Begin Again (2013)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Monday 14 July 2014 || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© The Weinstein Company

There are Hollywood films where I sometimes wonder if the economics of the thing are driven by the idea of just putting some currently-hot talents in front of the camera even when nothing else seems to have been thought out (the script, usually) and the hope that everything will come together when the camera starts rolling. It wouldn’t be surprising, because sometimes I’ve enjoyed a film perfectly well based on the pleasure of watching some charismatic stars do their thing. I’m pretty sure it’s the reason I liked Begin Again, for example, which I only went to because it filled a gap while I was waiting to do something else. It features a handful of actors I really enjoy watching, who generally have the sense of people who are winging it (not necessarily always a bad thing). A particular stand-out is Mark Ruffalo, who does his usual rumpled washed-up shambolic thing with all his customary aplomb. In this, he’s Dan, a music A&R man who’s just been fired by his company, and in a night of disconsolate drinking happens across Keira Knightley’s singer-songwriter Gretta in a bar. She’s just been pulled up on stage during an open mic night by her equally unsuccessful friend Steve (James Corden), but Ruffalo sees something in her. We get this scene at least three times, from three different perspectives, and we quickly learn that Gretta’s split up with her rock star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine, himself a lead singer in some kind of rock band). Dan, too, is estranged from his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), so this odd couple sort of help each other through their respective issues — I’d say it was another story about a damaged middle-aged male ego being restored by a spontaneous, impulsive young woman, but it’s not quite as cut-and-dried as all that. Nevertheless, as I’ve already hinted at above, these aspects of the story weren’t always convincing to me — certainly, Dan’s plan isn’t, the one to record an album with Gretta outdoors, as a sort of ode to New York — though we do get some nice details about the music industry along the way (with small roles for Mos Def and CeeLo Green). If I’d seen director Carney’s first film Once, I’d assume it was a retread of that with bigger names. Nevertheless, those actors do carry the movie a lot further than it sometimes deserves.


CREDITS || Director/Writer John Carney | Cinematographer Yaron Orbach | Starring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine | Length 104 minutes

Upside Down (2012)

Sci-Fi-London Film Festival FESTIVAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Sci-Fi-London || Seen at Stratford Picturehouse, London, Sunday 4 May 2014 || My Rating 2 stars worth seeing


© Millennium Entertainment

I saw this as the closing film of London’s Sci-Fi Film Festival in May, and I was hoping to write about it earlier, but what I can say, it took me some time to come to terms with what must surely rank as the silliest film I’ve seen in the last year. There is quite a lot to enjoy in the film, especially at the level of set design, special effects and cinematography. Sadly this doesn’t extend to the script, with its ridiculously improbable physics and reliance on creaky plot devices that would have seemed cliched in a romantic movie of a hundred years ago and which lack the classic timelessness that perhaps the writer/director hoped for. It probably doesn’t help that the young leads — an English actor with whose work I was not previously familiar, and the perky Kirsten Dunst — don’t really have the charisma to make these lovers fully believable. However, the chief issue is also the central premise of the film: that there are two planets so closely interrelated that buildings can be constructed between the two, but between which characters are not allowed to travel (it’s the classic upstairs-downstairs class-based scenario). In some ways it’s a productive metaphor, this idea that different classes literally live on different planets which are nevertheless so close that they can be seen from one another. The two central characters thus only meet because they’ve managed to find a secretive mountaintop that brings them almost within touching distance — a mountaintop, it must be said, that only they appear to know about and which they seem to be able to reach at very short notice. And then there’s the way the gravitational pull of each planet exerts itself only over those who are from that place, along with an extra kicker that you gradually burn up the longer you spend away from your home, meaning our male protagonist must weight himself down in order to visit his beloved on her planet and can only be with her for a short time. Oh and the writer has added a bit of selective amnesia for the heroine. The more one thinks about these plot manipulations, the more one’s head hurts, but it’s never really possible to overlook them or excuse their stupidity, no matter how compelling the film can be in other respects. A noble failure, then, perhaps.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Juan Diego Solanas | Cinematographer Pierre Gill | Starring Jim Sturgess, Kirsten Dunst, Timothy Spall | Length 107 minutes

Golden Eighties (aka Window Shopping, 1986)

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: A Nos Amours Chantal Akerman Retrospective || Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 17 July 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Pari Films

As the apparently-forbidding auteur of such austere 1970s masterpieces as Jeanne Dielman, the last thing you might expect Belgian director Chantal Akerman to do is a musical, but that’s exactly what she did in the mid-1980s, even prefacing it with a work-in-progress feature of the same scenario called Les Années 80 (The Eighties, 1983). Of course, it may be somewhat unsurprising that the resulting product hardly throws its arms round the generic clichés of the musical romance, but it certainly shows an awareness of them. If it has a line of descent, it would be Golden Era Hollywood filtered via French director Jacques Demy (of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg fame). There’s a quotidian drabness to these shopworkers, almost entirely confined to a subterranean shopping centre, where Jeanne Schwartz (Delphine Seyrig) and her husband run a fashion boutique opposite a well-staffed hair salon belonging to the flirtatious Lili (Fanny Cottençon), while between them is Sylvie (Myriam Boyer) and her small bar which in the opening number almost seems to entrap her. There’s also a similar eye for the brightly-coutured; where Demy’s most famous film’s credit sequence opens with a top-down shot of umbrellas passing, here we get a ground-level shot of women’s feet moving briskly across the imitation-marble floor of the mall.

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The Angels’ Share (2012)

FILM REVIEW || Seen at friend’s home (DVD), London, Tuesday 10 June 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Entertainment One

What I like about Ken Loach as a filmmaker is his willingness to engage with groups of society traditionally occluded by narrative fiction, specifically those underprivileged people traditionally referred to as ‘working class’. And it’s not just this, but the way he generally refrains from judgement or talking down, and makes them the full protagonists of their own stories, over which they have control. It’s a rare enough thing in mainstream cinema, and Loach goes even further here by allowing his motley group of Scottish friends (most of whom haven’t been given many opportunities in life and who live in an atmosphere of constant violence) to take on vested interests and succeed on their own terms. It’s working-class wish fulfilment, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that — although it’s really very silly. The thing is, at times it feels like an extended commercial for the Scottish tourist board, and while they might have been wary of taking as our heroes a bunch of somewhat airbrushed Trainspotting rejects (in and out of prison, and trying to go straight), the sweeping Highlands scenery, a bit of the Proclaimers’ music, and the prominence played in the plot by the whisky industry comes straight out of the promotional playbook. We even have to accept that our lead character Robbie (Paul Brannigan), on the apparent basis of only a few drams shared with him by his English boss Harry (John Henshaw) as well as some small sample bottles nicked from a distillery tour, can then distinguish between a Cragganmore and a Glenfarclas. Perhaps it’s just condescending of me to suggest that it would be difficult to tell these two apart so quickly; maybe it’s obvious to anyone who’s had a taste of any whisky. But I’m a sucker for a happy ending, and this film, while cleaving to a lot of the signifiers of the kitchen sink drama, turns out very sweetly in the end.


CREDITS || Director Ken Loach | Writer Paul Laverty | Cinematographer Robbie Ryan | Starring Paul Brannigan, John Henshaw | Length 106 minutes

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Thursday 22 May 2014 || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© 20th Century Fox

Perhaps I’m just getting weary of superhero movies now, but it’s not just me, surely? Days of Future Past, while hardly being terrible (sorry, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), is not the equal even of its immediate predecessor, X-Men: First Class (2011, although I’m setting aside 2013′s The Wolverine). I had hope for Marvel movies after the surprisingly enjoyable Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but that was made by a different studio. By comparison, Days of Future Past just seems lazy and bloated. There’s an end-of-days apocalyptic plotline, including a thin excuse to bring together the different timelines (and their respective actors), but it’s no more compelling than Star Trek: Generations so many years before, another franchise to which Patrick Stewart has lent his considerable actorly gravitas. As with that franchise, here too it’s ultimately the younger generation who are more convincing and enjoyable in their roles, James McAvoy as Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto nicely playing off one another, though Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine remains dependable across both timelines. There’s also an expanded role for Jennifer Lawrence, and it’s just as well she’s such a fine actor as she’s required to express plenty of fairly uninflected rage and caprice. Indeed, if there’s anything I’ll remember about Days of Future Past in years to come, it won’t be the special effects or the big setpieces or the now-canonical protracted final battle sequence, but the sense of so many very talented actors (those named above, along with a smaller role for Peter Dinklage, and poor Anna Paquin all but left on the cutting-room floor) being wasted on over-extended big-budget bloat.


CREDITS || Director Bryan Singer | Writer Simon Kinberg (based on the Uncanny X-Men comic book storyline “Days of Future Past” by Chris Claremont and John Byrne) | Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel | Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage | Length 131 minutes

Maleficent (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles, Paris, Sunday 6 July 2014 || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Disney’s output of late has focused on the way that bonds of family and friendship can be stronger and more meaningful than those between lovers, which is just as well for the Sleeping Beauty myth because it has always relied so heavily on non-consensual kissing that nowadays it sort of seems a bit creepy really (that scene is still here, but it’s played quite reasonably all things considered). Frozen dealt with Elsa and her sister the ice princess, while Maleficent instead focuses on Princess Aurora (our Beauty) and her relationship to the malevolent (or magnificent?) fairy of the film’s title, the one who curses her to eternal sleep on her 16th birthday at the outset.

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Belle (2013)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Friday 27 June 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Fox Searchlight Pictures

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with the traditional period drama so beloved of English filmmakers. There’s something peculiarly retrogressive about that heady blend of overdressed men and women walking into, out of and around grandly decorated rooms in vast mansions, aristocratic seats of wealth and power, while talking about politics (if the character is a man) or matches that bring in £10,000 a year (for the ladies). And yet I’ve always been rather drawn to these overprivileged lives, with their finery and their petty concerns. At a certain level, Belle is no different: it has heritage sets, vast homes filled with art and beautiful furniture, and overdressed men and women entering and leaving its overdressed rooms. Yet its title character is one who would usually be doubly excluded from such a milieu, being a black woman. Her position is neatly signalled by repeated shots of her looking at paintings around the house which show black people subservient to their white masters, gazing adoringly upwards from prone positions in the corners of the canvases. The title character of Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has a quite different, and quite unusual, position in society, for her parentage to a British Navy Captain allows her to be raised within this overprivileged world and through the independent wealth this affords her can break traditionally gendered restraints to get involved directly in the political arguments of the time. These, of course, revolved primarily around slavery and its importance to the interests of the British Empire, and in this respect it’s particularly helpful that Dido Belle’s surrogate father is the Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who is working on a case involving the human rights of slaves killed by a slave trader. This case (known as the Zong massacre after the ship involved), along with another he later worked on (Somersett’s Case) and which is sort of elided into it here, are small but crucial steps on the path towards the abolition of slavery and the film implies that his relationship with the mixed-race Dido is key to his decision. All of this is, on the level of historical record, fairly unclear — there is little documentary evidence of Belle’s life aside from a remarkable painting of her with her (white) cousin Elizabeth — but as a film, it’s all very nicely staged and enjoyably acted by a set of excellent thespians with much experience at this sort of thing.


CREDITS || Director Amma Asante | Writer Misan Sagay | Cinematographer Ben Smithard | Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Emily Watson | Length 104 minutes

Blue Ruin (2013)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 20 May 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© RADiUS-TWC

This blog can’t claim to be a particular follower of trends, but even my attention hasn’t entirely been bypassed by the rise of crowdsourcing for film projects. There was the much ballyhooed Veronica Mars film, of course (one for the existing fans, I expect, which is why I gave it a miss), while just earlier this year, there was the release of documentary The Punk Singer. Now we have this, which premiered as far back as last year’s Sundance and finally gets its UK release, and is not particularly niche interest like the other two I’ve mentioned. Then again, my understanding is that it wasn’t entirely funded via Kickstarter, but that gaps were plugged to ensure it was finally made. However, happily, it doesn’t seem as if any unfortunate creative compromises were required, and what has resulted is a taut and enjoyable little thriller. What’s compelling about it is not any formal innovation or challenge to the revenge thriller genre — it very much works within familiar frameworks — but in the straightforward delights that are to be had in the way it slowly unfolds the setting and the protagonist’s backstory, and the subtlety and control in the acting performances. I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, suffice to say that as it opens, our hero (or is he?) is living in his car and has clearly not availed himself of any personal hygiene in quite some time. In his beaten-up car, he follows a man being released from prison to a local bar and there attacks him. How things develop from there are for the viewer to learn, but you may take solace that there’s nothing gratuitously moronic or torture-porn-sadistic involved. Script aside, I’ve also mentioned the acting, from a cast primarily unknown to me, but who do well in these roles. As the protagonist Dwight, Macon Blair is onscreen for pretty much the entire film, and has to bring emphathy and pathos to an almost catatonically mumbling character, but he does this very well, without the annoying tics that you might expect with this kind of character. Being so unknown to film audiences, the supporting cast too — including Amy Hargreaves as Dwight’s sister Sam, and Devin Ratray as his metal-loving school friend Ben — completely inhabit their roles and are believable foils to Dwight’s bloody-mindedness. In all, Blue Ruin is a nicely-made and satisfying thriller, and a credit to its clearly very committed cast and crew.


CREDITS || Director/Writer/Cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier | Starring Macon Blair, Amy Hargreaves, Devin Ratray | Length 90 minutes

Chef (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Saturday 28 June 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Open Road Films

I’ve lived in London for just over ten years now, and if you’ve known me over that time, you’ll know I’ve put on a bit of weight. I’m pretty sure it’s not from lack of exercise, though having a job (and a hobby!) that involves sitting down all day probably doesn’t help. No, I suspect it’s because I like food, and anyone who also likes food (especially if they live in a large metropolitan area) can scarcely have failed to notice the rise of food trucks over the last decade as a delivery mechanism for more than just ice cream and hot dogs. You can get just about anything from trucks these days. In some American cities (like their spiritual heartland in the Pacific Northwest), they are often to be found rotating around a set of fixed locations (‘pods’, if you will) and turning up at all kinds of outdoor, beer or food festivals. Indeed, the concept of ‘street food’ has really taken off, especially in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. So this new film starring and directed by my compatriot in girthfulness, Jon Favreau, can at the very least be said to be on-trend.

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Hummingbird (aka Redemption, 2013)

FILM REVIEW || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 2 July 2014 || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© Lionsgate

I think it’s fair to say that Jason Statham has carved himself out a fruitful corner of the action film genre and his oeuvre already incorporates a number of familiar elements. It was said upon Hummingbird‘s release that it marked something of a departure, a more serious actorly turn for this most unchallenging of screen presences. Indeed, there is a bit of subtlety to his backstory as a former soldier in Afghanistan who is scarred by some enigmatic (and ultimately, never fully satisfying) event in his past. Yet, there’s also plenty to link it to Statham’s already burgeoning filmography. There are the revenge plot elements (he has the most perfunctorily set-up relationship with a young woman at the start and we have to endure that peculiarly reprehensible trope of character-building: a woman dying to further a male lead’s emotional depth) and there’s even a young daughter (it’s always a young daughter or daughter-surrogate in his films) with whose mother he clearly has a very strained relationship. However, I don’t mean to denigrate the film’s evident strengths, which are mostly expressed through the central relationship between Statham’s character Joey — initially seen as a homeless outdoor sleeper in London’s Soho — and a Polish nun, Sister Cristina, who works at a Covent Garden soup kitchen. It strains credulity at times (though not as much as the plot contrivance which sees Joey gain unrestricted access to a swanky Covent Garden loft apartment for nine months), but the relationship between this unlikely couple is even touching at times. Statham continues to make enjoyably silly action films, but there’s hope yet for some extension to his actorly range.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Steven Knight | Cinematographer Chris Menges | Starring Jason Statham, Agata Buzek | Length 100 minutes