Sunday, 30 December 2012

Moonrise Kingdom, dir. Wes Anderson, wr. Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, st. Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman

I find it hard to get a handle on Wes Anderson films. There's no doubting that amongst the current crop of indie film-makers, his is a unique voice. And whilst I also appreciate his surgical approach to colour, composition and camerawork along with a canny ability to show us the difference between endearing eccentricity and vanilla kookiness, his films often leave me cold. Not since Rushmore in 1998 can I say I've ever been moved by one of his films. Moonrise Kingdom is essentially that same paean to awkward adolescent stirrings, though experienced a few years back from Jason Schwartzman's 15-year-old Max Fischer. Gilman and Hayward play Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop, a pair of 12-year-olds who meet, as in all the best love stories, quite by accident (although rarely at a church performance of Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde) and plan to elope the following Summer. Precocious and knowing kid-characters need all the skillful handling of nitro-glycerine when it comes to audience-empathy, but Anderson's trump card (or rather trump-technique) is not allowing us too long a glimpse into his protagonists' psyches. Sam and Suzy are both loners, separated from those around them by age (the adults) as much as by their interests (Suzy likes stolen library fiction, Sam paints watercolours). A few years older and these characters might potentially irk as infuriatingly Alternative (which says more about a contemporary cynicism that changes as often as the tide than anything else) but in Anderson's hands, and thanks to two exceptional performances, Sam and Suzy come across as honest and utterly loveable. The Britten is woven through the film and provides a literary musical bedrock (that Alexandre Desplat complements quite nicely), and the film is bathed in pastel Summer hues that effortlessly recall our own personal childhood misadventures (back in the day when we had Seasons). The supporting cast are as great as you'd expect from Willis, Murray et al, but this is really about the hugely talented younger cast that sell the movie, and that'll have you wondering where and why it all goes wrong for us adults.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Deadfall, dir. Stefan Ruzowitzky, wr. Zach Dean, st. Eric Bana, Olivia Wilde, Charlie Hunnam, Kate Mara, Treat Williams, Kris Kristofferson, Sissy Spacek

Despite the credible cast, Deadfall is uneven at best, utterly baffling at worst. Bana and Wilde play siblings Addison and Liza on the run from a heist when their car flips and leaves them stranded near the Canadian border in less than hospitable conditions. After deciding to split up and reconvene on the other side, the film lurches from scene to increasingly unbelievable scene like some feverish hyperthermic dream. Addison arbitrarily kills people on the way which is strange for a man trying to keep a low-profile, whilst Liza, who may or may not have Stockholm Syndrome after watching her brother kill their abusive father in their youth, shacks up with ex-boxer and ex-con Jay (Hunnam), freshly released from prison and himself on the run from the authorities. Elsewhere, sheriff Becker (Williams) mobilises a task force to track down the fugitives and cruelly and inexplicably excludes his deputy daughter (Mara) even though she's quite clearly able and resourceful. The disparate scenes attempt to interlock in a clever way but come off more Restoration Comedy than Greek Tragedy, and by the time the whole cast is on set for the final showdown, any semblance of rationale or motive has frozen over long ago, proving as stony and unyielding as the icy landscape. 

Dredd, dir. Pete Travis, wr. Alex Garland, st. Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Wood Harris, Lena Headey

Not quite the Judge DRaid clone it was feared to be from the initial trailer, British director Travis nevertheless roots this Lone Outmatched Warrior fable in a singular environment, bringing all the focus to bear on the titular inexcitable Judge - one of many law enforcers who roam the vast dystopian Mega-City One and mete out the appropriate arbitration and suitable punishment on unsuspecting criminals before you can say "due-process." Dredd and rookie Cassandra Anderson (Thirlby) are sent to the Peach Trees slum towerblock - a kind of post-apocalyptic Westfields - run by Madeline "Ma-Ma" Madrigal (Heady) who's peddling a drug that once inhaled, makes time run at 1% its usual speed: good for music-video aesthetics, bad for falling to your death from the 200th floor. There's a healthy dose of Verhoeven-esque late-80s violence on display here, and Paul Leonard-Morgan's dubsteppy score and Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography capture the apartment setting in all its squalid griminess. Urban is fine as Dredd as far as chin-gurning goes, but Thirlby fares better as the stoic apprentice with handy telepathic powers. It's just a shame that Heady - a dab hand at playing unstable über-bitches as demonstrated in HBO's compelling Game of Thrones - isn't given more to do than mutter under her breath and appear for the all-too-brief boss fight at the end. It's also puzzling how the rest of Mega-City One, when we do see it, seems to be a sunny and rather pleasant place to reside, but I fear such curiosities are secondary to watching Ma-Ma's goons use gatling guns fuck shit up.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Brave, dir. Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, scr. Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi, st. Kelly Macdonald, Julie Walters, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane

Pixar Animation Studios have come a long way since their renderings of human characters like Andy and Sid in 1995's Toy Story. Now, laden with immense critical acclaim, the legacy of Steve Jobs' sage leadership, and the creative experience of almost twenty years of storytelling, it seems nothing is beyond its artists' stylus'. It's regretful then that some of their most enthralling artwork is contained within such a pedestrian format. Yes, it's a fairytale in the richness of those traditions, but one gets the nagging feeling that where Pixar movies have excelled has been in the escape from the constraints of such formulaic narration, whether it's portrayed a beat-up maintenance droid contemplating life and loneliness on an abandoned planet, or a clown-fish and his Dad simultaneous coming of age. Brave's first third however, beguiles and enchants as the young princess Merida (Macdonald), distraught at the idea of duty and tradition, finds solace in archery and tomboy-pursuits, whilst her Mother, Elinor (Thompson), stoically attempts to prep her only daughter for adulthood. Such parental/offspring clashes are well-worn indeed, but the animation, voice-work and smart observational nuances more than sell the frustration of conflict. Soon after, Merida encounters a witch deep within the forest, and before things get too embroiled in a rich Mother/Daughter psychological tapestry, we're presented with a altogether more fantastical second half that, in truth (and although it may captivate younger viewers), flattens the mood. A rather mixed bag then, Brave never lets fly as true as one of Merida's arrows, but at least it can't touch Cars 2 for sheer bloodlessness.

Friday, 21 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, dir. Peter Jackson, wr. Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, st. Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis

It's probably fair to say that 'origins' films, unless they're kickstarting a tired franchise, rarely work - reason being, there's a reason film-makers prefer to cut to the chase; that's where all the narrative meat is. And few can doubt that The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship of the RingThe Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, and The Lord Of The Rings: The Return of the King provided a hearty repast indeed, not to mention enough for several walk-in freezer-fulls of future cinematic grub, with all their home-video extended-edition chewiness. One's curiosity then was piqued indeed on the news that Peter Jackson was planning on bringing J. R. R. Tolkien's prequel The Hobbit, or There And Back Again to the big screen, via not one, but three gut-busting films. How 310 pages of Hobbit translates to 9 hours of film (compared to Rings' 1571 pages) isn't so much as important as how Jackson is going to make us care again, given how we know how things are going to end up, and at what cost. There's undoubtedly still immense joy to be had from watching the artistry at work; Weta once again outdo themselves in the sheer scale and detail of the Middle Earth landscape and creatures fair and foul that reside within, and amongst an able cast, Martin Freeman's ultra-naturalistic style of performance works wonders against the hyper-fantastical setting and grounds his Bilbo Baggins with persuasive authenticity. Yet, and here's the rub, it's woefully short on tension, and several wonderfully orchestrated scenes are simply stretched out to unnatural running times. Repeatedly. Bilbo's confrontation with Gollum is a shudder-inducing reminder of what a thrillingly twisted character the ex-hobbit is (and the superlatively intricate work of Andy Serkis' mo-cap) but their game of riddles de-tensions itself by over-extension. Similarly the Dwarves' escape from the goblin underworld is achingly long, even teetering on the verge of parody. That said, it's engaging enough, and Howard Shore's music is still as melodically thunderous as it ever was. and many of the first trilogy's leitmotifs are re-used to provide ominous links to future characters and events. But with the Lord Of The Rings triumvirate sitting at numbers 6, 21, and 30 of the top 50 all time worldwide Box Office charts, it's hard not to hear the cranking-up of the great Hollywood machine, and the clinking of newly-minted coin. Even at ultra-sharp 48fps, complete with that Saturday Morning Kitchen look, I suspect The Hobbit isn't doing anything new, but time, critical opinion, and financial stats will tell if there's been an excess of supply for limp demand.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, dir/scr. Stephen Chbosky, st. Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller

With its warm colour palette and choice cuts of 90s alternative music, there's something very familiarly nostalgic about Chbosky's film, based on his own novel. The style too, an amalgamation of coming-of-age tribulation, high-school navigational woe and quelling of demons past is likewise, nothing terribly new, but handled with sensitivity and convincing performances from the three leads. Watson largely proves that she's got the chops for fleshier roles, now that the spectre of Hogwarts has begun to fade from view, and shows off a credible American twang to boot. Lerman too, as Charlie - the titular wallflower - (last seen in Percy Jackson And The Lightning Thief) cruises along with a quietly low-key performance until the film's third act plot development allows for some impressive flexing, but it's Ezra Miller, who gave Damien Thorn a run for his money in Lynne Ramsay's We Need To Talk About Kevin, who gives the triumvirate of friends its beating heart as the "gay as a three-dollar bill" Patrick. Some of the dialogue does occasionally slip from the meaningfully evocative voice-over patter we've come to love from these sorts of films, to merely cringe-worthy and over-yearning facsimiles of better written screenplays, but where The Perks Of Being A Wallflower succeeds is in its ability to tell an old-fashioned story of adolescence in a way that still persuades and provokes.

The Day The Earth Caught Fire, dir. Val Guest, wr. Wolf Mankowitz, Val Guest, st. Janet Munro, Leo McKern, Edward Judd

Val Guest is of course responsible for bringing that other seminal work of British science fiction into the cinemas - The Quatermass Xperiment - but whereas that film owes a debt to American 50s paranoia (and a more literary source in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), The Day The Earth Caught Fire is an altogether more stoic affair. The 1961 film concerns a team of journalists, who see a story about twin US and USSR atomic bomb test detonations sending the Earth off its axis and spinning toward the Sun, as the ultimate scoop rather than as an opportunity to save mankind. In these dark days of deep mistrust for the press, this rings particularly true. Yet the reporters here are altogether less cynical and more weary than today's McMullans. They carry on reporting, steadfastly attempting to report fact without spin or augmentation because that's what they do, and that's how humanity (but particularly the British) know how to deal with impending doom; get our heads down, keep calm and carry on. Guest also wisely (and unusally) keeps the boffins and politicians off-screen, allowing the course of events to be viewed through less knowing eyes. The film is surprisingly low on action by today's apocalyptic blockbusting standards, but does mirror a growing trend to offer a more existentialist, cerebral and character-driven sci-fi narrative in lieu of green-screen pyrotechnics. The bookended scenes, post-produced in a dark-orange sepia tone, provide a clever and effective way of illustrating the planet's plight, and there are a slew of great performances of overlapping naturalistic journo-banter that sell the tired resignation. For my money, the ending is dampened slightly by Universal's insistence of the addition of sound effects that give a definitive ending to the story, especially when the final image of the movie is strong enough, but The Day The Earth Caught Fire remains one of the more absorbing and seminal pictures of the British science fiction canon.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Cosmopolis, dir/scr. David Cronenberg, based on Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo, st. Robert Pattinson, Paul Giamatti, Samantha Morton, Sarah Gadon, Mathieu Amalric, Juliette Binoche

Twihards will, I fear, be hard-pressed into enjoying this kind of searingly brooding portrayal from their favourite be-glitteréd actor, even though through all the density of language and narrative, it is Robert Pattinson who emerges from the mire the most inspiring. Cronenberg's film takes place almost exclusively inside the stretched limousine of billionaire Eric Packer, a businessman whose gradual disillusion with his work and the world around him is marked by a stubborn insistence that he travel across town in order to get a haircut. There's little of the body-inavsion weirdness that usually permeates Cronenberg's movies save for an erotically awkward non-contact scene in which Eric and his chief of finance get each other hot and bothered whilst he's receiving a prostate examination from his travelling doctor. The focus here, in contrast to Cronenberg's previous work, is on the spectre of capitalism rather than the threat of corrupted flesh, and this idea is beautifully played out in the many claustrophobic and beautifully designed vignettes Eric shares with members of his inner cabal. The language, adapted by Cronenberg from DeLillo's novel, is nebulous and poetic, and Howard Shore's score with Canadian band Metric throbs and whirrs away menacingly in the background. It might all be a little too impenetrable for some people, and certainly, as a sequenced narrative, it's held together by the loosest of stitches, but Cosmopolis is an arresting watch and as hypnotic and technically thorough as anything in the Cronenberg canon. 

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Things To Come, dir. William Cameron Menzies, wr. H. G. Wells, st. Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke, Pearl Argyle, Margaretta Scott

Based on his novel The Shape Of Things To Come written in 1933, Wells' film is considered by many to be a landmark in British science fiction - a masterly exercise in visionary production design and a stark foreshadowing of everything from the Blitz, through viral epidemics, to a technologically-driven society obsessed with scientific advancement. Things To Come shares much with that other great European science fiction great - Fritz Lang's Metropolis - certainly in scope and sociological themeology, even if Wells did write a rather scathing review of it in the New York Times in 1927, saying, "I have recently seen the silliest film. I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier." Certainly the black-shirted John Cabal and his posse of techno-saviours that arrive at the obliterated Everytown (read: London) at the halfway mark and demand the surrender of all independent sovereign states with the express desire to begin a "new world order" raises, in this day and age, many an eyebrow. The first act however, greatly unsettles with When The Wind Blows-style prophecy, as the Press warning of imminent war is intercut with busy Christmas high-street preparation. Yet there is still a valid message of the dangers of a race over-reaching itself in its desire to progress that time has not dulled, and the inspiration many a celebrated sci-fi film has taken from Things To Come is noticeably clear.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, dir/wr. Lorene Scafaria, st. Steve Carell, Keira Knightley

Armageddon is, on reflection, a perfect tonal match for Steve Carell's perpetually hangdog face, a face that coveys such abject resignation, it's a wonder you don't glass yourself in the neck at the futility of it all the moment he appears onscreen. End Of Days films are nothing new, and you'd be forgiven if you thought you were being sold SAFFTEOTW on the promise of it being a bit funnier as the trailers suggested. However, the film kicks off with alarmingly ordinary depictions of extraordinary reactions to the news that the end is nigh; Carell plays Dodge Peterson (great name for a character unable to escape the predicament of a seventy-mile-wide asteroid) whose wife has literally just run out on him. His friends host a party and casually and jovially take heroin and encourage their children to chug martinis; at his dull insurer's job, a body crashes onto the bonnet of his car as he pulls up in his parking space; his boss stoically offers up a redundant position of CEO as his staff sniff and weep around him; after attempting an overdose, Dodge wakes up in the park with a dog tied to his ankle accompanied by a note that reads "I'm Sorry". You can guess what he names it. SAFFTEOTW is full of these little details, and even when necessity dictates that the rather predictable plot must move the story forward, it's still a pleasure to see the intricacies remain in sharp focus. There's great use of some rather obvious musical choices too, and although I suspect you're meant to believe Dodge and Penny's (Knightley) relationship is the stuff of hitherto undiscovered fairytale romance, I still bought it as a depiction of two people desperate not to be alone as the lights go out. It doesn't quite know what kind of a film it wants to be, but it undoubtedly makes an impact.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Master, dir/wr. Paul Thomas Anderson, st. Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

I feel for the woman that strode purposefully from the cinema auditorium sometime during The Master's opening twenty minutes, for P. T. Anderson's latest is baffling, claustrophobically intoxicating and hypnotic. It's the cinematic equivalent of tempering the most intense migraine with Ibuprofen Lysine, the knotty tension of perception giving way to exquisite visual bliss. Joaquin Phoenix, in a terrifyingly articulate portrayal of imbalance and trauma, his slurred drawl and heavy eyelids recalling Ted Levine's dangerous and louche Jame Gumb in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, plays Freddie Quell (named as it turns out, not without a sense of irony), a WWII veteran crippled with PTSD and an addiction to gals and booze. Stowing away on the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Seymour Hoffman), a physician of sorts, philosopher and psychological-alchemist who's building his own movement known as 'The Cause', and soon the pair form a fragile master/padawan relationship, driven as they both are by their ability to concoct from whatever's lying around - Freddie from paint thinner and bread, Lancaster from all manner of hazy new-age self-help mysticism. Anderson has stated The Master isn't strictly about Scientology but any number of crackpot religions and groups that sprung up all over the US after WW2, but the similarities are there, hiding in plain sight. One man's 'processing' is another man's 'auditing' after all. Again, like in 1999's superb Magnolia, Anderson employs long passages of rhythmic, tonal drone-score with which to underpin vast sequences - here, using Jonny Greenwood as he did in There Will Be Blood. An early scene with Quell and Dodd has the latter 'processing' the former with one of his 'sequences' - a barrage of questions that would flummox Pinter's Goldberg and McCann, ranging from the inane to the inflammatory, with an immediate restart if one blinks.  The effect is startling, unsettling, wholly absorbing and more than a little frightening. But there's a poetry to proceedings that makes Anderson such a unique and artful director. We can all name great visual auteurs or ones who coax wonderful performances from their actors or who can spin a great yarn, but Anderson does all three, and to a level of complexity and detail that simply astounds. 

Friday, 16 November 2012

Rust and Bone, dir. Jacques Audiard, wr. Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, st. Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts

If nothing else, Rust and Bone gives us, in Matthias Schoenaerts' bare-knuckled fighter Ali, a protagonist as richly complex as he is apathetic - a grade-A fuck-up, bestowed with wildly fluctuating parenting skills, and endowed with a blunt honesty which skates along that threshold between douchedom and refreshing honesty. Having absconded from his life with his addict girlfriend, Ali and his son find themselves at the door of his sister Anna and her boyfriend Foued, grateful for the free post-sell-by date yoghurt Anna liberates from the supermarket where she works, a beat-up old moped, and a roof over their heads - a stable environment which promises something of a new start. He gets a job at a security firm working as a nightclub bouncer (thanks to his background in boxing) and intervenes in a bar-fight, picking up a bruised and bloodied Stéphanie (Cotillard) from the floor, a precursory act to the more figurative way his valour will save her as the film progresses. After a terrible accident at the waterpark where Stéphanie works as a whale-trainer, the pair strike up a relationship - of sorts - for his lack of grace and consideration pauses for no-one, no matter how serious their trauma. In fact, weirdly, the casual nature of their partnership is just what Stéphanie needs, a sharp reminder that it's the small things that anchor us during desolation, even if those things are the everyday hurts and pains of human interaction. It's definitely a play of two halves, as the film shifts from Stéphanie's story to Ali, and his knuckle-headed but oddly sensible decision to play to his strengths and discover employment as a back-alley street-fighter. Audiard even shoots his leads in different modes; Cotillard is allowed glorious, sun-drenched close-ups of her un-made-up face, awash with the resignation of out-pained exhaustion, whilst almost the only insight we get into Schoenaerts state of mind is through the serious of physical blows he throws, and shadowy poses he strikes. It's almost like the camera, like Ali himself, finds it difficult to settle and focus; Ali. unlike Stéphanie, is almost always moving, a frenetic, kinetic flurry of motion, activity and purpose that is at odds with his inability to see a greater holistic vision for him and his son. Restrained and emotionally sincere (if not perhaps a touch contrived in its narrative), and with a commanding performance by Cotillard, Rust and Bone is a surely a shoo-in for Oscar contention given its subject matter and low-key production stylings, but it's also beautifully effective in its portrayal of un-algorithmable relationships, and how and why they function; this is a depiction of love not shouted from the rooftops, but kept suppressed, quietly blossoming in the soul.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Ted, dir. Seth MacFarlane, wr. Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild, st. Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Seth MacFarlane, Joel McHale, Giovanni Ribisi

Whether you buy into stand ups like Frankie Boyle or comedy shows like Family Guy or not, you will be aware of their intensely polarising effect. Indeed one wonders at the longevity of that particular brand of outrageous and 'offensive' humour, even if the merit of such jokes about cancer and degenerative diseases have been discussed to death. Here, in lieu of a live-action Family Guy episode, MacFarlane enlists his writing team, composer (Walter Murphy) and a whole slew of FG regulars - including Kunis. The story is one of typical stoner-redemption; loser and improbably hot girlfriend part ways due to third party before finding that true love was there all along. Films like this remind me of that Edward Albee line from The Zoo Story in which Jerry proclaims that "sometimes you have to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly." Ted finds the reasons for John and Lori's split as traditional and predictable as ever. John made a wish as a boy that his teddy bear - his only friend - could speak, and many years later, he's still stuck in ambitionless adolescence - his ursine pal's vernacular having taken on a more colourful hue. There have been many voices opining recently on whether Family Guy should quit, not quite while it's ahead, more a case of before it sinks much lower; on the basis of Ted, one's inclined to agree. 

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, dir. Timur Bekmambetov, scr. Seth Grahame-Smith, st. Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas

Light on scares or substance and heavy on the fancy-pants grading and tricksy post-production, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is classic Bekmambetov. Along with Wanted, Apollo 18 and The Darkest Hour, this bears all the hallmarks of his tiresome pyrotechnica, a vapid melange of unenthusiastic performances and over-choreographed set-pieces, stitched together with no discernible care or thought. In 1818, the young Abe watches his mother's slaughter at the hands of plantation owner Jack Barts (Csokas). Nine years later, Lincoln is befriended by shade-wearing Henry Sturges (Cooper) who proves nifty at the old vamp-slaying. After the obligatory not-gonna-train-you-yeah-alright-I'll-train-you patter, Abraham is soon dispatching the undead in flash routines that involve him spinning his silver-bladed axe like a behatted majorette with ADHD. Ignoring an earlier don't-fall-in-love-with-anyone-now-you're-a-lone-wolf speech, he predictable falls for Mary Todd (Winstead) and sets about destroying vampiric ultra-bastard Adam (Sewell), a terrifying monster about as evil as an unsharpened banana. If you feel like you've seen this all before, it's because you have. Bekmambetov rips off everything from Underworld to Sherlock Holmes with po-faced solemnity. The result is as boring as it is utterly, utterly forgettable.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Great Debaters, dir. Denzel Washington, wr. Jeffrey Porro, Robert Eisele, st. Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker

Written by The Equaliser and Cagney And Lacey writer Robert Eisele, produced by Oprah's Harpo Productions and directed with a fierce passion by Washington, this tale of the Wiley Collage Debating Team and their struggle with prejudice and racial discrimination in the American South in the 1930s is everything you might expect and hope it to be given the powerhouse production team behind it. Washington's portrayal is exemplary in its control and delivery, furthering the case for his nomination as one of the finest actors of his generation. Here, his Melvin B. Tolson is calm, erudite, aggressively protective and nurturing of his students. It's a performance that many might feel is stabilised by the effectively simple triumph-over-adversity construct, or James Newton Howard's soaringly empathic score, and indeed the film is peppered with stirring Shawshanky literary quotes pertaining to freedom and injustice, but the lasting effect is nonetheless of a solidly virtuous film.  Like all good dramas of this ilk, the triumphant conclusion is a little predictable, but it's absolved thanks to its extraordinary historical backstory.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Skyfall, dir. Sam Mendes, wr. John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, st. Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Albert Finney, Judi Dench

Another Bond film and expectations are perhaps at their loftiest. It's the 50th Anniversary of the film franchise and, still amped from a glorious Summer of patriotism, there is an expectation that now more than ever, the British film industry must deliver. The news that Sam Mendes was to helm Bond's 23rd outing was met with quiet confidence who yearn for the spy films of yore. Hardly an experienced action-film director, Bond fans however also know that even as an institution grows and evolves, mistakes can and still occur. The spectre of Marc Forster's Quantum Of Solace is a mere one degree of separation away. The hope was that Mendes, given his acclaimed background in Drama both on-screen and on-stage, would certainly stimulate our minds even if he fell short of quickening our pulses.

It is important therefore to begin by saying that Mendes does both, fluently, with purpose, and with a series of low-key nods to the sea of disparate styles and moods the Bond series has laid down over the years. After a bungled mission to apprehend a suspect attempting to flee with a hard-drive of all known NATO agents - via a breathless, joyously familiar pre-credits sequence - we find Bond MIA, enjoying a fortuitous sabbatical as he nurses an injured shoulder with no clear intent of returning to the fold any time soon. A terrorist attack on MI6 soon triggers the Pavlovian call to Queen and country, and it's not long before he's giving chase once more. His toxicology report might exhibit a dependence on pills and booze, but there's that almost reckless addiction to single-minded pursuit that's lurking just below the surface that Craig's made his Bond's defining feature. Physically, he's as buff as ever. Bond seemingly aces the tests that decide his re-insertion into the field, but for perhaps the first time, we are shown that no amount of exercise or experience can re-vitalise an ageing body or mind. MI6's methodology is being called into question by the chairman of the Intelligence and Security committee Gareth Mallory (Fiennes), a bureaucrat intent on mothballing M (Dench, ever marvellous) and her old-school ways. With confirmation that The Wire and Luther actor Idris Elba has met with Barbara Broccoli, evolution is clearly on people's minds, both on and off-screen. Times are uncertain indeed. 

It seems fitting then that we're presented with something of a retro-villain in Javier Bardem's wonderfully unhinged portrayal of Roaul Silva, Skyfall's antagonist. Like the entirely fittingly traditional if unadventurous title song performed by Adele, Bardem's Silva seems to tie in with the feeling of herritage's last hurrah. It's a good hour before we even get to see Bardem, his peroxide hair and nonchalant Bane-like swagger marking him out as one of the more memorable Bond villains in recent years, and although there are several memorable scenery-chewing confrontations with him - in particular, a suitably creepy first meeting with Bond that suggests Silva wants to be, beat up, and be in Bond all at the same time - there's nothing particularly memorable about Silva's inevitable demise. Such is the price of convention. Elsewhere there's a welcome return from Q Branch as Ben Whishaw inherits the mantle with quiet dignity and intelligence, and Bérénice Marlohe as Sévérine suggests real inner terror behind the glamourous exterior as Silva's moll, a former child-sex worker, whom, it is implied, has developed Stockholm Syndrome towards her captor. Thomas Newman inherits scoring duties from David Arnold who had his hands full with MDing the Olympics, and produces a typically sonically busy and intricate palette, including a gorgeous and stately Barryesque horn motif that harks back to Connery-era Bond. 

But this always has been about Daniel Craig. The craignotbond websites now a distant memory, he has arguable done more for the character since Sean Connery, and in Skyfall, we have his most personal story to date. Far from an exhaustive psychological case study, we are given enough information about Bond's history to preserve his humanity and distance us from viewing him as the cold-blooded killing machine we were always threatened with merely seeing him as. Success then. Mendes has crafted a thoughtful, exciting and faithful Bond film that both honours the institution as well as laying the foundations for progression. Craig is signed on for two further films, the handover has begun, but Skyfall reminds us of the importance of lineage as an integral part of future success.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Ruby Sparks, dir. Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, wr. Zoe Kazan, st. Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Steve Coogan, Elliott Gould, Chris Messina

Grand-daughter of the great Elia, Zoe Kazan has written an inoffensive, sporadically charming, fleetingly perceptive story about Calvin Weir-Fields (Dano) a writer facing Difficult Second Album syndrome, who finds a second wind (and a second chance at love) with the very real corporeal arrival of his fictional muse. That Ruby Sparks or 500 Days of Summer 2: Five Hundreder doesn't really do anything that Spike Jonze's Adaptation or Marc Forster's Stranger Than Fiction hasn't already done with more wit and conviction isn't to detract from some genuinely amusing sequences, particularly between Calvin and his brother Harry (Messina), and some joyfully wry couplets of dialogue. But the main problem with the film doesn't stem from Kazan, who ably channels her inner Zooey, but with Dano, who observes Calvin's narcissism too acutely to allow any of his endearing neuroses to come through. There's a sense, around the film's second act, when it seems the movie might spiral away from the cleverly-orchestrated celebrity-lineage love-in it's unashamedly promoting itself to be (Dano and Kazan are an off-screen couple and serve as Executive Producers), but the simplicity and wonder of overlaying the naturalistic and fantastical as an explanation for Ruby's sudden appearance from the typewriter ink, dissolves as the final part of the film wraps up in all the ways you hope it wouldn't.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Looper, dir/wr. Rian Johnson, st. Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels

Twice in Rian Johnson's richly visualised and conceptually laden film do his characters make reference to time out explaining the mechanics of time-travel as being, quite literally, a waste of time; it's a maddeningly transparent carte-blanche to play vast and loose with twisty sci-fi narrative, whilst simultaneously, cleverly, a wry nose-thumbing at pedants who impassively reject artistic merit on the grounds of illogical thinking. It's a gamble no doubt, but Looper's peppy non-linear storytelling, intricate found-object score from Nathan Johnson, and memorable turns from its stars more than earns its knowing-cool status.

Featuring effective (though not entirely successful in some quarters) prosthetics that lend Gordon-Levitt's Joe Simmons an angular comic-book look, our hero plays a Looper of the title, a freelance assassin in 2044 employed by a criminal conglomerate in 2074 to dispose of the human targets they send back in time to their staff. When the organisation decides to terminate a particular Looper's contract, his future self is returned to the past for elimination - 'closing the loop' it is called - , a rack of gold strapped to his back, and a sacrificial hood covering his head. Then, a bit like McNulty's dismissal party at Kavanagh's, your colleagues help you celebrate your retirement as you look forward to thirty years uninterrupted partying, before your pre-planned demise. Interestingly, Johnson has Joe played as more of a morally ambiguous willing participant in the game, rather than a victim of his own Faustian predicament. The urban decay and sociological degradation of 2044 parallels certain 21st century attitudes we might have that involve tying on the blinkers and drinking and dancing our way towards an irreparable end, whilst all around us, things fall apart. Part of Joe's behaviour can contextualised through the character of Abe (Daniels), a '74 mob lieutenant sent back through time and entrusted to regulate the Loopers. There's much of the gruff, advice-dispensing father-figure on display here Daniels has hewn from his character in Sorkin's The Newsroom, and an early scene in particular, in which he softly cajoles Joe to sell out a fellow Looper who allowed his Loop to run, is strangely tender and terrifying.

It's not until when Old-Joe, played by Bruce Willis, turns up to warn his impetuous younger incarnation of personal dangers and salvations that lie ahead, as well of as the emergence of a near-mystic Keyser Söze figure named The Rainmaker -  that has taken over organised crime in 2074 and is forcing all Loopers to close their Loops - that the film shifts gear. Willis is one of a handful of actors who is becoming eminently watchable in their eventidal years. His portrayal of the older Joe has a visible weight of regret and weariness behind the eyes, but the heightened senses that made him so good at what he did are still there too; in his scenes confronting Gordon-Levitt, it's fifty-fifty whether he's going to nod off for a snooze or disarm his opponent in one fluid feline movement. 

The film's second half thus becomes something of a chase movie, in which Old-Joe seeks to kill The Rainmaker as a child, whilst Young-Joe scrabbles to put the pieces together to make some kind of sense of his own fate as well as the situation unfolding around him. If Johnson's film has an ace up its sleeve, it's to disguise and repackage the derivative into something fresh and arresting. We are aware of familiar tropes even if we choose to go along for the ride. Ignoring these kinds of distractions is something I have previously discussed, and here serves as a testament to the ingenuity of the movie. A strong familial message rears its head with the emergence of Cid, the future Rainmaker, and her mother Sara (Emily Blunt) who believes her son's wayward telekinesis can be anchored and controlled if he's allowed to live, and this ties in neatly with Looper's central conceit of fatalism versus free will.

That Looper ultimately falls short of the balls-to-the-wall, indie-weird sci-fi it might have promised is not to detract one iota from its magnificent pacing and ideology. At the very least, it's comparable with the genius and wonder of sci-fi gone before and embraces rather than undoes its inspirational parentage.

Compliance, dir/wr. Craig Zobel, st. Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy

Compliance is a rather grim dramatisation of a real-life event that took place at a McDonalds restaurant in Mount Washington, Kentucky, in 2004, where father of five David Stewart, posing as a policeman, called the establishment's manger and managed to convince her to detain, question and later strip-search a young female employee. It's no secret that Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram's obedience and authority experiments have been borne out, often in increasingly horrifying ways,  in various real-world events across the globe, and equally, given the foreknowledge of such a film's premise, we're primed for the degradation that ultimately takes place. What is fascinating about Zobel's stagey chamber piece is the way in which 'Officer Daniels' (Healy) manages to persuade and enable via a slew of crudely implemented psychological suggestions and prompts. Granted access to both sides of his phone calls allows us to witness, alarmingly, the work of an amateur scammer (albeit one who logs conversation details and uses pre-pay phonecards) rather than some kind of criminal mastermind. Daniels' requests grow ever bizarre and un-law-enforcery, and luckily for us and the integrity of the film (as well as the victim) another employer begins to grow suspicious just as we're about to stop buying into the ruse. In retrospect it all seems a little incredulous that the scam would have even a quarter of the run-time depicted in the film, and one cannot help but wonder, with the greatest of respect, if the story might have had the same outcomes had it happened in the UK, but I guess that's the point. How often have we been told by staff, officials, uniformed officers, to move back, take another route, wait over there - all of which we do pretty much with little or no debate. In context, the perpetrator's ingenuity is revealed to be simply a manipulation of our weaknesses, and that's a pretty scary thought.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Arbitrage, dir/wr. Nicholas Jarecki, st. Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marling

Given that when morality comes up against profit, it is seldom profit that loses, what is billionaire hedge-fund manager Robert Miller to do when a freak car accident leaves his mistress dead and himself spiralling ever inwardly towards absolute implication? To make matters worse, his company's book-cooking has just been unearthed by its CEO, who also happens to be his daughter Brooke, played by Brit Marling. Much has been made of this being Gere's 'career-best' performance and it's honestly hard to disagree. His dynamic range in this film, bookended by his trademark carte-blanche smile at one end, and narrowing of the eyes and furrowing of the brows at the other, is given something of makeover, and for once, maybe, we believe slightly more than we ever dared we would in a Richard Gere picture. This may be in part due to Jarecki's sinewy snaky Sorkined script that casually toys with issues of familial loyalty versus unscrupulous business acumen, and gives Gere's Miller real cause and distress. Marling too gives Brooke restrained depth and feeling, never overstating beyond-her-years astuteness or understating youthful naivety; when she discovers her Father's dodgy financial manoeuvrings, Miller counters, in a beautiful little scene, with a speech about how her age denies her of true perspective. It's a clever moment that asks us to consider an argument that purports absolute morality can disintegrate with maturity. Marling here is as mesmerisingly watchable as in her previous self-penned projects, the Sundance-acclaimed Another Earth and The Sound Of My Voice. Similarly Sarandon, as Miller's acquiescent wife Ellen, is the closest link we as an audience have to any of the film's characters as she observes and ruminates in the background, all-seeing, cogs turning. There's so much meat on the bones of the nature of corruption, that the investigative story featuring Tim Roth as the detective hot on Miller's back ends up being the least interesting narrative thread on offer, but regardless, Arbitrage makes for solemn, compelling viewing.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Red Lights, dir. Rodrigo Cortés, wr. Rodrigo Cortés, Adrián Guera, st. Robert De Niro, Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy, Joely Richardson, Elizabeth Olsen, Toby Jones

There's more than a touch of Louis Cyphre in Robert De Niro's restrained portrayal of psychic Simon Silver, and indeed in the way Red Lights is put together as a whole. Cortés is clearly channeling Alan Parker's disembodied, hallucinatory narrative style put to such effective use in Angel Heart, even if the result is a little more staid than its inspiration. The film has Silver, once an acclaimed showman in ESP, returning from self-exile and once more into the public eye for a series of bow-out shows. Weaver and Murphy play Matheson, a university academic researching the paranormal, and her physics academic Buckley, a sort of Scully and Scully, right down to Buckley's I Want To Understand poster on the wall in his lab, a riff on Mulder's mantra. Together they travel from case to case, debunking as they go, but despite fierce warnings from his mentor, Buckley finds the enigmatic Silver an attractive target for his extra-curricular curiosities. There's a nagging suspicion, and then acceptance, that Red Lights ends up being less than the sum of its parts, and that the ideas within never quite adhere in the way they should. That said, it's also an engaging, eerie and pacy watch. Yes, it's derivative in the way a slew of directors from Lynch, to Argento to Cronenberg are stylistically name-checked, and there's even a distinct evocation of Sidney J. Furie's The Entity in the way the Buckley's university set up experiments on the compliant Silver in order to test his alleged powers. But bar a succinct and low-key voice-over at the film's end that serves as the final emotional, cerebral and existential clarification of the film's thematic threads, there's little in the way of the over-cooked earnestness present in so many films in which a protagonist is undone by spiralling obsession; Buckley is simply a man who refuses to have faith for the sake of it, and is driven to unearth what he sees as obvious subterfuge. There is nothing wrong in films like these playing like extended Fringe, or Twilight Zone episodes, for they're a well-formed, contained, and concise method of cinematic storytelling.

Intruders, dir. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, wr. Nicolás Casariego, Jaime Marques, st. Clive Owen, Carice van Houten, Daniel Brühl, Pilar López de Ayala, Ella Purnell

Fresnadillo, director of the notable Intacto in 2001 and the slightly less memorable 28 Weeks Later in 2007, here gives us his take on the Horror Weepie - a deviation from the classic genre which embraces an emotional rather than an explanatory payoff. Just think Alejandro Amenábar's The Others from 2001, or Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage from 2007. The film sets up two storylines that run concurrently. In one, a young boy's creative writings give presence to a physical manifestation of the monsters he has created, whilst many years later, a young girl discovers the very same novella, stashed within a knot in a tree, and the hauntings begin again in earnest. Sadly, a cathartic finale we may be due, but that doesn't stop Fresnadillo treating his film with the same tired conception of the hundreds of other one-word chillers out there (we've had Insidious and Sinister, I'm waiting for Lugubrious). The way the flip-flopping of the dual narratives is orchestrated sets up the promise of a connection far too early on in the film to make the climax that much of an effective reveal, and although the cast perform solidly, the prestige is underwhelming.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Hysteria, dir. Tanya Wexler, wr. Jonah Lisa Dyer, Stephen Dyer, Howard Gensler, st. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Felicity Jones

Disillusioned at the state of the health service, an archaic institution that blood-lets and butchers, whose general managers prefer to prescribe the latest faddy cure-all tincture rather than heed the call of molecular science and virology, Mortimer Granville (Dancy) procures a job aiding Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a physician successful in the treatment of female 'hysteria', a condition comprising pretty much every human trait imaginable from nervousness to depression.  Before long, Granville's getting RSI from masturbating an increasingly engorged waiting-room of female patients. Pitched somewhere between some play you'd stumble into after  night at the Student Union and and a good ol' Curtisy rom-com, Wexler's story never manages to get to grips with either her characters or the wayward plotting, although the uninhibited double-entendres, Rupert Everett's wry turn as Mortimer's Algernon-like housemate Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe, and Gyllenhaal's fiery portrayal of Dr. Robert's altruistic daughter Charlotte, amuse and impress. Flaccid structuring aside, this is light, frothy stuff, a low-calorie, period comedy that successfully explores one of the more wacky idiosyncrasies of Victorian England.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Jesus Camp, dir/wr. Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, st. Becky Fischer, Mike Papantonio

Apart from a .pdf file on radical Pentecostal children's pastor Becky Fischer's website Kids In Ministry, entitled "What's wrong with Twilight?", there's not a huge amount that rational members of the public will agree with during Ewing and Grady's film, and actively rather a lot that might turn your stomach. The main problem inherent in objectively researching extremism is that by its very nature, extremism doesn't stand up very well to a considered, balanced analysis. Both Fischer and another featured evangelist Ted Haggard have denounced the film as demonising their organisation, with Haggard going on to say, "Secularists are hoping that evangelical Christians and radicalised Muslims are essentially the same, which is why they will love this film." It doesn't help then, that Fischer's whole modus operandi is based around instilling an 'us and them' mentality in the children she preaches to, referring to followers of Islam as "our enemies" and suggesting that Muslim children are being ushered into mosques as we speak, only to be handed grenades and strapped into bomb-belts; there's not much context to be hewn from Fischer encouraging her children to repeatedly shout "This means war!" The film, to its credit, doesn't go so far as to call it what it is, but you'll all be thinking it. That the children featured in the documentary - the home-schooled Levi, and the tract-distributing Rachael - are seen to be intelligent, compassionate and charismatic only serves to further highlight the severe nature of their indoctrination. After spending the majority of the film using a series of manipulative, emotionally-cathartic methodologies, Fischer is seen near the end watching camcorder footage of her sermons, teary-eyed, stating that the kids' intensity and fervour is proof of the good work she's doing. "God hears the cries of children." she says. The difference between watching this and an exposé on other out-there fringe organisations is just that - Evangelicalism is not fringe. The National Survey of Religion and Politics puts them as comprising 26.3% of the total population of the US. With the Republican National Convention currently taking place in Tampa Florida, the rest of us look on in tired amusement as speaker after speaker spin and grin their way through speeches using words like 'God' and 'Family' as crowd-lubricants, and we watch with dropped-jaws their attitudes to issues like abortion but it's in scenes like those in Jesus Camp, in which the children are encouraged to enact a laying of hands on a life-sized cardboard cutout of George Bush whilst speaking in tongues, that one recognises and appreciates the foundations of such militant belief. Harrowing in the extreme.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Total Recall, dir. Len Wiseman, scr. Kurt Wimmer, Mark Bomback, st. Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, John Cho, Bill Nighy

Glossy remakes of old favourites will always be the hardest of sells. News this week wafted around the internet of discontent from Jose Padhila as production gears up for his new Robocop movie out next year; earlier this month film journalist Drew McWeeny allegedly obtained a copy of the shooting script and took to twitter to lambast the project, and now Padhila's friend, City Of God director Fernando Meirelles has weighed in saying, "For every ten ideas he has, nine are cut." Admittedly, a grit-truck load of salt should be taken with these reportings, but if there's one thing experience has taught us, it's that all this sounds wearily plausible. 

And so step forward Total Recall,  remake of the keenly satirical and violent 1990 original by director Paul Verhoeven. Shorn of Philip K. Dick's wacky Martian narrative thread (a thread Verhoeven built his film around), this only succeeds in becoming yet another quasi-dystopian futurist receptacle for the same old twinkly Blade Runner-hacked cityscape backdrops. When coupled with the trailer for the new Judge Dredd film Dredd, the effect is tiresome indeed. Insultingly, Colin Farrell (playing the Arnie role of hero Douglas Quaid) is bestowed with a throwaway reference - quite literally "I'd like to go to Mars." Yuck. It's not all bad. The schizophrenic production design visually confounds as well as making little practical sense (I know, it's science fiction, but an inter-planetary elevator that goes from Australia to the UK via a lift-shaft cut through the Earth's core? What now?) but the tech's occasionally imaginative enough to be mildly diverting. And there is one cool little homage to the original that takes place in a space-port queue in which a red-haired lady, when questioned about her stay, replies in monotone, "Two weeks..." that brought a smile to my curled lips despite myself, but then there's the tri-breasted prostitute - a product of mutation in the first film, a product of complete incomprehension here.

Liberally thieving from better material seems to be de rigueur these days, so much so, that as John Doe might say, we tolerate it because it's common; more and more one feels ones pleas for a little bit of vision, a little bit or originality, are lost, echoing soundlessly in the great Hollywood money-making abyss. I for one would love some implants of my own. And by that I mean, of course, memories of better times in the Cinema auditorium, not a third tit.

Blue Thunder, dir. John Badham, wr. Dan O'Bannon, Don Jakoby, st. Roy Scheider, Malcolm McDowell, Warren Oates, Candy Clark

After directing Saturday Night Fever in 1977, Badham made a name for himself directing what are now widely regarded as 80s staples - WarGames, Short Circuit, Stakeout, and this, a shot of pure Saturday-night-at-the-movies nostalgic adrenaline. Co-written by Alien scribe Dan O'Bannon, Blue Thunder tells the story of Post Traumatic Stress Disordered cop Frank Murphy (Scheider), a maverick helicopter pilot who monitors his sanity by his stopwatch, and succeeds, as most maverick cops do, by alienating those around him. After being selected to test-fly a new attack chopper, (the Blue Thunder of the title) Murphy stumbles upon a political conspiracy and corruption involving the recent death of a local LA councilwoman. Essentially an extended chase sequence, Blue Thunder features the kind of spectacular action and real-world effects now dwarfed by CGI and more comprehensive plotting, but it's a ride nonetheless. Upon its release in 1983 Blue Thunder did remarkably well, even overtaking the mother of Step Up movies Flashdance at the number one Box Office spot. It's possible I'm biased - Blue Thunder is one of a handful of films that encapsulates my childhood - and upon re-watching, there isn't really much substance to it, but the aerial sequences are charged and well edited and Scheider proves a winningly dry antihero. The movie also features, in my opinion, one of the most atmospheric film posters of all time.

Shadow Dancer, dir. James Marsh, wr. Tom Bradby, st. Clive Owen, Andrea Riseborough, Aidan Gillen, Gillian Anderson

One of the more quietly startling aspects of Marsh's 2008 docu-drama Man On Wire was how easily high-wire walker Philippe Petit was able to breach the World Trade Centre's security, thus enabling him to rig a high-tension cable from the towers' corners. Shadow Dancer sees Marsh re-visit the looming spectre of terrorism via a meticulously evoked sense of 90s muted-colour drabness. Riseborough plays Colette McVeigh - surely surnamed to instil in us a sense of foreboding from the off - a member of the IRA ensnared and threatened with imprisonment by MI5 agent Mac (Owen). Only turning informant for them will save her incarceration, and her boy from going into care. This is the kind of production that the BBC do best - slow burning, economically edited, persuasively performed and throughout, an impending sense of doom pervading the whole runtime. For the most part the film eschews broader commentary on how the IRA's motives dovetail into national politics in favour of exploring the intimate inter-familial bonds that held their ranks together. To this end, Riseborough gives a absorbingly stoic performance as Colette - numbed into submission by Mac on one side, and the chilling Kevin Mulville (David Wilmot) on the other, whose very presence at the McVeigh house usually foreshadows an offer unrefusable. There's also solid support from Anderson as Mac's superior Kate Fletcher, exuding a breezy air of plausible deniability, and who may or may not be playing Mac as part of a higher-tiered operation above his pay-grade. An immersive and sombre watch.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

John Q, dir. Nick Cassavetes, wr. James Kearns, st. Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, James Woods, Anne Heche, Ray Liotta

If nothing else, John Q is a film full of noble intent. Propelled by a searing performance by Washington, it tells the story of John Archibald, a blue collar worker who finds himself at the mercy of the system when his health insurance denies him the assets with which to pay for a life-saving heart transplant for his son Michael. Refusing to see his son die, John holds up a hospital and demands his son be placed at the top of the donor list. This is just the first in a whole raft of flaws that deny us any sense of real sympathy for John's plight. The film is plagued by a series of overwrought moments of clunky emotional gurning and 'door-slam' sound effects that needlessly punctuate key scenes, but worst of all, by reducing the desperately important debate over free medical care to a hostage situation and the ensuing media circus in which mindless onlookers cheer for John without really knowing what it is he's doing, things border on the absurd and the film's political message is damned. Predictably, Washington is on fine form here, but the terrific calibre of the supporting cast is marred by the unrealistic and two-dimensional characters they are expected to play; Robert Duvall's hostage-negotiator manages to get out what feels like 5% of his original lines, Anne Heche as the hospital administrator has a remarkably unlikely change of heart at the film's finale for no other reason than she seems to be moved by Washington's performance in the film, and Ray Liotta's pompous police chief elicits a helpful booing from the gathering crowd outside Q's hospital, you know, just in case we've forgotten how we're supposed to feel about him. Interestingly enough, everything - the door-slams, the overdriven empathic music, the police commander swanning in to take charge - have all recently been masterfully satirised in Charlie Brooker's Touch Of Cloth which aired last night, so it was quite possibly a mistake on my part to watch these two consecutively. There's serious commentary to be aired about a state's moral obligation to look after its citizens; unfortunately John Q, like its namesake, finds its application denied.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Safe House, dir. Daniel Espinosa, wr. David Guggenheim, st. Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson

A somewhat tedious soft-boiled Bourne-tinged thriller from director Espinosa, Safe House stars the usually dependable Washington as the improbably cool-sounding Tobin Frost, an ex-CIA agent turned freelance acquirer and seller of incendiary documentation. Branded a traitor to his country by the Agency, he is captured in South Africa and moved to a safe house where fledgling field-agent Matt Weston (Reynolds), who longs for a little excitement (presumably of the free-running on rooftops type) and a time when he doesn't have to lie to his beautiful French girlfriend Ana about having a boring office job, resides as 'housekeeper'. The safe house, as it happens, turns out to be not so safe after all, and Frost escapes, followed by Weston, in turn followed by the CIA. It's all a bit Tony Scott-by-numbers unfortunately - poignantly timely as the director sadly passed away last week. Washington and Scott, who collaborated together on five films, proved to be a winning team with Scott providing the pyrotechnic flair and kinetic élan and Washington giving what might have otherwise been throwaway popcorn fare, a quietly charismatic leading man. Sadly there's little plot here, the screenplay is predictable and uninspiring and there's little character empathy. With a near two hour running time, it's overlong too; many directors have done much more with much less. Farmiga is wasted, as is Joel 'neo-Robocop' Kinnaman, and there's a driving percussive score from Ramin Djawadi that's got John Powell's fingerprints all over it. If you've never seen Crimson Tide, Man Of Fire, Déja Vu, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, or  Unstoppable, time to update your LOVEFiLM list.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Imposter, dir/wr. Bart Layton, st. Frédéric Bourdin, Carey Gibson, Beverly Dollarhide

"You couldn't make it up!" as Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn might say, although if he did, this inky-black study of the psychological limits of acceptance and deception might have found a different angle; "That Frédéric Bourdin, coming over here, stealing our missing children's identities...". Proof that real life donates the best scripts and dialogue, Layton's extraordinary film hinges not only on the exploits of The Chameleon himself, already vastly documented, but on the disappearance of thirteen year old Nicholas Barclay who vanished from Texas in 1994, and his family's - desperate? suspicious? warranted? - willingness to accept him - actually Frédéric Bourdin - back into their lives. Much like James Marsh's 2008 documentary Man On Wire, The Imposter similarly constructs the narrative around a generic thriller-mould - complete with re-enacted dramatic sequences which cleverly blend the interview footage with carefully choreographed facsimiles of the real events. There's a rather dark and unsettling shift into murkier waters in the film's third act, when the focus shifts from Bourdin - an endlessly fascinating individual - to the grieving family itself: is there something uglier going on behind the scam, something even Bourdin is unaware of? The film is as incredulous as it is uncomfortably plausible, and, despite ourselves, we are utterly compelled to go down this particularly eerie rabbit-hole to see where it leads.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

United 93, dir/wr. Paul Greengrass, st. Khalid Abdalla, Christian Clemenson, Cheyenne Jackson

One remembers thinking in the days that followed the September 11th attacks that this was surely going to have a long-lasting and critical impact on Hollywood. In recent years the images of the planes striking the towers have been archived from every conceivable angle and format on YouTube, the moment of impact itself extraordinarily terrifying in the way the clips' muted sound and static angles highlight the reality of what we are seeing; there is no sound design, there is no dramatic score, there is no sense of storyboarding, just events unfolding in real time. It is undoubtedly the single most terrifying event of my generation. How could terrorists, planes, airports, hostages, fights, fire, destruction and carnage ever be depicted under the guise of entertainment again? And yet comparatively soon, with time, objectivity and reasoning, the War On Terror begun, the world got back up on its feet, Bin Laden was hunted and eventually killed, and, certainly cinematically, things have gone back to normal. What we are left with is arguably an even more fertile ground for movie narrative and exposition than before; paranoia is heightened, everyone and everything is a potential threat. Historically of course, this is nothing new. Wars have passed, atrocities uncovered, dictators overthrown, and we have gone on to tell stories about all these things. We look on Spielberg's Schindler's List as an educational tool rather than a cynical attempt to cash in on the unspeakable. 

What then to say about Greengrass's film? Made a mere five years after the attacks, it sensitively attempts to dramatically portray two of the major events on that day; the confusion between the various air traffic controls and the military in the face of the unprecedented unfolding events, and the passengers of United Airlines flight 93 and their efforts to overcome the hijackers and storm the aircraft's cockpit. The main action, shot at Pinewood in a disused Boeing 747, conveys a heart-stopping sense of claustrophobia as the passengers, filmed in blurry hand-held close-up, gradually realise their part in the day and decide to fight back. Greengrass eases off for the most part on the Drama, but there is an unnecessary score from the talented John Powell that pops up from time to time, which really has no place in a film like this. Notably, the terrorists themselves are depicted, as well as devout followers of their religious beliefs and cause, as human beings, fearful, nervous and somewhat under-rehearsed. That time is given to portray them as people rather than faceless spiritual warriors provides much of the film's resonance. Ultimately, one concludes that like Spielberg's film, this too is an instructive watch. It demonstrates how unprepared we are until faced with the unimaginable. It shows the complacency in believing we are protected from those who wish to hurt us, and it shows the real courage and strength it takes to face real-world terror outside our dreams or the cinema.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Airborne, dir. Dominic Burns, wr. Paul Chronnell, st. Mark Hamill, Billy Murray, Simon Phillips, Gemma Atkinson, Julian Glover

A rag-tag bunch of loners and misfits board an airliner from Robin Hood airport (featuring the kind of peace, quiet and understaffing you only find in low-budget horrors) and find themselves thirty thousand feet up caught between a fiendish ruse to divert the plane and land in South America, and the release of a vengeful God who's been holed up for thousands of years in a vase. Trying to make desperate sense of proceedings, and indeed his career, is Mark Hamill, playing a slightly less iconic movie character in the form of air traffic controller Malcolm. Actually, that's a little mean. Hamill's done extraordinary voice-work as The Joker in both the Batman animated and video-game world, but his performance here smacks of favour-calling, rather than strength of conviction. Director Burns is competent although there's less innovation here than the expansive genre affords and it all looks like a rather messy homage by an obsessive Neil Marshall fan.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Hungarian Rhapsody: Queen Live in Budapest '86, dir. János Zsombolyai, st. Freddie Mercury, John Deacon, Roger Taylor, Brian May

If, like me, you were born just that little bit too late to see Queen live, then I suspect this latest hi-def restoration is the closest we'll ever come to experiencing it. This remaster, it must be said, is a complete joy. If you excuse the 80s hair and dismiss the wonderful absence of pin-speckled smart-phone screens in the audience, this could pass for a live simulcast. Noteworthy too is the clarity and tone of the 5.1 mix. Now all those crazy pans, delays and phaser studio effects we know and love bounce around the auditorium along with tight and punchy LFEs. I remember destroying my Queen cassettes through overuse. The tape would become thin and warped, though admittedly, I often tried pressing rewind and play at the same time in an attempt to discover what those weird vocals were saying at the beginning of One Vision. I remember Ian Hislop on Room 101 who posited that Queen started off as these great music pioneers collating different styles and tastes, and ended up 'doing chants', in which people could 'shout mindless lyrics and feel better about themselves.' My argument isn't so much in that statement itself, but in the fact that I'm not sure Queen's stadium inclusivity is such a bad thing. We have seen, recently in London, how an arena of tens of thousands can bring their focus to bear on one, or a group of individuals, and share their elation, their energy, their desire to perform, and how the performers feed off their enthusiasm. Like the greatest theatre, it is an exchange; there are no passive participants in such an event. Watching Freddie Mercury stride and strut and belt out a note-perfect tune is physically exhausting to watch, especially with the absence of giant video-screens that nowadays flank the stage offering those in the cheap-seats (or cheap-mud) a chance to catch a glimpse of the action, it is even more remarkable to watch a man instinctively know how to fill the space, to be as big a presence as possible; running up and down the gantries, steps and catwalks isn't ego, it's a public service. We are reminded, from the concert footage, but also the documentary inserts that are interspersed throughout, breaking up the action, Mercury was an erudite and committed frontman, a flamboyant and kinetic showman, but also, most movingly of all, a quiet and softly cheeky individual. Breathtaking.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Contact, dir. Robert Zemeckis, scr. James V. Hart, Michael Goldenberg, based on Contact by Carl Sagan, st. Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, Tom Skerritt, William Fichtner, John Hurt, Angela Bassett, David Morse

Beginning with an extensive pull-back from Earth with all its cacophonous audio soup of TV, radio and communication signals and ending at the extreme boundaries of outer space - by which time all we hear is the faintest whispered static and white noise - Contact, based on the book by beloved astrophysicist Carl Sagan, very much the Brian Cox of his day, sets itself up to be the cerebral response to all the bug-hunt alien movies of yore. Foster plays Ellie Arroway, a SETI researcher who is shocked one day to discover a signal being returned to our pale blue dot from the star Vega. The nature of the message and its contents are exciting enough, but the real meat of the film is derived from a conflict Arroway has, as Dr. Lector might have put it, deep within herself; she forms an uneasy romantic bond with Palmer Joss (McConaughey) - a spiritual advisor to the stars, as it were - who in turn escalates up the ranks, eventually becoming the President's right-hand mystic, just as Arroway begins a bullied fall from grace at the hands of the glory-hunting, former-sceptic David Drumlin (Skeritt). The Science Vs. Spirituality argument is intimately played out between the pair, and the scale, awe and wonder of the film's physics is intelligently woven into the story. Alan Silvestri once more employs a mawkish score he unashamedly lifts from his own Forrest Gump themes, anchoring the movie to mass appeal and never letting the geekiness run away with the goods. Quite simply, Hollywood rarely deals with thematic content this vast and far-reaching in a mainstream movie anymore, certainly, in a post-911 environment (the film was made in 1997), the idea of one of the film's sub-plots involving evangelical Christian terrorism would doubtless sit uneasily in the minds of movie-goers and studios alike. But Foster convinces as Ellie, vulnerable, intelligent, driven, and the film has as much to say on galactic existentialism as it has on misogyny and gender-discrimination.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Source Code, dir. Duncan Jones, wr. Ben Ripley, st. Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright

Duncan Jones' follow up to his debut, the low-key Moon in 2009, is another classy slice of sci-fi ingenuity, maxed out for audiences in the mainer stream. Helicopter pilot Colter Stevens wakes up in a nightmarishly claustrophobic military escape pod and finds himself having orders barked at him by scientist Dr. Rutledge (Wright) and Airforce Captain Goodwin (Farmiga). He learns he is in the Source Code, a computer simulation of the last eight minutes of a victim's life aboard a doomed passenger train that exploded earlier. His mission is to use and re-use these eight minutes to hunt the bomber. Crucially, this isn't time travel, he's told, rather he's surfing on synaptic echoes. Jones' Twilight Zonal yarn is a trim, taut, and rather pacy thriller that's light on mystic existentialism and heavy on driving plot. It's Gyllenhaal's show, obviously, and he's a likeable enough hero - caught somewhere between intuitive service to his country and an instinctive desire to pinch himself hard enough to wake up. Farmiga though, has arguably the harder role. Initially unable to tell Colter where he his, or the true nature of his condition (quite shockingly revealed later on) in order to conserve time and force him to remain on point before the terrorist makes good on another threat, she's continually battling emotional compartmentalisation with a nagging feeling she's unethically toying with one life to save many others. Just what constitutes life and death is the key theme running through Source Code, but Jones never pauses to contemplate too long lest it swamp the cracking ride.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Unbreakable, dir/wr. M. Night. Shyamalan, st. Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright Penn, Spencer Treat Clark

Hollywood only remembers the last thing you did. M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, The Lady In The Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender have become perennial cudgels with which to beat him, derisive failures from a director fallen too far from grace to ever recover. In the mêlée The Sixth Sense has been dismissed as a fleeting one-off, its subsequent copycats having robbed the original of its ingenuity, Mel Gibson's real-life histrionics have blighted Signs' genuine sense of Hitchcockian wonder and, perhaps most egregiously, 2000's Unbreakable, a tremendously detailed dissection of superhero origin has been relegated to near anonymity in the face of Marvel's continued iron-booted command over the multiplex. 

What the film asks, and the thing that most contemporary superhero films gloss over with indifference, is what happens when the superhero becomes self-aware? Peter Parker is bitten by a spider and within minutes he's yee-ha-ing through Manhattan, identity crisis over, let's go fight crime. Unbreakable gives us just one fight, and it's right at the end of the film's third act. It's purposely clumsy and cleverly ill-choreographed. It's a superhero finding his feet, discovering - painfully, in that scene - his identity. Willis gives a hushed and intimate performance as the alliteratively-named David Dunn - easily his greatest role to date, and there's solid support from Jackson and Penn yes, but also from Treat Clark and Johnny Hiram Jamison as Joseph, Dunn's son and Young Elijah respectively. As a fellow critic recently observed, children are an integral feature to the fabric of Shyamalan's narratives. He shows us extraordinary events often viewed through the most innocent eyes. Hence the ingenious secondary plot-line of Unbreakable is also the simplest; alone in the eye of a family on the verge of collapse, Joseph Dunn wants to have a father once more, a hero. Not the kind that dons a cape and saves families from intruders, but a protector, a mentor, a friend. 

Unbreakable also features what might be composer James Newton Howard's most accomplished work. Like Shyamalan, Newton Howard gently unpicks the clarion-call triumphalist motifs of superhero themeology and has written a score that explores instead all the fragility and uncertainty of what it means to be human, not superhuman. In the film, in the moments when the hero does overcome, we are treated to hearing the embryonic stages of what might be a rich and grandiose full-blown superhero theme, and it's dignified and noble instead of audacious and glib. Commensurate with the mood of the film, there is a lot of stillness in the music. Key scenes sometimes go completely unscored altogether. It's a classic example of creating art being as much of a reductive process as an additative one, and Shyamalan does this better than anyone.

That many haven't seen Unbreakable or that it has been consigned to the recesses of public and academic consciousness is a great shame; instead of attempting to crank pacing, plot and pyrotechnics up to eleven, it dials everything back, and as a result, is perhaps one of the most restrained and meditative superhero films ever made.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Sound of My Voice, dir. Zal Batmanglij, wr. Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling, st. Brit Marling, Christopher Denham, Nicole Vicius

Anyone who saw Marling's astonishing sci-fi-infuséd drama Another Earth last year will be pleased to know this film, written alongside and very much a companion piece to AE, comprises more of the same intimate and intricate plotting peppered with mind-bending revelatory twistings. This time Marling plays Maggie, an enigmatic basement-ridden prophet apparently from fifty years into our future, who's recruiting a small band of followers in order to prepare them for oncoming hardships. Determined to expose her as the shamen they believe her to be, film-makers and lovers Peter and Lorna infiltrate her mysterious sessions and rituals, but it's not long before the search for truths within and without begin to take their toll. Marling apparently wrote this and Another Earth (both 2011 Sundance exciters) oscillating between floors with housemates Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij and there's a clear symbiosis between them. Both feature the same kind of low-buget hi-concept streamlined narrative, docu-like handheld camerawork that perpetuates an engaging immediacy and in AE's Rhoda and SOMV's Maggie, a central role of charismatic, nuanced delicacy and intensity. The film's success lies in eschewing bloating story-lines and jettisoning extraneous characters, bringing our focus to bear on pretty much a single narrative strand and the searing interaction between a triumvirate of fascinating characters. Cleverly, Batmanglij refrains from showing us much of the outside world the film inhabits, like the increasingly obsessing Peter, narrowing our view of what we see around us until there's just one maddeningly infuriating riddle in our path: Maggie. Is she for real? In one quite brilliant sequence, she's asked, or maybe goaded, by one of her followers into revealing something about where she's supposedly from. "Sing us a song from your time", they ask. The song she chooses is at first alien, then strangely familiar, until it hits you; it isn't a song from the future at all. Her group allow her to finish, their expressions mirroring ours, and then one of them confronts her with it. Her response is simple and sublime, and it's these little pieces of humble rhetoric that slowly, against our better intuitions, begin to sell the idea that maybe, she is indeed the traveller she says she is. Batmanglij and Marling have made a quiet cerebral little film that's chilling, exciting and come the end, curiously moving too. And I can't wait to see it again.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Battleship, dir. Peter Berg, wr. Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber, st. Liam Neeson, Taylor Kitsch, Alexander Skarsgård, Rihanna, Brooklyn Decker

It's a good time to be on the board of directors at toy manufacturer Hasbro. Pick anything from their lines, package it as a clone of their biggest celluloid-transitional success Transformers, and watch the green fly in. Berg's film cranks up the Michael Bay-levels of fetishistic Military-Porn to eleven; hulking  gun batteries and turrets groan into position before unleashing their load onto the enemy with satisfying THX clarity. It's not a subtle message, and like Team America before it, the film could have just as easily be called Battleship: America Will Fuck You Up, Bitch. Wondering how he can make things any more jingoistic, Berg has an entire crew of Navy OAPs join the fight (by crewing the mothballed USS Missouri), and later a retired paraplegic goes head to head with one of the behemoth alien foot-soldiers. No, seriously. He wins as well. There are some cute nods to the original game, Kitsch is serviceable as the screw-up who comes good, and Rihanna sneers and wisecracks in all the right places. Even Neeson adds a steely presence as the fleet's admiral. There's something weirdly admirable about the Megatron-sized balls it must take to so brazenly rip-off your own work, right down to score, ship, and sound design, but Hasbro have played a marketing blinder; finding a way to repeatedly sell the same product to the same consumer under a different name. Personally I can't wait for the big-screen outing of Bop-It!

Friday, 3 August 2012

Chatroom, dir. Hideo Nakata, wr. Enda Walsh, st. Aaron Johnson, Hannah Murray, Imogen Poots, Matthew Beard, Daniel Kaluuya

Never quite escaping the shackles of its A-Level-themed 'issue'-flavoured theatricality but given an adequately creative visual concept by Ring director Nakata, Chatroom tells the story of five teenagers who come together online to talk about teen stuff, although this seems to primarily consist of asking each other, "what do you hate?" They're all given their own unique whine - albeit lame-o and noncommittal problems - but none more so than William played by Aaron Johnson, Kick Ass's Kick Ass, a cutter who seeks - Evelyn Ann Thompson-style - to indirectly tamper with the insecurities of a fellow depressive for sport. To make the drama (of what are essentially lines of text spoken on a computer screen) sing, Nakata has the characters meeting in an opulent hotel room, its corridors and suites standing in for the labyrinthine ones and zeros of the cyber world. It's suitably creepy and at least one sequence - William voyeuristically observing via web-cam a Japanese girl plunge to her death from her bedroom window - has distinct echoes of the J-Horror Nakata's famed for, but the script, adapted by Walsh from his own play text, makes for too limp and uninspiring a story to provide any real thrills. 

Tyrannosaur, dir/wr. Paddy Considine, st. Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman, Eddie Marsan

Like marbles in a basin, damaged souls will find each other, their suffering seemingly acting like some telekinetic gravitational force pulling fellow counterparts into their own orbits. Call it chance, fate or divine intervention even, there is no reason why Mullan's Joseph seeks refuge inside the charity shop run by Hannah (Coleman) other than in an attempt to find sanctuary from his own inner rage - a veritable tinderbox of blind violence and aggression. A devout Christian herself, Hannah welcomes in this stranger, tolerates his oscillation between his sneery taunts and apologetic endeavours to exercise self-regulation. The wonderfully economic screenplay allows the attempted connection between these two to strike a persuasive balance between feel-good meetings of minds and ultra-bleak nihilism. But Hannah herself is hiding a secret too. Possibly the hard slap Joseph needs to make him aware of his own context and environment, he discovers she too is in a hell of her very own. Considine's first feature film hinges entirely on two hugely affecting portrayals by Mullan and Coleman - the latter in particular giving a terrifyingly honest depiction of abuse - whilst Mullan, his voice deep and cracked with bitterness and self-pity, gives Joseph a whispered humanity between the eruptions of fury.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Dark Knight Rises, dir. Christopher Nolan, scr. Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, st. Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman

Maybe it's with the entitled weight of cathartic finality that the final act in Christopher Nolan's triptych, in many ways the most inelegant, has the effect of being the easiest of the three films to overlook its narrative and character-shading shortcomings, of which have no doubt, there are a great many. The re-imaging of the Dark Knight story that began with Batman Begins in 2005 arrived with such gloomy solemnity you could almost hear the collective consciousness tut-tutting at yet another 'dark' retelling. Yet with the story Nolan began to weave, focussing on Bruce Wayne's battle with inner demons, absolute morality and urban degradation, the cheerless subject matter quickly justified such portentous a tone. Batman's self-sacrificing assumption of the murder of Harvey Dent in order to keep the spark of hope alive in disillusioned Gothamites at the end of The Dark Knight was a million miles away from the technicolor self-congratulatory fanfare of superheroes gone before. Yet as Chicago Sun-Times film critic Jim Emerson so painstakingly pointed out in a video essay analysing one of TDK's key sequences, there are many ways to make a film, and many ways to make a mess. 

Technically, and certainly from a performance standpoint, The Dark Knight Rises is as remarkable as its predecessors. Wally Pfister continues to take black-level cinematography to ever nth-er degrees, and in one standout sequence, even reverses the palate by shooting an exhilarating action sequence set against a snowy daylight backdrop - a visually striking trick repeated from the earlier films. Similarly the principles give wonderful turns in roles that are the most underwritten of the series. More of that in a moment. It is, however, Tom Hardy as the hulking yet eloquent Bane who emerges as the film's clearest triumph. Shot primarily from perception-distorting low angles and attired in quasi-dictorial military garb, Hardy cleverly bestows Batman's adversary with a nonchalant swagger and a received pronunciation vocal inflection that recalls Dr. Lector and his maw-restricting mask. Whereas Heath Ledger's Joker wielded a brutal and unpredictable wild anarchy, Bane is contemplative, poetic, refined even. The first time Wayne and Bane engage has The Bat throwing all the furious punches whilst being out-powered and out-balleted by his foe. 

And this is where we come to the sticking point; narratively, The Dark Knight Rises is a mess, especially the first twenty minutes - an untidy and shoddy collection of scenes that aim for illusory disparity but succeed only in incoherence. Characters emerge from nowhere, say their piece and disappear, the screenplay is screamingly first-drafty, and there's precious little character introduction let alone development. Arguably we have had two other previous films from which to flesh them out, but there are four here who suffer most, three of them new characters; Hathaway's Selina Kyle, Cotillard as the mysterious Miranda Tate (both with rich and complex backstories that are criminally under-explored) Gordon-Levitt's rookie cop Blake (whom on discovering how pivotal a role he has, will have you looking back on the film, suspecting sleight of hand but discovering merely an ill-conceived character) and most bewilderingly, Batman himself. This was to be his swan song. "The legend ends", we were told. How then is there next to nothing in the way of reflection on Bruce Wayne's part in all of the film's near three-hour runtime? Even Alfred's wise words begin to sound like a bad pastiche on his once genuinely sage advice. Only one scene, Wayne's visit to a doctor in which, alarmingly, we're made aware of the physical toll being the city's protector has had on his body allows us to embrace Batman's mortality. The sheer scale of the film is truly impressive and Hans Zimmer's score pounds and arpeggiates in all the right places, but this time, it's not as easy to put aside plot-holes and lazy screenwriting. The series - Nolan's vision - has already proved it deserves better.

Much of this may seem like nit-picking and I suspect most people won't want to feel short-changed by The Dark Knight Rises. No one wants to feel let down by emotional investment. But while the film is ambitious, audacious, literary and beautiful, it's let down by fundamentals that should have already been in place. There's no point having a cake decorated by a world-class pâtissier artist if the cake itself fails to rise. As the trilogy's epilogue TDKR is as much of a ride as it was ever going to be. The tragedy is that it could have been so, so much more; a superhero movie that cemented this type of comic-book fantasy as a genre that stood up to the rigorous scrutiny of cinematic academia. But no matter. Nolan, like Batman, is retired from this saga having paid his dues. And what a thrilling ride into the night it has been.