Monday 30 November 2015


(Gaspar Noé, 2015)

I wasn't really prepared for how much of a French film Love would be. A French film in the archetypal, cliched sense, I mean; it is basically an endless series of scenes of characters talking intensely about themselves and each other and their relationships, only lacking the wit or depth of Rohmer, say. Instead Love inserts (no pun intended) a bunch of explicit sex scenes, one every five or ten minutes, which don't really do anything to change the story or the characters, and don't really reflect the themes in any significant way, either.
The story shows us a day in the life of Murphy (Karl Glusman) (whose life is full of things going wrong - subtle, Gaspar!), a young American wannabe filmmaker in Paris. He has had an unplanned baby with a girl, Omi (Aomi Muyock) and feeling trapped, falls down a rabbit hole of memories of Electra (Klara Kristin), his old girlfriend, and possibly the love of his life, though those memories are decidedly mixed. Electra's mother has contacted Murphy, fearful for her suicidal daughter, and Murphy remembers a sequence of their sexual encounters and conversations and arguments as he tries to deal with her loss and his new situation.
The script is frequently terrible - Noé writes like an undergraduate - and his unprofessional cast aren't up to elevating the material. That leaves Noé himself. And thankfully, he knows exactly what he's doing. He has always had a strong visual sensibility and here his often painterly lighting and symmetrical compositions - this is a film shot with 3D in mind - make for an utterly visually distinctive experience. The sex scenes are posed and arranged with the audience in mind, removing any air of realism, however "real" they may be, but this ensures that they are regularly beautiful. Glusman spends 95% of the film dead centre of the frame, and despite the fumbled nature of the script it still feels like Noé has touched on a few universals here. There are scenes that feel true in their sordid little emotional confrontations, their petty jealousies and passionate desires, exchanges that are fuelled by real feeling and real love.
But it feels self-indulgent, as if the thing that Noé most needs at this point in his career is a producer, somebody to rein him in and tell him what is working and what is not. Otherwise he just follows his own odd muse, and the result is this odd mess of mastery and masturbation.

Thursday 26 November 2015


(Danny Boyle, 2015)

In Steve Jobs, director Danny Boyle mostly stays out of the way. This is writer Aaron Sorkin's movie, and Boyle is wise enough to realise that and attempt a just-subtly-stylish-enough film version of a Sorkin script that plays way theatrical, with its 3 locations, its artificially tightened timeframes and its triple echo three act structure. So no hyperactive editing or wild camera angles. Mostly just nicely shot talking heads in well-blocked, intelligently-framed scenes.
The performances, then, take much of the weight. The story focuses on Jobs (Michael Fassbender) at three crucial moments in his life: in 1984, in the minutes before the public launch of the Macintosh. In 1988, after Jobs has been fired from Apple and is about to launch the Black Box for his own company, Next. And in 1998, as he launches the iMac.
Each sequence is shot on different stock, set backstage at a different event centre, as Jobs jousts with his marketing executive and "work wife" Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), meets his old friend and colleague Steve "Woz" Wozniak (Seth Rogen), banters with engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and deals with Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels). All this while preparing to face hundreds of people and the worlds media. And dealing with Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterson) the mother of his child, and with the child herself, as a cute 5 year old, needy 9 year old, and complex, wounded teen.
Sorkin's script portrays Jobs as a difficult egomaniac who is worth it; he's a genius. And Fassbender nails that - intelligence bubbling beneath his face, impatient and baffled by people, always rushing towards the future he feels like only he sees. Winslet and he share a few emotional scenes, but the biggest and best confrontations are with a raw Woz, demanding some recognition for his generation of engineers and telling Jobs without hesitation how much of an asshole he is, and Rogen is terrific. Just as good is Jeff Daniels, moving from fatherly to antagonistic to regretful over the course of the film.
For his part, Jobs changes. He begins believing he's right, and ends up absolutely certain of it. along the way he might just learn a bit about people, or at least himself.
Theatrical yes. But that is not a problem with actors like these saying words like this.

Friday 20 November 2015


(James Ponsoldt, 2015)

This is a modest film. Which is odd, since it attempts a portrayal of David Foster Wallace (played here, quite well, by Jason Segal), perhaps the greatest novelist of his generation, and one of the most interesting thinkers of his time. That portrayal comes in the form of a record of the trip he takes in the company of David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), who is interviewing him for a piece in Rolling Stone magazine. So, the majority of the film captures the two men deep in conversation: about art, about literature, about women and work, America and children, movies and food, New York and tv, college and sports, parents and dogs.
And - the odd shaft of Wallace with or wisdom, direct from Lipsky's book, aside - much of it isn't all that interesting or entertaining. Wallace struggles with how to present himself, how to avoid seeming pretentious or annoying, while Lipsky struggles with his own admiration and envy for his subject, while also needing to remain a cold-eyed assassin about a man he comes rapidly to feel affection for. The best material here has more or less nothing to do with the fact that the film is about David Foster Wallace; it is instead the scenes when the two men spend time with two women in Minneapolis, the last stop on Wallaces's book tour. Wallace struggles in these scenes with his own feelings of jealousy as Eisenberg's Lipsky seems to easily charm one of the women, an old college friend of the novelist. Eisenberg, blessed with such an easy command of social awkwardness in its many shades, vividly expresses Lipsky's unease and careful probing while Segal perhaps overdoes Wallace's regular-guy qualities. Ponsoldt avoids pyrotechnics, following the trail carefully to the emotional peak of the last act, capturing a wintry MidWest and a grey Minneapolis with economy.
Perhaps most pleasingly, the score is full of 1990s indie rock.

Wednesday 4 November 2015


(Mario Bava, 1968)

What elevates Danger: Diabolik above many other cult films of the 1960s is the direction of Mario Bava. A great visual stylist - most evident in his giallo work - Bava is a little more controlled here than in much of his output, perhaps sensing that in this case, he can simply allow the sets and wardrobe to take much the burden of style.
He still pulls off many audacious moments and his sense of movement and colour is still intact and striking. The campy story adapts an adventure by Italian comic book legend Diabolik (John Phillip Law), basically a super-villain who resides in a series of underground caves, performs elaborate heists and escapes and likes to have sex with his beautiful girlfriend Eva (Marissa Mell) upon all the money he's stolen when he's not planning thefts or playing tricks upon the police.
The dull bits of the plot focus on the efforts of various policemen and politicians to catch Diabolik, but the fun scenes are all the moments showing him in action. Whether it's scaling a castle turret or foiling police pursuers with a giant mirror, everything Diabolik and Eva  do is a strange mixture of funny, sexy and cool. While some moments are dated, it has aged remarkably well. Again, this is down to Bava's visual sensibilities; the way he stages and shoots action scenes, his economical camera movements, his beautiful use of colour.
John Phillip Law is a little wooden but Bava makes great use of his distinctive eyes, and even better use of Mell's voluptuous beauty - few genre films take such unambiguous delight in the physicality of their leading lady as this one.To underline the debt to the Bond series - Danger: Diabolik mocks and parodies a few of its contemporary influences - Thunderball's Adolfo Celi is well-cast as a crime boss who likes to drop those who have crossed him through a trap-door on his private jet.
The Ennio Morricone score is, obviously, superb.

Monday 2 November 2015


(Guy Ritchie, 2015)

Guy Ritchie's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was always going to have to work exceptionally hard to win me over, seeing as it was not Stephen Soderbergh's The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which had always sounded like just my kind of thing.
Ritchie must have liked the sound of that project too, because his movie takes much of its style and approach straight from Soderbergh's "Oceans" movies, most particularly the misunderstood oddball masterpiece at the midpoint in the trilogy, Oceans Twelve.
This is an origin story, detailing the first encounter between 1960s spies from different sides of the Iron curtain. We have suave, confident CIA man Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, assured) and stubborn, man-mountain KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). They first clash in East Berlin, where Solo spirits out Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from under Kuryakin's nose, before they learn that they are to team up and work together in order to locate some nuclear warheads about to be sold to Neo-Nazis in Italy. The warheads are in the possession of Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), so the two men and Gaby go under cover, in an effort to find out their location.
The story is thin and feels like the kind of thing that did happen in the 1960s tv series upon which this is based, but there are some factors which make the film a pleasing watch despite this. While Cavill has shown the ability to carry a film in the right role (one where he flies and wears a big red S on his chest), he's never shown any sign of a sense of humour before now, but his Solo is a witty bad boy who hides that beneath a smooth veneer, impeccable taste and great manners. He has chemistry with Hammer's Kuryakin, who deals with anger issues through violence. He in turn has a few good scenes with Vikander's Gaby.
Ritchie has always been great with style. He understands framing and editing, his sense of rhythm is excellent, and his films always look wonderful. And here that facility is at its fullest expression; he makes '60s Italy look a shining wonderland. He seems to have cast his leads because they all look so good together (this applies to Elizabeth Debicki as the villainess too), and they are all beautifully dressed throughout, captured by some divine John Mathieson cinematography. It seems to nod to some '60s spy capers too, and the breezy, often-quirky approach is only bolstered by Daniel Pemberton's fabulous score, full of period touches, and very reminiscent of David Holmes' work for Soderbergh.
Yes it's fantastically empty, but then so are most action blockbusters, and at least this one doesn't pretend to be serious by being solemn. Instead, Ritchie amps up the style. He's not even really interested in the action scenes. He shoots a speed-boat confrontation between Kuryakin and some goons as glimpsed occasionally in the background as his camera lingers on Solo, who has broken into a lorry and sits in the drivers seat eating a sandwich and drinking wine. Another one he fragments into a dizzying series of split-screens, before melding two back together. Another takes place utterly offscreen. And yet it entertains: it is funny, cool, exciting.

Sunday 1 November 2015


(Aleksey German, 2013)

You know the sequences in Spaghetti Westerns where the director (be it Leone or Corbucci or Sollima or Petroni) exposes the audience to the truth of the West by showing us ordinary life? It may just be twenty seconds before our protagonist rides into town, or a glimpse into the dark corners of the saloon he's just wandered into, but it is generally there, in every Spaghetti Western, continuing to demythologise and revise the classical view of the old West. Usually it consists of extras with "interesting" faces, scratching themselves, squabbling, stuffing food into rootless gobs, being lazy or lustful or disgusting, featuring sweat-stained clothes and gleaming, stubbled, frequently misshapen people, with exaggerated sound design so that every grunt and muttering is audible. This is what the world is like, these sequences seem to say; full of filth and brutality and idiocy, signifying nothing.
Well Hard to be a God is like that. Except it is set in a Medieval world. And it lasts for three long hours.
The sci-fi basis for the story - from the novel by the Strugatskys - is laid out briefly, then basically ceases to be relevant as German gets carried off by his self-indulgent - if genuinely astonishing - technical brilliance. The film follows Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolink) on a journey across the planet Arkanar. Discovered years earlier by scientists at a Medieval stage in its development, an experiment was carried out to try to spur it into a renaissance. Only the experiment has backfired disastrously and the culture has utterly rejected intellectualism. Men have been hanged, the university closed down, and a war has broken out. Don Rumata wanders among these people, who fear the power of his armour and weapons while he remains indifferent, beyond caring.
German shoots all this in beautiful, shining black and white in his signature long-take style, and the way he seems to have constructed a flawless 360 degree reality around his camera is stunning. But that effect wears off after half an hour or so, while the film runs for another two and a half, repeating itself over and over and over. Don Rumata passes something vile or awful, the camera lingers briefly, perhaps he interacts - though rarely in any way "dramatically" - and then he is moving on, to the next iteration of the same thing, the same thematic point, restated. And though I know that that itself is German's point; that nothing changes or progresses, that mankind is doomed, I was bored after that first 40 minutes or so, and that lasted right up until the last ten minutes, when the rhythm and the action changes.
All the technical accomplishment in the world cannot make up for how utterly humourless and grim this film is.