Criterion Sunday 51: Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam’s films feel like a lot of work sometimes. It’s not that they’re complicated or pretentious, just that they’re filled with lots and lots of stuff. The set design is claustrophobic and packed with detail, there are gags happening in multiple parts of the frame, little visual jokes or passing fancies, the performances are hectic and filled with excess: he just constructs really very busy worlds. It was evident in Jabberwocky and Time Bandits and it’s even more so here, the film which in many ways defines his visual and directorial style. Brazil is an anarchic experience that sprawls over two-and-a-half hours, as low-level bureaucrat Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) starts to discover the state-imposed limits to his freedom. The film’s interest seems not to be in that he falls in love (though he does, to the mysterious Jill, played by Kim Greist), but that his dream world unlocks a vision of a reality that has been systematically shut down by the government for whom he works. Its functionaries are buried in a mountain of papers and filing, from under which Lowry can only slowly and with great effort crawl. This Kafkaesque quality of struggle is what gives the film its style, as obstacles both technological (the cranky mechanical systems that spill across every set like human viscera) and bureaucratic (blue-collar workers like Bob Hoskins, or white-collar mandarins like Ian Holm and Michael Palin are particularly memorable) get in his way. This all should make the film-viewing experience heavygoing (and later films like The Zero Theorem return to the same milieu to lesser effect), yet there’s an underlying lightness of touch. His world is a dystopia, certainly, but it isn’t the brooding chiaroscuro of, say, 1982’s Blade Runner. Instead, it’s dystopia as comedy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Gilliam | Writers Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown | Cinematographer Roger Pratt | Starring Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Ian Holm, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond | Length 143 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 August 2015

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Criterion Sunday 43: Lord of the Flies (1963)

William Golding’s famous dystopian novel about the breakdown of society along class lines, refracted through the story of kids marooned on a desert island, is a staple of high school curricula surely everywhere; it certainly was for me growing up, along with George Orwell’s Animal Farm, so I often get the two confused. Maybe that’s just because there’s a character called Piggy (here played by bespectacled Hugh Edwards, in a caricature of the intelligentsia), but in any case the film adaptation quickly focuses on the relationship between the two dominant boys, Ralph (James Aubrey) and Jack (Tom Chapin). The former is keen to ensure the rule of order in the common interest, while Jack soon stalks off to found his alternative society based on principles of self-interest and aggression. It’s all very beautifully shot by Tom Hollyman, a photographer rather than a cinematographer, and it gets to the core of Golding’s novel I think. However, as a film, it’s still very clearly just a group of public school brats run amok on a desert island, and your tolerance for that may affect how much you enjoy it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Peter Brook (based on the novel by William Golding) | Cinematographer Tom Hollyman | Starring James Aubrey, Tom Chapin, Hugh Edwards | Length 92 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 12 July 2015

The Terminator (1984)

Re-released to cinemas in time for Terminator Genisys‘s upcoming return to the same events, it’s easy to think of this as an Arnie film, or as a James Cameron film — and it is those things (certainly it cemented Schwarzenegger’s stardom, and was Cameron’s breakthrough) — but it’s also a film that centres on Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, as well as being a film co-written by a woman (its producer and Cameron’s wife for the next five years, Gale Anne Hurd). In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that Arnie’s eponymous character is somewhat peripheral, like a lurking terror, leaving us with a story of two people (Connor and Michael Biehn’s military man Kyle) in a twisted time travel narrative that owes perhaps a little to the modernist Chris Marker short film La Jetée. However, far more than any of those things it’s a shlocky exploitation flick, very much in the Roger Corman mould (one of his favourite actors, Dick Miller, even shows up as a gun shop clerk), a refinement of the kind of things that Cannon Films was putting out during this era. The film’s best lines carry an unmistakable ring of campness (those bouffant 80s hairstyles certainly help), and Arnie’s iconic “I’ll be back” gets a little cheer from the audience I was watching with. It only occasionally overstretches in trying to find deeper meaning, but for the most part it stays on the right side of being a lean and pulpy action film, meaning that it’s aged perhaps a little better than some of its contemporaries.


© Orion Pictures

RE-RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director James Cameron | Writers James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd | Cinematographer Adam Greenberg | Starring Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Arnold Schwarzenegger | Length 107 minutes || Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Wednesday 24 June 2015 (and on VHS at home, Wellington, earlier in my life)

May 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in May which I didn’t review in full.


Ari Kyohaku (Intimidation, 1960)

Aru Kyohaku (Intimidation) (1960, Japan, dir. Koreyoshi Kurahara) [Tue 12 May at home]. You’ll have seen my Criterion Sunday series, working through all of the Criterion Collection releases in spine order week by week. Well, Criterion have their bare-bones sub-label Eclipse as well, but I shan’t take to doing an Eclipse Monday or anything, though one result of watching all these Criterion films is I’ve picked up a few Eclipse releases along the way. Intimidation is the first film in the five-film set by director Koreyoshi Kurahara, whose work (and indeed name) I must admit to being entirely unaware about before now. This film is a short feature (around 70 minutes) and an engrossing psychological thriller, focusing on a bookish bank clerk and his lackadaisical boss, the latter of whom due to various personal circumstances finds himself in the position of holding up his own bank. For the most part it’s tautly told through close-ups of the lead characters, who seem to be constantly calculating their meagre options. ***


Aventurera (1950)

Aventurera (1950, Mexico, dir. Alberto Gout) [Fri 1 May at Barbican Cinemas]. A short series at the Barbican focused itself on the ‘Golden Age’ of Mexican melodrama in the 1950s, and sadly this was the only film I made it along to. However, it is entirely delightful, dealing with Elena, a young woman (the ‘adventuress’ of the title) who finds herself alone in the world as the film starts, with only her wits to get her by, as she moves to the big city to make her way as a dancer. She’s entrapped by a dubious offer, and finds herself in the employ of shady brothel-keeper Rosaura, but there’s a TWIST and soon Elena is back in a position of power. There are double-crosses and twists of fortune, which at times suggest a rather more delicate staging of Showgirls (a classic ingenue-corrupted-by-the-system movie). There are also a handful of song numbers punctuating the melodrama, just to keep us going. ***½


Belle Epoque (1992)

Belle Époque (1992, Spain, dir. Fernando Trueba) [Sat 30 May at home]. A lightly comedic historical romp set not in fin-de-siècle France, but pre-Civil War Spain of the 1930s, which amounts to much the same thing I suppose. It’s a nostalgic time in which people take sides and fight for what they believe, though our republican hero has deserted his military posting and now finds himself holed up at a country home where he woos each of the four daughters of an elderly gentleman he has met. It’s all self-consciously light-hearted, and pleasantly diverting. It won Best Foreign Language Oscar that year, so that probably gives some idea of its artistic achievement. ***


The Expendables (2010)

The Expendables (2010, USA, dir. Sylvester Stallone) [Mon 18 May at home]. A thoroughly overblown exercise in action film narcosis, which is somewhat enlivened by its star-studded cast of genre greats, led by director Sylvester Stallone, still game for a bit of running around and blowing sh1t up. It goes through the setpieces and fulfils the usual expectations, but I can’t pretend it’s not forgettable, because I can’t really remember very much of it at all. However, it does feature Jason Statham, for whose work I always have time. **


Hanna (2011)

Hanna (2011, UK/USA/Germany, dir. Joe Wright) [Fri 8 May at home]. Director Joe Wright has shown himself to be something of a film stylist with literary adaptations like Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Anna Karenina (2012), both of which I rather liked. However, this original screenplay seems to lack a certain something, maybe a sense of anything particularly personal. I love Saoirse Ronan as an actor, and she’s excellent here as in every role she’s played, but her teenager taught by ex-CIA father to be a lethal killer seems a bit by-the-numbers. Wright’s style is still in evidence — this is no straight action thriller, but indulges plenty of other expressive elements — though it is all carried along by a propulsive score in a post-Bourne style. **½


Hit So Hard (2011)

Hit So Hard (2011, USA, dir. P. David Ebersole) [Mon 11 May at home]. A fairly straightforward talking-heads and music-clip documentary charting the career of Patti Schemel, primarily known for her time as a drummer in Hole, of which band this film functions as something of an encomium. You get a sense of some of the tumult of the early-90s grunge scene, and especially touching are the home videos of the band with Kurt Cobain and his daughter with Courtney Love. Yet despite my love for the band and their music, there’s nothing especially inspiring in the filmmaking. **½


John Wick (2014).jpg

John Wick (2014, USA, dir. Chad Stahelski) [Thu 30 Apr at Cineworld Wood Green]. Like The Expendables above, in truth this taut revenge thriller does nothing particularly new, but the pleasure is in the way it does so, emphasising the physicality of the fight scenes — understandable, given the directors (one of whom, David Leitch, is uncredited) come from a background in stunt choreography. Indeed, unlike many such films it has a direct approach to conflict, emphasising the brutality underpinning the genre, as our eponymous protagonist (played by an ever-laconic Keanu Reeves) methodically despatches his adversaries, and even has to reload his weapon. It’s also nicely paced, starting out slowly, building Wick’s character and anguished personal life, before launching into the inevitable violence of the protracted denouement. ***


Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, Australia/USA, dir. George Miller) [Sun 17 May at Cineworld Wood Green]. I never got around to writing a fuller review of this film, mainly because I struggle to find the kinds of superlatives which a lot of people have heaped on it. Undoubtedly it is a spare and at times electrifying chase movie within a dystopian sci-fi desert world — one in which water is a scarce resource, hoarded by a cadre of genetically-deficient mutant creatures who need the blood of the underclasses to survive. It’s in this context that we meet the title character (Tom Hardy), though his central role is swiftly supplanted by that of convoy driver Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). She is on a mission to liberate her enslaved concubine compatriots, and it’s her character that has understandably excited the internet. Quite whether this all amounts to some kind of feminist victory is unclear to me, though at the least it offers the rare prospect in this context of a kickass (yet believably human) female action hero with agency, and who is not reliant on the help of others (i.e. men) to succeed. Still, this is all but window-dressing to the almost unrelenting forward momentum of the thundering vehicular chase that is at the film’s heart, not that I mean that as a criticism exactly. It fulfils its action remit and does so in a way that largely avoids offensive stereotyping, which sometimes seems like victory enough. ***


Plemya (The Tribe, 2014)

Plemya (The Tribe) (2014, Ukraine/Netherlands, dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy) [Sun 31 May at the ICA]. Another recent film that’s picked up plenty of critical love is this brutal, nasty film about a dystopian society of the underclasses in Ukraine, which has the novel quality of being entirely in unsubtitled (Ukrainian) Sign Language. Our characters are all deaf-mute and largely confined to the crumbling premises of their special school, which seems at the outset to have teachers and administration but is soon, we learn, largely operated by a cabal of brutally bullying students aided by a number of key members of staff. One, for example, exploits a couple of the girls as prostitutes to the local trucking community, and it’s into this milieu that newcomer Sergey is recruited. In some respects, The Tribe reminds me of Alan Clarke’s film Scum, dealing with English borstal life in the 1970s, and there’s plenty here that visually harks back to that decade, if only because one senses that everything we see has been left to decay since then. However, the film is vivified by bold directorial flourishes, including long tracking shots lifted from the Dardenne’s repertoire, as well as a casual brutality and dispassionate carnality that calls to mind Haneke. For all this — or perhaps because of it — The Tribe seems to me to be a hard film to really love. ***


Tomboy (2011)

Tomboy (2011, France, dir. Céline Sciamma) [Sun 24 May at the ICA]. Director Céline Sciamma’s most recent film Girlhood hit cinemas recently, giving me the opportunity to revisit an earlier film of hers. It again picks up on gender issues, but refracted through the story of Laure, a young girl who moves to a new neighbourhood as the film starts out, who amongst her new friends begins to play at being a boy under the name Mickaël. It’s a very subtly balanced film which avoids the expected moralising and overdetermined plot points, preferring a far more naturalistic ambiguity to some of the relationships (such as Laure/Mickaël’s affection for local girl Lisa). ***½

Criterion Sunday 25: Alphaville: Une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)

© The Criterion Collection

The title may reference a then-popular detective series starring American expatriate Eddie Constantine, but as per usual this is hardly a straightforward film from Jean-Luc Godard. It’s set in a retro-futurist Paris, though of course Godard didn’t have the budget to build any sets, but rather films amongst the modern 1960s architecture of the city, all glass lifts and big shiny lobbies, not to mention anonymous office corridors at the heart of the computer-controlled corporation that runs the city. It’s a film of alternately banal surfaces and fascinating faces (whether the pitted one of Constantine, or Godard’s muse of the time, the ravishing Anna Karina), matched to the raspy electronically-modulated voice of computer overlord Alpha 60. I can’t for a moment pretend to tell you what actually happens — there are elements of generic detective plot though Caution is fighting on behalf of individualism and free thought rather than anything more base, and Godard punctuates scenes with images of flashing lights and neon equations, presumably to symbolise Alpha 60’s reliance on logic. There’s a troubling relationship to women in Alphaville’s society — a theme that runs through a lot of Godard’s filmmaking — and it’s difficult to be sure whether that’s a function of the oppressive state or something more insidious. Needless to say, it’s a strange and fascinating movie whose images of a modern nighttime Paris have a dark romanticism to them, especially seen at a remove of what is now 50 years.

Criterion Extras: Certainly not all Criterion releases have extensive extras (though more recently they’ve tended to put the bare-bones stuff out on their Eclipse sub-label), but even by the thin standards of some others of this period, Alphaville is particularly negligible. There’s not even a trailer, so it comes down to the two slim pages written by Andrew Sarris on the inside of the booklet, and of course the quality of the transfer. A bit of context to this odd attempt at sci-fi futurism would have been nice, but at the very least the transfer is of excellent quality.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina | Length 99 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Tuesday 23 July 2002 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 1998 and October 2000, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 1 March 2015)

Criterion Sunday 23: RoboCop (1987)

© The Criterion Collection

It’s quite difficult, it turns out, to write a coherent review of a film that you spend a lot of time saying is one of the great films of the 1980s (if not all time), but I’ll have a punt. It may have a silly, pulpy title, but what Paul Verhoeven and his screenwriters have done here is to craft a masterful satire of a society in which government has outsourced its functions to a greedy private corporation, which leverages the societal decay attendant on its own chronic underinvestment in public services as a means to impose a police state enforced by its own military hardware. In short, like a lot of Verhoeven’s work, it’s about the heady allure of fascism, with a story that’s still sadly current in our own times of austerity. In many ways, its only concession to science fiction is the title robot, although the film has two robotic cops: one is RoboCop, a wonder of brushed steel-effect costume design (which must have been quite some work for the actor underneath, Peter Weller); and the other its clunky counterpart ED-209 (animated using stop-motion techniques developed from those employed in the 1950s by Ray Harryhausen). But the effects are just the veneer, because RoboCop is about what it means to have a soul even in the absence of a body; its hero is in many ways a Christ-like figure of suffering, rebirth and redemption (though that much is to be expected from the devout Verhoeven).

All these thematics would be for naught, though, were it not for the tightly structured script, the comedic levity of the satire, and the very fine performances. Of the latter, the standouts are two actors more known for easygoing likeability, cast well against type: Ronny Cox as Dick Jones, the Vice-President of OCP (OmniConsumer Products, the corporation at the film’s dark heart); and Kurtwood Smith as the grinning, leering Clarence Boddicker, unofficial crime lord of old Detroit and a footsoldier for Jones. The comedy comes through in unlikely places, like the overextended violent death of the junior executive Mr Kinney at an early board meeting, and the repeated failings of Dick Jones’s ED-209 droid (of which this is just the first). Most effective are the newsbreaks which punctuate the film and their fake adverts, a technique that Verhoeven extended in Starship Troopers ten years later, along with a penchant for casting daytime soap actors and an attempt at gender-blind casting (there’s a hint of it in the police station locker room scene in RoboCop, not to mention the prominent role for Nancy Allen’s Detective Lewis).

I’ve seen this film so many times over the last twenty years that it’s hard for me to stand back and objectively assess it (which is partly what the five-star rating category is about). The fashion and especially the hairstyles may have dated, and the technology on view is pretty clunky as you might expect, but Verhoeven and his screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner are playing with some ideas that haven’t weakened in the ensuing years. More to the point, the characters have a deeper symbolic dimension that makes the story an effective allegory. Verhoeven speaks feelingly on the commentary track about his childhood in Holland under Nazi occupation and about the horrors he witnessed then and how it had affected his filmmaking, and there’s a lot of that wary relationship to power and its abuses to be seen in his films, particularly his strong run of US films from this one through to Starship Troopers. As a society, after all, the United States has a lot to criticise in this regard, but we all live to some extent under the power of corporations and RoboCop is a brilliant dissection as well as a cautionary tale. Your move, creep.

Criterion Extras: The Criterion release of this film leans heavily on textual sources once again, with a very lengthy piece (with some illustrations and video clips) focusing on the special effects and how they were achieved. There are also some storyboards for unshot sequences, which work a lot better with this film (with all its comic-book trappings) than some of the other titles on which they’ve cropped up as extras. The chief interest, though, is in the commentary. Too many of these are dull, but Paul Verhoeven, screenwriter Edward Neumeier and executive producer Jon Davison have a lot of interesting insights into the film, and it’s well worth a listen.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Paul Verhoeven | Writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner | Cinematographer Jost Vacano | Starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer | Length 102 minutes || Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Friday 7 November 2014 (and many times before and since on VHS and DVD, most recently at a friend’s home on DVD, London, Sunday 8 February 2015)

April 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in April which I didn’t review in full. It includes a couple of films I actually saw in March but had thought I’d write up in their own posts (I didn’t).


Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, USA, dir. Joss Whedon) [Sat 25 Apr at Cineworld Wood Green]. Look at how crowded that poster is and you’ll get some sense of the film, assuming you haven’t already seen it. I enjoyed it perfectly fine, but I get the sense that whereas for the average punter, it’s a long film, for fans of yr Marvel Cinematic Universe and those who are heavily invested in these characters, it’s probably not long enough. They even add new characters (one of whose superpowers I’m still not clear about, but perhaps it’s the power to do whatever’s required by the narrative at any given point). The crowdedness of the ensemble cast is evident in the number of scenes where everyone’s just standing around, stepping forward periodically to deliver their line and then stepping back. Whedon does the best he can and adds those nice little self-aware lines which define his work (like Linda Cardellini’s “I’ll always support your avenging…”, not the mention the snarky asides) but it’s still a big pummelling superhero film that has a protracted denouement, a nonsense evil villain plan (though James Spader is always dependable in such a role) and lots and lots of CGI effects (which are at times so indifferently executed I thought I was actually watching a video game, as in the opening sequence). YMMV. ***


The Book of Life (2014)

The Book of Life (2014, USA, dir. Jorge R. Gutiérrez) [Mon 6 Apr on a plane]. A film I missed when it came out was available on my trip over to the States, so I availed myself of the opportunity, and even given the small size of the screen, it still impressed by its artful and gorgeously-coloured use of Mexican motifs in its story of rival suitors for a lady’s affections. It nods towards female empowerment, even if it has an old-fashioned adventure feel, but ultimately it’s the richly textured design that saves it. ***


En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, 2014)

En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence) (2014, Sweden/Norway/Germany/France, dir. Roy Andersson) [Thu 30 Apr at Curzon Soho]. Its pace is slow and deliberate, constructed in a series of tableaux-like images which frequently fade to black before the next image commences, and in many ways it takes its cue from that first scene, in which a tourist couple examine birds in glass cases, one of which is the titular (stuffed) pigeon. The humans throughout the film are themselves as waxy and pallid as dead creatures placed on display, and the sets are deliberately minimal in a depressingly beige way. But while Roy Andersson’s film is nominally a (black, deadpan) comedy, it’s really a cautionary moral tale of the bleak dangers inherent in capitalism, as our two Beckettian like heroes wander through a glum dyspeptic world retailing their ‘comedy’ joke items to little interest. There are restrained outbreaks of weirdness — jaunty songs, alternate realities, dreams — which suggest something deeper is going on, and indeed I think this one will work in most people’s minds afterwards, even if it sometimes seems a little inert while it’s going on. ***


Insurgent (aka The Divergent Series: Insurgent, 2015)

Insurgent (aka The Divergent Series: Insurgent) (2015, USA, dir. Robert Schwentke) [Sun 29 Mar at Cineworld West India Quay]. Having enjoyed star Shailene Woodley’s work elsewhere, I decided to watch the first film in the Divergent series in anticipation of this new one (and reviewed it in my March roundup). Usually the way these kinds of series go is that they drop off in quality with each successive instalment, but the first set up such a ridiculous and unbelievable world (dividing everyone into mutually-exclusive castes based on ability) that the bar wasn’t too high, and indeed has been cleared by Insurgent. I’m not saying the second film is a triumph — the world is still constructed along weirdly rigid lines, and the test that evil leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) sets for Woodley’s Tris is a bit confusing — but it opens up its world in interesting ways and sets up a next episode that I’m actually looking forward to.


Notting Hill (1999)

Notting Hill (1999, UK, dir. Roger Michell) [Sun 19 Apr on a plane]. I’m probably not supposed to like this, but what can you do. Every time it comes on — and I only tend to watch it when it’s there right in front of me — I end up watching the whole thing, and this has happened more than once, so it’s not just some kind of momentary weakness. I’ve not been sold on all screenwriter Richard Curtis’s films, though I’ve liked more than I’ve disliked, but Notting Hill just seems to work despite all its inherent naffness. Julia Roberts plays a big-time Hollywood star, Hugh Grant is a diffident English bookshop owner, they meet cute, one things leads to another, there are some funny setpieces, and well, it passes the time very pleasantly. **½


Pitch Perfect (2012)

Pitch Perfect (2012, USA, dir. Jason Moore) [Fri 24 Apr at a friend’s flat]. I’ve reviewed it before, and it’ll probably show up on this list many times more in the future, because I do love Pitch Perfect. It’s not just Anna Kendrick, whom I’ve recently had cause to hymn once again for The Last Five Years, but the ensemble cast and the time-honoured building-to-a-big-showdown narrative construction, not to mention the hummable music. ****


Premium Rush (2012)

Premium Rush (2012, USA, dir. David Koepp) [Sat 4 Apr at home]. At a certain level this is a fairly slight premise — Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s bicycle courier must deliver a package across Manhattan by a deadline, hotly pursued by Michael Shannon’s corrupt cop — but this is essentially an action film, and you don’t want to complicate the purity too much. That said, the filmmakers weave in a story of immigration and bureaucratic corruption without overwhelming the central chase motif, which is handled with a great deal of vigour and momentum. It also (as far as I can tell) charts a realistic depiction of New York geography as Gordon-Levitt frantically switches up routes to his destination. ***½


Wild Card (2015)

Wild Card (2015, USA, dir. Simon West) [Tue 31 Mar at Cineworld Wood Green]. The great Jason Statham returns in another action romp which as per some other recent outings, shows just a hint of actorly character development around the edges, as he essays the role of Nick Wild, Las Vegas security specialist. Most of the big name cast members (and there are a few: Jason Alexander, Stanley Tucci, Sofia Vergara, Hope Davis, Anne Heche) are there for single scenes only, leaving the main showdown to be between Statham and Milo Ventimiglia as a narcissistic, abusive gangster. If you’ve seen a Statham actioner before, you’ll probably recognise the broad contours, but in the tightness of the filming and the polish of the script this one is probably his best since Safe. ***

March 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in March which I didn’t review in full.


The Boys from County Clare (aka The Boys and Girl from County Clare, 2003)

The Boys from County Clare (aka The Boys and Girl from County Clare) (2003, Ireland/UK/Germany, dir. John Irvin) [Sun 1 Mar at home]. A rather forgettable and silly little film about a group of musicians in Liverpool led by Colm Meaney’s gruff expat, convening on an Irish music competition in County Clare, where he works out some issues with his estranged brother (Bernard Hill, doing a rather patchy accent). It’s pleasant enough, in a passing-the-time sort of way. **


Divergent (2014)

Divergent (2014, USA, dir. Neil Burger) [Fri 27 Mar at home]. As the second one is out now in cinemas, I thought I’d catch up what I’d missed. There’s plenty to like here, especially Shailene Woodley in the title role of Tris, who doesn’t fit into her society. It’s based on a popular young adult dystopian novel cycle (one of several in recent memory), and I’d guess the vision of society is particularly appealing to teenagers who want to imagine themselves as standing out from the herds of their easily-categorised conformistly slavish peers. So it works on an emotional level, perhaps, but even a moment’s further thought about the practicalities of a society in which everyone is supposed to fit into a single personality type (Abnegation, Amity, Dauntless, et al) — except for (SURPRISE!) our heroine — reveals it to be particularly ridiculous. Still, it all moves along at a fair clip, and films about righteous revolutionaries challenging the basis of society are always fun to watch. **½


London: The Modern Babylon (2012)

London: The Modern Babylon (2012, UK, dir. Julien Temple) [Sun 15 Mar at home]. This was always going to appeal to me, what with being quite a London-phile, so it’s hard for me to offer a perspective to those not quite so wrapped up in Britain’s capital city, but I really enjoyed this documentary assemblage of London throughout (visually-recorded) history. As one who has done particularly strong work documenting punk music in the 70s and 80s, Julien Temple naturally dwells at greater length on this era, but it’s fascinating to see the development of the city over time, using archival clips, film and TV footage, and contemporary interviews with witnesses to the past, including a vivacious Tony Benn. ***½


Perceval le Gallois (1978)

Perceval le Gallois (1978, France/Italy/West Germany, dir. Éric Rohmer) [Wed 4 Mar at the BFI Southbank (NFT1)]. This is quite the oddest film from a director otherwise known for his small-scale, intimate and improvised relationship dramas. It’s an adaptation of a medieval story cycle by Chrétien de Troyes, dealing with King Arthur and his court, specifically on the journey of the titular character (here translated as “Perceval the Welsh”) through youth to adulthood, as he undertakes tasks that prove his worthiness as a knight. This would be straightforward enough as a standard big-budget epic, but it’s rather as if Rohmer had seen Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac of a few years earlier and decided that that film, despite its cartoonish bloodletting and knights constantly clanking around in heavy armour, was just far too naturalistic. And so here there isn’t even the barest attempt to try and render the long-lost world of knights and chivalry with any realism, as it all takes place on a soundstage with colourfully-painted props and stylised two-dimensional trees, while dialogue is frequently delivered in the third person. There’s a chorus, too, of musicians and singers who stand to the side and narrate some of the action. However, after the initial shock, it all starts to exert a sort of fascinating hold and ends up working rather nicely. ***½


The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012).jpg

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, USA, dir. Stephen Chbosky) [Sat 28 Mar at home]. There’s never been any shortage of high-school-set coming-of-age films, and in a sense this story (adapated from the director’s novel about his own upbringing) offers little that’s particularly surprising. However, there are nice performances from Logan Lerman as the shy central character Charlie, and Emma Watson and Ezra Miller as the flamboyantly self-dramatising pair he latches onto, who help him to come out from his shell. ***


The Prestige (2006)

The Prestige (2006, UK/USA, dir. Christopher Nolan) [Sat 7 Mar at home]. I’ve never been particularly enamoured of director Christopher Nolan, who like his contemporary Paul Thomas Anderson has always seemed to craft films which are almost too self-consciously full of their own importance. However, Nolan has tended to show more interest in generic trappings, and at the very least this story of a pair of rival 19th century stage magicians (played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) is plenty of fun to watch. The film delves particularly into class differences between the two, while using its setting and theme to pull some narrative tricks on the viewer, in ways that are far more satisfying than more recent fare like Now You See Me. ***

Chappie (2015)

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this scenario from the director of South African sci-fi film District 9, it’s just that as a finished film it feels a bit all over the place. The director returns to his homeland of South Africa for a story that examines dystopian class distinctions in a police state governed by a huge weapons corporation Tetravaal (whose CEO is played by Sigourney Weaver). If you think RoboCop (1987) you won’t go far wrong, especially as the film starts out with a fake news broadcast to set the scene, and has two competing robot-police projects — the “Scouts” (read: RoboCop) developed by earnest techie Deon (Dev Patel), and the “Moose” (read: ED-209) by gung-ho ex-military Vincent (Hugh Jackman, sporting quite the fiercest mullet and shorts combo ever seen on screen). After efficiently setting up the society and the company’s role, along with its warring developers, the film settles down to follow a group of gangsters (Yolandi and Ninja from the rap group Die Antwoord) who have stolen a Scout being worked on by Deon, the latter of whom has been working on developing a full AI including human emotions and learning. The gangsters proceed to name their stolen robot Chappie and inculcate him with their gangster lifestyle and values (the robot is voiced and ‘acted’ by Sharlto Copley). This would all be fine except that very little of the detail is believable: whether about the company itself (all its staff work in a small open-plan office, and security measures ridiculously lax) or about the interaction between the gangsters and robot. I found it very difficult to believe in the characters played by Die Antwoord or care about their story arc: Ninja is set up as a tyrannical and hateful father figure, but there’s a later twist in which we are required to care about his fate. The film skips back and forth between so many emotional registers that it can become exhausting, and it feels like its natural demographic should be young teenagers, though it’s probably too violent for them. Yet it shows a lot of promise in its filmmaking, in its excellent robot effects, and the big name actors were all a pleasure to watch. Enjoyable enough, but a missed opportunity all in all.


© Columbia Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Neill Blomkamp | Writers Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell (based on Blomkamp’s short film Tetra Vaal) | Cinematographer Trent Opaloch | Starring Sharlto Copley, Die Antwoord, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver | Length 120 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 16 March 2015

Three Short Reviews of Recent Popular Films

Unlike in 2013, I haven’t been writing reviews of every film I’ve seen this year. I also had trouble finding enough enthusiasm to write about some of the big tentpole blockbusters of the year, mainly because so many others have cast in their two cents, that mine seem entirely beside the point. Still, you’re more likely to have seen these films, so I thought I should at least write a few sentences to give my opinions, and you can disagree with me in the comments if you wish! (For what it’s worth, I’ve also taken to adding my ratings for unreviewed films on my A-Z and year pages.)


© 20th Century Fox

Gone Girl (2014) || Seen at Odeon Camden Town, London, Tuesday 7 October 2014 || Director David Fincher | Writer Gillian Flynn (based on her novel) | Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth | Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris | Length 149 minutes || My Rating 3.5 stars very good

David Fincher continues to extend his auteurist credentials with another film dwelling in the twists, turns and dead-ends of narrative fiction, shot in a coolly modernist style, with dark corners and muted colours befitting the shifting allegiances and motivations of the characters. Ben Affleck does well as the put-upon husband Nick in small-town America whose wife has gone missing, and Rosamund Pike has a piercing intensity as that New York-born and bred wife Amy, but beyond those plot points it would not be wise to stray, suffice to say there is a twist, and more than one at that. It’s a film that doesn’t just find its drama in the orchestrated chameleonic performances of its core cast, but is itself about performance, about lives moulded by societal or parental pressures (whether the expectations of precocity and feminine perfection as forced upon Amy by her author parents, or the expectations of marriage taken on by both leads, or the requirements of the ‘gone girl’ narrative when reconfigured by the media). In a sense — and to this extent I agree with criticism of its misogynistic underpinnings — it’s about a clueless husband taken advantage of by a conniving woman deploying rape allegations and other standbys of the tabloid press, but yet the film seems too self-aware of the ways that all of its protagonists shape and control their representation for it to fully fall into that trap. However, basically what I’m saying is that this film, more than most blockbusters of 2014, would seem to repay further investigation.


© Paramount Pictures

Interstellar (2014) || Seen at Science Museum (IMAX), London, Tuesday 11 November 2014 || Director Christopher Nolan | Writers Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan | Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema | Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine | Length 169 minutes || My Rating 3 stars good

Christopher Nolan is another kind of auteur, though he seems to specialise in unselfconscious pomposity (or at least, so it seems to my mind). Seen on a 70mm IMAX screen, this is undeniably big and undeniably epic in scope, with huge bassy rumblings and the kind of sound design and picturesque cinematographic vision engineered to convince of the earnestness of the undertaking. Without giving away any prized ‘spoilers’, it increasingly suggests an updating of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (also recently on re-release) albeit without the kind of understated intelligence of design that Kubrick’s films always exhibited. Aside from some affecting early scenes with McConaughey’s astronaut/engineer/farmer and his children, I’m not even sure the more upfront sentimentality always works in the film’s favour, as it progressively becomes more loopy — and it certainly seems to me that the almost mystical treatment afforded to black holes and other astral phenomena are somewhat akin to religious texts’ relationship to God (though with that latter concept somewhat ponderously replaced here by Gravity and/or Love). Some of the ideas seem rather too incredulous, at the same time grounded in character interactions which smack rather more of cliché, but I cannot deny that it held my attention effortlessly for three hours, and should at least be given points for trying something bold, epic and heartfelt.


© Lionsgate

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014) || Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Monday 24 November 2014 || Director Francis Lawrence | Writers Danny Strong and Peter Craig (based on the novel Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins) | Cinematographer Jo Willems | Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson, Natalie Dormer | Length 123 minutes || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable

Another instalment in the ongoing young-adult dystopianism that’s been part of all our lives for the last decade or so (whether under this franchise’s title, or previous ones you may guess at; even if you haven’t read any books or seen any films, you can’t possibly be unaware of the trend). I certainly enjoy the range of darker and more complicated emotions this kind of thing leads to, even if the way they’re handled remains strictly teenage (although most mainstream entertainment pitches itself to that age range, to be fair). With Mockingjay, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss starts to really doubt her own abilities to lead a revolution as the stakes become more serious (the film is largely based in the underground compound of District 13, as they make periodic sorties to disrupt the Capitol and its propaganda), though even when crying in a dark corner, Lawrence remains effortlessly watchable. If there are any ‘games’ here, they take place in the real world of the film (Panem), which seems to make them curiously less engaging than the engineered ones of the previous two films. It also seems to squander an obvious cliffhanger ending point, but I’ll undoubtedly be back next year to see how things wrap up.