the cuts and compositions are incredibly consistent in their skill and quality.
It's just that so much else feels so rote; where Jaws feels tight and measured in its pacing and timing, Jurassic Park feels slack and flabby. Individual scenes thrill and crackle, but the film bumps along awkwardly, some of its character beats too blatantly inserted as if in response to preview screening comments. The most interesting character - Goldblum's hilarious oddball - disappears halfway through and is rarely seen thereafter (the sequel seems aware of this, positioning him as the lead character). That is a structural flaw the film fails to repair; it peaks with the T-Rex sequence, and while the Velociraptors are fun and frightening, they don't quite match the impact of that cinematic monster or that awesome scene.
Even then, the whole thing rather peters out into a bit of an anticlimax, and it may be relevant that Spielberg made Schindlers List - a far more personal film - in the same year, stretching even his formidable talents.

Wednesday 6 February 2013


(Walter Hill, 2012)

Bullet To The Head may well be Walter Hill's worst film*. That means it's still better than much modern mainstream American cinema, for Hill is an old master, and even when given a clumsy, derivative script like this, he can still make the material a certain extent.
That extent is almost entirely visual. His lovely compositional sense is still as strong as ever, his ease with storytelling remains, and he still directs action sequences with a bracing directness and stylish economy. The fights and shootouts in this film are tough, brutal and always coherent, the artful touches subtle yet fitting. But these are flourishes, and there aren't quite enough of them to elevate the film.
Hill, a fine screenwriter, didn't write Bullet To the Head, unfortunately. Because if he had it would be a lot more interesting than it is. The story is generic to the point of parody. Hitman Jimmy Bobo (Sylvester Stallone) is double-crossed and loses his partner after a routine job. He teams up with a Cop from out of town (Sung Kang) to find out who was responsible, and goes up against a mix of gangsters and mercenaries, best represented by the lethal Keegan (Jason Momoa), whose skills seem to rival Bobo's own.
If that sounds utterly straight-to-dvd, well that's because it is. Each story beat and plot turn could have come from a "How To Make a B-Action Movie" manual. Christian Slater - these days confined to the DTV ghetto for past crimes against cinema - even shows up as a scumbag lawyer, and it's set in a series of straight-to-dvd (i.e. cheap) locations like a multi-storey carpark and a disused ironworks. Otherwise, Hill puts the New Orleans locations to decent, mildly atmospheric use, cranking the very-'80s mix of rootsy rock and blaring harmonica on the soundtrack up really high in the hope that the sensory distractions provided by his images and sounds might cause us to miss how thin the characters are here, how clumsy the exposition, how basic the plotting.
This story limps along in awkward little spurts, Cop and Hitman squabbling dully inbetween punishing action sequences. Those squabbles frequently allow Stallone's character to engage in some ethnic stereotyping - again, a very '80s element - as their conversations clunkily move the plot along. Stallone plays Bobo as a bit of a dick; he has no arc whatsoever, which is almost refreshing, and his lack of emotional range suits the actors immobile face and gut-sucked-in acting style. Kang is a list of cop cliches rather than an actual character, and he could be entirely removed from the film with little noticeable effect upon the story. Momoa makes the best impression; fearsome and nasty in the action sequences, he snarls his way through the few scenes in which he has to emote or speak, and the way he relishes his own mayhem makes as big an impression as any other non-Hill element here. But given that this is probably one of Hill's last films, we should enjoy him while he's here; and while this lacks the mythic boldness and stark simplicity of his greatest work, there is enough of his great talent still here for a receptive audience to relish.

*Ok, his worst film is still probably either Brewsters Millions or Supernova, but you get my meaning.

Tuesday 5 February 2013


(Steven Spielberg, 2012)

There's always something with Spielberg, in his later work at least. Some issue, some error of judgement, something too conspicuous to be ignored. Think of the little girl in red, in Schindlers List. Or the intercutting of sex and murder in Munich. Or the framing device in Saving Private Ryan. Or the last shot in Minority Report. Always something, some distracting misstep.
For the most part, Lincoln doesn't even really feel like a Spielberg film. It seems to owe more of its personality to screenwriter Tony Kushner. Thats another way of saying that it feels somewhat like a play for long stretches; for this is a long procedural focused on political manoeuvring, on schmoozing and strategising, on persuasion and argument. This is a long procedural focused, most intently, sometimes tediously, often magnificently, on talking.
The story follows Lincoln in the weeks before the crucial House of Representatives vote on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery once and for all. The Civil War is near an end, and the President, so loved by his people, must balance the desire to end the war with the need to ensure that slavery is done with the conflict's end. He is surrounded by forceful personalities with their own agendas and styles, from his wife, still suffocating on her grief for their dead son (Sally Field) and his politically clever Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) to the various figures fighting for control of the Republican party, most notably the radical Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and founder Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook). Then there are various Democrats (Lee Pace, for example), Lincoln's older son, desperate to enlist (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), General Ulysses Grant (Jared Harris), not to mention the swirl of minor politicians, military men and civil servants never far away. There are so many familiar faces on show here, most of them in tiny parts, that it is almost a distraction from the story. That story basically comes down, as so many political dramas do, to the struggles of lobbyists for a few crucial votes before the bill is before the house. The most memorable lobbyist here is  a bloated, quite brilliant James Spader, as one of the few men not awed by the presence of Lincoln.
Much of Kushner's writing here is tremendous; long dazzling speeches clashing and intertwining, and Spielberg, working with his regular Director of Photography, Janusz Kaminski, makes it all look beautiful in a slightly-too-neatly-art-directed kind of way. But if you aren't interested in the period, or the subject matter, then this may well be a struggle.
The worst material is the scenes meant to humanise the lead; Lincoln and his relationships with his wife and sons is over-familiar, dull and uninspired. The best are the scenes depicting the President when he brushes against normal people and his genius for finding common ground and the right word is revealed. His habit of launching into long tangential stories and his own delight in those tales is an appealing side of his character, and one which Day-Lewis illuminates with a happy grin and a rolling pleasure in language and its power. He is typically fantastic here, transformed and utterly convincing, suggesting both the iconic image and the human being underneath. He is so calm and clever, so good-humoured, that his few flashes of fire are all the more powerful for it.
He is only really rivalled by Tommy Lee Jones as Stevens, spectacularly insulting his opponents in the house, his hard carapace concealing a sense of morality and honour that provides perhaps the films most moving moment near its climax.
That climax is where Spielberg missteps. Lincoln reaches an emotional high point when the Amendment is passed. There is celebration in the streets. Lincoln and his son listen to bells ringing from a window of the White House.
And then the film keeps going. We see Lincoln meet with Southern delegates. We see him dress to go to the theatre. We see him walk away from the camera to his death, in a shot upon which Spielberg lingers just so we know what it means. It is a moment redolent of the other Spielberg, the sentimental family entertainer, not the adult filmmaker who has been responsible for most of what has preceded it in this film. That other Spielberg peeks through a few times over the course of Lincoln - mainly whenever John Williams' score swells - but generally he is kept at bay by Kushner's literate, wordy script and the intensity of focus upon the actors here.

Friday 1 February 2013


(Kim Ji Woon, 2013)

Its always a bit of a problem when your leading man can't act. And Arnold Schwarzenegger can't. Never could. Not only that; he's not even remotely convincing as any sort of normal human being. There is a shot of him walking down the street like some normal joe in True Lies which is just hilarious because his persona is so exaggeratedly superhuman, so effortlessly larger-than-life; when he wants to break out of that, he'll always struggle, even after years away from movies.
And that is the case with Kim Ji-woon's The Last Stand, an old-fashioned modern Western with a High Noon-esque concept at its heart: theres a very bad guy coming, and the sheriff of a small Texan town is damn sure gonna stop him. Schwarzenegger portrays that Sheriff, and for all the attempts to play his ageing, wrinkled cragginess in a wryly reflective Eastwood manner, he doesn't have the range or presence to sell even this character. From the moment he shows up, you wait for the shooting to start. Because that is what he's good at. And so it proves here.
Clever directors - including James Cameron, Walter Hill, John Milius and John McTiernan - have made use of Schwarzenegger's odd appeal in films, casting him as taciturn killers and stoic warriors, but here he has to emote on a few occasions, and each time it is truly painful to watch the gears crank under the surface of his face while he tries unsuccessfully to evoke pain or regret or angst. His voice is another problem - that voice like an ocean liner scraping against a coral reef, his accent as robotic and emotionless as ever - and it renders every line identical in tone and feeling. Whereas in the action scenes he sets his jaw and narrows his eyes and makes those familiar guttural noises of fury and agony and all seems right in this particular corner of the cinematic world.
This film is an odd choice for Kim Ji-woon's first Hollywood production. Yes, it showcases his ability to orchestrate big action sequences, but the script is all about efficiency and has none of the dark grace notes of his best Korean work (A Bittersweet Life, say). The characters here are reliably one-noted and cliched and there are far too many of them, with Schwarzenegger backed by a superfluous and inexhaustible host of deputies and townspeople, including such stock figures as "the young deputy who wants more action away from his smalltown home but is unprepared for it when it comes" (Zach Gilford), the "town eccentric there purely for comic relief" (Johnny Knoxville)  and the "quirkily demented, unpredictably violent bad guy" (Peter Stormare). Most of the dialogue is awful, the performances at a corresponding level but a couple of good action sequences just about make it worthwhile.
The first of those is a nocturnal firefight between the lawmen and some militia gunmen, interrupted by Schwarzenegger showing up and killing a bunch of bad guys with a shotgun and a jeep, the second a visceral car chase through a cornfield which is nicely, vividly textured and the third is a fistfight on a bridge which is half WWE, half The Big Country. Those three suggest that The Last Stand relies on traditional action beats for its appeal, and that is undoubtedly true. A decent cast is wasted, the gags are weak throughout, and the attempts at actual drama are inept.
This is, frankly, a film for undemanding action fans and nobody else.