Saturday, 31 March 2012

ATM, dir. David Brooks, wr. Chris Sparling, st. Alice Eve, Josh Peck, Brian Geraghty, Ashvin Singh

Here's another horror thriller with a trendy deceptively mundane title. In fact, have a go yourself: firstly, write a generic "parka-wearing killer targets teens" script. Go on, it won't take long, I'll wait. Done it? Good, now for the USP. Pick an ordinary, everyday outdoor location or object, and BAM! there's your movie. Clever isn't it? See how un-scary "Wheelie Bin" sounds? Or "Bollard"? Or "Foyer"? Here for example, a parka-wearing killer targets teens in one of those ATM huts in the middle of a car park. There're three of them and only one of him, plus he sporadically disappears from time to time to dispatch security guards, but the teens stay put because they're PARALYSED WITH FEAR, you see? Eventually, the surviving teen is indicted for all the carnage and the killer lives to kill again. Incidentally, he does this by apparently designing ATM locations, power and camera routings and so on, using blueprints and architects' tools before presumably submitting them for construction. It's a bit like if Kevin McCloud's AutoCAD animations at the beginning of Grand Designs included a voice over in which he calmly described in which rooms he was planning on offing the new owners. Although weirdly, I would watch that.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Delicacy, dir. David and Stéphane Foenkinos, scr. David Foenkinos, st. Audrey Tautou, François Damiens, Pio Marmaï


From the first strains of Émilie Simon’s music-box score and heightened-reality depictions of Nathalie and her husband François loved-up bliss, you’d be forgiven for thinking Delicacy is dining out on Amelie-esque whimsy, but there is something far more subtle and dare I say it – affecting – to be found in the Foekinos brothers’ tale of a grief accepted, and a new love discovered in its wake. We first see Tautou as Nathalie in a café, where she and her boyfriend François share an annual role-play, re-enacting the moment they first met. It’s one of a handful of scenes that should be nauseating (François later proposing with his house keys in lieu of a proper engagement ring is another) but actually helps cement in our minds the cutesy reality of a couple in love, comfortable and familiar with each other. After François is killed (off-screen in a traffic accident), Nathalie gets a dull office job and begins a relationship, of sorts, with Swedish employee Markus, and so begins her grieving process and the fragile possibility of a new love. ‘Gamine’, ‘waifish’ and ‘elfin’ seem to be easy shortcuts to describe the radiant Taoutou, and it’s true, the eyes most definitely have it, but she’s also an actor of extraordinary focus and control; whether marching down an office corridor, all icy stoicism and heartache, or letting go Nina Sayers-style in a club, she’s an actor whose physicality utterly sells a scene. Markus, at first glance, seems the most unlikely object of attraction; a beige, balding, gangly pen-pusher, camouflaging an honest, untested heart. After Nathalie impulsively kisses him, he’s caught, at first, and then after a couple of tentative dates, refuses to even look at her, lest she withdraw her affections. “You’ll get neck-ache”, she says, as he averts his gaze. “Better than heart-ache”, he replies. The line is typical of the tone of the film; the humour is gentle, persuasive, the burgeoning relationship navigated with care and delicacy rather than the linear path of most celluloid romances. But the real heart of the film is held back for the very last scene, the clunky quirk and fancy coming together in a bravado combination of gossamer steadicam, meticulous choreography and an impassively poignant voice-over. Never has mourning been depicted with such beauty and hope.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Divide, dir. Xavier Gens, wr. Karl Mueller, Eron Sheean, st. Michael Biehn, Lauren German, Milo Ventimiglia

Anyone who's seen Gens' nihilistic, ultra-violent Frontière(s) will know what they're letting themselves in for here - don't let the B-list names fool you. According to Biehn, Gens gave all his actors carte blanche to make any changes to their characters that they wished; that the film is chaotic and narratively schizophrenic comes as no surprise. The story is a familiar post-apocalyptic yarn of descent into depravity; following a nuclear strike on an unnamed city, a group of strangers shelter in their landlord's basement. As  food, water and trust begins to run out, the group turn in on themselves, regressing to bestial, often unwatchable behaviour. Compared with something like Fernando Meirelles Blindness back in 2008, another film in which a global catastrophe has man sacrificing compassion for survival, the baseness here is savage and monstrous, the uncertainty of what lies beyond the basement helping to give the film the isolation it needs to quash any sense of real humanity. By contrast, the over-exposed luminosity of Meirelles' film - a clever take on depicting the blindness itself - always allows the real world in to the proceedings, grounding the film with an essential realism. The Divide proves that nothing worth preserving grows in a barren cinematic landscape utterly devoid of empathy or feeling.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

In the Land of Blood and Honey, dir/wr. Angelina Jolie, st. Goran Kostić, Zana Marjanović, Rade Šerbedžija

It was somehow inevitable that Angelina Jolie's transition from A-lister to UN goodwill ambassador would return full circle to the warm bosom of Tinseltown. Here she presents a competently directed and often engaging story concerning Danijel (Kostić) a Bosnian soldier and Ajla (Marjanović) a Bosnian Muslim, each attracted to each other, yet pulled apart because of their heritage. The constant tension between forging ahead with some semblance of a relationship (she's one of many enlisted as sex-slaves for the Serbian soldiers) versus the compulsion they feel for their conflicted homelands and peoples is the keen edge the story is built on. For the most part, Jolie reins in the Hollywood histrionics with only Gabriel Yared's score giving away the big-budget masquerade - indeed not much time at all is given over to cementing in our minds the credibility of the relationship between Danjiel and Ajla. We assume this is a love worth fighting for, but against the horrors of war, we find ourselves asking a far more unsettling question; was this ever love at all? Nothing will ebb the flow of feeling that In The Land Of Blood And Honey comes off as Jolie's final-year dissertation on her time spent with the UN, but for all its moralising, it's also informed, very watchable and, at times, powerful and intelligent film-making.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Into The Abyss, dir/wr. Werner Herzog, st. Werner Herzog, Michael Perry, Jason Burkett

Werner Herzog's grim and sombre documentary cooly and objectively studies the US' death penalty using real-life convicts Michael Perry and Jason Burkett as his case studies. Herzog intersperses genuinely unsettling police crime-scene archive footage with interviews with the incarcerated and those family members affected by the crimes themselves. The senselessness of the murders and our ability to comprehend the actions of the perpetrators is further compounded by the honest and erudite musings of the criminals, and though parental dysfunction and compass-light childhoods are alluded to, no direct reasoning is ever given as to why they did what they did. Herzog remains off-camera, gently and respectfully cueing the prisoners to share their story and the action is broken up by other interviews with a death-row pastor and warden who convey how their involvement with the system has left them spiritually and emotionally bereft. A large bulk of the power of this extraordinary documentary lies in the lack of sermonising, yet even so, Herzog more than once feels compelled to drop his personal views into the conversation. Into The Abyss then isn't exactly life-affirming stuff, but rather a bleak peer into the infinite gloom of life wasted.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

We Bought a Zoo, dir. Cameron Crowe, scr. Aline Brosh McKenna, Cameron Crowe based on We Bought a Zoo by Benjamin Mee, st. Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, Elle Fanning, Angus Macfadyen

We Bought A Zoo oscillates wildly between moments of profound sentimentality and Santander Ad tweeness - complete with Sigur Rós underscoring. It also never knows quite what it wants to be. There's the familiar trope of a single parent coping to raise, provide and bond with his children upon the death of a spouse to provide the main dramatic thrust of the film, and then there's the comedic fish-out-of-water City Slicker meets The Sticks theme. Upon the passing of the aforementioned wife and mother Katherine, Benjamin Mee (Damon), sullen teen son Dylan (Ford) and button-cute daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) literally buy a zoo as it contains their dream start-over house. Sporadically nestling amongst the clichéd lines and rent-a-scene dramatic twists and turns are some genuinely smart and moving moments - a scene in which Ben and his son's grief erupt in a vicious war of words injects a punchy and much needed vitality to the soggy story - but these are sadly too few and too far between. There's a clunky romance crowbarred in between lead zookeeper Johansson and Damon that's sphincter-clenchingly contrived and the film lays on The Redemptive Power of Golden Sunlight-shot a bit thick, but there's a closing scene that's surprisingly honest and affecting which left me only wishing that the rest of the movie had legitimately earned it.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, dir. Steven Spielberg, scr. Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, based on The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé, st. Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig

Undoubtedly beautifully rendered and largely faithful to the spirit of adventure of Hergé's books, Spielberg and Peter Jackson's mo-capped film comes across more as a satisfyingly spirited Easter-Day-on-ITV children's romp rather than the genre and form-defying film it was built up to be. By his own admission Spielberg thought of Tintin as Indiana Jones for kids, and through John Williams' exuberant but largely derivative score and breathless Dr. Jones-style globe trotting, he makes good on that promise, even if the feeling is generally one of familiarity rather than discovery. I've talked about the relevance of photorealistic CGI before, and admittedly, it does look fantastic here. Wood grain, hair follicles and cleverly reproduced real-world optical effects such as lens-flare are almost indistinguishable from the real thing, resulting in a wholly absorbing and convincing viewing experience, but I was rather left wondering what the point of its use was. The film's urgent and kinetic chase sequence through a Moroccan Port, unmistakably the film's centrepiece, allows the virtual camera to dizzily swoop and career along with the action. Yet for all the digital detailing of bursting dams, exploding cars and crumbling buildings, computers have yet to successfully animate the windows of the soul, and consequently that lack of emotional investment shall continue to cost films like this dearly.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Young Adult, dir. Jason Reitman, wr. Diablo Cody, st. Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser

Very much a companion piece to Cody's Juno from 2007, Young Adult similarly confronts stock issues of growing up and taking responsibility, and gives them a citric acid coating and a satisfyingly chewy core. Theron plays Mavis Gary, a ghostwriter coming to the end of a Vampirically successful line of teen-romance books, who, on receipt of a round-robin from a high school ex, impetuously hotfoots it back to her hometown and into his infant and wife-settled world in order to reclaim him as her own. Theron hasn't done anything of any real substance since Paul Haggis' In The Valley Of Elah in 2007 and it's great to be reminded of her range and energy as an actor. Her portrayal of Mavis is as absorbing to watch as it is discomforting, a 90 minute car crash that has you rubbernecking at her delusional behaviour with a troubling mixture of pity and wonderment. It's not as substantial as the aforementioned Juno or even Reitman's follow up Up In The Air in 2009, which trod sublimely between light humour and weighty melancholia, and it's desperately in need of a third act to close with, but it's undeniably smart and affecting and almost quite brilliant.

Lethal Weapon 3, dir. Richard Donner, scr. Jeffrey Boam, Robert Mark Kamen, st. Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Rene Russo, Stuart Wilson, Joe Pesci

Lethal Weapon 3 from 1992 may feature latter-day, unfunny Joe Pesci and sport a villain as threatening as the managing director  of Cranbourne Homes, but it's got real heart and a great foil for the duo in the form of Rene Russo as Lorna Cole, an initially po-faced Internal Affairs sergeant who softens once she and Gibson compare old battle wounds. There's Murtaugh, inconsolable at having killed a machine pistol-wielding gang member, one of his son's friends. In the augmented reality of most shoot-'em-up actioners these days, it seems unthinkable you'd take 20 minutes out to have our protagonist grieve over a justified shooting. And this leads to Riggs and Murtaugh's confrontation on a boat, Murtaugh numbing the pain with alcohol, Riggs admitting that Murtaugh's the only family he has, and retirement for one is retirement for both. Amongst moments of near-slapstick comedy spread liberally throughout the film, this is one of many scenes that's played with absolute solemnity, cementing the emotional bond between these two mismatched cops, and our relationship with them. Lethal Weapon 3 is profane, funny, not hugely inventively directed, but darker than you may remember - kids with guns, a sad end for a fresh-faced rookie, police corruption - and it all hurtles along at a giddy pace.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Zodiac, dir. David Fincher, scr. James Vanderbilt, based on Zodiac by Robert Graysmith, st. Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Chloë Sevigny, Elias Koteas


David Fincher's mesmerising and terrifying 2007 account of the notorious serial killer who killed in and around the San Francisco Bay Area in the late '60s is probably one of the greatest crime films ever made. Much has been made of Fincher's exhausting multi-take MO and intricate attention to detail and here, over two and a half electrifying hours, his mastery is exposed with all its beautifully complex detailing. It's all evocatively located, designed and scored, and the meticulously constructed and reproduced period sets and pindrop-sharp sound design help ground this film in the horrifying reality where it belongs. I've always thought of Gyllenhaal as a kind of male Jodie Foster - able to convince despite how ropey everything else feels - and this is arguably his best role. He plays Robert Graysmith, cartoonist, code-decipherer, journalist, and as the film goes on, unrelenting obsessive, determined to pursue the mystery all the way down the rabbit hole, however dark and infinite it may get. David Shire's restrained, moody music lends an unsettling tone to proceedings and there's some of the most incredible and seamless CGI you'll never notice. It's long, but involving, and disturbingly, nightmarishly hypnotic.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Muppets, dir. James Bobin, wr. Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller, st. Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones

As far as nefarious Liberal Agenda propaganda films go, 2011's glorious return to form from The Muppets is pretty effective, but maybe not in the way Fox News' Eric Bolling meant. His batshit outburst at how far "the left will go just to manipulate your kids, to convince them (to) give the anti-corporate message" in December of last year (at the depiction of central villain Tex Richman) wouldn't be out of place in one of the many wacky-reality scenes in the movie. The tireless pursuit of old-time entertainment is what the Muppets have always been about, and here, given a 21st Century Hollywood polish, the film (involving a cynical acquisition of the original Muppet Theatre) proves utterly irresistible thanks to the legendary poise-perfect puppeteering, some winningly irreverent Conchordy songs penned by Bret McKenzie, and a handful of chucklesome cameos. You may grin more than you guffaw, but at a time when there's a very palpable sense of the Arts being under attack, it's soul-pleasing stuff indeed to see a film that so directly and unashamedly fights its corner, even if that does come in the form of Camilla the Chicken clucking her way through Cee Lo Green's Fuck You!. Charming and altogether entirely delightful.

The Woman in the Fifth, dir/scr. Pawel Pawlikowski, based on the novel by Douglas Kennedy, st. Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Kulig, Samir Guesmi

Fans of Brad Anderson's The Machinist will find much to love in Pawlikowski's enigmatic and ambiguous drama, set in the hazy, half-remembered alleys, back streets, corridors and rooftops of Paris. Hawke plays Tom Ricks, a man who seems to have been plucked from reality and released into a kind of Euro-purgutory, Pirandello-style, to visit his estranged daughter. He's been away for a long time, and is, his bags having been stolen, without identity. A chance encounter with a bookstore owner leads him to Margit Kadar, a woman living in the fifth arrondissement with whom he starts an intense but soulless affair - but is she saviour or succubus? The film prefers not to say, and in direct contrast with say Scorsese's Shutter Island, decides to leave much of the more Faustian Roeg-ian mysticism unexplained. There's some clever image-play on lenses, eyes seeing and not seeing, cameras and CCTV, as well as visual metaphors for confinement and solitude that might or might not be clues as to Ricks' reality-based predicament. Scott Thomas is as alluring as ever in a part that feels a touch too slight and Kulig plays a wonderfully creepy Eastern-European waitress in a drab, under-lit Orwellian café that serves as Ricks' self-commited, personal limbo. 

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, dir. Stephen Sommers, scr. Stuart Beattie, David Elliot, Paul Lovett, st. Channing Tatum, Sienna Miller, Christopher Eccleston, Karolina Kurkova, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

There's so much going on in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra it's difficult to know where to look. There's fetishistic military hardware, leather-clad super-soldier babes constantly zip-lining into frame, X-Men-style stealth aircraft (that only respond to Gallic voice commands, a bit like if you dropped your iPhone in a puddle and Siri's programming went arse over tit), a comedy baddie with no discernible motivation, ninjas, some weird backstory about the ninjas when they were kids (seemingly spliced in from a completely different film), metal-eating nanobots, Sienna Miller looking awkward and unconvincing, Jonathan Pryce looking awkward and unconvincing, a secret, unnecessarily cavernous base beneath the Egyptian sand, and a secret, unnecessarily cavernous base beneath the Arctic ice. The plot's got something to do with, um, warheads I think. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is a live action version of what's going on in a 10-year-old boy's head as he plays with his action figures up in his bedroom, with all the associated maturity.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, dir. Constance Marks, wr. Philip Shane Justin Weinstein, st. Kevin Clash

Being Elmo tells the story of Kevin Clash, current producer, director and performer on Sesame Street and the voice and puppeteer behind Elmo. The film documents Clash's beginnings as a child inspired to build and operate his own furry creations, through to getting work on his local TV network and then on to The Muppets and working alongside his idol Jim Henson. The main inspirational thrust of the follow-your-dreams message, whilst well meant, seems a little unrealistic these days given the thousands of budding animators, musicians, and artists sitting up in their rooms right at this moment creating industry-standard-quality products. It's not as if these days we can just ring up the object of our inspiration (as Clash did with Muppet creator Kermit Love) and pop down to New York for a day's chat and free workshop. The documentary leans at times uncomfortably toward looking like a promotional film to shift more Muppet stock and a more personal approach might have had more of an emotional impact, but it's touching to see Clash welcome a talented and knowledgable 10-year-old in to his workshop and return the favour he himself was blessed with all those years ago, as he shows the kid drawers of different coloured felt and googly eyes.

Vanishing on 7th Street, dir. Brad Anderson, wr. Anthony Jaswinski, st. Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, John Leguizamo, Jacob Latimore

There is much to enjoy here in Brad Anderson's latest film, a hi-concept supernatural thriller in which darkness itself descends upon Detroit and proceeds to swallow up all human life, leaving only their clothes behind, Rapture-like, in a crumpled heap on the floor. For me, his overwrought horror Session 9 from 2001 and rather limp 2008 thriller Transsiberian are no match for the wonderfully inventive and stylish The Machinist in 2004, Anderson's Kafka-esque mediation on guilt and regret. But in Vanishing Anderson gleefully employs creeping unease rather than straight shocks, allowing shadows, figures and disembodied arms to snake their way out of the darkest corners toward his characters. It's an effective take on a primal fear but the story doesn't wholly deliver in the way we hope it will. Instead of an investable hero, we get Hayden "Mannequin Skywalker" Christensen, who's as charismatic as a sheet of hardboard, and Leguizamo and Newton's characters are equally cut out-n-keep. The CGI's impressively spooky in an X-Files kind of way and it's a nice riff on the 'last group of humans left' apocalyptic shtick we've seen so much of in recent years.

Carancho, dir. Pablo Trapero, wr. Alejandro Fadel, Martín Mauregui, Santiago Mitre, Pablo Trapero, st. Ricardo Darín, Martina Gusmán

Trapero's Carancho could be seen as the violent, aggressive twin of Atom Egoyan's 1997 film The Sweet Hereafter. Both feature venal, morally economic protagonists in the shape of ambulance-chasers - lawyers who turn up at the scene of accidents and try and persuade the victims to sue for compensation, in this film aptly named 'carancho' or 'vulture'. Our progressively bruised and battered anti-hero is named Sosa, charismatically played by the craggy-faced Darin, regularly beaten up by goons employed by The Foundation, a crooked organisation Sosa also works for, and to whom he owes money. As in all good Noirs, into his life comes Luján, a warm-spirited and hard-working paramedic, and so begins the pair's descending spiral into corruption and deception. Watching the pair attempt to furiously claw themselves out of this fatalistic hole is sustained by the couple's low-key yet persuasive romance. By the time the finale comes around (that recalls something of the sentimentality of Luc Besson's Léon infused with the orchestrated pyrotechnics of Michael Mann's Heat) you'll be desperately rooting for Sosa to get away with the girl and the money and moral karma be damned. The wonderfully effective absence of score that grounds this film in a murky realism only serves to highlight one of the ways Carancho will be clumsily augmented come the inevitable US remake.  

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Michael, dir/wr. Markus Schleinzer, st. Michael Fuith, David Rauchenberger

There are three scenes in Markus Schleinzer's disturbing and powerful film where we may be privy to the faintest traces of what Michael himself might make of his pedophiliac tendencies, and he's only in two of them. This might understandably feel like cheating; preserve the complexity of such a man, refrain from exposing the mechanics lest it invokes sympathy. Yet is the illustration of compulsion shown with greater severity in something like Steve McQueen's Shame (sex-addiction) or Mike Figgis' Leaving Las Vegas (alcoholism)? In both those films the genesis of the characters' ailments are similarly merely alluded to, yet we feel there is something in the nature of child-abuse that warrants, that necessitates deeper investigation. It is not to be found in Michael. What we do see is a film that explores alienation and loneliness as much as the crime itself. Frustratingly, and muddying already cloudy waters, we see Michael tend to and care for his victim as much as we see (or rather infer) the inhuman abuse taking place. There is a monstrous bond between them and we discover Stockholm Syndrome might apply as much to the abductor as to the abducted. It might not answer questions, but it drives home with cold and whispered devastation the abyssal psychosis of the disorder.