Friday 21 February 2014


(George Clooney, 2014)

I have to give The Monuments Men credit for making me desperate to rewatch The Train, John Frankenheimer's superb 1964 WWII action film which is similarly concerned with efforts to halt the Nazi attempt to steal all of the great art of Europe during the Second World War. I will also concede that the cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is occasionally lovely.
....and thats about it. Given this brilliant cast, what looks to have been an immense budget and intriguing subject matter, somehow George Clooney has managed to concoct a movie which is almost entirely underwhelming.
The disjointed, curiously inert story follows Clooney and his team of "monuments men", a collection of art experts, most of them too old for conscription, after they arrive in Europe to help retrieve the art of Europe stolen by the Nazis in the last year of the War. Alongside Clooney himself there are Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin. A fine cast, bolstered by Cate Blanchett as a Parisian Museum curator and resistance sympathiser. And yet none of them really registers much. Nothing registers much.
The drama mainly comes from various vignettes as the team - who split up into pairs for much of the second act, searching for lost art and leads in different corners of Western Europe - encounter a series of familiarly classic War situations, including snipers, levelled cities and firefights in the countryside, before reassembling to investigate the mines in which the Germans have hidden the art.
This drama is not very thrilling or memorable. It happens, and it's hard to care much about any of it. Damon has an extended storyline trying to persuade Blanchett to help him in PAris which goes on far too long without much of any human interest occurring. Major characters die, and despite Clooney's awful efforts at underlining and emphasising these tragedies and Alexandre Desplat's overblown, syrupy score; it is never moving in any way.
Likewise, none of the comedy works. Even Bill Murray struggles to wring laughs from this script, which seems oddly pleased with itself, even smug.
Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov wrote the script, and he gives himself a few monologues, but as a director he is unable to curb Clooney the actors worst impulses, and so he is all tics and sentimentality in his scenes. The other fine actors here don't really have characters to play. Damon is nice, Goodman is nice and old, Murray and Balaban bicker in an affectionate way, Dujardin is French, Bonneville is a polite, disgraced drunk. You really never learn much more about them than that.
Clooney is obviously trying to work with the kind of bold archetypes beloved of the mission movie - but it is almost as if he is too tasteful and careful a filmmaker to really sell them. And so instead he has a series of vague, empty figures who good actors render watchable but no more.
That may be the problem with Clooney as director - he is scrupulously tasteful, his films polite and intelligent and utterly dull and bloodless. With this type of material a bit more guts, a bit more vigour is necessary. And it's never here.

Tuesday 18 February 2014


(Gary Fleder, 2013)

Very much like an action thriller from another era - theres a lot of the 1980s here, and possibly even more of the 1970s - Homefront is never quite brave enough to go all-out to satisfy the sort of pulp cravings those movies effortlessly catered to.
Despite the presence of Jason Statham in the lead as retired undercover cop Phil Broker, director Fleder makes it all a little too slick and a little too mainstream to work. The screenplay - by Sylvester Stallone, a reliably canny creator in terms of base action thrills - is brutal and simplistic and classical in construction. Broker and his 9 year old daughter are living in a small Louisiana town after his (pre-credits) involvement in a massive operation to bring down a Biker gang ended in much bloodshed. A schoolyard altercation between his daughter and a bully escalates until the local drug kingpin, Gator Bodine (James Franco, surprisingly bland) becomes involved, discovers who Broker is, and calls in the Biker gang for help in disposing of this quiet man with devastating combat acumen.
The smalltown Louisiana setting works well, and the cast is unexpectedly starry for this sort of material, with the likes of Kate Bosworth and Winona Ryder both good in small parts as desperate women of different stripes, and Frank Grillo reliably nasty as a Biker assassin.
Fleder can do action competently, too, and Statham has a few impressive fight scenes. But competence is about as good as it gets. Its never delirious enough or offensively violent enough or bleak enough or funny enough. It sets up its familiar story, you know exactly what will happen, then that happens.
Which is perhaps what many Statham fans want of a Statham film. But he's capable of more. Films like this - with a sprinkling of cinematic pedigree - are small steps towards something more.
And its frustrating when they don't get there.

Saturday 8 February 2014


(Phil Lord, Chris Miller, 2014)

The Lego Movie is the most satisfying kids film since the period a few years ago when Pixar was still reliably great. It manages to be hilarious, bitingly satirical, exciting, thought-provoking, epic and consistently visually inventive throughout. Considering it's based on the brick construction system toys, that is an impressive feat.
Writer-directors Lord and Miller see the potential in the property to craft an ambitious, energetically tangential story which is full of references to other movies, in-jokes, post-modern gags and lots of nods to the adults in the audience.
At heart, its a remake of the Matrix, with its "chosen one" story focused on Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), a construction worker who is happy to conform, and ardent in his desire to be just like everyone else. He follows the "instructions", a book informing residents exactly how to live (buy overpriced coffee, listen to popular music - "Everything Is Awesome" is a horrific earworm after a single viewing of this film). These brief scenes are a dazzlingly paced, brilliantly funny satire on conformity and consumerism, and they quickly give way to a brilliant action scene after Emmet stumbles across a mysterious artefact which bonds to his body, is questioned and one the verge of execution at the hands of Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) before he is rescued by Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a "master builder" who can create lego vehicles in seconds.
She explains the plot to him (in a scene which typically, cheerfully thumbs its nose at the very idea of such expository scenes): President Business (Will Ferrell) is set on destroying the Universe with his ultimate weapon, the Kangle (a tube of glue) which can only be stopped with the artefact stuck to Emmet's back. With Bad Cop on their trail, Emmet, Wyldstyle and her boyfirend Batman (hilariously characterised as a bit of a jockish dick, in love with his own dark and mysterious image and beautifully voiced by Will Arnett) jump across zones in this odd Lego Universe, from the Old West to "Middle Zealand" to Cloud Cuckoo Land, meeting a collection of recognisable pop culture characters and lego figures along the way.
From there it only gets more ambitious and epic, until a final act revelation which recontextualises and deepens everything we have seen suggests that this is actually that rarest thing; a transcendent kids film.
Besides that it is consistently laugh-out-loud funny, fantastically exciting, and truly beautiful in its inventive use of the possibilities of the lego-verse.


(Jean-Marc Valleé, 2013)

Somehow less than the sum of it's parts, Valleé's biopic of Ron Woodruff, an AIDS patient in 1980s Dallas who confounds the Medical establishment and defies the FDA by importing unapproved drugs from Mexico, Japan, Holland and Israel is nevertheless filled with good things.
Most notable of those is another in what is becoming a long series of great Matthew McConaughey performances. Ridiculous 50 pound weight-loss aside, he plays Woodruff as a swaggering good old boy and unabashed homophobe who is transformed by his efforts to manage his own condition and his encounters with fellow (mostly gay) sufferers. Expansive, charismatic and funny, Woodruff's journey is predictable but made believable by McConaughey never playing it easy - he starts to help people because he sees an opportunity to make money, and his eventual softening towards extroverted Drag Queen Rayon (Jared Leto, similarly excellent) is slow and authentically scarred by misunderstanding and prejudice.
The plot kicks in once Woodruff has been diagnosed and begins to investigate possible treatments. A sojourn in a Mexican clinic convinces him that treating symptoms is the way to go, and he begins importing drugs in huge quantities and exploiting a legal loophole by selling memberships in a "Buyers Club" which entitles it's members to free medication. Along the way he encounters homophobia alongside the opposition of the FDA and the IRS. He is supported by a kindly doctor (Jennifer Garner), and finds his friendship with her and Rayon more fulfilling than the macho bluster he shared with his old friends, who all shun him after his diagnosis.
Valleé keeps his style loose and edgy, finding the beauty in trailer parks and motel lots, using an electric buzz on the soundtrack to signal vividly the moments when Woodruff's illness gets the better of him.
But the screenplay is a little trite, a little repetitive, a little too by-numbers, and it never really feels worthy of the performances of this cast or director.

Saturday 1 February 2014


(Joel & Ethan Coen, 2013)

Great filmmakers - great artists, in fact, be they novelists, playwrights, comedians, poets -  have the ability to capture how it feels to be alive. The Coen Brothers absolutely possess this ability. It gets forgotten, almost, lost in the rush to praise their brilliant screenplays, beautiful visual sense and their storytelling talent. What the mainstream brands as "quirky" is their incredible ability to combine comedy and drama so that certain scenes and passages in their best work play out. Half the audience will be laughing at the deadpan wit, the beautifully observed characters, the other half sit in silence, appreciating the human drama on display. Sometimes of course, they lean more in one direction than the other. There are the outright comedies, like Raising Arizona or Intolerable Cruelty. And the dramas: No Country for Old Men or Millers Crossing, say. But it is never simple. Anton Chigurgh in No Country for Old Men is as funny as any creation in the Coens' filmography for all that he is a terrifying character in a mostly serious film. There is pathos in Raising Arizona, despite its Tex Avery comic invention.
What never changes are those moments of truth: what it is to be alive, captured in an instant, an image, a beat. Songwriters and singers do that too, which is one of the subjects of Inside Llewyn Davis. A character study of the titular figure, a struggling folk-singer in '60s Greenwich Village, played with world-weary cynicism and muted sadness by Oscar Isaac, it is a classic Coens mix of comedy and drama. Llewyn is on the downslope of a career that never really went anywhere, and he only truly realises that during the course of the story, appalled as he is by what passes for folk music around him.
His life is a ruin. He sleeps on the couches of friends, many of whom he doesn't even seem to like or respect, has no money to buy himself a coat despite the fact that it's winter, and doesn't plan for the future. His sister's suggestion that he give up music and return to life as a merchant seaman is met with the words "Just exist?"
His closest friends are Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), a folk duo. Jean is pregnant, possibly by Llewyn, and her every word in his direction positively drips venom. It becomes apparent that he uses people, and though he is never warm or nice, his essential humanity, the loneliness of his situation and his effortless capacity for self-destruction, does make him sympathetic.
A long, surreal road trip to Canada alongside a loquacious hipster (John Goodman) and his laconic driver (Garrett Hedlund) is Llewyn's breaking point, and perhaps features the film's most beautiful and haunting sequences, as Bruno Delbonnel's exquisitely soft and dank cinematography captures several breathtaking scenes of nocturnal driving; snow drifting across highways, cities glimpsed off in the night.
The music is great, the cast perfect, the clockwork collapse of Llewyn's hopes and dreams hilarious and gruelling in equal measure.