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.