Wednesday 22 January 2014


(Martin Scorsese, 2013)

Blame Goodfellas. That more-or-less universally adored 1990 film was a comeback of sorts for Martin Scorsese, and it remains perhaps his most ostentatiously "directed" work; with its use of slow motion, freeze-frames and its reverse dolly zooms, it positively begs an audience to notice the hand of the filmmaker throughout. No wonder it's been so very influential (films from Blow to Boogie Nights to Mesrine and American Hustle all ape Goodfellas to various degrees) - it is one of those films that makes the director look like the main man.
That hadn't been quite the case prior to that in Scorsese's career. His films had always looked good, always featured dazzling sequences, showcasing his talent as a visual stylist, but never before had they been quite so joyously excessive. Since the huge critical and commercial success of Goodfellas, Scorsese revisits that style every couple of films and adapts it slightly for others. It has become his style, in effect. The shame of this is that it now seems self-parodic, or as one critic has put it, "Scor-cese" (as in journalese). A sort of hackneyed visual idiolect.
The Wolf of Wall Street is possibly the purest expression of that style imaginable.
A wicked, hilarious, epic black comedy following the rise and fall of Wall Street stockbroker turned fraudster Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the rambling, episodic storyline allows Scorsese to show us many of his tricks. The plot - filled as it is with an incredible amount of sequences of sex, drugs and general debauchery - allows for this, with the narrative asking that various altered states need to be interpreted somehow.
Like Goodfellas, it's largely told in flashback, narrated by a self-aware protagonist who actually talks directly to the audience, breaks off explaining things because they don't really matter, and generally glories in the twists and turns of his own story. That story is rich in supporting characters, most obviously embodied by Jonah Hill as Jordan's right-hand man, Donny, and Margot Robbie as his beautiful second wife, Naomi. As Jordan's activities become more lucrative and less legal, his habits swell until he is seemingly constantly enjoying either drugs or prostitutes (often both). Perhaps the standout sequence is a long quallude high which plays out like brilliant slapstick comedy.
This is probably Scorsese's funniest film. The silly debate over whether or not the director intends us to admire these people ignores the fact that they - and their babylonian excesses - are funny whether or not you admire them. That begins with Matthew McConaughey, whose cameo role as Jordan's mentor revolves around a standout sequence where he openly snorts coke over lunch in a restaurant, then begins a chest-beating anthem to Wall Street after revealing the secret con of the entire system to the younger man. Also hilarious is Rob Reiner as Jordan's father.
They are balanced somewhat by Kyle Chandler, somehow creating a layered individual out of an underwritten FBI agent who becomes Jordan's nemesis.
It is only with his arrival that the film really acquires a plot, as Jordan desperately seeks to cover his back and hide his money before the government catch up to him.
There are many dazzling scenes here - Scorsese is still a master, after all - but it is massively overlong, numbingly repetitive and strangely empty (which is perhaps the point, admittedly).
DiCaprio holds it together well, despite several of his co-stars walking away with their every scene, and  despite a seemingly random selection of tunes on the soundtrack (once a definite Scorsese specialty), this is genuinely, roundly entertaining throughout.
But from a master given this sort of canvas to work on, is that really enough?

Sunday 19 January 2014


(Richard Lester, 1968)

Petulia is very much a neglected or lost classic. Many "lost" films gain that status because they are commercial failures upon their release, and this was the fate of Petulia. Lester had a strange, uneven career, and is probably best-remembered today for his two films for the Beatles, A Hard Days Night and Help!, or his later big budget work for the Salkinds on the Musketeers films and Superman 2. But he made a handful of great films, and even his lesser work is interesting, and, particularly in his early career, extremely distinctive visually. After the failure of Petulia, and even more catastrophically, his surreal film of Spike Milligan's post-apocalyptic satire The Bed Sitting Room, Lester turned away from cinema for a few years, and when he returned his vision seemed trained intently on the past, with the exception of the allegorical disaster movie Juggernaut. He made a series of excellent costume spectacles, starting with the Three Musketeers and perhaps peaking with the beautiful Robin & Marian in 1976. But he seemed to lose any appetite for the politically engaged, topical cinema he had created in the 60s, which is a shame considering the quality of films like the Knack, and particularly Petulia.

The film traces the brief affair between Archie Bollen (George C. Scott), a San Francisco doctor in the middle of an emotionally confused divorce, and Petulia Danner (Julie Christie), a young socialite who is troubled by the complications in her marriage to David (Richard Chamberlain). Lester combines this love story with a damning indictment of a changing America in the late 1960s. The film is full of allusions to violence - car accidents, brutal wife-beating, the Vietnam War endlessly playing on television - and the dehumanising aspects of technology. This is a city where supermarkets open 24 hours a day, and become empty temples to consumerism by night, as suggested by the shot of Petulia and Archie pushing round a trolley loaded with food he doesn't want. The motel they visit is automated, as is the greenhouse Archie recieves as a present, with its "lights that work better than the sun".

But the pleasures of Petulia are primarily sensual. Before revealing himself to be a visionary Director, Nic Roeg was an amazing Director of Photography - his work on Far From the Madding Crowd and Farenheit 451 being the best examples - and, on Petulia, he and Lester worked together to give the film a unique look and style. Its pallette is composed of warm but luminous colours, and since many of the scenes were shot on location in Haight & Ashbury, the background is always vivid and interesting. Lester makes several references to Hitchcock's use of San Francisco in Vertigo, but stylistically, his work seems more influenced by the French New Wave, with his jump-cuts and elliptical editing, and Roeg's compositions often finding characters framed by objects, and even the city itself seen through the lines of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The story is told with the aid of many flashbacks and flash-forwards, and scenes are interrupted by brief snatches of scenes from earlier or later in the narrative. Sometimes they seem to suggest the characters are being jolted by memories or premonitions, but they are also used as thematic signifiers so that Lester can juxtapose two images, as in the moment where Archie flinches at the violence at a Roller Derby because it reminds him of finding Petulia's battered body in his apartment, and the film seems to be making a connection between the prevalence of violence in modern culture and its influence on personal behavior. These flash-cuts also serve to emphasise the theme of miscommunication, as Archie and Petulia struggle to get through to each other throughout the film. Indeed, the only time the rhythm of the editing really slows down is in the scene between Petulia and David near the film's end, where a reconciliation seems possible.

John Barry had worked with Lester on the Knack, and his score for Petulia, recently sampled by the Cinematic Orchestra, is one of his most romantic and moving. Indeed, the film itself is extremely moving. It starts off seeming a little dated, with its cuts to Scott wandering around a psychedelic club and Christie's determinedly kooky behaviour, but both actors give tremendous performances. Scott, always slightly ill-at-ease in a suit, his bullish form too reined in, allows some melancholy and vulnerability to drip into the fierceness and sourness his screen presence always provides. Christie was perhaps at the apex of her spectacular beauty in 1968, but she was best in roles that asked her to suggest some darkness beneath the sunniness of her looks, and here she reveals a depth and complexity many of her pin-up contemporaries could never match. The way their relationship stumbles and finally fades away as they both lie to themselves, and the final shot of Petulia's face as she speaks Archie's name, are full of sadness and regret. While certain aspects of the film possibly do initially seem dated, they also suggest that the film captures the time and place it records with a commendable precison and authenticity, and the emotional impact of the story and performances combine to render such criticisms irrelevant.


(Spike Jonze, 2013)

Her feels, well...almost perfect.
Beautifully judged and finely emotionally calibrated, it manages to work as a simple, surprisingly conventional love story (following the arc of a love affair, from meet cute to emotional parting) while also indulging in an accessible, interesting investigation into modern communication, and how it has affected our relationships.
Set in a very-near future (with exteriors shot in Shanghai, making great use of that City's now Epic skyline), Her follows Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix), who works at a firm writing personal, emotional letters for clients. Recently separated from his wife (Rooney Mara), Theodore is isolated and lonely, but when he buys new software, he finds himself falling in love with his Operating System, named Samantha (voiced brilliantly by Scarlett Johansson). Samantha is evolving and intuitive, and their relationship has many difficulties, all of them compounded when she begins to grow beyond Theodore's understanding...
The future world of Her is only a few short steps from our own. Here is a world where everyone is in semi-constant communion with the device they carry around, where people appear to talk to themselves in public, and computers respond to voice commands (this is a world seemingly devoid of keyboards). The sublime production design and, more particularly, cinematography (by Hoyte van Hoytema) emphasise the flat, thin light of modern-day Los Angeles, and find personal spaces full of vibrant, earthy colours and lots of natural light. There are many witty little details - from the computer game Theodore plays to the LA transit system in which he travels and thinks - all of which help ground this story and enable Jonze and his more-than-capable cast to ensure it delivers an emotional experience.
And it feels more personal and emotional than any of his other films (which is saying something, given how oddly powerful his work can be). Much of this is down to Phoenix, now firmly ensconced as his generation's greatest leading man, here making Theodore vulnerable, interesting, poetic and also self-destructive. He is very much a "Character", but it is the film's greatest triumph that the audience can feel the universal emotions of his relationship with Samantha. The warmth and excitement of the early stages giving way to difficulty and complex growth, then the final, desperately sad stages. This film could be about any relationship.
But it is more interesting, funnier, more moving, because Jonze chose this setting, chose - in the era of Apple and Siri - to tell this particular story. Not many films can be quite so entertaining and beautiful yet just this thought-provoking. Her manages it effortlessly.

Thursday 16 January 2014


(Peter Berg, 2013)

America: Fuck Yeah!
Four heroic Navy SEALs on a recon mission in Afghanistan find themselves caught in open ground by multiple Taliban fighters. Without access to communications and with nowhere to run, they begin a desperate rearguard action, killing dozens of enemy soldiers. But they are whittled down gradually until only one remains...
Reminiscent of Ridley Scott's superior Black Hawk Down, this a a combat movie that sentimentalises the band of brothers at its heart while turning the faceless enemy combatants into little better than 1st person shooter video game cannon fodder. That is, when the enemy is not being identified as evil Taliban leadership, responsible directly for the deaths of US soldiers. Berg isn't interested in the politics or morals of the conflict in Afghanistan, and so he reduces it to a jingoistic claptrap of black and white, good versus evil.
In this case the good are represented by American movie stars: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster (the standout) play the four SEALs, with Eric Bana their commanding officer. Berg knows what he's doing and the battle scenes here are ferocious, and crucially always maintain some spatial coherence - you know exactly where everybody is in relation to everybody else, despite all the gunfire and explosions.
Documentary footage over the opening credits shows how tough SEAL training is and that should serve as a warning of sorts - these men (literally) jump off two cliffs as part of their retreat, and this film is really as much of a gruelling survival ordeal as it is a War movie. The cast are fine, the script efficient but hideously bombastic - Afghans die rapidly, meaninglessly, one after another. Each American death, meanwhile, is underlined somehow; in slow motion, given a heavy musical backing, crosscut with another event: these men are HEROES, and don't you forget it, son.
It works if you like that sort of thing, I guess.


(Steve McQueen, 2013)

McQueen's first two features - the exceptional Hunger and Shame - both still had the scent of the gallery lingering around them. The director's past as an artist, responsible for installations, was evident in the precision and control and self-consciousness of the effects he brought to bear on his work in cinema. That was no bad thing when applied with his intelligence and sensitivity.
12 Years a Slave is different, however. Adapted by John Ridley from the memoir of Solomon Northrup, it is a raw, intimate story of suffering, torture and survival. And McQueen's approach is leavened somewhat, perhaps, by his own desire to transmit this story beyond the arthouse sector, which embraced his first work, and right into multiplexes.
So his style is toned down somewhat. Though still recognisably a Steve McQueen film, there are fewer extended takes, fewer ostentatiously frozen breathtaking compositions. The filmmaking is, generally speaking, more conventional.
But that is enough - this is a great story, brilliantly told.
Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man living in Saratoga, New York in the 1840s. He works as a musician and lives happily with his wife and two children in a nice house. He is respected in the local community, hos race seemingly not an issue in the liberal North. And then he is tricked by two men who offer him work, and awakens after a night of heavy drinking in Washington DC to find himself chained and imprisoned. He has been sold into slavery, and after being savagely beaten and humiliated, he is transported downriver to New Orleans, where he is sold to a plantation owner for $1000. Over the years he encounters vicious overseers (Paul Dano), benevolent masters (Benedict Cumberbatch) before winding up in the possession of Epps (Michael Fassbinder). Epps is a terrifying cotton plantation owner, sexually obsessed with his slave Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o) and driven to "break" difficult slaves like Solomon, whose slave name is "Platt". His wife (Sarah Poulson) is just as dangerous in her quiet way, and Solomon endures years of fear and terror on the plantation.
This story plays out like a horror movie in certain passages, so grimly violent and frightening it is. There are scenes of shocking cruelty and utter degradation, and yet the hardest moments to watch are those which depict yet another layer of Solomon's identity and hope fall away at a fresh horror. The moral force of McQueen and Ridley's vision compensate for how brutal much of this material is, however. The subject matter earns the violence. The subject matter demands it.
It also demands some recognition of the complexity of the issue, even as it's moral position stands obvious and unquestionable. That is there in the character played by Alfre Woodard, regarded as the Mistress of a nearby plantation, though really a slave, and in the arguments solomon has with other slaves on various issues.
As Solomon, Ejiofor is lovely; soulful eyes always burning bright with a lust to survive, with his own belief in who he is cutting through. The rest of the cast are as good, with Fassbender particularly fearsome as Epps, Poulson a haunted presence as his wife, while Nyong'o is stunning as Patsey.
This being a Steve McQueen film, it looks beautiful (fine Sean Bobbitt cinematography) and Hans Zimmer's unusual score - much of it drowned in industrial noises - is also impressive. But it is McQueen who inserts much of what makes 12 Years a Slave special into the film, and he who should ultimately take all the plaudits.

Sunday 12 January 2014


(Joey Figueroa, Zak Knutson, 2013)

John Milius is a fascinating, important figure in New Hollywood cinema. Luckily for the directors of this documentary, he's also a charismatic, self-mythologising contrarian, whose life was filled with colourful anecdotes, interesting incidents and incredibly glamorous friends. He wrote the most famous speeches in the likes of Jaws ("Black eyes, dead eyes, like a doll's eyes"), and Dirty Harry ("You've gotta ask yourself the question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?") and latterly Sean Connery loved his writing so much he had Milius rewrite every one of his parts. He was part of the circle of Movie Brats whose work defined the 1970s - friends with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Paul Schrader and Francis Ford Coppola, all of whom are interviewed here - he was the first to find work in Hollywood and the best writer. His screenwriting allowed him to begin directing his own work, and his first four films are a startlingly consistent run of quality entertainments: Dillinger, The Wind & the Lion, Big Wednesday and Conan the Barbarian are all big, mythic, violent films, as was his fifth, the controversial Red Dawn.
Figueroa & Knutson concentrate on that period (indeed, his subsequent work, including the underrated Farewell to the King, is almost entirely ignored) but spend more time on Milius the eccentric; gun-toting, a right wing "zen anarchist"who commanded immense loyalty from his friends all his life, a dazzling line of directors and actors appear to discuss his persona and work (Eastwood, Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Michael Mann, Harrison Ford, Sam Elliot, etc). But that is the film's shortcoming. It shows and tells, but remains resolutely superficial for that reason, never really getting inside Milius' head.
What it does superbly well: makes you want to watch Milius' films...

Saturday 11 January 2014


(David O. Russell, 2013)

Russell has emerged over his last few films as that rare thing; an auteur with the ability to make truly accessible popular cinema. As such, American Hustle feels ambitious, personal, (relatively) intelligent and well-crafted, while also managing to be raucously entertaining. It gives movie stars meaty roles filled with great, actorly scenes to play, and never skimps on glamour or laughs, while delivering a complex, talky story filled with (often silly and ostentatious) stylistic flourishes.
Set very self-consciously in the mid 1970s (it often feels like it was directed by the costume and production design departments, so enraptured is it with big collars, kitschy decor and huge American cars, not to mention the almost fetishistic approach Russell takes to hairstyles - two scenes here involve characters wearing curlers throughout, while the opening spends a slow minute or two studying Bale as he dons an elaborate hairpiece) it follows Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a New York businessman and con artist, and his experiences after he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). They fall passionately in love, despite Irving's marriage to Roselyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a possibly-disturbed, but sexy housewife who retains a hold over him. Sydney adopts a new identity; Lady Edith Greensley, an English aristocrat with banking connections, and her assistance trebles Irving's fraud business. This attracts the attention of frustrated FBI agent Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper) who catches Sydney and uses her to persuade Irving to help him mount a series of elaborate sting operations, catching corrupt officials, beginning with Jeremy Renner's New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito. As they get deeper and deeper, attracting the attention of the mob (a scary Robert DeNiro and Jack Huston) and an ambitious D.A. (Allesandro Nivola, seemingly impersonating Christopher Walken) Irving and Sydney's relationship unravels, and finally Irving must come up with a plan to get them out of trouble unharmed.
Despite the stupid Scorsese comparisons - yes, Russell has seen Goodfellas - his style is determinedly his own. Loose and freewheeling, his camera ceaselessly roams, homing in on his actors as they work themselves up in one of the constant emotional climaxes scattered throughout the narrative.
That is an issue; this film is constantly pitched near hysteria. Each scene feels like an improvisation session near its end, with characters upset or enraged or on the make. It never settles down, never takes a moment. Only Di Maso's FBI boss, played by a beautifully downbeat Louis CK, operates at a different pace. Russell's style, so hyperactive and energetic, compounds this, as does his love for caking his soundtrack in vintage tunes, most of them absolutely unrelated to the story, for all that they add to the sensual pleasure of the film in general.
Actors must love him as a director; all five principals here get big showcase scenes. Bale, Adams and Cooper get several apiece, and each thrives. Bale is building what will seem in retrospect like a stunning career, mixing massive blockbusters with more nuanced character work, and here he seamlessly goes all New York method, shrugging and chewing on his words behind his big '70s glasses. His Irving is the heart of the film, and he carries it, his pain and confusion giving the last act a sizeable emotional sting. Adams - in what feels like a rare part where we get to see how beautiful she is - is equally great, never forgetting to show us how vulnerable Sydney remains even as she plays her part in the big con. And Russell knows just how to use Cooper. So handsome and virile, his star persona is always a little smug and conceited, and Russell identifies just how unsympathetic that can be, making Richie consciously the star of the movie playing in his head while he transforms himself into the villain of the one we're watching.
Through all this Russell uses lots of slow-motion, a free-floating voiceover which flicks between characters, and Linus Sandgren's photography ensures the whole thing is nicely textured and often stunning.
Overall, its a fascinating film; messy, riveting and annoying in equal measure. Its director, though, is now a major figure. Which partly explains just why his work is now so reviled in some quarters.

Wednesday 1 January 2014


(Andrew Bujalski, 2013)

Where Bujalski got this particular mix of comedy, disturbing sci-fi and complex, finely wrought retro drama from seems deeply mysterious. At times it resembles the mumblecore material with which he made his name - awkward social situations filled with inarticulate and geeky individuals - only here they are specifically captured in a particular time and place.
That would be sometime in the early 1980s at a Computer Chess convention in a hotel, where programmers and chess players have gathered to pit man against machine in a series of contests. We learn about the conflicts, problems and obsessions of these people as the film progresses and their convention is thrown into relief by the event they find themselves sharing the hotel with; a cultish group of New Age couples led by an African guru, who may or may not be swingers...
The deadpan character comedy is an ever-present here, but it frequently edges into the surreal, and the material grows more ambitious into the third act, with Bujalski experimenting with both form and content as his themes of our relationship with technology and its relationship with us are explored in some challenging ways. Odd tangents sprout when you least expect them, there is one abrupt change of film stock, and some of the lengthy conversations between characters might seem a tad overlong.
The film looks unique - shot on period-specific Sony video cameras in the greyest black and white imaginable, it has an instant period atmosphere and texture, and the performances by a cast of mostly unknowns are nicely naturalistic and full of authentic-seeming nerd mannerisms.
It is an odd, original, consistently fascinating work, and a huge stride forward for Bujalski.