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Monday, 31 July 2017


Summer is usually too early for this, but with his majestic, assaultive Dunkirk, visionary director Christopher Nolan has crashed his way into an Oscars race most of us were unaware had already started!

It is 1940, 400,000 allied troops are cornered and cut off on the beaches of Dunkirk, and with the enemy closing in, with no cover or defence, they await annihilation or a miracle.  Many should be familiar with the story of the Dunkirk evacuation, so the outcome to which we are headed may not be a surprise.  For those going in cold, however, if you need more than this information to get on board with a film, this one may not be for you; a brief setup via title cards is all Nolan is willing to provide before dropping us into hell.  There are no backstories, description of home or family lives; no cuts to politicians explaining things, no generals debating around maps, and barely a memorable name among our company.  It should be noted, this is not some major directorial mis-step, but an obviously conscious choice, and if you don’t “get it”, I’m afraid this is on you.  Serving a notion not dissimilar to that of his first hit, Memento, we experience the moment as the characters do, without unnecessary exposition, or dialogue!  Indeed, this proves quite the departure for Nolan; there is a lot here that owes more to silent cinema than anything else, but like Hitchcock, Lean or Kubrick, his images often say everything: A soldier giving up hope, walking into the sea in a sad effort to swim to a visible home, a nod of the head or look on the face of a masterly actor, or a lingering shot on the lock of a boat cabin door give us all we need.

An opening frame invites us to join a small group of helpless, stranded soldiers as they pick from the air enemy propaganda, informing them they are surrounded.  Next, the loudest onslaught of gunfire kicks the film into another gear!  We are given as much pause for thought as the soldiers we follow.  We run with Tommy, played by a Fionn Whitehead, and like him, we are aware of comrades falling dead next to us, but it is all panic and no time; we will lament their loss later.  Set to the ticking of a watch, we feel Tommy’s heart pounding with ours, (in IMAX, quite literally!), and we know the tone for this audacious movie has been set.  It is honestly quite a terrifying opening sequence, and we sense the next 90 minutes is likely to be an anxious ride.  And it certainly proves to be the case; do not expect to sit still with this one, and try to remember how to breathe as you watch the attempts at survival by these young men, with Nolan allowing for very little let-up in pace.

 We see the event from different perspectives and, it will surprise few Nolan fans, from within different time frames.  Right now, not many a director can build tension and momentum like Nolan, with what he calls the “snowball effect”, and here there is no exception.  The jumping to and from different characters’ point of view, the corkscrew impression created by the editing, chaos layered upon chaos, events echoed and accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s Shepherd’s Tones and appropriately persistent, unrelenting, sometimes suffocating music, acting at times more like sound design; it all results in a constant rise in tension, again akin to Hitchcock, to the point of almost being exhaustive.  At less than two hours, this whole thing feels like the last act of one of Nolan’s previous efforts, and there is certainly the sense at the end, with the catharsis found, that we may not have been able to handle much more.

We saw this "snowball effect" previously, put to particularly effective use in Inception, but here, it serves another purpose, and perhaps a higher one, which I suspect might be lost on some of its harsher critics.   The “Miracle of Dunkirk” is a grand story, with every soldier, every pilot, and every civilian having their own point of view.  Nolan wants us to build a picture of the event purely through subjective experience, so of course we spend a tiring, slowly cut week with the terrified boys.  Of course we spend a desperate day with a fisherman, as he and his familial crew sail their way into action.  Lastly, given the fuel constraints of the RAF, whose decisions had to be immediate and impulsive, always making a choice between defending the beach or getting home, why would we spend any more that an edge-of-your-seat, quickly-cut hour in the cockpit of a Spitfire, as they do their duty, entering into dogfights to keep the German aircrafts at bay?    

Each timeline is contracted or dilated to give everybody equal measure and importance, whilst staying true to and very much in their situation.  Yes, this means we’re kept on our toes; we have moments of confusion as timelines cross over, and we see the same thing happening from another point of view, but as we head into the finale, as well as the aforementioned tension and release (which is just exciting cinema), we also get to see how, despite very different perspectives, everyone is working together, and how sacrifice and struggle for duty is par for the course for all involved, whether other people know it or not.  It is important that we, the audience, recognise this bigger picture, and as everything clicks together in an emotive final convergence of efforts, we not only see the justification for the techniques adopted, but struggle to imagine the story told another way.  That is, at least, without going down a standard route, with objective storytelling employed.  

I have thought it before, and I have to say it again:  I do not envy Nolan's editor, Lee Smith.

A proper review not being complete without comment on the elephant in the room, it must be said that Harry Styles does not stand out like the proverbial sore thumb at all.  Frankly, he carries his scenes well enough that I simply forgot I was watching a pop idol acting.  Surely, following the Heath Ledger lesson, and now this, it is time we learned that, maybe, Christopher Nolan just knows what he’s doing better that we do?  


As to the other big names, they are partly the reason moments remain with me so long after having seen it: Kenneth Brannagh and Mark Rylance can say so much with so little, their faces alone often doing the heavy lifting to deliver a lot of the human emotion, and it would appear Tom Hardy has Oscar-worthy eyes!  You need see nothing more than his eyes through the course of his drama to get a complete sense of the type of man his Farrier is.  We talk about great acting and achieving realism through imagination, but with the knowledge that Nolan actually took everyone to Dunkirk, sailed real ships, sank real ships, flew real Spitfires overhead, employed real explosions on the beach, and even rejected green screen and CGI in favour of cardboard cut-outs, it seems imagination wasn’t too necessary for these already consummate actors.

So, the summation?  How you respond to this film depends, to some degree, on what you bring to it.  Nolan's principle fan base, with the surest grasp of his approach, will be well prepared for what they get; but with his insistence on holding back from the audience any perspective not afforded his characters, ala Memento, a reasonable knowledge of the "Miracle Of Dunkirk" might put the more casual viewer in better stead.  Regardless of which camp you fall into, or indeed of whether or not the movie does it for you, certain things are for sure:  With no melodrama or cheese, and no superfluous fluff or emotional subterfuge, Dunkirk is a quintessentially British and purely experiential movie, a technical marvel of a war film unlike any other I can name.  It also stands as another bright beacon in Nolan's career, characterised, as always, by his desire to cultivate a smart audience, willing to keep up with him.  

Perhaps most importantly, this is a key moment in world history that is often overlooked; a disaster averted which, had it not been, would have seen the history books written very differently.  Regardless of what flaws one may find with the film, that this event has been marshalled by a confident and sincere director, who has surely by now cemented his name alongside those of his own heroes, is reason enough to see Dunkirk.


See it if you like:  A completley immersive, subjective experience unlike any other war film

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

A Late Quartet - A late review...

 Yaron Zilberman presents the story of a string quartet from New York who must come to grips with the thought of losing one of their members. After being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, Peter, the eldest of the group, expresses his wish to leave. As his departure threatens the future of the quartet, so too does the breakdown of Robert and Juliette's marriage. Tensions increase further when Robert becomes dissatisfied with his position as second violinist, while first violinist Daniel becomes involved with Alexandra, Robert and Juliette's much younger daughter.

Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener and Philip Seymour Hoffman turn in predictably high calibre performances here, with the latter truly shining; Hoffman's ability to find truth in a character through subtlety continues to thrust him higher through that league shared by the likes of Ed Harris, Tim Roth and Viggo Mortensen. It is a league actors who are, quietly, better than anyone ever says; actors who make a film worth watching, almost all on their own. Frustratingly, Mark Ivanir, as Daniel, doesn't quite strike as resounding a note as his screen partners; had a fourth cast member been able to share the screen with these masters, we would have had a perfect ensemble cast.

Nicely written, with real characters and great dialogue, A Late Quartet closes where it opens, with everything you see in between ensuring that when you reach the end, you see it anew. It makes for an engaging watch, with some golden scenes strewn throughout. It is true to say we do not quite get to know everyone as well as one might hope, and the running time could have been longer, allowing for better pacing, but the use of a quartet as an analogy for the strains that real-life relationships face, not to mention the fantastic performances, lend all the weight needed to what would have otherwise been a more average drama.


Sunday, 1 September 2013

2 Guns - A surprising hit of the summer!

If you only saw the trailer, you may recognise '2 Guns' as an attempt at a buddy-cop style movie, light in tone, featuring an always-questionable Mark Wahlberg, likely to be carried by Denzel Washington, and from a director whose only known previous work is last year's 'Contraband', which bombed rather badly. Your conclusion might be that you will have seen this film before, and you'll have seen it done better, so despite your admiration for Washington, you'll opt out of this one. That was certainly my first impression. I am happy I did not go with my gut reaction, for whilst it is true that the director's last release was a failure, Wahlberg can be a letdown, and there is nothing here to really surprise us, it is NOT true that I have seen it done least, not for a long time!

'2 Guns' is a by-the-numbers, nuts and bolts story of a DEA agent and a naval intelligence officer, who are both trying to infiltrate a drug cartel for their own reasons. Upon stealing drug money, they find themselves caught up in a conspiracy rooted in nastier, murkier territory than either of them expected, playing cat-and-mouse with some very dangerous people, bringing into play a wonderfully villainous Bill Paxton, looking like he's having more fun than he's had in a long time. They try to simultaneously bring justice and stay alive! The whole thing feels very familiar, as it should; if you have seen 'Tango and Cash' or 'Lethal Weapon', you already know the dynamic between the two leads and the general direction the story is headed, although there is a distinct difference in that, unlike Danny Glover's Murtaguh, neither man is particularly straight-laced. Part of what brings this film to life, though, is the fact that you cannot help but think of early Tarantino as you watch it. 'True Romance' serves as a particularly obvious touchstone for '2 Guns' in terms of dialogue, character and pace; there are in fact at least two scenes that seem to consciously mirror famous sequences in Tony Scott's movie. Perhaps most surprising to me is how well Washington and Wahlberg work as a screen partnership; with plenty of chemistry and Wahlberg responsible for a fair share of the success, it would be unfair to say he needs carrying.

Slick, stylishly shot, well-paced, with some vintage "Tarantino" moments and really snappily written, this feels like a trip back to the 90s in the best way! Okay, no big surprises, but director Kormakur knows exactly what type of film he is making here, and he hits a home run with it!

Not likely to stay in my top 10 of 2013, but good enough to make it on to the list in the first place, which in itself is a surprise!


See it if you like: Lethal Weapon, Tango and Cash, True Romance

Friday, 16 August 2013


A review of 'If You Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One' - Stewart Lee in Glasgow

The anti-comic Stewart Lee is perhaps best known to most, of a certain generation at least, as co-creator and star of 'Fist of Fun' and 'This Morning With Richard and Not Judy', with Richard Herring and Kevin Eldon.  You may find him familiar through his regular Guardian articles or art criticism.  Perhaps it's through the blasphemy scandal that surrounded 'Jerry Springer the Opera', of which he was the director, that you know the name.  Or maybe the recent TV show 'Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle' is the reason he rings a bell.  Lee began on the alternative comedy circuit in the late 80's and has ever since railed somewhat against the idea of "stadium comedy", maintaining an attitude that comedy can and should be more interesting and exciting an art form than the homogenous one it has become.  He says there are plenty of fantastic acts out there who do not get the opportunity to shine on 'Live at The Apollo', because their writing and delivery is not easily cut up and digested by the general mass audience, most of whom can list only a few big names as their favourite (generic) comedians.  Accusations of jealousy and misplaced high-brow arrogance might carry a little more weight if, on his last run, he hadn't sold out his favourite London theatre to a level equal to a night at the 02.....had he wanted to play there.  The reality remains that he genuinely prefers the intimacy and exciting theatrical possibilities provided by a more intimate theatre or club setting, as opposed to a stadium.  He remains alternative in his style, appearing at his most interesting when at least some of the room aren't on board with what he is doing; pushing an audience away, and then winning them back is far more rewarding.

'If You Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One' sees Lee providing, perhaps for the first time, commercially available evidence for why he is rated as one of the best working comedians, as well as, when last listed, 41st best of all time; from the opening moment of this show he possesses an undeniable presence on stage.  Whether he be setting up an observational comedy routine, only to descend into self-sabotage and self-deprecation, making hilarious a consciously lame joke about a pirate through its deconstruction and audience assassination, straddling the thin line between great satire and audience alienation with a forty minutes rally against 'Top Gear', or having a breakdown over an advertising slogan, which lasts far longer than anyone would think it could, he has the Glasgow crowd captivated.

Not all will "get it", some might even find it tiresome, but by the sincere, sweet song that closes the show, nobody can deny they got their money's worth, saw a standup show unlike many they have previously witnessed, or that Lee's writing, delivery and timing is top notch.  His moments of surprise and shock, use of silence, turns of phrase and his own physicality are like unmissable exclamations in a perfectly structured essay, drawing a gut reaction of honest laughter with a deftness you cannot be off admiring.  It was said Dylan Moran is like listening to a masterfully written novel reading itself; I put a similar notion forward for Stewart Lee, only with his desire for through-lines, repetitions and callbacks, and not one stumble or slip, he presents something more akin to a perfectly performed one-man play.  He is certainly best enjoyed in full swing rather than small segments, so if you are only familiar with him from 'Comedy Vehicle' or small clips, you may want to consider this before passing a final judgement.

He may fly over some heads, but that is only because he soars so high.


Saturday, 16 March 2013

THIS WEEK: Mama / The Perks of Being a Wallflower

MAMA - (2013 - UK Certificate 15)


Mama is a poetic ghost story with a slightly haunting quality, featuring a lot of the trademarks with which Del Toro is clearly in love, so we see why he produced it.  Two girls go missing after their father murders their mother, kidnaps them, and attempts to end their life along with his own, only to be stopped by the mysterious titular character.  Five years later the girls are found, having survived, and are brought to live with their uncle and his reluctant rock-chick girlfriend, who the movie ends up being as much about as anything else.  The big question is, what was this mysterious character that appears to have saved the girls, and where is it now?  The story, predictably, deals with the mother/daughter bond in what turns out to be rather a "round the campfire ghost story" manner.

This sounds promising; indeed even the trailer whet the appetite nicely and prepared us for a film that looked set to follow in the footsteps of preceding Del Toro-produced successes.  Unfortunately, whilst it is carried fairly well by some familiar faces, most notably the chameleon-like Jessica Chastain, overall it has a sense about it of having been rushed, which shows not only in her character arc, but in the delivery of certain plot points which don't feel entirely thought through and, at times, a tad passe.  The whole thing lacks the creeping intensity of the first half of, say, Insidious or Sinister, as one might expect, and it also features the effects and lighter sort of scariness we saw with The Woman in Black and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.  Given its theme and ultimate denouement, what it really needs is more of The Orphanage and The Devil's Backbone.

The negatives and some unmissable, lazy inconsistencies aside, however, this remains a perfectly passable, creepy flick.  A lot of credit should go to a director who extended his short to make this as his first feature, but don't expect to see it sitting alongside any classics in a few years.

2.5 / 5


THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER - (2012 - UK Certificate 12)

Based on his own book, Stephen Chbosky adapts  The Perks of Being a Wallflower and captures rather well a time and place, and a group who aren't just cliches, but genuine people we care about, even with their flaws.  Logan Lerman plays Charlie, the troubled wallflower of the title, entering his first year of high school and facing all the trials that are part of coming of age.  Upon meeting Patrick and Sam, a fantastic Ezra Miller playing completely different to how most last saw him in We Need To Talk About Kevin, and Emma Watson, he becomes part of the out-crowd, discovers the joys and pains of love, the importance of music and sincerity, being yourself, and ultimately confronts the ghosts of his childhood, defying them to shape his future.

There is a question mark over Watson, not because she gives a bad performance, but just because some may feel she was miscast.  There is also the occasional anachronistic element, as well as some oddly under-written roles.  That said, a great deal of the film has a very sincere spirit, and an ambition to tell an honest story that comes to feel very real.  "We are infinite" is a tagline for the movie; whilst the film will perhaps not be infinite as such, it is certainly worthy of your attention.  Whether you are the age of the characters or not, it does a rather smart job of capturing a specific feeling, what it is to find real friendship, and distilling it in to images, like a moving photo book.  In some way we catch glimpses of The Catcher in the Rye, a story told in such a way as to elicit reflection on our own formative years, and maybe find some empathy for adolescents we truly care about.

3.5 / 5


On DVD/Blu Ray
Catch it if you like:  Donnie Darko, Juno, The Man Without a Face

Sunday, 10 March 2013

THIS WEEK: Arbitrage/Frankenweenie

0 - No Redeeming Feature

1 - Poor

2 - Passable

3 - Good.  Rent it.

4 - Excellent!

5 - See it now!!


ARBITRAGE - (2013 - UK Certificate 15) 


This nuts-and-bolts thriller doubles as an interesting character study of a powerful patriarch who uses his position to cover up an awful error of judgement that ended a life.  Set in the top-end world of finance, it certainly displays an assured confidence that defies its director's inexperience; he draws his characters as more real and complex than a lesser writer may have, with a particularly keen eye for detail and empathy for its central character, the very flawed Robert Miller.

Whilst not doing anything that unique or original, it is lifted from your average fare to holding watch-ability by a surprisingly solid Richard Gere, and a fun performance from the forever reliable Tim Roth.  Also starring Susan Sarandon, Arbitrage makes for an intriguing, well shot thriller, and definitely very good debut for Nicholas Jarecki.

3.5 / 5

At cinemas
Catch it if you like:  Disclosure, Margin Call, Wall Street

FRANKENWEENIE - (2012 - UK Certificate PG)

A perfectly fine animation piece from the King of this style Tim Burton.  The heartwarming idea is of a young outcast who brings his pet dog back to life through techniques learned in his science class; the moral of the tale is clear from quite early, and the film makes some not-so-gentle allusions to preceding classics Frankenstein and Godzilla.  It is held back a bit by a general sense that we've been here and done this all before; in fact, in general the film has an overall feeling of being a little rushed, with a lack of character, which is surprising given his previous work in this area.  Basically, Burton's been better, but Frankenweenie is still worth a watch, and features some genuinely creepy elements.



On Blu Ray/DVD
Catch it if you like:  Corpse Bride, Nightmare Before Christmas

Saturday, 2 March 2013

THIS WEEK: Antiviral / Beasts of the Southern Wild / The Flowers of War

0 - No Redeeming Feature

1 - Poor

2 - Passable

3 - Good.  Rent it.

4 - Excellent!

5 - Buy It!!


ANTIVIRAL (2013 - UK Certificate 15)


I don't know if Brandon Cronenberg minds living in the shadow of the respected master of body-shock, or whether he ultimately wants to make his own way, but two things can be said: His name undoubtedly helped him helm a film that drew more professional and critical attention than many debut efforts, even capturing the attention of cult favourite Malcolm Mcdowell (yes, him of A Clockwork Orange), and that not only does the apple not fall far from the tree, but this particular piece of nastiness is effectively on the same branchAntiviral, as an idea, could easily be part of his father's early canon; what sets it apart is the lack of experience, which does show a bit.  

Obsession with celebrity has gone far beyond Celebrity Big Brother and it is now the norm to consume meat derived from cell cultures of the famous, and you can buy colds and infections carried by your idol, if you can pay for it.  The story is of Syd, working for an agency whose business is the buying, selling and administering of these infections.  Through an act of carelessness Syd finds himself hunted for the disease he carries, and on the road to death because of it.  There are those who will talk about the extreme silliness of the idea, but if art is not free to push the boundaries of metaphor and ideas, what is?  In any case, this is not the first time we have seen a troubling idea taken to a disturbing extreme; aside from the aforementioned similarity to his own father's more fleshy, extreme work, you may easily see reflections of Darren Aronofsky's Pi here.

The film features a solid lead in Caleb Landry Jones (No Country for Old Men, X-Men: First Class, Contraband), who plays Syd with a coldness that fits right in with the starkness of the world Cronenberg creates.  It must also be said, he works the extremely ill look pretty much naturally; no offense to the guy but his grim, dour, pale and naturally malnourished appearance does make him a perfect fit.   Alongside him is Sarah Gadon, who has appeared in three Cronenberg films in as many years, with the last two being David''s all getting a bit incestuous, actually.

She is also perfect casting, and although given fairly little to do other than lie down a lot, I suspect there is thinking behind the idea that she is little more than a beautiful star for people to fawn after. In selling herself to The Lucas Clinic, the company for which Syd works, she represents the rather spiritless (talentless?) artist who has only to exist in order to be celebrated.

The film has its pacing issues, could have been trimmed, and even hits a hurdle in the middle, where it goes a bit 'conventional thriller' mode, but for a first timer Brandon Cronenberg puts together a solid, visually exciting, sufficiently unsettling body-shock drama to live up to his family name, although it could be said it never gets as extreme as some may want it to. Whilst it does not tie up as well as it could, Antiviral certainly makes for a strong debut, and suggests great, better-honed work in future. Well worth a look.

3.5 / 5 

To buy or rent
Catch it if you like:  Pi, David Cronenberg.

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012 - UK Certificate 12)


Benh Zeitlin's film about a six-year-old member of an ignored, poor, self-supporting community the wrong side of a sprawling levee, who survives an awful storm and learns early lessons in life and love, drew a lot of critical attention and even earned a couple of Academy nominations this year.  This is why I feel I've missed something, as I did not really like Beasts of the Southern Wild; I would go so far as to say that I found myself, at points, wondering when it was actually going to draw me in.

This is not to say it doesn't have its charms, such as the score, the central performance, and it is impressive that for a nothing budget it comes out so solid, clearly echoing and commenting on events in America's very recent history, but it ends up feeling like it has more to say than it actually does; for the most part it lacks engagement, which is frustrating given that the final ten minutes are rather poetic.  Had the rest of the film hit the same height, perhaps I would have been more impressed.  There is potential here, and clearly I am in a minority, but I just didn't get to grips with it; my recommended alternative to this is the gorgeous New Zealand film Whale Rider.



To buy or rent.

THE FLOWERS OF WAR (2012 - UK Certificate 15)


Yimou Zhang brings to the screen an astonishing, brutal beauty that looks at a situation where pure humanity and bravery stood against the evil that men do.  The less said about the synopsis here the better; it is enough to know it is set in 1937, the fall of Nanking at the hands of the Japanese, and that it is beautiful and terrible in equal measure.  It takes a mature look at the loss, or perhaps we should say theft of innocence, and the sacrifice and virtue of the brave.

A terrific, subtle performance from Christians Bale, which was hugely and unfairly overshadowed by his other films around the time of its release; this is the performance that should have won him the Oscar.  The women playing the prostitutes are good, but the young girls in the roles of the schoolgirls are incredible!  The photography is fantastic, but this is no surprise from the director of House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, although it is understandably a generally darker pallet than his previous work.  Tough when it needs to be tough, and tender when it needs to be tender, this film does not fail to move you.

The only things holding it back are a few misjudged moments, and even with these the intentions are clear; they simply do not play as well as they could have done, which is strange given how well balanced and observed the movie is as a whole.  Nevertheless, simply by virtue of the fact nobody saw it, and that it is the dramatization of an important, overlooked, and even a denied part of history, this is a film you must watch.  The critics did not respond well while audiences were far more generous; in this case, the critics were so wrong, and the audience are so right!

One of my picks of 2012.



To rent or buy
Catch it if you like:  House of Flying Daggers, Letters to Iwo Jima

Sunday, 24 February 2013

THIS WEEK: Lincoln / The Book of Eli / Infamous

0 - No Redeeming Feature

1 - Poor

2 - Passable

3 - Good.  Rent it.

4 - Excellent!

5 - Must See!!


LINCOLN (2013 - UK Certificate 12)

This should not be called Lincoln; based on a small part of a far greater work about the man, it focuses specifically on the passing of the thirteenth amendment to end slavery, rather than the man himself.  The movie is a bit too stuffy for the first hour; being as slow as it is, it is surprising how some areas at its heart are not as developed as they should be.  The relationships and underhanded goings on should have been given more room to breathe, for as fascinating as they are, the heavy legalese being squeezed in, without time to ground and explain it in a dramatic way, may easily confound a percentage of the audience, who really do want to keep up.

When you have a cast that includes Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levvitt, David Strathairn, John Hawkes and James Spader to name a few, the latter two of whom have great fun as a couple of flies in the Democrats' ointment, you really want to ensure you're getting the mileage from them.  Unfortunately, as terrific as the performances are, many parts register as less important, and more passing.  In fact, I maintain this would have made a better TV series akin to Band of Brothers, which was a great success, than it does a movie; everybody involved would have had a role that felt utterly complete, the consequence of which would have been a more involving drama .

With all of this said, it does pick up the pace nicely for the second half, looks beautiful, and features flawless performances from Tommy-Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, with the most interesting character arc, and Daniel Day-Lewis, who has undoubtedly defined Abraham Lincoln so perfectly, any efforts in future will be unable to compare.  There is some fantastic dialogue going on through the movie, and as heavy as some it is, it does not detract from how monumental a piece of work Spielberg has created.  This is a film that may well be studied as part of school curriculum, full of stagey, "history lesson" tone; it is to the individual audience member to decide whether of not they like that.

Let's be clear, there is absolutely no disputing all that makes Lincoln a good movie, but it must also be made clear that it is not a film by which everyone will be enthralled.  Technically impressive and understated, surprisingly lacking in Spielberg's tendency to go a little overboard on the sentimentality, and this includes by way of John Williams' score; there has been talk of it being heavy-handed, but I did not feel that at all.  It is to be admired that Spielberg is not presenting us the President as a perfect hero, but rather a man with an agenda, as well as the power and fortitude to bring that agenda to fruition.  Perhaps this is the reason the movie does not close on the shot it feels like it should, but rather continues through the report of the President's death which, having seen all the efforts of the past two hours, does admittedly have some power, but nevertheless feels slightly misjudgedSpielberg's general approach, however, does give weight to the idea that we are getting factual account rather than a romantic vision.

So, classic performances in a film as monumental as its poster suggests, which just happens to not be the masterpiece I wanted.  Nevertheless, Daniel needs to make room on that Oscar shelf of his.



At cinemas.
Catch it if you like:  Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee-Jones, The Consipartor, The West Wing

THE BOOK OF ELI  (2010 - UK Certificate 15)


The Hughes Brothers have been responsible for some interesting work, with the biggest note going to Menace II Society and Dead Presidents in the 90s; few could say their work is without its fascinating elements, and with The Book of Eli they deliver a movie that is full of great bits and pieces, if not wholly successful.  Gary Oldman is terrifying as Carnegie, leader of a band of misfits whose sole purpose is to locate a book, the one of its kind remaining in tact after a great war that scorched and ruined the old world.  Denzel Washington is Eli, a man who walks west, knowing he will find a place where the book he carries with him can be put to good use in the new world.  Their paths inevitably (and conveniently) cross, and so begins the allegory.

It is a flawed screenplay that performs a frustrating side-step of certain issues, about which I cannot be detailed without spoiling the film, and it featured an under-developed first half, as well as a role that Mila Kunis is never allowed to properly get her teeth into.  That said, the film boasts a bleak post-apocalypse look that is not dissimilar to The Road, and the Hughes' great visual flair, editing of sound and use of music, the fantastic lead performances and an impressively poetic use of metaphor for the righteous vs. the corrupt, make The Book of Eli a film worth watching.  As a side note, Malcolm McDowell turning up in anything is always fun, so keep an eye out in the finale scene.



To rent or buy.
Catch it if you like:  The Road

INFAMOUS (2007 - UK Certificate 15) 


A film that has gone under most people's radar, Infamous depicts rather wonderfully the events that lead to Truman Capote's writing of In Cold Blood, and its aftermath for him.  The film struggles with itself at first, but once it finds gear it becomes compulsive viewing, exploring the emotionally dangerous relationship Capote struck up with a killer.  Whilst looking occasionally televisual, it is nevertheless a brilliant balance of humour and melancholy, keeping you entertained and engaged, at the same time never losing track of the morose event at its heart.  It has something to say about Truman, as well; frequently mistaken for a woman, he was a fascinating character and a good, if regularly loose-tongued friend to all around him.

A star-studded cast all turn in terrific performances in a film that was quickly overshadowed by Capote, but if you though Philip S. Hoffman gave a good performance as the man (which he did), then you haven't seen anything yet.  Our very own Toby Jones disappears here, in the second unbelievable screen transformation I have seen this week!  Recommended viewing.



To rent or buy.
Catch it if you like:  Capote, In Cold Blood.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

DEFTONES at Brixton Academy - 20th February, 2013

By the time tonight's first band hit the stage of Brixton Academy, the audience is surprisingly substantial, with all barriers in the standing area occupied and a significant number of groups having chosen their spot for tonight's gig.  The band are called THREE TRAPPED TIGERS, three men, unsurprisingly, who are very vocal about their pleasure to be chosen as support for the legendary Deftones, but not about much else; they are an instrumental noise-rock outfit and as far as opening acts go, one of the most exciting I've seen.  Meshing the punk ethic of the likes of Sonic Youth and Fugazi with the alternative, trippy ambiance of Aphex Twin, they represent the imaginative new wave of rock instrumentalists, comparable perhaps with Battles.  Creative percussion drives home solid groove and jagged melody, and the band's enjoyment of their own music becomes infectious; they command attention from the off.  Some honing needed before they reach the creative heights of some of their influences, but certainly a band to keep an eye out for.   


Following on we have LET LIVE, and after what we have just seen, very little could appear more dull.  Exhibiting bundles of energy, stripping to the waist, running across the monitors and throwing himself from one side of the stage to the other in convulsive rapture, looking like an epileptic puppet off its strings, the vocalist tries to give a performance that assaults the senses, but it is empty of any real conviction, much like the band's music, which takes influence from artists like Glassjaw and the one everybody is here tonight to see.  Unfortunately, he cannot perform this material well, sounds bland, will destroy his voice in no time, and comes across like a bit of a dick.  No amount of instrument destruction or apparent fit-throwing can disguise well enough the fact that this band simply are not that interesting.  The displays of what we are supposed to see as uncontrollable rage bubbling over, possessing the band members in their final throes, just looks like grandstanding and silliness.  Hugely forgettable.   


DEFTONES' self-titled album brought with it a supporting tour that saw Chino Moreno in terrible shape, unwell, I think frequently drunk, and giving weak performances, while his band struggled to keep things together.  Saturday Night Wrist, whilst a disjointed record, found the band back on its feet in the live environment, and this was the last time I happened to see them.  I don't know what their last visit here was like, but now, in support of the fantastic Koi No Yokan, they arrive with an inspired freshness, ready to show everyone else how this sort of music is done.

From the opening song Diamond Eyes, it is immediately clear they are feeling good, the solidarity and clarity in their playing obvious to all, Chino's voice strident and clear.

He takes his regular position atop the sound monitor, so he can command the love from the band's fans right from the get-go.  And what a love it is; between songs the chant of his name is heard from every corner of the auditorium, its nature making it feel more like a football match than a musical performance.  Through their 90 minutes on stage we see good humour, a brief, warm tribute to their still-comatose original bass player Chi Cheng, and most importantly a tight, well-rehearsed delivery of a superb song choice, representing fairly each stage of a career still going strong, loose of the shackles of the nu-metal genre they effectively made cool in the first place.  This does not mean, however, that they have left those roots behind; on the contrary, along with the textured, mature later work, we get a nice selection of lifts from Around the Fur, and a nostalgic encore, consisting of the Adrenaline songs Engine #9 and 7 Words.  It simply confirms they can handle all tones like masters, which their reputation dictates them to be.
The venue's sound system holds up nicely under the weight of the band's loudest, heaviest moments,  the lighting is subtle, occasionally silhouetting the five men in a way that makes them look like kings, and the audience is absolutely in love with a group at the top of their game.  Whether it be by the slam-dancing that still takes place to the likes of the dark My Own Summer and Headup, the 4000 strong chorus of voices screaming, "Guns! Razors! Knives!" during a vital, lurching Rocket Skates, or the emotional intensity as everybody is moved in unison by the classic Change and the powerful newcomer Tempest, Deftones' reputation as a live act metal fans must see is tonight confirmed.   


Sunday, 17 February 2013

THIS WEEK: Django Unchained / Wreck-It Ralph

0 - No Redeeming Feature

1 - Poor

2 - Passable

3 - Good.  Rent it.

4 - Excellent!

5 - Must See!!

DJANGO UNCHAINED  (2013 - UK Certificate 18)

Quentin Tarantino's best films are his debut Reservior Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown.  It's not that everything since is bad, but there was a notable change in the type of film he wanted to make from that point.  Having admired many technical aspects of Kill Bill, the deliciously sinister nature of his grind house homage Death Proof, and the fantastic set pieces of Inglorious Basterds, I can say that Django Unchained, his story of a slave-turned-bounty hunter fighting to rescue his wife from a plantation, is his most focused and solid delivery since that change.

By now anybody reading will know the basics of the synopsis, so I won't go into much detail.  Jamie Foxx is Django, in which the D is silent.  He explains this in a simple but splendid "wink wink" exchange with Franco Nero in a cameo spot, typical of the cinema encyclopedia that is Tarantino; Nero was Django at a time, and that knowledge makes their exchange a fun tidbit.  For those of my generation, he may be more easily identified as the bad guy being sprung free in Die Hard 2.  Foxx is perfectly fine as the central character, although there is an irony in the fact that, by the nature of the story, he is given little to do for a fair clump of the running time, so falls into the shadow of other cast members, somewhat.  Those other members are uniformly impressive:  Christoph Waltz is the bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (cheekily clever name); he is dangerous, charming and witty, much like his character in Inglorious Basters; the difference here is that he is the good guy, setting Django free and proceeding to help him perform the daring rescue of his woman.

Leonardo Dicaprio is nothing short of perfect as the young, petulant Calvin Candie, proud owner of a plantation, sickeningly enthralled by man-din-go fighting to the death, and in the most surprising turn, we have Samuel L. Jackson as the twisted Uncle Tom character Stephen.  This latter performance is truly phenomenal, by turns humorous and sincerely scary.

Tarantino's handling of the sensitive backdrop for the story is impressive; with all the hooting and hollering about political insensitivity, the fact is he tackles the traits of the time, two years before the American Civil War, with a sure-handedness that I must say might surprise many.  The film does not shirk away from some nasty modes of thought and activities deemed acceptable at the time, but as far as what the director would call the "real violence" is concerned, he doesn't rub our face in it more than is necessary; rather, just enough that it balances with the stylized "cartoon violence" and makes it all the more cathartic.  In terms of style, all the typical trademarks we now expect of the man are here: the no-holds-barred approach to making it an in-your-face experience, great source music, real in-camera effects work that really drives home the violent elements, and fantastic dialogue that is a joy just to behold, particularly when Jackson and Waltz get to open their mouths, because as Tarantino says, they were born to say his words.

Just a few particularly good examples can be found in the extended bar sequence where Dr. Schultz explains to Django what it is he does, a brief but fantastic exchange between the two as Schultz takes aim at a  soon-to-be corpse, Stephen's reaction when he first meets Django, which only Jackson could make as funny as he does, and a very funny scene everybody is talking about, which ridicules the Klan.

Now, the film is not without problems.  For all the tension and drama successfully created elsewhere, the love connection between Django and Broomhilda is one I never really buy, and so that which is effectively the heart of the film runs close to flat-line.  The sense of connection, and the stakes at risk, are well generated between other characters, but there is no true sense that Django and Broomhilda ever truly lost anything.  This is not to say they didn't, but we don't get a convincing sense of it; this follows through with a lack of chemistry between them in the final scene of the film.

Speaking of that final scene, the tone Tarantino goes with, taking his foot off the pedal and going out on a note that plays more like an episode of Zorro, feels out of step.  In fact, whilst the juggling of different tones is something the director appears to have a generally good handle on, it is also a frustrating element of his film making.  As was most evident in Inglorious Basterds, his desire to embrace and mesh various genre conventions sometimes gets in the way of what could be a terrific genre piece; this is evidenced by the darker, more gripping, nasty scenes, moments that make me think, "I want to see what that movie is like".  Instead of that, we meander through a film that defies genre and on one hand deals very reverently with slavery through a love and revenge story, but on the other feels like it is little more than playing dress-up.  It bugs me, because he is such a great cinematic mind, I do not doubt that if he removed himself from his work a little, he could create something monumental.

The thing is he has always been in love with everything he writes, himself even having said that upon completion of his screenplay, he feels he has the finished product, can happily publish it as a book and not bother making the movie.  This is a problem; he clearly struggles to understand that whilst he may be happy he has written War and Peace, not everyone will feel the same; ironically, he is also known for his snappy dialogue and genuinely smart direction within individual set pieces.  The final consequence of all this is that the film is not only crammed full of sequences that are stunningly written, funny, tense, dark and lavishly staged, but also with bits and pieces that simply run too long, don't quite fit, or aren't needed, and so it becomes too bloated for its own good.  Not far off three hours when two would have done perfectly fine to tell his story, it is as though with a lack of, or perhaps in spite of a strong editor (R.I.P Sally Menke), he insists on a sometimes unfocused and self-indulgent piece.  Evidence of this issue could not be clearer than in the casting of himself in a superfluous role, in an absolutely unnecessary act of the film; if his lack of presence doesn't take you out of the movie somewhat, the dreadfully unconvincing Australian accent only illuminates the bad decision for you.
With all I've said, my rating may surprise you.  This is because, despite all the issues, I do accept Tarantino as the director he is, and Django Unchained tackles a serious topic with verve, building from it a story that does enthrall, and makes for some exciting, unpredictable, if sometimes frustrating cinema. The writing is typically Tarantino, uncensored and wild, at its worst a bit too much, but at its best snappy and exciting.  The performances are terrific, his unique use of anachronistic music proves he has long-since perfected the art of meshing visual and sound in a fashion that is far from typical.  His flair for the fun and theatrical is very much on show throughout, and his penchant for a good shootout certainly hasn't worn thin.  The main action sequence before the final act of the movie brings to mind the standoff in True Romance, only it is significantly more insane, but unlike the Crazy 88 scenes in Kill Bill Vol 1. he does not provide the refuge to a shift to black and white; blood squibs go off left, right and centre, painting everything crimson...everything!

This is indeed thrilling, although I must say that it is also notable at this stage how good a shot Django has become.  Indeed the film gets a case of what I could call "the Commandos" (if you don't get that, you need to brush up on your Schwarzenegger filmography), with one man who, before being freed would never have touched a gun, having become the greatest gunslinger alive with apparently little struggle, whilst we watch the bad guys stumble about in packs, sometimes with a clear shot of Django, and failing miserably.  Are these guys really this bad, or is Django impervious to bullets?  I understand it's a revenge convention, and I'm not looking for a great deal of realism at this point, but a sense that Django might have failed would have been welcome. 

Django Unchained is very much a film only Tarantino could make, which means, even with the things I think are wrong with it, you could never accuse it of being boring.  Whether your reaction to the more over the top, incendiary elements is positive or not, it is an engaging thrill ride, and his most impressive work since Jackie Brown.  A flawed, but bold movie.


At cinemas now.
Catch if it you like:  Quentin Tarantino

WRECK-IT RALPH  (2013 - UK Certificate PG)

Wreck-It Ralph takes us into the imaginary "behind the scenes" world of arcade video games, in which we see that characters controlled by the game players by day have their own lives by night.  Ralph is the bad guy in a retro, 8-bit arcade game who is tired of not being liked for doing his job, namely wrecking a building while the good guy, Fix-It Felix Jr, repairs the damage.  He makes the decision to "go turbo", abandoning his own game and venturing into a new, shiny one called Bug Hunt; his aim is to get himself a medal, earn a bit of respect and, perhaps, even adoration.  Through an amusing set of circumstances Ralph finds himself in the company of a young girl named Venellope, a character in the ridiculously bright racing game Sugar Rush, who is not allowed to race due to a glitch in her programming.  Together they aim to get Venellope into a race, and Ralph his medal; this sets in motion a story that is typically and, at points, generically Disney.

When described it sounds a little too close to the Pixar classic Toy Story, from which it does take its cue, and so it is easy to assume it will automatically fall flat.  So what makes it not?  There is clearly a "geek factor" to this film, with numerous cheeky and amusing cameos by characters everybody who ever played games will recognize, with the games themselves clearly being based on known titles.  There is also a smart observation of the look of different eras of gaming; notice how wonderfully rendered the more up to date games characters look when compared to those of the 8-bit Wreck-It Ralph, with their jumpy animation summoning an immediate sense of nostalgia.  The most notable reason for it working, however, is its presentation of a completely engaging, well-written story, and its creation of tremendous central characters.  The voice acting is the best I have heard for some time; among the talent are John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman, the latter, I suspect, winning over even those who do not like her.  We find ourselves really caring about these game characters, honestly charmed and sincerely moved by their adventure.

The theme and moral is nothing new for movies of this ilk, but it is excellently put together, feels fresh, and the plot itself even has an intelligent, mature progression that will engage the children and speak to the parents.  I had a couple of issues with some of the heavy handed product placement, one character coming across as rather unoriginal due to an obvious comparison with a previous, classic Disney character (you can't not notice it, it seems intentional), and I felt using an existing song by Rihanna in the middle of the film, rather than a track written specifically for it, to be misjudged, but overall these are little, personal complaints, about which not everybody will feel the same.

Rich Moore arrived as the director with an impressive set of credentials in TV; being attached to, among other things, The Simpsons and Futurama is no bad starting point.  Whilst it can be said it does not quite reach the heights of the Pixar classics, Moore has created a film that is charming, creative, moving, and a joy from which all ages can get pleasure.  As I walked out of the auditorium with the perfectly suited, up-beat, closing credit song by Own City buzzing through my head, I was already thinking Wreck-It Ralph is absolutely going to be one of the best releases of 2013!  I stand by this.

Gamer or no gamer, young or adult, you should see this movie!


In cinemas now
Catch it if you like:  Video games, Cars, Monsters Inc., Toy Story.