Friday 31 July 2015


(Christopher McQuarrie, 2015)

I love how much of a cinematic classicist McQuarrie evidently is - the coherent way he puts together action scenes, low on cuts but high on nicely-blocked and framed compositions; his use of anamorphic cameras; his partnership with composer Joe Kraemer, whose score here is a beautifully inventive and evocative treatment of contemporary 1960s scores; the way he makes references to classic Hollywood movies (Rebecca Ferguson, who does bear some resemblance to Ingrid Bergman, here plays a character called Ilsa, and is encountered at one point in Casablanca), in this film obviously playing with nourish motifs and ideas including that of the femme fatale; and his ability to stick to some basic principles of action and character even in the midst of a chaotic modern blockbuster like this one.
If each instalment in the Misson Impossible franchise so far has been dominated by it's directors style, well then McQuarrie's classical storytelling allows him to pay a sort of tribute to the series as a whole, with scenes in London (DePalma), the Middle East (Bird), a motorcycle chase (Woo) and Cruise's Hunt set on saving a woman he clearly has strong feelings for (Abrams). The plot finds Hunt on the run (again) as he tries to track down the head of the Syndicate (Sean Harris, lending just a fragment of his creepy intensity to an underwritten part), an "anti-IMF" made up of supposedly deceased foreign agents.
Hunt is aided by his old pal Benjy (Simon Pegg, decent comic relief and given a bit more to do this time), new boss Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and even older laptop-toting buddy Luther (Ving Rhames). The new blood is British agent Ilsa (Ferguson,  beyond the set-pieces, easily the best reason to see the film), who McQuarrie uses as a recurrent force for plot progression - she drives events, while Hunt is constantly playing catch-up, trying to figure out exactly what is going on. The classiness of the cast helps keep all the exposition and character beats a pleasure to watch, and, as a screenwriter, McQuarrie retains the ability to come up with the odd zinger. But mainly he is concerned here with ways to keep his leading man active.
This is Cruise at his best as a physical performer - jumping, hanging, sprinting, swimming, punching and kicking, he is a hyperactive force of nature who hurls himself through a series of gruelling, often-hilarious set-pieces with vigour, selling us the plot as he does so.
That plot bears the obvious scars of late rewrites and reshoots, especially in the third act, but the energy and efficient style on show means it is always nicely escapist fun.

Thursday 30 July 2015


(Mia Hansen-Løve, 2014)

Hansen-Løve gets moments and scenes so right that it can't help feel somewhat disappointing that she does not yet seem to know how to turn that talent into creating a satisfying feature.
That's not to say Eden is a failure; rather it is frustrating and a little thin, but there are beautiful stretches and lovely moments scattered throughout.
Based to some extent on the career of her older brother Sven as a DJ from the early '90s to the early 2010s, it follows Paul (Félix De Givry, delivering a performance which is either wooden or a great portrayal of a certain brand of bored, searching youth - it's hard to know which) through life in the dance scene in Paris after he and a schoolfriend set up as "Cheers" and begin playing garage classics at raves. By 2000 they host successful club nights, dj in New York, have a radio show, and their old friends Guy-Man and Harold are internationally famous as Daft Punk. But Paul is still a bit of a mess; broke, with a coke habit, unable to sustain a relationship, unsure of what to do next. With nice understatement, Hansen-Løve titles the second chapter of her two part story, "Lost in Music".
The very first scene perhaps establishes what Paul is searching for all those years: after leaving a party on a submarine, he hallucinates a beautiful animated bird in the dawn sky while sitting alone in the forest. After this we rarely get any view into his thoughts or feelings - we see him spin disks and pump his fist to crowds of dancers, and kiss girls and snort and drink and smoke - but what he thinks is rarely obvious.
Hansen-Løve does this sort of thing very well; this film is full of story but has little plot. It never feels contrived or fake (except perhaps for the difficult friend who you know will end up committing suicide from the very first time you see him, an entirely French cliche), and it does feel like life. That makes her brilliant at capturing how moments feel: what it is like to walk into a party with your friends at the age of 19, the surge of euphoria at a great tune on a dance floor, summer in a city, the morning after, the first flush of love. But over the course of two hours and ten minutes, the film feels a bit like an overlong dance remix - a little repetitive, a little shallow.
That could be changed if Paul were more interesting. We see him find and lose women (including an awkward Greta Gerwig), and in the coda, when he is attending a writers workshop, positively bathed in his own melancholy, he seems finally a character worth the attention the film has paid to him. The moment when sober, he watches a pretty girl DJ play a Daft Punk track from a Macbook at a new subterranean club and deals with his own complex feelings about it is as complex as anything in the film, which is always beautifully shot and obviously filled with terrific music.
None more terrific than that of Daft Punk, who ghost alongside Cheers throughout the story, as the only act to truly transcend Dance music as a genre. The moment when they show up at a party and nervously play their new song, "Da Funk", is probably the best in the film. And they benefit from a solid recurring gag, which is as light as Hansen-Løve gets.

Saturday 25 July 2015


(Olivier Megaton, 2008)

Megaton has probably the coolest name for any action director ever. It seems as if he was fated to be an action director. What a shame then that his direction of action scenes is so utterly inept. Cut to pieces, pointless zooms and pans tied to those cuts (for impact!), witless camera angles which detract from the performers physicality rather than enhancing it...he does more or less everything wrong.
His film then is a waste of Jason Statham, a martial artist whose combination of brute force and grace is unique in modern action cinema (he is half football hooligan, half black belt).
Staham plays "transporter" Frank for the third time, breaking all of his self-imposed rules yet again as he transports a Ukrainian girl across Europe for some gangsters.
Along the way there are the usual car chases, a fistfight in a garage, Statham (or in this case a stuntman with Megaton making little obvious effort to disguise that fact) on a bicycle, and lots of tough guy posturing. It is totally forgettable, laking even a single memorable set-piece.
Next to Megaton, other Luc Besson proteges like Louise Letterier and Pierre Morel look like Walter Hill.

Thursday 23 July 2015



(Rowan Athale, 2012)

The central idea in The Rise is an interesting one; for here is a heist film set in a social-realist world. Not any social realist world, either, no: Athale invokes the entirety of the Kitchen sink movement from 1950s/60s British cinema by setting his story in a rundown Northern city (Leeds in this case).
That setting is nicely evoked early on. Red-brick houses tight on claustrophobic streets, working mens clubs, tacky suburban discos and high-rise flats are all captured with grit, atmosphere and a nice eye. Athale is a young director who makes more or less every shot count - this movie is filled with beautifully composed, lovingly lit frames, long and complex tracking shots and clever editing gambits. It is reminiscent of Guy Ritchie in his early work; flashy and ostentatious, but Athale has an eye for poetry that Ritchie never had and there are glimpses of poetic realism here. The character work is good early on too. The protagonists here are young men adrift in a recession-era Britain, dead-end jobs, no prospects, clinging to their friendship as one of the few worthwhile things in their lives.
This is all more or less lost when the heist component gives the movie a populist surge in the final act, and that too is patiently set up. Harvey (Luke Treadaway) has just been released after a year in prison for drug dealing. But Harvey was set up by local kingpin and thug Roper (Neil Maskell) and as revenge, he wants to steal a lot of money from Roper's safe so that he and his three best mates can escape their hometown for a new life running a cafe in Amsterdam. The whole story is told in flashback by a bleeding Harvey in a police interview room to Detective Inspector West (Timothy Spall). That allows Athale to play with perception and expectation as Harvey twists the tale this way and that, and DI West tries to find the truth. And while it's a shame that Athale couldn't sustain the social realism of the early stages of the story (though it could be argued that young men stealing from a working mens club is a neat metaphor for some of the issues around generational conflict in modern England), the last act is undeniable fun. Stylish, pacy and derivative, it's thoroughly crowd-pleasing.


(Hughes Brothers, 2010)

The first act of The Book of Eli is terrific and suggests that it will be an impressive film. The Hughes brothers find a series of eerie images to capture this world, thirty years on from the 'big flash", Denzel Washington lend his magnetism to the taciturn, efficiently murderous protagonist, and the society we encounter is just complex and different enough to be interesting.
A small settlement run by Gary Oldman (who holds power due to his knowledge of where there is water) becomes the focus and correspondingly, the film becomes less impressive. Our hero, an "outlander" who wanders the wasteland, comes to town, gets into a saloon fight - just like in a classic western - and attracts the attention of Oldman's character, who is set on finding a Bible, realising he can use it to control everyone, with or without water. Oldman sets his road gangs - Mad Max style marauders - on Denzel, and there follows an increasingly weary succession of fight scenes, chases, captures and escapes..
The first few scenes contain the best action scene in the film; Washington is ambushed by a band of hijackers, retreats into the shade offered by an overpass, still wearing his shades, and proceeds to cut his way through them in a single unbroken take, all seen in silhouette. This scene and the lengthy, violent fight in the saloon suggest that the Book of Eli is really a post-apocalyptic take on Zaitoichi (confirmed by a late twist), and when it arrives at the town, the film takes on a series of Western codes and conventions.
It has moments of wit - the value of wet-wipes as barter in a post-apocalyptic world, for instance - and is nicely shot in a dry, desaturated style by Don Burgess. Oldman is good value as the villain, but Mila Kunis has no character to play beyond a series of bullet-pointed cliches, and Denzel Washington could do this in his sleep. In fact there are moments here when, shades on,  you can't be sure he isn't having a sneaky nap.
What the film does well are the tough guy beats in the lead up to the action scenes, but they are fleeting.

Monday 20 July 2015


(Peyton Reed, 2015)

It's one thing Marvel taking established, popular characters like Spider-Man, Captain America and Iron Man and turning them into hugely successful film franchises. But the way they have transformed that success into the ability to take third (or fourth) tier characters and make their movies into hits too - that is genuinely impressive.
In both the cases of Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, a big part of the process appears to be the way they have empowered the filmmakers to make something different from what would generally be expected of a Marvel movie. That might sound funny given the fact that the original writer-director of Ant-Man, Edgar Wright, quit the project over interference from Marvel. But the finished film still feels like something new to the studio; smaller in scale (no pun intended), quirkily funny, inventive and loose in certain particulars. For much of the first two acts, it feels more like a ramshackle bro-comedy than a super-hero movie. That is down to the presence of Paul Rudd, but also the fact that he and Adam McKay worked on the script is obvious in the way some scenes stretch out once they find a comic groove. Rudd plays Scott Lang, just released from prison after a stretch for burglary (he broke into the offices of a corporation and released some secrets to the world) and trying to go straight so that he can be a part of his daughter's life.
He is noticed by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a genius scientist and creator of the "Pym particle" which allows people wearing a customised costume to shrink to insect proportions (and beyond). Pym's old protege Aaron Cross (Corey Stoll) has taken over his company and found his own version of the shrinking process, which he hopes to sell in weaponised form as the Yellowjacket, a battle armour capable of shrinking. Pym and his skeptical, partly estranged daughter Joy (Evangeline Lily) want Scott to break into Cross' facility, destroy the armour and all of the research, without being spotted.
What we ultimately have here, then, is a heist movie. Scott assembles his crew of ex-con mates, led by a winning, hilariously broad Michael Pena. The make a plan, they prepare, there is a training montage, everything goes well...until it doesn't anymore.
Ant-Man takes longer to get to the super-hero action than any Marvel film since Iron Man, but when it comes it is genuinely different and arresting. The scenes of Scott in shrunken form, surfing on a wave of ants or riding on the back of one are among the best in the movie, and the now-you-see-me combat style he has developed has visual impact and provides for a few good gags (the final Yellowjacket vs Ant-Man fight is as funny as it is exciting). The best moment is near the end when Scott enters the "Quantum Realm" and floats through a subatomic universe where time and space have lost all meaning. That this 2001: A Space Odyssey quotation co-exists within a film also setting up a new Spider-Man movie is genuinely exciting.
Largely, Ant-Man works because it sets itself up as a modest film with modest goals. The characters can be a tad dull (Lilly and Stoll both struggle with their parts) but the actors generally sell it, the Marvel easter eggs are mostly subtle and intriguing, and the climax is excellent.

Sunday 19 July 2015


(Mark Waters, 2004)

Mean Girls does something extremely difficult with seeming ease. It manages to be witty, subversive and self-aware without ever compromising on how well it works as a teen comedy. This is largely down to a terrific script by Tina Fey, but Waters' fleet direction and a brilliant cast do more than their share too.
Inspired by a non-fiction book on female social groups in High School and the damaging effects they can have, Fey's story follows the arrival of Cady Harron (Lindsay Lohan) to a pretty identikit movie High School in Illinois. She is quickly taken under the wing of a pair of outcasts, extravagantly camp Damian and sharp-tongued goth Janice (Lizzy Caplan) who sardonically run through the cliques dominating the school, centred around "the Plastics", a trio of glamorous, popular, bitchy girls led by Regina George (Rachel McAdams). After Regina befriends Cady, she hurts her by stealing a boy she likes. Cady's mission then is to infiltrate the Plastics and destroy them from the inside. But, in classic undercover cop movie fashion, while acting the part of a Plastic, Cady starts to actually become one, and it's hard to know where she ends and the Plastic begins.
The plotting is deft in the main storyline, and the characters register powerfully - McAdams make Regina a terrifyingly real little power-monger, while Lohan nicely plays Cady's corruption by the superficiality of the girls lives. But most of the gags - just as in Fey's great TV show, 30 Rock - are in the margins. Sight gags, throwaway lines, little character details: they mount up to give Mean Girls a density most high school comedies cannot approach.
This combination of genuine hilariousness and the truthful skewering of teen archetypes have made Mean Girls a modern classic. It's a shame that Waters has never done anything anywhere near as good, but also a tribute to the quality of Fey's script (she's also brilliant as Cady's geeky, concerned Maths teacher).

Thursday 16 July 2015


(Bill Pohlad, 2014)

The urge to explain a person is the downfall of so many biopics, and Love & Mercy cannot avoid this flaw. People are complex and contradictory, and not everything can be explained by a few flashbacks. But some cinema has decided that they can, they must, they will, and so at the start of the third act here, we have a "brave" scene where we see Brian Wilson (John Cusack) in bed, and then Pohlad tries to take us on a tour of his brain. There are jump cuts, loads of trick editing, as we see a mix of memories, ideas, music, and fantasies all colliding. This is pop-psychology at its most basic and reductive,  which attempts to explore what is "wrong" with Wilson and instead serves to caricature and over-simplify him.
Thankfully, much of the rest of the film is more sensitive and interesting. It tells parallel stories of Wilson at the peak of his powers in 1965-67, when he created Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations, after a panic attack on an airplane led him to quite touring with the Beach Boys. He is played in these scenes by Paul Dano, who is terrific, emphasising his childlike qualities and his melancholy with equal commitment and skill. These passages have the added bonus of using the sweet sweet music Wilson created in the '60s as their soundtrack, and probably the most enjoyable scenes in the film are those depicting him "playing the studio", directing session musicians to create his pop symphonies. As the film progresses these scenes darken as Wilson's mental problems begin, exacerbated by his drug use.
There are a few nice through-lines here: Wilson's attachment to abusive, controlling male figures is shown through his relationships with his father Murray, cousin and bandmate Mike Love, and finally with the Psychiatrist who became a sort of svengali for him, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).
But the heart of the story is his new relationship with Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) in the 1980s. She discovers just how monstrous Landy is and sets about releasing Wilson from his control, falling in love with this vulnerable man child and conflicted by how difficult his circumstances are.
Cusack and Banks have chemistry, and she is underrated as a dramatic actress, beautiful in a sunny, real way, her warmth and intelligence are always evident onscreen, and it is understandable that Wilson would be so instantly smitten. Cusack plays this older, damaged Wilson as a frightened, desperate shell, and allows a spark of life back into his eyes with the discovery of this woman.
Pohlad's direction is pedestrian, the script a little by-numbers, but the actors and that music carry it.

Tuesday 14 July 2015


(Phillip Noyce, 2014)

The Giver has lots of big ideas. Based upon Lois Lowry's seminal novel, it tries to spin that story in a post Hunger Games world with mixed results. Beginning in a future-world literally devoid of colour, it borrows a trick from Gary Ross'  superior Pleasantville by having colour slowly bleed into the film scene by scene as Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) learns about beauty, emotion, violence and love.
Jonas has been chosen as the Receiver, the only one in this perfect future community who is fit to take on any knowledge of the past. As such he has daily sessions with the Giver (Jeff Bridges) who somehow psychically exposes him to memories, images and sensations of the past world, most of which play out as random streams of over-slick advertising imagery.
As for the rest of his black and white world, here people take a daily injection to kill emotion, are constantly polite and apologetic, and have no knowledge of art, music or love. Jonas' parents insist he use 'precision of language" while his father (Alexander Sarsgârd) is a sort of midwife-paediatrician who is also responsible for killing the babies deemed unfit for life in the community (releasing them to elsewhere is the euphemism preferred). A Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) watches carefully that nobody disturbs their fragile equilibrium, but of course Jonas begins to, falling in love with his friend, curious about the possibility of universal memory and whatever lies beyond the border.
The big themes touched on here remain just that - touched on. The Giver never explores them, never speculates what the world might really be like if people lived a life beneath them.
Noyce's direction is elegant and somewhat anonymous, as are many of the performances. This is a film of half-measures.

Sunday 12 July 2015


(Paul Feig, 2015)

In which Feig nimbly manages to combine his dirty-chuckle-of-a-sensibility with a James Bond parody, create a series of surprisingly decent action scenes, and show a whole new side to Jason Statham. Not bad going.
Melissa McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a desk-bound CIA agent, content to live out her life as the voice in the ear of super-smooth super agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law), with whom she is in unrequited love. Until that is Fine is killed on a mission by Raina (Rose Byrne in comedy foreign bitch mode). Then Susan finds herself in the field, trying to find Raina and a stolen nuke, while also having to deal with the macho semi-competence of rogue agent Rick Ford (Statham chewing scenery manically as he parodies himself and every action cliche ever). At that point the film goes all globe-trotting, with scenes in Paris, Rome and Budapest, gunfights, fistfights and car chases.
But the best material is almost all in the interplay between McCarthy and the rest of the cast, especially when she is allowed off her leash in the third act.
Much of the funniest bits are courtesy of the supporting cast, with Brits Peter Serafinowicz and Miranda Hart especially impressive.