Paris Blues (1961)

paris blues

★★★½

Martin Ritt’s second outing as director – an adaptation of the 1957 novel by Harold Flender – immerses us in the company of two expatriate American jazz musicians enjoying the liberal, bohemian freedoms of Paris in the pursuit of their artistic endeavours.

Mildly renowned trombone virtuoso Ram Bowen (Paul Newman) has an open relationship with Marie, the owner\proprietor of the jazz club for which he is the star attraction alongside his saxophone playing,  musical wingman Eddie Cooke (Sidney Poitier). These free and easy-living musos bump into two young American women on vacation in Paris – Lillian Corning (Joanne Woodward) and Connie Lampson (Diahann Carroll) – and strike up amorous relations which threaten their cosy Francophile existence.

As the couples pair up – sadly along racial boundary lines, after an initial tease at courageously tackling a screen portrayal of inter-racial love affairs – and their relationships progress, Ritt’s film becomes an oppositional comparison piece between the artistic and racial freedoms of the Parisian lifestyle and  the cloistered, sequestered, bigoted existence of the U.S.A which the men feel they have escaped.

The Newman\Woodward strand explores the tensions between the glories of romantic love and the freedom of artistic creation while the Poitier\Carroll strand – sadly sidelined for much of the picture – interrogates the black American experience and becomes almost a confrontational dialogue on differing ways to deal with the bigotry, racism and persecution suffered on a daily basis.

All this is set to a brilliant jazz score courtesy of Duke Ellington and enlivened by a cracking supporting performance by Louis Armstrong as jazz phenom Wild Man Moore. Indeed, the film really comes to life when revelling in the glories of the Parisian cityscape – Ritt’s establishing skyline panning shot of the city which gradually tracks down into the narrow streets to find the jazz club at the heart of the tale – and in the sheer improvisational joy of jazz music. A scene where Wild Man makes a surprise appearance at Marie’s, leading to what can only be described as a full on jazz duel is the joyous, rousing highlight of the picture – unifying everyone through the power of great music.

Of these three distinct yet interwoven narrative threads – Ram and Lillian, Eddie and Connie, the free-flowing nature of the Parisian jazz scene – it is the arc of Ram and Lillian’s relationship which falls curiously flat. This is no fault of the actors – unsurprisingly Woodward and Newman have fantastic chemistry together – but their story is painfully predictable and therefore slightly dull.

Ram’s struggles to reconcile his feelings for Lillian with his desire to create a meaningful composition and make it as a “true artist” – the conflict between notions of American domesticity and Parisian self-expression – never have the tension that they require. Even some faintly ridiculous flip-flopping late on never really plants the seeds of doubt as to the outcome of their fling and this undoes some of the good work done in the characterisation of Lillian as a sexually liberated, modern woman with a degree of agency rarely to be found in such parts.

The more interesting of the two strands is the one which is underplayed and downsized. From being the beating heart of Flender’s novel, the dissection of the black experience becomes a mere sideshow to the travails of the white couple and this rankles slightly. Eddie has escaped from the restrictive confines of the USA and is enjoying the liberty he feels in a Europe which treats him no differently than Ram. The socially conscious Connie sees this not as victory but as abandonment – running away from a problem which doesn’t cease to exist just because you choose to ignore it.

The ebb and flow of their relationship is controlled by this massive question of how best to assert their black identity and carve out the normal life that they want and deserve. Eddie favours living in Paris away from the issues while Connie wants to go back to the States and face the issue head on, pursuing real change through brave action. This is both genuinely affecting – Poitier is angry, confident and sexy while Carroll is impassioned, forthright and led by her inbuilt political compass – and thematically brave and interesting territory. These scenes have a compelling, bristling, intellectual energy which can’t be matched by the moping machinations of Newman’s dithering trombonist with a chip on his shoulder.

As a vivid exploration of after-hours Paris and the convivial, creative atmosphere of the jazz scene it is potent and the relationships which it chooses to examine through this lens are believable, beautifully performed and pose some interesting questions. Yet, the most interesting stuff is relegated to a secondary level and the main narrative is a little too predictable to fully engage with. The four leads work brilliantly together on-screen and each couple imbues their relationships with strength and real emotion – helped by the wonderful cinematography, score and direction – but something is missing which prevents it being a true success.

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The Lunchbox (2013)

the lunchbox

★★★★

Mumbai’s famed lunchbox delivery system is the hook on which this romantic dramedy hangs as Irrfan Khan’s lonely, widowed office worker Saajan – closing in on an uncertain future in retirement – and Nimrat Kaur’s disaffected housewife Ila strike up a strange, epistolary bond. Mistakes are made in the operation of the usually blemish free food transportation system and Saajan starts receiving the loving, lunch-time meals Ila has cooked in an attempt to rekindle the spark in her relationship with her distant, uncommunicative husband Rajeev.

Being an Indian film you might expect this to be a riotous cacophony of colour and song with the wonderful dishes which Ila concocts with the help of her amusing, invisible Auntie’s help, being rendered in the manner of food porn and causing kaleidoscopic , transporting paroxysms of delight when they hit Saafjan’s taste buds.

Writer\Director Ritesh Batra takes a much braver, more interesting and disarmingly low-key approach to the possibilities inherent in the breezy premise. In so doing he creates a work which will surely resonate with everyone who feels a sense of loneliness in their day to day life, who feels lost in a huge city – surrounded by people but with no real human connections – or finds that those connections which once were full of meaning and warmth have become chilled to the point of extinction.

It is in this wholly unexpected, surprisingly verite approach to the travails of living in a vast and swiftly growing conurbation of over 22 million people that the film finds its connection to a wider audience. Batra films Mumbai as an overpopulated, leaden, grey mass of traffic, trains and chaotic crowds. People are either crammed together on the commute to work, silently completing that work – in solitude –  at their spartan desks or like Ila are trapped at home attempting to find creative ways to cement the human connections which everyone needs but can sometimes be so hard to find.

This odd duality of loneliness seems to be the thing which Batra wishes to explore in his film – the strange notion that one of the fastest growing cities on the planet can also be one of the loneliest places to eke out an existence – whether as a corporate drone heading to the office every day or as the forgotten, un-appreciated housewife and mother.

As the relationships within the narrative begin to become more interlinked and complex, Batra also manages to explore the all too human sensations of fear and trepidation which come with burgeoning relationships – the possibility of emotional pain which opening yourself up could lead to and the fear of a change to your situation even if that change is something , consciously or sub-consciously, yearned for.

This makes the film seem somewhat downbeat but it isn’t really – it just manages to be as honest and empathetic a portrait of the problems implicit in navigating through life in a modern, urban environment as you are likely to see. It manages to realistically and beautifully portray the minutiae of the ordinary day to day existence of lonely people and to powerfully explore the isolation which being a solitary individual in a very large city can bring, by slowly showing human nature and the desire to connect coming to the fore.

This is done most obviously by the friendship – with romantic undertones – which begins to develop between the two principals as they utilise the odd mistake made by the delivery service to grab hold of that possibility of a real human connection. It also finds expression in the changing feelings Saajan has towards his slightly irritating and intense co-worker Shaikh, who he is tasked with training to take over his job once he retires. A relationship which begins with distrust actually opens his eyes to the possibilities which still exist for him in his life. These relationships are handled with a very subtle yet sparkly humour which permeates the piece and prevents it from being too downbeat or depressing.

Ultimately – though the outcome of the narrative may be tinged with ambiguity by the time the credits roll – everyone involved has found something which they had thought lost and connected with others in ways they thought impossible and it is this deep-seated belief in the power of humans to impact positively on each others lives which is the real driving force behind Batra’s wonderful film.

 

 

 

 

Little Dorrit (1987)

Little-dorrit-(1988).jpg

★★★

A six hour long adaptation (originally released in two parts) of one of Charles Dickens’ more worthy and serious late novels may not be for everyone (or indeed most) and Christine Edzard’s adaptation feels every second of the mammoth run time.

It is classic board-creaking thespianism of the most traditional order with staid, static camerawork coupled with often-times incomprehensible sound design – every crowd scene feels like you are in the midst of an impossible cacophony of chaotic noise,  attempting futilely to isolate and understand the important dialogue.

It also completely lacks dramatic tension of any sort as the central narrative isn’t particularly well defined within the typical morass of Dickensian detail and many of the same plot points are covered twice – in the first part from the perspective of Derek Jacobi’s Arthur Clennam and in the second from the viewpoint of the eponymous Dorrit daughter herself (Sarah Pickering in her only credited role).

And yet the whole still has a strangely hypnotic quality which kept me going through that epic run time even when I didn’t feel particularly engaged with anyone or their stories- and yet even that comes with a pretty hefty caveat.

As it is masquerading on Netflix as a mini-series in two parts, I must admit to having divided that up even further into 6 standard hour long chunks and consumed it as I would a TV show – had I attempted to watch it in its two component parts the chances of my having completed it would have been markedly slimmer. The slow, still pace of the adaptation is a little unsettling and difficult, to say the least, for a modern audience to handle especially when set against something truly innovative in its retelling such as the BBC’s 2005 adaptation of Bleak House.

It is in the performances that the joy of the film lies – the directorial style which is responsible for many of the technical faults which perhaps create barriers to engagement is, curiously, also responsible for this. Those long static shots mean that – much like on stage – there is absolutely nowhere for an actor to hide from the gaze of the audience. It enables the performers to really inhabit the characters.

Alec Guinness (picking up a Best Supporting Actor nomination) portrays a pathetic dignity as the “Father of the Marshalsea” attempting to retain a sense of dignity and preserve the rule of etiquette even in tragically straitened circumstances. Likewise, Jacobi is eminently likeable as Arthur Clennam – systematically downtrodden, in life and love, yet the most well meaning soul in London. Joan Greenwood positively fumes with righteous spirit and indignation as his bitter mother – running the family trading empire from the upstairs room she is confined to by her weak legs – while Roshan Seth brilliantly conjures Mr Panks as a fizzing firework of a man fuelled by nerves whose brain runs to countless ideas at once and is almost a being of pure energy.

As a whole, the enterprise might be a difficult one to embark on and certainly the rules of tension and suspense are thrown to the four winds but the stillness of the approach pays dividends in terms of characterisation and interaction. Obviously made on a very small budget, this still has to be deemed a success even if a modern audience will struggle with the languid pace and lengthy takes.

Nightcrawler (2014)

nightcrawler

★★★★

Intensity is the watchword for Dan Gilroy’s smoothly shot media satire cum dark moral fable, flecked with neo-noir strands and a delicious eye for the grotesque occurrences of the LA night.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s central performance as sociopathic would be entrepreneur\small time metal thief Louis Bloom – finding hitherto unknown skills as a “journalist” hawking bloody, visceral footage of tragic events round the LA news desks – bristles with manic energy, unshakeable belief and single-minded, dark intent.

The film is many things. It is a satire on the consumption and production of grotesque images for news outlets which lays the blame for the hyper-realised problems of Gilroy’s screenplay – only a few steps away from our reality – with everyone who consumes these macabre images alongside their breakfast cereal.

It is also a complex dive into the manifestation of a particular kind of sociopathy interlinked with the murky American Dream itself as Louis finds himself moving from image recorder to image creator – from journalist to full blown narrative storyteller, moving the chess pieces around the board.

The immorality of the capitalist search for lucre and fame at all costs is laid bare in a performance which teeters on the very brink for much of the film. It is due to the sheer intensity and belief of Gyllenhaal as an actor and the uncompromising, full-throated nature of Gilroy’s script that it never quite loses its balance – even if it threatens to now and again.

There is even time for that rarity in Hollywood these days – a well written role for an older woman.

Rene Russo’s performance as Nina, Louis’s news-desk contact explores some interesting, pertinent and timely issues around the treatment of women in the media, what constitutes success in the world of televisual journalism and provides a slightly distorted, feminine mirror-image which helps to further flesh out the issues explored through Bloom himself. She finds herself preyed on –  in many ways –  by the men around her yet she is not without power of her own with which to counter the sexism and misogyny she suffers, overwhelmed though she may seem.

Their evolving relationship in all its murky, bleak, degrading reality finds itself subtly shifting throughout the course of the narrative as they come to rely on each other – certainly not as one-sidedly as Bloom seems to think.

Any criticism really centres around the slightly underwritten nature of Riz Ahmed’s character who exists purely to explore the manipulation of the general worker by the sociopathic corporate boss, brutally unflinching in his desire to get as much output from him for as little monetary reward as possible and with absolutely no cares about his personal wellbeing.

Ultimately, Gilroy’s sure-footed exploration of the LA nightscape is thrilling – with a car chase better than you’ll see in most all-out action movies – a superbly committed, frankly frighteningly intense lead performance and an interesting message about media responsibility wrapped up in the modern consumption of violent images under the illusionary guise of serious “journalism”.

Captain Fantastic (2016)

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★★★★

Viggo Mortensen’s Ben must lead his wild-living, capitalism-hating tribe of wilderness schooled children out into the big bad world as they face up to the harsh realities of existence outwith the “Neverland” style confines of their bucolic existence in the wilds of the Pacific North West.

Except, that is only half the story. Although the happy idyll of their woodland existence is shot beautifully – taking an arboreal landscape which was made so forbidding and foreboding by David Lynch in the recent Twin Peaks series and turning it into a shining, bejewelled icon of natural serenity – there appears to be a Conradian Heart of Darkness (or at least unease) which is being subtly suppressed or even wilfully ignored.

Viggo manages to portray an intense and conflicting character who raises myriad competing emotions all at the same time in his portrayal of family patriarch Ben. He obviously loves his children yet is unutterably harsh with them – using the life and death nature of their borderline existence as his own reasoning for some behaviour which leaps beyond the unreasonable at times.

His slavish devotion to a particular alternative Marxist creed creates a barrier which his children cannot get past – especially as they start to have deep-seated needs, wants and desires of their own which are incompatible with the solitary existence they have hitherto led. And yet, binding everything together is the sheer power and love of the bond which ties him and the children together – a bond forged in nature and through music, literature, and intelligent discourse.

This is probed most deeply through his relationship with eldest son Bodevan and there is a feeling that perhaps a trick is missed by following the stereotypical tension of the father and son dynamic rather than focusing on Ben’s relationship with any of his daughters.

Certainly, that criticism is valid and yet the two eldest daughters Kielyr and Vesper are present at the heart of the narrative. While they don’t have the central arc of parental conflict and romantic longing their brother does they form the most important barometer of family unity and also provide the impetus for Ben to make arguably his most important decision of the film.

Matt Ross, taking on both writing and directing duties, manages to deftly weave moments of light and dark, sentimentality and anger, humour and tragedy throughout his anti-corporate fable which exists as a paen to counter-cultural living and free spirits but doesn’t shy away from the problems – lack of medical support, underdeveloped social skills, feelings of trapped isolation –  which this anti-societal approach to life can have.

The only place where it comes unstuck is when it builds corporate capitalist, personification of the establishment,  father in law Jack as this film’s equivalent of the big bad – creating a character which even Langella, talented performer though he is, struggles to flesh out and bring to real three dimensional existence.

As a prime driver behind the early narrative, he assumes a position of importance as the antagonist – questioning the way his son in law leads his life but then mysteriously disappearing completely from the tale at a moment where one assumes he would burst into vitriolic fervour and decisive action. It creates a strange emptiness and unreality to a film which has worked pretty hard to balance the central story with some hard nosed realism.

You get the feeling that once the ending had become lodged in Ross’s brain he simply decided to disengage from any previous elements that made it, beautiful as it is,  slightly problematic – which feels like a little bit of an unnecessary cheat.

That this failing actually doesn’t matter too much in the scheme of things tells you a lot about where the heart of the film lies and where the emotional core of the story resides. The message at the end seems to me to be that the world has to be engaged with now and again and that allowing your children the space for  exploration – geographical, physical and psychological – is an incredibly important facet of parenthood.

Ross’s film, bar the issues highlighted with the screenplay, manages to be funny and emotional while never dodging the difficult questions which the story meets with and ends up as a rewarding and  (mostly) joyous experience.

The Blues Brothers (1980)

the blues

★★★★½

There are some movies that are just fun – a concept that Hollywood seems to have thrown to the wayside for the moment – and The Blues Brothers is a riotous confection from first to last frame.

What you get is a strange, intoxicating, heady brew of zany Saturday Night Live comedy skits, soulful, bluesy tributes to the power of music, a plethora of insanely brilliant superstar cameos and the sensibilities of an adrenaline fuelled, stunt filled chase movie.

John Landis weaves together all these elements brilliantly while keeping Dan Aykroyd and the late, lamented John Belushi front and centre – exactly where they belong – playing Jake and Elwood with exquisite comic timing and a crazed belief in the power of that singular mission from God that they are on.

Aykroyd’s laid-back deadpan Canadian delivery and wonderful bandy-legged dance moves coupled with the sheer manic intensity of Belushi (at its finest when volubly begging for his life in a dark tunnel) create a brilliant double act which is undoubtedly the engine powering this absurd, property-wrecking narrative towards completion.

Episodic by its very nature this doesn’t really hamper it as the episodes are utterly brilliant, especially the mid section when the members of that band they are getting back together start to fall into place and the scene is set for some of the greatest singers and musicians in history to strut their stuff. Indeed, the fact that the whole enterprise is held together by the thinnest of premises helps it to retain the manic energy which would be sacrificed were there to be a more complex narrative through line to follow.

As it is the madcap kinetic energy never ceases – no mean feat in a 132 minute long movie – propelling that beaten up old Dodge over the finish line in a maelstrom of chaotic laughter, mangled metal, shattered glass and soulful tunes which stands the test of time.

84 Charing Cross Road (1987)

84

★★★

Filming epistolary novels – or in this case writer Helene Hanff’s memoirs of her correspondence with the London Bookseller Marks and Co., personified by Anthony Hopkins’ Frank Doel – is a decidedly difficult thing to do.

There is only so much that any artist or technician – regardless of how capable they are – can do to enliven and make cinematic a lady sitting at a typewriter composing or a middle aged gent dictating his missives to a secretarial amanuensis.

Indeed, the major device which is used to attempt to break free of the constraints of the epistolary form fails pretty horribly – the fourth wall breaking shenanigans where Bancroft theatrically swivels towards the camera with the pretence of speaking directly to Frank set my teeth on edge every single time.

That 84 Charing Cross Road succeeds, to a degree, despite this problem is testament to the strength of the strange Trans-Atlantic friendship which blossoms between Bancroft’s struggling New York writer and the employees of a slightly staid, stuffy second hand bookshop in post-Blitz London.

The chalk and cheese characters of the voluble, emotional, sardonic, quintessential New Yorker (albeit born in Philadelphia) and the quiet, controlled, professional, emotionally repressed English bookseller create an interesting dynamic tension – mining the differences between their chaotic and slightly staid lifestyles.

Bancroft is quite likeable when she reins the performance in a bit and Hopkins is playing the emotionally repressed, stiff upper lipped hero who, in different variations, has provided – to my mind – his finest screen roles.

At times, the film packs a real emotional punch – the sending of a volume of Elizabethan love poetry, the arrival of Danish food hampers laden with luxuries which enliven dull, rationed palates and the receipt of a particularly tragic piece of correspondence- finding an emotional register in these isolated moments that it can’t quite hit often enough.

Partly, that is due to the distinctness of the two elements of the film. Two seperate crews shot the New York and London sequences and there are moments where it feels like two barely connected narratives trundling nicely along side by side but not really interacting in a meaningful way as often as they might.

Still, for all of its failings as a film, it remains a somewhat beguiling look at the power of art to bring people together – a commercial, capitalist relationship becomes something much more meaningful to both parties over the course of the narrative.

Literature transcends the financial interaction which originally links the protagonists, leading to meaningful human interaction which belies the distance and cultural differences between them.

But for a particularly annoying stylistic tic, the slightly irritating elliptical framework and too much of a marked division between the narratives it could have been wonderful.

As it is, it is a fine way to spend a couple of hours but seems somewhat ephemeral when set against the personal impact of the true life tale.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965)

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★★★★★

Martin Ritt’s adaptation of John Le Carre’s classic tale of Cold War espionage proves the perfect dowdy antidote to the wise-cracking, gadget-filled Bond films – still in their Sean Connery starring infancy at the time.

The downbeat narrative is neatly centred around the dissolute, alcoholic form of Alec Leamas ( Richard Burton) – tasked with sealing the downfall of a powerful East German intelligence officer responsible for the death of one of his network of Berlin based spies .

And, in truly nefarious espionage fashion, what better way could there be to achieve this than by posing as a broken-down husk of an agent whose last ounce of patriotism has gone out of the window and who might be prepared to jump ship, or indeed wall?

Burton plays Leamas with his typically full blooded intensity – those eyes feel like they would burn a hole straight through a sheet of asbestos – as he tries to navigate the tricky, maze-like pathways of the intelligence game which are labyrinthine, ever-changeable and anything but solid underfoot.

Being Le Carre things are never linear or straightforward – good is never rewarded and evil very rarely, truly punished. Instead, Leamas enters a nightmarish realm of falsehood, calumny, and betrayal or perhaps he doesn’t enter it but is gradually enveloped by it as he makes his tortuous way towards his goal.

To get there he must become complicit in patently immoral actions in pursuit of the moral goal provided by the Service – to seduce Claire Bloom’s mild-mannered communist librarian in order to make believable an apparent change in political fidelity, to commit violent acts which also serve to embroider and embellish his cover as a failed operative turning to booze to cope with being frozen out.

All of this is complicated by the fact that there appear to be forces agitating against him and these forces could well be operating from both sides of the cemented Berlin divide.

Ritt’s direction and the wonderfully stark and grimy black and white cinematography of Oswald Morris provide a world which appears to be both haunted and decaying before our eyes – in both physical and moral terms. Streets are washed out with rain, people are dull and unkempt, litter and detritus covers everything and barbed wire and large man-made edifices stand as solemn symbols of the division of the world. The only way to view this mess of struggling humanity seems to be through a tobacco haze and a fast-emptying whisky glass.

It is moral complexity and a lack of trust in authority which come to the fore of the narrative – tropes which recur throughout Le Carre’s body of work as an author. Paul Dehn (fresh from co-writing Goldfinger) and Guy Trosper mine this seam of darkness as their screenplay shines a light on these hidden areas of human behaviour.

They confront issues such as the unknowability of emotional truth embodied in a lover or partner, the notions of acceptable collateral damage in the pursuit of a “greater” goal and the sheer prevalence of “falseness” in the human persona itself. No-one is ever really who they appear to be and especially not who they proclaim they are.

Trust is a word with next to no meaning in such a messy, murky time and the goal you have been given may not be the one you are set to carry out. The world is a dangerous place and to believe too much in any system is to invite disaster. Human contact can at once lift us above the morass and sow the seeds of our downfall and while morality is useful too much of it can be problematic. Burton is left to embody these complex themes and puts on a masterclass – continually computing situations, left beyond weary by the growing pretence, uncertainty and tension which he must try to navigate so as to assuage his country and the guilt of his own soul.

If you like your spy stories bleak, grubby and with a tacky, tactile quality than this is for you.

Get The Gringo (2012)

gringo

★★½

Or How I spent My Summer Vacation, if you prefer. Honestly, I think the shorter title is best (when isn’t it!) but neither of them come close to ascending to the pinnacle of the art of naming things.

Let’s face it, there isn’t really a great deal to say about this airy, substance-less entry in the cinematic campaign to rehabilitate Mel Gibson’s once starry career.

It is perfectly zippy, mixes a snide off-hand humour with some brutal violence and finds Mel back playing the kind of off-the-wall renegade loner which most action movie fans love. If Martin Riggs had somehow wound up on the other side of the law, you imagine he would be exactly like this in his dotage.

It is then a pretty safe bet and therein lies the problem with it. It doesn’t really try hard enough to create a memorable character, a decent plot for him to be involved in or a decent arc for him to travel along. The plot is startlingly linear and incredibly loose – never feeling like it is aiming for anywhere in particular or likely to get there anytime soon.

There is a feeling of a creative straining for something which lies just out of reach even as Mel confidently ambles around the confines of the Mexican prison where his thieving outlaw has wound up, dispensing summary justice, befriending children and plotting to regain his dishonestly appropriated lucre.

Set against a backdrop of forced organ donation, the privileges of the elite and the absurdities of the Mexican penal system yet feeling curiously disengaged from the location and background themes, it comes across as a distant, unfocused 70’s exploitation pic complete with obligatory racist Mexican stereotyping – which you would have thought Mel would have wanted to avoid given his history of inappropriate ranting.

There isn’t really any reason for avoiding it but it isn’t the low budget, grittily amusing classic it hopes to be.

And that decision to have Mel narrate his inner thoughts in psuedo-witty, laconic fashion would still have been horrendous even if the script had been a lot better than it is.

Focus (2015)

focus

★★½

Will Smith and Margot Robbie star in a con led, crime fuelled romantic dramedy which is undoubtedly slickly shot and makes good use of some key locations (New Orleans, Buenos Aires) but is undermined by some serious confusion over what kind of film it wants to be.

More than that even, it distinctly feels like two separate but interlinked stories – like the filmmakers originally had ideas for two movies and then compressed them into one film.

They are haphazardly sewn together at best as the first half plays like a classic con movie with elements of sparkly romance while the second half kind of plays as its slightly darker, more psychological successor.

The somewhat artless device of the “Three Years Later” intertitle suggests that writer\directors Ficarra and Requa had clear notions of certain narrative elements but absolutely no idea how to properly connect them into one coherent whole.

The film pinballs from glitzy, breezy Ocean’s 11 type huckstering fare – the centrepiece of which is a pretty neat Superbowl set dramatic swerve containing a wonderful performance from BD Wong as a slightly whiny, repressed extrovert of a businessman obsessed with random bets – to sweet, witty, sexy, getting-to-know-you romance and would have been more successful had it contented itself with that, ahem, focus……

However, in addition to this it has a real undercurrent of pretty repellent, sexist, homophobic and flat out crass frat-boy humour – personified in pretty much any of the dialogue given to the obscenely profane Farhad (Adrian Martinez) which undermines the glamour and charm inherent in both the treatment of the cons and the all important Smith\Robbie interactions.

It also attempts to delve deep into the rather fraught psychology of Smith’s Nicky Spurgeon (rather predictably hiding his issues behind his smooth, successful exterior) by investigating deeply held daddy issues and commitment phobia – not altogether successfully it must be said.

All of these elements are pretty densely hardwired into a plot which seeks to be confusing – continually amusing itself by systematically wrong-footing the audience (sometimes to good effect)- but which actually just ends up by seeming very confused over what it wants to achieve. There is just one too many twisty narrative turn and a few too many ingredients stirred into the genre broth.

Robbie does a wonderful job with Jess in letting you into her head and using the subtlest nuances of facial and body language to show her burgeoning feelings and sparkly, electric attraction and amusement at meeting Nicky and becoming immersed in his world.

Smith is fine but markedly less successful – having burst onto the scene as one of the most charismatic performers around he has become stuck in a Scientological haze, seeking to be seen as a serious performer – seeming to play every character with a slightly insular, depressive haze which can’t help but act as a bit of a downer.

Ultimately, the whole thing is fine if utterly uninspiring. Visually, the greatest trick that the filmmakers pull off is to have the camera go blurry when Nicky seems to lose focus which is simultaneously a neat, simple little visual trick to mess with the audience and a little too on the nose and obvious.

Glitzy, glamourous fun with a crass, dark edge which kind of takes the shine off and odd oscillation between the convoluted and the simplistic make for the most average of results.

American Sniper (2014)

american sniper

★★

Clint Eastwood’s valedictory biopic of crack Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle contains a central performance brimming with intensity, the burning psychological imprint of the horrors of war and the repressed, withheld emotions which result.

However, the power of Cooper’s characterisation is completely undermined by the sheer banality and artlessness of Jason Hall’s screenplay (a masterclass in having characters tell each other what has happened rather than utilising the techniques of cinema to show the audience) which like Eastwood’s direction, shows a remarkable unwillingness to really engage with the interesting threads of Kyle’s self-styled narrative of his time in Iraq.

Instead, you get an all too clichéd account of Kyle’s “growth” from overweight, beer loving rodeo rider to crack macho marksman nicknamed “The Legend” – all accomplished by the almost explosive intensity of just believing in and loving your country so damn much that all else falls by the wayside.

In this way he becomes a poster boy for the Republican right and the fulfilment of ideals locked into the American psyche from a young age – to wit that the US is the greatest country in the world ever and committing any action in its name or defence is implicitly righteous.

Now, I will freely admit that I always find this notion intensely problematic and so this project, as realised through Eastwood’s right-wing lens, seems to be too immersed in that viewpoint to come close to working for me- even as it makes a very small attempt to balance that with the impact Kyle’s actions in the theatre of war have on his human relationships with his wife and children back home.

The scenes of his SEAL training play like ridiculously foul-mouthed sub-par homages to Full Metal Jacket, the brutality of combat is shown in a visceral sense but never really explored that deeply in psychological terms – shooting kids feels bad, losing comrades feels bad is about as much as you get.

The political background is barely touched on at all and even Kyle’s final decision to wrestle with his demons and regain his former life, achieved through the catharsis of assisting wounded veterans, is never really allowed the narrative space required for it to be truly affecting.

Another real problem is the fact that the script puts a huge focus on the relationship between Kyle and wife Taya but Hall proves himself utterly unable to write a realistic and coherent female character.

Sienna Miller does great work with what she has but is reduced to the female archetype who trembles with emotion as she realises how “real” her feelings for Kyle are, sobs inconsolably most of the time they are apart and pleads with him to stop being a hero and just be a husband and a father.

Even as they begin their relationship Hall (in almost the only instance where he does show us something rather than tell us) has her just strip down to her sexy black lingerie and walk into the room rather than you know telling Chris that she likes him or fashioning a more artful segue into the bedroom. It is a tiresomely reductive characterisation which only becomes slightly real due to Miller’s immersion in the role and her talent as a performer.

She isn’t helped by Clint’s direction either – you are pregnant but the audience might not see the massive bump so just stroke it repeatedly in an exaggerated fashion.

There is even a scene where Taya meets Kyle off a plane when she is supposed to be pregnant but, for whatever reason, Sienna obviously wasn’t wearing the fake bump so is inexplicably shot from above the waist in stark contrast to the way every other character passing the camera is. All of that is before we even mention the scene where she is lovingly cradling an obviously fake baby.

Admittedly, the final sequences are handled with a mixture of sensitivity to the memory of Kyle himself combined with the knowledge that the audience will mostly be aware of how his story ends (if you aren’t it will seem very abrupt) but again this is all too fleeting.

His story, rendered by Eastwood in a reasonably simplistic, focused, very claustrophobic way doesn’t resonate as it could have had the more interesting elements been placed at the forefront of things rather than left to populate the background.

What little power it does have is almost exclusively down to the central performances and has little to do with the script or the typically unfussy direction.

Midnight In Paris (2011)

midnight.png

★★★★½

Woody Allen’s love letter to the city of Paris and the great art it has helped create seems even more glowing with wonderment, love and meaning after a gap of 6 years since my first viewing.

Sure, the central relationship between Owen Wilson’s aspiring novelist and Rachel McAdams scion of an uber right-wing, tea party backing, Republican family still seems as inherently unlikely as ever and is the one major chink in the film’s narrative armour.

I find that much easier to forgive than I once did though, perhaps because it exists to amplify the choice facing Gil and forces him to do something the Woody surrogate always finds difficult – making a decision. Perhaps because it really doesn’t matter that much and it isn’t anywhere near the focus of the film. That it also makes a pertinent (if slightly cheap) point about the right wing and their all too business-centric approach to the creative arts in general is merely a bonus.

The “golden era” debate is as open as it ever has been at any point in human history and the central core of the screenplay – that no-one ever believes their era is the golden era – holds true. The “golden era” by its very nature belongs in the past, something exposure to the Arthurian myth tells anyone in Britain from a relatively young age.

Life is complicated and creating good art out of that complicated life is an incredibly tough thing to do. It is human nature to look back on earlier times (whose great art has already been validated by the passing of time) and see an easier, simpler, more enjoyable time where creation was easier and more collegiate. That imaginative core for the screenplay – wouldn’t it be great to meet my idols at the height of their artistic powers in the city that allowed them the space they needed to create- fuels Gil’s meetings with some brilliantly realised pastiches of famous faces.

Corey Stoll’s Hemingway is pitch perfect in his ridiculously simplistic (yet utterly sincere) approach to art and masculinity, Alison Pill’s Zelda Fitzgerald is every inch the vivacious, troubled mess which she now represents to the world and Adrien Brody’s Salvador Dali scene-stealing in his rhinoceros-based obsession.

Ultimately, what I think the film is saying is that great cities, like Paris, which foster great creativity also maintain a live link to that time, ensuring that they are as ever present as the physical fabric of the city. A link which can provide inspiration to anyone prepared to visit these places, absorb their spirit and ambience and utilise it as artistic
inspiration. This is the greatest achievement of any city – to be a vessel for the best in humanity and the best in art. There is no one “golden age” because by its very nature it is fluid and timeless and all “golden ages” are inextricably linked by the undimmed glory of the art they produced.

That Woody can say all this in typically quick-witted style while also paying homage to the Parisian landscape, culture, the great art that inspires him and the wonderful freedom of expression engrained in the stonework of the city itself is more than wonderful.

Set against that what is one slightly unbelievable human relationship……..

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

jupiter ascending

★½

“Bees are genetically designed to recognise royalty”.

Just one of the chortle-inducingly bad lines of dialogue in this $176 million teen space opera from The Wachowskis which takes the basic set-up of The Matrix – humans aren’t really what they think they are and are being utilised nefariously for dastardly purposes –  adds an insufferably camp tone and an incredibly dark visual style to create a confused, bewilderingly incoherent mess.

The fact that The Wachowskis continue to return to a theme of duped humanity being abused or consumed by something “other” is an interesting one which seems to suggest a deep-seated unhappiness with the “reality” of the human condition. It feels dangerously close to playing  amateur psychologist to say it but when you put this together with the well publicised fact that both siblings have now transitioned from male to female it is easy to categorise such fictions as being the creative wish fulfilment of two individuals who felt trapped in their daily existence and in bodies they did not recognise as their own. Jupiter (Mila Kunis) goes through something similar in this film when her own identity is denied and she is forced to accept elements of another identity which she doesn’t recognise as her own, feuding against her own DNA.

All of which is to say that there are no end of interesting elements in the background of the film (ideas surrounding genetic splicing, the actions of the entitled classes, the way we view our own bodies, the psychology of bodies and how it feels when elements of them are lost, the way leaders treat ordinary human beings as simple pawns in a large game of chess, even astrological notions of destiny) which get utterly lost in some underdeveloped and, at times, hilariously poor writing.

My pick of the bad lines – and you have to imagine this in Sean Bean’s particular lazy South Yorkshire drawl – is when ex-soldier Stinger is attempting to explain the psychology of former comrade Caine Wise (Tatum) to Jupiter and mentions that he “had the bad luck to be born half-albino…..”. Perhaps it is just me but that one left me incapacitated for a good 5 minutes.

The narrative thread is really one of grabbing hold of unexpected opportunities and escaping the perceived pathway inherent in your genetic profile but it is buried deep within the utterly bonkers screenplay. At first nothing is contextualised and then as the second act begins (following a breathtakingly incoherent eight minute long chase sequence) there is a period of furious exposition where incomprehensible world-building jargon is fired rapidly at you with no relief, a break for some laughably poor plot foreshadowing (well, a sickly cough), before the film settles down to a standard, action packed finale with a big helping of fantasy teen romance. Almost forgetting the Brazil inspired interlude satirising the sheer insanity of the universe’s bureaucracy which finds the directorial siblings even managing to try too hard when it comes to paying homage to the works that have influenced them  – containing as it does  a madcap Terry Gilliam cameo as the Signet and Seal minister.

Tatum’s albino half -wolf is utterly mesmerising but that is mostly on account of the cheap latex ears and the wonderfully half-dyed eyebrows which seem to be all the make-up department thought necessary to create his hunky lycantant warrior who becomes Jupiter’s guide in her strange new world. Mila Kunis attacks her part with wide-eyed gusto, playing Jupiter as a sort of unconfident, tongue tied yet secretly spunky Disney heroine trying to make her mark in the world but her sheer gaucheness in the part simply makes her seem absurdly naive (the scene where she conducts a bee orchestra is another hilariously bonkers visual in a film full of them).

However, it is Eddie Redmayne who waltzes off with the prize for most memorable performance in the film with an almost indescribably ludicrous turn as antagonist Lord Balem Abrasax. Deciding to portray this head of a lucrative galactic business empire with a voice which suggests a member of the undead with a  100 cigarettes a day habit (certainly  a brave choice!) causes real problems when it comes to buying him as a potentially deadly threat. It is difficult to feel tension or worry about the actions of someone who so readily moves from an almost glacial stillness and emotionless register to falsetto shrieking, floppy haired madness.

A creative universe which seems full of promise and potential is utterly squandered by the shambolic quality of the script,  the confused -overly dark – realisation of the sci-fi elements and the banality of  a plot which seems to wilfully ignore all the interesting stuff going on in the background. The less said about the sub-plot where Jupiter is convinced to sell her eggs to fund her cousin’s new big-screen TV the better but it certainly illustrates the difficulties the script has in remaining coherent and on track.

 

Taken 3 (2014)

taken 3

★½

After the utterly ridiculous Taken 2 (a reductive mess where it appeared no-one really paid much attention to grenades being set off all over Istanbul and Liam Neeson referred to a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer as simply a man singing), Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen take a different approach to their scripting of this threequel.

No-one gets taken and ex special ops, ex-husband and overly protective dad Brian Mills is too resigned to the outcome of his adventures to care about getting to the end of his catchphrase anymore. Indeed his deadpan utterance of the line “I’ll come for you. I’ll find you, and…. we both know what’s gonna happen” manages to sound dog-tired, slightly harassed and overbearingly fatalistic.

What you get instead of the usual hostage-freeing action fare is a laboriously plotted remake of The Fugitive served with a large dollop of grief-laden family melodrama.
Franchise newbie Forrest Whitaker channels his inner Tommy Lee Jones as a super brainy cop (who really likes elastic bands) trying to take down Brian, who rather predictably is on the run for a crime he didn’t commit.

Surely in this current era of ever-multiplying movie universes you could just have different franchise offshoots – Taken, Framed, Defrauded – dependent on whatever mess Mr Mills gets himself into next!

Switching behind the camera, Olivier Megaton’s direction moves from the pedestrian – in the long stretches of exposition and tedious dialogue, his camera does absolutely nothing of note- to the bizarrely over edited.

Insanely conceived action sequences, such as a five second scene of an elderly Irishman climbing a fence, are executed with about twenty different cuts in an attempt to inject some much needed visual energy into them, as if this could bamboozle you into thinking something exciting or original just happened on screen.

This same technique is applied whenever anything else vaguely kinetic happens like policemen surrounding a car or occasionally when a skinhead Slavic thug with a bad tattoo habit is brutally battered in a suitably downbeat and low key location – a key bit of franchise continuity to warm the hearts of those fans left utterly disappointed or completely baffled by the change in direction their favourite franchise has taken.

Kudos for bumping Xander Berkely and re-casting the part of Stuart St. John with Dougray Scott, who adds a nice layer of menace and murky hidden depths to Brian’s love rival but Maggie Grace hasn’t made any great strides in her performance as Kim, Brian still treats her like a 7 year old having learned nothing about her in two whole films and the plot is entirely predictable while also being strangely clunky in its construction.

Still, if you are looking to accentuate the positives, it is (by a relatively small margin, I grant you) a better film than Taken 2!

Crimson Peak (2015)

crimson peak

★★★★

Guillermo Del Toro’s chilling romance is a visually sumptuous, spine-tinglingly atmospheric tribute to gothic fiction replete with a smorgasbord of loving references to such varied influences as the works of Mary Shelley, classic French folktale Bluebeard, Hammer Horror, the works of Edgar Allan Poe (specifically Roger Corman’s cinematic adaptations of his tales) and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece The Shining.

The whole piece has a wonderfully crumbling, decaying, Fall of The House of Usher feel to it as the bright, warm, hopeful promise of the expanding new world collides head-on with the cold, exposed, degraded aristocracy of England.

The entire story is about how dealing with our past can provide us with a path forward into the future – it just happens to be seen through the metaphorical lens of ghostly warnings and macabre apparitions.

And although any such tale runs the risk of tipping into blood-filled pools of schlock and silliness – Del Toro certainly flirts with it on occasion – the whole thing is such gripping, garish fun that this can simply be excused, even welcomed, as one of the expected fixtures and fittings of the genre itself. It certainly wears its blood on its sleeve…….

If you have even the tiniest soft spot for such things, seek this out and revel in the ornate visuals and contrasting trappings of decadence and decay which Del Toro deliciously deploys to chill your bones and channel some gladly appreciated Gothic cheer.

My Old Lady (2014)

my old lady

★★½

Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas all put in performances of impeccable emotional honesty in Israel Horovitz’s adaptation of his own play – making good use of beautiful Parisian locations and a wonderfully laid back, jazz guitar inflected Mark Orton score.

Unfortunately, the narrative itself is a bit of a confused mess – smacking of a playwright cramming one too many ideas into a piece of work. Some of them should definitely have been laid aside for another project.

The central idea of using the ancient French viager system of selling on property to furnish its plot is nicely unique. Kline inherits a beautiful and expensive Parisian apartment (just off the Marais) only to find that while he owns it he must cede the occupation of the property to Maggie’s titular elderly female until she passes away, when it actually becomes his.

At first, things appear to be set for a quirky, genial, odd couple comedy of opposites nicely written and lifted a little by the sheer talent of the performers.

At about the midway point things change and it segues into a completely different beast dealing with such light-hearted fare as suicide, grief, betrayal, infidelity, possible incest, recurrent alcoholism and the mental baggage our parents and their decisions bequeath us with.

It feels like you have a had a lovely hour exploring Paris with some quirky individuals and have then ended up in a hell of Freudian psycho-analysis replete with terrible behaviour from every single character.

That the film then does another tonal volte-face and tries to convince as a quirky rom-com combined with a successful journey to enhanced self-perception with a side order of sudden respect for a completely awful parent responsible for nothing but pain, suffering and a litany of mental problems is indicative of the confusion reigning throughout.

While some of these elements could no doubt have been combined to good effect there are just too many different things going on for the film to have any real identity or thematic cohesion.

It is like having a tasting menu thrown together on the same plate and inexpertly mixed. Unedifying even if the component parts are all made well.

Wuthering Heights (1939)

wuthering heights

★★★

Neither Laurence Olivier (in a slightly miffed, mannered staccato) or Merle Oberon (channelling nothing so much as wide eyed confusion)manage to sufficiently capture the intense, raging natures of Emily Bronte’s fractured lovers in this all too romantic Sam Goldwyn produced adaptation of a novel which is surely more about the destructive potential of intense emotions.

Tacking on a highly inappropriate and dodgily filmed “happy” ending – with body doubles after production had finished and director Wyler and both stars were all off on other projects – was partly Goldwyn’s way of claiming the picture as his own creation.

It also cemented his attempt to turn the tale into a more mainstream romantic melodrama – partly accomplished by ditching the problematic second half of the novel – a reputation which seems to have stuck with the story ever since.

If you can look at it as a work of art in its own right – not beholden to the source material.- then there is enough to make the viewing experience worthwhile.

David Niven is perfect as Edgar Linton playing the kind of part that seemed made for him as the slightly effete rich guy and sure thing who turns Oberon’s head and confuses her powerful emotions with the promise of a comfortable life.

Gregg Toland’s black and white cinematography does more than anything else to capture the required sense of natural wildness which the two lead performers never quite seem to grasp.

This allied with Wyler’s direction is the films great strength, working together to cleverly furnish the tale with the brooding atmosphere and swirling, changeable nature of the moorland setting.

It also manages to subtly contrast the freedom and openness of the tortured lovers’ crag bound trysts with the enclosed, claustrophobia of Linton’s high society or indeed any created human structure, none of which can contain the raging torrent of competing emotions they bring out in each other.

In spite of the failings inherent in the treatment of the text and two leads who – while always watchable – never really seem to completely understand their characters, what you get is a decently atmospheric OTT romance.

Just don’t expect it to be as dark, troubling or interesting as Emily Bronte’s novel…….

Excalibur (1981)

excalibur

★★★★½

John Boorman’s passion project, Excalibur was three torturous years in the making and on its release was promptly derided by American critics without any experience or knowledge of the Arthurian cycle who opined that the characters lacked motivation and that the plots were nonsensical.

Yet,it still stands out to me as the greatest screen depiction of the story of Arthur and the Round Table. Yes, way ahead of Guy Ritchie’s interminably dull take or Lancelot Gere in First Knight and just pipping Disney’s 1963 animated feature Sword in the Stone!

It conjures up a vividly dank and misty vision of Dark Ages Britain and with its focus on themes of illusion, magic, religion, love, lust, loyalty, betrayal and blood-letting it is a positively earthy, grimy counterpart to more gleaming cinematic versions of the tale. The screen seems positively filled with the breath of the dragon and the mystical promises inherent in the old beliefs.

Merlin, defender of the old pagan ways – fading from the real world into the more obscure realms of imagination, memory and dream as the world moves on from those beliefs – is brought to life with a playful, Puckish other-worldly brilliance by Nicol Williamson and the bristling tension (surprisingly erotically charged at times) felt in his interactions with Helen Mirren’s Morgana apparently had their beginnings in a disastrous 1974 production of Macbeth which starred the two of them as the titular Lord and Lady. Apparently, they didn’t get on particularly well and that led to Boorman’s brilliant decision to cast them opposite each other in this.

Without a decent Arthur nothing works though and acclaimed Welsh board-treader Nigel Terry does a wonderful job of taking Arthur on his journey from fresh faced young squire to grizzled, betrayed husk of a king – who might just contain the merest spark required to facilitate one more moment of redemptive, unifying glory.

Boorman does a grand job of creating coherent thematic and narrative strands from the episodic nature of Malory’s source material and the decisions which are made seem to me to be the correct ones. The focus lies on the classic elements of the story – the Excalibur legend with all the aquatic trappings present and correct, the central romantic triangle and its impact on the land, the glory of Camelot, the travails of the grail quest, the circular dining table of companionship and joy, the pure hearts of the knights the duplicitous nature of lust.

Myth and legend have perhaps never been filmed better than they are here with all the darkness and brutality of humanity’s worst traits (lust, violence, sheer inhumanity to our fellows) set cheek by jowl with the gleam of swords, the glory of chivalry, the questing spirit of our species and the qualities of forgiveness, redemption and hope for the future which show us at our best.

The only harsh word I am prepared to level at the whole endeavour is that pretty much every member of the extended Boorman clan who is given a role is embarrassingly wooden and amateurish when set against a roll call of truly great thespians.


 

Dumbo (1941)

dumbo.jpg

★★★★½

The almost perfect tale of the little, longed for elephant baby with gigantic ears is sweet and straightforward (mostly) in it’s execution. Almost too simple really as it barely scrapes feature length and seems a little caught between the competing notions of paring everything back to meet the demands of a short film or expanding upon them to eke out a main feature. For which we can blame or thank the epic failure which was Fantasia – setting Disney back to basics in pretty spectacular fashion – and resulting in Disney’s next project having a very simple story, adapted from a picture book by Helen Abrams.

That the exceedingly thrifty run time doesn’t really matter that much is testament to the wonderful work of the animators in creating a truly endearing hero with the most genial, good natured sidekick a growing pachyderm could hope for in the inimitable Timothy Q. Mouse.

In Jumbo junior’s fight against societal ridicule and his separation from mum due to her “madness” (ie. love of her son in the face of his perceived physical defects) , Disney find a brilliantly clear narrative line to take and although much of the animation is simpler than the previous three animated features from the mouse house there are some beautiful touches where it blossoms into brilliance – the elephants constructing the big tent in the pouring rain, the sentient train giving itself a pep talk as it attempts to get its cargo up and over a high vertical pass, the stork delivery service swooping through the clouds and most stunningly the “march of the pink elephants” scene which hits like a crazed, swinging sixties interlude twenty years ahead of its time.

Ultimately, the film manages to encompass heartbreak (Dumbo cradled by locked up mum is one of the most sniffle-inducing pieces of animation I have seen), steadfast companionship and a message of accepting the differences of others. Although it does rankle slightly that being a financial success is the accepted way to prove that the endless variations of creation don’t matter – that is capitalism for you I guess!

Also, I know Richard Schickel thinks the crows are racist stereotypes but they are prominently placed in the film, they are jazz-age free spirits who comfort Dumbo, act humanely and empathetically towards him and they sing the best number in the picture so I don’t really buy that.

The Robe (1953)

the robe

★★★½

The supernatural, heathen-converting powers of Christ’s Crucifixion attire form the backbone of this slightly odd but nevertheless affecting hybrid of sword ‘n’ sandals tales and religious pictures.

It suffers a little bit in comparison to William Wyler’s 1959 version of Ben-Hur – never integrating Christ into the tale as effectively as it might or managing to portray his impact on the protagonist with the spine-tinglingly revelatory feel of Charlton Heston’s spiritual awakening in the later film. Yet it still sensitively dovetails its story with Christ’s last days in order to explore the burgeoning belief in the Christian message of the roman centurion directly responsible for crucifying the messiah.

The Christian empowerment message is executed a tiny bit artlessly – overly wordy and unnecessarily didactic – but the whole thing retains a curious kind of power due to a fine performance, laden with troubled introverted masculine suffering from an Oscar nominated Richard Burton.

You can see the turmoil etched across his face as he fights the “fever of madness” which the titular garment seems to electronically transfer to him (a strange scene but one that sticks with you- only when this occurred did I realise I had seen the film once before back in the mists of time) – struggling to reconcile his devotion to Roman ideals, the madness and antipathy of Caligula (played poorly and much too shriekily by Jay Robinson), his burgeoning Christianity and the persecution of the followers of Jesus by the Roman rulers of Judea.

The ending , in particular, might be a little problematic for one of an atheistic persuasion (like myself) but Burton’s rugged intensity and visible self-questioning makes it worthwhile – his crackling chemistry with Jean Simmons providing a problematic personal obstacle to his conversion.

There is one slightly incongruous moment where he renounces violence where Michael Rennie’s Peter seems on the verge of giving him a cheesy grin and a thumbs up such is the slightly odd characterisation of “The Big Fisherman” as a quasi surf dude in the making. It just goes to show that the tonal lime the film seeks, and doesn’t always find, is a tricky one to stick to.

Their Finest (2016)

their finest

★★★

The finest thing about this film is Bill Nighy’s surprisingly beautiful rendition of Wild Mountain Thyme!

The rest is an all too predictable affair – even the twist being foreshadowed a little too clumsily – engagingly performed by a lead trio who manage to breathe life and laughs into a script which rises above the average on precious few occasions.

It finds itself caught rather indecisively between the competing demands of the feminist message, the comedy, the pathos of war. the heroism of the ordinary Brit on the street and the romance – which, in its handling, kind of undermines the ambitions of the aforementioned feminist message. Gemma Arterton might be doing a great job as a screenwriter but the film still seems to suggest she has to have a boyfriend to feel REALLY good about herself.

There also, to my untrained eye, appears to have been an issue with re-shoots and other late changes – Arterton’s continually changing hair, Eddie Marsan’s utterly pointless involvement and the overall struggle for tonal balance suggest a bolder film may have existed but been knocked back by the studio.

If that is the case it is pretty ironic given the content of the screenplay but it fits a film which wants to show that real life is never as rosy as entertainment but makes the mistake of the roseate hued” film within a film” being over-stylised and all too gloopy.
It does just about prove that entertainment and the act of creative expression is a balm for the soul in troubled times, though.

Scarface (1983)

scarface

★★★★★

Re-watching this after a break of over a decade found me re-evaluating a film which existed in my head as a mixture of gruesome chainsaw related deaths and a hyperactively addled, legendary lead performance.

This time I enjoyed it more than I ever have – not because of De Palma’s stylish, smoothly kinetic, Wellesian direction, not for Stone’s whip-smart script and not even due to Pacino’s genius portrayal of Montana’s journey from cocky two bit hood to coke-addled paranoiac harbouring repressed incestuous feelings.

This time what really got me was Giorgio Moroder’s brooding, propulsive drug induced fever dream of a score which perfectly captures the gritty depravity existing hand in hand with the affluence and success of 1980’s America.

As an illumination of the dark side of the American dream writ large it is nigh on untouchable

Predator 2 (1990)

 

predator 2

★★★½

Ah, Predator 2. Poor, unloved Predator 2!

No Arnie because he wanted too much money, no John McTiernan – instead you get Danny Glover (working really well as an over-testosteroned cop who is macho enough to make a suitable target for the Predator’s urban hunt) and a director, in Stephen Hopkins, who made his name as AD on Highlander.

And while not being close to perfect or ultimately as lean and satisying a tale as its predeccesor, it does so much interesting stuff!

Swapping the actual jungle for the urban jungle is inspired – that opening camera move pulls off the exact same trick (i.e. COMPLETELY STEALS THE SHOT!) that Crocodile Dundee II did in terms of pulling the rug from under your feet re the perceived location.
Rather than merely setting the narrative in the present day (1990, at the time) the decision to have the creature inhabit a crumbling, near future world where drug related gang-warfare threatens to overwhelm law and order in Los Angeles also proves a brave yet successful choice.

The choice of the year 1997 is surely a sly little nod to John Carpenter’s classic Escape From New York, which this feels slightly indebted to in its grimy approach to the future cityscape.

Sure, the stuff with Jamaican drug kingpins and their voodoo obsessions has dated badly and poses some thorny issues in terms of race representation but this is at least partially balanced by placing Glover in the lead and emphasising the ethnic spread of his crime-fighting team.

The action is much more visceral – dirtier, bloodier and more brutal with a potentially epilepsy inducing scene on board a subway train and a gaze which seems intent on vividly illustrating the flesh ripping, bone crunching, spine ripping process by which the alien hunter turns prey into carcase into trophy.

The pace definitely flags a touch at times, some of the humour falls a bit flat and Adam Baldwin is a positive hindrance but the finale proves brilliantly tense.

I loved the mirroring of the final shots of the original, the interior of the Predator’s ship is beautifully designed and the whole finale acts as an expansion of the universe – opening up new possibilities and solidifying the motivations for the Predator’s behaviour rather than having it just be a crazed alien killing machine.

Although, it is singlehandedly responsible for the AvP movies which is a pretty big demerit.

Everest (2015)

everest

★★★★

Balancing the competing demands of providing a glitzy piece of Hollywood entertainment with the sensitive handling of the emotional fallout of a real life tragedy is not an easy feat.

However, Baltasar Kormakur does it rather deftly in this dramatisation of the unprecedentedly deadly climbing season of 1996 on the tallest mountain in the world.
The fluidity of conditions on the mountain itself finds its embodiment in continuously swirling, eddying camerawork which seems to mimic the properties of the atmospheric conditions (wind, snow, you know, just general weather!) which do so much to problematise any ascent, almost effortlessly creating a sense of chaos, confusion and awe which continues to grow.

The mountain itself is at the heart of the film, neither demonised or lauded, while never dwarfing the people obsessed with reaching the summit or their personal narratives. Those intensely driven individuals proving utterly believable in their intensely human motivations for wishing to climb the peak.

What comes to the fore are human connections and an exploration of the driving forces behind boundary pushing human endeavour – resulting in an emotional tale of bravery, loss, courage and all too human weakness which just happens to be set against an epic Himalayan canvas.

In the end the undoubtedly impressive and thrilling mountaineering sequences wouldn’t mean anything without characterisation and performances which make you care and Jason Clarke and Emily Watson (that Kiwi accent is a belter!) deserve the lion’s share of the acting plaudits.

A piece of entertainment it may be (certainly a far better film of mountaineering disaster than the woeful Chris O’Donnell vehicle Vertical Limit) but in many ways it also feels like a sensitive and fitting tribute to those who lost their lives while reaching for the heights of human experience.

Evil Under The Sun (1982)

evil-under-the-sun

★★★
Guy Hamilton focuses on beautiful sunshine and comedic bickering more than murderous tension in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 tale. Devon is deemed too boring and the action moved to the fictional Mediterannean nation of Tirania (Albania, you think?) so that the cast and crew can frolic in the Majorcan heat on location shoots.

There is lots of fun to be had with Ustinov’s humorous puncturing of Poirot’s pomposity (the swimming sequence in particular) and some wonderfully bitchy sniping between rivals Diana Rigg and Maggie Smith as two former chorus girls who can’t stand the sight of each other.

The costume designer obviously had a whale of a time with their dresses on this one which all seem to favour bold, spotty combinations which dazzle with their childish abruptness.

The script mixes a good line in double entendres and catty witticisms with some unexpected racism and bigotry – eye-ties are lazy, the single homosexual character is a “fruit” who writes for The New Yorker and when told that the situation is neither right nor fair one character likens it to a black man’s left leg.

Still, it is a mostly amusing, cosy and entertaining ride which moves pacily towards the conclusion without ever seeming too vital, with the quality of the performers kind of making up for the lack of narrative thrills.

I am particularly fond of the utter absurdity of giving James Mason a quasi-Shakespearean monologue about how happy he is that he has no alibi. There aren’t many actors who could pull that off but he does it with style

Waterloo (1970)

waterloo

★★½

Sergei Bondarchuk’s depiction of Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815 is a bit of an odd one. Visually, it appears to have been a huge influence on Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon – it looks great.

Bondarchuk’s eye for both the large scale battlefield action and the small human details really hit home – never before has a battle felt so involving and all-encompassing (it should do since they bulldozed two hills amongst numerous other bits of landscaping work to recreate the eponymous battlefield). This is countered by the small stuff like a beautiful shot of the sun rising over the battlefield or a cadaver’s hand poised above the mud clasping a locket containing a picture of a loved one.

Sadly, the whole things is shot either to the epic scale (huge battles, packed ballrooms) or in terms of extreme detail (Sergio Leone like close ups which try too hard to wring emotion from the performers). This leaves no room for the really important stuff in the middle which is desperately needed to contextualise the intimate and bloody events of the fighting.

Neither lead is particularly convincing – I love Rod Steiger but he plays Napoleon as a kind of crazed toddler veering between confident dignity and teary temper tantrums while Plummer’s Wellesley is nothing more than a smug self confident aristo (with amazing hair, it must be said!).

They are both let down a by a script which, ill advisedly, relies on whispered voiceovers of anxious thoughts to give us access to the principals inner doubts and fears – a technique which comes across as very mannered, much like the film as a whole which is as good a technical depiction of war as you will see but rather fails when it comes to the connecting tissue which creates a story out of an event rather than merely re-creates it.

Short Term 12 (2013)

Short Term 12
★★★★½

Based on his own experiences of working with young people navigating the social care system, Destin Daniel Cretton’s second feature is a stunning accomplishment – dealing frankly and organically with hugely emotive and traumatic issues.

The performances are exquisitely, painfully raw and honest while the direction is subtle, involving, barrier-breaking and most importantly hugely empathetic in its feel.

Brie Larson is beyond astonishing as Grace – juggling strength and frailty, courage and fear, hope for the future and disgust at the past in a performance which is quietly heartbreaking, yet also resolute and uplifting. It is easily the best acting performance I have seen so far this year!

I could do without Rami Malek’s Nate who doesn’t seem to add much to the story, although I understand the thinking behind having a “newbie” to act as audience surrogate and the final shot is ever so slightly hokey and unnecessary but the film is one to be absolutely cherished due to the ease, beauty and tenderness with which it approaches its tricky subject matter.

Fantastic Four (2015)

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Simply the most excruciatingly boring superhero movie you could possibly watch. It spends about an hour interminably stretching out standard first act stuff before totally rushing the middle and concluding acts. Dr Doom is completely forgotten about and only returns as a sort of strange, barely registered afterthought at the end.
The entire thing is painfully dour and dull with a cinematic palette of greys which matches the low levels of energy and charisma on show. When it stops being serious and tries to be funny it just seems incongruous and suffers from the comic writing being, you know, not funny….
It is amazing to think but this makes the tedious Tim Story film seem bright, breezy fun. I know it isn’t really Trank’s fault as the studio re-cut the film without his input (changing hairstyles and surprisingly vanishing facial hair tell the story of panicked re-shoots) but it is hard to see how there could be a “good” version of this out there.

Mute (2018)

Mute

★★★★
Man, this has taken a critical hiding and I can’t really understand why.

Sure, it isn’t to everyone’s taste – the narrative structure is a little ragged, it takes some very dark turns and ends up in some really disturbing places but it has a sustaining, thought-provoking lyricism to it even when it is permeated with almost paralysing feelings of horror and dread.

For all the future-world trappings it is a film about parents and children and the possibilities for psychological damage inherent in being on either side of that relationship.

The world-building and characterisation is done in such convincing detail and with a sense of texture, depth and stylistic flair that I haven’t really seen before outwith the pages of science-fiction novels. The future noir city-scape owes a bit to Blade Runner but then what dystopian sci-fi doesn’t!
The almost unfettered creative control Jones received certainly has much to do with the polarising effect of his film because his dark vision would almost certainly have been sanitised if it was being made by a major studio.

Without Netflix’s support it may well have been more crowd-pleasing but would have been a much less powerful, far less troubling artistic statement.

The Equalizer (2014)

The Equaliser

★★★

Unexpectedly atmospheric and languidly paced thriller with a nice line in characterisation (bad asses can read great literature as well as break bones!) and a short, sharp intensely brutal relationship with violence (particularly nice usage of corkscrews and nail guns). It is way too long and there are some odd decisions made about what to show on screen – it feels like there was a lot more movie left on the cutting room floor and hastily jettisoned during the editing process.
I can guarantee I will never rewatch it but I’ll definitely catch the sequel!

La La Land (2016)

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★★½
I honestly just don’t understand the praise. Thinly written (like sugar-paper thin) with characterisation which goes no deeper than “wants to be an actress” and “likes jazz”, unmemorable songs, dull choreography and a film with the message that the ideals of financial success and fame are more powerful than those of love and human connection. A minority opinion I know as lots of people saw a joyously uplifting yet bittersweet romance where I sat through a gaudy, soulless, smug pastiche of the gloriously entertaining Hollywood musicals of yesteryear (which I love – just go and watch them instead!)

Wild Card (2015)

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This is a particularly nasty addition to the Jason Statham action filmography. As ex-special services goon Nick Hunt he provides security for people in that city of hopeless dreams, Las Vegas.

The problems with Simon Wests’s nasty, bitty and terminally unfocused film is that it can’t really work out where the meat of the story is. It ends up meandering violently towards an anti-climactic conclusion as Nick battles mobsters, uses his sharp wits and befriends frightened, cowardly millionaire geek yuppies en route.

The really unnecessary plot hook which kind of ends up being the main narrative thread involves a hooker friend of his being beaten up by mob goon Milo Ventimiglia and seeking his assistance in gaining revenge. I don’t think I will be alone in saying that I don’t really need to see a movie where a woman has a gun stuck in her vagina and then gains revenge by cutting her attackers penis with some garden shears.

Rather falsely billing itself as an action thriller it turns out to be neither thrilling or much of an action movie. There are three distinctly painful action sequences (choreographed in the slowest of slo-mo by Cory Yuen) which are certainly visceral but still seem slightly overdone in the context of the narrative.Indeed, for a long stretch in the middle it becomes an oddly downbeat tale of gamblers’ hubris. No decision has been made as to whether it is a revenge flick, a gambling movie or a slighlty off-kilter black comedy and it it doesn’t succeed at any genre. The Christmas setting appears to make no substantial difference to the plot and it has one of the most boring openings I have ever seen which manages to make you hate Statham’s character straight off the bat. The meandering opening does however successfully flag up that the film-makers had no idea what kind of film they wanted to make.

Thank goodness for Stanley Tucci who at least brings a bit of joy to proceedings with his enigmatic mob boss, Big Daddy. Nowhere near enough for me to recommend it but it gave me something to hold onto amidst the ugly mess of the rest of the film.

 

The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

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Vin Diesel’s second go round as anti-heroic convict Riddick is a film which looks to have been far more fun to work on ( especially if you were involved in any of the design elements) than it could ever be to watch. It is rare to see a film which puts so much attention to detail into its world-building. Architecture, sculpture and the terraforming of different planets are all so attentively detailed and constructed (the sets really are well done) that it is a real shame that the resultant spectacle fails due to some really poor computer graphics work, a turgid narrative and some ripely portentous dialogue which seriously affects its attempts at hero-building.

Ripping off stylistic and narrative elements from such diverse influences as Hellraiser, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Christopher Lambert starring future-prison flick Fortress, Conan the Barbarian and Blade Runner, writer-director David Twohy creates a misfiring and confused genre mix which doesn’t really seem to have a clear identity of its own.

Set against a backdrop of poorly realised CGI worlds the only real fun to be had is in a completely dumb chase sequence across a solidified lava field (on the idiotically named Planet Crematoria), outrunning a rising sun bringing temperatures of 700 degrees centigrade with it. Twohy seems to have despaired of writing inane dialogue for Vin to growl  in a sub-Harry Callahan manner by the mid-point and things do get a little more fun when your ears don’t have to wade through the dross the characters spout. No-one seems to have told Twohy that voice-over narrations are very easy to get wrong and the banal stuff spouted by Riddick in his own head makes him a much less interesting character.

When it sticks with the action it is at least watchable but when it painfully attempts to retrospectively construct a mythology for Riddick which places him at the centre of a fight for the survival of the known universe it feels seriously overstretched. He was much more interesting as just a convict with a shady past. There is so much promise for the character and the other worlds that it really is disppointing to see the unoriginal, boring and painfully proud results of Twohy’s endeavours.

The Descent (2005)

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It has taken me a long time to get around to watching Neil Marshall’s 2005 caving horror due to an inability to understand what all the fuss was about with Dog Soldiers , a film which many people loved but I didn’t really think nailed either the horror or the comedy inherent in its premise. However, I may eat humble pie and retrace my steps to give it another look as this film is one of the most atmospheric and frankly terrifying horrors I have ever seen.

A group of friends (refreshingly all female) set off on a caving trip and quickly discover that they aren’t the only living things crawling around the cavernous underground wastes of the Appalachian mountains. There are already a ton of different emotions festering beneath the surface of the outwardly happy group which in reality is shot through with tension, tragedy, ego and betrayal. As the darkness begins to close in on them (both literally and metaphorically) these tensions create further difficulty, as if any were needed, in escaping from their perillous situation.

Marshall’s handling of the story is exceptional throughout. It is an absurdly scary caving movie way before there is even a hint of any darker foe than that of the underground labyrinth the women find themselves lost in. He ratchets up the tension unbearably resulting in a dark, dank, tale of claustrophobia which never forgets the very human motivations behind its protagonists actions. Continuing to evolve their relationships in interesting ways while also drip-feeding just the necessary amount of surmising about the nature of the creatures (think Gollum crossed with Nosferatu) whose underground lair they have stumbled upon.

It is a film which continually wrong footed me, conjuring up truly surprising and shocking moments at almost every turn and utilising and subverting horror movie cliche brilliantly, particularly at the conclusion of the narrative. The early going has echoes of the classic suspense build-up of movies like Duel and Jaws but any notions of cutesy Spielbergian wonder are completely thrown to the wall with the sheer verve and gusto with which Marshall launches into the gore of a flesh eating frenzy.

Cynical about human nature, utterly chilling and thrilling as a suspense movie and as blood-drenched as you could realistically hope for in a horror movie this successfully blends intensely skillful film technique with a perfectly structured script and great well rounded characters. The first shock comes about five minutes in and Marshall then deftly weaves a narrative which eludes expectations and creates a pitch-black atmosphere of sheer dread.

Simply, one of the best horror movies I have ever seen.

 

The Iceman (2012)

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Michael Shannon and a talented cast help turn this fairly rudimentary tale of notorious contract killer Richard Kuklinski into a decently thrilling highlight reel of his career for the Mob which investigates the duplicity inherent in his successful camouflaging of his real bread winning endeavours over a period of decades.

This doesn’t really have a lot to add to the New York-New Jersey mob movie genre. In terms of texture, feel, dialogue and motivation you will have seen it portrayed in exactly this fashion on  numerous prior occasions. The script, by Morgan Land and director Ariel Vromen efficiently evinces a character study of Kuklinski from first involvement with the mob to his inevitable incarceration with a short, prison interview wraparound dealing with ideas of remorse and forgiveness.

Structurally and in script terms it is a fairly ordinary but precise work. It is narratively linear and emotionally simplistic. The cast do phenomenal work with what they are given and they are the reason that the film becomes an entertaining enough yet never truly immersive experience. Shannon’s pale, chiselled features could have been hewn from a block of ice and his innate understanding of the psychological makeup of Kuklinski is wonderful. His killer is a man who has worked hard to stifle the psychotic impulse and to become the loving husband and dutiful dad the world sees him as. The icy visage, giving nothing away, exists because there is a roiling mass of suppressed, violent emotion straining to break free.  He is cold behind the eyes because he is masking how impulsive and compulsive his actions are. Shannon manages to portray all of this with an intensity and strangeness befitting the role.

Winona Ryder as his wife wonderfully offsets his controlled masculinity with  a performance which evolves from girlish excitement and coyness at his interest in her, through awakening confidence and sexuality till she becomes a  mother protecting her children at all costs,  with each stage  of the transformation performed beautifully. An almost unrecognisable David Schwimmer as a chancer of a mob stooge, standard deranged mob boss  Ray Liotta and supremely insidious mob overlord Roberto Davi all play their part in creating the menacing texture of the piece while Chris Evans’ long haired, ice cream van driving fellow hitman adds a nice dose of exuberant personality to lift the piece from the doldrums of spending too much time alone with Shannon’s quiet psychopath.

The exactness of the attention to period detail is admirable and that flavour of exactitude runs through the whole film which feels very precise and cold. A little bit of warmth and flair might have made for a better exploration of the dual nature of the title character.

 

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)

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The screenwriting equivalent of getting a tone deaf person to compose a score or put together a musical, this absurd assemblage of jingoistic patriotism, phoned in performances and awkward 3D sequences is a blockbuster mess on a grand scale. Seemingly put together on the basis that Michael Bay’s Hasbro franchise, Transformers. is a little too intelligent for the mass market, director Jon M. Chu has created a world filled with rank stupidity.

Treachery by the evil forces of Cobra who are bent on some despicably evil act or other decimates the heroic “Joes”, the unsung everymen of the US special forces who routinely save the world from that despot in a slightly melted motorcycle helmet, Cobra Commander.

There are a lot of explosions, some very large guns and a sequence where ninjas swing around a mountainside in a battle for the sedated body of one of their brethren which does its best to elevate things (Ha!) but still feels like a shonky and unecessary bit of 3D to try and wow the by then comatose audience.

There is a shocking twist which seems like the result of a talented actor fulfilling his contractual obligations while making it clear that he has no interest in further franchise involvement, thank you.

The whole thing becomes a showdown between Dwayne Johnson’s ridiculously muscular neck and the forces of evil assisted by action movie whore par excellence Bruce Willis who turns up as the mythical first ever “Joe”, an elderly general who seems close to sleep for much of the narrative and has the entire arsenal of the US army hidden in his suburban house. In a classic bit of awful writing he was given General Patton’s gun for services rendered and this particular firearm becomes the catalyst for much awe and neo-con wonder at the beauty and worth of the US’s military might. A weapon fit to take down evil with!

It feels like a nightmarish cartoon writ large with a script lacking in any notion of what makes people tick and full of throwaway lines which feel like first drafts of a particularly bad comic book tale. The macho banter between the troops is excruciating and the by now required scene in every Hollywood movie where a guy pervs on a hot girl undressing because that is easier than talking to her is there in vibrant detail.

As it is a 12A there is a huge amount of violence on display and yet it is all curiously bloodless, tapping into the American Dream that radical change can be affected with no real casualties.

Vastly dumb film-making but with no fun to counterbalance with!

 

Wild Tales (2014)

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Damian Szifron’s Oscar nominated anthology features six thematically linked vignettes around the theme of revenge ranging from simple one upmanship to the idea that you could gain revenge on everyone on your list of enemies with one fell swoop. Frustration, embarassment, infidelity and a sense of righteous anger provide the very human motivations behind the various and variable tales of macabre score-settling.

Now, there is a huge amount of love out there for this film, both critically and from any number of cinephiles out there on the web and I can see where they are coming from. Szifron creates an off kilter atmosphere where the extremes of human behaviour become normal and understandable. In essence, he shows the ease with which any of us could allow ourselves to be overcome with emotion, resulting in some dubious decision making. Alternatively, there is a sense of indignation at play which also suggests revenge as a necessarily healthy approach to take when continually faced with the bureaucracy and sheer messiness of human existence.

As with all vignette based films though, there are some that you will love and some that merely feel like they are treading water. When the film starts, the feeling is that they are all going to be concise, snappy little micro-cosms of human nastiness but as the sections progress they become longer and longer and this isn’t necessarily a good thing. The last couple feel very stretched  and I couldn’t escape the feeling that Szifron was merely stalling for time rather than effectively moving towards the punchline of the story. Most of them are set up as mordant little gags which elicit a wicked laugh at the finale but the brevity and panache of the earlier tales is somewhat lost in the slightly flabby narratives which conclude the collection.

All told though, it is an entertaining set of stories with a consistency of tone and action resulting in some eminently believable human interactions which spiral gloriously out of control. Szifron is undoubtedly at his best when keeping them short and snappy but even the artificially elongated later tales have the kernel of a good story and some nice moments of wit and unexpected brutality.

Essentially, what the writer-director is saying is that there is only a thin line between our veneer of humanity and  our animal instincts,  which is undoubtedly true. However, no animal would allow its narrative to stay still for as long as the later tales do as that kind of lack of efficiency is generally met with a sharp demise in the animal kingdom.

Love (2011)

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Love can best be described as an attempted addition to the cerebral science-fiction genre.The vanity project of American band Angels & Airwaves, its narrative focus lies with a lone astronaut adrift on a space station orbiting the earth in the year 2039 who loses all communication with the planet below him. This story is intertwined with a narrative of human discovery during the American Civil War and interspersed with various unconnected individuals (seemingly from our own time) expounding to camera about the unifying force of love and the importance of human communication.

It feels really bad to be mean about this as the project has obviously been undertaken so earnestly and passionately with a real desire to create a “message” sci-fi movie about the way we interact with people on a daily basis and the importance of the titular emotion in life. However, it is painfully boring and massively derivative of other, much better sci-fi movies particularly Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey which writer-director William Eubank has pilfered wholesale when cobbling together his own narrative exploration of human consciousness in space.

It repeats beats such as humankind discovering a mysterious object which turns up at different evolutionary time periods and slows the concept of time down to a painful ebb when Captain Miller finds Earth is no longer responding to his transmissions. As he attempts to mentally come to terms with this strange turn of events, his mind begins to collapse inwards a little bit and he imagines a sexy Russian astronaut is there with him to give him solace.

The conversations which he has with this dream space lady really evoke the problems inherent with an attempt to force a level of poetry and artistry on a project that isn’t met by the talent of those involved.  For example, he is told by her in one such languid conversation that “There are no seasons. Only time”. An attempt at a profound artistic rendering of the human approach to ageing and the passage of time which comes across like cheap, fortune cookie wisdom.

Sadly, the whole production is suffused with a profusion of such pensive, preposterous profundity laden dialogue with no thought given as to where the narrative is heading or no clear goal for the central idea of marooning a guy and then creating a discourse on human emotion. No thought is fully formed and while Eubank has done a great job essentially building the interior of a space station out of odds and sods in his back garden  he doesn’t really appear to have any similar level of skill when it comes to the writing or directing roles. The three distinct elements of the film never feel like they have knit together at any point and the cuts to ordinary people of 2011 discussing the banal nature of humanity doesn’t ever work alongside the future set stuff or the batty prologue stuff which sort of positions the folks fighting in the Civil War as the squabbling apes of Kubrick’s Odyssey.

Their own music, used to soundtrack the film, pales in comparison to the slew of iconic Classical tracks which Stanley’s masterpiece uses and creates nothing more than a lo-fi MTV version of one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made.

Poltergeist (2015)

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Tobe Hooper’s Spielberg produced hit of 1982 is re-imagined in 3D for a modern audience by Gil Kenan in a perfectly serviceable, efficiently put together version which suffers from some poor CGI and a surprising lack of peril.

The original’s practical effects are amongst the best you will find and the dark and dingy CG work which replaces them here leads to a coldness and a real lack of texture in comparison with Hooper’s film. While it is effectively put together with some decent tension building and some good old school scares (possessed clown toys will always be scary) it is the use of new technology which hurts it at every turn.

There is what I can only describe as a flying fox ride through hell which has been engineered purely for the 3D environment and feels more like a murky, mud-infused undead Krypton Factor challenge. Although CG can’t be blamed for the dodgy shadow theatre which ensues once Poltergeist activity evolves into child abduction.

The family dynamic is well realised and Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt make for a funny, engaging and believable couple while the arc focusing on perennially terrified younger son Griffin is quite rewarding. Jared Harris’s appearance as a maimed Irish TV personality who “cleans” haunted houses is sorely misjudged though and makes the whole thing seem like Fright Night lite.

The neat “you’re not done yet”  twist at the end is undermined by the fact that it feels like there was a lot more edited from the scene and while there is a lot of good work done by the lighting crew to illustrate the uses of electricity as a spiritual pathway to facilitate the ghosts return to the world of the living this is continually undermined by the dodgy computer work which brings them to “life”.

I was also surpirsed by the decision to make the graveyard just a regular graveyard rather than the ancient Indian burial ground of the original figuring that while it may be more politically correct it is also much less eerie, interesting and bewitchingly frightening as a result. However, it appears that in the original there is no Indian burial ground, it in fact being a normal cemetery, which just goes to show the tricks that memory can play on your mind.

The modern innovation which has the most detrimental impact on the fear factor is that a flat screen TV containing pissed off evil spirits is just way less threatening as there is no way it can possibly harbour as many of them inside its slim-line frame. That old chunky TV in the original though could host a whole terrifying smorgasbord of them!

The Impossible (2012)

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J.A Bayona’s second full length feature is a dramatisation of the true events which engulfed the Belon family (anglicized here to Bennett) in the wake of the Boxing Day Tsunami which struck Thailand with such devastating force in 2004.

The opening shot (completely dark) owes a huge amount to the incredible sound design work as it lures you into the belief that the wave is going to hit immediately with a series of almost mechanical creaks and groans which sound like an onrushing torrent. However, in a nice bit of mis-direction,  it turns out to simply be a jet engine powering the holidaymaker’s flight, while priming you for the terrible moment of the wave making landfall which you know will come. It brilliantly builds that tension which comes with knowing what will happen from the very first frame.

At the beginning, the focus is insular as it ignores the external world and settles on the interior of the plane and an illustration of the family dynamics within. Later, when the film closes on an altogether different flight, the view is more outward looking with framing which foregrounds the vastness of the ocean and shows the diminutive nature of the human and technological presence set against it.

In between these images, the director creates one of the most thoughtfully controlled and carefully choreographed disaster movies I have ever seen. There is a scene of reunion in a Thai hospital which is put together like a frustrating ballet as people come painfully close to seeing each other but miss by fractions as they wend their way round the huge complex. It must have taken painstaking planning but succeeds as the stylish, emotional centrepiece of the whole story.

The film is also visceral and gut wrenching, pulling no punches at all in terms of depicting the tragedy which is the catalyst for the main narrative. Indeed, the greatest trick Bayona pulls is in managing to tell a very close, personal story about a disrupted family unit while never losing sight of the sheer chaos, confusion and pain of the surrounding picture. The movie is full of wounds, blood and the detritus of civilisation broken by nature. But as full of hope and humanity and people helping others even when seperated by language and cultural barriers.

The cinematic treatment given to the wave is indicative of the filmmaker’s approach to what is ostensibly using a tragedy as the backdrop for a piece of visual entertainment. The foaming, relentless ocean isn’t lingered on as a grotesque spectacle but is handled with impeccable sensitivity. The creative team do not shirk from portraying the destruction it wrought and from realistically depicting its aftermath but they do shy away from the tendency Hollywood sometimes has to show these things with a degree of horror and awe which can cross the line into exploitation rather than remembrance.

The moments which I took away from the film though are all to do with people and the sense of weary, bedraggled human kindness which suffuses it. The importance of human communication and the often poignant nature of it is laid bare through the screenplay by Sergio G. Sanchez. Small moments of human connection become vastly important – Do you allow someone to use your mobile to make contact with their family or do you conserve battery power in case those you have lost try and make contact with you? The note left by your wife letting you know that she has taken your child down to the beach becomes all that you have left of them and a document on which you write their names as part of your search. In the confusion, names are misspelled and misheard and identity itself becomes less certain for all.

Naomi Watts is a tower of strength as Maria, undergoing a great deal of pain and yet retaining an all important kernel of belief and inner strength. There is a moment where McGregor makes a phone call and all the emotion and anguish building up inside is released in an uncontrollable flow. It is one of the best pieces of screen acting I have seen in quite some time.  Fernando Velazquez’s score is wonderful and hits just the right notes of melancholy, yearning and loss which the story requires.

The only aspect I found difficult was the opening, pre-tsunami exchanges which struggle to strike the right tone, sometimes seeming slightly too paradisiacal and whimsical but it just about gets by and once the tragedy has struck the tone is perfectly gauged right through.

Interestingly, if you wonder why Bayona was picked to direct the Jurassic World follow-up there is a truly cinematic sequence here where a page of a Joseph Conrad novel is picked up by the wind and framed on a pane of glass which then begins to vibrate with the energy of the approaching water. Not only does this warn us that catastrophe is just round the corner it is also reminiscent of the best of Spielberg’s cinematic eye and suggests that Bayona was certainly the right man for the job.

 

Gulag (1999)

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Angus MacQueen’s epic three hour documentary depicts the legacy of the string of forced labour camps which Joseph Stalin constructed aloong the length of the Trans-Siberian railway. Perhaps unsurprisingly it is a sobering, mind boggling and emotionally harrowing investigation of the impact the camps had on both survivors of the Gulag and those who worked for the NKVD secret police as well as its influence on the tortured history and strange self-image of the Russian beast itself.

A range of newly filmed interviews with as diverse an array of survivors of the Communist era as you can imagine are effortlessly intertwined with archive documentary and propaganda footage. MacQueen artfully constructs his work like a hugely complex jigsaw, gradually filling in the missing pieces as he draws you gently in to the horrifying tale his film has to tell. The mix of footage creates a balancing act between his unravelling of the truth behind the propaganda and the work of the machine itself to suggest the prison camps as a sort of inclusive avenue where true talent could be recognised and put to use by the Communist state.

This is more than simply a document of survival and fortitude though and the scope of his film-making vision is much wider than you might expect. His subtle and sensitive interviewing style allows him to build a level of trust with the subjects whose past lives his questioning intrudes upon. The resultant work gives not only a historical insight into the day to day lives of the inhabitants of the Gulag system but also delves deep into the Russian mindset.

While the survivors of the camps recount dreadful stories of the treatmnt they underwent and the horrific things they saw, those who worked for Stalin’s state try to deny that they did anything wrong. Therein lies the dichotomy at the heart of Russia as it existed when this film was being made, during the Boris Yeltsin era. Those who suffered wish to tell the world to shine a light on the insane and murderous events of those times. Those who helped the state to suppress their fellows and chase the industrial future over the bones of their brethren seem to have forgotten key details or routinely claim ignorance of the true extent of the horrors in which they assisted.

The contrast between camp survivors striving to remember things they would probably wish to forget and former state operatives striving to forget things which they know leave them culpable for great sorrow is indeed a powerful one. Memory, both the overwhelming rush of painful images and the desire to block out those which don’t meet with our expectations or image of ourselves is a hugely important and powerful facet of the film.

The defenders of the work of the Soviet state, still prepared to accept its absurdly awful magnification of the evils of industrial capitalism, remain firm in their belief that there was no other way to modernise their vast country. The fact that up to 50 million people may have died to make it happen they deem to be a necessary evil, remaining intensely proud of the work they assisted in and unable to accept the inroads capitalism was beginning to make into their society under the great vodka drinking bear.

However, it is the eyewitness accounts of those who survived the camps which provides the real emotional heft underpinning the film. Tales of children seperated from their parents, women forced into prostitution, arbitrary arrests, illusory informers, mass shootings and starvation. One of the most poignant moments is when a survivor confesses to buying bread every day, even when it is not necessary, because she never wants to run out of bread ever again (700g having been the daily ration per prisoner).

There is a popular capitalyst myth which suggests that horrendous events sometimes have to be experienced to modernise the world and that certain past events (the Industrial revolution or land clearances) were necessary evils in the construction of the shiny modern world around us. Macqueen’s film exposes this airy notion for the deep falsehood that it is. Stalin’s race to swiftly industrialise Russia and make her competitive in the world economy succeeded in exploiting massive mineral resources and in powering the revolution (the city of Norilsk, population 175,000, was built by those enslaved by Stalin). However, the cost was simply inhuman.

In attempting to ape capitalism, all that happened was that its failings were hugely magnified and all the mistakes made over a period of hundreds of years were made in about thirty in the race to compete.

Macqueen’s spectacularly moving, sensitive, even handed and insightful film acts as a permanent record to experiences which must be remembered if they are not to be repeated. It may be long and it may be very tough at certain points but it is a heart-rending, hopeful, multi-layered account of a period in human history which we must strive to understand better and which we will due to  educational and illuminative works of art like this.

 

 

Unknown (2011)

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Liam Neeson plays Dr Martin Harris, attending a bio-tech conference in Berlin, who has a car accident, bangs his head and almost drowns in the beautiful River Spree. Four days later he regains consciousness only to find that the entire world, including his vapid wife Liz (January Jones), is denying that he is Dr Martin Harris who is now being portrayed by Aidan Quinn.

Which all sounds perfectly ludicrous or Lynchian, right? The script by writers Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell (John Le Carre’s much less talented son) is based on a novel called Out of my Head (much snappier title!) by the renowned writer Didier Van Cauwelaert (nope, me neither). Sadly, this implausible starting point is only the beginning of a labyrinthine and ever more ridiculous trek through the, admittedly beautiful, streets of Berlin. What begins as a reasonably odd little amnesiac thriller essentially mutates into a geriatric take on The Bourne Identity as Neeson finds himself questioning his own sanity and finding titbits of information which lead to ever more ludicrous revelations about his identity and his plans on his Berlin Bio-tech break.

Confusion gives way to hilarity, as the impropable and implausible elements of the plotting meet to create an undoubtedly energetic but tonally skewed and completely unbelievable narrative. I don’t think anyone buys a relationship between Neeson and January Jones and things aren’t helped by the banal and reductive nature of their relationship as built in the script. Jones can’t find any source of emotion or real feeling and exists as a kind of icy, robotic presence in the film. Neeson does his usual action movie schtick but plays Martin as exactly the same character both pre and post accident, even as the revelations build, which creates real believability problems when you are expected to find him capable of certain actions which are drip fed to the audience as the film progresses.

Collet-Serra struggles with the frankly insane plotting and his attempted dashes of directorial verve simply reinforce the cliches. At moments of mental anguish, the frame begins to tip from side to side as Liam goes all woozy with confusion while his blissful memories of his erotic wedded existence are bathed in the golden light of old home movies. All of which adds to the hackneyed feeling of much of the film. You have seen it done many times before and done a lot better too.

While scripting and lead performances are dodgy as hell the cinematography is surprisingly crisp and clean and there is an oddly decent car chase at the midpoint (although the CG is a little off when it comes to actual collisions). The supporting cast do their utmost with the tosh they have been given particularly Diane Kruger as Gina who does rather a lot with almost nothing as the cab driver who is the unfortunate catalyst for the bonkers thriller plot at the film’s heart. Sebastian Koch as a revolutionary Biologist and Bruno Ganz, as a helpful former Stasi agent,  also help to add a bit of class and personality to things but there isn’t really a lot they can do to improve the end product.

Too implausible to be believable and too silly to really engage the movie fails to take you along with it on its mad ride.

The high point for me was when Neeson uttered the stomach strainingly funny line

“I didn’t forget everything. I remember how to kill you…..Asshole”

which goes a long way to show you the sheer wit and wisdom of the creative team.

 

 

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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The main question flitting through my head when news broke that work was underway on this belated Blade Runner sequel was – Do we really need a sequel to one of the most atmospheric and thought provoking pieces of science-fiction cinema? The answer to that question is obviously – No, we don’t.  What if we modify the question then, to something like –  Is the completely unnecessary sequel to Blade Runner worthy of the association with the classic original?

The answer to that question is, much to my surprise and that of the entire critical fraternity – YES. In big, fluorescent, industrial capital letters as seenthrough the fog from the driver’s seat of a flying automobile.

The success of Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up is down to many things but first and foremost it is because it is narratively so very different from the original and yet it shares the same texture, feel and atmosphere as its feted forebear. Original screenwriter Hampton Fancher returned to create this new story and his decision to broaden the scope of the future world and by so doing to create a wider understanding of the role replicant’s play within it and the way they are created leads us towards many of the questions which are posed by Officer K’s (Ryan Gosling) quest for answers.

That quest is almost entirely linear, barring the slightest of kinks provided by a pretty obvious red herring which would have the made the narrative even more simplistic than it is.  The film-maker’s aren’t interested in overloading their fiction with ideas of narrative complexity though. Instead, the simple clarity of the narrative allows Villeneuve and Fancher to explore a series of incredibly complex and pertinent questions about what it means to be human and how you define that humanity.

They probe the very nature of memory itself by questioning how memories are created, asking whether you can believe in the truthfulness of your own memories and by looking at the ever murky territory between memories and dreams, asking if it is even possible to honestly differentiate between the two.

Given the rise of Alexa and other such AI devices over the past few years, prescient questions are asked about where the boundary actually lies between created lifeforms like replicants, computer programmed artificial intelligence and the humans who still wish to see the world as their playground. This intelligence lies at the heart of a film which uses the dystopian sci-fi setting to explore nothing more or less than what it is to be human.

The poetic artistry is embellished by the beauteous craftsmanship of Roger Deakins’ cinematography. In place of the perpetual rain of Ridley Scott’s neon drenched original you have a landscape of huge industrial edifices, arid, ochre tinged wastes and a planet almost completely covered in human habitation which has no room to breathe. All of this is projected on to a canvas which continually exacerbates the infinitesimally small nature of the beings who inhabit this vast, uncomprehending world.

All of these elements work in harmony with Hans Zimmer’s score which is full of echoes and reimaginings of the sumptuous Vangelis music which did so much of the important groundwork in creating the rain-drenched reality of Ridley Scott’s dystopian future world. Perhaps more than anything else this element creates the feeling that this is truly  an evolution of the same world as the original movie.

It is supremely confident film-making from a director who does not disappoint.  The run time is pretty hefty (163 mins). the plotting very simple and the pace deliberately slow. It utterly captivated me from start to finish but if you are not enthralled by it early on and fully immersed in the potential of the ideas it explores then there is a definite mid-way point where your attention may wander. Even if it does though, there is so much texture to the film that I don’t think you will ever truly lose patience with it.

Already billed as a box office failure, it seems crazy that anyone thought that this would be a hugely profitable blockbuster. What it is though, is a thought provoking, beautifully constructed work which asks probing questions of us as humans with a sense of visual poetry which is rarely seen in the multiplex and, more importantly, does not feel out of place alongside Blade Runner.

Love & Friendship (2016)

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Digging reasonably deeply into the Jane Austen bibliography, director Whit Stillman serves up an adaptation of the early epistolary work Lady Susan which was never submitted for publication during the author’s lifetime and didn’t find its way into print until 1871, long after her death.

Kate Beckinsale revels in her role as the Lady of the novel’s title, putting her incredibly sharp wits to one of the only uses a woman could at that point in time – manipulating the men around her to ensure a future of comfort, ease, romantic and sexual free will for both herself and her daughter in the wake of her husband’s death. Now I think any movie fan knows that Kate can be very hit and miss as a performer but this is probably the best performance I have seen her give. She fully embodies the spirit of a woman who refuses to let societal strictures and conventions railroad her into making decisions which are not pleasing to her. Rather, she uses her vast knowledge of those expectations to mould the world she inhabits to her advantage and refuses to let traditional morality get in the way of any extra-marital relationships she may find herself caught up in.

Beckinsale’s trick is in humanizing a character who could easily be hated but her self-assuredness and sparky wit all serve to make her behaviour seem entirely reasonable. Her sense of timing is perfect and the insouciant, patently careless way she delivers some of the best gags in the script shows her to be an unexpectedly gifted and confident comic performer.

The satire which is laced through almost every line of acerbic dialogue is something which informs all of Austen’s novels but here it seems slightly more raw and a tad sharper than in any adaptation I have seen of her later novels. There is a real sense of ironic detachment at work which distances an audience to a safe viewing platform for the mercilessly scabrous nature of the wit. This all works very well and provides a fast paced, energy filled, chuckle fuelled ride through the hypocritical failings of Regency society but it does mean that there isn’t really any emotional resonance with the fates of the characters before you.

Now, you can argue about how much that really matters and that is probably informed on a personal level, by how much of an emotional response you seek from the stories you watch on-screen. I didn’t mind it so much. It wasn’t something that bothered me while Stillman’s wonderfully arch screenplay was rolling towards its end point but it is something which stops the film from being as great as it might have been had I truly cared about the fate of anyone in it. It is hard to deem it as a creative failing though when the tone is perfectly consistent throughout and the narrative distancing from the characters appears to be a firm decision made by Stillman. It is how he wants to tell the story.

Like its protagonist with an unwanted suitor it may hold you at arm’s length but you’ll be hard pressed to find a funnier costume drama or one which depicts a more convoluted pathway to the simple fulfillment of sexual desire.

 

Snowden (2016)

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Oliver Stone’s energetic biopic of ace hacker and truth seeker Edward Snowden sees the director rediscovering some of the movie magic which seemed to come to him so easily during his 80’s and 90’s golden age. Think of it as a flashily edited, interestingly constructed yet action light Bond movie as it zips through a series of exotic locations – Geneva, Hawaii, Japan – following young Ed on his journey from right wing pillar of the establishment and wannabe marine to erstwhile defender of the right to privacy wanted for trial under the Espionage act. His conversations with Laura Poitras and Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill as to how to present the classified information he pilfered to the world are at the film’s heart while all the other elements of his truth-serving mission are filled in around that central core to which Stone returns again and again.

Flitting between time periods to build a kaleidocopic picture of Ed, his character and the motivation for his act of defiance against his country’s government Stone recaptures a visceral energy which pretty much all of his film-making post Any Given Sunday has lacked. Perhaps this is because he absolutely believes in the tyranny of a government prepared to gather all information possible on any of its citizens regardless of suspicion. Stone has always been a deeply political film-maker and this story enables him to harness his own political perspective as a lens through which to inform the world about Snowden and sing his praises.

Now, I admit that when I first saw the trailer for this movie I burst out laughing at Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s curious accent and mannered way of speaking. Out of context, it just seemed wilfully odd and over the top. However, when all the disparate character building elements coalesce,  you begin to really understand what originally seems like an affectation as one of the keys to Ed’s character and way of viewing the world. It all makes sense and works to build an introverted yet fundamentally heroic and grounded hero who feels like a real person who ended up doing an extraordinary thing almost by accident because of his personal morality.

The other criticism this film has faced is the fact of the sheer existence of Laura Poitras’ Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour. Her film is a phenomenally tense documentary which details the hotel room conversations between Snowden and trusted associates to work out how to publish the information he had collated. It is undoubtedly a better film than this one, dripping in dramatic tension because of its sheer immediacy. However, to slate this film simply because the documentary exists is odd. This fictive representation is able to create a film which works as pure entertainment while also carrying an important message. It is also able to create a broader world view than a film entirely based in one hotel room. I found that they complemented each other quite nicely (as they both have different agendas) in much the same way that Foxcatcher and the Netflix Original documentary Team Foxcatcher did, although in the latter case the work of fiction is the better of the two films.

Sometimes, Stone’s flashiness gets the better of him. While some of the montages of archive footage are edited together so brilliantly that they remind you this is the guy who made JFK (a film whose opening 10 minutes is a simply breathtaking amalgam of different archive footage sewn together to serve Stone’s narrative and political purpose) there are moments, in particular the shooting of Ed’s epileptic fits, which seem mannered and overdone. Also, in amongst a ream of good performances (Rhys Ifan’s is a surprisingly credible world weary NSA head honcho, Nic Cage is great in a small role as a charismatic yet vaguely embittered old hacker, Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson excel as the Guardian journalists breaking the story) there is the scenery chewing ham artiste Timothy Olyphant who manages to utterly misjudge the necessarily slimy tone of his Geneva based CIA agent. Shailene Woodley deserves a mention and I warmed to her portrayal of Ed’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills as the film progressed. Stone is rather obviously less surefooted at personal relationship building than he is with the bigger picture of Ed realising just how rotten things are at the Pentagon though.

All in all, it is a hugely enjoyable slice of left leaning political entertainment which saves its most brutal treatment for dear old Barack Obama who is set up as a prospective saviour who didn’t have the guts to stick to his guns when it came to information collection programs. Angry, defiant, hero building back slapping film-making with a coda which will seem inevitable if you sense it coming or will cause you to wail in frustration if you aren’t a fan of real people turning up in fictional versions of their stories.

Poseidon (2006)

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I haven’t seen the original Poseidon Adventure and my only real reference point for it is Father Ted Crilly’s realisation that it is not a helpful tool in solving a sticky situation involving Father Dougal and a bomb laden milk float, Gene Hackman’s priest not even saying mass during the struggle for survival (not unsurprisingly if Wikipedia is right and he is an official of the Protestant faith).

Wolfgang Petersen’s 2006 remake utterly passed me by on its original release and the only reason I found myself watching it is that Kurt Russsell is in it. Which it turns out shouldn’t have been a good enough reason. The best part of the film,  not to mention the only half neat piece of scriptwriting,  is an aside where Kurt’s heroic Robert Ramsey says “I used to be a fireman” leading to some ironic chuckling from me because Backdraft is a great movie and I now wish I was watching it.

The most loving shot in the entire picture is a 360 degree external tour of the ship itself which adds some visual pizazz to the credit sequence. Lovingly crafted CGI lingers on every curve of the glamorous vessel but pretty soon a rogue wave hits and destruction follows. Now, James Cameron’s Titanic isn’t one of my favourite films but it handles the sinking of the vessel brilliantly with top notch effects and an ongoing sense of peril paired with characters who you actually care about to an extent. Sadly, the same can’t be said of this. The computer effects are slightly shoddy and having the wave hit at night doesn’t disguise that as much as the filmmakers might have thought it would.

Once our merry band of survivors are set on their way it becomes painfully obvious who is going to survive and who isn’t. In fact I will set out the main characters and you can guess who dies and who survives. I promise you it will be more fun than watching the film.  We have a jolly Latino waiter, the attractive Latin girl he is smuggling in his cabin who is on her way to see her terminally ill brother, the dashing young professional gambler, the single mother he is getting close to and her supposedly adorable yet actually massively irritating kid, the heroic father coming to terms with his daughter’s engagement, said daughter and jock fiance, the loudmothed uncouth professional gambler (Matt Dillon’s brother Kevin anyone?) and the elderly homosexual entrepreneur having suicidal thoughts after being jilted by his younger lover. Four of them die and six survive and I can guarantee that if you watch this you genuinely won’t care who.

Petersen continues to put the cast in various scenes of aquatic peril but things get ever more ridiculous as characters dive through flames unsinged and suddenly exhibit the lung capacity of the famed clifftop divers of Acapulco. Characterisation is minimal. The greatest example being that Richard Dreyfuss’s character is marked out as gay by a single sparkly stud earring and there is a very strange and prolonged cameo by Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas, obviously trying to kickstart some acting career which went nowhere. She seems to be in a relationship with the ship’s captain but I am only saying that cause she gives him a loving hug as disaster approaches and to be fair I too would be giving out free hugs at that point

It is short but nowhere near short enough and most of the budget seems to have gone on a single shot of the ship and Kurt Russell’s hair products. Not that I wish to be seen to be criticising that decision as Kurt’s hair is one of the film’s few strong points.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bad Batch (2016)

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It would appear that no-one bothered to come up with an official tag line for Ana Lilly Amirpour’s second feature which is I suppose a form of honesty, suggesting as it does that it was impossible for the creative team to think of a good reason for anyone to watch it. If they had been in the business of creating a truly honest tag line though they could do no better than that formulated by a good friend of mine –  “The aftermath of the apocalypse is going to be boring but it can’t be this boring.”

This has all the hallmarks of a breakout star in the directorial firmament being given a heap of cash after a successful low budget starter flick and not having a clue what to do with it. The narrative genuinely feels like a 20 minute short stretched out to the two hour mark with attempts to throw lots of disparate elements together without any thematic thread to hold them in place. You have horror elements (arguably the most successful part of the film is the dread infused opening 15 minutes), hazily unfocused attempts at social satire (Cannibalistic bodybuilders?), really distracting stunt casting (Hi mute Jim Carrey! Hi 70’s lothario Keanu!), a depiction of an exploitative personality cult packaged up  with some very odd romance and a liberal sprinkling of cannibalism.

The central idea, that there is an ) arid desert wasteland (Texas!) populated by a bunch of people who have been deemed unworthy of society is a promising one to build a post-apocalyptic dystopia around but the world-building is so slack that none of it seems real. There is no texture or depth to anything on screen and only the most tenuous narrative or story arc to follow. There are long stretches when not only is nothing happening but it doesn’t appear likely that anything ever will happen. Spoiler alert – Barely anything does!

The feeling that I could not shake was that I was watching the worst Mad Max movie ever. It feels like a female fronted remake of The Road Warrior directed by a low rent Terence Malick with golf buggies and mopeds providing the vehicular muscle. There is a curious lack of action and it is almost impossible to understand why anyone does any of the things they do or indeed don’t take what would seem to be the logical action for them to take in any given situation. This lack of effort leaches into the dialogue which is eye-wateringly unsubtle, like a sledgehammer to the nose.

I don’t think any film needs Keanu Reeves digressing on how faeces make the journey through a sewage system and if you make it through to Suki Waterhouse’s painful “What if things happen to us so other things can happen to us” speech just don’t blame me for the pain in your head as you try and fathom what she is talking about.

It is really infuriating because Amirpour has a good eye for a shot, a nice ear for using pop music to accentuate emotion and an original,  feminist slant to her story-telling but on this evidence she needs to back it up with some detailed world-building, fully fleshed out characters and less horrendously naff dialogue. Or perhaps have a clear idea of what kind of film she wants to make before she starts filming.

Gaslight (1940)

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Here we have a British film so good that when MGM decided to remake it for a U.S audience four years later they attempted to destroy all existing prints so that they could trumpet their movie as the only screen version of Patrick Hamilton’s play. Due to some skullduggery on the part of director Thorold Dickinson it survived and due to its atmosphere and sheer brilliance I have been left with no desire to see Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar winning performance in George Cukor’s retread.

The story goes that Old Alice Barlow was murdered in a house at number 12 Pimlico Square in London and robbed of her priceless rubies. Over a decade later suave foreigner Paul Mallen (Anton Walbrook) rents the long empty property with his seemingly unstable wife Bella (Diana Wynyard). However, retired police inspector Rough (Frank Pettingell) can’t shake the notion that Mr Mallen is a ghost from the past by the name of Louis Bauer, a relative of the aged murder victim.

Dickinson sets the scene in a stereotypically fog bound London, the fog appearing to have been etched onto the developed frame itself in a technique of dazzling artistry which neatly sidesteps the need for practical effects and really engrains the atmosphere in the lens. It feels murkily claustrophobic and dank in a very tactile way which wouldn’t have been the case had some theatrical dry ice been used to create the required mist. The director’s technical wizardry is further revealed in a stunning shot of Bella’s image reflected (perhaps trapped?) in a music box as she questions her own sanity and a wonderful moment at the finale where, for an unbearably tense moment, it is impossible to work out whether a murder has been committed or whether someone is merely undergoing extreme mental anguish.

Dickinson is intent, from the opening shot, in breaking free of the staginess which afflicts lots of adaptations of successful plays. His camera proudly moves around the Pimlico Square set in a proto-Wellesian manner with swooping tracking shots. He is also never afraid of moving in or out of the action to offer different perspectives, particularly close angles which limit the audience viewpoint, thereby creating yet more confusion and uncertainty in a film which thrives upon the human need to create a “together” facade which deep seated emotion is always threatening to destroy.

The reason I truly love this film though is the acting genius of Anton Walbrook. His performances in this movie, Colonel Blimp (I implore you to search for his The Truth monologue on Youtube –  it might just be the greatest piece of movie acting ever) and The Red Shoes are beyond compare. Here he exudes a slimy, controlled menace which bubbles just under the smooth, aristocratic veneer. As a study of a coldly calculating, cruelly controlling and sadistically obsessive (The RUBIES!) personality it has never been bettered. Wynyard excels too as the woman tricked into believing she is losing her mind and once she has re-oriented herself towards the end of the picture she slips into a chilling quasi madness of her own (Is the knife real or is it not? I don’t know, I’m Mad!). Pettingell’s devoted ex-cop adds a nice little bit of humour to proceedings – never has there been a more self-satisfied sleuth (and I include Hercule Poirot in that). He is never afraid to blow his own trumpet or let the world know how awesome he is and it is a mark of the actor’s craft that this is endearing and not, you know, immensely irritating, as it could easily have been.

Recently restored by the BFI (the Blu Ray transfer is superb) this is a little gem of British cinema which will not disappoint. Thank goodness it survived the draconian attempt to erase it from film history.

 

 

 

Ace Ventura:When Nature Calls (1995)

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Now, this would probably be a surprise entry on any list of sequels which are better than their forebears but hear me out for a minute. I always felt that Carrey, emboldened by the success of the first movie just a year previously, was able to be a little bit more outrageous in hs second feature as the ace pet detective of the title.

The opening Cliffhanger spoof, as Ace attempts to save a raccoon from vertiginous heights,  is pitched absolutely perfectly and sets the tone for all that follows. Add that to his irresponsible use of the word Shikaka, his intoxicating fear of bats, knack of inadvertently ingesting guano and interesting methods of parking a jeep and you have a laugh riot. The scene where he has to escape from a mechanical spy rhino by squeezing his naked form through the rectal opening is dangerously funny and plays very much to Carrey’s gurning, contorting strengths.

Don’t think that I am blind to the problems it presents though. I know it has a very simplistic depiction of Africa and the idea of one peace-loving tribe attempting to coexist with their bloodthirsty neighbours is pretty reductive as is the plot point which focuses on Ace’s attraction to virginal princess Sophie Okonedo (although the moment where Ian McNeice walks in on Carrey furiously pleasuring himself after a charged meeting with her is a highlight). Really, the satire in the film, thin at best, is directed at British colonial aspirations and intrigue in the form of Simon Callow’s Vincent Cadby and he is punished for his sins by ending up as a connubial mate to a large Silverback Gorilla.

Which all goes to say that as a whole it is intensely puerile, slapstick fun but I don’t feel ashamed for enjoying it even if I am acutely aware of the problematic nature of some of the comedy.

As rushed out cash in sequels go it is up there with the best.

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

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This Shane Black scripted, Tony Scott directed buddy private eye flick is a perfect little time capsule of early 90’s Hollywood machismo. Revolving around blackmail and deceit in the sports betting industry it features more testosterone than you would believe possible, a classic inter-racial buddy relationship, some brutal violence and a palette of burnt umber which suggests that the younger Scott brother had slightly too much of a penchant for shooting at sundown.

For the most part it is a riot of witty lines (an aside about a violent assault from a verbose hitman being akin to taking a beating from the inventor of Scrabble being a particular highlight) and close quarters action (death by  helicopter rotor blade is up there on the list of great screen demises) with an awkwardly developing male friendship at its heart. The fact that this plays really well when by all accounts Wayans and Willis hated each other makes their chemistry all the more remarkable and certainly explains the serrated edge it seems to have, particularly in the sceen where Willis’s chain smoking, alcoholic Joe Hallenbeck gets all hypocritical about cokehead Jimmy Dix’s coping mechansims.

The female characters don’t do quite so well. Of the two adult women in the narrative, one is a blackmailing stripper and the other is an unfaithful wife and neither are really given any scope to bring any nuance to their roles. Halle Berry, as Dix’s girlfriend,  exists merely to bring together the two male leads in pursuit of justice while Chelsea Field as Willis’s cheating wife exists only to provide a reason for his alcoholism. Black fares rather better with Willis’s daughter Darien (Danielle Harris)- who actually gets to become an active participant in the narrative but there is a thread in his writing career where he seems most comfortable writing teenage girls.

Ryan Gosling’s daughter in 2016’s buddy private eye flick The Nice Guys (written and directed by Black) is essentially the same character and that film, although enjoyable mindless fun, felt a bit like it was striving too hard for something that came a lot more naturally first time around. There isn’t really a great deal of structural or thematic difference between the two films at all and the fact that the newer film seems to have been better received is slightly mystifying as it feels like Black recycling elements that have worked from previous scripts without having the magic to reinvent himself. It feels like that film would have sunk without Gosling and Crowe’s charisma where the script here feels a lot sharper and less reliant on the particular leads, even if Willis is only a shade away from reprising John McClane in all but name.

It is a fun and flashy adventure with a tightly constructed and pin-prick sharp script.

Friday night might well be a great night for football but any night is a great one to sit back and indulge in some 90’s nostalgia with this one.