Thursday 27 June 2013


(Richard Linklater, 2013)

Linklater's series of "Before" films have shadowed my life. I'm roughly the same age as the characters and it has been startling how accurately each film has zeroed in on the concerns and preoccupations of its chosen decade in the life of an educated Westerner. But more than that, these films have been incredibly articulate about the mood of each phase in a life - the way experience changes our perception of the world and of ourselves. Before Sunrise reflected the hopeful romanticism and yearning for adventure of the early 20s. The even better Before Sunset captured the slight disappointment; the sense of mistakes made and chances missed, of the 30s. And now, the dawning reality of family life is evident in Before Midnight.
It finds Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) at the end of a holiday at a villa in the Pelopennese in Greece where Jesse has been invited on a sort of writer's retreat. They have been a couple, it emerges, since the end of the last film, with a pair of beautiful twin girls and a family life in Paris. The plot here differs slightly from the first two films, in that we see them interact with various other characters in the second act here, engaged in a lengthy dinner-party chat with three other couples before they head off on a stroll into the nearby town for a romantic night in a hotel. That stroll begins as one of the conversations we saw in the other films and then turns much darker, as all the tensions and resentments of any couple in a long term relationship emerge when they reach the hotel.
It is, just like the other two instalments, fascinating, at times hilarious, moving in it's simple warm, recognisable humanity, and utterly brilliant. Linklater has never been an ostentatious director, and he just lets his actors do their thing, trusting that they (co-writers, remember) know these characters. The camera maintains a respectable distance and yet misses nothing. The script and cast miss nothing, either, making this trilogy of films perhaps the greatest I have ever seen at capturing all the complex dynamics of the way people actually talk.
The argument that forms the last half hour here is beautifully observed, a surging, constantly mutating string of insults, logical positions and negotiations familiar to anyone who has ever had an argument with a partner. And what is at stake is universal - Jesse and Celine are talking about their specific circumstances, but really they are intent on the question of love; if it lasts, what it means and what it gives, how it can be sustained and if we expect too much of it (all of this is made explicit in that early dinner party conversation).
They acknowledge that they are the great loves of one anothers lives, but the question is: is that enough? It may be at 24 and 32, but at 41?
One slight criticism may be that this film is a little more involved with their shared life. In the first two films we learned about them as they learned about one another, but here they argue about incidents they have been through together, air gripes based on old events. But that is a small detail; even those scenes are ludicrously interesting, and Hawke and Delpy make it all work, make it all feel real. These characters feel like old friends to me, and that warmth is a key part of how these films work.
But they wouldn't work without these two actors or that connection with the issues that are relevant in the lives of people like them.
They do work, and then some.

Tuesday 25 June 2013


(Marc Forster, 2013)

There are all sorts of dissonances in seeing a Zombie film so - so - so bloated with money and effects. The Zombie sub-genre is a small one. It's cheap, and nasty, and disreputable. It features creatures eating brains and dragging entrails from bellies with their teeth. It allows for shock cut frights but also for a sort of grim atmosphere of sustained dread which comes when the audience knows all hope is gone and all that remains before the characters onscreen is horror and loss after loss.
Well, World War Z, for all its epic scenes of cities falling as zombies swarm chaotically through overcrowded streets, captured nicely by Marc Forster in a series of impressively evocative helicopter shots, is something different entirely. This is the zombie film as summer blockbuster, a humungous corporate tentpole with a colossal budget and too much to lose to really allow for the sort of hopelessness that zombie movies generally demand.
Not that it is a happy film; about 40 minutes in, things look unblinkingly doomed. Most of the worlds major cities have been overrun, Governments have toppled (the severity of the situation is made clear when Brad Pitt's Jerry, our fearless and resourceful survivor of a hero, is informed that the US President is dead), and survivors live in cramped boats in an Atlantic flotilla or in refugee camps.
Only the barricaded Nation-states - North Korea, Israel - are doing well, primed as they are to see off all comers. There is some dull political commentary here, and the whole film seems to be a barely articulate essay on the issue of overpopulation, but really all it's interested in is its series of set-pieces.
It begins depicting Jerry at home in a scene of familial breakfast so blissfully idyllic it feels almost like a parody, but soon the action begins. A drive in downtown Philadelphia is interrupted by a zombie attack which sweeps through the streets like a wave.
These early scenes work extremely well; Jerry is made vulnerable by the presence of his children, who cry and whinge and freeze at all the worst times. They escape the city only to find themselves in set-piece number 2. This is a hint at the mild schizophrenia gripping Forster's film, butchered as it was in post-production and with six separate credited writers involved. In the midst of all the grand-scale chaos Forster orchestrates he narrows focus to follow the family as they climb a darkened stairwell to a helicopter rendezvous on a rooftop. This scene is entirely about tension, suspense, a sort of distilled fear. For long stretches, World War Z seems in no way to be a horror movie, despite its genre-specific content. And then occasionally it decides it wants to make us jump. And it does so quite effectively.
After that Jerry is persuaded by his old bosses at the UN to take a trip to South Korea to attempt to discover where this zombie outbreak originated, and the plot follows him from there to Israel - location of the most spectacular scenes - to an eerie, greyish Wales reminiscent of the BBC science fiction tv of the 1970s, where he and a team of scientists attempt o create something to give dwindling humanity some edge on the zombies.
Throughout Forster follows surging action sequences - a zombie attack on a plane, the breaching of Jerusalem's walls by an ant-like tower of the undead - with exposition, explaining to the audience what is happening, allowing characterisation to suffer to some extent as he does so. Pitt is crucial to what success the film may claim, anchoring it throughout as the unflappable Jerry. He is desperate to return to his family, grimly getting on with his mission purely to that end. But he is also a somewhat generic hero. He sees things nobody else does, makes connections, figure things out.
Other characters flit across the narrative without ever really sticking.
The film it reminded me most of is Spielberg's War of the Worlds, though it lacks the style of that film, that sense of a director with a natural flair for such material. Instead it sporadically throws up a few great moments, indelible images and fantastic actors; Forster has always had a good eye even if he is less confident with action. The likes of James Badge Dale and Matthew Fox are briefly glimpsed, the score is by Muse, and it is, ultimately, far better than it might have been. There may be a future for teh zombie blockbuster after all....

Saturday 15 June 2013


(Zack Snyder, 2013)

I could make a solid argument that Alan Moore's Miracleman is the most influential Superhero story of the last 40 years or so. Every "revisionist" story that followed - including Moore's own Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns - was influenced by the approach Moore took in Miracleman, where he explores what it would be really like if an actual superhuman being existed in the real world. Moore is an intelligent writer, and he investigates this idea quite thoroughly in the series, especially the incredible final issue. But he is also a great writer of genre stories, and Miracleman includes Nazi scientists and alien races, and incredible battles between superheroes. This is perhaps the aspect of the series which has permeated the comics mainstream most in the decades since Moore wrote his stories in the 1980s. He creates one particular issue in which two beings with superstrength brawl in the streets of and skies above London. They punch each other through walls, as superheroes had been doing in the Marvel and DC universes for decades. But Moore thinks about the consequences. Here, they destroy half of the city. Thousands are killed as buildings crumble and concrete shatters. The story, while tremendously exciting, even exhilarating, is also sickening in the scale of its violence.
Watching the third act of Man of Steel, that Miracleman story was the first thing that came to mind.

Critics generally dislike superhero movies. The genre is seen, and not without reason, as catering to the lowest common denominator of summer audiences, following formulas and overusing cgi in pursuit of overly familiar story arcs and character stereotypes. Critics certainly don't take superhero movies seriously, and when a filmmaker does - like Christopher Nolan, in his Batman trilogy - he gets slammed for his presumption and ambition.
Well, Christopher Nolan produced Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, and it somewhat resembles his Batman films in its tone of brooding moral seriousness, and in the massive scale of its action. The aim here is to make a Superman film for a modern audience, which means losing some of the joy and wonder which are undeniably a part of the Superman mythos; this is Superman stripped of some of the apple pie sweetness crucial to the appeal of the classic reading of the character.
But then, as a character, Superman is great enough to withstand multiple readings and variations. Snyder and writer David Goyer - also familiar from Nolan's Batman films, and the Blade trilogy in addition - streamline and excise in order to find the character best suited to the tone they are working in.   They also work extremely hard to avoid the problems that so many superhero films encounter - lets call it origin story syndrome. Oh, this is an origin story, but they get Clark into the red and blue outfit relatively early on, then follow a non-linear path through their story.
There are roughly three different sections. It starts off, as Richard Donner's Superman The Movie did, on Krypton, where Superman's biological father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is desperate to get his newborn son Kal- El off the planet before it is destroyed. At the same time, General Zod (Michael Shannon) is organising a coup, and we see the clash of wills and philosophies between the two. Zod kills Jor-El and is imprisoned, but not before promising to find Kal El, escaped across the stars. Krypton is visualised as a prog rock sci-fi rock planet, studied with ornate metal skyscrapers, roamed by lizard creatures on foot and by wing, and both Crowe and Shannon do solid work in this section, the strength of which establishes Man of Steel as more of a science fiction film than a superhero one.
When it gets to earth, Snyder skips around. Borrowing some tone and imagery from Terrence Malick, we see Clark as a little boy in Kansas and as a lone drifter across North America as an adult, and the best scenes in the film are mostly in this section, many of them focusing on his relationship with the human parents who found and raised him, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Costner is especially good here, those old Gary Cooper comparisons making sense again for the first time in years as he presents a father filled with fear for his son the God, and what his powers might mean for him as a person. What they mean for him as a child is pain; unable to handle the sensory overload created by x-ray vision and super-hearing, unable ever to use or even hint at his immense strength against the bullies who torment him, young Clark is a mess.
Henry Cavill does a good job with the adult version of that character, presenting him as conflicted about himself and his place in the world and yet as essentially good. He is the product of the Kents, utterly American; modest, serious, full of integrity. Cavill is brilliantly cast - Superman should have the sort of square-jawed but bland handsomeness he possesses, he should project strength but never seem all that interesting, he should carry a hint of melancholy at the immense burden his isolation forces him to bear. Cavill does all this, and he makes the emotional scenes work. We sympathise with his god, because his problems are so human.
Those problems arrive with the coming of Zod and his followers to Earth, ushering in the third - and worst - section of the film. Thats not to say it's bad, exactly. There are a few early thrills once Clark is in the familiar costume. The first time he flies and finds himself rocketing, whooping, above the earth.
The moment after his first battle with the Kryptonians when a squad of soldiers lower their guns in a sort of quiet awe. The way Snyder defiantly has him assume a Christ pose as he floats momentarily in space. But most of that final section is devoted to destruction. Snyder embraces post-9/11 disaster porn imagery with an enthusiasm that would embarrass Michael Bay. He does it very well, orchestrating some really impressive visuals and a few fun genre moments amidst all the numbing chaos. But it is hard to forget that while Superman is punching villains in the face - this film has more punching in it than most boxing films manage - thousands of innocents are probably dying as cities topple and explode around them. This is where Miracleman is relevant.
It also raises the issue of the essential characterisation of Superman. It is one thing to dispose of some of the mythology - and by the end, it is clear that that has only been tweaked - but another to change what is quintessential to how the character works. Superman helps others. He saves people. He does not kill, he does not let them die. That is an issue I can see troubling many fans of the character, and explanations about how this is a story of him as a rookie don't really suffice as an explanation.
It seems odd to criticise this film for having too much action when the worst thing about the Christopher Reeve Superman films is that they don't have enough - though they have not aged all that well in other ways - but it isn't the quantity of the action here, its the repetitive nature of much of it. Snyder makes some smart choices with the shooting. He mainly sticks to a single camera, keeps the editing quick and only lets it slip into incoherence to suggest the figures are moving too fast and hitting too hard for the human eye to follow. But he omits some of his better known stylistic tics like speed ramping and hyper slo-mo when they would have worked beautifully with this material, and the result is a movie that feels a little like he is trying to be somebody else; a little bit Christopher Nolan, a little Terrence Malick, a bit Michael Bay.
That is the thing with Snyder - he is one of those modern directors with such a confident, dazzling sense of his own talent that you do feel as if he could so almost anything. He gets so much so right - he textures scenes brilliantly, his pacing is faultless, and he has a painterly sense of colour and composition, all of it edited to within an inch of its life. Yet there is something frustratingly off about his sensibility, for me, something almost ineffable. It all seems entirely obvious, artificial, perhaps even soulless.
So Man of Steel ends as a massive cgi slugfest, and after that rather dazzling - and surprisingly emotionally effecting - first hour that comes as a bit of a disappointment. But it is still mostly satisfying, brilliantly made and nicely acted, and finds a way to make Superman work in the modern world. Credit for that must go to Snyder, Goyer and the cast, but also to Hans Zimmer, whose bombastic score is rousing enough that I never missed the singular genius of John Williams work for the character.

Tuesday 11 June 2013


(Shimmy Marcus, 2012)

LiR were one of the many Dublin bands who swarmed in the city's clubs and bars in the 1980s and '90s, hoping to be - in commercial terms at least - the next U2.
It never happened, and Shimmy Marcus' film is partly an attempt to explain why. It's composed of a mix of archive footage - much of it vintage camcorder stuff, some taken from Irish tv - and contemporary interviews with the band members, now mainly pudgy and middle-aged in sharp contrast to their skinny youthful faces in the old photographs and clips. They trace a familar narrative of young boredom on the streets of Dublin's Donaghmede, a few failed attempts at starting a band, and the gradual rise to competence and local popularity. Dublin then was rife with kids in bands; a few great, some good, most pretty shocking. But the majority got record deals and made albums in London or the States, only to limp back home a few years later when fame and fortune refused to come calling. LiR, despite an impressive fanbase and their reputation as an awesome live act, failed to do so, and they still can't quite understand why.
And so the undercurrent is pronounced early on - this will ultimately be a story of a band of naive young men who believe they were let down and even exploited by their older, cannier manager. Eventually they will travel to America, where a series of grinding, mentally and physically exhausting tours and a record deal coincide with members leaving, managers quitting, lots of stress, and no success.
This is a question Marcus' funny, interesting film never really successfully grapples with: were LiR ever good enough? For all that the band members talk about how it was only the music that really mattered, only two songs are really lingered over and identified, and much of the rest, while well-played and nicely sung, sound pretty dull, which is how this Dublin boy remembers them. The only allusions to this possibility are an acknowledgement that Irish critics were unusually damning about the band - rejected delusionally by one band member in a rant about how much hate there is in such a small country - and their American Label boss claiming that they hated the first LiR record (resulting in a vastly different American version).
None of this prevents their story from being quietly compelling. They mostly make for charming, articulate interviewees in a very Dublin way, mixing earnest homilies about the joy of rock with cynical jokes about life on the road, and there is something quite touching about two old childhood friends roaming the drab suburban streets of their youth and sharing reminiscences, wondering where it all went and why it never quite worked out. Marcus uses his footage nicely, keeping a rambling story and large cast tight and ordered throughout.


(M Night Shyamalan, 2013)

Sometimes it's easy to see why a much-anticipated multi-million dollar blockbuster fails, and fails spectacularly. No script, unlikable characters, a sense of arrogant entitlement to an audience, miscast actors, a misunderstanding of what viewers want to see; or more commonly, some awful mix of various among these qualities...these are the sorts of things which capsize these summer and Christmas tentpoles.
But the failure of a film like M Night Shyamalan's After Earth, roasted by critics and largely ignored by audiences, is harder to understand. As blockbusters go - as Will Smith films go, in fact - this is an incredibly spartan and minimalist work. Of course it cost millions and is filled with special effects and stunts and action. But it is nowhere near as bloated as the majority of action and science fiction blockbusters. And while it's never outstanding - it has a few key flaws working against it - it has some triumphant passages, and is largely an impressive, gripping genre film.
It is set in a Heinlein-esque future in which man has fled a ruined Earth for a new home. There they have encountered an alien race who have, in turn, created a race of blind monsters called Ursas who can literally smell fear and use that ability to impale humans on trees. Humanity evolved a method to fight these creatures, one created by Cypher Raige (Will Smith). Known as ghosting, it involves eliminating all fear and focusing on the moment in order to render an Ursa blind and therefore vulnerable. All of this is ripped through a tad awkwardly in an opening montage-accompanied-by-a-voiceover. The story proper introduces Raige's son Kitai (Jaden Smith), a cadet who wants to be a Ranger just like his legendary father, but who seems to be held back by his obsession with a past trauma - the death of his sister on the pincer of an Ursa when he was a child and his own failure to act.
As an exercise in father-son bonding, Raige brings Kitai on an instellar trip to a new training facility. Only their ship hits an asteroid field and crash-lands on old Earth, with its forests full of beasties, its poisonous atmosphere, and its lethal changes in weather. Not only that; Raige is incapacitated by the crash, and his son has to trek 100 kilometres through the forest to the tail of the ship in order to activate an emergency beacon. But the Ursa they had been transporting is on the loose in the forest, and Kitai still can't get the hang of ghosting...
Once it gets to Earth and all the mythology and set-up is done, After Earth is revealed as a taut little survival adventure with a sci-fi sheen. It is essentially boy versus nature, with his dad backseat driving, and as such it works well. The conceit that Raige can see everything Kitai can, and even much he cannot; and warn him of imminent threats allows them to keep communicating even when Kitai is alone in the forest. The forest scenes are by turns eerie, beautiful and exciting, facing Kitai off against a horde of baboons, some tigers, an enormous bird of prey, the shocking changes in environment, and a leech with a toxic bite which paralyses him. That is all before the final act and the appearance of the Ursa, which, when it comes, is beautifully handled in a sequence of scenes without any dialogue. Much of this is down to the direction of the maligned Shyamalan.
While he was overhyped and a tad overrated in his more successful period ("The New Hitchcock?"), he was always a talented, distinctive and interesting filmmaker, with a unique style and voice. You can just about still make that style out; there are still long takes, bold compositions, and an odd, almost dreamy pacing here. He always generated suspense and tension as much through style as through narrative, and that talent remains even as he lets the situations in which Kitai finds himself supply their own narrative torque.
But his voice is a little more difficult to discern. There is still a journey here; a lead character struggling to find his own way, and overcome an inner demon, which is a familiar trope from Shyamalan's earlier work. But Jaden Smith is such an inept lead, lacking any of his father's charisma or magnetism, that his journey and struggle are muted and seem minor set against the physical trek he faces.
Smith is the biggest weakness here; the film needs somebody strong enough to carry it, and he is simply not that. The vaguely Nietzschean philosophy central to "ghosting" is ill-defined too, all the better to set up the climax, when it should be vivid and simple.
Perhaps silliest and most distracting, however, is the accent everybody in this future is saddled with. A weird mix of Carribbean, Deep South and Received Pronunciation, it renders a few monologues near-laughable.

Saturday 1 June 2013


(Jay Roach, 2012)

It seems odd to attempt to mix political satire with the sort of broad absurdist wit with which Will Ferrell has made his name, but that is exactly what The Campaign tries to do.
In some ways, it's extremely successful; there are some big laughs here, though they mostly come from the absurdist humour. The political satire in The Campaign is broad and often blunt, but it is still a mostly likeable film. The leads - Ferrell as Congressman Cam Brady and Zach Galifianakis as Marty Huggins, his opponent in the race for a seat for a district in North Carolina - are both excellent here in different ways.
Ferrell gives another spin on his usual territory; Brady is one of his sexist, racist dinosaurs, oblivious to the fact that his outdated ideas on most things have no place in the modern world, while Huggins is an absolute oddball - camp, pedantic and incapable of opening doors. Their campaign is filled with outrageous stunts and tricks, most of it funded (in the films big play for savage satire) by Corporate money desperate to sell the district to the Chinese. Dylan McDermott is fun as the sharp slick spin doctor who turns Huggins' career around, but most of the best material comes on the off-beat:  the scene where Huggins encourages his family to lay all their sins on the table and is horrified by his boys escalating confessions of sexual and delinquent behaviour is a brilliant one, while Ferrell's campaign ads and speeches are beautifully hyper-sincere. Roach directs it all efficiently, and if it isn't outstanding,  at least it is occasionally funny.