Sunday 28 December 2014


(Mike Leigh, 2014)

Director of photography Dick Pope's attempts to paint with light - an obvious nod to the subject of this sprawling biopic - make Mr. Turner easily Mike Leigh's most beautiful film. For a director most obviously acclaimed for his studies of modern British life, class and morals, it is telling that I find his period dramas effortlessly superior to his films on contemporary themes. Part of that is his approach to setting and texture; Leigh's historical dramas are visceral and earthy, keeping his characters front and centre, never distracted by the costumes or locations many examples of this particular genre obsess over. The caricatures which litter his work also fit better into this period world where class seems so much more starkly demarcated than in the complex landscape of modern Britain, where some of Leigh's characters are impossibly stagey, self-indulgent creations, walking embodiments of the flaws in his improvisation-and-rehearsal-to-create-a-script approach. There is still some of that in Mr. Turner, to be sure; a particular weakness for a funny voice or a gurning facial expression is a real Leigh signature, his fallback when he needs a laugh.
It's even there in Timothy Spall's fine lead performance - his Turner grunts more than he speaks, often to great comic effect. A telling character detail, yes; but also a decision made by an actor that does not always work.
Mr. Turner elliptically, messily chronicles the last quarter century of the artists life; already an illustrious and controversial master, he is increasingly eccentric, pursuing his art and his passions with little regard for anything else. He has several complex relationships with women; (barely) endures the death of his father, meets with patrons, friends and rivals, and paints, paints, paints, using food and spit to achieve the effects he needs.
This is a dense film, full of detail and characters and complicated inter-relationships and mysterious ambiguities, and though it sprawls in several directions, it always feels controlled and even concise; Leigh knows what he wants to show us of Turner, his visionary genius allied with his difficult personality, his charm with his sentimentality (it does feel a little autobiographical at times). The ellipses largely help the film avoid traditional biopic problems - it is rarely predictable. It feels like life, a life lived by a genius, a full, singular life. Spall is crucial here, letting us see the fleet, quick mind of this man trapped inside the "gargoyle" he sees in the mirror, together with his at-times overwhelming emotional intensity, and the supporting cast are mostly terrific too.
A lovely score by Gary Yershon helps illuminate something of Turner's melancholy and obsession, but it is only fair to return to the work of Pope. This is a film about a man obsessed with light, and Pope and Leigh seem to have understood that light is central to not only Turner, but cinema. Their film makes that case eloquently enough.

Tuesday 23 December 2014


(David Wain, 2014)

Great gags and inspired scenes are studded through They Came Together. The best of those, oddly, are the ones that aren't parodying romcom cliches, the ones that have their own internal humour.
Like the scene where the boss of Paul Rudd's Joel finds himself unable to remove his superhero costume at a fancy dress party - shot by Wain in a series of frantic takes as he contorts his body, his face more and more crimson -  and shits his pants, then denies any culpability, having left his soiled costume on the bathroom floor. Or the many random moments of exaggerated behaviour, like Molly's (Amy Poehler) Mom propositioning Joel as a "test" then casually revealing herself as a White Supremacist.
But the film is chiefly a parody of romcoms, and as such it gets so much right, ticking off cliches and conventions as it goes along. Told in flashback by Joel and Molly from a restaurant dinner with another couple, it winks at the audience consistently and from the first moment with it's acknowledgement that New York City is like the "third character" in their story. The problem is that while many of these cliches are presented in hilarious contexts, not all of them are, and it's not enough just to notice conventions; you need to use them somehow, and Wain doesn't do that quite enough.
His cast are a great help, delivering a series of arch "bad" performances full of mugging and telegraphed emotions. Rudd and Poehler have genuine chemistry, which keeps this watchable even as it gets bogged down in a series of short sketches with an at-times-tiresome narrative link. Some gags become funny through repetition (characters constantly say "Shit!" to themselves after somebody else has left, while in other situations, stop people from leaving just so they can say "Thanks.") while some fall flat instantly, but overall this is a pleasantly clever comedy. It's just not quite funny enough.

Monday 22 December 2014


(Jennifer Kent, 2014)

An instant horror classic, The Babadook has the wit to combine a beautifully arty ambiguity with some outright chills. Basically, it has its cake and eats it.
First and foremost a study of the stresses and exhaustion of parenthood, the story follows Amelia (Essie Davis, excellent), a widow with a young son who is struggling with his behavioural issues. The boy, Samuel, (Noah Wiseman) is obsessed with magic tricks, but also terrified of the monsters he believe live under his bed and inside his wardrobe. Samuel's father died in a car accident while driving Amelia to the hospital to have Samuel, and so his upcoming birthday is laced with sadness for her, still mourning her husband, and exhausted from years of dealing with her sons night terrors.
These are worsened when he presents her with a storybook about a top-hat wearing monstrous shadow called the Babadook. She dismisses his fears, but then, as Samuel's problems increase socially and in school, and Amelia sleeps less, she begins to hear strange noises, and could that be a top hat in the shadows...?
The first half of the film thickly layers atmosphere into it's wonderfully designed chief location - Amelia's house is a spookily gothic old Georgian semi, pooled with darkness at night. Even the scenes set beyond the confines of the house are claustrophobic and closed off, increasing the sense that Amelia and Samuel have nowhere to go. Kent has a fine eye for colour and composition, and there are scenes and shots here which develop with breathtaking precision from banality to creeping terror. An utterly brilliant sound design is key to that - the soundtrack often a sea of ambient sound which combine to gripping, disturbing effect as Amelia struggles to keep a grip on her sanity. The second half of the film features a shift - the horror becomes more explicit as Amelia's suffering increases and the Babdook begins to feature more heavily.
As it does so, Kent pulls off something tricky - we start to question whether it is in fact Amelia's mind that is slipping, of if there is a Babadook inside the house.
A couple of the scares are beautiful because there are no jump-tactics here; rather they are creepy and intensely frightening. Amelia answers the phone to the Babdook in the middle of the day. Amelia sees it in the living room of the old woman next door while washing up.
Kent maintains this ambiguity right up until the last scene, but neither aspect of the film suffers. It works beautifully as a study of a fracturing psyche but just as well as an elegantly designed, cracking little horror film.

Friday 19 December 2014


(Shawn Levy, 2011)

Take Rocky, add a little sprinkling of The Champ, and then; add robots.
That sounds truly awful, I know. But Real Steel works on it's own, oh-so simple terms. Based on a Richard Matheson story - always a good thing - it is set a few years in the future, when boxing has been replaced by robot boxing, allowing for far more violence and carnage in the ring as machines pound and rend one another into scrap metal. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is an ex-contender, now plugging his way from one debt and one robot to another, never catching a break, living off the goodwill of his ex (Evangeline Lily). Then his 11-year old son (Dakota Goyo) shows up, and Charlie does a deal with the husband of the boy's Aunt - he will spend a summer with Charlie, who will then give him up and be rewarded with a $50,000 payday. All Charlie cares about is the money.
But the boy loves robot Boxing as much as he does, and they bond over the potential of Atom, an old, battered sparring bot they find one night in the scrapyard.
Atom is built to take punishment, and with the modifications made by the boy and Charlie's knowhow, he starts to win fights and develop a reputation. All the while, father and son are growing closer as they drive back and forth across the country, and Charlie's bad luck seems to be changing. Then there is the seemingly invincible super-bot Zeus on the horizon, built to spot patterns and counter them, but perhaps not quite so comfortable against human spontaneity and creativity.
There is nothing new here; not a scene or character or idea or emotion or gag. But what there is, is effectively done. The fight scenes are exciting, nicely manipulative, and well-shot. The gushing sentiment of the father-son scenes is affecting. This sort of underdog tale cannot miss unless it's done really badly, and this one is not.
As robot boxing movies go, in fact, I imagine you can't do any better...

Tuesday 16 December 2014


(Morten Tyldum, 2014)

A film where the subject is so intriguing that despite a somewhat bungled execution, the final product is still engrossing and utterly watchable.
A biopic of sorts, focusing on Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch, excellent but operating well within his comfort zone of twitchy aspergers sufferers) during the years of WW2 when he worked at Bletchley Park attempting to break the Enigma code. The film goes into a fair amount of detail about exactly what was involved in that process - Turing's attempts to create a computer which would be able to process quickly enough to work out the code vs his colleagues more old-fashioned efforts at cryptography - while also highlighting his social unease and habit of irritating everyone around him with his superiority and inability to understand basic politeness.
There is a framing device - Turing's arrest in 1950s Manchester for homosexual acts, which would lead to hormone therapy and his eventual suicide - and also a series of flashbacks to a key relationship with his first love at boarding school, and a voiceover which it transpires is Turing telling his story to a police detective, making it all feel a little overstuffed.
There are nice distractions - Keira Knightley is good as Joan Clarke, a colleague and fleeting fiancé, while Mark Strong and Charles Dance are both perfectly cast as Government suits, as is Matthew Goode as the perfect opposite of Turing (charming, smooth, at ease with himself) with whom he must learn to co-exist. It is handsome, has a few nice gags, and is an interesting study in how some of the elements which make Hollywood dramas and biopics so dreadfully predictable and cringeworthy can also be the moments that work, the scenes that move you. The potency of cheap, easy drama, as it were. The eureka moment, for example. The scene where Turing learns of the death of his schoolboy crush. His hamfisted proposal to Joan, and their bitter split.
Jostling alongside all of this are a few interesting ideas about intelligence and responsibility, chief among them perhaps the notion that it is right and in the best interest of all that scientists make decisions for the rest of us about life and death, based purely upon statistics. This is the great fear and paranoia upon which a million sci-fi stories have been based: that the scientists think they know better than us, the bovine herds living oblivious to the way the world works, and that they will ultimately make a decision which will kill or save us all.

Wednesday 10 December 2014


(Kevin MacDonald, 2014)

MacDonald is now that rare thing; an excellent genre craftsman who never makes a bad film. His work in fiction - setting aside his excellent documentaries -  goes from pretty good (State of Play, How I Live Now) to excellent (The Eagle). He has a skilful way with actors and a feel for textures which makes each of his films smell and play very differently.
Black Sea is an old-fashioned men-on-a-mission movie transplanted into the submarine genre. As such, it features a great cast of grizzled character actors playing strong, instantly recognisable types. Jude Law (attempting a passable Scottish accent) is Robinson, fired by his long-term employers at the start of the film, sulking in his dingy Aberdeen flat (MacDonald finds the poetry in the net curtains dancing the breeze) and missing his ex-wife and son, who left him because he was at sea too much. An old colleague suggests he take on a dangerous job - leading a team into the black sea in search of a Nazi U-boat that sank during the Second World War, stuffed with tons of gold.
They have to get the backing of a wealthy patron, recruit a team of Brits and Russians, buy a second-hand submarine, and evade the Russian fleet en route to the gold. Only their team contains one shifty psychopath (Ben Mendelsohn, good as ever), a weaselly Corporate American (Scoot McNairy, doing Paul Reiser in Aliens, and doing him pretty well) and a bunch of Russians and Brits who do not trust one another and cannot communicate. Tensions rise as their journey begins, and inevitably lead to death and disaster.
The cast, MacDonald's intense direction and a taut script by Dennis Kelly mean that early on the tension settles in like an extra actor and it is never off screen. This is one of those submarine films that is excellent on the sheer terror of the alien world beyond the sub's hull ("Just cold, black death", as Michael Smiley's character puts it, sharing all of the film's best lines with David Threlfall) and features a terrifying diving sequence alongside some equally eerie shots of the sub cutting through the murk. Those scenes only increase the claustrophobic feverishness of the paranoia crackling between the men onboard, all of them familiar from the sort of mission movies that were popular four or five decades ago. I mean that as a compliment; Black Sea is a great little yarn, suspenseful, gripping and unexpectedly funny in places.
It is also a study in working class rage - Robinson is motivated by fury at "them", the men who have ruined his industry and taken his career, and he inspires his men with promises of wealth, only to find himself turned and somewhat corrupted by so much beautiful gold, captured by MacDonald glimmering and reflecting across his wide-eyed face. A mission movie for our times, then, and a thoroughly satisfying one, the odd lapse in plot logic aside.

Friday 5 December 2014


(Tommy-Lee Jones, 2014)

A modern Western that feels literary, in that it flirts with the baroque pulse of Blood Meridian or Butchers Crossing, The Homesman is something of an oddball wonder from writer-director-star Tommy-Lee Jones. It comes frustratingly close to greatness, however, before fudging that somewhat in the third act.
The beginning is startlingly bold: it sets out to look at something Westerns generally ignore - the brutality of life on the frontier for women. We meet Mary Bea Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a tough and capable spinster, working on her own neat Nebraska claim. When a gentleman neighbour comes for supper, she desperately proposes marriage, which he rejects on the grounds that she is plain and bossy.
We also meet three other women; each of them losing their grasp on sanity due to the harshness of their life on the plains. Jones has a way with a surreal, memorable image - here we see a woman walk naked from a house in the snow, nursing a baby on her breast, then casually toss the infant into an outhouse toilet. Each woman's condition is signalled with similarly cinematic economy. The story finds Cuddy volunteering to transport all three women back East to family, and she is joined by Jones' Briggs, a plain-speaking scoundrel with a mysterious past who she comes across left to hang from a tree in the middle of nowhere.
It then becomes a strange mix of elements - picaresque odyssey, darkly comic buddy film, savage western - held together by some beautiful imagery, and the fine chemistry between the leads. Swank is never too kind to Cuddy, who is always, and sometimes annoyingly, herself. Jones plays the kind of part he could play in his sleep, and he does it well.
His direction is better; beautifully textured and patiently paced, The Homesman feels quite unlike anything else, some of its baffling twists defying logic and prediction, but each working on its own terms.


(John Carney, 2013)

Carney returns - sort of - to the winning formula he chanced upon in the modern classic that is Once, creating another not-quite-romance of two lost characters who find and save one another through the healing power of music.
Ruffalo is a down-on-his-luck A&R man and producer who, on the day when he has been fired from the label he co-founded, drunkenly chances upon singer-songwriter Knightly in a Greenwich village bar, falls in love with her song and suggests she sign with him. She is there after being dumped by her long-term boyfriend (Adam Levine) who has been propelled to sudden rock stardom by the inclusion of a song in a hit movie, leaving her behind as he changes and sells out. Rejected by his old label, Ruffalo suggests they make an album live in a variety of famous Manhattan locations, allowing Carney to shoot the city in all its summertime glory, while Knightly and band run through a series of catchy Gregg Alexander tunes on rooftops, subway platforms and in central Park..
Along the way, of course, there is growth, and healing, and a few good gags (James Corden responsible for many of them). It is poppy and light, and yet Carney insures that there is some consideration of the issues central to art; self-expression, authenticity, the impact of success.  Knightly remains true to her music throughout and ultimately rejects the chance of romantic rapprochement after realising that her ex feels differently about the importance of songs, and a coda suggests that her way will ultimately prove successful too. Meanwhile Ruffalo is redeemed by finding new music to love (the original title of the film was the fitting Can a Song Save Your Life?) which unites him with his estranged wife and daughter.
It is nicely shot to make a pin-sharp New York look fantastic, the cast are perhaps a bit classier than it deserves, and it is strangely resonant in its low-key tackling of some of the ideas and issues central to most everyday lives. Most importantly, it understands music, how we feel and feel about and experience music, how important it is, how musicians live surrounded by it.

Monday 24 November 2014


(2014, Michaël R. Roskam)

Dennis Lehane's "Animal Rescue" is a near-perfect little story with a pleasing twist in the tale. It establishes its world and people quickly and economically, and it has a beginning, middle and an end that make it feel heftier and more grounded than it actually is. In adapting it and expanding it out to make an actual screenplay, Lehane has sacrificed some of it's lean beauty. But crucially he has kept that ending - still tremendously satisfying - and this cinematic version has its own specific compensations.
The story focuses on sad, lonely Brooklyn barkeep Bob (Tom Hardy) who finds a pit bull puppy in a bin on the way home from work one night. The bin belongs to Nadia (Noomi Rapace), similarly lonely. She persuades Bob to keep the animal and he finds his life transformed by it and his acquaintance with her. Transformed for the better until the arrival of Eric (Matthias Schoenarts), her violent ex-boyfriend, who claims he owns the dog, and trades on the reputation he has in the neighbourhood for the murder of one of Bob's old friends a decade before. All of that comes pretty much straight from the story. Lehane adds more material on Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), Bob's cousin and the bar owner, and his dealings with the Chechen gangsters who back him and organise the drops to the bar, and a dogged police detective (John Ortiz) who just can't help himself dig into the robbery that occurs in the first act of the film.
Roskam directs with a fine feel for wintry grit and seedy banality, from the bar itself to Bob's house, a mausoleum of sorts to his dead parents, and the whole thing recalls Sidney Lumet in it's minor-key pathos and quiet sense of menace.
The performances sell it - Hardy is terrific as the introverted Bob, allowing his slow realisations and determined decisions to play out in his eyes, while Gandolfini gives a great reading of bitterness and thwarted ambition in his last role, and Schoenarts is effortlessly threatening as Eric.
It all works, but never adds up to very much, however fine that ending is.

Thursday 20 November 2014


(Christopher Nolan, 2014)

By now, the things that Christopher Nolan does well are taken largely for granted. This is a director who makes immense blockbuster films, a widely reviled genre. And yet he makes them with an utterly serious intent, set on examining big, important themes through narratives including superheroes and sci-fi action. He largely eschews digital visual effects in favour of more old-fashioned in-camera tricks, and his films all look and sound splendid - he has mastered a monolithic, stately visual style based seemingly on a mix of Michael Mann in his middle period (Heat, The Insider) and Stanley Kubrick, coupled with deafening Hans Zimmer scores which make his films must-see big-screen experiences. All this and massive movie stars too.
And yet...
Interstellar is a fascinating, hugely flawed film, like much of Nolan's work. These days, with ridiculously huge budgets and final cut, his films must be as close to his vision As any major director is ever likely to get. And that's a possible reason for the fact that stretches of Interstellar  feel interminable. The third act, in particular, is boring and seemingly endless. Perhaps if he were a slightly less popular and commercial filmmaker, some executive would be on-hand to make the point to Nolan that This film needed another week or so in the editing suite. But instead he indulges himself, and while his commercial instincts tell him to introduce some conflict on a human level in his third act - a decision leading to perhaps the weakest passage in the film - he somehow also thinks it is ok to include not one but three, yes, three separate scenes of spaceships docking in space stations, the second and third both attempts at suspense which fall monumentally flat.
In fact the best moments in this film are all early on, before Nolan is able to indulge his desire to remake 2001, when the drama is still largely domestic and Terran. At some unspecified point in the future, a worldwide blight and ferocious dust storms wipe out the majority of crops, kill millions, and ensure that governments redirect most of their spending away from defence and technology and into agriculture. Matthew McConaughey plays Coop, an ex-NASA pilot and engineer now working as a farmer somewhere in the Midwest. A widower, he has two young children who he chooses to leave  after offered a mission from a NASA operating in secrecy. The mission is a last chance to save  humanity from the inevitable death awaiting the species, and involves travelling through a wormhole  to investigate the viability of planets in a distant solar system.                                                            
The scenes of Coop's life on earth are quiet, beautiful and almost banal. He attends a parents evening at his daughters school, where he learns that she has been fighting with classmates because of her belief that the moon landings happened and were not just (the now-official line) state sponsored propaganda. He drinks beer on the porch with his wise father-in-law (John Lithgow), flees dust storms, fixes machinery, does his best as a dad. His bond with his daughter, Murph, is especially powerful, and their relationship is the emotional backbone of the film.
For such a big film it has an astoundingly narrow emotional focus - this is purely a fathers paean to his daughter. Murph grows up to be a bitter Jessica Chastain, finding a surrogate father in Michael Caine's NASA Professor Brandt, whose own daughter (Ann Hathaway, struggling with the worst dialogue in the film) is off in space with Coop.
The frayed bond between Coop and Murph is central to the best sequence in the film. The astronauts visit a planet where each hour that elapses equals seven years on earth. Suspense, immediately established, obviously things go wrong, and the scene where Coop watches his children's video messages and their development from teenagers to adults is immensely powerful, mainly because of McConaughey's performance.
There is a depth of emotion here, but Nolan frames it in an almost Spielbergian manner - trucking in wonder and sentiment, whereas his usual mode is a more rational Kubrickian distance. His films all seem rooted in a Godless universe, yet here is a film which seeks to make us wonder at the mysteries of that universe. This sets up a strange tension the movie never quite resolves.
It also feels as if it needed another week or two in the editing suite; or perhaps Nolan has reached such a level of power and influence that nobody dares tell him when he is being self-indulgent. Because the last act here is interminable - featuring two separate scenes (both meant to be suspenseful) of spaceships docking, it loses all tension and instead dissolves into metaphysics and manipulative melodrama. McConaughey keeps it watchable and it is always a typically grand, colossally-scaled spectacle, but it is confused and unsatisfying too.
The coda - while moving - feels a little contrived widescreen splendour, we've been here so many times before in cinema, watching astronauts struggle with eternity, and seen it done more intelligently and more cinematically. This is a film made by a director who fell in love with 2001: A Space Odyssey as a young man, and in this case that's very much a bad thing, since that influence is detectable in a number of irritating ways. The final product feels more like two other misfires of exploration: DePalma's Mission To Mars (minus the grandstanding set-pieces) and Cameron's The Abyss (minus the watery close encounters), only it feels a little inferior to both of those too.
For all it's strengths, Interstellar is fascinating chiefly because of the ways in which it fails.

Friday 7 November 2014


(Dan Gilroy, 2014)

Instantly announcing itself as one of the great Los Angeles films, Nightcrawler does so many things so well. It is a gripping, utterly atmospheric thriller. It features the best performance of Jake Gyllenhal's career. It says some scary, hilarious things about the way the current US Economic situation demands a certain amorality and even creates and rewards sociopaths. And it looks absolutely beautiful.
That is mainly down to veteran cinematographer Robert Elswit, who together with debutant director Dan Gilroy (brother of Tony) depicts L.A. as we rarely see it; street-level, devoid of cliches, an exciting, living, beautiful sprawl of a city, pulsing with colour and energy.
And Gilroy's story ensures that we see an awful lot of it. Following Lou Bloom (Gyllenhal), an eager, intensely focused sociopath getting by as a petty thief when we first encounter him, the film traces his burgeoning career as a freelance "Nightcrawler". Armed with a police scanner and a camera, he prowls L.A. by night, filming crime scenes and accidents and selling the results to local TV news, where he strikes up a creepy, co-dependent relationship with News producer Rene Russo. As he learns his trade and begins to make money he takes on an employee, Rick (Riz Ahmed) and develops a rivalry with Bill Paxton's cocky veteran. And then Lou's real personality begins to emerge - the positive thinking and corporate jargon he spouts fails to hide his ruthless willingness to go to any lengths to succeed, leading him and Rick into dangerous territory.
Gyllenhal plays Lou as a force of nature, lacking in any scruples or shame, totally focused upon success, the people around him only tools he can use. If the film has a real flaw, it's the queasy glee it seems to take in pointing out the creepiness of his character. There is no insight or empathy here, only a sort of "look at the weirdo" feeling which is a tad disappointing in a film that is otherwise so cleverly conceived and made.
Even that is leavened by the way it is developed as a theme; the world is full of people like Lou, Gilroy seems to be saying, in fact they are rewarded for the inhuman qualities they possess. People like Lou end up running things in this world. That's a dark, ballsy thing for a little crime thriller to articulate, and a big part of what is so impressive about Nightcrawler is that it is able to express that without ever sacrificing any of it's tension or excitement.
It climaxes with a terrific action sequence, though the scene where Lou reveals his true self to Russo over dinner might just shade that one as the film's most thrilling.

Friday 31 October 2014


(David Ayer, 2014)

Fury is, at heart, an old-fashioned b-movie. It follows a young clerk (Logan Lerman) in the last months of the Second World War as the US Army moves into Germany. Reassigned to the Sherman tank commanded by a tough, enigmatic sergeant called Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) as a replacement for a gunner killed in their last, terrible firefight, the clerk - given the distinctly un-macho name "Norman" - has to grow up fast, learn to fight, and also fit into the tight crew of brothers who have lived inside "Fury" and under Wardaddy since they were in North Africa. These hardened, cynical, traumatised men include Shia Lebouef's born again Christian, Jon Bernthal's animalistic mechanic, and Michael Pena's stoic driver, bickering and joking their way through battles and downtime.
Ayer handles the battles very well. Though the film is composed almost exclusively of cliches familiar from more or less every other war film you've ever seen, it is handsome, epic and visceral. The tale may be familiar but this kind of thing hasn't been done all that often in the years since Saving Private Ryan showed how modern sensibilities would effect the way we make and watch war movies. So whilst Ayer undoubtedly glories in the adrenalised spectacle of violence here -  in battle scenes that are generally coherent and impactful - his overall statement (and this is very much a film intent on making a statement, pumped up on its own seriousness and pomposity, with its cloyingly emotive Steven Price score and its stately Roman Vasayanov photography a symphony of browns, greys and greens, the usual colours of the European theatre of war) is that war is, well, hell, an unnatural crucible of terror and pain.
But the main constant in Ayer's work has been an appreciation for the pleasures of camaraderie and brotherhood, and here that colours his antiwar impulses; war may indeed be hell, he seems to say, but at least it makes men of boys and forges friendships deeper than any other emotional bond.
His film is accordingly at its best when these men are swapping insults and arguments, though a draggy mid-section interlude in a captured German town feels like an indulgent error, sapping the drama of some of its otherwise impressive dread.
It works for the most part. These cliches are cliches because they work so well, and Ayer and company deliver them well enough. The principals are all good, the action is exciting, the deaths as moving as they need to be. For a b-movie that wants desperately to be an a-movie, it works.

Wednesday 29 October 2014


(David Fincher, 2014)

Something in the caustic, blistering satire of Gillian Flynn's novel is beautifully suited to Fincher's gifts; this film is slick and dark and funny and utterly entertaining and something about it feels effortless.
It has a pleasing ambivalence about each of its characters - Affleck nicely plays his protagonist, Nick Dunne, as variously a schmuck, a cheat, a bore, and a smug yuppie. The structure means that we partly see him through the eyes of the titular girl, his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), as she recounts their meet-cute and perfect courtship in her diary, and partly as he suffers through the aftermath of her disappearance, when he is demonised by the media and becomes hunted and paranoid. As such, he is sympathetic - Affleck remains a charming presence - but is believably flawed and human. Amy is similarly complex, and Pike doesn't shy away from portraying her spoiled little rich girl vanity alongside her wit and intelligence. The supporting cast is just as richly populated with nuance and authentic tics - Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens play perhaps the two strongest characters as, respectively, Nick's twin sister and the detective working the case, both of whom seem cynical about everything the world throws at them.
Fincher textures the whole thing with that beautiful darkness he can sprinkle throughout a film. Here it is suburbia that is depicted with a clinical detachment, its dark corners illuminated by his camera, and the final act reveals this film as a devastating and hilarious critique of modern marriage, slickly hidden inside a twisty thriller, and drolly entertaining throughout.

Wednesday 15 October 2014


(Yann Demange, 2014)

Finding the sweet spot between a visually poetic art house drama and an adrenalised action thriller, '71 is a beautiful, gripping, supremely pared-down experience.
It's first 20 minutes or so may be the most impressive passage in the film. With little dialogue we are introduced to Hook (Jack O'Connell, as good as ever), training with the British army in 1971 in scenes captured with a beautiful feel for tone and texture by Demange and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe. Hook and his comrades spar, run, attempt obstacle courses and bond in the bleakness of Northern England. Here David Holmes' sublime, atmospheric score rises up on the soundtrack, while we have the bland conformity and uniformity of our protagonist made evident as we struggle to distinguish him from all of the other young squaddies, young men in green with shaven heads.
Sent to Belfast in 1971, just as the Troubles began to get truly nasty, these young men, led as they are by an equally youthful, clueless rookie Officer (a later line of dialogue defines the army as "Posh cunts, telling thick cunts to shoot poor cunts") are thrust into a hideously complex situation.
In their first operation, Hook is separated from his unit and his weapon and soon finds himself on the run from everybody - IRA, undercover British agents - on the nocturnal streets of West Belfast.
'71 is therefore a quite unrelenting action-thriller, filled with suspense and a couple of riveting, visceral set-pieces, but it manages a few surprisingly articulate comments of the subject of Northern Ireland too. It never simplifies its portrayal of the politics of the region or the era, instead depicting, well, everyone as diabolical and scheming. The IRA is split between the old-school organisation and a younger, more aggressive generation (who are the main predators hunting for Hook), while the UVF and the RUC are just as anti-Catholic as one another, and the undercover agents seem to play everybody off against each other for their own unfathomable reasons.
Hook stumbles from one situation and character to another, always vulnerable, never quite in control of what is happening to him, generally uncomprehending of who anybody is. The two branches of the IRA play out a power struggle while the undercover men, lead by the terrific Sean Harris in another of his long line of terrifying sociopath roles, do deals on each side and work their long-term schemes.
All of this fills in the world Hook moves through, but it is the way he moves that keeps this film so electrifying. With nighttime scenes shot digitally - its rare to see a film that captures so well what the light looks life like beneath halogen streetlamps, all deep shadows and sickly yellows - Demange maintains an almost queasy sense of tension as Hook tries to make his way back to barracks.
The action scenes are fantastic, but what works best of all are those first minutes on the streets of Belfast. We can feel the bewilderment and dislocation of these young men to see streets that look so familiar littered with destroyed cars, to encounter young boys who throw bottles of urine at them.
This world has never been captured quite so vividly before.

Friday 3 October 2014


(Antoine Fuqua, 2014)

Is it Denzel Washington's unique star persona that makes so many of his vehicles feel like '90s throwbacks? He chooses projects which skew older in terms of target audience than perhaps any other major movie star, and that means that his action-thrillers in particular have a strangely retro "mature" feel. The Equalizer is no different. Over-long and over-familiar, it spends most of it's time setting up the world of Robert McCall, an ex-something-deadly-or-other-for-the-Government who has escaped his old life after the death of his beloved wife and lives an anonymous, normal existence, working in a DIY store.
That is, until, of course, the young prostitute (Chloe Moretz) he has bonded with over his nocturnal visits to a local coffee shop is beaten almost to death by her Russian pimp. So McCall - until now a perfectly normal bloke, albeit one with Serious OCD - confronts the Russian and his gang and, and when they mock him, he kills them all in more or less 20 seconds, shot by Fuqua in a meticulously fetishized slo-mo manner that goes on for about 2 minutes and is undeniably satisfying in time-honoured "they messed with the wrong guy and what a way to find out" style. So the Russian Mob send legendary psycho-fixer Teddy (Martin Csokas, hamming it up as ever) to figure out who has destroyed their Boston operation, which ultimately leads to McCall taking on the Russian Mafia single-handedly.
To the extent that it works at all, The Equalizer works because of Denzel Washington. He gives McCall a mournful intelligence crossed with a subtle sense of humour - not unlike Edward Woodward's performance in the tv show on which the movie is loosely based - and though there is never really any tension (his character is too smart to lose to these gangsters) it is pleasurable watching him kill many many goons in various creative ways.
Fuqua owes his journeyman career to Washington's star power turning Training Day into a huge hit over a decade ago, and he directs with slick, anonymous competence.

Tuesday 23 September 2014


(Scott Frank, 2014)

A Walk Among the Tombstones is a classical - almost generic - detective noir. And in the modern filmmaking climate of bombast and narratives so post-modern they're self-reflexive without even knowing it, that makes it feel almost radical in its purity and simplicity.
Adapted by writer-director Scott Frank (who has had success with tricky crime adaptations like Out of Sight and Get Shorty in the past) from one of Lawrence Block's long-running Matt Scudder novels, it casts Liam Neeson as the hero, a recovering alcoholic and ex-NYPD detective who now works as a private and unlicensed investigator. Refreshingly, Scudder is not the invincible super-warrior Neeson has played in the Taken films. Instead he is made a little vulnerable by his continued attendance at AA meetings. He takes a couple of beatings here, though his dry wit and fearlessness more than compensate in ensuring he still feels like a hard-boiled tough guy. Neeson is a rare action actor who is equally comfortable with emotional drama, and he gives Scudder a weighty soulfulness and melancholy. That is mostly expressed in the scenes depicting his relationship with TJ, a precocious street kid who fancies himself a detective.
The case brings a streak of nastiness to the film that all the best detective stories really need; throwing a tarnished white Knight into opposition against pure evil raises the stakes massively, and here that pure evil is in the form of two men who abduct the wives and girlfriends of drug dealers and traffickers and torture and kill them. Scudder is put on the case by Kenny (Dan Stevens), a middle class trafficker who paid the ransom demanded by the voice on the telephone and then had his wife delivered in small bags. Digging deep he discovers that these men are serial kidnappers, their depravity shocking.
It all leads, of course, to the sort of extreme ultra violence and gunplay that led Scudder to quit the police, and which Frank shoots with the same sort of classical precision which characterises most of the films old-fashioned virtues. It feels a little like the sort of modest crime adaptation that thrived in the '60s and '70s - Frank knows how this sort of pulp works, understands its pleasures and delivers them. He gets how important the villains are, he can see how crucial a strong sense of place is, and his film takes the time to do both these things right. It is tight, atmospheric, and commendably streamlined in its accurate recreation of the world of Block's novels. It's good to see a star like Neeson use his profile to get a film like this made.

Wednesday 17 September 2014


(Anton Corbijn, 2014)

A modern spy story -  meaning it details the obsessive efforts of a small team of intelligence operatives to halt the activities of Islamist extremists -  A Most Wanted Man deals in the classic iconography and conventions of a Cold War thriller. It is set in an Autumnal Northern European city - Hamburg, in this case. Its characters are rumpled and cynical, broken by their profession. People smoke a lot, drink even more, conduct meetings beneath motorway overpasses and in waste ground. Betrayal is a constant possibility.
Lead Gunther (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) trails a traumatic, career-destroying disaster in the Middle East, where an American error blew his Intelligence networks and agents who trusted him died. Banished to Hamburg, his small team spots the arrival of a Chechen with links to terrorism. Gunther spots a way to use him to trap some much bigger game; a famed Muslim activist named Dr Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), who uses his charitable works to conceal links with Al Qaeda.
The plot follows Gunther's attempts to keep his superiors and rivals within German Intelligence at bay while also fending off the CIA (personified here by Robin Wright's cold, sharp agent). At the same time he is using a Liberal immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams) to manoeuvre the Chechen into helping capture Abdullah.
Corbijn directs it all with a great feel for architecture and place - the 60s block where Gunther's team are based is a beautifully brutalist location - which helps lend it a nice chilly feel. The people are guarded and paranoid, driven by duty and mostly untroubled by conscience until everything goes wrong, which it does in every spy story ever. This is a Le Carre adaptation and Gunther is a classic Le Carre hero - more of an idealist than he initially seems, excellent at his job, not the smoothest of politicians. Hoffman is typically superb; his wheeze convenys more emotion than most actors can manage in long monologues.
Although this is the type of film where everybody speaks English in a German accent, it is never less than utterly convincing, and it builds up slowly into a quietly riveting thriller for grown-ups, no set-pieces, just engrossing dialogue scenes.

Saturday 13 September 2014


(Ridley Scott, 2005)

Balian: You go to certain death.
Templar: All death is certain.

If Kingdom of Heaven - the Directors Cut, not the manifestly inferior theatrical version, which is 45 minutes shorter - starred anybody other than Orlando Bloom in the lead role, it would be one of Ridley Scott's very best films. Bloom has never been better than in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where he is required mainly to seem unearthly and beautiful - Legolas doesn't really have any personality in the realistic sense. He is a heroic ideal, and Bloom, blessed with his good looks, manages that without difficulty. In much of his other work he is similarly required to look pretty, but he is hopelessly out of his depth when asked to express any actual emotion. In Kingdom of Heaven, where he is asked to handle huge emotions - grief, despair, love - he is blank-faced. His single expression is a sort of empty smoulder - he seems to have walked off the set of an aftershave commercial. His character, Balian, is driven through the film by a search for his faith, yet Bloom looks like he's searching for his iPod and isn't all that bothered if he finds it or not.
It's a pity, because he is surrounded by a truly classy cast of mainly European supporting actors, most of whom seem totally at home in the Medieval World Scott painstakingly, beautifully creates. Liam Neeson, David Thewlis, Jeremy Irons, Kevin McKidd, Martin Csokas and Brendan Gleeson all have big masculine presences, and Bloom seems dwarfed by all of them in his shared scenes. Eva Green is a fascinatingly complicated leading lady here, and Edward Norton offers a somehow Brando-esque but very effective voice performance as the masked Leper-King, Baldwin.
This is a complex, thematically ambitious epic, spending much of its running time detailing the political and religious divisions which beset the factions within the Holy Land during the Crusades. It is also an exploration of ideology and of the difference between faith and religion. That could be dull, but screenwriter William Monaghan, who wrote the dazzling dialogue for The Departed, shows that he can do the same for a vastly different world here, though there are a few clunky exchanges. Its contemporary resonances, dealing as it does with a battle in the Middle East between Christian and Muslim forces, are unavoidable and well-handled. It is fair-handed, with Saladin, the Commander of the Saracens, played by the charismatic Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud, emerging as one of the best and most likeable characters, while many of the Christians are plainly rabid animals using their religion as justification for slaughter.
The real glory of this film, though, is Ridley Scott's direction. It seems a synthesis of much of what he has done before - the reconstruction of Old Worlds in Gladiator and 1492 and The Duellists is here attempted on an even bigger canvas, and it is achieved more vividly and more beautifully than in any of those films. The ferocity of the battle scenes in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down is replicated here, again on a bigger, more beautiful scale. The contrast between the wintery mud and misery of Continental Europe in that era with the exotic melting pot of the Holy Land is brilliantly evoked. Indeed, the whole thing is textural masterpiece, always sensuous and visceral, with moments of pure poetry scattered throughout the story.
Its commercial failure is still no surprise. Aside from the gaping hole at its heart where a leading man should be, it's flaws are obvious and even its strengths are partially uncommercial - it is more complex and adult than any of the other modern epics, its conclusions about religion and war too ambiguous for popular acceptance. If Gladiator used a simple revenge story to great effect, Kingdom of Heaven has no such basic structure, its tale of a man searching for faith and redemption far too interior to drive such a big narrative emotionally. The film it most reminds me of is Anthony Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire, another Epic with a miscast leading man and a downbeat, complex tone.

Friday 12 September 2014


(Kelly Reichardt, 2014)

Reichardt's brand of hushed, precise art cinema proves a surprisingly good fit for a paranoid thriller here. Following three novice Environmental terrorists as they plan and execute the destruction of a dam in Oregon, Night Moves concentrates on the cross-currents and dynamics between these people, most effectively as the tension mounts in the hours before the bombing and as their paranoia grows in the aftermath.
Shot mostly in muted, autumnal hues, Reichardt is as sensitive as ever to the landscapes in which she sets her story. But her camera is also attuned to the faces and body language of this trio.
Their plan has come from Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), a tightly wound, humourless young man who lives in a Yurt on a farming co-operative. His awkward gracelesness is nicely, subtly contrasted with the chattering charm of Dee (Dakota Fanning), a little rich girl who funds some of Josh's smaller acts of rebellion but finds herself unprepared for the real-life repercussions of their bombing. They are joined by an old friend of Josh's, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), an ex-Marine, ex-Con who handles the explosives and deals with their situation better than his co-conspirators.
The film steadily follows their preparations as they buy a boat and fertiliser, make explosives and get into position. We get glimpses of their differing philosophies and reasons for doing this; Josh's anger about salmon dying so people can charge their iPods, Harmon on the bloat of Portland into the countryside, and Dee on how industrial fishing is destroying ocean bio-diversity. That all makes their actions seem righteous and motivated, but there is the unmistakable sense that they do not know quite what they are doing. In the aftermath, Reichardt allows Josh's boss to casually destroy the meaning of their act when he calls it "theatre" and we can see in Josh's eyes that - after a tragic and unexpected consequence has struck him - he doesn't even disagree.
The atmosphere is thick with angst and tension, and that only increases once the act has taken place and Josh is spiralling, worried about his accomplices and the future. The ending is ambiguous and haunting in a way that provides a perfect fit with the quiet tone of the film.

Saturday 6 September 2014


(Adam Wingard, 2014)

The sort of lowish budget genre mash-up that makes mega-budget blockbusters look really inept. Many of those movies can't get one genre right, but here Wingard and screenwriter Michael Barrett manage to successfully, gleefully combine a few in a nifty, modest little thriller with wit, style and impact.
Dan Stevens is beautifully used. His character, the too-nice-to-be true soldier David, returns to the U.S. after a stint somewhere in the Middle East and checks in on the family of his friend who has been killed in action. Only there is something off about David. Something studied and watchful, and when he is left alone, his face reverts to a malevolent scowl. These are the best passages in the movie; as David sets about getting to know this family and helping them in his own way, Wingard focuses on Stevens' piercing blue eyes and the actor emphasises his own bland charm until it becomes something vaguely sinister. He brutally, spectacularly beats up the bulles who have been making teen nerd Luke's life hell, listens to Dad's (Leland Orser) work woes, shares tales of their deceased son with Mom (Sheila Kelley) and accompanies Anna (Maika Monroe) to a party where his studly decency and decisiveness in dealing with the arrival of an angry ex-boyfriend goes down very well.
But Anna is suspicious, and soon people start to turn up dead, and we learn that David is not quite what he seems, and that there are serious, extremely armed people after him.
The last act, then, transforms into a mixture of shoot-em-up action film and stalker film, but Wingard handles both genres well. The finale takes place in a high school gym set up for a Halloween Ball, including a Halloween maze and lots of dry ice, and there are moments referring to everything from John Carpenter and The Terminator to The Hitcher and Hitchcock. A big set-piece gun battle decimating an isolated farmhouse is nicely done, and the whole thing makes a virtue of it's few locations and small cast, upping the tension through an intense focus on the dynamic within the home of one family after they invite one guest to stay.
Wingard directs with style and precision - there is a vivid, warm colour palette here and some beautiful compositions, and the '80s-esque electro soundtrack by Steve Moore helps to build a thickly suspenseful atmosphere.

Friday 29 August 2014


(Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014)

The Dardennes have yet to make a bad film; which says it all about their understanding of their own ability and their knack of choosing stories perfectly suited to that ability. Their "invisible" style is ideal for that invisibility - it allows for immersion in these stories which are always about real people in with real problems in what is as close as much cinema gets to a proper representation of the real world.
Here they address the recent Economic downturn by telling the story of Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a married mother-of-two recovering from a spell off work with depression who finds out that here colleagues have been given a choice between her lay-off and keeping their own annual annual bonus of €1000. They voted convincingly for the bonus, but Sandra and her friend convince their boss that it has been influenced by their foreman, and he agrees that there can be another, secret ballot after the weekend. That allows Sandra two days and one night to persuade her workmates that they should change their minds and choose her over the money.
The majority of the film, then follows Sandra and her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) as they journey all over Liege to her colleagues houses and tries to reason with them. All the while she battles with her own feelings, fearful her depression will return, taking pills, crying, suffering from huge mood swings, trying to be a wife and mother, arguing with her patient, worried husband.
So much of the success of the film rests upon the performance of its lead, and Cotillard - arguably the greatest actress working today - is  as exceptional as ever, letting us read the swirl of emotions in Sandra's eyes as she endures victories and defeats.
The repetitive structure initially seems irritating but rapidly becomes a strength, the Dardennes using it to show us a cross-section of working and lower-middle class Belgian life, as Sandra's colleagues react to her arrival in sharply varying ways; some with kindness and sorrow, some with violence. The details are beautifully observed but subtle. There is an effortlessness to the verisimilitude here, which gives the few moments of more outright narrative haping real impact - the scene where Sandra, Manu and one of her colleagues sing along joyously to "Gloria" by Them in a car at night is a notable emotional high in a film which is generally quite muted and even guarded.

Thursday 28 August 2014


(William Friedkin, 1977)

They really, really don't make them like this anymore.
You can take that in two senses: that this sort of analogue spectacle, filmed on location in extremely difficult conditions and filled with set pieces which are extraordinary because they contain no digital effects, is now a monument to a vanished mode of filmmaking. Or that this sort of adult adventure film - existential, with themes and weight and aimed squarely at a grown-up audience - is no longer produced by a film culture eager to feed only a teenage audience raised on comic books and video games.
Either way: they don't make them like this anymore.
And that is a shame, for Sorcerer is something close to a masterpiece, tough, taut and poetic, made by a confident director at the absolute peak of his powers.
It is adapted from the same novel that was the basis for Clouzot's terrific The Wages of Fear. It follows four men from different parts of the globe until they converge in the jungle in South America, where they accept a job transporting six cases of dynamite needed to fix an oil rig. The only problem is that the dynamite is old and unstable, and the men have to deliver it through miles of jungle, when any significant bump will set off the whole lot. Cue an hour of sickening tension as lorries inch across ruined rope bridges during hurricanes and the men decide to use some dynamite to clear a blockage from the road.
These set pieces as astonishing; beautifully shot and edited, their combination of white knuckle suspense and beauty is utterly winning. It also helps that Friedkin and screenwriter Walon Green have spent so much time establishing these men and their back-stories. For that is what the first twenty minutes of Sorcerer are; a series of terrific litte vignettes, each one showing us how and why these men ended up hiding out in a jungle hellhole. Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider, convincingly hollowed out and haunted) is part of an Irish gang that holds up a New Jersey Bingo haul run by the mob. A subsequent argument causes a car crash, killing all his accomplices. He limps off but the mob has put a price on his head and he has to flee the country. Other men flee financial irregularities in Paris (a terrific Bruno Cremer), a terrorist bombing in Jersualem (Amidou) and an assassination in Vera Cruz.
These vignettes are incredibly well-paced, filled with passages of pure cinematic storytelling, and rich with place and atmosphere. That only increases when the film settles down in it's dingy Colombian village; you can smell the sweaty dankness as these Western men stumble unhappily around, awaiting fate to choose their next blow.
That appears to be the key theme here; the way fate twists and decides our lives. These men are all doomed from early on. They just don't know it yet, though Scheider's cynical, exhausted Scanlon suggests a certain pessimistic outlook on everything.
The score from Tangerine Dream is terrific but sparely used, instantly adding a layer of smoothly rolling menace to a film which already has a healthy dose of dread in its veins. For all it's existential view on human relations and romantic loners, Sorcerer is at heart a thriller, and as such it is a great success;  suspenseful, intriguing and forceful throughout.

Tuesday 26 August 2014


(Wolfgang Petersen, 2004)

Has ever a major actor been quite so uncomfortable in period or non-American roles as Brad Pitt? Here he just about gets by on an extremely Californian type of sun-kissed buff beauty, but every single time he opens his mouth to speak, this film runs into a big problem; its protagonist - the legendary Achilles - is faintly ridiculous. That is only made more obvious by the fact that his direct opponent and mirror image, Eric Bana as Hector, is a serious, intense, magnetic presence.
Written by David Benioff in what now seems like a shaky dry-run for the sort of believable heroic historical drama he perfected on Game of Thrones, Troy now seems like a commendably old-fashioned sword and sandal epic, filled with lots of talk of honour, politics and the Gods. Only it's never really all that good.
The casting is one problem. Not only is Pitt horrendously miscast, but Diane Kruger , while obviously beautiful, makes a curiously dull Helen, and Orlando Bloom is his wooden, pretty worst as Paris, which robs the relationship meant to drive the entire plot of any interest or emotion. The old British thespians in smaller roles do better; Peter O'Toole and Brian Cox chew scenery (and there's a lot of it to chew on) to good effect as duelling Kings Agamemnon and Priam, Brendan Gleeson is flat-out terrifying as Menelaus, and Sean Bean is so good as a wily, political old Odysseus you find yourself wishing the film was about him instead.
Benioff's script is filled with good ideas. Achilles here is a warrior as rock star, lounging in a tent surrounded by groupies, followed by a cadre of warriors who worship him, but lazy, contemptuous of normal people, with a seeming death wish. That is all undone by Pitt's empty, superficial work, as is his relationship with Brisseus (Rose Byrne), a Priestess who is taken captive.
In contrast, Hector's love for his wife, family and country is simple and believable, which unbalances this narrative precariously (as does the fact that Agamemnon is such an unscrupulous villian, while Priam is just a bit of an earnest fool).
The material that does work is the spectacle, when it has not been spoiled by some shabby cgi. Huge battle scenes are efficiently directed by Petersen, without ever containing anything that is truly special or even memorable. The fighting has obviously been carefully considered, and Achilles moves like a dancer in stark contrast to the heavy armour and forceful strikes favoured by everybody else.
The climax - the arrival of the Wooden horse (nicely designed here) into Troy and all that follows - feels quite rushed, and in any event, the emotional climax has come and gone almost an hour before.
The duel between Achilles and Hector is easily the best thing in the film. So clearly shot and edited it feels like somebody other than Petersen must have been involved, it is visceral and gripping throughout, and the outcome is at least stirring in a way nothing else in this film is.

Monday 25 August 2014


(Luc Besson, 2014)

Besson has always had a knack for establishing a simple, gripping high concept dramatic device quickly and economically. The first 10 minutes of Lucy features two examples of this talent; in the first we watch Lucy (Scarlett Johansson, beautifully cast), plainly a bit of a party girl studying in Taipei, as she argues with a newish boyfriend who is trying to persuade her to drop off a mysterious briefcase in a hotel. Of course this errand leaves the boyfirend dead and Lucy in the hands of a Korean gang run by Mr Jang (Choi Min-Sik) who want to use her as a mule, an experimental new drug surgically concealed inside her stomach ready to be transported to Europe. Secondly there is the scene where a terrified Lucy is forced to open the the briefcase she has delivered while Mr Jang and his men hide behind cover in case it is a bomb.
Besson shoots these scenes simply and classically. Some of the style - we must remember that the "movement" of which Besson along with directors like Jean-Jacques Beineix and Leos Carax belonged was known as the "cinema du look" - which so enveloped his earlier work seems to have dropped away, and though Lucy always looks good, there is nothing all that distinctive or remarkable about its visual style.
Instead - and this is new for Besson - the content is fascinating. The ideas in Lucy about human beings only using 10% of our brains and the possibilities if we ever accessed more may be half-baked sci-fi, but at least there are ideas. And Besson expresses them visually, or at least tries to. His film has passages that recall a lobotomised Tree of Life, others that suggest 2001 and Koyanisqatsi. And yet, sometimes the effect is like nothing so much as an extremely well-shot and cut Powerpoint presentation. And that is without mentioning the dissonance created by juxtaposing all that with the international crime drama (the kind of thing Besson's Production company, EuropaCorp, specialises in) that the first act suggests Lucy will become. It never quite becomes that. Instead, that story - of Lucy's attempts to track down the rest of the drug that has allowed her to access more of her brain and hence given her what are in effect superpowers - runs alongside the changes Lucy is registering within herself and how they are effecting her.
As she begins to transcend time and space the film has one foot bogged down in a familiar, predictably violent action film. While Johansson is excellent - this role suggests a sort of dumber companion to Under the Skin - this strange schizophrenia is both the films strength and its great weakness. It makes for a movie that is entertaining, weirdly self-aware, and utterly brainless.

Wednesday 20 August 2014


(Damon Beesley, Iain Morris, 2014)

What made the television show The Inbetweeners so good - apart from the fact that it was genuinely funny - was that the four teenage boys at its centre were instantly recognisable as authentic, realistic teenage boys. Not the heightened, glamourised versions we usually get in tv and (especially) cinema, no; these boys were pathetic, confused, socially awkward, bitter, ignorant, sexually frustrated and generally horrible to one another. The writers and creators - Beesley and Morris, who here take over the direction too - placed these figures in some recognisable situations too, adding just a touch of comedic exaggeration and letting them loose. The result was a show that usually reduced me to tears of laughter at least once an episode, while always retaining its truthfulness in the form of the four boys at its heart.
This sequel to the original 2011 cinematic spin-off from the series finds those boys just on the cusp of manhood. Will (Simon Bird) and  Simon (Joe Thomas) are at university, while Neil (Blake Harrison) works in a bank and Jay (James Buckley) is on a Gap Year in Australia. His email home to Neil, full of lies and fantasies, convinces the others to visit him for a two week holiday, but there tensions surface between a resentful Will and the others.
Where this is less successful than the tv show or even the first film is in it's story; there is a little too much obvious invention here, too much that feels like the silly imaginings of screenwriters trying desperately to find funny situations for their heroes. The pretentions and ridiculousness of British backpackers is surgically skewered here (competitive conversations about "amazing experiences", people playing guitar badly by campfires, white rastas etc) but it never has teh universality of the best story lines from the tv series. But even then, it is consistently funny, and one of the big comic set-pieces is brilliantly managed despite it's awesomely crude, broad humour.
It never really looks like a movie, but what really makes it work is what always made the tv show so good: it might just be the truest, most believable portrayal of teenage boys and friendship I've ever seen. That is partly down to the four leads, and mostly to the writing. These boys are always at each other, never letting anything go, always competing and bickering, their insults reliably bitter and hurtful. If that sounds unpleasant, then it ignores the warmth in the characterisation, the fondness for these boys and the dynamic between them, one that the film itself explicitly acknowledges.

Sunday 17 August 2014


(David Michod, 2014)

What exactly is it that makes Antipodean filmmakers so good at post-apocalyptic stories? The Mad Max trilogy, The Quiet Earth...even The Road was directed by an Australian (John Hillcoat). Can it just be that the Outback is such a desolate landscape, or does it say something more complex about some aspect of the national character?
The Rover is another great Australian post-apocalyptic tale. Set ten years after "the collapse", it follows taciturn loner Guy Pearce in his determined efforts to recover his car after it is stolen by a trio of thugs fleeing a botched robbery. Dragging "halfwit" Robert Pattinson, brother of one of the car thieves but left for dead at the robbery, with him, they cross a landscape occasionally hellish in its casual violence and degradation, but also one that is darkly funny and stunningly beautiful.
Such a slight story relies hugely upon direction and performances to achieve some of the mythic status for which it strives, and director Michod delivers, his arty style never overwhelming of obfuscating the narrative. He keeps it simple - filming long tense scenes with uncluttered compositions in classic set-ups - two shots, some stunning establishing shots. The Australian landscape provides beauty but cinematography from Natasha Braier makes the most of that, and her work - twinned with a terrifically visceral score by Anthony Partos - means that this film is thick with atmosphere. This world is a different kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland; dingy, almost mundane in its abandonment of civilisation.
Yes there are guns and grotesquerie, but nothing quite so gothic as in George Miller's vision (which has donated more or less all of post-apocalyptic cinema since Mad Max 2 was released). Here are tired, sweaty, dirty people selling water and petrol in empty, run-down towns. Soldiers patrol the wasteland, unsure of what policies they are enforcing or why. Endless trains cross the desert from the mines.
Pearce's character begins as a mystery; a grim-faced loner who kills without hesitation, and seems ridiculously fixated on getting his car back. But the actor's terrific performance slowly reveals the character to us as the film goes on; here is a man broken by what has happened, suffering because of each murder he has committed, and finally, a man clinging to what little sentiment he has left. He speaks little save for one scene with a soldier, so much of his work is in long unbroken close-ups and we have to read it in his eyes. But there it is - pain, rage, a sort of angry desperation. His is a great performance.
If The Rover is unquestionably (and like many films in this genre) a Western, which even its title suggests, it is also a weird sort of buddy movie, intent as much of it is with the odd dynamic between the two men on a journey together at the heart of its story. Pattinson has the showier role, turning and nervously grinning his way through thickly-accented monologues as his character grows more confident and assured, somehow gaining strength from his relationship with Pearce's cold-eyed killer. But again, Pattinson finds depth there, giving the climax of the film some charge.
But despite the quality of the two leads work, this is really Michod's film. His precise direction is crucial; muscular and assured, it gives The Rover it's own distinctive tone and emotional feel.
This is a mesmeric, tense film which also manages to be mordantly funny and genuinely beautiful.

Saturday 16 August 2014


(James Gunn, 2014)

James Gunn understands the appeal of his material better than anybody else to tackle a Marvel movie so far. That translates here as a certain joy in the universe in which this story is set, in a love for these characters and even for the tropes of the super-hero spectacle which so weary many critics.
And that makes Guardians of the Galaxy feel fresh and different as Marvel movies go. It helps that this is a very different angle on this universe - the vast "cosmic" side of Marvel's world has only been suggested by the Avengers and Thor, but here Gunn embraces it wholeheartedly, and there is a genuine pulp relish in the numerous alien races and worlds he parades before us.
Not only that, he takes just the right tone. If this film recalls Star Wars in any way, it is the shorthand presentation of so many concepts and ideas. Gigantic skull of an ancient celestial being housing a city of people mining it for natural resources? Sure, why not? Gunn shows his characters accept that with just the right amount of awed bemusement, and then his crowded story rattles along, and we follow along in its its wake. By not focusing too much on the details of this universe, he makes us go with it, which is the best possible way to enjoy a movie like this one.
This applies to two of his lead characters too; Rocket Raccoon (nicely voiced by Bradley Cooper) and living tree-man Groot (Vin Diesel) are perhaps the most high-concept creations in any Marvel film so far. And here they are entirely successful; giving the film much of its humour and, in the last act, a large amount of its emotional impact.
The story follows Peter Quill (a likeable Chris Pratt). As a boy, he watches his mother die of a terminal illness in hospital, and as he flees, grief-stricken, he is abducted from Earth by the Ravagers led by Yondu (Michael Rooker). We meet him again as an adult; a cocky, wisecracking thief who finds himself in possession of a mysterious Orb. This orb is coveted by many other parties however, and in classic super-hero comic style, Star-Lord (the name Quill is unsuccessfully attempting to assume) has to fight the people who will become his friends before they are all arrested and imprisoned by the Nova Corps (a sort of Interstellar police force).
These friends include the humourless fighting machine Drax (Dave Bautista) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a famous assassin adopted by Thanos (voiced here by Josh Brolin) who sees her chance to atone for crimes committed in his name. Together they must face off against Ronan (Lee Pace), a Kree religious fundamentalist who wishes to use the power of the Orb to destroy half of the universe.
Despite Gunn's skill with a set piece, the best stuff here is the character interaction. When all of the Guardians are together, their bickering and grousing is genuinely hilarious and illuminating. The Rocket-Groot dynamic recalls Han Solo and Chewbacca  but is lent a unique edge by Rocket's self-loathing. Drax is unable to understand any figurative language, while the attraction between Quill and Gamora is never overstated but gives a couple of scenes a nice frisson. The cast - bolstered by work from the likes of Peter Serafinowicz and Glenn Close - are all fine, with Pratt perhaps the stand-out. His Quill anchors many scenes with references to Earth pop culture and knowingly sidelong angles on the action, while the mix tape his mother made for him as a boy forms the film's soundtrack, giving it a fun tone unlike any other super-hero or science fiction movie.
Quill's transformation into a hero is kept bearable by his own self-conscious assessment of it, which is the film in microcosm. Self-aware and with a sense of humour about itself, it nevertheless works as a pure piece of old-fashioned pulp.
It may all boil down to spaceships crashing into each other and hand-to-hand combat, but it does those things with brio and wit, and is thoroughly entertaining, and even occasionally beautiful, in that its visual scheme recalls nothing quite so much as the science fiction of the early '80s, notably Mike Hodges' Flash Gordon.

Monday 28 July 2014


(Mark Mylod, 2011)

Despite the reliable efforts on Anna Faris and Chris Evans in the lead roles, What's Your Number? remains frustratingly second-rate throughout. The concept - based upon a lifestyle book - centres on the number of men the average American woman must sleep with before she finds her future husband. The average is 10, so when Elly (Faris) realises she has twice that to her name, she flips out and determines to track down all of her exes, so that she can marry one of them and not pass the 20 mark.
She enlists the help of her slacker neighbour Colin (Evans) in her quest and he sends her across Boston to rendezvous with various men, played by a nicely random selection of character actors including Martin Freeman, Andy Samberg and Anthony Mackie.
Inevitably, Elly and Colin fall for one another but don't realise it until the last five minutes of the film.
This is a romcom lacking in much com. Faris is a great comic actress, blessed with perfect timing and a good sense of physical comedy, and Evans has effortless charm. They have chemistry too, but there are virtually no laughs here. Scenes play out and the mechanics of comedy are visible, but not much works. Its too safe and obvious, too calculated and cold.
Mylod directs it like any one of a dozen directors might have - without much energy or anything visually distinctive. It's just there, wasting its cast, looking pretty.

Sunday 27 July 2014


(Brett Ratner, 2014)

Surprisingly short and decently-paced, Ratner's adaptation of Steve Moore's revisionist comic book take on the myth of Hercules is also a tad generic. It's gimmick is that Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is not the demi-god son of Zeus of legend, but in fact an extremely skilled and fearsomely strong warrior supported by a tight, experienced team of comrades who understand the power of the legend and do their best to further its dissemination.
Hercules' Labours (which feature prominently in the trailer) are all dispensed with within the first five minutes of the film, and then we are introduced to reality - a jolly crew of mercenaries of differing skills and temperaments including the likes of Rufus Sewell as a quick, cynical knife-fighter, Ian McShane as a staff-wielding seer and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal as an amazon archer. Hercules leads the group, and his legend is known throughout Greece, though we see glimpses of his real-life tragedy (a bloodily-killed family, Hercules with gore on his hands) in Athens, from where he has been banished by King Eurystheus (Joseph Fiennes).
In yet another run-through of one of the oldest stories, they are hired to protect Thrace and the kingdom of Cotys (John Hurt) from a murderous, brutal army, and Hercules and his crew have to train an army in a couple of montages before the battle scenes - all flaming arrows, chariots, shield-walls, etc - begin, followed by some predictable plot revelations, more battle scenes, a bit of character development, then a big climax. Johnson could carry a continent, and a film this thin is no problem to him, especially when supported by a cast of slumming British thespians like this one.
The action scenes are competent - even refreshingly coherent - but it is all over-familiar and a tad too generically swords-and-sandals, despite classy Dante Spinotti cinematography. It all feels strangely small-scale even though there are humungous battles and teeming cgi cities.
That helps in that it ensures the human story at the centre of the film is intimate, but since the story is so hoary and undistinguished, it doesn't help as much as it might.
The temptation to blame Ratner - whose dwindling career won't be helped by this - is overwhelming. So I'm going to blame him too. It's Ratner's fault.

Thursday 24 July 2014


(Jaume Collet-Serra, 2014)

Over the course of a few mid-budget genre entertainments, Serra has transformed himself into one of Hollywood's premier craftsmen. His movies operate as efficient thrill-machines, yet there is undoubtedly more on offer if you want it; in Non-Stop it's not too difficult to detect an allegory for modern America and its troubled relationship with its security services. But it works perfectly well as an action-thriller too, giving Liam Neeson more to do than the Taken franchise does.
Neeson possesses an air of soulful melancholy and Serra has utilised that both here and in Unknown, in each film pushing Neeson's protagonist through a sort of identity crisis before he can really indulge in teh sort of righteous ass-kicking his fanbase presumably expect.
Here he plays Marks, an Air Marshall with numerous problems - debts, alcoholism, guilt over the death of his daughter a decade before. What should be a routine New York to London flight is derailed when Marks starts receiving texts from a mysterious passenger who knows an awful lot about him. Demanding $150 Million be wired to an account, the mystery man tells Marks that if he does not co-operate then a passenger will die every 20 minutes.
Marks then has to figure out who his opponent is, keep the passengers safe, and keep himself together, while the stakes keep on escalating; the plan is seemingly to frame Marks, and his own actions don't help him prevent that - he stumbles from mistake to disaster while the media decides he is a hijacker and the passengers begin to panic.
Serra is excellent on the claustrophobia of his setting. This is a red-eye flight and cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano lights it in purples and blues. The rows of seats become as much a plot point as a visual motif - they obscure the actions of passengers from Marks, and one great shot pans from his anxious, doubtful face to a sea of eyes on faces turned and peering at him over seat-backs.
The action is sparse here; this is more of a pure thriller, with lots of slow-burning suspense, but Serra pulls off a couple of fine set-pieces, most obviously the brutal fist-ight inside the onboard toilet.
The final act is undoubtedly silly, as the villains and their motivations are revealed, but by then its too late and most audiences will be hooked. Neeson is excellent and the supporting cast are all fine, but Serra is the real star here, taking such unpromising material and making a rousingly skillful entertainment of it.

Monday 21 July 2014


(Matt Reeves, 2014)

The real glory of this film lies in the way director Reeves tells his story. Good cinematic storytelling is becoming something of a rarity in blockbuster cinema. But he puts together a series of beautiful visuals that flow together to tell this story with economy, power and wit.
The film picks up ten years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes; the human race is almost extinct, civilization more or less vanished. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the super-intelligent chimp who led a group of apes into the woods near San Francisco at the climax of the first film, is now leader of a settlement in that forest. The apes communicate using sign language and some speech, live in tree houses and ride horses. They teach one another rules and hunt deer with spears. Caesar's allies from his escape are now his most trusted advisors- gentle Orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), angry Koba (Toby Kebell) and loyal Rocket, alongside Caesar's son Blue Eyes. The apes have seen no humans for two years.
But they soon encounter a group of humans in their territory, there to repair a dam so power can be restored to their home, a tower in the city.
This group is led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), and he, like Caesar, is intent on protecting his family, which includes a son (Cody Smit-McPhee) and new wife (Keri Russell, largely wasted). The initial encounter goes badly, setting the tone for all to come. While Koba - scarred by years of experiments in human labs - preaches that the apes should attack the humans, Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman), who set up the colony with Malcolm, counsels much the same to his group.
From that point in, what Reeves shapes is a slow-motion tragedy, as the minority hawks on each side drive their species into a bloody, destructive war that Malcolm and Caesar are powerless to stop, hard as they try, and much as their own friendship suggests there may be another way. The details are perfectly observed; the way Koba clowns as a stage chimpanzee to gain human trust, the way Maurice and Malcolm's son bond over a graphic novel (Charles Burns' Black Sun), the brief human euphoria at the return of power, Blue Eyes and his adolescent rebellion, even the way the city is already an overgrown mossy jungle.
Most of all though Reeves conjures up a sense of wonder and alien fear - the ape society is so well-evoked and detailed in the first act, that it is a little coup how strange and otherworldly it (and its denizens) becomes when the humans see it. These two sides fear one another, but they are curious too.
The inevitable violence is thrillingly shot, and as he did in Let Me In, Reeves indulges himself with an impressive single-take shot of Koba atop a tank progressing across the battleground. But it all works so well because here Reeves has established these characters - both ape and human - so convincingly, and made us care about them. The emotional connection we feel pays off in the climactic scenes, which are tragic and weighted with sorrow and regret.
The effects are - obviously - superb.

Saturday 12 July 2014


(Richard Linklater, 2014)

So much cinema is about so little. Filmmakers manufacture conflict, finesse character arcs and shape story lines, all to bow down to the great God of "story". That is obviously not a bad thing in every case. But when that story is about nothing, amounts to nothing, says nothing, provokes nothing; when real life and humanity and thought is more or less absent from a work of "art", it can be hard not to ask yourself what is the point of it.
Richard Linklater generally makes films about life. That sounds like a simple, small, obvious thing. But in modern American cinema it is precious and actually quite rare. And Boyhood may be his best conceived and most fully articulated work; a film about the magic of everyday life and how difficult that is to appreciate, a film about time and the way it slowly steals our lives from us, minute by minute, day by day.
The process is the aspect of this production most of the promotional material focuses upon; shot for a short period with the same cast annually for twelve years, we watch young Texan Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grow up as his life and circumstances change around him. His mother (Patricia Arquette) grows from a stressed young single Mom into a College Professor, mourning the loss of her life as her youngest child prepares to leave the nest, acquiring and shedding a couple of husbands along the way. His father (Ethan Hawke) goes from an irresponsible but fun free spirit to a "boring old fart" with a mini-van and a new young family, consistently giving Mason heartfelt advice based on his own mistakes and revelations.
His sister (Lorelai Linklater) and he move house several times, change schools and stepdads, by turns stoic and petulant. All of these characters are complicated and believable, their complexities and quirks revealed incrementally over the years. Mason himself is a quiet, watchful presence for most of the first half of the film; we hear other people's opinions of him more than we hear his own. And then puberty hits, shockingly, and he is suddenly a pretty, moody teen, and a conversation with his father on a camping trip is followed later by a long reveal of his sensitivity and distinctive view of the world in a romantic chat with his first love. Suddenly this young man comes into focus, a product of all the influences we have glimpsed, and more fascinating for that.
There is something so casually profound in this it is almost impossible to process on a first viewing. Like in life, scenes just pass by, people change, circumstances alter. This prosaic quality is a big part of what makes the film so profound. This could be any life, every life. Linklater refuses the easy dramatic option on so many occasions it cannot help but underline this universality. The one real passage of melodrama - his mother marries an alcoholic at one point, and his abusive, violent nature doesn't take too long to reveal itself - is shocking because it is so different from the rest of the film. It is also brilliantly written and acted, and, like everything else here, beautifully naturalistic. The cast are all excellent - so much falls upon Coltrane's shoulders and he carries that effortlessly, with a quiet, mysterious charisma that is intensely watchable. Arquette reveals her character's strength best in desperate times, and her final moment of emotion as her son leaves may be the most moving moment in the film, and Hawke has perhaps the showiest role and really, evidently enjoys that and the many speeches he gets to make about women and politics and the Beatles and the meaning of life.
While Boyhood is fundamentally a coming of age story, it is so many other things besides. It is a story of family, of how we need and rely on support networks, of how parenthood changes people. It subtly portrays the way technology has changed our lives over the last decade. It's soundtrack is perhaps a tad too on-the-nose at times in its use of so much indie to track Mason's movement through the Noughties.
It contains lovely little moments and juxtapositions like the one where we see him shyly walking and talking with a female schoolfriend who informs him her friend has a crush on him, then witness him and his friends acting experienced and knowing about females with the older brother of a friend.
It offers a telling, poetic portrayal of young love and its inevitable dissolution. And miraculously it ends on a lovely moment of promise, potential and excitement.
It runs for almost three hours; yet flies by, and I didn't want it to end. It is magnificent.

Sunday 8 June 2014


(Phil Lord, Chris Miller, 2014)

Directors Lord and Miller's stock in trade is the hyperactive meta-fictional comedy, and here, seemingly emboldened by the success of 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie, they push that as far as it can go while remaining (just about) true to the action-comedy genre.
The self-referential story follows Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) as they begin another case, this time posing as College Freshmen, investigating the source of a new drug called WhyFy on a Californian campus. Jokes about the lameness of sequels, the pointless budgetary increases and the tweaking of formula inevitably follow, but the film nimbly allows all that to co-exist with a nice emotional narrative about the pairs relationship unravelling (explicitly compared to the break-up of a long-term couple), slapstick, some brilliant pop cultural references (the Benjamin Hill School of Film Studies flashes by during a chase scene) and loads of gags about both the college movie sub-genre and college age kids in general.
All that and there are action scenes too.
Jenko has never been to College and he finds himself the perfect specimen to become a frat-boy football player, enjoying a beautifully-played homo-erotic relationship with the College Quarterback while also embracing his Human Sexuality course, while Schmidt falls in with an artier crowd, performing slam poetry and being used by a girl (the repeated "walk of shame" gag works because of Hill's sour little mouth).
Ice Cube and his outraged scowl return and this time he is given much more to do; destroying a buffet being a particular highlight.
The oddity here is how hard it is to know just what to take seriously. When the film shifts to Mexico for a Spring Break-set climax, the establishing shots of high rise hotels and crashing breakers could come straight from a Michael Bay movie, and the temptation is to see even that as Miller & Lord teasing the industry in which they are thriving. They mock and skit at every opportunity, undercutting and satirising merrily, making the movie an almost exhilarating riot.
And yet, some of the best gags are the simplest - Jenko's use of the term "Cate Blanchett" is a joke for the ages. Just when you think it is over comes the closing credits, a brilliant in-joke on movie franchises which ends this on a perfect note.

Saturday 31 May 2014


(Doug Liman, 2014)

Edge of Tomorrow is one of those films that takes loads of elements from other films – images, ideas, plot points, character beats, clichés – and mixes them together in a new recipe. Just when you think there's too much going on, or something is cheesy, well then that's when somehow Liman makes it work, and then some.
It takes a time-loop plot, perhaps best seen in cinema in Groundhog Day, and sends Cage (Tom Cruise), a PR man given a rank in the US Army who is lacking any combat skills, into battle against an alien army known as Mimics, who are just the English Channel away from conquering all of Europe. This setting - a London quivering under the threat of invasion, an enormous army waiting to attack the French coast - suggests a hundred WW2 films, as does the D-Day style carnage that awaits the soldiers, all wearing augmented battle suits, when they land on the beach.
Cruise dies, terrified, but in doing so he kills a larger Mimic, and is covered in its blood as he dies. Turns out this was a special Mimic, an "Alpha", and he has acquired some of it's ability to Reset the day after death. And so he repeats that same day again and again, acquiring fighting skills as he goes, and finally encountering Rita, "the angel of Verdun", (Emily Blunt), a soldier famed for killing literally hundreds of Mimics in an earlier battle. Rita understands what he is experiencing, having been through it herself, and together they set about trying to use his ability to defeat the alien army and their own commanders, blind to the reality of the Mimic invasion.
Liman is one of that generation of American directors who is blandly accomplished - he can shoot action well, he can do character scenes, comedy, he has a fine eye for landscape...and yet a real sensibility is missing. But it means he can service an entertainment like this one perfectly well. The script is by the Butterworth brothers, Jez (who is a legitimately brilliant playwright) and John-Henry, alongside Chris McQuarrie, and though it is full of action, it is character-driven, as Cage grows more responsible and empathetic and Rita softens and lets him in. 
The leads have no chemistry but are both good in their own right - Cruise looks increasingly haunted and vulnerable as he ages, suiting this part, while Blunt has always possessed an inner fierceness which makes her ideal as the passionate warrior-woman. They are supported by a rich cast made up of some British character actors, with Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor and Bill Paxton all excellent as more vivid presences.
Only the predictable climax is something of a let-down, but even then the coda makes it work. This is summer blockbuster cinema done right - smart, well-paced, stylishly slick, utterly satisfying.