Friday 26 February 2016


(John Hillcoat, 2016)

A Cops and Robbers movie!
Hillcoat gathers a really impressive cast here, and embeds them in a world thick with macho atmosphere and sticky Atlanta, Georgia authenticity. Matt Cook's screenplay was on the Black List a few years ago, and it's easy to see why: it's full of great pulp characters and moments, and ripe for muscular action treatment. Hillcoat delivers in that department, opening the film with a heist carried out by Michael Belmont (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Russell Welch (Norman Reedus), two ex-military contractors now working for hire for the Russian Mob in the sinister form of Kate Winslet's cold gang boss. Russell and Michael enlist Russell's junkie ex-cop brother (Aaron Paul in another loser role) and he in turn calls in dirty cops Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr) for the heist on a downtown bank, focused on recovering a single safety deposit box. The heist goes wrong and attracts the attention of burned out detective Allen (Woody Harrelson). Meanwhile, the gang have to perform another job, and the decision is made to kill a cop as a massive distraction - the police band code for this is a 999 - and the chosen victim is Chris (Casey Affleck), an Iraq-war veteran and nephew of Allen, recently transferred from a cushy suburb to the gangs unit, where he and Marcus make for uneasy partners.
Along the way, Hillcoat throws in an extended police raid on a projects gang den, the second heist and a handful of tense confrontations in great urban neo-noir locations. He plays with colour and composition. Lost of reds, lots of reflections, visually portraying the bloodiness and duplicity of this world.
The whole thing is more or less ludicrously macho, all shape charges and assault rifles, but the characters are surprisingly rich and convincing for a world as pulpy as the one, and the excellent cast (Ejiofor, Affleck and Winslet in particular) make it extremely compelling.
It's grim - but then isn't every Hillcoat film - but always entertaining.

Saturday 20 February 2016


(Stephen Fingleton, 2015)

The Survivalist aims to depict a post-apocalyptic world without any of the iconography or mythology of the Road Warrior school of post-apocalyptic action. It focuses on one man living alone on a tiny farm hidden in Northern Irish woodland. When we first encounter him he is disposing of the corpse of an intruder, and we sense this is not the first time. He tends to his crops, sleeps, eats, masturbates. He is twitchy and paranoid about more intruders, and as we learn, he is right to be. This is - as it always is after an apocalypse in fiction - a world of Darwinian principles. Only the very strongest survive. Two women arrive. Mother and daughter, they say. They want food, perhaps a nights shelter. They trade sex with the younger woman for both. Meanwhile they plot to take the man's gun and his home away from him.
Fingleton carefully observes the shifting dynamics between these three people. The watchful, cunning older woman. The man's wariness soften as he develops feelings for the girl. The girl realise who she may be better off siding with. Eventually, other intruders come. They are armed. Loyalties are tested, realities faced. There is little dialogue, no non-diagetic music. We hear the characters breathe, the wind in the trees. We watch their eyes watch one another.
The space is precisely mapped out by Fingleton, the arena of the shed the three share, the clearing where the man confronts an intruder, the stream nearby. The pacing is deliberate, controlled. This is a slow world. No need to rush it. It acquires a mesmeric quality.
Martin McCann is excellent as the man, so stoic that any flicker of feeling in his eyes has a seismic effect. Mia Goth is just as mysterious as the young woman, while Olwen Fouere seems to have stepped from some medieval myth; wise and frightening, she possesses an unforgettable face.
This is tense, beautiful, though-provoking. Its quality makes a virtue of a small budget and modest ambition.

Tuesday 16 February 2016


(Brad Peyton, 2015)

As a fully-fledged disaster movie made in the era where cgi makes more or less anything possible in cinema, San Andreas seems to take much of its narrative dynamic from gaming.
The dull family dynamics and relationships come from the disaster movies of yore alright - Dwayne Johnson's Rescue Helicopter Pilot is forced to search for his daughter (Alexandra Daddario) with the wife (Carla Gugino) he lost as a result of his inability to deal with the death of another daughter some years before, just as a series of massive quakes rocks California, largely destroying Los Angeles and San Francisco. Daddario is trying to escape the city with a couple of British brothers, injecting a cynical note of teen romance into the story.
Meanwhile, the Seismologist (Paul Giamatti) who has been predicting the Quake is stuck in his CalTech lab, trying to get the word out about the coming disaster through a reporter (Archie Panjabi).
But the way the set-pieces are put together feels like it has come from a computer game. Each scene features a series of ridiculous escalations. Johnson can't just save Gugino from a rooftop L.A. restaurant. The roof has to have collapsed. Flame has to explode through piles of the rubble. A nearby skyscraper has to collapse. A dust cloud must shoot up, almost enveloping them. The flight out must be around a series of skyscrapers, wobbling and shedding concrete like trees shed leaves in autumn.
A later escape out of the San Francisco bay over the oncoming tsunami can't just be as simple and dramatic as just an enormous tsunami. No. It has to involve a cargo liner appearing directly in their path atop that tsunami at just the wrong moment. Escaping the liner can't be enough. Metal shipping containers have to start toppling off the liner all around their tiny boat.
And so on.
Johnson and Gugino are fine - though they say "Oh my God" an awful lot - but it is overlong, under-dramatic and never all that interesting.


(Stephen Frears, 2015)

The first act here strikes an odd balance. It portrays Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster)
as a sympathetic protagonist, forced into doping because if he wanted to win, well then that was the only way. Everybody else was doing it, so why shouldn’t he? Especially when he has had to fight off cancer, a time in his life depicted as an awful battle  in grim, shadowed hospital rooms.
Lance’s return sees him convinced that doping is the only way, and he embraces the work of his Doctor Michele Ferarri (Guillaume Canet) and is rewarded with seven consecutive tour de France victories.
He is friend to Presidents and celebrities, adored for his charity which raises millions for cancer research, happily married with children, and one of the greatest athletes on Earth.
Only David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) is disgusted. If everybody can see there is something wrong within cycling, then everybody is happy to stay silent. But Walsh cannot. He rants and asks questions, and it is then, when he is backed into a corner, that we see another side of Lance. He bullies, threatens, sues. He uses cancer and his charity as a shield. He gets away with it. Until he doesn’t anymore.
The procedural aspects of this story are its most interesting element.
How Armstrong and his team doped, how he escaped detection for so long. But director Frears and screenwriter John Hodge want this to be something of a character study, and that is where the film comes somewhat unstuck.

Armstrong loves winning, loves a battle. But that doesn’t explain him, explain his controlling aggression, explain the way he destroys those who oppose him. Ben Foster does his best, but when his Armstrong looks into a mirror he seems like an empty puppet. These filmmakers don’t understand this man. And that leaves the film curiously hollow.


(Sean Mewshaw, 2015)

So say Bon Iver had died after that one (good) record. Or say Elliott Smith had only made that early acoustic record. And then died, leaving a small body of work and a wife (Rebecca Hall, good as ever) behind to guard his legacy. And she’s trying to write a book about him but shes too close and too involved and still mourning, and she can’t do him justice, alone as she is in her rural house with the ghosts of their life together and his home-made recording studio. Then this New York intellectual professor of pop culture (Jason Sudekis) shows up, writing some arty-farty tenure application academic book, and they hate one another straight away, but she relents and asks him to write the biography for her. And he agrees, eager for a scoop and needing the money, and moves in, and of course, of course, slowly, but not too slowly, they fall for one another.
Only there’s still the ghost of that dead, seemingly perfect genius singer-songwriter, and he has his theories and her memories and the oddball eccentrics of her small town life, including her family and his life in New York, and so so many hurdles before they can be together.
Oh and it’s a gentle comedy-drama. Most of the drama coming from his one-liner responses to those small-town eccentricities and her withering contempt for his big city ways. Most of the drama from her continued grief for her dead soul mate.
The leads are appealing and believable and they make a cute couple. It’s nice. Agreeable. You could watch it on a plane. The songs – by Damien Jurado – are pretty.


(Tim Miller, 2016)

Odd how many superhero movies forget to be fun. They’re so busy being important and earth-shattering and awesome that they forget the central joy of the genre; it is fun. Well, not Deadpool. Deadpool strains every sinew in order to keep the audience entertained throughout. Generally that’s through humour, with a string of groan-inducing gags and one-liners mixed into all the slapstick and pop-culture references. And of course the post-modern fourth wall breaking, a long-time feature of the character’s comic book appearances. This Deadpool, played charmingly by Ryan Reynolds, knows he is in a superhero movie, stops to talk to the audience, acknowledges genre conventions and alludes to budgetary constraints and Reynolds’ own checkered career.  Some of this works really well (the audience I saw Deadpool with audibly enjoyed the movie more than any movie I have seen in a long time) and sometimes it doesn’t. The plot is a slight thing, mostly told in mid-fight scene flashback by Deadpool himself, aka Wade Wilson, a mercenary who has just fallen in love with his prostitute soulmate Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) when he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Desperate, he volunteers for experimental procedure controlled by Ajax (Ed Skrein) and Angel Dust (Gina Carano), bestowed with the ability to feel no pain and super strength respectively.
This procedure will activate his latent mutant gene, but only after a series of grisly tortures. In the aftermath, Wilson is hideously ugly but also virtually unkillable, with a Wolverine-style healing factor to add to his pre-existing skill with gun and sword. He also has a score to settle with Ajax, which he does by killing his way through a series of underlings.
Set in a corner of the X-Men universe (but also featuring a big visual wink to the Marvel Universe), Deadpool also brings in Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, if only to allow its hero to poke fun at their team and attitudes. But then this is a character who works best when he has somebody to talk to and bounce off, and his scenes with them are among the best in the film.
The action scenes are fine and there are a lot of them, and if the script is frequently crude, a little too broad and unfunny, well Reynolds has the comic chops and timing to sell it anyway. Crucially it nails a tone. It doesn’t quite feel like any other film in the superhero genre, certainly not like any of the films which have parodied the genre in the past. Its violence and post-modern sensibility make it a different beast, as does its surprisingly sincere love story and seedy little setting.
Oh yeah: and it’s fun.

Monday 8 February 2016


(Ana Boden, Ryan Fleck, 2016)

Boden and Fleck are such careful filmmakers, it tends to make their films play at an odd remove. Here they take this scruffy little genre hybrid - two gamblers meet cute, bond, and set off on a road trip to earn some more money, all the while watching their own relationship change and twist with each revelation and decision - and make of it a scrupulously middling indie movie, distinguished mainly by excellent performances by Ryan Reynolds and (especially) Ben Mendelsohn as the gamblers.
They are intelligent directors, and Mississippi Grind pays the right kind of attention to setting and location, so that the film feels thick with place. But even that feels careful, a little by the numbers; there are nicely weighted shots of locations in each town, as if programmed by a computer versed in filmmaking 101. A late reveal of the identity, occupation and character of Reynolds' mother should be crushing, but it feels cynical. The final splurge is refreshing in its outcome, but feels oddly like a coda, after Mendelsohn has earlier shown his truest colours with lies and risks taken to support his gambling habit.
But those performances are worth it; Reynolds showing a melancholy and darkness behind his charm, Mendelsohn all last-chance desperation and blown-out self-awareness. They have genuine chemistry, too. And if overall it never lives up to Altman's California Split, well: what does? More of a problem is how a movie like John Dahl's Rounders feels more alive and full of characters.