Sunday 30 March 2014


(Anthony & Joe Russo, 2014)

Marvel's confidence is startling; now that the universe they work in has been established, risks can be taken. So here we have a massive conspiracy action-thriller set mainly in the corridors of power in Washington DC. Only the hero who discovers the conspiracy happens to be Captain America (Chris Evans), and the organisation behind it is Hydra, the surviving Nazi dark science and occult division introduced in the first Captain America film. The Russo brothers reveal a genuine gift for action here; this film is stuffed with extended, brutal action sequences, most of which are nicely choreographed and thrillingly shot. We are shown Captain America as a sort of super-Bourne, an unstoppable fighting machine who cuts through most opponents with absolute ease. That only makes his clashes with the Winter Soldier - a mysterious Soviet assassin - more exciting and important to the story. Here our hero is facing an equal, introducing a crucial note of vulnerability to his character.
The plot finds him discovering that there is something rotten at the heart of SHIELD, the spy organisation at the heart of the Marvel Universe,  run by Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson). When there is an attempt on Fury's life, Cap and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) find themselves on the run from SHIELD, needing the help of a new friend, Sam (Anthony Mackie), better known as "Falcon,"as they race to stop the simultaneous launch of three immense, heavily armed helicarriers into the skies above America.
Alongside the blistering, relentlessly growing action scenes, Marvel casts its films impeccably, and the addition of the likes of Robert Redford and Frank Grillo in crucial roles just helps make this film play that much more satisfyingly. While there may be a couple of scenes of men in suits arguing in offices too many - indeed, the whole thing is about a half an hour too long - even those sequences contain their fair share of wit. The scene where Arnim Zola explains how Hydra has shaped the 20th Century until people are so willing to accept a surveillance state is darkly hilarious, as are many of the references to all the pop culture Cap missed while he was frozen.
But it is the principals who carry this. Evans nails Cap again, capturing his uncertainty about the modern world and his confidence in his own moral barometer, but also revealing a quiet sense of humour, and a melancholic sense of loss. Johansson's Widow is an altogether more complex creation, and the dynamic between the two characters is fascinating and nicely played by the actors.

Saturday 29 March 2014


(Bong Joon-Ho, 2013)

This is the kind of action filmmaking that reminds you of just how good action filmmaking can be. Set onboard an immense high-tech train circling the planet after a man-made ice age kills all life on earth, Bong's adaptation of the French comic le Transperceneige is a darkly satirical epic, filled with ideas, beautiful spectacle, and awesome action scenes.
The train is an obviously allegorical creation. Travelling the world for seventeen years, it houses the wealthy in the front while the poor masses live in cramped misery at the back. They eat jellylike protein bars and bow down before the guns of the guards, and live with tales of failed revolts in the past. Curtis (Chris Evans) has different ideas. Supported by Edgar (Jamie Bell) and advised by Gilliam (John Hurt),  he plots to storm the gates separating the tail of the train from the crucial middle sections, where he will release Namgoong Mimsu (Song Kang-ho) who designed the gates. After that the plan is to work their way through the many carriages until they can take the engine and overthrow the mysterious Wilford (Ed Harris). Standing in their way are dozens of armed and ruthless guards, led by Mason (Tilda Swinton).
Bong films this story using lots of tight closeups of grim, shadowed faces, and manages to communicate just how claustrophobic life on the train might be without it ever feeling overly confined. In fact, the action sequences - beautifully shot and brutally visceral - are expansive and even lyrical at times. There is an understanding of just what works in genre cinema on display here; in the dynamics of the conflicts, in the reversals and surprises in each action scene, in the cutting and compositional choices. The cast play characters who reveal themselves in short bursts of dialogue. Evans is growing as a lead and convinces absolutely here, and the mix of acting styles represented by his clash with Swinton and Song does a good job of expressing the mix of lifestyles aboard the train.
The issues it touches upon - global warming, sustainability, the class system, even civic responsibility - are implicit in the narrative, but despite a running time over two hours it never feels overlong. Instead it throws new ideas at the screen in more or less every scene, particularly once Evans and his dwindling band reach the forward sections of the train and the excess of the lifestyles of Wilford's followers is revealed.
In common with much Korean cinema, there is wild tonal variation here, with shifts from humour to melodrama to ultraviolence occurring within seconds, but it always works, partly because the setting is so consistently textured and the characters so emotionally grounded.
In its ambition and its confidence it is admirable. In the execution of its action scenes, it is exhilarating.

Monday 24 March 2014


(Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

Part shudder, part sigh, Glazer's adaptation of Michel Faber's blackly satirical novel is not quite like any other film I've seen.
It follows an alien in the form of a young woman (Scarlett Johansson, always underplaying and correspondingly magnetic) as she drives a van around a grey, Autumnal Scotland on the hunt for lone men. She lures them back to a dilapidated house on the edge of Glasgow, where they are swallowed by a black liquid which seems to turn them into empty skin-bags. Another alien, in the form of a mute motorcyclist, monitors her activities, tidying up the occasional mess in ruthless fashion. But after an encounter with a disfigured young man, she appears to change, softening in her attitude to the people surrounding her, putting her mission at risk.
That makes the plot sound straightforward, which it never really is. Nor is it really the point. Instead, Glazer immerses us in a visceral mindfuck. That begins with the slow opening reveal of an eyeball being constructed in minute detail, Mica Levi's hypnotic, often disturbing soundtrack grinding on the nerves. The scenes of Johansson on the streets and in the clubs and shopping centres of Glasgow were largely shot with hidden cameras, and there are long montages of ordinary people walking, getting on with their quotidian business, unaware of any camera. Men chat to Johansson, oblivious to her celebrity, plainly shocked by her exoticism and beauty.
This conjures up a heavily atmospheric fog of place; somewhat reminiscent of Tavernier's Death Watch (also set in a crumbling Glasgow), Glazer teases it by juxtaposing these scenes with the bizarre sci-fi sequences. The scene where we follow a man down into the black pool and he watches as another victim implodes is horrifying, yet, like so much here, absolutely beautiful. All of this combines to create a dreamlike mood - Johansson moves through the real world, curiously removed from it, always watching, rarely understanding, her curiosity slowly awakening.  Her alien consciousness is thus implicit - we are seeing this world as she sees it, and it is flat, odd, abstract, and oddly, surprisingly beautiful, even at its ugliest.
And there are many haunting scenes - the scene where she watches a family die on a beach, the child left wailing. Her encounter with the disfigured man, tentative and sad in a way nothing else here is. Her interlude with a kind stranger. The final shot, of snow falling towards the camera.
Glazer is a visionary, something made increasingly clear with each film, and his control of atmosphere and texture is precise and beautifully utilised. Levi's sensational score and Daniel Landlin's lovely cinematography don't hurt.
This is a unique film; eerie, mysterious, stunning, unforgettable. It is still with me , vividly, a day later, something which rarely happens with modern films.

Thursday 13 March 2014


(Wes Anderson, 2014)

With every film, no matter where or when they're set, Wes Anderson only gets more...Wes Anderson.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a fantasia of old Europe, set in the fictional Central European country of Zubrowka in the early 20th Century. Only that story is a story within a story within a story, of course. That story is told in flashback by the elderly owner of the titular hotel, Mr Mustafa (F Murray Abraham) to a writer (Jude Law) in the 1980s, when the establishment is fading and somewhat chintzy. The key character in this tale is Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel's celebrated, eccentric concierge during its glory years. He sleeps with a series of wealthy elderly women guests, guaranteeing their continued custom, and the death of one Madame D (Tilda Swinton) kicks off the plot.
She leaves Gustave a priceless painting, her son (Adrian Brody) objects, and with his lapdog (Willem Dafoe) up to no good, Gustave is imprisoned for the murder of the old lady. This leaves his lobby boy protege Zero (Tony Revolori), Mr Mustafa's younger self to help with his escape, while he tries to keep the immense hotel running and enjoy his new relationship with lovely baker Agatha (Saoirse Ronan).
This allows a rambling, often hilarious story which includes prison break elements, chases, love scenes, gunfights, and loads of character comedy.
As usual with Anderson, the visuals here are impeccable; beautiful, exceptionally detailed, fabulously composed and textured. The whole thing looks like it was shot inside a faberge egg, such is its lushness and depth of colour. Anderson plays with aspect ratios depending on time period, and Alexadre Desplaat's score buoys the whole thing enjoyably along.
It is perhaps Anderson's funniest film. Fiennes is hilarious as the camp, knowingly suave Gustave, but Anderson is unafraid of giving him jokes based upon this plummy-voiced symbol of civilisation swearing suddenly, and there are some brilliant sight gags alongside the usual deadpan drollery. The likes of Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Murray take small roles, giving the film a rich, layered feeling.
It even resonates in a way not always true of Anderson's work. The ending is melancholic but fitting.
If that ending and resonance doesn't linger long afterwards, other elements do: that beautiful palette, some of the performances, and that unique Anderson tone.