Friday 30 October 2015


(John Maclean, 2015)

Slow West feels like an attempt to revive the quirky revisionist Westerns of the 1970s. Not the big ones, or the ones that matter, like the work of Leone or Peckinpah or Eastwood, even. It feels more like an attempt to capture the spirt of films like Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand (1971) or Robert Benton's Bad Company (1972). As such it is patient and loose, talky and random, its plot only really kicking in for the last act gun battle which is the most acute the film ever gets, and the first time Maclean really gets to grips with critiquing the genre while also making Slow West feel like a Western. It's an unusual, interesting film, if not always a successful one.
Kodie Smit-McPhee plays Jay, a young Scot who has travelled across the Atlantic after his lost love, Rose (Caren Pistorius), who has fled their homeland with her father after an unfortunate manslaughter has made them fugitives. Jay is an innocent and idealist, and he is lucky to survive the West long enough to run into Bounty Hunter Silas (Michael Fassbender, on charismatic cruise control). Silas agrees to keep him safe until he reaches his destination, in exchange for $100, all the while planning to collect the large bounty on both Rose and her father's heads. But he begins to warm to the kid, and the situation is complicated by the arrival of Ben Mendelsohn as Silas' old outlaw buddy and his pack of jackals, also after that reward, and set on tailing the duo until they get it.
In place of a plot, Maclean sends his characters on a picaresque, episodic journey through the West, encountering plenty of oddball characters and situations as they go. That keeps it entertaining, and it is always lovely (Robbie Ryan, Director of photography, is MVP here) but it always feels a little frustrating too - like it could be more powerful or more incisive.
But as a debut film, it is accomplished and never dull. Fassbender and Mendelsohn both feel right at home in a Western milieu - hopefully some day they will have a vehicle better-suited to demonstrating that.

Thursday 29 October 2015


(Sam Mendes, 2015)

Is it working in the theatre for so long that has made Sam Mendes suspicious of good-old-fashioned entertainment? Is it the pursuit of art? For in both of his Bond films, each of which is easily among the best-looking (in truth they are probably the two most beautiful films in the series) and best-crafted in the history of the franchise, he hasn't been satisfied simply to make A Bond film. No. He had to go and make THE Bond film. Twice. He had to make his films significant, with a lasting effect upon the Bond mythos. But part of the point of Bond is that nothing really has a lasting effect.
James Bond Will Return...and it will always be that way, whatever way the end of Spectre will have you thinking.
At least Mendes makes up for it by getting so many of the details so right. Spectre falls apart in the third act (which is a bit of a perfunctory mess) but for almost two hours of its (hugely overlong) two and a half hour running time it offers thrills, romance, gags and lots of in-jokes and references to keep Bond fans more than happy.
The plot pleasingly ties up all three of Daniel Craig's previous 007 outings and links them through the villain in this entry - Christoph Waltz as Franz Oberhauser (who has a new name, revealed in the last half-hour), a face from Bond's past and head of SPECTRE, a criminal organisation bound on controlling the information of all the worlds leading intelligence agencies or something else just as vague. Bond goes rogue in pursuit of this organisation, prompting an excellent pre-credit sequence on the streets, rooftops and in the skies of Mexico City. This scene contains a lengthy and stunning single shot, following Bond through the streets, into a lift, then a hotel room and out onto rooftops, which is, cinematically, one of the greatest moments in the 24-film franchise.
It also leads Bond to Rome and Monica Bellucci, surely born to play a Bond girl and lending class to a nothing part, then onto Austria, Tangiers and a meeting with the Proust-monickered Madeleine Swann (Leá Seydoux). Along the way he encounters Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), engages in a terrific fist-fight on a train (referencing at least three prior Bond moments, most obviously From Russia With Love), a car chase through Rome and some aeroplane destruction in the Alps before finally coming properly face-to-face with Waltz's bad guy at a secret HQ in the Sahara.
The sheer volume of references and allusions to Bond history (Waltz's character has a cat and earns an eye-scar, Mr. Hinx unavoidably compares with OddJob from Goldfinger) gives the whole thing a karaoke quality, but again, Mendes seems to understand that if you do the little things right, then not much else matters with Bond.
So: the action scenes are generally terrific, the highlight being that brutal train fight. Craig has chemistry with both his leading ladies, making his attachment to Madeleine at least somewhat believable (not that believability is relevant in Bond films, which by this point seem to float along on a sort of dream logic). Waltz is terrific as the Big Bad, utterly humourless, yet childishly taunting Bond about all that he has taken from him, while a near-mute Bautista is more menacing than any villain in the other Craig Bonds. Every scene between Bond and Q (Ben Whishaw, brilliant) is excellent - funny and fond, injecting a little British sitcom comedy into things, while his moments with Moneypenny (Naomi Harris) are almost as good. These more domestic characters are given something to do by the secondary villain; Andrew Scott as Denbigh (Bond chastens him "C"), whose designs on all the worlds information make him very much a post-Snowden villain. The locations are beautiful and speed by, and the whole thing goes by so fast it never bores over that long running time.
As for Craig - he utterly owns the role of Bond by now. His Bond is cold but soulful, incredibly efficient (he avoids a fight here by pointing at a guard and saying, "Stay") but handy with the odd cruel quip.
It is James Bond done well, and what more can you ask of a James Bond film?


(Guillermo Del Toro, 2015)

I have a problem with a group of filmmakers who often seem to put production design before storytelling. Oddly, all of them favour a sort of gothic "stylishness" in their work: elaborate sets, lush costumes and rich lighting combine with overripe narratives, bad dialogue and ostentatious camera motion. Tim Burton is perhaps the high priest of such cinema, joined on occasion by the likes of Terry Giliam. And sometimes Guillermo Del Toro.
Del Toro switches from the more action end of pulp (Hellboy I & II, Blade 2, Pacific Rim) to a more gothic, personal sensibility (The Devils Backbone, Pans Labyrinth) every few films, and in Crimson Peak he is - ever the synthesist - paying homage to Hammer and Mario Bava among others, with the story of a rich young woman, Edith (Mia Wasikowska, playing a dull character but still sympathetic) lured from her comfortable life in Buffalo NY by dashing, sensitive Sir Thomas Sharp (Tom Hiddleston). HE woos her against her suspicious father's wishes, and when her father is mysteriously murdered, she marries Thomas and leaves America only to arrive in a sort of Gothic Disneyland in the form of his crumbling, spooky mansion in 'Cumberland". This he shares with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Of course there are strange goings-on at the mansion. Ghosts prowl the halls, the clay beneath is seeping up through the floor (the house itself seems to bleed), and Lucille and Thomas both act strangely.
Crimson Peak is not remotely the horror film it has been sold as. There are no real scares here; rather it is a gothic romance with some violence and thrills along the way. And while I find Del Toro's visual imagination pedestrian and predictable in this mode, this film is still ravishingly beautiful (credit to cinematographer Dan Lausten for that), and fun it its silly way.
The performers give it conviction. Charlie Hunnam (as the white knight set on rescuing Edith) and Hiddleston are both a little stiff and awkward but that suits the material. Chastain has a great time as Lucille, particularly in the last act, when truths are revealed and Del Toro can indulge himself.

Sunday 25 October 2015


(S. Craig Zahler, 2015)

I knew Zahler was a novelist before I checked his bio. The first two acts of Bone Tomahawk are full of scenes that play out much longer than they would in the majority of movies; Zahler lets us watch his characters talk the way a novelist would. Not in that Tarantino way, asking us to marvel at the wit and quality of the dialogue, but in a manner designed to increase our knowledge and understanding of the characters. We spend an hour and a half in their company before the stakes are suddenly raised, and - unlike in so many horror films - we actually care what happens to them.
That means that the first half of the film does feel a little post-Tarantno, a little like Deadwood (which Zahler has criticised in interviews), a little lazy and self-indulgent. Zahler's writing is fine, but it is his cast that sells the dialogue. Kurt Russell always feels like a natural fit in Westerns, and he is excellent here as an unflappable, confident Sheriff. Patrick Wilson presents yet another in his series of precise studies of masculinity under fire, before emerging in the climax as the true hero of the film. Matthew Fox turns the soulfulness of his presence into a shield, playing an amoral, unlikable killer with unplumbed depths. All, however, are outshone by Richard Jenkins in the Walter Brennan role, the loquacious old-timer who can barely keep quiet for 5 seconds and whose mutterings often contain great insights. These four set off on a journey ("Ride out to their doom!" as the hilarious, right-on-the-money end credits ballad would have it) after Wilson's nurse wife and a young deputy are abducted from the town jailhouse one night.
Their abductors are identified by the town's token Native American as a nameless, inbred tribe of cannibalistic troglodytes who live in caves days ride away and who are fearsome and savage. The men's journey is slow and detailed, their personality clashes and interactions containing longueurs and entertainment both, before the last act when what has been a lightly quirky Western with some comedy transforms into a brutally gory cannibal horror film. Zahler fills the script with interesting details; from a half-crippled Wilson's dialogue with God as he prepares to enter the troglodytes valley, to the cannibal's having whistles of bone sewn into their throats to aid their howling communication, to Fox revealing his back-story as he faces death, this is a beautifully imagined world which makes light of its modest budget.
Only the somewhat flat photography and constant reliance on mid-shots ( there is rarely a sense of the physical scale common to westerns here) let it down a little, while the spring use of a score helps in that last act when the tension starts to rise. Generally, it feels startlingly unique for a mash-up of such familiar genres, and is an interesting, entertaining watch throughout, questioning tropes and mythology as it goes.

Sunday 18 October 2015


(Ridley Scott, 2015)

The Martian may be the first time that Matt Damon has truly embraced his movie stardom. The role of Mark Watney, NASA Astronaut mistakenly believed dead and abandoned alone on the surface of Mars, mainly asks that he use his most essential qualities: his likeableness, his charisma, his sense of easy humour. At least half of the movie is Watney alone, engaged in one of the many tasks that will prolong his life (farming potatoes using his own excrement as fertiliser, travelling to pick up an old drone probe, scavenging, counting & rationing supplies, fortifying his habitat) while he talks to the camera or in voiceover. It relies on us liking Damon and wanting him to be ok. He has always had an everyman quality. It is what makes his Bourne a sort of anti-Bond; he fits in, disappears, seems incapable of the devastating violence he unleashes on enemies. And here it lends this survival tale an inbuilt suspense. We need Watney to be alright because we like him so much; he is funny and oh so human.
Ridley Scott directs with relatively anonymous efficiency. Perhaps he has built so many worlds on-screen that he does it now sleekly, without too many ostentatious shots, but this is trim and adept, and seems to trust in an excellent script by Drew Goddard and a classy supporting cast to hold up their end opposite Damon. That cast includes a few vivid cameos from the likes of Donald Glover as a geeky astro-physicist who discovers a quicker way to get Damon home, Michael Pena and Jessica Chastain as the most memorable of his crew-mates, and a potentially great comedy troupe of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kirsten Wiig, Sean Bean and Jeff Daniels as the NASA executives dealing with the fall-out and complications of the whole saga.
To the films credit, the material on earth is just as interesting as the Mars material, and the whole thing stands as a superior, utterly enjoyable piece of Hollywood hokum.

Saturday 10 October 2015


(Denis Villeneuve, 2015)

When a really good genre film comes along, we realise just how crap and childish most genre cinema truly is. Sicario is an outstanding genre film; tense, beautifully made, lovely to look at (Roger Deakins!), and engaged in geopolitical reality without ever becoming dull.
We see most of the story through the eyes of FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, superbly hollow-eyed and traumatised throughout) after the discovery of dozens of corpses in the walls of a Phoenix house. That is the opening scene: an intensely charged suspense sequence as Macer's team enter the house and encounter some resistance, discover the corpses and trigger a booby-trap. Here the tone for the film is set; quiet, patient, horribly gripping and visually acute, Villeneuve using a magisterial style reminiscent of mid-period Michael Mann to pin this world to the screen.
Macer is recruited to an inter-agency task force and is led to believe she will be working with the DEA. But quickly she realises that Matt (Josh Brolin, just the right combination of jocularity, smug knowingness and chilling calculation) is a CIA agent, and that the mysterious Colombian Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, showing that all-too rarely-glimpsed movie star charisma of his) may be something altogether worse. Together with a team of Delta Force soldiers they travel in a convoy into Juarez in Mexico to extradite a Drug Baron, hoping to draw out the mysterious lord of his cartel. But Macer is shocked by just how off-reservation and illegal their activities are, and struggles to justify her involvement to herself and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), all the while getting more emotionally involved with the case.
Sicario is provocative in its structure. While the first two acts are firmly Blunt's in that they seem to take her physical and moral viewpoint , the last act shifts and suddenly Alejandro is controlling the narrative, and the certainties of Macer's views on the drug war melt away. Matt complicates this throughout. Though unlikable, he seems an arch-pragmatist, focused on results and nothing else, dismissing all moral considerations entirely. Then we have Reggie, dismissed by Matt as simply a "lawyer", who doesn't trust any of them and only wants to ensure his partner is ok.
The story revolves around a series of tremendous set-pieces; most notably the Juarez run, which erupts into a firefight at the border. Jóhann Jóhannsonn's score is at its subtle best here. It rejects melody, instead rising up like a murky cloud of ambient noise, all moans and shivers, employing the dread that hangs in the air of the film. and which culminates in the mission Alejandro was engaged in all along.
This is a great genre film; cynical, sharp and exhilarating, it is also utterly satisfying.

Sunday 4 October 2015


(Justin Kurzel, 2015)

Macbeth is - by something like common consent - the most cinematic of Shakespeare's plays. It is noirish in its dramatic setting, dark actions and darker characters, its blood and witchcraft and murder and seduction. It is also uncommonly tight for Shakespeare; taut and relatively pacy. It has a tortured anti-hero, a femme fatale, a few rich supporting roles.
And yet: so many of the screen adaptations of the Scottish play mess it up. Too slow, too literal, too gothic, too stagey, too handsome, too cheap, too silly. Always off somehow. Only Roman Polanski really made a decent fist of turning it into a movie (Orson Welles' seems the least of his Shakespeare adaptations to me) and even that bloody, energetic iteration is a little stiff and awkward.
Well: Justin Kurzel seems to have been commendably focused on making his Macbeth work as a movie. He and his three writers throw out material that doesn't work, and recontextualise whole other scenes, sharpening some themes, abandoning others. His movie is ravishing; an every-frame-a-painting piece of cinema with brutally fine acting from a great cast.
Director of photography Adam Arkapaw films medieval Scotland with pin-sharp precision as if it was a post-Apocalyptic wasteland. There is life here, but somehow the landscape seems desolate, either battered by rain or baking under the sun. The early battle scene is an orgy of slow-motion blood and spittle in the air, intercut with the clamour of the carnage and Macbeth, still on the battlefield, hypnotised by the sight of the Wyrd Sisters.
The boldness of Kurzel's version is in making some definitive decisions about how Shakespeare's ambiguities should be read. So here, Michael Fassbender's Macbeth is firmly a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; hallucinating corpses (the dagger which appears to him is in the hand of a dead youth from that opening battle) and unable to control his seesawing emotions, he is easily swayed by his wife. For her part, Marion Cotillard's Lady Macbeth is mourning the loss of her own child. The film's opening shot is of the body of the Macbeth child, lying upon a funeral pyre. Both Cotillard and Fassbender play it as naturalistically as they can, mumbling and whispering much of the dialogue. There is no declaiming, little attempt at iambic pentameter. Some lines vanish in an attempt to make scenes more believable and flowing. Fassbender is best in the early stages; numbed and hollow. Later he gets a little more mannered and hammy, but he is never less than magnetic. Cotillard is beautifully vulnerable and emotional.
The rest of a terrific cast match them, especially an (as usual) intense Sean Harris as MacDuff. All contribute to the sense of mounting dread throughout, as does the score by Jed Kurzel and Arkapaw's immense work, which make Macbeth work as a movie in a way that too few Shakeseare adaptations can match. It is beautiful, emotional, visceral and exhilarating.
It is also confirmation that Kurzel is a great talent.

Friday 2 October 2015


(Ramin Bahrani, 2014)

99 Homes isn't really a thriller, although it feels like one from the very first scene. Bahrani establishes a tense atmosphere with an opening crawl away from a dead man sitting in his bathroom, the rifle he used to end his own life in his hands, blood splatters on the wall, and through the house from which he was being evicted. Policemen move around, his wife and children wail as he is stretchered off. And in the middle of it all is Michael Shannon's Rick Carver, a real estate agent and developer who was the one evicting the man on behalf of the band which now owned his property. Bahrani follows him outside, through an angry phone call and a sarcastic, devastating exchange with a coroner, all of it soundtracked by a blunt, electronic rhythm. A feeling of dread has arrived, fully-formed, with this film. It never really lessens.
We see a little of Carver's life and business before he is evicting Nash (Andrew Garfield) from the family home where he lives with his mother and young son. Nash is a roofer, and in the 2008 of the film, the construction business has just collapsed, leaving him without a viable income. He and his family end up living in a motel after a horribly upsetting eviction. But he goes looking for Carver, believing some tools stolen, and instead, ends up working for him. Carver, impressed by his competence and initiative, promotes him rapidly, and soon it is Nash himself raking in money and evicting baffled families.
So 99 Homes is a deal-with-the-devil story, focused intently and fascinatingly on real estate chicanery in the world after the financial collapse of 2008. We see the details of the scams Carver and Nash run, and hear many of Carver's justifications. But Bahrani - a director whose films have always examined the reality of the American dream - ensures that we don't miss the other side of the equation. From the raw agony of Nash's mother and son when they lose their home, to the pitiful state of an elderly widower with nowhere to go and no family to call, this film is furiously moving about the human cost of the situation and furiously angry about the reasons for it.
The dread that settles in the opening scene does come to a head, but before that we get the spectacle of a terrific Garfield and a monstrous Shannon battling for the soul of the film. Both excel, and Bahrani's character doesn't miss a nuance. He is a director building a strong and undervalued body of work, and this may well be his best film yet.