Good old form, formula and faces
I rather enjoyed this franchise product: the tried and trusted JJ Abrams gives us, essentially, a re-run of A New Hope (that's the very first film, also known as Episode 4) and successfully limits the use of CGI, doing much work in-camera.
At the top of the zowee list is John Boyega. If we didn't know if he had silver screen heft from the grimy Attack The Block, we do now. The new droid BB-8 is surmounts the immediate legacy of Wall-E and various other anthropomorphic, cartoony kids characters with nicely-pitched panache. The former cast are terrific, particularly Harrison Ford, triumphing through sincerity. Irony is active, not smug and knowing. This is the director's doing and deserves it's own accolade. Oscar Isaac spans the establishment and the newbies with tremendous assurance.
Yet... I felt that Carrie Fisher's appearances were a little stilted. I was dreadfully disappointed by the usually gripping Adam Driver - was he cowed by the responsibility of the one genuinely novel character in such a freighted film? I was also bored by The Force Awakens for short periods as it went through inevitable motions of fight sequences and reversed back down the tracks of A New Hope.
There are some lovely cameos (Pip Torrens, he of 'we'll do this the old fashioned way' in Tomorrow Never Dies, and Harriet Walter were my favourites). There are one or two great reveals, nonchalant but thrilling. There's also the occasional emotional peak. It's comfortingly competent and often exciting. But not new. 6/10
Before Midnight (2013)
'Still there... it's still there...'
Another in the series, as it now it, of Richard Linklater's dramatised talking head films (based on his own European Brief Encounter of yesteryear). Like the previous encounters, Before Midnight is a series of 4-5 set pieces filmed in rarely broken takes. The cane-sweet investigative and flirtatious exchanges of the 1994 original have been replaced with a complicated, more muscular texture of tease-and-touché. As both Ethan Hawke's Jesse and Julie Delpy's Céline say, they have 'colonised' one another.
Céline seems rather more conflicted than Jesse, whose teenage charm has been replaced with dad-jokes. This all changes as the final evening of their (6 week) stay on a Greek island curdles to a bitter point. An amiable but veiled film suddenly shows its teeth - maybe a little late for me. Still, the acting is almost beyond criticism and Linklater stays disciplined in leaving it to them. 6.5/10
Behind the Candelabra (2013)
A touching period biopic on an extraordinary character
At first it looks like it might be a parody of what a camper-than-you- can-imagine showbiz romance between two men might be. Because that's what it is, with Michael Douglas playing the fey Liberace down while the sun-soaked lenses of Steven Soderbergh's camera ramp it up.
Quickly one becomes familiar with the film's rhythm though and a stock biopic/romance develops, just under the extraordinary circumstances of a flamboyantly gay showman taking everything from life. What's delightful about Michael Douglas' (and Richard LaGravenese's) Lee is that for all his excess and self-delusion, he is a sympathetic, likable man. Matt Damon's Scott adds to this 3-D portrait by not being a lover of extremes. Both men are unusual but not alien.
The costume design - that's to say not the exotic performance outfits! - is impressive and the detail in jewellery, furnishings, pianos and other props is part of the film's vernacular. It's a film that one can also enjoy for the trickle of small roles: Dan Aykroyd's manager (what a hair piece!); Rob Lowe's feline cosmetic surgeon; and Debbie Reynolds, an extraordinary presence whose natural charisma and beauty shines through this heavily prepped pageant to a hedonist's halcyon Hollywood like soft, sharp light. 7/10
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)
Hilarious if boxed-in
There were no belly-laughs for me in this Alan Partridge feature, though, line for line, the film must have a conspicuous density of jokes. It is a funny film which, like all the Alan Partridge franchise, pokes a great deal of fun at laughable parochialism without the out-and- out stab of urbane snobbery. Steve Coogan's observation of his own principal character is still right on the rails, an ego inflated beyond the reality of his circumstance, shown in small detail: the title sequence, Alan singing along to anonymous MOR on the way to work, is particularly funny as he wears driving gloves.
Many familiar characters also reappear. Felicity Montagu's Lynn has a truly extraordinary moment of transformation and Sean Pertwee's station- owner is a fine turn in grist to Alan's mill of self-importance. The ensemble is great, not least as Alan's humour is in response (even to his own malapropisms). However, the sketch origins of the show are rather plain in the number of picaresque moments which seem surplus to the narrative. All in all, an amiable matinée 5/10
Flushed Away (2006)
Laminated animation doesn't kill the fun
It's a film that's 10 years older than its spiritual time, the 1996 Europeans Football finals and the year that gave us New Labour's Cool Britannia. This is a knees-up-mother-Brown outing for the Aardman Animation team. The production takes the style and image of their famous clay stop-motion but render it in computer graphics. The story is about 2/3rds classic rescue drama with the rest chock-full of visual gags and references and wry asides that aren't just for accompanying adults. I lost count of the movie hat tips when I'd got past a dozen and the singing slugs never got dull.
The voicing is superb, although Kate Winslet plucky Rita gets out charisma-ed by almost everyone else. It's not a 'real' Aardman Animation film but once you've absorbed the fact it's a good matinée romp. 6.5/10
The Counselor (2013)
Writer Cormac McCarthy has tried to graft some Elmore Leonard onto his arm's-length existential character landscape. He seems to want a pulp thriller that is a panoply of nihilist vignettes. It doesn't come together. The small talk is stillborn; characters only really flesh out when they have weighty things to say. The actors are given good styling to help them develop something pointed, something potent - it tells us something though when the small and extra roles are as impressive as their named counterparts.
The acting occasionally flashes with the calibre one expects from reading the cast list: Fassbender is properly pummelled by the trajectory of the film; Cameron Diaz does a super job as an offbeat moll-with-nous; Penélope Cruz, Bruno Ganz and (in the only truly gold-standard scene of the film) Rubén Blades are excellent.
It is entirely likely that issues outside the production may have affected the film in the end. I was involved but disappointed that it couldn't have been better than it was. 6/10
A solid four star film in 2 dimensions, I have regularly been told that this is a film that becomes something truly special in 3D. This is hardly surprising: Gravity is 'filmed' as if in zero-gravity space, predicated on perpetual movement in all directions. The movement of the camera from within a helmet visor to its outside is the least in a roster of well-integrated, unfussy perspective shifts. It's a classy stylistic tour de force.
It's also a very exciting film, which unfolds (almost) in real time. The almost unimaginable scale of the locale, several miles off the surface of the earth, is carefully managed. The excitement comes from the familiar jeopardy given an extra twist, rather than totally novel situations that would be too incredible to process. There is an issue with trying to develop character in this place with limited interaction and next to no time for exposition or development but I think Sandra Bullock manages to maintain a level of intensity that manages to convince.
The end of the film is a coda that Kubrick would admire, Malick would envy and neatly ties up a thoroughly enjoyable film. 8/10
Furious 6 (2013)
Over-earnest and determined to shoehorn in the funny despite that, this latest instalment is a well-honed version of all the rest. Well done. I found the 'family guys' interpolations insufferable and - typically for all sequels, of course - the scowling seriousness is now infused with irony. These people smug at being paid to re-hash the formula. At least Police Academy tried to come up with jokes.
The big draw on this occasion is probably the location. We start in Moscow and then move to London for the first half of the film... in fact we start in London as well, as Lambeth Bridge seems to be doubling for an anonymous crossing of the Moskva. My favourite appropriation is when an aerial shot prepares us for the obligatory motor party & race. It seems to be heading for the Treasury... oh, it is, right in the centre of the Treasury! The consequent race spends at least four times as long on Lower Regent Street as is feasible at any speed and ends in Battersea. Loony. 4/10
World War Z (2013)
Zombies = B movie. Can't avoid it.
I rather enjoyed the first couple of acts of this (surely unfinished) blockbuster. Marc Foster gets right on with it. All the stuff you've seen in the trailers seems to happen in the same span as the pre-titles of a Christopher Nolan flick. It's quite exciting and I was even a little spooked myself.
The film starts to get a little labored as Brad Pitt's indeterminate UN- type begins to guess a possible solution. This dawning idea seems to coincide with a truly extraordinary handbrake turn in the film; a flight out of apocalyptic Israel points Pitt towards Wales because it's cheap to film there - oh, sorry, no, because that's the nearest WHO research facility and suddenly the whole circus scales right down into a TV version of 24 Days Later. The film ends in much the same way as I Am Legend but without anything like the satisfactory arc prior to it. And credit where it's due - to the (apparently) uncredited Zombie in the WHO facility, the first to prove Gerry's theory right. 4/10
White House Down (2013)
I'm waiting for the first exploitation-rescue action thriller to be set in London Bridge as they will have to call it Die Shard. That's the legacy of Bruce Willis' greatest hit which is the inescapable template for this sort of ride, a ride I'm happy to take over and over again if it's this much fun.
Well, almost. I can do without the self-consciously up-to-date language, the stock emoting (that Dad-n-daughter dribble) which is a pox in modern Hollywood. I don't believe that Jamie Foxx is the President any more than I believe that a girl with a flag can force a providentially ordered air strike (if John McCain cannot stop a 747 landing with a flaming torch then lower thresholds really are nonsense).
However, Roland Emmerich is right on board with the preposterousness of the situation from frame one. Detail is a low priority to big guns and one-liners and the film benefits from it. 6/10
Monsters University (2013)
Another Pixar delight
It's predecessor was a celebrated hit but Monsters University (a prequel) deserves none of the 'meh' doled out by critics, either in comparison or on its own terms. It's a frat-boy coming of age story with all the inventiveness of the first film intact and thriving. There's a large and well-characterised voice cast for the ensemble with Helen Mirren the choice name popping up as a scaly dean of studies.
As ever with these films, it's the pace of wit which is so attractive and arresting on screen and the slapstick is as violent as it can be given the raucous nature of the invented subjects. If anything I'd like to have seen the topsy-turvy 'toxicity of children' predicate of the first film more thoroughly investigated here. But no matter, it's great fun. 7/10
Upstream Color (2013)
A tighter, marginally less beautiful Tree Of Life
I was gripped by Upstream Color, often despite itself. The film knows what its about and pursues it meticulously, exhaustively and occasionally with old-fashioned, self-indulgent pretentiousness, but that's no bad thing. The plot is difficult to re-iterate but involves a modern couple's metaphysical shadowing of an organic life-cycle.
As is often the way, I was straight into trying to work out what the metaphor is. For me there is a strong one, to do with the contemporaneous financial crisis and the (apparently) all-pervasive violation of rights and personal freedoms in today's connected society. It's on the basis of a reading such as this that the pure poetry of the film is lost in comparison with something like The Tree Of Life, whose own analogies are timeless. However Upstream Color does benefit from a stronger sense of its own direction are constituent purpose. The narrative is linear and causal, the editing clever and fluid, the music/sound design a tandem of integrated sound.
For me the film suffers slightly from Carruth casting himself - Jeff is always rather too alert, and set apart from Amy Zeimetz's (excellent) Kris with whom he's probably meant to be more akin. This is a good film to really immerse oneself in, trusting to the possibility of poetry from the screen. And, like much modern poetry, comprehension may be elusive but the warp and weft is all. 6/10
The World's End (2013)
There's a coda. Even if it doesn't completely hang together, or even exonerate the somewhat sonnambulant prior 80 minutes, it does at leas have a go at making something greater of it. Me, didn't get it. I was plugged into the 1990s aesthetic - the opening 5 minutes of the film are its best bit, possible the best excerpt of the whole 'Cornetto Trilogy' - and appreciated the various asides as they came and went. Nonetheless, the fun is choked a little by the simple passage of time: where Shaun & Fuzz have parody on their side, there is simply too much to take on in a film that has a second decade to trawl through.
Nick Frost comes out of this best by being a solid guy driven to anger in legitimate, credible increments. The others are wet, tropes; it takes some doing to scale down a trio of actors to less than their potential. Simon Pegg, like the film he is leading, is taking on too many roles.
I should just rent The Wackness instead. 4/10
The chief appeal of this extraordinary cartoon is its wealth of imagination after the initial conceit. It rains food. What does one do next? Old truths meet wild & impossible conjecture in a geeky alternative to the superhero action cartoon. It's great fun.
The speed of cartoons is one of their selling points; much more than the incongruity of steak or sushi falling from the sky, the entertainment of Cloudy is in the speed at which the protagonists react to the force of sci-fi enhanced nature. It never gets too serious though, the rushing around concentrating on slapstick. The voice work is super and the cartoon edited sharply to the visuals. 6/10
Baggy? Not at all.
Shane Meadows has been very disciplined. A lifelong fan charged with covering the Stone Roses reunion tour, he could have made a film twice as long which would still have left the fans impatient for more.
Instead Meadows restricts himself to watching the band rehearse, play a warm-up gig in Warrington (the sweat-stained heart of the film) and then on tour across the world. The film finishes with the promised Heaton Park date, where slo-mo does real justice to the romance of the band's legacy. More than that, Meadows also allows the full extended closing jam, for which the band's EPs were held in such high regard from fan to critic alike.
It's just as well. The band were legendary because they were good, not just because they spawned a fashion movement, or behaved in the time- honoured manner of charismatic outfits before them. The film captures many other things besides, one of which is the age of the fans and shows just how long ago the late 1980s are now. For all the excitement & joy of a second coming, it's impossible to hide the calcifying effect of time; the film itself is already an anachronism, with Liam Gallagher waxing lyrical about Manchester City winning the Premier League (Manchester United had won it back before the film's release).
I was saddened and moved, ultimately for the best, in equal measure. But I'd have liked Meadows to have been able to capture more real drama; the footage of Ian Brown telling a Dutch audience that they're not getting an encore, sparks with the belligerence which took the band to the very top. It's just a pity the flames didn't flare as they once must have done. 6/10
Lola Montes (1944)
An opulently produced, unhectoring satire
This is my kind of film, beginning with a bizarre, four-wall-flirting turn from Peter Ustinov which segues into the first of a series of flashbacks, this one with Franz Liszt. Low and high art glued together with panache and a hooded-eyed, punch-drunk passion, Lola Montes tells the story of a fearless social climber. Conchita Montenegro bleaches the rest of the screen with charisma every time she's in frame. The story does not have the same uniform arc as Georg Pabst's Pandora's Box, in which Louise Brooks' Lulu finds herself back in the gutter from which she made her ascent through society boudoirs. It does end in the threatening, glowering dark of the circus however, Ustinov the master of a ceremony (like Pabst's ringmaster) of whom one is never certain - charlatan or svengali?
The production is spectacular, opulent, purposefully dream-like. Surreal twists as well as a marvellously opaque, magic-realist conclusion make for an absorbing and quiet, unhectoring satire. 8/10
A perfect marriage of New Wave realism & fairytale
If Jacques Demy is famous for anything - and by anything I mean The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg and The Young Girls Of Rochefort - it's the ability to magic fairytale and fun out of the grey-grind of parochial French life. Admittedly he achieves this in the first place by simply splashing colour over everything. But in this black and white film of 1961, that particular synaesthetic channel isn't open.
Instead we get an energetic tale of loves lost and found, missing one another - and, with great care and nuance, reflecting one another. Lola is like Robert Altman or even PT Anderson but before their kookiness or romanticism ironed it out a little.
The performances are all strong - even Alan Scott's Frankie; I spent the first half of the film trying to work out whether he's a French playing an American with a bad accent or just an American... The stratified, wistful non-conclusion to the film is a payoff worth pursuing, though the rest of the film is fine. 7/10
Tom & Viv (1994)
Straightforward biopic of complicated characters
Unlike this film adaptation of Michael Hastings' play, there was nothing straightforward about the characters that populate Tom & Viv. Well, with the honourable exception of Tim Dutton's Maurice. The cast of characters are all exceptional, constituting the creative exoticism of the 1920s. Inevitably this means the Bloomsbury Group, though the film is modest in its examination of those personalities themselves, using Ottoline Morrell, Virginia Woolf and Edith Sitwell et al as a backdrop & foil for the highly strung Vivienne Eliot, rather than out- and-out antagonists.
It is Vivienne about whom this film rotates. She appears to be the life force that drives Tom Eliot on in his decisions and actions, if only through her spasmodic mood swings. It's a very difficult role for Miranda Richardson (who is excellent, perfectly cast) to grade; we need a sense of escalation but also to see that her post-menopausal self is significantly different from how she was before Tom. The result is a rich portrayal, dizzying and distracting from the couple's real dynamic. As a narrative I'm sure it's accurate. As drama it's less satisfying.
Willem Dafoe is a nicely taciturn Eliot, with the same strong features as the poet, if not an obvious lookalike. The attention to design detail, especially in costume is quite excellent. Recommended as a broad-brush primer for this important period in TS Eliot's professional development. 6/10
The Great Gatsby (2013)
1920s primary colour love story
This was better than I thought it would be. That's not much of a recommendation. However, the opening was so busy, overlaid, multifaceted, even cartoonish that I worried that the austere finesse of Fitzgerald's novel (such as I remember it) would be submerged in the MSG of CGI and Luhrman's modernist conceptualising.
Well, actually, the use of contemporary music and even dance is very thoughtfully applied. The drama is period-designed with only tweaks - colour, editing, the vernacular of language and movement - extending a hand to the young audience of today.
The story is told straight, if laboured and over-egged (easy trimming would remove 10 mins with absolutely no loss) and that consistent, focused narrative carried one through the film if all else seems gaudy or long-winded.
Leo DiCaprio is very good, if not at his best; Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire equally watchable, if not always operating in the highest gear. Joel Edgerton is a super, flawed everyman. But the quiet star of the cast for me was Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker, the quintessence of Luhrman's approach to old-new period styling. She's a strikingly beautiful woman with some considerable acting ability. Resembling the young Kristin Scott Thomas in looks and cool understatement, I felt her only issue was how to maintain parity among a cast all a good two inches shorter than her. A find.
I have no idea how this film relates to the novel, in all its complexities, grand scope and philosophy but I was sufficiently diverted for an evening (though i won't want to see it again). 5.5/10
Iron Man Three (2013)
I've definitely reached that sad day that comes to us all - I hope - where I switch off as the action/chase bit starts. That means I spent a good third of this second Iron Man sequel examining my fingernails. It's not as alienating as the splashing counterpart sequences in Transformers, although this is a reasonable comparison. That said, the team is sensible to have drawn a thick line at the end of the film as the whole operation had begun to slip below the B movie waterline.
What distinguishes the rest of the film is the playing of the drama unusually close to the knowing, fourth wall of self-regard. Robert Downey Jr's great contribution to the four films he has made in the suit has been the ability to side with the postmodernists and fanboys in the audience without undermining the show. In addition we get Gwyneth Paltrow in action and Guy Pearce upstaging everybody, which is fine by me. 5.5/10
Spectacular to look at for twenty minutes
A stock, futuristic sci-fi thriller whose novelty is in the design. Once this is spent - and it's cashed quickly - there is little else. From La Jetee to the Matrix via Planet of the Apes the borrowing is heavy and little disguised. The revealed story is saccharine and inert, not helped by dry scripting phoned in by the cast. No, I didn't like it...
That said, there's no one quite like Tom Cruise to carry a movie. Intense, good-looking and committed, I always get a minimum return on my ticket. Angel Riseborough is a nice foil, although she seems a little awkward in her proforma role; little tics and looks as if she wanted to break out of this dreadful mould-role kept me onside. Don't worry, this will be an interim earner for this fine British actress as she plans the next Brighton Rock or Made In Dagenham. Olga Kurylenko was more exciting in QoS.
Like the surface of the Earth in 2077, a waste. 3/10
Glossy, even dazzling jumble
Despite the calibre of the cast (on paper), Trance is a modest film for Danny Boyle. No doubt this has something to do with the large scale of his profile, if not his work (Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Days were both comparably modest films, but part of a slipstream period leading up tot he 2012 London Olympic ceremony which he directed to great acclaim).
Unfortunately, it looks rather modest on the screen too. The design looks glossy but its a simple gloss, lacking detail. The film itself over-compensates with a welter of symbols, flashbacks, overlays and other sensory paraphernalia that over-cook this puzzlebox thriller. I was lost by the halfway point and the final tying up of loose ends was ineffective.
A film that was designed to pursue similar ground to Christopher Nolan in both Memento (style) and Inception (content), the achievement was to show just what a significant achievement Nolan had reached. Performances are committed but chopped up by the edit. Disappointing 5/10
Side Effects (2013)
Nicely executed opaque big pharma-thriller
A thriller that reveals itself very slowly indeed, never giving away more than the audience need know at any one time. This tight spooling of what is, essentially, a genre flick shows the director Steven Soderbergh absolutely on top of his game. It also shows him mixing in a little political seasoning, with a comment on the moral curdling that goes on across the top cross section of various professional disciplines, including the now familiar bogeyman, the financial markets.
If anything this film is a little too opaque, moving briskly through its narrative and side-stepping plot-hole issues. Jude Law is good but Rooney Mara is the gold standard and both are supported by a a deliciously poisonous Catherine Zeta-Jones and various other supporting stalwarts. Say it ain't the last Steven! 7/10
Welcome to the Punch (2013)
Earnest but unoriginal London thriller
A hard-nosed, London-based thriller with the good and bad guys playing hopscotch with the thinnest of blue lines. Or at least that's the film hammering at the glass ceiling of Eran Creevy's self-penned feature, a dozen premium name British actors stuck in the limbo of the glass towers of Canary Wharf, like the bad guys in Superman 2 stuck in the mirror.
Alas, there's no nuclear action to free the talent this time around, the camera rushing about and boxing them into their chrome-blue bleached out twilight. This is like a rough, gangland spin-off of Spooks occasionally perked up with tantalising set pieces - a stand off in a front room with Ruth Sheen as a granny, for example. Other set pieces are just too cash- and-imagination starved: the nightclub shoot-out; the press and hustings addresses.
James McAvoy had vowed not to get butch again after Wanted but I guess there was sufficient grit promised in this to recant. All others work in vain with the production. The sound mix in the cinema I went to was awful - whether this is the film or the set-up I don't know. What Michael Mann could have done with this cast, this backdrop (begging for Dante Spinotti's camera) and, yes, this story. Ach 4/10
Distractingly choppy thin blue line thriller
A film with some super performances, from Paddy Considine as a gay-but- not-camp inspector bullied in the South London nick into which he's parachuted, to Aidan Gillen's typically ballsy wacko killer. There's also plenty of charisma on screen - Statham, naturally, but also the underwritten Zawe Ashton. Elliott Nester's film hops about on the scalding coals of a not-quite-there script. I could understand the broad strokes but the storytelling, especially of the secondary plotting, is choppy to the point of sporadic.
It's a shame because there's some unusual characterisation going on. South London is also a strong player in this respect, with proper location shooting really adding to the density of the visual narrative. Some big hitters in minor parts (Rylance, naturally - though I have to confess I have never been a fan of David Morrissey and this changes nothing) help to make the film authentic. In the end it becomes a vehicle for suburban shock and gore. 5/10