Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, dir. David Fincher, scr. Steven Zaillian, st. Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård

Whether or not Fincher's remake trumps Niels Arden Oplev's 2009 version is a matter of opinion, although one can't help feel the game is rigged. Even with the Fincher/Zaillian/Craig pedigree, the nefarious Hollywood machine is up against a highly acclaimed $13m starless European sleeper. What is clear is that Fincher's version is a brilliant, mesmerising watch. As a director, he's always been good at extracting the gleam from the grit (a weirdly old-school Maurice Binder-inspired title sequence, all gelatinous black oil, computer cable tendrils and contorted limbs and figures set this out from the start) and in Mara, he's found his narrative kedge. This is undoubtedly her show. Her Lisbeth is calmer and waifier than Noomi Rapace's original, and at her most spunky or anguished, I was reminded of the film's Swedish title Män som hatar kvinnor - Men Who Hate Women - more clearly than in the original. The twisty plot unfolds with just the right amount of geek hacker-tech (Craig's Blomkvist struggling with Mac OSX tickles), political and corporate deceit, action and villain-soliloquising. Fincher, then, with his eye for spectacular detail, knows how to orchestrate with a fundamental sense of structural and stylistic acumen that marries old-fashioned thriller sensibilities with a keenly contemporary edge (note another unsymphonic Reznor/Ross score) that he's been evolving since Se7en. Like Lisbeth tearing into the night on her bike, his future is so full of rich possibilities.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Edge Of Darkness, dir. Martin Campbell, scr. William Monahan, Andrew Bovell, based on the television series by Troy Kennedy Martin, st. Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone

Shorn of the environmental mysticism that made the 1985 BBC Edge Of Darkness, on which this is based, so memorable, this remains a fairly standard political conspiracy revenge thriller which sees Gibson, heavy-lidded and greying, take out a whole host of ne'er-do-wells in the pursuit of his daughter's killers. It's business as usual as the intrigue goes all the way to the top, up to and including senators and various government officials. It might have been nice if some of the more fantastical elements had been retained (even in the original show, creator Troy Martin wanted the lead character to turn into a tree at the end), and maybe that kind of genre-blending would have resulted in something a shade more novel than what we get. Gibson's been doing this type of thing for many years now - and it shows. In his first lead part since Signs in 2002, it's hard not to see his Tom Craven, unsteady on his feet and radiated, as an embodiment of where this kind of role has taken him - faltering, weakened, unable to carry on. Which is a shame because although it may not be cool to like Gibson at the moment, I've always maintained he's a rather fine actor. Where he goes from here is anyone's guess, but I do hope he has one or two great performances left in him.

My Top Five Films Of 2011

5. Take Shelter - a claustrophobic two hour one-acter, with a great score and mesmerising performances.

4. Melancholia - Von Trier's searingly intense rumination on depression via the end of the world.

3. Perfect Sense - Ewan McGregor and Eva Green lose their senses in this BBCish anfractuous love story.

2. The Skin I Live In - a commanding and melodramatic Noiry psycho-sexual drama from Almodóvar.

1. Another Earth - hi-concept, lo-fi, intelligent and masterly creative filmmaking from Brit Marling.

Commended: Drive, Sleeping Beauty, Attack The Block

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Inbetweeners Movie, dir. Ben Palmer, wr. Damon Beesley, Iain Morris, st. Simon Bird, Joe Thomas, James Buckley, Blake Harrison

The fact this spinoff from the TV series boasted the biggest UK box office opening weekend ever for a comedy film serves as testament to the power of small screen roots and loyal fan bases. One gets the feeling The Inbetweeners Movie attracted people to the cinema who wouldn't normally go, in the same way Philipa Lloyd's Mamma Mia! might have done in 2008. Large groups of friends hanging out in the Multiplex instead of Movida. If nothing else it proves that people are willing to go to the movies as much because of who they're going with than because of the draw of the film itself. Even the brilliant Community, currently on hiatus in the US, carries the hashtag on twitter #sixseasonsandamovie. Here though, if you're not familiar with the prurient antics of Will, Jay, Neil and Simon as they navigate their way through the teenage tundra, there's little to see here other than a never-ending stream of wee, poo, bum, tit, fanny, shag and cock gags that serve instead of a script. And yet, surprisingly, there's an honesty at heart too, much as I tried to ignore it; there's a kind of American Pie-like celebration of loser triumph over alpha male pageantry that's annoyingly feel-good, coupled with the deep, deep embarrassing recognition of some of the schoolboy-dicktalk that's all too familiar.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Company Men, dir/wr. John Wells, st. Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Maria Bello, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner

The Company Men is an engaging, low-key drama that focusses on the economic climate of the US in the early 2000s through the eyes of several employees of GTX, an industrial manufacturing company that begins to downsize in order to maximise profits. CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) takes home $20m while others lose their cars, homes and sense of self-worth. Plus ça change. Debut director Wells does a sturdy job in conveying the irrelevance of the Always Be Closing mantra in such uncertain and desperate times and there's a suitably maudlin if not a little saccharine score from Aaron Zigman that grounds the action in a palatable TV movie feel. The script could have done with a little more bite to allow this drama to tell us something more we haven't already discovered by watching The Smartest Guys In The Room or Inside Job and some may find it a little hard to muster pity for Affleck when he has to sell his soft-top Porsche to make ends meet, but it works as a snapshot of the human cost of the perilous times we live in. Costner gives a great little unassuming performance as Affleck's blue-collar brother-in-law and Nelson is quietly heartbreaking as one of the laid off who, resigned, cannot see a way out of his predicament. 

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Columbiana, dir. Olivia Megaton, scr. Luc Besson, Robert Mark Kamen, st. Zoë Saldana, Michael Vartan, Cliff Curtis

From Luc Besson's keyboard comes yet another tale of an impossibly alpine-cheekboned, gun-toting beauty out for revenge. It's a testament to the formula that this still passes muster as an enjoyable saturday night popcorn flick, even if the plot's riddled with more holes than the movie's bullet-ridden sets. After seeing her family slain in front of her at the behest of Columbian scumbag Don Luis (Beto Benites) a young Cataleya escapes (via an impressively choreographed parkour sequence - think Bourne meets Young Apprentice) and vows to avenge her family when grown. Saldana as the older Cataleya is feminine and unstoppable in the way that made Nikita and Sarah Connor such fascinating characters to watch as they exuberantly go through every automatic weapon available, but where the film falls down is weak characterisation, lazy stereotyping and an overarching transparent desire to appease the male teen demographic. One scene even has Saldana coming home and inexplicably doing a salacious dance (she's alone) before checking her pistol whilst sucking on a lollipop. Nonetheless, the action sequences are balletic and slick and it's cleanly edited and shot. Watchable.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Friends With Benefits, dir. Will Gluck, wr. Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Will Gluck, st. Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarkson, Jenna Elfman, Woody Harrelson, Richard Jenkins

Every time you get fearful Friends With Benefits will take flight and soar above its tried and tested formula, fear not, for like its companion piece, Ivan Reitman's No Strings Attached from earlier in the same year, Gluck adheres to convention with satisfactory results. In fact watching Kunis do her adorkable thing is way more fun than Strings's Natalie Portman who, the brilliant SNL sketch Natalie Raps aside, always looks in some discomfort  when uttering expletives (also see, or rather don't, Your Highness). It's a bit of a shame that for a comedy, however lightly intended, that riffs on the nature of romantic cliché and relationship stereotypes in such a knowing way, the film ends up wholeheartedly conforming to them. After the buzz and kineticism of watching the two leads for 90 minutes it almost feels like something of a cop-out to see them so easily walk off into the sunset. But there're some nice cameos from Andy Samberg and Emma Stone as the pair's exes, Harrelson having a ball as the sage gay sports editor, and the ever-reliable Richard Jenkins as Timberlake's Alzheimer-afflicted father, who Six Feet Under fans will know can go from gravitas to airily comedic in a heartbeat. Friends With Benefits doesn't quite get the easy A it was aiming for, but for what it is, it does indeed make the grade.

The Debt, dir. John Madden, wr. Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Peter Straughan, st. Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas, Ciarán Hinds, Jessica Chastain

A kind of Munich-lite confirmed by the presence of Mrs. Jonathan Ross on scriptwriting duties, whose Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class were both pretty flabby affairs. This sporadically engaging film tells the story of a triumvirate of Mossad agents dispatched to East Berlin in 1966 to locate and capture "The Surgeon of Birkenau" a kind of fictional Josef Mengele. After he evades them, the trio decide to lie about his death in order to boost the national sense of justice and alleviate their own shame at failure at their mission. There's an interesting semi-pertiment link to the present as the group discuss how a well disseminated lie is as powerful as the truth would be destructive, an idea that resounds strongly with Bin Laden's then recent covert dispatch and swift burial. Chastain as one of the three agents forms the empathic core of the film, interest in her burgeoning career well and truly deserved, and Worthington and Csokas give solid support, but it's Mirren who fares less well. Quite simply she's better than the material that makes up the film's present-day flashforwards, and where there's genuine suspense and the thumping sense of something at stake in the 60s set scenes, there's incredulity and hamminess in the present. Props though to Thomas Newman's score and Bond's "Mr. White" Jesper Christensen as the impassive war-criminal.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Margaret, dir/wr. Kenneth Lonergan, st. Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Allison Janney, Jean Reno

Such is the breadth of circuitous narrative threads, proficiently woven characterisation and social commentary on display in Lonergan's sprawling, studio-confounded 2007 drama, it's tough to take it all in. The story concerns precocious Lisa (Paquin) who plays catalyst to a tragic accident and seeks to indignantly and ferociously repair the damage she has caused. Lonergan seems to want to focus on the bigger picture of wagging tongues, unbridled and uncensored, and how detrimental to the cause they can be, but ekes out the message through numerous network narratives. Paquin here is an elemental force of juvenile righteousness inhabiting a multi-veneered role far suited to her talents than Sookie Stackhouse. The big hitters - Broderick, Damon, Janney and Ruffalo - although memorable enough in what amounts to little more than cameos, play second fiddle to the compelling Smith-Cameron as Lisa's mother Joan. Watching the sparring contest between them, hissing and spitting through several breathtakingly performed scenes of intricately observed histrionics is at once exhausting and achingly sad. There's a disjointedness to the film's form and many will find the languid plot development disconcerting, but like Lisa herself, it's rather irresistibly hypnotic to watch.

Friday, 16 December 2011

The Ides Of March, dir. George Clooney, scr. George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon, based on Farragut North by Beau Willimon, st. Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Evan Rachel Wood, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright

I quite like Gosling's bright-eyed idealist Junior Campaign Manager, naive, skilled yet inexperienced, but I also like Clooney's Governor Mike Morris, assured, charming and velvet-voiced, but which is better? There's only one way to find out! Labyrinthly-plotted, Sorkin-esque, political thriller-genred FIGHT!!! Those wily politicians are at it again, promising an end to terrorism and the use of fossil fuels, part of a healthy marriage, and edgily vague about whether God exists, while their team mill away in the background, backstage, out of the spotlight, living the campaign, and skeletons dance a merry jig in closets. The Ides Of March is just unpredictable enough to be enjoyable (thanks to the dumbest cut of a spoiler-laden trailer if ever there was one) thanks to the film's theatrical roots and some engaging performances by the terrific ensemble cast. Clooney shows flair as director, and Gosling just gets more and more watchable with each passing part, but the highlight is Rachel Wood, so brazenly Machiavellian and icily contemptible in Mildred Pierce earlier this year, here a sorrowful lament to young ambitious idealism, betrayed by those that ought to know better. It does little more than to reinforce the adage that politics is a dirty business, but the fall from grace and loss of innocence of those unwittingly complicit packs a punch.

À Bout Portant, dir. Fred Cavayé, wr. Fred Cavayé, Guillaume Lemans, st. Gilles Lellouche, Elena Anaya

À Bout Portant is a sinewy thriller, ostensibly an extended chase movie wherein hapless husband and expectant father Samuel (Lellouche) finds himself on the hunt for his kidnapped wife with various criminal organisations and corrupt police officials in hot pursuit. Cavayé's trump card in an overcrowded post-Bourne world is making Samuel a resourceful nobody, driven by his primal instinct to protect his family, rather than a highly trained super-spy. Similarly, the unrelenting and breathless action is grounded in a kind of desperate reality rather than all manner of automotive and acrobatic pyrotechnics we've come to expect from this kind of film. In one wonderfully observed moment, after eluding the cops on the underground, Samuel pauses to catch laboured breath, and vomits profusely. These little touches coupled with Anaya's radiant, doe-eyed portrayal of Nadia, Samuel's wife, seal the deal. There's no shortage of serpentine plot developments either with Cavayé and Lemans playfully toying with conventions of good, evil, innocent and guilty and there's a great little part played by Claire Pérot as an ambitious detective diligently channeling her inner Lisbeth, worthy of a spin-off of her own. 

Monday, 12 December 2011

Final Destination 5, dir. Steven Quale, wr. Eric Heisserer, st. Nicholas D'Agosto, Emma Bell, Miles Fisher

Benjamin Franklin once said, "In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes and another Final Destination movie." Okay so that's a bit of a lie - if you own Vodafone, you can avoid taxes. Yes, as the deaths advance in increasingly inventive fashion, so the characters and narrative threads between them thin to gossamer strands. Fast forward to Final Destination 38 and I'm pretty sure it'll just be 100 minutes of back-to-back slayings. Either that or the carnage will have blown to such epically contrived proportions by then, they'll do a back-to-roots reboot à la Casino Royale in which one person slightly bruises from being hit with a shuttlecock or knocks their funny bone from walking into the boot-mounted bike rack on a parked car. Either way you can be sure Tony Todd still manages to wrangle a part in it, shuffling his pensioner frame on set, still delivering his dialogue with the same trademark subwoofer tones, and still spouting the same old bollocks about death not liking being cheated. It'll probably be released in 4D by then which will enable the viewer to watch every frame of the film simultaneously in 1/25th of a second, and instead of old-school 3D glasses and a screen, each cinema seat comes with a mini orbitoclast you jab into your eye socket and electronically deliver the film directly to your frontal lobes while underpaid ushers mill about the aisles mopping up the blood and inevitable soiling. 

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene, dir/wr. Sean Durkin, st. Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a hauntingly claustrophobic one-note psychological thriller about a young girl who escapes an abusive cult, and moves in with her sister (Paulson) and her husband (Dancy). Whether members of the organisation have staked out her new home or whether her mind has been completely broken at the commune by the charismatic leader Patrick (Hawkes) is unclear. The trauma of how abusive cult manipulation stays with its victims is viscerally depicted through a terrifyingly persuasive performance by Olsen, but some of the larger plot holes, although cumulatively contributing to the woozy dreamlike atmosphere, are too wooly to totally ignore - and there's an ending that'll test even the most hardened fans of open-endedness. Sundance companion films Another Earth and Take Shelter both feature the same type of ambiguous ending but where they are locked in with the overall tone and colour of the rest of the film, MMMM's ending seems a little too obviously enigmatic. That said, it's a compelling character study of susceptibility and suggestibility.

Friday, 2 December 2011

50/50, dir Jonathan Levine, wr. Will Reiser, st. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Angelica Huston

Just when you think you've smugly got this film sussed out, there's a subtle and fluid gear change around the halfway mark; the smut and superficial bromance is replaced by what is, at its core, a remarkably simple and heartbreakingly poignant shift in tone that delicately explores the spectrum of emotions and experiences Gordon-Levitt's Adam Lerner faces in the days leading up to his last chance op. When he finally succumbs to the Kübler-Ross model his stoicism has tried so hard to keep at bay, the film side-steps an impressive count of insipid Cancer Movie clichés, the most satisfying being the way the relationship is developed between Adam and his trainee counsellor Katie McKay; she too has been unceremoniously flung into the deep end and asked to simply manage. Kendrick's shy dorkiness and the way Gordon-Levitt can turn on a dime from pragmatism to fear are the film's life-giving beating heart. Rogen too, eternal frat-boy that he is, retains credibility as Adam's twatish yet loyal friend Kyle, and Dallas Howard is suitably shifty as the girlfriend with one foot all too readily out the door. Hollywood has run the gamut over the years in how it depicts death and dying, and Levine's propensity to score transitional scenes with songs from the "MONTAGE" playlist on his iPod aside, here's a film that's satisfyingly direct and honest.

Moneyball, dir. Bennett Miller, wr. Steve Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, based on Moneyball by Michael Lewis, st. Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jonah Hill

I must confess I do find it rather hard to fully engage with a sports movie. Detractors of Sorkin's short-lived Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip claimed its Achilles Heel was that unlike in The West Wing, whether or not a weekly light entertainment show airs in time was not high stakes enough to make for compulsive, compelling viewing; a background in Theatre means that I empathise with the pressures of mounting a production on a very personal level, and similarly, were I an avid consumer of agony and ecstasy, maybe I'd feel some of the pride and exhilaration that goes with team supporting. That said, Moneyball is an intelligent and involving biopic of the Oakland Athletics baseball team's general manager Billy Beane (Pitt) and his attempts to cobble together the ultimate team, not by buying players with the league's meagre cash flow, but by using Peter Brand (Hill) and his Microsoft Excel skills in selecting affordable but overlooked batsmen solely by their high base percentages. There're whispers of Sorkin's trademark wordsmithery to be found if one listens hard enough, and the performances are assured but muted. There's some clever intercutting of stock game footage that reinforces the story's real-life roots, but there's a lack of palpable excitement that might have injected some more drama into this slow-burner.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Our Idiot Brother, dir. Jesse Peretz, scr. Evgenia Peretz, David Schisgall, st. Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer, Steve Coogan

Judging by the whimsical score and Rudd's doofy portrayal of the titular idiot, I presume this film holds lofty ambitions of cutesy disarmament, as loveable dickhead Ned Rockliffe proceeds to wreck havoc on the lives of his three self-absorbed sisters with hiLARious results. But it turns out there's not much going on here either in the way of laughs or precious insights into how muttonheads have feelings too. Christ, even Forrest Gump went to war for his country. When the entirely predictable moment comes when the sisters realise the error of their ways while their brother's in prison, do they go and see him en masse for a heart-to-heart? Do they write him a letter explaining how they never truly valued his unconditional optimism? No, they steal his ex-girlfriend's dog and send it to him. How lame is that? It's like if I treated my brother like shit all his life and then sent him a boxset of Spooks by way of reconciliation. AND THEN the film becomes just smug enough to include bloopers over the closing credits, which made me audibly harrumph at the audacity. In my last review of Crazy, Stupid, Love I posited that great actors can compensate for a lousy script; apparently that's not always the case. 

Friday, 25 November 2011

The Thing, dir. Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., wr. Eric Heisserer, st. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgarton, Ulrich Thomsen

Less of a prequel and more of a carbon copy, this Thing asks one pertinent question: what do we expect from prequels? Stray far from the winning formula of the original and you risk making a very different beast, commit to the source material and you're accused of squandering a golden opportunity to expand the narrative universe. More often than not, you can't win. Arguably John Carpenter's 1982 The Thing never needed a backstory in the first place. The film derived its power from literally existing in a void. Like the vast inhospitable Antarctic location, there is no sense of what comes before or after, Day and night roll into one, time stands still. The isolation is keenly felt. Heijningen's version begins promisingly enough with its faithful recreations of Carpenter's sets and Morricone's synth score, right down to the intro credits font, but as the plot unfurls, it's clear we're witnessing an unhealthy obsession. Scenes are cloned almost verbatim and although the CG is gruesomely rendered, it's no match for Rob Bottin's intricately machinated slime-filled puppets. Winstead, as palaeontologist Kate Lloyd, is decent enough but I heard Ellen Ripley's blood coursing a little too loudly through her veins for my liking. Speaking as an advocate of the original, sitting through this was at least a painless experience, yet one I'm not sure I needed to have gone through in the first place.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love, dir. Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, wr. Dan Fogelman, st. Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Kevin Bacon, Maris Tomei

Whether you are able to resist the shameless sentimentality and industrial-sized portions of quattro formaggi on offer here depends very much, I suspect, on the present state of your current romantic engagements, and sure enough, Ficarra and Requa's distinctly old-fashioned comedy got me in the end. A large portion of the film is spent feeling whether the numerous disjointed narrative threads are ever going to come to a head. However, they tie up neatly in the end, and the shamelessly corny story, never too knowingly cool in its script, wins you over with solid performances from actors who, though we know are better than these roles, give solid and committed performances. For me though, it was all about Gosling; slipping effortlessly between the brooding and the comedic, the actor possesses an easy charm and diversity, really, pictures just lift when he comes onscreen. His scenes with Emma Stone make investing in these characters truly joyous. It's not a particularly heavy watch, but like Ron Howard's Parenthood from 1989, there'll always be some delightful resonating truth to be found within the soul-searching score and earnest find-yourself graduation speeches. You just need to be brave and jettison the cynicism.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Take Shelter, dir/wr. Jeff Nichols, st. Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain

Composer David Wingo's reverb-delayed music box phrases establish a truly unsettlingly eerie mood from the start in Jeff Nichol's introspective and inspirational litany to familial understanding, love and support. We have Curtis LaForche (Shannon on wonderful, tempestuous form) frightened that his apocalyptic visions are either the result of a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia, or worse, they're premonitions of a very real future to come. The depiction of his dreams veer dangerously close at times to the jagged shoreline of conventional horror - the difference between waking up with a piece of Freddy Krueger's sweater in your hand and waking up with blood all over your pillow from biting your cheek in fear may be slight - but the physical realism the effect Curtis' nightmares have on him ground this film in a terrifying tangibility. The joy here though, is that nestling amongst the worry, confusion and alarm, there's also compassion, comfort and hope, culminating in an ending that's at once exhilarating and calmingly pacifying; I would proffer this film is not merely about confrontation with demons but about those who are closest to us in times of great physical and spiritual need. Take Shelter is as unnerving as it is moving and instructive.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Cowboys & Aliens, dir. Jon Favreau, scr. Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, st. Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell

Cowboys & Aliens, I'm sure wears its title as some kind of self-meta-referencial, heart-sleeved genre in-joke, and that would have been great if it had been densely plotted, full of trope-defying characters and freshly spun set-pieces. Sadly, it's none of these things. What a shame for a movie that boasts Indiana Jones AND James Bond. AND Quorra from Tron: Legacy. Once more I find myself sighing and repeating that films like this aren't bad films per se, they're just utterly lacking. Ford has some kind of redemptive path we're supposed to be following made totally redundant by the lack of clarity that he was ever such a bastard in the first place, the stoic iciness Craig puts to such effective use as 007 comes off looking like evidence of a severely underwritten part, Rockwell's so bland I though he was Eric Stoltz at first, and I KNOW there's a role for the sublimely talented Olivia Wilde out there just waiting to stimulate her into giving us a performance worthy of her considerable talent; yet, for woe, this is not it. It's ambitious, I'll give Jon Favreau that, and it's a brave man who sets two grand old conventions in opposition, but like a charity fireworks display, it never quite delivers the bang you know in your heart it was never capable of giving but hoped it might. Cowboys & Aliens simply ends up being as uninspiring as its name.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Wuthering Heights, dir. Andrea Arnold, wr. Andrea Arnold, Olivia Hetreed, based on the novel by Emily Brontë, st. Kaya Scodelario, James Howson

Arnold is nothing if not an extraordinary sensory director. Shot on the North Yorkshire moors, windswept heather and bracken, nebulous drizzle and glacial dawn mists are captured and presented with a level of immersion unmatched by the latest 3D nonsense. Like another famous literary twosome sharing auditoriums this week, extreme angst is the order of the day, the difference being that Heathcliff and Cathy's relationship comes burdened with issues of social standing, class, race (in Arnold's version) and jealousy. That and the fact Heathcliff doesn't sparkle in the sunlight. In fact sunlight is the only meteorological phenomenon absent from the film, any semblance of joy or happiness supplanted by confounded misery and despondency at every turn, highlighted by cinematographer Robbie Ryan's chilly mornings over bleak landscapes or blustery rocky capes overlooking wintry dusks. With barely a handful of pages of dialogue to convey the narrative, much of the story is told in vignetted action and the oft-pained expressions of the leads. Solomon Glave as the Young Heathcliff segues neatly into Howson's mature portrayal, Scoledario fares less well at taking over from Shannon Beer's sure-footed performance, but both couples convince well enough and the result is an affectingly tactile slice of scholarly miserablism.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Heartless, dir/wr. Philip Ridley, st. Jim Sturgess, Joseph Mawle, Noel Clarke, Clémence Poésy, Timothy Spall

What to make of 2009's Heartless, an urban Faustian fairytale set in London's East End that liberally borrows from an impressively eclectic set of literary and cinematic tropes and conventions and packages them in some kind of early 90's Screen One BBC drama-cum-70's-era Cronenbergian B-movie? On the one hand it's rather trite to say Ridley's film defies convention, but it's at a deeper, molecular level where things really start to get complicated: sometime during the claustrophobic, hallucinatory horror there's a disconcertingly random yet inspired comic walk-on part by Eddie Marsan; Sturgess' protagonist Jamie Morgan's courtship of Poésy's Tia is at first forgettably quixotic and then turns on a dime in a simple first-kiss-after-first-date scene on the London Underground into something wondrous; Mawle's Louis Cyphre-channeled Papa B comes off as all empty-threated and goth-costumed until he starts biting chunks out of Noel Clarke's disembodied head, at which point HOLY CHRIST do you start taking him seriously. What do all these stylistic non-sequitors add up to? Something genuinely unique actually. It's messy and confused and heavy-handed in its redemption-through-familial-love narrative fulcrum, but it all hangs together when it clearly shouldn't, and that in itself makes this a laudable watch. Bizarre, but laudable. 

Monday, 14 November 2011

Frontièr(s), dir/wr. Xavier Gens, st. Aurelién Wiik, Samuel Le Bihan, Estelle Lefébure

Part of the New French Extremity gamut of horror films, ultra-violent, ultra-gory, and often ultra-silly, it's hard to see 2007's Frontièr(s) as anything more than Gallic torture-porn. At least Gens has the gall to attempt an injection of academia into the proceedings, drawing parallels between the film's Texas Chainsaw-style, Nazi-inspired family hell-bent on creating a master race and its fictional Parisian election of an ultra-right wing president. From potentially uncomfortable and unpalatable yet undeniably fertile ground, the germ of what may have been a new strain of socio-political horror film alas fails to take root and the movie ends up being about nothing more than new and inventive ways to choreograph chasing screaming girls down dark corridors. Pedro Almodóvar's recent The Skin I Live In demonstrated in spectacular fashion how true horror can burrow so deep inside your mind you feel it wriggling away in there for weeks afterwards. It's the age-old adage of less is more and there's a numbing sensation that sets in - similar to the experience of watching Srdan Spasojević's tedious exercise in extremity A Serbian Film - after seeing Karina Testa's Yasmine being beaten, drugged, knifed, kicked, chained and degraded scene after scene. I would recommend instead Pascal Laugier's Martrys which, whilst being equally hard to stomach, at the very least ends up as a film with something contemplative to say about pain and suffering.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Awakening, dir. Nick Murphy, scr. Stephen Volk, Nick Murphy, st. Dominic West, Rebecca Hall, Imelda Staunton

Writer Stephen Volk is probably best remembered as the man responsible for leaving as all blanched and beshitten after the BBC's disowned thriller Ghostwatch  in 1992, yet it's strange that following a project so ahead of its time, predating as it did The Blair Witch Project and all manner of subsequent reality-blurring chillers, he should pen such a derivative and unordinary ghostly tale as this. Surely, I kept telling myself, there was going to end up being more to this than merely a reveal we've already seen in similar tales of the supernatural? And annoyingly, frustratingly, there wasn't. And it's a real pity too. True, there's nothing new about fog-shrouded, lake-fronted country estates as backdrops for bump-in-the-nights, but cinematographer Eduard Grau desaturates and drains all available colour making the whole thing feel like we're peering through a genuine period pea-souper, and all three principles turn in suitably spooky performances, it's just a shame the payoff is so jaw-droppingly predictable. Rebecca Hall is such a fascinating watch too, half the time seeming like she's stepped off the set of a totally different film altogether, yet somehow making the awkward detachment work with her character's sense of loner isolation. An enjoyable thriller then, but it's not half the film it might have been.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Apollo 18, dir. Gonzalo López-Gallego, wr. Timur Bekmambetov, Ron Schmidt, st. Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen, Ryan Robbins

More found-footage space-horror blather with all associated clichés present and accounted for. The idea would have made a passable Outer Limits episode, and bares more than a striking resemblance to the X-Files episode Moon some 18 years ago. There is nothing new here. The sense of isolation, claustrophobia and paranoia have all been done before to greater and subtler effect (think pretty much every John Carpenter film) and eschews character psychology for vanilla scares, all shot on what looks like some hipster photography app for iPhone. (Actually, on a more dorky note, can I just ask why the whole thing's shot at 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio? Aren't they shooting on 4:3 full-frame 8mm in 1973? CONSPIRACY!) Recently (I'm talking about real life now) a team of 6 astronauts emerged from a windowless training capsule at the IBMP in Moscow after a 520 day exercise to simulate a time-accurate mission to Mars; surely a very real and extraordinary and terrifying premise such as that is positively pregnant with potential itself, without having to resort to same laboured, lame-ass, retcon history-re-writing exercise? In space, they say, no one can hear you scream. Well they darn tootin' well heard me next door.

Another Earth, dir. Mike Cahill, wr. Mike Cahill, Brit Marling, st. William Mapother, Brit Marling

Like Lars Von Trier's Melancholia and David Mackenzie's Perfect Sense before it, Another Earth similarly uses high-concept sci-fi as a peg on which to hang slow-burning human interests. As genre-blending films go it's another belter too. Rhoda's terrible accident and subsequent atonement coincide with the appearance of an identical Earth in our night sky, identical right down to the people that inhabit it. The film posits the idea that whilst the planet is duplicated at a scientific level, maybe human decision and indecision has been allowed to off-shoot down another path. Shot in the over-exposed winterday-blues of digital video and with an unsettling score/sound-design by Fall On Your Sword and Ryan Price, the film does more stylistically with it's $200,000 micro-budget than movies with an extra three 0s at the end of their allocated spend. Brit Marling rightfully earns her new Indie-darling Du Jour status, not because of the faultlessness of her writing and performance, but because she wields a roughly hewn honesty that surely promises even greater things in years to come. Seen as a paean to human fallibility, Another Earth softly needles us into contemplating our own choices. It's a little lean around the edges, yet there's beauty and provocation within the spartan narrative, never anything less than wholly absorbing and sensitively told. 

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Future, dir/wr. Miranda July, st. Miranda July, Hamish Linklater

Sophie (July) and Jason (Linklater), mid-30s and full of hipster apathy, decide to adopt a stray cat in lieu of... what? Kids? Commitment? Just having something to do? The cat, Pawpaw, yes the cat they plan to adopt, disconnectedly narrates the action in a cutesy cat-voice. Elsewhere, Sophie's overlarge comforter T-shirt crawls across the street towards her, whilst Jason converses with the moon. If it all sounds a bit performance art, it's probably because it is, or at least it's how the film started out. Miranda July is an artist, an actor, a musician. a designer and here, a director, and although quite talented as she clearly is, it's hard to see past the indulgence on display. The brilliant Jon Brion provides the languid score that exacerbates the tedium and the film as a whole never quite goes anywhere. That said, that's probably the point; Sophie and Jason sit on their couch opposite each other, both on laptops, sharing the odd private joke, both have no-through-road jobs counterbalanced with higher, unfulfilled aspirations, money's tight and they're wondering what their lives have been leading up to; if The Future is supposed to be a mirror held up to the iGeneration, its idea of what's reflected isn't far off. 

Thursday, 3 November 2011

In Time, dir/wr Andrew Niccol, st. Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Olivia Wilde, Vincent Kartheiser, Cillian Murphy

There's an exciting pertinence to Andrew Niccol's film that's palpably 'of the moment'. With 'Occupy Wall Street' and protests on the steps of St. Pauls' taking place as we speak, here's a film that's essentially all about the redistribution of wealth. Except this is Andrew Niccol, the man who brought us Gattaca, one of the most relevant and intelligent science fiction films of (semi) recent years, and so In Time deals not with dollars, but with time as its currency; in his dystopia, everyone lives until the age of 25 at which time a 365 day clock, a kind of bio-mechanic Tron-green Casio illuminator display somehow 'implanted' under the skin, starts to count down. Time is bought and sold for goods and services. Sadly, such an exciting premise descends into a rather limp and formulaic chase movie with neither the rich literacy nor the smart production design of Gattaca. The cast are engaging in that earnest kind of way, and there's a surprisingly moving scene borne from the most hackneyed of clichés involving Timberlake and his Mother, played by Olivia Wilde (everyone's 25, remember?) which promises character drive and purpose, but woefully delivers neither. One wonders whether artistic integrity was compromised in the face of the Hollywood machine, as regrettably, a thoughtful musing on the nature of the human value of Time has been dressed up as a silly action movie.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Perfect Sense, dir. David Mackenzie, wr. Kim Fupz Aakeson, st. Ewan McGregor, Eva Green

That such a moving and memorable film as this failed to secure a wider release simply defies all logic, especially when you see the dross that hogs screens nationwide in its place. Dem's de berries alas. And so I urge you to seek out this affecting drama about love at the end of the world as soon as the discs are pressed. Perfect Sense takes a basic premise - a man and a woman meet, begin to fall in love - and frames it against another - what happens when humanity starts losing its senses one by one? What starts as a 28 Days Later-style lo-fi hi-concept drama, slowly builds on primal fears, the knowledge of how how fragile our senses are that bind everything we hold dear to us in place, and culminates in an astonishingly heartrending final scene. It's the second time this year a film's ending has stayed with me with such resonant vibrancy. If there's one complaint I have, it's that the weight and suggestion of the central conceit seem to overwhelm the way in which the film is constructed; there's some wayward scripting that might have been tightened as well as some questionable direction, but Green and McGregor ground their chemistry in realism a million miles away from Hollywood romances that have come, gone, and are yet to be. Max Richter's score lends a complimentary poetic solemnity. A poignant, sweetly sorrowful love story.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Contagion, dir. Steven Soderbergh, wr. Scott Z. Burns, st. Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow

Like some extended episode of Horizon, Soderbergh's Contagion lays on the Drama of Science complete with sexed-up montages, college-cool bio-babble, and an urgent, pulsating electronic score (from Cliff Martinez). For such a star-studded show, there's a dearth of plot or characterisation. Deadlines are set up and met with predictability and, ironically given the film's death toll, it feels like there's precious little at stake. There's a low-key but wonderfully touching relationship set up between Fishburne's Ellis Cheever and the office janitor, played with grace and humility by John Hawkes, that riffs nicely on the idea of social ranking and the triumph of human morality, but elsewhere we're in familiar, hackneyed territory: never trust politicians or pharmaceutical companies, even at the point of Armageddon. Winslet, Fishbourne, and Ehle are perfectly serviceable, Paltrow less so, and Jude Law, well, I imagine him giggling all the way to his local Santander, fee in hand, guffawing at how people still think he holds any kind of box office draw. Without really having any central character anchors with which to personalise the narrative, unlike Fernando Meirelles' Blindness or David Mackenzie's more recent Perfect Sense that deal with the same viral concept but on a more intimate, human level, Contagion leaves you feeling somewhat under the weather.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin, dir. Lynne Ramsay, scr. Lynne Ramsay, Rory Stewart Kinnear, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, st. Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller

When Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan came out last year I was defending to the hilt its schlocky and B-movie allusions in the face of accusations that the horror somehow polluted the picture's cerebral thematic thrust, and I think that film remains a polarising one. I find it odd then that I sit here and accuse WNTTAK of pretty much the same thing, for it shares much of Black Swan's DNA. WNTTAK comprises one part Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (no-one believes her child is evil) one part Joseph Ruben's The Good Son (child undoing the family) and one part Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction (child undoing the family with added pet-slaying) and it plays just as melodramatically. You soon realise that the film's title is its greatest misdirection - no one actually talks about Kevin, and I'm reliably informed (though I haven't read it) is all the book does. My main issue is this: if you're seeking to do an insightful character study on the debate of nature versus nurture, if your aim is to say, look, here's the mother of this child that's done this terrible thing, what's making her tick, then for heaven's sake don't package it up as a kind of Video Nasty from the  90s, because then the feeling is that it starts to feel less like it's informing and more like it's entertaining. I was expecting something solemn and meditative and I felt I kind of got hokum. 

Sleeping Beauty, dir/scr. Julia Leigh, st. Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie

Sleeping Beauty is a breathtaking, hallucinatory directorial debut from writer/director Julia Leigh. The narrative, such as it is, follows Lucy, a student who drifts through her studies and numerous jobs with boundless apathy, pausing only to pick up businessmen for casual sex, and provide a kind of tender, semi-platonic homecare therapy to an ailing alcoholic friend. When she answers an ad in the student newspaper, she finds a new, darker outlet for her unscrupulous sexual appetite, and one that's willing to pay to boot. The only catch is, in this particular Kubrickian gentleman's club, she's required to surrender to the madam's potions that render her comatose whilst the clients go about their business. It makes for a troubling, esoteric watch, deliberately cryptic and chock-full of fairy-lore references. Browning, all but buried under the landslide of abuse for Sucker Punch, here shows proficient and delicate skill as an actor, giving a, yes, muted and understated, but far from hollow performance. Much of the praise must be given for the way in which for once the objectivity and sexualisation of women is shown in such a clinical and referential manner; this may feel to some like an aimless cop-out, the make-of-it-what-you-will carte blanche of artistic integrity, but actually, through the detachment, the film manages to conjure intelligent, contemplative, sobering drama.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Captain America, dir. Joe Johnston, scr. Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, st. Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell

One superhero isn't cool, you know what's cool? A billion superheroes! Well, four actually. Yes, the ultimate in nerdgasmic mashups, The Avengers, has Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man and Captain America standing shoulder to massively broad shoulder in a bid to save the world. Each character has been given his own movie with which to rake in the dollars lay down the character's thematic foundations before the shared sequel next year, presumably with an eight hour running time and a budget of a kasquillion dollars. Cynicism aside, Captain America, like its predecessors, is actually something of a fairly decent good-going romp. It does drag in the second half, and strays dangerously close to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow territory with its heavily CGd backdrops and steampunk-Nazi-chic production design, and it's getting increasingly hard - very hard - not to think of Marvel Comics as just another JD Sports in the London Riots of Hollywood source material archives, but there's an undeniable earnest heart at its centre. Chris Evans plays the titular captain, who transforms from short-arse to superstar, and armed with only his signature shield and Hayley Atwell's mellifluously plummy accent, sets about killing Germans and rescuing GIs. It's fun, but set your brains to Eco mode. 

Monday, 17 October 2011

Mildred Pierce, dir. Michael Curtiz, scr. Ranald MacDougall, William Faulkner, Catherine Turney, based on the novel by James M. Cain, st. Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Jack Carson

What the recent HBO adaptation of James M. Cain's novel does over five hours, slowly and intricately, and with a multi-layered performance from Kate Winslet, this film does in ninety minutes. It's a great example of noir melodrama of the time; sub-plots and characterisations have been truncated, and a murder plot introduced to get round Mildred's daughter Veda's affair with her step-father - an aspect of the original story that would never have made it past the Motion Picture Production Code in force at the time. Crawford is an arguably less sympathetic Mildred than Winslet, or rather, we see less of what makes her tick; where Winslet is a confused mass of repressed sexuality and impetuous maternal instinct, Crawford is measured and manipulative, still pining for her daughter's unconditional love, but simultaneously stoic and detached. But for all its studio-enforced censoring, Mildred Pierce is still shocking in its main thematic thrust of familial disloyalty; in fact, its remarkably bleak all round, pretty much everyone is selfish, self-serving and generally unpleasant. A contemporary audience may balk at the idea of an absolute morality, and we know real-life isn't as black and white, but the film achieves a candour in its closure rarely matched in modern cinema.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Les Géants, dir. Bouli Lanners, wr. Elsie Ancion, Bouli Lanners, Matthieu Reynaert, st. Paul Bartel, Zacharie Chasseriaud, Martin Nissen

Les Geants is a softly affecting tale of boyhood abandon both figurative and literal; brothers Seth and Zak have been deserted by their mother - in what way she is afflicted, whether medicated or depressed we never find out - and in this vacuum of parental absence set off on a Twain-esque adventure through rural Belgium. Much like Rob Reiner's 1986 film Stand By Me, its tone meanders from beguiling coming-of-age to darker dramatic territory once the adults appear and, with one beautifully observed exception, proceed to bully and manipulate the boys. It's hard not to feel the whole thing is a little aimless, the film comprising more of individual- albeit wonderfully realised - vignettes rather than chapters marking out pieces of the cohesive whole, but it all builds to a genuinely moving closure culminating in a gloriously graceful glide over the Belgian rivers and woodlands - what looks like a supremely accomplished physical shot no amount of CGI Middle Earth-swooping can match. A brief search on the internet reveals that this is unlikely to see anything other than the thinnest of releases in the UK, but like all cinematic hidden gems, the effort to track it down reaps rich rewards. 

Thursday, 13 October 2011

17 Filles, dir/wr. Delphine Coulin, Muriel Coulin, st. Louise Grinberg, Juliette Darche, Roxane Duran

When 16 year old Camille falls pregnant after a one night stand, her friends in an act of solidarity, or personal disaffection with their own teenage lives, decide to dutifully follow suit. Beyond the usual adolescent ennui on display, there's precious little exploration into the psychology of the leads - which is a shame, as Louise Grinberg as Camille, in particular shone in a way that reminded me of Katie Jarvis in Andrea Arnold's Fishtank. Sadly 17 Filles seems to stall in the second act; an unsettling sense of Virgin Suicidal, hive-minded weirdness promises to take root, but never manages to provide the impetus needed to storm the last third. The girls are great though, giving honest and natural performances, and there's a palpable sense of the small-town seafront community and the sense of isolation you imagine the young experience, but I kept wishing the Coulin sisters would tell me less, and show me more.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Midnight In Paris, dir/wr. Woody Allen, st. Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard

Midnight In Paris plays as Woody Allen's playfully whimsical love-letter to Bohemian Paris in the 20s - a simmering hotbed of literary and artistic creativity, and a time that Gil Pender (Wilson) romanticises as unrivalled in its abundance of enlightened writers, poets and musicians. Sadly his wife (McAdams) and her vile parents refuse to, or simply cannot share this passion, choosing instead to treat the Parisian streets as just another themed boutique. It would be easy here to succumb to pretension and so much rests on evoking a believably alluring bygone Paris that goes beyond its beatnik picture-postcard reputation, however Allen has assembled a wonderfully eccentric troupe of troubled artistes - Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and a great cameo from Adrien Brody as Dali - that add a much needed levity and never allow things to sink into an all-consumming self-important quagmire. I've never been a fan of Wilson, and McAdams does the most with her functional role, but the real treat is Cotillard as Pablo Picasso's mistress Adriana; exuding a sad fragility, she too feels she's too late for her time, and so she and Gil come together, a lost pair lamenting as one. The film's arguably a touch too slight and the ending's a shade contrived, but that's actually okay, for nothing could harm this beguiling fantasy more than leaden reality.

Friday, 7 October 2011

The Skin I Live In, dir/scr. Pedro Almodóvar, based on 'Tarantula' by Thierry Jonquet, st. Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes

It makes sense for Pedro Almodóvar's familiar obsessions with family, gender, sex and death to culminate in something so richly audacious, for here the envelope is indeed pushed further than ever; The Skin I Live In is a truly harrowing film-noir, with its two leads - Banderas and Anaya - riffing on their real-life sex-symbol status to unsettling effect. There are literary references to Shelley's Frankenstein most obviously, but it also reminded me of Juan José Campanella's The Secret In Their Eyes in its depiction of just how far someone is willing to go in order to right wrongs, to overturn an injustice cruelly imposed upon them personally, their loved ones, or from a simple desire for good to triumph over evil. For such a macabre and unwieldily plot, there's a Romantic lyricism at work here, from Alberto Iglesias swoony score to Almodóvar's use of light, colour and direction, or choreography might be a better word, as he conjures all manner of balletic shapes from Anaya, clad for the most part in a skin-tight, flesh-coloured body-stocking - the very image of a human maquette. Calling this a foray into the horror genre seems to me to  unfairly burden this film with the suggestion of style over content, when nothing could be further from the truth; this is smart psychological drama at its finest and most academic.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Rubber, dir/wr. Quentin Dupieux, st. Stephen Spinella, Roxane Mesquida, Jack Plotnick

Pretty much from the off, the parameters of the genre are laid down, explicitly, straight to camera; "You probably never gave it a thought, but all great films, without exception, contain an important element of no reason". Dupieux's film, about a rubber tyre that merrily rolls along a deserted dusty highway, pausing only to obsess over Roxane Mesquida and telekinetically explode heads in a Scanner-like fashion, claims to be a homage to this 'no reason' philosophy, and is largely successful whether we like it or not. Watching Rubber doesn't make for an especially cohesive experience, but that's not to say the film is a muddled bore, in fact for such a gleefully boastful stylistic premise, the chaos is orchestrated in a rather linear, if not absurdist way. There are a number of neat little Beckettian and Pinter-esque nods; fourth walls are broken down, and meta-theatricality is explored as we see an on-screen audience handed binoculars and instructed to observe the unfolding action, the idea of film-within-a-film. As you would expect with this kind of experimental film-making it's more about the form than the content, there's not much else to get your teeth into, but if you have a spare 80 minutes and want to see something unlike anything you're ever going to willingly see again, you could do a lot worse than give this a go.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Melancholia, dir/wr. Lars Von Trier, st. Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland

Melancholia is a metaphysical, Solarisian slice of sci-fi, predictably poetically realised by Von Trier. In tungsten night-time coppers and over-exposed blues he takes us through this exploratory journey from crippling depression to all-out armageddon, or is it the other way around, for here, we are introduced to the apocalypse itself, before the people facing it. Kirsten Dunst gives an absorbingly persuasive performance as Justine, whose melancholia may be either the cause, or effect, of the vast astral body in threatening proximity to Earth. It's a term that's bandied around with little care, but Von Trier is a true visionary director; there is a fanatical level of detailed intricacy in his composition and framing that result in truly breathtaking sequences, be it the film's hyper-slo-mo introductory montage of cataclysmic events set to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde or the finale's astonishing moment of annihilation, these are the moments that stay with you. Less successful is the more human side of the drama, in which once again, Von Trier asks us to buy into extraordinary characters within ordinary environments - it never quite rings true and only serves to bring us out of the world he so painstakingly creates. Exquisitely shot and adroitly performed by a uniformly excellent ensemble cast, Melancholia is a bewitchingly sombre treat. 

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon, dir. Michael Bay, wr. Ehren Kruger, st. Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro

So we're back for more bot on bot action, and it's really a case of bigger, better, faster, bore as any remnants of the first film's wit or charm are, very literally, missing in action. Poor Michael Bay still cuts films for audiences with the attention spans of cuttlefish, and then, bizarrely, turns in a Tolkien-esque two-and-a-half-plus running time, by which time I was ready to go and empty and re-load the dishwasher just to give me something to do. Bay calls his hyper-frenetic, ADHD-style of film-making 'fucking the frame' - his own words - and there's an unsavoury truth in his choice of words; his modus operandi is primal, aggressive and loveless. Everything is over-edited, over-scored, over-scripted and over-acted. As the reviewers at the time of release said, when your leading lady makes Megan Fox look like Meryl Street, something's gone very wrong.  The visual effects are natty, but then I'm a boy and so genetically hard-wired to enjoy watching robots beat the motherboards out of each other. Worldwide the film has made one billion, one hundred and seventeen million, nine hundred and sixty-six thousand, six hundred and fifty dollars to date and ranks the fifth most successful box office hit ever; we live in tragic times indeed.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Horrible Bosses, dir. Seth Gordon, scr. Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein, st. Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey

What a cast you might think, and it doesn't stop there - Donald Sutherland makes an early appearance, as does Wendell "The Bunk" Pierce - alas Horrible Bosses never amounts to any more than the sum of its parts. Admittedly Bateman, Sudeikis and Day make for a fine comedic triumvirate, the writing's not half bad, and it's a real treat seeing Aniston embrace her character with such prurient glee, but the nagging felling it's all a bit aimless kicks in a mite early. At least Bridesmaids trod the narrow screwball/storyline interface with some degree of skill; this just feels like watching the same Saturday Night Live sketch over and over. There is a delight however, unintentional I'm sure, in watching the plot unravel in such a chaotic and anarchic way, any semblance of plot giving way to the kind of neo-slapstick these sorts of comedies tend to lean towards, and there're more than a few times you'll giggle I'm sure - Jamie Foxx's Motherfucker Jones constantly being referred to as just plain Motherfucker, in particular had the kind of logical absurdity that makes me guffaw - but there's a weightlessness to it all that's pretty unsatisfying once the credits roll.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Drive, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, scr. Hossein Amini, based on Drive by James Sallis, st. Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman

One would have thought that by now lone wolves recognise pretty girls and cute kids as the two biggest threats to their finely tuned status quo, and unfortunately for Driver, he's about to encounter both. Yes, Driver, for that is his name, and a clear signal we're in Man With No Name territory. Refn's film can be read as a taut, muscular thriller, although it reminded me more of a romantic Crash than anything else, not so much sex and wrecks as asphalt and affection; here, the automobiles play a highly symbolic role. Irene's car trouble is the catalyst that brings our pair together, while Driver revs, rolls and handbrakes with indifference, the car as an expendable commodity, the currency of his solitary existence rather than a materialistic luxury or a womb-like cocoon with which we might transport our young. When the couple do finally hold hands, it's over the stick-shift, and to Cliff Martinez's marvellously unctuous synth pads as they drive alongside a setting sun. The violence, when it comes, is sudden and brutal and a little jarring considering Driver's reluctance to even carry a gun, but one wonders whether this is the price one pays for a life of emotional disconnection. No one does shy 'n' awkward like Gosling, and the slow-burn of his relationship with a quietly assured Mulligan is wonderful to watch. What with its hot-pink handwritten credit sequence and judicious use of 80s-vibed sound, it's clear Refn is going for a specific type of stylistic retro pulp, but it's also one of the boldest and most heartfelt love stories you're likely to see this year. 

Friday, 23 September 2011

Into Eternity, dir/wr. Michael Madsen, st. Carl Reinhold Brakenhjelm, Mikael Jensen, Berit Lundqvist

Into Eternity, Michael Madsen's (no not him) reverential paean to Finland's long-sighted plan for the storage of nuclear waste from their 2 power-plants is a reminder of how chillingly meditative documentaries can be when they're not constantly assaulting the viewer with schizophrenic animations of endless figures and statistics. This is about as existential as film-making gets, as scientists, historians and theologians try to convey a message of warning to future generations 100,000 years into the future, the life of the decaying uranium, not to attempt any kind of excavation into the underground metropolis that houses the fire within. The film intercuts various boffiny talking heads, determined yet completely humbled by the magnitude of the task before them, with dreamlike dollyed shots of Onkalo, the waste repository itself, a vast concrete leviathan hewn from the Earth's bedrock. It's a little shocking and beggars belief that countries like the US (top of the list with 105 power-plants) have no solution in place for the long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel. But this is far from an evangelical cry for us humans to change our ways, in fact in many ways the message seems to be that current humanity is but a mere speck on the grand canvas of our planet's future history. Haunting and quite, quite unforgettable.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, dir. Tomas Alfredson, scr. Bridget O'Connor, Peter Straughan, based on the novel by John le Carré, st. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch

Comparisons abound, predictably, between this film and Alfredson's debut into the mainstream - the sublime Let The Right One In from 2009. Both share the same sombre narrative tone, both have icy, stoic POVs on their protagonists, and both share the same stylistic shooting style - inch-perfect tracking shots and pull backs, a pallidly pastel palate and an introspectively moody score, this time from Alberto Iglesias, whose lonely, echoey trumpet phrases mirror Smiley's increasingly isolated world. The Wire creator David Simon, on writing about the nature of plotting, said that the HBO ad-free format gave him the freedom with which to tell a story - 55 minutes, uninterrupted. How else, he said, are we expected to wholly engage with storytelling? Similarly Dino Jonsater's editing nips and tucks, even with the 2 hour plus running time, excising extraneous content and creating one of the leanest, densest and most economically told stories you're ever likely to see. If it's all a little overwhelming at times, the cast's uniformly excellent performances allow even the most clandestine meetings and shady goings-on to form some kind of cohesive comprehension through their intricately detailed portrayal of character, but even so, when the credits roll you'll be more than happy to crouch down in your aisle and remain in the auditorium for the next immediate screening, and watch it all over again.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Bridesmaids, dir. Paul Feig, wr. Annie Mumolo, Kristen Wiig, st. Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Chris O'Dowd, Jon Hamm

Judd Apatow's Knocked Up from 2007 left such a nasty taste in my mouth that I've developed a kind of Pavlovian response to seeing his name credited anywhere, a bit like, I guess, that nauseous feeling arachnophobes get when they see a spider scuttle across a floor, or when Ricky Gervais does anything ever. Coupled with the fact that seeing both Victoria Wood Live and the Sex and The City movie with a rather convivial audience where both times, somehow, I was the only male within what seemed like a five-mile exclusion zone, have left me terrified of witnessing perceived Ladies Only oriented material. But I'd seen Wiig as Judy Grimes on Saturday Night Live and have a massive man-crush on Mad Men's Jon Hamm, so despite the aversion to all things Apatow-produced, I sat down and strapped in. The first thing you'll notice, or rather the first thing you'll notice if you're over thirty is Bridesmaids' rather bold thematic concession to its core, non-t(w)een audience; Annie's world is one of increasing isolation, despondency and envy as she watches, inevitably, her best friend pair off and move away, and it's from this recognisable and poignant footing that we're able to invest and engage - the true requirement of any comedy. Wiig's script too is wickedly charming, pacy and very, very funny. Watch as part of a double-bill with Johnathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married for maximum effect. 

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Les Aventures Extraordinaires d'Adèle Blanc-Sec, dir. Luc Besson, sc. Luc Besson, based on "Adèle and the Beast" and "Mummies On Parade" by Jacques Tardi, st. Louise Bourgoin, Mathieu Amalric

It's difficult to get a handle on Blanc-Sec, for in the raging white water of this kind of Euro Gaslamp-Fantasia, Luc Besson's film crosses so many cinematic wakes, you can't see Adèle for the trees. I've always found Besson's work, though uneven, to be thoroughly enjoyable however and Blanc-Sec is no exception; it's kind of Amélie Jones and the Temple of Doom via Young Sherlock Holmes and if that hasn't piqued your curiosity, I don't know what will. Louise Bourgoin plays the titular Adéle, spunky, impulsive, cynical and always immaculately turned out, a thinking-man's Lara Croft. The plot meanders and wavers in places but there's enough giddy exuberance to carry it through its more archaic moments. Tonally the film's a bit of an enigma too - there's a Disney-like One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing vibe one moment, all Thompson and Thompson slapstick, and then accidental lobotomies-by-hatpins and nudity the next. I tend to applaud bolder genre-blending so this didn't really bother me, although if you like to  compartmentalise, you may feel uneasy. Being the first part of a projected trilogy (what isn't these days?), and given the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to plot and spectacle, it's hard to see where Ms. Blanc-Sec might go from here.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Fish Tank, dir/wr. Andrea Arnold, st. Katie Jarvis, Kierston Wareing, Michael Fassbender

Here's a question: To what extent should Art be standalone? Do we take into account creators' previous output? Do we contextualise their product with their personal circumstances? For me, this is what I call the Made In Heaven conundrum; Queen's last studio album isn't actually that great, yet vocally, Freddie Mercury's voice soars and roars just as it always has. But when you read his vocal takes were cut and pasted, for so stricken with HIV was he at this point he could barely stand or finish a breath, we are forced, we must re-evaluate the record on these terms. Similarly, Andrea Arnold's spiky and tremendously moving social drama, hewn from a well-trod path of broken families and the wayward kids within, ultimately suffers from this enforced contextualisation. As hypnotically watchable as the young Katie Jarvis is, there is something discomforting about her performance once you realise how closely elements of her life parallel her character's. Maybe that's the point, but I suspect for many casual filmgoers, this important information will remain unresearched. It's important because watching films isn't like visiting the zoo. There must exist a transfer of information, a partnership between giver and recipient. Fish Tank is undoubtedly a sensitively written and performed film, but cinema's usage of 'found' actors, alas, continues to perturb.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Red State, dir/wr. Kevin Smith, st. Michael Parks, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Kevin Pollack

There's a moment in Red State, not so much Kevin Smith's love letter to the Westboro Baptist Church, as it is a strongly worded letter of complaint, where the real-life bile-filled Church and its leader, Fred Phelps, is mentioned by name; it's a startling moment and just one of a number of times when we find the rug being pulled from under us. At times Kevin Smith's extraordinary film could cut in scenes from Louis Theroux' famous documentary and the flow would be seamless, at other times we're in pure Lynchian territory, adrift from any genre anchors, and wonderfully terrified of where its all going and what its all leading up to. Michael Parks taps the odious yet, let's face it, rather rich Phelpsian source material in his portrayal of Pastor Abin Cooper and Melissa Leo reminds me of how one critic described Monica Dolan's performance as Rose West in the recent Appropriate Adult: "seemingly possessed" is how they put it. John Goodman turns in another pleasing heavyweight performance and blink, or rather, wink and you'll miss Kevin Pollack in a role much of which I suspect was left on the cutting room floor. The film's rather Grand Guignol resa dei conti climax might be a bridge too far, but nevertheless, Red State hopefully points to an exciting new direction for Kevin Smith fans.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Attack The Block, dir/wr. Joe Cornish, st. John Boyega, Alex Esmail, Jodie Whittaker, Nick Frost

It's probably safe to say Attack The Block isn't going to appear on David Starkey's LOVEFiLM rental list any time soon; after all, does it not glorify destructive, nihilistic gangster culture? Is the characters' vernacular not peppered with Jamaican patois? Such an accusation of whites becoming black might be worn as something of a badge of honour for writer/director Joe Cornish, whose skill in recreating the poetry embedded within the street-level slanguage, not to mention buckets of subtle South London class consciousness, is absolute. Boyega, all buried rage and misdirected swagger, leads a superb young cast against the effectively rendered furball aliens, always engaged, always engaging. Throw in a relentlessly kinetic score, a kind of Widescreen Symphony of Grime written by the Basement Jaxx boys, and at an unashamed 80 minutes long, you've got, actually a pretty patriotic film, a salve for the same kind of genre-movie that Hollywood loves to aggrandise. Most effectively, little calms of character exposition, little hints at back-story, any socio-political commentary is cleverly touched upon with gossamer levity before we're hurtled headlong into the next attack; the result is canny, for deep inside this Creature Feature, there lurks a wealth of subversion.