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.