Sunday 29 December 2013


(J.C. Chandor, 2013)

Amongst other things, All Is Lost plays like a direct reaction to writer-director J.C. Chandor's debut, the talky stock market drama Margin Call. That film was full of characters and sodden with dialogue in impersonal created spaces - offices, corridors, automobiles.
All Is Lost features virtually no dialogue. And the majority of it takes place in the open, on the vastness of the ocean.
Robert Redford plays the nameless protagonist, awoken aboard his yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean by a collision with a floating shipping container. A gaping hole in the side of his boat is letting in water. He acts quickly, ingeniously escaping the container, and sets about making repairs. Aside from an opening voiceover wherein he apologises and says he will miss people, all that we know about Redford's character we learn from observing him doing things: he is utterly defined by his actions. He climbs the mast, pumps out the cabin, eats from a can, smiles at a sunset, falls asleep while reading, tries to fix the radio, goes overboard but survives...this all places a heavy burden on Redford as performer, and he is perhaps the best he has ever been here; telling us all we need to know through sighs and wrinkled scowls as his situation gets progressively worse from scene to scene...
Chandor's story is wonderfully grim. Hope is offered to his hero on a few occasions, then brutally crushed. The logic with which things fall apart is similarly precise. There are a few poetic asides - Chandor occasionally pulls away from the action on the boat to show us a view from below - this tiny craft bobbing in the immensity of the sea. We see shoals of fish swim nearby. Redford scans the horizon for another vessel - he is dwarfed by the expanse of water, the hugeness of the sky above, his struggle for survival rendered petty and small by the magnificence of nature itself.
This potent, utterly gripping survival tale works completely as a narrative experience, but it is also simple enough to offer many different allegorical interpretations. The ambiguity of the ending only emphasises this further.
Ultimately though All Is Lost establishes Chandor as an interesting young American director, and offers Redford his first great role in years.

Saturday 28 December 2013


(James Ponsoldt, 2013)

Set within the usual movie-world of a High School in smalltown USA, complete with keg parties, proms, graduation and caring teachers, what really separates The Spectacular Now from most other teen movies is the acuity of its focus.
That focus is all on Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a loquacious, charmingly hedonistic senior who has just been dumped by his girlfriend, the smart, pretty Cassidy (Brie Larson) and finds himself approaching the first real turning point in his life. High School is ending, and Sutter, who is popular and seems genuinely happy with his life there, doesn't know what to do with himself. He is surprisingly drawn to the pretty, shy Aimee (Shailene Woodley) and they begin a tentative romance. But Sutter's own nature presents a problem to most everything in his life, and a long-awaited meeting with his absent, deadbeat father (Kyle Chandler) further complicates things.
Much here rests on Teller's performance, and he is exceptional, creating a character who is evidently charismatic but always sympathetic, despite the frequent idiocy of his behaviour. He matches the film - Ponsoldt has created a world which, while portraying an environment familiar from many teen movies, feels more authentic than most, both emotionally and dramatically. Teller is soulful and warm, like the movie, and Woodley is his equal, making Aimee a complicated girl, clever but bewitched by this charming youth and his sudden interest in her.
There are many lovely moments here - Sutter's intense, complex relationship with Cassidy, who knows she has to move on to allow her adult life to begin, but just can't let go, is always nicely observed and played, and Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Jason Leigh get one great scene each. The moments where Sutter and Aimee connect and grow closer always feel true and touching, and Ponsoldt is good on atmosphere and feel; this is a movie that feels as if its set in the real world, which is still rare in this genre. It always looks good - casually lush photography which never shies away from the spots and blemishes on the faces of its lead characters - but what is most notable is the emotional effect. Sutter's journey initially feels minor, even trifling, but it gathers weight and is moving by the last scene.

Tuesday 24 December 2013


(Cary Fukunaga, 2011)

For all that Fukunaga was meant to infuse another hoary old literary classic with some modern style and crackle, his adaptation of Jane Eyre feels much like the majority of period melodramas made over the last decade or so. Yes he pulls off some nicely inventive shots, yes the cinematography is impressively rich and textured, but that makes surprisingly little difference to the narrative experience. Its still a load of familiar plot developments and characters - most of them so common in this particular genre they are beyond cliche - with actors working hard to make stiffly formal period appropriate dialogue sound natural.
This adaptation takes a few liberties with the novel; mainly through emphasis and emotional weighting, but is otherwise quite faithful.
What elevates it is the cast. Mia Wasikowska is terrific as Jane, and her chemistry with a similarly excellent Michael Fassbender as Mr Rochester carries the film. These are both tricky roles - Jane is a saintly sufferer, Rochester unlikably grumpy but ultimately loveable, and the way the actors conjure their mutual passion in very few dialogue-heavy scenes is remarkable, and finally quite moving. The likes of Jamie Bell and Judi Dench offer good support.

Saturday 21 December 2013


(Adam McKay, 2013)

This overlong sequel resembles the now-classic original Ron Burgundy film in that it is extremely hit-and-miss. But the hit rate has undeniably dropped while the pacing has slowed, the plotting has more-or-less evaporated, and the characters remain largely (often extremely funny) caricatures.
Here Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell, also co-writing) finds himself working at a new venture; 24-hour News Network GNN, funded by a maverick Australian millionaire and run by a sassy black female executive Linda Jackson (Meagan Goode). He and his news team of oddballs (Paul Rudd, Steve Carrell and David Koechner) revolutionise television news with a single broadcast, replacing stories with gossip, titillation and jingoism, and become massive celebrities along the way.
The satirical edge to that account of the evolution of tv news is probably the best thing here, but Ferrell and McKay make sure to fill out around it with lots of business. Most obviously (and reflecting his increased status) Steve Carrell's Brick is given much more to do, resulting in some of the biggest laughs here, especially when he meets Chani (Kirsten Wiig) and is instantly smitten. Like the original, this feels like a series of linked sketches, and some sketches work far better than others: the interlude after Ron has been rendered blind is inspired, as is his meeting with the family of Linda Jackson, during which he talks what he imagines is "black". The likes of James Marsden as a smarmy rival anchorman and Greg Kinnear as his wife's new lover both do well with their parts.
But while it is bloated and suffers from intermittent longeurs, I can imagine that this is a film, like the original, that will only improve with subsequent viewings.

Sunday 15 December 2013


(Declan Lowney, 2013)

The opening fifteen minutes of Coogan's first big-screen Alan Partridge production are the highlight of the film. They depict Partridge, still every inch the pumped-up, insecure, awkwardly semi-aware "presenter" bore familiar from several classic UK tv series in his natural environment; presenting an afternoon music & chat radio show on Norfolk radio while living in Norwich. The show sounds abysmal but is beautifully observed, Partridge joshing and judging his way through it alongside a sheepishly wry sidekick, playing classic hits and making dreadful puns, bantering with callers while his younger, hipper co-workers mock him behind his back.
This material is so good because it gets right to the core of what makes Partridge such a joy: the minute attention to human foibles, pomposity and prejudice. Coogan knows people, and Partridge allows him to move between sharp caricature and agonising realism with dazzling fluidity. This is the appeal of teh tv shows and its the appeal of the early stages of this film.
The problem with Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is that sooner or later, an actual plot has to kick in. In this case its a plot including an armed siege, police SWAT teams and Partridge plunged in at the deep end. And it's not bad. It remains funny throughout, no matter how silly the storyline gets, with a couple of set-pieces that showcase Partridge at his best (worst?): his peacock act once he realises he has an audience outside the siege, for instance, and his rambling story about karaoke and retitling Brian Adams "Summer of '69" "Summer of '29". It is rare to see Coogan in such a straight-ahead comedic role as this in cinema, but here he gurns and grimaces and pulls faces throughout, and his judgement is usually terrific about what he can make work.
The rest of the cast is solid, the plotting workable, and the direction no more than efficient, but none of that really matters: they all exist to support Coogan in delivering his greatest creation in a vehicle for cinema, and it just about works.