Wednesday 30 December 2015


(Ron Howard, 2015)

Ron Howard's Meh-factor cannot be denied. Doesn't matter what the raw material is. The story which allegedly inspired Moby Dick? About a whaling vessel sunk 2000 miles out in the Pacific by a vengeful white whale , so that its crew had to drift for months in small boats, enduring starvation and eventual cannibalism in order to survive? That kind of yarn should make a cracking movie. Howard turns in an ok one.
A cast of exciting British and Irish thespians, from old hands like Brendan Gleeson and Cillian Murphy to youngsters like Tom Holland? Should be creating a savage, human drama. Here their characters seem like the plainest of archetypes, and the actors work overtime to make more of them than that. A genuine movie star with charisma and acting ability, in Chris Hemsworth?  He never really seems less than that, dominating the film with his athleticism and presence, even if his character too is defined by a single trait - a terrible temper. That temper leads him to make a decision in the heat of his first confrontation with the great whale; one which he might regret.
He plays Owen Chase (a hero must have a heroic name), first mate on the Essex, a whaling ship out of Nantucket in the 1820s. He has only been denied the captaincy because of politics, and his relationship with the captain, Pollard (Benjamin Walker), never recovers, and indeed poisons the atmosphere during their first year at sea. An eventual desperate gamble in order to ensure a good harvest of whale oil is what leads them into the path of the white whale and the ensuing tragedy.
Anthony Dod Mantle's work as cinematographer here is absolutely stunning; he depicts the oceans as a terrible living thing, the skies reeling above in a phantasmagoria of hues and colours, from the sunlight battering the men in their boats to the fires illuminating the wreck of the Essex by night.
The story takes a great deal of time establishing its world and (limited) characters, and reaches a peak around halfway, with the whale attack sequence.
It is certainly too long, and feels as if its unbalanced structure is partly to blame for that. The second half patiently traces the mens voyage home and the most awful moments of their ordeal.
So what is it that makes Howard such a pedestrian filmmaker? I think he is so resolutely Hollywood that his films coast by, content with being entertaining, never taking risks or surprising us.
He is a solid storyteller, but there is not one moment of transcendent visual style here. Not that a film should have such a moment, but this film seems made for it, especially with a DP like Mantle on-board. Contrast that with Peter Weir's nautical masterpiece, Master & Commander: the Far Side of the World. That film has tons of narrative yet still contains a few tangential moments of purest visual poetry. Howard seems to lack such poetry. The way he portrays Nantucket is also entirely Hollywood; it seems too cluttered, too busy, too respectful of the production designers and costumers, and never feels like a real place. Even his work with actors is just good enough: this role should have drawn on previously unplumbed depths in Hemsworth. But instead he grows a beard and loses some weight, but always remains a beautiful, charismatic movie star. Then there is that awkward, entirely cliched and unnecessary framing device, wherein Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) interviews an aged survivor of the Essex (Brendan Gleeson). Two great actors reduced to a bunch of pointless scenes that add nothing at all, really, to the film or any of its themes.
While it may be entertaining - as are most of Howard's films - it seems a strange way to short sell such strong material. It also has the unique misfortune to be a historical survival adventure movie released in the same month as Inarittu's The Revenant, to which it compares extremely badly.

Tuesday 29 December 2015


(Hou Hsiao Hsien, 2015)

I love seeing the world through Hou Hsiao Hsien's eyes.
But that means slowing down, paying attention, giving oneself to the images.
His mastershot style is quiet and still and precise, and it magnifies nuance and gesture. Once you become attuned, it gives certain scenes incredible power. I suppose the flip-side to this is that if you do not become attuned, then his films must seem unbearably tedious.
The Assassin is a nuxia - an entry in the "female knight" sub-genre in the Kung Fu genre. It stars Hou muse Shu Qi as Yianning, banished from her home province as a girl to save herself after she reacts badly to some inter-family politics. In the interim she has been trained as a deadly assassin, but she lacks the ruthlessness required of the profession, although her skills are "matchless". Her Mistress dispatches her back to her home province and back to her family, where she is to kill the Ruler of the province (Chang Chen), to whom Yianning was once betrothed. This is both punishment and test, and embroils the assassin in the complex court politics of 7th Century China.
Aside from some text at the start, there is very little exposition explaining this, and what does come is mostly revealed in two quiet conversations, around a half-hour into the film. Hou is insisting that an audience pay attention to this film, that you must strain even to attain the most basic comprehension of the plot. His elliptical storytelling makes that difficult at times, especially where the internecine plotting is involved, but the broad strokes of the story and the characters are quite simple.
Shu Qi's character is still in love with Chang Chen's, and the only question really is how she will deal with the consequences of her actions (or inaction).
When other Chinese auteurs have taken on the wuxia genre, from Wong Kar Wai to Zhang Yimou, each of them bows to the stylistic conventions. Not Hou. Yes he features martial arts fights, but they are as elliptical as everything else here. The editing rhythms may change - quiet a jarring, if exhilarating, new development in his oeuvre - but these never feel like fights for their own sake. Yianning may be a matchless warrior, but she takes no pleasure in her skill, and her moves are efficient and precise, reminiscent more of samurai swiftness and finality than much I've seen in the wuxia genre. Hou shoots her in different ways in each fight; in an unusually tight mid-shot for one, her athleticism obscured (a decision he insists was due to Shu Qi's inadequacies as a martial artist), barely glimpsed in another, her opponents toppling like skittles from her limbs, in an elegant dance-like exchange in a battle with a golden-masked female assassin for yet another. And sometimes he doesn't shoot her at all; he cuts away from one fight to a long shot so that we can barely glimpse it among some distant trees, and stages another off-screen, lingering instead on another two characters. Her performance is quiet and contained but it gathers a great deal of power as the story develops. Chang Chen - always a charismatic presence - is allowed to show more obvious emotion, but his best scene is the one where he quietly confides in his concubine about who Yianning is, what she might mean to him evident in his voice and face.
This is a mesmerising, mysterious film, heavy with repressed emotion, its characters bounded by the social structures represented so beautifully by the period finery all around them, and also by Hou's lovely framing. Only Yianning is really free to choose her fate, and Shu Qi is accordingly the character we follow as she moves through and across the screen throughout the film, alone but at liberty.
All this and I have not mentioned what most reviewers focus on: this is a startlingly beautiful film. It is also an at-times-forbiddingly arty one. But worthwhile.

Sunday 27 December 2015


(Tom McCarthy, 2015)

Spotlight has a great real-life story as raw material. It also has an outstanding cast of character actors and movie stars all committing fearlessly to this treatment of that story. What it does not have is a writer-director with any real feel for cinema.
That's not to say there is nothing to recommend in Spotlight; it is an engrossing, beautifully-acted procedural, with plenty of finely-observed details that bring the story and world to life. It's screenplay has some nice moments and a few fine characters.
Previous true-life procedurals like All the Presidents Men and the Insider combined sharp scripts and great actors with bravura direction. It's just that I don't think McCarthy is capable of "bravura". He is fantastic with actors, and this film is really well paced, giving out just enough exposition to keep an audience interested but never enough to slow things down so much that they might become bored.
The story follows a specialist team of reporters at the Boston Globe as they investigate a story of the Catholic Church and it's decade-long cover-up of paedophile priests. Those reporters are played by the likes of Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams while Liev Schrieber appears as the new Editor of the Paper, an outsider and Jew, who pushes for the story to the displeasure of most of the city, it seems.
McCarthy shoots it all like it's television. From 1997. Flat, "realistic" lighting, dull blocking and compositions. The camera moves little, and never with any real sense of purpose, either thematic or aesthetic. It feels as if he has learned to direct from a book of How to Direct. Directing: a Fools Guide, perhaps?
It's a shame, because this could and should be an important film about a hugely controversial topic. Instead it is a mediocrity; never bad - its far too tasteful for that -  but never great either.

Friday 25 December 2015


(Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu, 2015)

The Revenant starts with a sudden, brutally violent attack upon a trapper camp by a war party of Arikara Indians in 1823. Arrows abruptly appear in throats, blood spurts, and all of a sudden a pitched battle of horrific violence and chaos is underway. Obviously inspired by his work on Birdman, Inarittu shoots all of this in what appears to be a single, awesome take, as the men fight, die and begin a panicked retreat towards their boat on the river, the Indians in pursuit.
Shot by the genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, this scene reminded me of nothing so much as the work of Terrence Malick. His masterful The New World, also shot by "Chivu" created an utterly immersive, 360 degree world upon the American Frontier, and Lubezki's camera patrolled it incessantly, as it does here. Only the world summoned up by Inarittu has a lot of Sam Peckinpah in it too - it is tough and masculine, filled with big and peculiar characters and terrible deaths, a sense of relish for the violence and suffering on screen.
This focus upon action is new for Inarittu. It is also quite refreshing. His earlier work was often weighed down by a pompous sense of seriousness, of a director with an undergraduate understanding of the world filled with conviction that he had important things to say. Babel is perhaps the nadir of his work, a trite and simplistic thesis on communication, interconnectedness and the modern world.
The Revenant too strains for seriousness, but it is taciturn film, entirely wordless for long stretches, and Inarittu reduced to images is a much more impressive director than the man who relied on vacuous screenplays to communicate his themes. On one level, this film is an absolutely incredible action film, with its plot concerning a man struggling to survive in an unbelievably harsh environment and his quest for revenge after he is left for dead, and watches his son murdered. Only Inarittu fills it with long, slow scenes glorying in his sensational landscapes, and sequences revealing the state of mind of his protagonist, Glass (Leo DiCaprio), as he is haunted by memories of a massacre in an Indian village, the death of his wife and his own actions to save his son.
The action scenes are outstanding: both that stunning early battle, a later pursuit across a plain, an extended and terrifying bear attack, and the final confrontation each contains a few genuinely jaw-dropping moments, and they help make this an entirely gripping experience, for all that its director has greater pretensions.
The ferociously committed performances are a great boon, too. DiCaprio does most of his work without dialogue, and still manages to convey his agony and fierce will to survive with just his face and body language. Tom Hardy, as the man who betrays him, unveils another funny voice and accent, but creates a weak, believably complex antagonist in his Fitzgerald.
The likes of Will Poulter and Domhnall Gleeson match them in smaller parts.
For all that, Lubezki is undeniably the film's true star; his work here is sensational, and this is truly an every-frame-a-painting movie. For all the effort that Inarittu devotes to creating a strong thematic content here - his suggestions that Tarkovsky as an influence say it all - this film is amazing. Powerful, beautiful and riveting, it is hard to shake off.

Tuesday 22 December 2015


(Todd Haynes, 2015)

I should have loved Carol.
I love stores of passion denied, of love faced with formidable obstacles.
I love cinematic storytelling that centres on the craft of directing. And this film is beautifully directed. Haynes' artistry seems at a new level here, and he plays with focus, colour and perspective impressionistically, communicating his characters inner states with nuance and soulfulness throughout the film. He does not waste a single shot, either, and more or less every shot is lovely.
Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett are both superb as the women who fall in love in 1950s Manhattan. Mara in particular finds depths and harmonics within her lonely, complicated young photographer that give her emotional collapse late in the film unusual power. Blanchett is doing her thing - strong and superficial, but vulnerable - and nobody else does that as well as she does, of course. There are supporting actors of incredible class like Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson, in interesting, layered roles.
This world feels real and lived in, with texture and detail that enhances and underlines the main story lines and themes.
And yet: I didn't love Carol. It felt a little one-noted and simplistic. Its view of the world as a mausoleum where even love is a melancholy, grim experience was wearing and exhausting to me. The relentlessly dour atmosphere only increased that sense, as did the absence of any humour or joy in the world Haynes depicts. It is undoubtedly a beautiful and beautifully crafted film, but I felt more respect for it than love.

Monday 21 December 2015


(Ryan Coogler, 2015)

The confidence and assurance Coogler demonstrates in the leap from his debut, Fruitvale Station, a small-scale independent film, to Creed, a big studio boxing drama and a reboot-sequel to the Rocky series, is truly startling. And not only is he confident; he is successful - this is a superb piece of studio film-making, made with wit and style, engrossing, exciting and affecting throughout.
The story follows Adonis "Donny" Thompson (Michael B Jordan, showing the movie star chops needed to carry a whole film on his shoulders), illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, as he gives up his white collar world in Los Angeles and travels to Philadelphia, where he convinces his father's old friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to help train him. Donny must battle his old demons - of course, this is a boxing movie - while Rocky deals with his. Along the way, too, there are a couple of epic boxing matches.
The only real issue Creed has is pacing; at just over two hours it is a little overlong, and it feels as if the whole movie restarts after Donny's first real fight, when Rocky confronts his own problems. Aside from that, it is a beautifully crafted example of the boxing genre. Donny is an interesting character, fighting because he feels he needs to, and his relationship with Rocky is touching - mutual surrogacy which is finally acknowledged, and needed by both men. He also has a sweet romance with Biancha (Tessa Thompson), a singer whose progressive hearing loss gives her character a never-overplayed thematic resonance for Donny, with his issues with making his mark while he has time, and Rocky's obsession with the past and future.
While cramming in two lead storylines - one for Donny and one for Rocky - creates some of those pacing issues, it also allows Stallone to shade this portrayal of his oldest character with some lovely notes of melancholy and regret. This is probably his best acting work, and he retains that old movie star presence, now deepened by age and sadness, which gives this film a nice depth of flavour.
But it stands and falls as a boxing movie, and what is so exceptional is the way it embraces each and every boxing movie cliche (most of them pumped up by Stallone in the Rocky series) and yet transcends them. There are training montages, of course. Donny screws up and comes perilously close to losing everyone he loves. There is a run through the streets of Philadelphia.
But Coogler is an exciting talent, and he knows the power of a moving camera and comes up with some interesting angles on familiar material. He shoots Donny's first big fight in one extended shot, lending it the elegance and power of a great dance sequence in a musical. Whenever a possible opponent for Donny appears on-screen, his career stats appear beside him, like something from a computer game. That Philadelphia run is mainly in slo-mo, with motorbikes racing around Donny as he sprints. Donny and Biancha first connect in an upside-down shot, lying on her floor, listening to her music. The way the dialogue drops away as the referee addresses Rocky and Donny in the dressing room, and all we can hear is the crowd above.
Donny's sudden and panicked need to go use the toilet before his first fight is typical of this film - slight twists on familiar material, freshening it up. The climactic bout is shot in a more modern style, lot of movement and impact cuts, but it is done about as well as it can be done, and it follows the emotional arc familiar from this series to exhilarating effect.
All of this and the clear-eyed way it regards issues of ageing and legacy make this an unusually intelligent studio franchise film, and one that is almost entirely successful.

Sunday 20 December 2015


(J.J. Abrams, 2015)

I am one of Generation Star Wars.
Seeing the first two films in a double-bill around 1982 was a formative event in my childhood and, lame and corny though it sounds, helped to turn me into the person I am today. I accept the value of the myth created by George Lucas, I understand how it has shaped and turned popular culture, and in some ways, I've been waiting for this film for thirty-odd years. I know I brought a few metric tons of baggage into the cinema with me when I went to see The Force Awakens.
With that said, this is a good piece of genre entertainment, not a great one. The narrative is a bit of a mess, but so many other elements are excellent that they offer no little compensation. The story focuses on the search for a vanished Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), a quest which involves both sides of a conflict in a galaxy now overseen by a Republic. Those sides are the Resistance, led by Leia (Carrie Fisher), now a General; and the First Order, an Empire-worshipping army led by Supreme Commander Snoke (voiced by Andy Serkis) whose leadership includes a new version of the Darth Vader-Grand Moff Tarkin duo in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Commander Nux (Domhnall Gleeson). That suggests one of the issues with this film: it has a karaoke feel to it, with almost every single element recalling or referring to one from the original trilogy.
Take the heroes: Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a scavenger who we first encounter alone and shiftless on a desert planet, just like Luke at the start of Star Wars. Finn (John Boyega) is a scrapper who makes one decision after another and winds up up to his neck in the Resistance, despite starting the film as a Stormtrooper. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is a cocksure, witty X-Wing Pilot, seemingly blustering and improvising his way through sticky situations, just like Han Solo when we first encountered him.
Speaking of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), he and Chewbacca show up too, going about their roguish smuggling business and drawn back into a conflict centred around the Force, just like they were in Star Wars.
Not only that; there is basically a new Death Star. There is a climactic light sabre duel. There is an X-Wing dogfight with Tie Fighters. There is a snowy planet. There is a cantina scene, complete with odd music. There is a wise old alien who knows more than she lets on and dispenses advice, informed by her awareness of the Force. There is the death of an old, mentor character at the hands of a younger character, who was once close to him.
Abrams takes Star Wars itself as a sub-sub-genre; sci-fi by way of space opera, and as all that quotation and repetition suggests, he is extremely faithful to the conventions of that sub-sub-genre. Perhaps too much so, in that this film is never really surprising, with even its twists reminiscent of twists from the original trilogy. But then a massive part of the pleasure here is that this film feels like Star Wars in a way none of the prequels really did.
And then there are the virtues that Abrams brings: he has always been good on character, and the characters here are fascinating. Take Kylo Ren's volatile brattishness (he is just the way Anakin Skywalker should have been in the prequels), soulfully played by Adam Driver. Or Daisy Ridley playing Rey and her gradual awakening to who and what she may be (accusations that her character is a "Mary Sue" seem ignorant of the "hidden Prince" trend which has been popular in the fantasy genre for decades, and of which she seems a prime example) as a frightening and then exhilarating journey. John Boyega's Finn, meanwhile, is the most entertaining of the three, finding himself while wisecracking and double-taking the whole time. The older characters, meanwhile, show up just like old friends, the changes in them moving and amusing in equal measure. Harrison Ford in particular seems to be having a good time as Solo, and he manages to play a few difficult moments with a lot of emotion and wit.
Abrams other chief strengths are aesthetic - his films are usually incredibly pacy, and The Force Awakens whips along throughout its two hour twenty running time, never really pausing for breath. That is useful, when the story is as messy and occasionally stupid as this one is. Another compensation is the visceral physicality of his storytelling. There have never been moments in Star Wars films like some of the shots here - Tie Fighters appearing against the sun, Storm Troopers waiting in a shuddering drop-ship.
Above all, Abrams knows how to make his films fun. The Force Awakens is stuffed with gags, great action beats, nice character moments and rich detail, and it is entertaining from start to finish, with a few passages which have resonance  and emotion throbbing through them. It also sets up Rian Johnson's Episode VIII in a manner which suggests it has a great chance of becoming another Empire Strikes Back. Lets hope so. For now, The Force Awakens is a definitive statement - Star Wars is back, and it's good again. Whew.

Friday 18 December 2015


(Matthew Vaughn, 2010)

Aaron Johnson, who does just fine, is wrong for the title role here. A valid comparison would be the casting of Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man. Maguire is geeky-looking, slightly bug-eyed, not too tall or pretty or athletic. He could have been the nerd Peter Parker is meant to be. Johnson, on the other hand, is obviously a handsome boy, and a geeky afro and pair of specs don't really change that. He's also too jocky - tall, broad-shouldered, fit. A young leading man, in other words. Anybody who is cast as a young John Lennon , which is a role requiring a brooding, charismatic, smouldering kind of teen, is wrong for Kick Ass.
Nicolas Cage, on the other hand, finds just the right film for that chihuahua-on-acid energy of his. Here he doesn't feel like he's wandered in out of his bubble of celebrity where its ok to marry Elvis' daughter because hey, you're a big fan and where you should say yes to every film that goes over a certain figure for your salary. Here he feels like he's caught the tone of the film just right, like he even exemplifies it. His Adam West impression is funny for a few seconds, he has plenty of action scene experience, and he doesn't jolt us out of the film with any bizarre line-readings or twitches for once. This and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans in the same year or so constituted a  sort of mini-comeback, since in New York City, Kick Ass was mostly shot in London, and there are times when the difference between the two cites is all too apparent. London and New York look different, basically. The architecture is different, the street furniture, the shopfronts, the alleyways...Vaughn and his people do well dressing up locations, for the most part, but this New York just feels wrong. It never coalesces into something that feels like a real city, with all its vague locations - lumber warehouse, drug dealers pad in council estate, suburban high school - and for all is references to NYC, the attitude and spirit of the place are utterly absent. It feels plastic. It feels like the generic "Metropolis" which is home to Superman, and is an obvious analogue of New York without being tied to the actual New York in any way. It feels more comic book-influenced then the same city does in Raimi's Spider-Man films. But this is the film that purports to be a realistic view of Super-heroes. Here New York is full of knife-wielding muggers, and there are plenty of darkened alleyways, just like in my 70s Marvels. In some films, geographical uncertainty can work well. David Fincher's Seven, for instance, is set in an unnamed city which we assume is New York for the first two acts of the film. But at the end, as three characters drive out of the city and into the countryside, they drive through the sun-blasted scrub of what can only be California, and the city seems suddenly more likely to be Los Angeles. This small detail shakes an audience a little, rocks its preconceptions and expectations about what it is watching.
I generally hate when films are shot in one place and set in another, though the strange atmospherics of an everycity can be effective in the right hands. Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut was famously shot in a London standing in for New York, while Vancouver finds itself repeatedly impersonating American cities, often badly. Lost is a treasure trove of city masquerades, as Honolulu impersonates everywhere from London to Seoul to LA. But Lost does it either very well or horrendously badly. Either way is somehow better than the just-slightly off attempt made by Kick Ass.
The most interesting material in both comic and film is in the early scenes, before the arrival of Hit Girl and Big Daddy into the narrative. Here Millar and Vaughn take on the concept of the Super-Hero and its application in a cynical, frightened world, but also a scattershot approach to modern culture, from viral video to cash-in merchandising. Then Hit Girl and Big Daddy show up, and it all turns into a big ridiculous stupidly entertaining action scene. Betraying the influence of both Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Jason Pierson's Body Bags, their characters are hilarious and fun and yet they are a big part of some of the film's problems. In the first act, they are somewhat uncomfortably crowbarred in to a story which is not theirs. And then later Hit Girl's central role is undermined by the fact that she is entirely without an interior life - we see her kill and maim and flip and stab, we see her beaten and shot, but we never have the slightest idea what she is thinking or feeling. This reduces her to a pretty black sight-gag, a flash of Japanese anime in the film's DNA, or perhaps a slightly offensive reduction, a character created purely for fanboys, which is never a good thing. Kick Ass himself, by comparison, is all interior life, as his voiceover fills us in on his every thought and aspiration, rendering him without mystery or much nuance. A better actor than Johnson might have given him more shades of despair or horror, but he remains a two dimensional creation throughout.
The film is the very epitome of the modern genre spectacle. In a post-Tarantino world, that means that it is broadly post-modern, casually fascist and directed with an efficiently anonymous "stylish" sheen. It is also more concerned with being fliply funny than with being an effective action film, sacrificing emotional impact on several occasions for a gag. It has a scene with a heavy video game (read: First Person Shooter) reference in Hit Girl's night vision POV massacre, lots of martial arts and insane gunplay, and a soundtrack littered with pop culture ephemera and rescued trash - Sparks, Joan Jett, the Dickies' version of the Banana Splits theme, the Prodigy's sampling of Manfred Mann and a very Tarantino usage of Morricone's "For A Few Dollars More". In other words, it feels like a DVD movie, the sort of film made for Chapter Selection where you can rewatch favourite scenes and moments.
The worst material in the climactic scenes is not from the comic. The comic stays gritty and horrifying whereas the movie finally aims for purest fantasy in a sort of betrayal of its own earliest impulses. Its a shame.
What Kick Ass is, unexpectedly, is a great portrayal of adolescent male friendship. The protagonist says of himself that he "just exists, like most teenagers". He and his two best friends seem like the film's most authentic element, to me. Their warm camaraderie, based on mutual geekiness and constant ribbing, reminded me of my relationship with my friends at that age. Comic shops, sexual frustration, continual teasing of one another, not belonging to any of the teen tribes - all evoked lightly and wittily. Even if the film has little use for this side of its character, its brilliantly done while it lasts, before the costumes and the fight scenes come out.


(Paul McGuigan, 2009)

Notable elements of Push:
- A likeable performance from Chris Evans as telekinetic Nick Gant, wasting his powers as a hustler in Hong Kong after the opening flashback reveals his tragic back-story (similarly telekinetic father killed by Government goons the Division). Evans is effortlessly sympathetic and amusing when he needs to be, and he makes a frustrating character that much more tolerable.
- Hong Kong itself, all buzzing energy in the streets and markets, nimbly captured by McGuigan's camera.
- The world of this film is like a mini Marvel or DC universe, but here it tries to establish that universe and its rules within the boundaries of a single two hour film, making it overstuffed and hard to follow.
- There are some imaginative treatments of super-powers and their potential uses; Cliff Curtis uses his power of suggestion to live a continual party lifestyle, for instance, rather than trying to save or conquer the world.
- The final set-piece is set in the skeleton of a half-completed skyscraper (cliche), involves two telekinetics throwing power-assisted punches at one another while Chinese gangsters die in their dozens around them, and still manages to be tremendously dull.
- An under-developed, unconvincing, half-arsed romance between Evans and Belle, which takes attention away from the far more interesting friendship between Evans and Dakota Fanning's clairvoyant.
- McGuigan directs with a good feel for place and tone and an efficient handle on action scenes.
-Djimon Hounsou has entirely the wrong sort of presence for the role of Big Bad in a film like this, and that severely weakens the balance here.

Thursday 17 December 2015


(John Crowley, 2015)

To this particular Irish emigre, Brooklyn seems so Irish in a multitude of ways; in its mixture of repression and melancholy, its often hysterical humour, its gentle beauty and, perhaps most of all, in its surging undertow of strong emotion.
It tells the defining Irish story of the 20th century: the story of a young person emigrating to America. Eilish (Saoirse Ronan, as brilliant here as ever, and making a serious play for the undisputed title of finest actress of her generation) has little future n Enniscorthy, Wexford, and so she leaves her sister and mother behind for a new life. In Brooklyn she lives in a boarding house for single Irish girls, policed by fearsome, hilarious landlady Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters, brilliant) and spends her days working in a department store. At first her loneliness and homesickness are cripplingly painful, but eventually the kindly priest who arranged her emigration (Jim Broadbent, joint the Tom Cruise school of awful Irish accents but otherwise beautifully gentle) sets her up with night school classes in book-keeping and she meets a kind, sweet young Italian boy, Tony (Emory Cohen) at a dance. But sudden tragedy at home means she has to return, and while there she realises her prospects have changed, and Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson) challenges Tony's place in hr affections.
Nick Hornby's script is a sensitive, nuanced adaptation of Colm Toibin's novel, and Crowley's direction of it is exquisitely measured and careful. He isolates Eilish in frames in her early days in Brooklyn, small, pale and mouselike amidst the colour and bustle and brashness of America. Ronan understands this and she plays Eilish's slow flowering with lovely subtlety; it's in her body language, in her sudden readiness to smile. The visuals also depict the difference between the starkness of Ireland and the busy New World adeptly; the colours in Ireland are pale, chilly, catholic. America seems warm and bursting with life.
All of this only amplifies the quandary that becomes the emotional crux of the film: Eilish and her choice of men and futures. She is smarter and more sensitive than lovely Tony, but he represents a new start, away from the gossip and small-mindedness of Enniscorthy. Jim - played by Gleeson as a quiet, watchful man - is perhaps better-suited to her, but he has the baggage of her past in his wake.
the film allows both of them to be sympathetic, and the draw of home and her mother only makes the decision harder for Eilish and the audience. Michael Brook's beautiful score really earns its money in that last act, as that surge of emotion kicks in.
Its perhaps a shame that it takes so long for stakes to raise to that level, as early on things tend to drag somewhat, but this is generally a lovely, little film, and what it does, it does very well.

Sunday 13 December 2015


(Peter Sohn, 2015)

The Good Dinosaur plays almost like the Pixar equivalent of a b-movie. That is to say it is made with all the care and craft lavished on each Pixar film, but it feels like more of a genre piece than most. It is an adventure film for 6-year olds, basically a quest Western with dinosaurs following young Arlo as he seeks to find his way back home to his (Apatosaurus) family ranch after  being swept away in the nearby river. Along the way he encounters various oddball characters in the wilderness, including a family of T-Rexs led by Sam Elliott who ranch buffalo, some cultish hyena-like Pterodactyls (led by Steve Zahn) and a human boy who he names Spot. They bond as they go, of course. For a Pixar film, this is surprisingly light on gags. Instead, it focuses on visual spectacle, and a couple of scenes of appealing oddness - the "trip" sequence is something I never thought I'd see in a children's film. The action scenes are intense and exciting, with nature itself as the big bad. It is classy, beautiful, and it works.

Saturday 12 December 2015


(Steven Spielberg, 2015)

Whether you love or hate Steven Spielberg, it is impossible to deny his talent as a visual storyteller. The talky dramas which are scattered throughout his later career (Lincoln being the most recent example) are chiefly interesting for the ways in which he tries to keep them visually exciting. Sometimes it can feel as if he is struggling against his material rather than attempting to adapt it.
That is not the case with Bridge of Spies, which feels like a large-scale '60s prestige drama, all big themes and important moments. Spielberg treats it that way, shooting it with a respect for classicism which is pleasing and which works.
The script - written by Joel & Ethan Coen, whose presence is evident in a few repeated phrases, alongside Matt Charman - is a little disjointed in its transition from the USA to East Berlin and different phases of the story crank into place without any elegance of subtlety (never a Spielberg strength, to be fair).
Tom Hanks does his honest, intelligent thing as Jim Donovan, a Brooklyn Lawyer chosen to defend Soviet Spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) when the Government, his family and an angry public all just want it to be done and dusted. But Jim takes this duty seriously  and makes the trial a problem, securing life imprisonment for Abel when execution looked likely. This means that a few months later, when the Soviets capture SpyPlane pilot Francis Gary Powers, Jim is the man chosen to travel to East Berlin - as the Wall is being constructed - and negotiate an exchange.
Much of the action, then, revolves around men (invariably) engaged in important conversations in various rooms. Spielberg focuses on keeping it handsome, coherent and well-performed, all of which it is. When the screenplay gives him a chance to cut loose, he takes it: making Powers' shooting down a short, frightening vignette, and showing the capture of US student Frederic Pryor on the very day the wall is erected. His feel for place and atmosphere is still precise and nuanced, for all that he puts a Hollywood sheen on every shot and moment. At this point in his career, Spielberg's strengths are his weaknesses, and that storytelling ability sometimes seems too smooth and too easy ( a late shot of children climbing a Brooklyn fence chiming with an earlier shot of people scaling the Berlin Wall is a groan-inducing moment).
The cast help keep the many expository scenes flow painlessly. Rylance is especially superb, making Abel goo-humoured and melancholy; inimitably human.
Classy grown-up Hollywood entertainment, then, and I would expect no less of Spielberg.

Monday 7 December 2015


(Yorgios Lanthimos, 2015)

There are some brilliant ideas and moments here. The central conceit is the kind of thing that shows how imaginatively conservative so much cinema is: it imagines a world where single people are sent to a hotel in order to pair off within 45 days. If they do not, they are transformed into the animal of their choosing. Some evenings, they head off to a local forest to hunt "loners", rogue singles who have forsworn relationships and live off the land. David (Colin Farrell), recently abandoned by his wife for another man, arrives at the hotel with his brother in the form of a dog, and befriends a man with a limp (Ben Wishaw) and a man with a lisp (John C Reilly), while eluding the affections of a desperate woman (Ashley Jensen). Halfway through the action shifts to the forest as David joins the loners. Here, and against the rules, he falls for a woman who is short-sighted, like him (Rachel Weisz), but if the leader (Leá Seydoux) finds out, they will be in danger.
This is all told in a series of deadpan scenes with flat, affectless delivery of dialogue, Lanthimos' coldly controlled style, and a severe score of several pieces for string quartet sawing away in the background.
While there are some moments of brilliant comedy, much of the success of the material is down to the cast. Farrell and Wishaw do extremely well at halting and awkward loneliness, while Olivia Coleman is another standout as the matter-of-fact hotel manager. Weisz's voiceover is played for some big laughs too, but the story takes a strange turn towards the climax and becomes surprisingly moving.
The allegory at the heart of the story is a little too broad and vague to sustain an entire narrative, even if sometimes it becomes more precise and pleasingly cynical. There are shots here at online dating logarithms, tinder and our cultural acceptance of couples over singles which are often provocative, but much of it is too scattershot to have much of an effect, for all that it is still witty and accessible.It occasionally hints at making more profound statements about human attraction and repulsion - why we need other people and what it does to us - but never quite commits to that.