Saturday 27 April 2013


(Peter Jackson, 2012)

There's a particular sort of shot that Peter Jackson mastered with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Its a sweeping view of an epic action sequence, the camera looping and perhaps turning too as it approaches  the heroes - generally in a group, in motion - and they move through a space, the geography of which is  established by the vertiginous action of the camera. Theres a lot of cgi involved in these shots. Cgi figures throng, and the landscape - the mines of Moria, the tunnels inside a Goblin stronghold, an ancient Elvish citadel, whatever - is generally mostly created inside a computer too.
In the first and best Lord of the Rings film, The Fellowship of the Ring, there are only a couple of these shots. Jackson was working, then, with restrictions. The film had not yet become the critical and commercial smash it eventually was. It was still a huge risk for New Line, the studio financing it. But after that, Jackson could do what he wanted, really. With success, his vision bloated and expanded. The films swelled on dvd with extra scenes and longer episodes. The Hobbit, a story which could make a good three hour film, has been cut into three episodes of over two hours each, and the result, in this opening episode, at least, is almost unbelievably tedious and mannered.
The story is set decades before the events of The Lord of the Rings and follows Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the titular hobbit with an unusual thirst for adventure, after he joins a band of dwarves on a long journey back to their ancestral lands in order to recover gold from the dragon Smaug. They are accompanied by the Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and after an extremely slow, talky opening hour or so, encounter a series of creatures and perilous situations, including Orcs, Goblins, trolls, Wargs and Elves. This all feels thoroughly samey - reams of CGI, familiar creature design and the usual dynamics governing the set-pieces ensure that these are sequences resembling many other sequences in other such movies beyond Jackson's own.
Aside from that, it is strangely unengaging. The characters are that peculiar Tolkein mix of tweeness and pomposity, the comedy is excrutiatingly unfunny, and the pacing is so leisurely it feels almost insultingly padded out. The cast do their best with these strange collections of tics they are playing; Freeman is a winning lead, McKellen is solid and Richard Armitage is charismatic in the Viggo Mortenson role as Thorin, leader of the dwarves, but the whole thing only feels like its anything more than an exercise in stalling with the arrival in the last act of Andy Serkis (by way of CGI) as Gollum.
His scenes with Freeman in the caves beneath a mountain are by a long way the most compelling in what is otherwise a pointless, even painful, affair, so bloated and obsessed with its own mythology it feels like it represents much of what is wrong with modern blockbuster cinema.
Oh, and those swooping shots I mentioned earlier? The Hobbit is full of them. Only where they were once exciting, even thrilling, now they just feel like Jackson repeating himself, like another set of failures of the imagination in a film stuffed with failures of the imagination.

Monday 22 April 2013


(Derek Cianfrance, 2012)

Long, slow, sombre and oh-so serious, Cianfrance's film is the sort of old-fashioned grand American filmmaking many assume no longer exists. It is also immensely flawed, though the strength of its directors bold style and commanding technique obscures this to a large extent.
A mightily ambitious family saga with touches of melodrama and crime in its DNA, it begins with Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a stunt motorbike rider at a travelling carnival who is approached upon his return to an upstate New York town by a local girl with whom he once had a fling. Romena (Eva Mendes) had his baby, and once she lets him know, his wandering days end, and he sticks around, falling in with Ben Mendelsohn's scuzzy mechanic and causing trouble for just about everyone. That trouble eventually crosses the line into outright criminality, and the consequences of his actions effect local cop Avery (Bradley Cooper), who is struggling with the corruption around him and his own issues with his father and wife (Rose Byrne). The connection between these two men is echoed years later when their sons meet by chance.
The kind of ambition Cianfrance shows here is a gamble. While it may be impressive in its own right - not many young directors have such reach or even understand how to conjure up the sort of intensity The Place Beyond The Pines frequently manages - it demands an exceptional level of talent to deliver an end product worthy of it's loftier goals.
Cianfrance is undoubtedly a talent. He has a fine eye and infuses scenes with an arty sense of personality, a coherent and distinctly individual view of the world which gives his film a haunted, emotional quality which makes it seem more interesting than it actually is. The problem then is that his central thesis here - the evil that men do, basically - is such a watery one that it renders his film little more than a torrid, extremely male melodrama. It plays not unlike the work of James Gray, only lacking his sense of intelligence and some of the complexity his work evinces.
It has a strong ensemble, but a couple of the actors are lazily cast. Gosling, for instance, plays Gosling, more avatar than character, all wardrobe choices (inside-out t-shirts), constant cigarette and pout. He poses better than any other actor currently alive, and does a sort of method angst, but he is superficial here, at best. Then there is Ray Liotta, here playing a corrupt, strangely menacing Cop, whose nature we understand almost as soon as we see his face.
Faring best is Bradley Cooper in a tricky role. His cocksure smirk is wiped away by the plot here, and the sweaty anxiety which replaces it makes of him a far more compelling figure.
What we are left with, then, is a good tale, quite well told. If only it hadn't presented itself as so much more.

Thursday 18 April 2013


(Sylvain White, 2010)

The Losers was released in the same year as The A-Team and The Expendables, all three of them action movies with big doses of comedy about combat units composed of larger-than-life macho personalities either betrayed or on missions or both. And while it doesn't quite have the gloriously unhinged sense of fun of Joe Carnahan's The A-Team, The Losers is a more enjoyable movie than Stallone's The Expendables. It doesn't take itself remotely seriously - not even as seriously as the comic series upon which it's based, which is a decent pastiche - and it's absolutely stuffed with dumb action movie cliches. Director Sylvain White's roots as a music video director are obvious in the hyper-kinetic ADD editing, and often quirky angles and a few laughable money-shots, but its frequently beautiful for all that, has a few really funny sequences, and a strong cast for this sort of material.
The Losers of the title all have silly macho names (so much so that Zoe Saldana's Aisha laughs when they're introduced to her and says "Really?") like Clay, Roque, Pooch, Cougar and Jensen. They have a single personality trait each - Jensen (Chris Evans) is the jokey motormouth computer whizz, Cougar (Óscar Jaenada) is the cool, deadly, near-mute cowboy hat-wearing sniper, Pooch (Columbus Short) is the down-to-earth one (he has a pregnant wife) and pilot and driver, Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is the leader with a weakness for women, and Roque (Idris Elba) is the second-in-command, with a weakness for arguing with Clay. They banter and bicker in the usual cliched fashion throughout, but a lot of that is amusing, and it sets up a nice dynamic with the pyromaniac action scenes.
The plot sees this group abandoned and stuck in Latin America after a moral decision in the middle of an operation leaves them considered as enemies by their own Government. Jason Patric's villain is behind all this, of course, and he gives them something to focus on. Patric plays this character as a straight-up comic figure; theatrical, sarcastic, enjoying his own nastiness. He may be the best thing in the film.
It is nicely atmospheric in parts - location shooting certainly helps - and is entirely predictable every step of the way, but is made no less likeable for that.

Sunday 14 April 2013


(Joseph Kosinski, 2013)

At times, Oblivion feels as if it has been made entirely from bits of other movies. Here's some Wall-E, over here. There's a bit of The Matrix, over there. A little Independence Day (itself made up of other movies) over there too, beside a bit of Planet of the Apes, some Omega Man, a little Moon and numerous others too. They come to mind either because of an idea, a dramatic moment or an image, often something that feels familiar, though you can't quite recall where you've seen it before. And though it sounds like a bad thing, being derivative doesn't automatically have to be. It depends on just how well a filmmaker uses the ideas that influence them.
And Kosinski definitely has some talent. Just like his last film, Tron: Legacy, Oblivion is utterly breathtaking for long stretches. When his camera is sweeping across the ruined surface of a future earth devastated by war with an alien invader and M83's lush electronic score is loud enough to shake the cinema, it feels like a brilliant piece of sensual, visceral cinema.
Unfortunately, he is on far less sure ground with narrative. Not that Oblivion is bad. It works throughout, establishing its world with confidence and even boldness in a brief opening narration and montage. In this world, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise, as solidly movie star as ever) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, doing well with a difficult role) are a "mop up crew", living together on a station in the clouds. Humanity has fled their ruined homeworld for Titan, Saturn's Largest moon, but Jack and Victoria are nearing the end of a long duty back on Earth, overseeing the huge machines generating energy from the oceans. Some of the alien invaders ("Skavs") remain on the surface, raiding at night, and Jack maintains the combat drones that keep them in check. But he has been having troubling dreams that resemble memories, and is unusually curious about the world before the war and the activities of the skavs. And then a ship falls from the sky, and its only survivor is human. More intriguing still, she (Olga Kurelyenko) is literally the woman from Jack's dreams.
Kosinski does seem to possess a fine sense of what genre ideas will work in a big spectacle, and his action scenes are integrated into the narrative with intelligence and economy. But Oblivion is still a bit too familiar, and never quite remarkable enough in its own right to surpass its many influences.
The good things about it are all the elements that make it so different from many current sci-fi blockbusters; for instance, it has an appealing strain of poetry running through it. Even if it is a little too awkward and leaden for that poetry to be truly comfortable, the attempt is interesting, and gives Oblivion a dimension denied many such movies.
It is also, despite the epic setting and storyline, quite an intimate piece, with few characters and intense emotions the focus of the story. The central relationships are unusual and compelling - Riseborough's performance is key to this - and they make the story work even when the material is at its most predictable and action-heavy. Truly great science fiction always revolves around an idea or two, and here Oblivion comes up short. It flirts with notions beyond the superficial matters of the narrative, but never develops anything beyond that flirtation, which is a bit of a shame.
But what most will take away from Oblivion is that cool, clear daylight photography of vast stretches of wilderness and M83's brilliant score.

Thursday 11 April 2013


(Kleber Mendonça Minho, 2012)

The multi-strand drama, done well, offers a unique opportunity to portray the nuances and tensions in a culture or society. Over the years directors like Michael Haneke, Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson and John Sayles have all done exceptional work with such dramas addressing a wide variety of eras and specific social networks. And now, Kleber Mendonça Minho has joined these ranks. His debut, Neighbouring Sounds, is a wry, atmospheric, quietly disturbing depiction of the tensions and issues facing modern day middle class Brazil.
Set in an affluent residential suburb of the prosperous Brazilian City of Recife, it traces various inhabitants of a single street over the course of a few months. The street is largely lined with big houses hidden behind high walls and gates and modern high rise apartment buildings. Its residents are a mixture, suggesting the tensions afflicting class relations in Brazil. There are the new middle classes, young professionals with well-paid jobs and enough money to enjoy nice properties. Here they are represented by the family of Bia, a housewife whose barely-glimpsed husband works. They own a house, their kids go to extra classes for English and Chinese, they can afford to buy a huge flatscreen tv; and Bia has the luxury of boredom, obsessing over the annoying barking of next door's dog and masturbating with the aid of the vibrating washing machine.
Then there are the lower classes; the working poor. The tensions between these groups decorate every strand of the story, since these people work mainly as servants. They are the cooks, car-valets and maids who allow the wealthier characters the ease they enjoy in their lives. And yet they are uncomfortably close, often living in the same houses, sharing small spaces. This enforced intimacy can be comic - as in the scene where a maid turns up for work and catches her boss naked on the sofa with last night's conquest - or awkward, like the moment where Bia's maid breaks an imported piece of electronics, sparking a shouting match between them.
The third class are the ones suggested by the montage of black and white photographs which opens the film - a wealthy family owns much of the street, and three generations still live there. The photos are of plantation workers from early and mid-20th Century Brazil, people who would have worked for men like Francisco. Indeed, the film makes the link specific with a visit paid by his Grandson to his crumbling old plantation, setting up the final plot thread, which references a history of exploitation by the ruling classes. Francisco's handsome, spoiled grandchildren are two polarities in the life of the street: Joao, recently returned after years in Germany, works as an estate agent, selling properties for the family; while Dinho is a slacker with criminal impulses.
The plot observes the arrival onto the street of a private security outfit who have noticed that these houses, despite their walls and security cameras, may be somewhat vulnerable. Crime and violence are a topical issue in Brazilian society, and Minho plugs right into that as the working class men wearing "Security" waistcoats ask for a small fee from each family to patrol the area, wielding nightsticks and walkie talkies.
Then the film elliptically traces the comings and goings of a wide cast. This may be Minho's first fiction film, but he has a solid track record in documentaries, and this shows in the level of control over the material he displays. He frames his shots with exacting precision, always emphasising the lines and blocks of the architecture, hemming his characters in, stressing how claustrophobic this world is. There is more than a little Antonioni here, but with a much warmer interest in story and character.
That is not to suggest that Minho is a humanist - Neighbouring Sounds is too off-key and seems too profoundly cynical about the relations between classes for that. Those relations are never less than complex: while Joao's maid scolds and teases him like a mother would, Francisco's maid sneaks off for sex in the house of a neighbour with the boss of the security team and a car-washer keys a woman's car after she offends him. In one scene of sly comedy, the residents of Joao's building discuss sacking their rude Night Doorman and whether or not they can get away without giving him a proper severance.
Perhaps the film's greatest triumph, as suggested by the title, is the extraordinary sound design. If Minho's compositions and use of movement are key in presenting the rigid class barriers which exist in this world, then his soundtrack triumphantly creates an oppressive mood right from the opening scene. There is little music heard here, most of it diegetic. Instead there is the constant sound of Recife; the ceaseless breath of a city, a distant hubbub punctured constantly by noises closer to home. A dog barks ceaselessly, chatter fades in and out, television's sandpaper scratch can be heard, babies wail, cars backfire, shouts echo off the buildings, we hear a football bounce. The world is always there, too close to ignore.
Minho's film, which feels at times like the expert condensing of a tv series down into just over two artful hours, is a masterfully arranged portrayal of just how that world affects some of its inhabitants.

Monday 8 April 2013



(Philip Stölzl, 2012)

The Expatriate contains a scene where Aaron Eckhart's ex-black ops agent Ben Logan is pursued into a European subway station by thugs, who he takes on and beats. Its a bit like the similar scene in Joe Wright's Hanna where Eric Bana takes on some thugs in a European subway station, only nowhere near as good.
The Expatriate also contains a scene where Ben Logan evades detection by policemen and security cameras in a European train station by keeping his head down and moving cleverly. It's a bit like the similar scene in Paul Greengrass' The Bourne Ultimatum where Jason Bourne evades detection in Waterloo Station, only nowhere near as good.
Then there's the scene in The Expatriate where Logan visits a European morgue to get to the bottom of the mystery of what is happening to him. It's a bit like the similar scene where Bourne visits a European morgue in Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity, only nowhere near as good.
And what about the scene in The Expatriate where the bad guys have taken Logan's sullen teenage daughter hostage, and Logan tells one of them that if they hurt her, he's dead? Thats a bit like a similar scene in Taken where Liam Neeson tells a bad guy something similar, only nowhere near as good.
The Expatriate goes further than mere copying, in fact. It takes the Bourne films almost as a genre and lifts much of what is so distinctive about them wholesale. The cinematography, editing, captions, mood and music all feel Bourne-like, but this film lacks the smart writing and distinctive directorial vision of that series.
It's not all bad, just thoroughly moderate in almost every way. Eckhart is a decent lead, Kurelyenko has little to do but looks as beautiful as ever, and the Belgian locations are well-utilised. The story follows Eckhart's decommisioned agent ("He grew a conscience" of course!) after he is double-crossed and finds himself on the run alongside his daughter. Of course they hardly know one another, but as a hundred action films have proven, theres no better way to bond with a near-stranger than a series of intense, near-death experiences. A strange problem here is that there aren't quite enough such experiences. Occupying the middle ground between thriller and action film, The Expatriate is a little too light on the sort of action that fires the engines of the Bourne films, and works a bit too hard to make us care about the father-daughter relationship it depicts to grip the way a great thriller should.
It's a tad overlong, and if Stölzl has a good eye for handsomely steely compositions and competently directs a couple of action sequences, his feel for pacing is way off on this evidence.
In short, its a bit like a whole load of other films, only nowhere near as good.


(Danny Boyle, 2013)

Some directors foreground their own style to what can be a distracting extent. Some do it for a reason, some are capable of expressing a thematic point through the stylistic devices they favour (though that is true of a depressingly small number), and some just like to keep a film visually and rhythmically interesting.
Danny Boyle, say, announced himself after a lengthy apprenticeship in British television, and his 1994 debut Shallow Grave bears some evidence of that experience. It is interior, carefully composed, sensitive to the pulses and gradations of its characters experiences. At the same time, it is obviously the work of a director bursting with exitement at the possibilities of the cinematic medium. That excitement bubbled over in his breakthrough smash, Trainspotting, from the next year. That film is full of tricks and devices, and feels like it was made by somebody who loved Scorsese's Goodfellas, pilfering many of the techniques on show in that film and using them to varying effect.
Since then, Boyle has gone back and forth. Sometimes extremely ostentatious in his directorial choices to the extent that he resembles Oliver Stone (minus the pompous politicising) at his worst - Slumdog Millionaire, for instance, or 127 Hours are both irritating for the barrage of film stocks, the hyperactivity of the editing, the use of music reminiscent of advertisements and trailers - he can also simplify his style given the right material. The dogma-esque horror of 28 Days Later and quiet comedy of Millions show a filmmaker suppressing his own ego for the good of his story. The former, along with another collaboration with writer Alex Garland, the sci-fi Sunshine, suggest that Boyle is best in the bold stories of genre territory where his style can serve and decorate narrative rather than defacing it, as is too often the case in drama.
Trance, therefore, should be a good fit for him. A heist thriller, it follows Auction-house employee Simon (James McAvoy)  after a £27 million painting is stolen from his workplace by gangster Franck (Vincent Cassel) and his mob. Simon, struggling with massive gambling debts, was in on the theft, but an injury during the incident leaves him with partial amnesia, and the painting is missing. Desperate to recover it, Franck engages hypno-therapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to help Simon extract the information from his own mind. But Elizabeth seems to be working her own agenda, and Simon's memories are more complex than they at first appear...
For much of the first hour or so, Trance is a perfectly middling Brit-thriller with some dark humour and stylish photography. The characters are familiar and not too interesting or sympathetic, and the script is a little tin-eared and obvious. The three charismatic leads keep it watchable despite this. And then it delves into psychology and the twists begin. Boyle's direction and editing get hallucinatory, dream-sequences seep into reality and the revelations start to rip into the story.
The final one of these is a bit of a rug-pull, and I can imagine some viewers will feel cheated by what it does to the story and the dynamic of the relationships between our central trio. But since I didn't care remotely about any of these characters - all movie-people, with little authentic or true about them - I enjoyed the last act more than the rest of the film. It flies along, adds some recognisably human behaviour to the relationship between two of the characters (up until then every exchange has felt like the kind of thing that only happens in movies) and for once, the rippling of fantasy, flashback and trance-states flicking through the story more or less excuses Boyle his stylistic tics. Here, those include heavy use of filters and distorted lenses together with the usual disoriented editing and a few nightmarish effects shots.
The repositioning of sympathy triggered by the last revelation, in particular, is probably the most interesting thing about the film. Of the leads, Dawson has the most interesting material, McEvoy is a watchable presence but a little shallow, and Cassel does a variation on roles he has played before, all of which suggest the problem of the first couple of acts. The film they constitute is mildly fun but also somewhat rote, set in a London without much sense of place (surprising from Boyle, who is usually very good in this regard) and centred on characters without much depth to them.
That it needs such severe narrative whiplash to become vaguely interesting, then, can be seen as a criticism of Trance, but it is also the thing that makes it worthwhile.

Saturday 6 April 2013


(Julia Loktev, 2011)

Engaged to be married, Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) are travelling through the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia. They engage a local guide, Dato (Bidzina Gudjabinze) to lead them through a particularly empty and stunning stretch of wilderness.
This is the basis of the first hour of Loktev's exceptional film. This young couple are plainly middle class Westerners - the type who like to go to relatively untouristed places like Georgia. Nica and Dato later discuss the many exotic countries she has visited, and she and Alex are smilingly interested in everything they encounter. They flirt and play with one another as they walk through some ravishingly beautiful landscapes, and the sensual intimacy of their relationship - and how much of it may be based on an intuitive, largely wordless communication - is established in the opening scene, where Alex washes Nica's hair in a little guesthouse bedroom.
Dato initially seems quiet and somewhat mysterious, but he opens up as they travel, revealing a quiet, slightly melancholy personality. All of this Loktev's alert, incisive eye captures, her camera tracking close alongside these people as they walk and noting every gesture, glance and nuance they exchange. The dynamics of the relationships here are beautifully calibrated, and the few ominous notes struck in the first act ring loudly through the vast, empty valleys of the story, introducing a vital tension to what might otherwise be a well-executed but pointless mixture of character study and travelogue.
And then, at around the midpoint of the film, something happens. The potential for violence appears suddenly, and the way one of the characters responds in that moment changes the dynamic between these people, changes the way they see one another, changes the way they see themselves. The moment is brief but shocking, its impact colossal.
Both are in shock for a while afterward, and here Loktev's method really shows its worth. We can see that they are now blind to the beauty around them, their gazes turned only inward, the intimacy between them blasted away by what has happened. Dato's presence - and his old-fashioned, uncompromised masculinity - complicates their relationship further.
Loktev mixes her close-ups of the faces of her principals with longer shots, acknowledging but never overplaying the beauty of her locations. Perhaps most impressive is the way she frames these figures in relation to one another - few films are so good on the subtleties of body language, on the way people move apart and together. She sticks mostly to a mastershot style, with few cuts and simple, precisely chosen compositions suiting the quiet, timeless setting for the story. Her greatest talent seems to be her ability to imbue her story and themes into her mise-en-scene. She does this, making her film almost claustrophobically intent on the relationship of the central couple while never forgetting the vastness of the deep green wilderness surrounding them.
This sort of film demands a lot of an audience; close attention, a willingness to interpret, a degree of patience with ambiguity and deliberate pacing. But it is entirely worthwhile in this case. For all that much is elusive here, there is a haunting quality to The Loneliest Planet. It may frustrate somewhat, but it is provocative and - in its technical credits, from Inti Briones' superb cinematography to Richard Skelton's score - thoroughly beautiful throughout. All three actors are excellent, and for all its artistic ambition, its central ideas are universal and fascinating.
Together with Loktev's last film Day Night Day Night, it suggests that Loktev is one of the great rising talents of International cinema, and it is worth watching for whatever she does next.

Tuesday 2 April 2013


(David Chase, 2012)

On the surface, Not Fade Away might seem like quite a safe, even banal little coming of age drama set in the era-defining tumult of the US in the late 1960s. But that would be to underestimate the ambition and skill of writer-director David Chase. Rarely, in fact, has a filmmaker made a first film which is so perfectly honed, balancing a truly personal sense of artistic expression with accessible, populist storytelling. But then, while this may be Chase's debut feature, he was the creator and guiding force behind almost a decade of HBO's The Sopranos, and the sensibility evident in that show - the lyricism and incisive portrayal of characters in just a few brief scenes - is again on display here.
It tells the seemingly autobiographical story of Douglas (John Magaro), a teenager growing up in New Jersey in the '60s, who forms a band with some of his high school friends. Along the way, he also clashes with his conservative Italian father (James Gandolfini) and begins a relationship with the ethereal middle class goddess he worshipped through his school years, Grace (Bella Heathcote).
Again, that all sounds a bit like the kind of mid-budget studio films that proliferated in the '90s, heavy on the period detail, with a soundtrack filled with obvious, nostalgia-inducing '60s hits, perhaps featuring Alec Baldwin and an unmistakeable suggestion of The Wonder Years.
But Chase is too refined as a storyteller for that. His film is elliptical, skipping through years and crucial plot points, ensuring the audience has to be attuned to gesture and nuance to understand his characters. These bandmates are a credible, breathing portrayal of late teens and the tensions and dynamics crackling between them - a complex, often uneasy stew of loyalty, affection and jealousy, with different goals and needs compromising what begins as a shared dream. Douglas is a painfully true character; pretentious and a little conceited, only half-aware of how important music and film - art! Chase is unafraid of declaring - will be in his life. His clashes with his old-fashioned father are, again, beautifully shaded; with paternal frustration and love mingling in some bitter arguments as the two men grope for empathy and understanding.
The arc of the band's development runs parallel with Douglas' relationship with Grace. Early on their competence and the excitement of the music - a lot of pumped-up blues covers, influenced mainly by the Rolling Stones, a comparison underlined by the audacious opening scene where we see a young Mick Jagger and Keith Richards meet on a London train, then hear our narrator, Douglas' little sister, compare that meeting to his founding of his own band  - wins them fans and Chase show us triumphant early gigs at house parties and raw jamming sessions. Meanwhile he and Grace are slowly falling in love, little telling moments in conversation assuming massive importance, just as they do in life. Then the band cuts a demo, Douglas becomes singer and things are going well, just as Grace and he are a steady, loving couple.
Later everything gets messy, and the story shifts gears in the final act after a few small personal tragedies have rocked their young lives. Through all this, Chase is intent on the reality of experience. Mundane scenes in suburban kitchens and bickering relatives jostle with Douglas' important discoveries of Antonioni, Orson Welles and Leadbelly. His own relationship with blues music is cast in an uncomfortable light by a black co-workers love of Tony Bennett. The final scene is a breathtakingly bold move towards abstraction, and it finally suggests Chase's true goal here - to make a film about a young man's journey towards his calling, his discovery that art is what is truly important to him. The ending leaves a relationship in an ambiguous place - just as The Sopranos did - but thematically Chase has made himself clear.
What helps make this such a great little film are the details. All of the performances are good, and the period trappings feel authentic without ever splurging over into overstatement. The soundtrack is, predictably, superb, and Eigil Bryld's cinematography is richly atmospheric. But its the casual mastery of Chase that lingers. Like a great pop song, Not Fade Away is short and simple, yet somehow complex and even quietly profound.

Monday 1 April 2013


(John M. Chu, 2013)

It can be tricky to define, the difference between stupidity and silliness. And while the G.I. Joe films both seem monumentally stupid, in reality they're merely silly. They don't aspire to intelligence, don't feature great, tight plotting, or acute characterisation or jaw-dropping cinematic invention. But then they don't have any pretences about themselves either. All they try to do is tell the sort of ripping yarn a 12 year old boy might like. The first G.I. Joe film, Stephen Sommers' G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, was an almost hallucinatory piece of pre-adolescent pulp delirium, based quite faithfully on the Marvel Comics inspired by the Hasbro toyline featuring a range of International soldiers who form a fighting force to oppose the vicious sci-fi terrorists of the Cobra organisation. Those comics mix science fiction technology, war story characterisation and plotting with a hint of soap and a fair portion of ninja action. Sommers copied all that, stuffing his movie with villainous masterminds, lots of groovy masked men, humungous explosions, tons of martial arts, a flashback to a characters origin every ten minutes or so, ultimatums delivered to world leaders, action scenes in exotic corners of the globe, crappy comedy, and hot bad girls in bondage gear who had good hearts underneath.
Chu isn't quite so gleeful in his range, telling a tighter, duller, more conventional story of the Joes double-crossed, mostly destroyed, then seeking revenge. He retains a few of the first films more successful elements, including the rival ninjas, raised and trained together, who formed the fan-favourite geekbait of the comics glory years (played by a charismatic Lee Byung-hun as Storm Shadow and Ray Park under a mask as the mute Snake Eyes). The best scene in the film - perhaps in both films - is the extended action sequence as Snake Eyes and new protege Jinx attempt to kidnap Storm Shadow from his Himalayan retreat, filled with thrillingly vertiginous shots of ninjas balletically battling on ropes hung from cliff-tops, all of it shot with a clear elegance and rhythm that serve as a reminder that Chu made his name as a director of musicals, of a sort.
The plot revolves around a good old-fashioned quest for global domination and is foiled through good old-fashioned firepower, with the biggest scenes in the film decorated with huge orange explosions and shouting, gurning figures in motion. Those characters have loose personalities but absolutely no depth or emotional weight - Dwayne Johnson's Roadblock seems to willingly abandon his family in his quest for revenge, Adrianne Palicki's Lady Jaye is saddled with ridiculously shallow daddy issues which are brought up through her spats with Bruce Willis' Colonel Joe Coulson, while the villains are just several shades of pure, insane evil. The story is formed by a series of escapes, attacks and scenes where people plan escapes and attacks, but it all looks slick and pretty when it needs to, and Chu keeps it rolling and making sense (for the most part).
If it lacks the sense of fun of the first film, its still somewhat refreshing to see a blockbuster so lacking in pomposity and so unafraid of seeming so utterly silly. This, after all, is a film unafraid of using RZA as the sensei of a ninja clan, depicting the destruction of London, having its heroes shoot remote control bullets, and giving Walton Goggins a scene-stealing cameo as the warden of a cryogenic prison deep underground in Germany. The G.I. Joe films are willing to try anything crazy in the hopes that something will work, and that's an endearing quality.