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Unsane (2018)
Moderatelty interesting schlock
22 March 2018
Is she or isn't she, they ask? Frustratingly, the answer is too obvious too quickly, but it does not appear to be the point.

A seasoned director with a catalogue of work that covers almost every genre, nobody can ever say Steven Soderbergh isn't an exciting, experimental artist. of course, with that comes an unpredictability. I have loved and occasionally loathed the man's output, but here we have a strange beast, a film that tiptoes precariously across the tightrope that separates the two camps. Not actually the first film to put iphone to use, but certainly the first to receive a major release, Soderbergh is clearly keen to explore the technical possibilities, the framing and use of light adding a compelling b-movie grit to proceedings. Claire Foy leads with predictable conviction as a woman who is actually less likable that one might have assumed, which is of course intended.

In fact, everything is intended; nothing here isn't part of Soderbergh's plan, including, we must assume, the gaping plot holes and over-egging of the situation, so as to turn the film into an hysteric, hyperbolic drama, whose intention becomes increasingly socially conscious rather than realistically plausible. Dare I say, a metaphor? This is admirable, but it must be said the lack of realism does tend to reduce the possibility for engagement or tension, and his economical, efficient storytelling here gets, at times, a bit too economical and efficient for its own good, leaving the viewer oddly uninvolved in some pretty dark story points. Where the intense style and distance may not be a problem in the hands of the likes of Aronofsky or Lanthamos respectively, with whom such business comes with the territory, it is more of an issue when we are being asked to fully empathise with real world characters like Soderbergh's.

He's done better, and he's done worse. It's a reasonable effort, with an important intention, but not enough sticks to elevate it beyond b-movie schlock.
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Tyrannosaur (2011)
Complex and tender, yet tough to get through
14 August 2017
Paddy Considine directs a surprisingly fierce film about "redemption in the darkest of places" with Tyrannosaur. Joseph is a seriously damaged, raging man, already well on his way down the spiral, when he walks into a Christian charity shop, run by Hannah. It becomes clear that neither of them are what we perceive them to be, both hiding deep personal scars, and both dealing with those scars in ways that could not be more extremely different. As unlikey a pair as they seem, they find something in each other they didn't realise they were looking for, or had perhaps simply stopped believing could exist in another person.

This is an 18 for a reason; it has moments that are pretty tough, sexual violence and violence towards animals included, and the film deals with subject matter that some may find difficult to bear with, but if you can, 'Tyrannosaur' turns out to be a film by which you are deeply moved, and on which you can't help but reflect. The film works as a lesson to us all on the damage we can cause with our pre-conceived notions about others, acknowledging the truth that we are never black and white. Despite the fact I feel no desire to sit through it again, it is a highly recommended watch, not least due to the two leads: Peter Mullan is terrific, and Olivia Colman (Green Wing, Peep Show, Hot Fuzz) took my breath away with an astonishing turn as Hannah; she delivers everything with weight and complexity. She is absolutely perfect. Where was her Oscar nod?
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Dunkirk (2017)
Staggering cinema. Not "getting it" is very much on you...
29 July 2017
It' s 1940, 400,000 allied troops are cornered and cut off on the beaches of Dunkirk; with the enemy closing in, and no cover or defence, they await annihilation or a miracle. We experience the moment as the characters do, without unnecessary exposition or dialogue! This proves quite the departure for Nolan; there is a lot here that owes more to silent cinema than anything else, but his images often say all that needs to be said.

An opening frame invites us to join a group of soldiers. 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 here 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, and we know the tone for this audacious movie has been set.

We see the event from different perspectives and from within different time frames. Right now, not many directors can build momentum like Nolan. The jumping to and from different characters' point of view, the corkscrewing impression of the editing, events echoed and mirrored by Hans Zimmer's Shepherd's Tones and persistent, all enveloping score, acting at times more like sound design than music; it all results in a constant rise in tension, to the point of almost being exhaustive.

This said, the editing also serves another purpose. 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 up an overall picture of the event purely through subjective experience, so of course we spend a tiring 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 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 and enter into dogfights to keep the German aircraft 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 was working together, and how sacrifice and struggle for duty were par for the course for all involved, whether other people knew 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.

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 with aplomb, and 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, there are moments from that remain with me so long after having seen it: Kenneth Brannagh and Mark Rylance can say so much with so little, their faces and gestures 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 through the course of his drama to have 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, sank real ships, sailed 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.

Nolan's principle fan base 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', some 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 purely experiential movie, a technical marvel of a war film unlike any other I can name. It also stands as a beacon in Nolan's career, characterised by his desire to cultivate an audience willing to keep up with him. And 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. 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'.
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Paranoia (I) (2013)
Not sure what happened
30 April 2016
Why does Liam Hemsworth run like that? How often does he shower? Does he wax? Why can't they seem to frame Gary Oldman's face correctly? Why is this called 'Paranoia'? Just a few questions of many you might ask yourself whilst watching said movie. If this were a shoddy made-for-TV thriller, I would be saying it's not too bad, but for a major release featuring these names, one has to wonder what happened. One can see how, on paper, the film may have appealed; the idea itself holds some promise, in the right hands, of being at least mildly interesting and gripping. On watching, however, one can also easily imagine the deflation everybody must have felt as they discovered director Robert Luketic is not those said right hands. Only this can explain the general sense of disinterest in the performances. To be frank, perhaps a resume that includes 'Legally Blonde', 'Monster In Law' and 'The Ugly Truth' should have served as fair warning so, on second thought, maybe there is limited sympathy available to Ford and Oldman. That said, they do enough to fulfil their roles, with Oldman easily being the best thing about the movie. Far from awful, and even further from good, 'Paranoia' plods through a dopey, obvious, cliché-riddled techno-espionage plot and wastes everybody's time in the process.
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True Detective (2014– )
'The Game' of TV shows
29 December 2014
Matthew McConaughey is on fire: 'Killer Joe', 'The Lincoln Lawyer', 'Mud', 'The Dallas Buyers Club', 'The Wolf of Wall Street' and 'Interstellar' are all in a file now labelled "The McConaissence". Matthew wants to leave his shirt on and be taken seriously again. With an Oscar to his name, I doubt we are to see him regress to the rom-com King who appeared in such successes as 'The Wedding Planner', 'Ghosts Of Girlfiends Past' and the aptly titled 'Failure To Launch'. To join said films will be series one of 'True Detective', in which he plays Rustin Chole opposite Woody Harrelson's Marty Hart. They are ex-Louisiana law enforcement, both separately recounting their seventeen year old investigation of the murder of a young girl and their subsequent apprehension of the perpetrator. Why are they doing this? Because it has happened again.

The sense of familiarity as one watches the show is no surprise; there are plenty of tropes being revisited. Numerous elements from 'Twin Peaks', 'Se7en', 'The X-Files', 'Millenium' and most bleak British TV drama can be found somewhere in here; and the "chalk and cheese" partnership has surely existed since the dawn of the cop drama. None of this is criticism; the show manages to feel fresh in its approach, dealing as much with the development of the men and their lives as with the investigation itself, as well as how they affected one another in a professional and personal capacity. Whilst McConaughey takes the more "out there" role, frequently spouting downbeat philosophies on life, which sometimes threaten pomposity, Harrelson delivers with equal verve as the boring and very flawed family man. The two actors' chemistry is through the roof and, as with 'Breaking Bad, it is primarily this which keeps the compulsion to watch quite so high.

Praise must also go to the director of all eight episodes, Cary Fukunaga. He gives the whole series a specific and consistent vibe, often echoing David Fincher in its most miserable moments. His technique is smooth and solid, and a now-famous tracking shot in one of the show's few action set-pieces cannot go unnoticed due to its length and how obviously well-planned it is; Scorsese would be proud! He paces the story at a crawl, which matches the setting and lets us know we are not to race from point A to B, but rather to get comfortable with these characters. Original music is noteworthy for its tone-setting and Fukunaga holds together and makes constantly compelling what is, for the most part, a complex and languorous plot.

And so it is here I find the show's weaknesses; granted, they're not many, but they are significant, and they fall to writer Nic Pizzolatto. Firstly, there is a general reduction of females to plot devices, with the exception of Marty's wife Maggie, although even her the story frames in such a way, unrealistically I'd add, as to make her unnecessarily unlikeable. I have seen it written that this ties in with a theme of the show, but I'm not sure this holds up as a genuine intention. The fact the writer has his stomping ground in literature accounts for the show's apparent depth, richness of dialogue and character in the leads, but is more of a shock when I consider how uninteresting other characters actually are.

He also seems to dig himself a hole. The show is not so much one of two halves, but rather of one of three thirds: The first sets up all we need to know and makes for slow, dark viewing; the second propels us into another gear; action takes place, story turns are introduced, and a great deal of convolutions come into play, including a serious build up of mysterious happenings, mystical and literary references, and character traits are focused on as though promising exciting payoffs...We see the technique everywhere, it's the essence of tension, creating intrigue with a view to a majestic revelation, or a shock, or a twist...

None of which we really get in the last two episodes of 'True Detective'. In fact, I was quite surprised how unsurprised I was. We are given a convenient McGuffin, which leads to a tense but ultimately underwhelming showdown with someone from 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre', and a conclusion, which is unearned, in which we learn stars are pretty. You recall how well judged the finale of 'Breaking Bad' was? You remember how everything tied up? Yeh, that doesn't happen here; many a question is left open (I could list them but don't do spoilers), and the final notes just ring false for the characters and the show. That this comes after 6 hours of such earnest and genuinely compelling storytelling is frustrating.

There will be those who defend the finale as a philosophical piece, saying those who think this way just "didn't get it", but this doesn't wash for me; I LIKE that sort of thing, I LIKE ambiguity, but I also like dramatic gratification. Building up a theme, character and mystery to this level, with such shallow payoff is disappointing. There is a sense that the show should have been longer, perhaps, because the last hour feels fumbled and rushed, as though Pizzalatto never got the chance to knock down all the ducks he had set up. The gear shifts and we race off to the conclusion, leaving in the dust quite a lot of that which built the desire to get to the end in the first place. Such is the quality of the production elsewhere, I can only imagine how such a fudged ending came to pass.

All this said, one cannot take away from the performances or the direction, and I will not deny that it is generally exciting. I almost wish the same team were back with a better writer for season two, because it COULD be perfect! Season one is very good, just not the revelation some want to believe.
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The Babadook (2014)
Not perfect but certainly refreshing
28 November 2014
We had the usual slew this year of Halloween fodder; from the people who brought us 'Insidious' and 'Paranormal Activity' came....more of the same. It's not that all these movies are necessarily bad, although to call 'The Conjuring' prequel 'Annaebelle' anything more might be a push, but the stories are generally paint-by-numbers, the abused jump-scare technique becomes tired fast, and in the case of 'Ouija', it could be fairly argued that watching paint dry might be more interesting. Part of this Autumn parade, and sadly overshadowed by every other film, was the Australian release 'The Babadook', starring the generally unfamiliar Essie Davies and the disturbingly in-tune 6-year-old Noah Wiseman.

'The Babadook' is, for the most part, an intense two-hander, telling the story of Amelia, in a suspended state of grief after the loss of her husband years earlier, struggling to balance her work and the upbringing of her son Samuel; Davies and Wiseman play parent and child respectively. Samuel is difficult at the best of times; despite an abundance of affection for his mother, he exhibits a lack of obedience and apparently attention-seeking behaviour, which ranges from performing magic tricks to exasperating temper tantrums to efforts that are potentially lethal! Accompanying this is his growing obsession with protecting himself from the monsters that stalk him in his room and at school. One night little Samuel chooses a new bedtime story from the bookshelf, the mysterious, wonderfully designed, over-sized pop-up called 'The Babadook'. With only mild concern as to where this book actually came from, Ameliea begins to read. It is not long before the book is closed, the nightmarish thing left unfinished, but it is too late; Samuel is terrified of the man who will apparently come to get him, the man who they will not be able to get rid of. Other reviews may reveal more, but that is as much setup as I think one needs.

Performances from both main parties are nothing short of phenomenal, with Davies in particular immediately touting an Oscar nomination with her range and ability to go to some uncomfortable places; her intensity brings to mind the forgotten Naomi Watts performance in 'Mulholland Drive'. No expense is spared on classic set and sound design, everything catering to the immersion and ever more startling and bleak tone. The movie is shot with a true artist's eye and edited with clear care; you can really see Kent's adoration of truly classic horror in silent cinema. On the downside, there is a moment that goes into territory that wouldn't be at all out of place in a David Lynch film, which can be said to be one metaphor too far, and speaking personally, a couple more intensely frightening moments with Mr Babadook himself would not have been pushing it too hard. That said, it is to Kent's credit that she eschews most conventions, and dresses those which might normally threaten to be trite in narrative importance rather than simply using them as shock fodder.

The big question about any film adorned with such praise as this one is obviously, is it frightening? My answer to that is no, I did not find the film scary in the sense of being kept up at night. That is, however, only my response and says little about how much another person might react, or indeed about how much I actually enjoyed the film, which is another matter entirely. It is also not a question any one person will answer the same way; horror in cinema is a broad spectrum and whether one even classes 'The Babadook' as a horror depends on one's understanding of, and exposure to, the whole spectrum of the genre. If when you think horror, it is only the recent entourage of James Wan-style gore-fests and jump-scare fuelled ghost stories that come to mind, 'The Babadook' is liable to disappoint you, given its marketing. If, on the other hand, you see that horror can address psychological terror, that a story can ring terrifyingly true on an internal, emotional level, and you can cite 'Let The Right One In', and perhaps more pertinently in this case, 'We Need To Talk About Kevin', Stephen King's 'The Shining' and Polanski's 'Repulsion' as works that scare, then get ready for what you might consider the most refreshing piece of horror for a long time! After all, what was the last horror film you saw all about "the power of love". This is how writer/director Jennifer Kent explained the story to the young Wiseman, and she was being absolutely sincere.

Going by this evidence, I don't doubt that Kent will one day make a masterpiece; this is, after all, one of the strongest directorial debuts I have seen, and whilst 'The Babadook' is perhaps not the film we were promised by the posters, it is nevertheless a surprisingly multi-faceted, emotionally affecting, gorgeous slice of dark imagination, which sincerely addresses a most real and important issue.
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Mr. Turner (2014)
Messier than Mr Turner's worst effort
5 November 2014
A biopic of J M W Turner, starring a host of British talent, directed by our own Mike Leigh? Should be beautiful, elegant, insightful, moving, fun, adventurous.....It is none of the above and a fair bit less. Now, one could argue that a lack of interest in the subject matter will taint your view of a work such as this, but this argument simply does not hold. I saw 'The King's Speech' knowing very little about King George or his issues, and it is fair to say I am hardly a Royalist, but I walked out of that film moved and educated. 'The King's Speech' is also full of a lot of fun, an element in which 'Mr Turner' is supposed to be steeped; I hasten to argue that the 150 minute slog is, aside from a couple of moments of brevity, quite far removed from fun. This would not be such an issue if it WAS anything else, but it is not.

For a biopic, it is extremely sparse on bio; we learn very little about the man's work and we do not get inside his head or heart whatsoever. We are as a bemused onlooker, trying to fathom what it is exactly we should be caring about. Mr. Turner may have been a difficult persona, not well liked, perhaps, and indeed an audience do not have to LIKE the central character of such a story; they do, however, have to feel they know or care about them one way or another.

Leigh is famed for his working with actors on an improvisational level a lot of the time. Whilst I acknowledge that good things can come out of this technique, it must be called into question when it clearly results in something as rambling and messy as 'Mr. Turner'; the film almost literally has no real direction to speak of. There is no questioning the handsome mounting of the film; many a frame is itself quite a painting. Nor is there ANY question as to the zest with which the cast throw themselves into their performances. Lead by an Oscar courting Timothy Spall (who spent two years learning to paint for no reason that is obvious in the final product), everybody does exactly what is required of them. Any review of this film should certainly praise the turn of Dorothy Atkinson, most notable for her British television work, who rather astonishingly steals the frame every time she is in it (yes, even from Spall); this is all the more impressive when you consider she is given almost nothing to do except look forlorn and increasingly sick. Of course, with an almost complete lack of context or narrative flow, many moments which should carry dramatic or emotional weight simply come off as, at best empty, and at worst, as in at least one example, a little bizarre! Why? The answers are numerous: The screenplay seems as uninterested in what is going on as we become, the film appears to have been cut by somebody drunk on sleep who forgot how to edit, and the score doesn't belong to the film for which it was composed.

There is a scene in which Turner's audience make heartless, thoughtless comments about how the artist is going blind and has lost his touch; whilst I am not heartless, I did find myself thinking this echoed my feeling about Mr Leigh. I can foresee a few award nominations here, not least because the Academy do like a good English epic, but aside from cinematography and notable performances, they won't have been earned, and any critic saying as much probably dropped off during the screening and is now covering their own arse. In summary, a disappointing mess of a film, which probably tests even the patience of those with vested interest in the topic.
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Gone Girl (2014)
Dark, twisted, gleeful fun, which leaves you food for thought
29 October 2014
How does one discuss a movie that is essentially a minefield of spoilers? It is the case with most thrillers that we do not reveal its big twists and turns, but in the case of 'Gone Girl', talking about anything beyond the setup could ruin it! You want to make a point about something that feels so insignificant to you, only to catch yourself, realising you're about to tarnish it for the uninitiated, for whom every "little" thing is going to seem pretty huge. Still, I'll give a shot.

Nick Dunne arrives home on his fifth wedding anniversary to find his wife Amy missing, with signs of a a violent struggle the only truly concerning clue as to what may have happened. The investigation starts out normally enough, but as the news frenzy begins and media-unfriendly Nick's response is put under the microscope, he finds himself many people's number one suspect. We assume we have seen this setup before, and we think it is going to simply be a case of did he, didn't he? We might even start to make up our own minds. And then 'Gone Girl' pulls out some unexpected guns, twisting and morphing as it goes, from domestic drama through thriller to twisted satire, playing games of which Hitchcock may have been jealous (there are more than a few shades of 'Vertigo' and 'Strangers On A Train' here).

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross return for a third collaboration with director David Fincher. Their score slips by almost unnoticed to begin with; it is a gentle, calm serenade. Then, as author Gillian Flynn's tale reveals itself to be one in which nothing is as it seems, their music rots from the inside out, moving from barely noted serenity to unmissable static and electronic crunching, poisoning the scenes with further tension. I don't know that it has the same uncomfortable power as 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo', but it is nevertheless precisely what the film needs.

Fincher is now famous for his precise eye, making every frame a painting, and here there is no exception. His dedicated fans will note a lack off flash in the first 90 minutes or so, with the director allowing the story and characters to calmly take the lead; or course we recognise this is intentional. Wait for the final hour and you'll see the man who made 'Panic Room' let rip! Film students would have a great time examining the change; all aesthetics here serve the story. It is fair to say it is a little too long for its own good; certainly there is trimming that could be performed at the front end of the film, but once it gets into the right gear, it really does not loosen its grip.

Ben Affleck has taken a lot of flack in the past, and perhaps this puts him in a perfect spot to play Nick, the everyman who is long passed the point of even trying to be perfect, and now suffering a quite unforgiving public scrutiny. England's own Rosamund Pike plays his "Amazing Amy", the cool girl who secretly knows she never quite lived up to the character her parents modelled after her, forging a lucrative book series. Pike may well win a Best Actress Oscar and that is all you need to know. There are other notable turns in the film, but one that has not been praised quite enough is Carrie Coon, playing Margo, Nick's sometimes suffering sister. If anything, she doesn't have enough screen time to develop as much as you would like to see; her performance is riveting and I would have liked more of the chemistry she brought. Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris both surprise with the material they have, although in both cases, more character meat would have been welcome.

Those who have already read the book by the time they see 'Gone Girl' will be pleasantly surprised by just how loyal screenwriter Flynn is to her own novel, and many, like me, may also be happy to see that the final act, somewhat tough to buy on the page, becomes a different animal under David Fincher's careful direction. His gear shifts are so clear and concise, the viewer is in little doubt about the terrain of each act, and the final section of the movie takes what was, for me, a questionable set of circumstances and character motivations, and then turns them into something altogether more dark, chilling and bitingly satirical; in this context, it somehow just works better! Those who might raise questions about elements I cannot mention here (this is getting silly!), or the "unsatisfying nature of the finale" may have missed one of the various points the story is out to make. They might also do well to remember that David Fincher has a penchant for the atypical, non-Hollywood ending; if 'Se7en', 'Zodiac' and 'The Social Network' left you pining for endings that were more "Hollywood hero", climactic and conclusive respectively...then perhaps 'Gone Girl' isn't for you either. You are warned.

I did consider what it would have been like had I NOT read the book beforehand and came to this conclusion: You get to experience this story once fully, and after that once, it will never have the same impact. If you choose to read it first, you will admire the movie's smarts; if you choose to watch the film first, you are likely to have one of the most gleefully discombobulating cinema experiences you'll have had for a long time! Of course, I wish I could say more, but as you know, I can't. Bottom line is this: Love or hate Fincher, there is no questioning his craft or the fact this is one of his best moments. Whether you love or hate 'Gone Girl', there is no denying it is one of the most audacious, carefully crafted, if not, in your opinion, best films of the year.
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More like blueprints.....
29 September 2014
David Cronenberg, the film maker who showed us gross-out horror was not just empty-headed nonsense for idiots. The frustrated novelist whose films are so often smart and subversive. The would-be scientist and godfather of body horror who used graphic, physical shock tactics to explore his fascination with the physical self, identity and, later, societal notions. From 'Videodrome' to 'The Brood', 'Dead Ringers' to 'Crash', or later thrillers 'A History Of Violence' and 'Eastern Promises', he has always dealt with ideas in smart, unique, engaging ways, and forever retains the power to push buttons and disturb; you're hard pressed to watch a Cronenberg film and not note how uncompromising an approach the man has. Even amongst his most recent, more questionable work, there is a sincerity and ability to draw the best from his actors that is tough not to admire.

In short, David Cronenberg undoubtedly has his place as one of the most important auteur directors in cinema, and so it is with heavy heart I must say that the mighty has fallen a little, at least for now.

'Maps To The Stars', the second successive collaboration between Robert Pattinson and the director, is essentially a bitter swipe at the underbelly of Hollywood, much like David Lynch's 'Mulholland Drive', minus a lot of the surreal touch. It also feels like it began life, again like 'Mulholland Drive', as a TV soap-opera. Unlike said film, however, it lacks the necessary refinement of its ideas; with a genuine sense of having too much to say and character to develop, it collapses under its own weight and achieves neither goal. It is not without great scenes and incredible performances, notably from Juianne Moore, who looks like she's in practise for the next Darren Aronofsky nightmare, but the rest of the cast seem expendable, and the film is full of stilted dialogue and convoluted strands that end up going almost nowhere. The result is an apparently rushed, strangled mess of half-formed ideas; it is a frustrating work because one feels these is a great deal of potential along the way.

A director who is usually so thorough and exciting, Cronenberg has produced here a surprisingly tepid piece that does not stick as it should. To his credit, he retains a "one step removed" approach, presenting something dark and horrific without ever inviting you to leer at it, but nevertheless, this is a frustratingly unsatisfying movie, lacking cohesion and any real fruition. I may be in a minority in saying this, but at least 'Cosmopolis' was a fully, patiently realised piece, which FELT like it was complete, even if very few people truly "got it". 'Maps To The Stars' lacks that sense of completion.

I wait patiently for another Cronenberg masterpiece, which I'm sure will come. It's not this.
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Lucy (I) (2014)
Unexpectedly thrilling
26 August 2014
Entering the latest Luc Besson offering, I was cynical, but to my own surprise, the film won me over! Yes, there are logic gaps, a cliché use of Morgan Freeman and perhaps an over-simplification of the idea, but 'Lucy' drives home with visual invention, a notable, pumping score by Eric Serra and sharp, fast paced editing; the effect frequently being that we feel, like our typically tough female lead, as though we are on some mad drug ourselves. Drawing on some of his own best previous work, Besson puts together a film with a feeling, at times, not unlike a solid Manga adaption, ala 'The Edge Of Tomorrow'. Also, a fun little aside that is most welcome, now I think about it, is a not-so-subtle tip of the hat to Korean classic 'Oldboy', with Min-sik Choi himself playing the villain Mr Jang with relish!

It is easy to ignore the obvious liberties taken with the science, because the film is quite clearly not trying to be seen as accurate; you can also overlook the lack of character development, or indeed any real narrative meat, because once again, Besson knows exactly what he is looking to make here. Much like its own thesis on how human beings interpret the universe, 'Lucy' is a big idea scaled down. It is not as original or fresh as one might have hoped, and it does have its stumbles, but once you're over the hurdles, it proves to be a more-exciting-than-expected, well-built, high-octane thrill ride, which is most worthy of ninety minutes of your time.
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An entertaining shoulder shrug
1 June 2014
Nowadays, how loosely based upon facts a story can be to warrant the title card, "Based on a true story" is hugely debatable, and so it is with 'The Exorcism of Emily Rose' that the actual events may well have been twisted and exaggerated as the tale was passed on; certainly whilst watching it, we can't help but feel a reasonable amount of license taken for dramatic effect. Nevertheless, much like 'The Exorcist', to which it owes quite a debt in its clinical delivery, the tale, truth aside, remains pretty compelling.

Indeed, director Scott Derrickson deals well in the drama of horror, rather than just the easy-to-reach clichés of the genre. He would later go on to prove himself keen on story and mood over simple shocks with 'Sinister', but with both films, he is at his weakest when having to deliver the more obvious horror element, playing his hand far too heavily.

This movie has a good cast and keeps you gripped, for the most part. Whilst dealing in the low-key legal side of events, it is a genuinely interesting piece of work; it is a shame that the finale turns it into an almost apathetic shoulder shrug, quickly forgotten when in fact it should be keenly discussed.
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Final Prayer (2013)
Not a great horror, but worth watching for some great horror
19 April 2014
Last year a film was released named 'In Fear', which managed to make the premise of two people getting lost in a maze of country roads as night draws in surprisingly creepy and gripping, before the final act gave way to a more pedestrian nature and the film lost its footing. 'The Borderlands', a British entry into the canon of handy-cam/found footage horror, manages to work it the other way round. Not to say the first hour or so is pedestrian as such, but going by the premise, no doubt many people will think they have seen it all before and skip this film. They would be partly right, although to the film's credit, it manages to tread that old ground with a good enough script and performances to not seem tired.

Deacon, Gray and Mark are Vatican sanctioned, paranormal investigators who arrive in a small, west country town to look into a claim of miracles at a local, old church. Things take a darker turn as their investigation leads them to increasingly unrealistic scientific explanations for the claim. The characters are very real and their relationship is not weighed down by forced efforts to be unnecessarily scary. Indeed, there is an occasional moment of brevity and humour between them, which nicely offsets the apparently tedious nature of their job; one could draw a comparison with the first act of Neil Marshall's 'The Descent', coincidentally another well regarded British horror. Another intelligent point arises in the form of the characters' set of beliefs; refreshingly, it is the agnostic technical supervisor who is most inclined to believe the extraordinary explanation, whilst the believers are the ones jaded by the claims so often proved false. It must also be said that where in other, similar fare, the explanation of the use of home video cameras and the like seems forced and a little intrusive, here it makes perfect sense and you do actually forget that is what you are watching.

Then we hit the last 20 minutes! Some earlier chatter about belief proves to not just be screenplay-filling fodder, but real groundwork that actually comes back to bite hard in claustrophobic scenes. This final act's power to disturb is akin to the final moments of 'The Blair Witch Project', 'Rosemary's Baby', or perhaps more pertinently 'The Wicker Man', to which the smart screenplay has actually made humorous and perhaps not purely incidental reference. In these cases, the horrible reality of the story is made truly tangible in such a way as to cause a palpable discomfort within the gut of the audience; it creates a creeping unease that is hard to express in words. So it is the case with 'The Borderlands', although how unnerved you are is not completely clear until after the film, when the imagery of the idea being brought to its fruition cements in your mind's eye, and as with Edward Woodward's final, defiant yelling, or Mia Farrow's famous last lines, a character's dreadful cries become horribly haunting in a way that is tough to shake off simply by saying, "It's only a movie'.

'The Borderlands' is not overcooked and has much about it that will probably be admired by fans of writer/director Ben Wheatley, who is maybe most noted right now for 'Kill List'. Overall, not one we might call a great horror film, but without doubt, within the film are moments of great horror!
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In Fear (I) (2013)
A lot of potential
22 March 2014
Bringing together elements of, and to varying degrees echoing film such as 'The Blair Witch Project', 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' and the fairly recent British nasties 'Kill List' and 'Eden Lake', director Jeremy Lovering brings us a tale of two people in an early days relationship getting lost in the woods. Relatively speaking, they are stranger to one another as well as to us, and one feels that in another writer/director's hands, this fact could have become more pertinent than it actually does here, which is a shame.

They are on their way to a music festival and are trying to find a hotel they are booked in at. Seems straightforward enough, right? Of course things don't go as planned; they find themselves driving in circles with no hotel to be seen. Next thing confusion and concern set in; as dusk draws close, the weather worsens, their fuel runs low, their map proves inaccurate, and the country roads they drive all begin to look the same, we are invited to feel the very real fear most of us can relate to, and it must be said in this at least, the film proves extremely effective. Indeed, the first hour or so of 'In Fear' had me gripped and actually feeling something I don't often have the pleasure of when watching a horror/thriller on my own: Genuinely spooked. The performances are reasonable and the tension nicely handled; Lovering's ability to generate palpable horror from a simple scenario and drag it out for quite so long IS impressive.

It is a shame, then, that when the time comes for the film to play its hand a little more, the tension is released and we enter a world of silliness; the reasoning for the situation arising in the first place and its justification seem flimsy. Shattered is the hope that we were going to be dealing with loftier themes of existential fear and relationships, or even something more down to earth and rooted in an important social element, ala 'Eden Lake'; the last twenty minutes takes a direction a lot more simple and I daresay boring, given the promise of the previous acts.

This guy will make a better film than this in future, but for now, this is a reasonable shot at something compelling, even if it falters in the last act. Worth a watch for the promise it makes with its fist hour.
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Impressive, if not for all
17 March 2014
Wes Anderson is generally a film maker you either "get" or "don't get" ; not getting him does not necessarily reflect the quality of the movie. I fall into the camp who can never quite get on board with him, so it is great praise to say I thoroughly enjoyed myself with this light soufflé of a movie. There may be argument about a certain emotional distance from the central theme, or that the film is ultimately less consequential than it should be; in the background of this caper is a looming fascism; the lightness seems at odds with the potential drama of the original writings from which the film takes inspiration. There is also a certain lack of development of characters, although something about the tone allows for this; in any case, it is made up for, to some extent, by the fact that the thing is rammed full of mostly welcome cameos, clearly having a lot of fun with the little moments they have. In another work this may have proved distracting, but in fact here it seems to enhance the enjoyment of events. It is a fresh, offbeat, well designed and choreographed piece; the storybook flourishes, the wonderfully vibrant dialogue, sets designed to withing an inch of life, camera moves and cinematography make the whole thing very sweet and amusing to behold, and this is without mentioning rather splendid, comical central turn from Ralph Fiennes.

So, to use an appropriate analogy, I found it to be like admiring a really well baked and decorated wedding cake, with all the clever, beautiful trimmings, but when taking a bite, finding there's an ingredient you're not particularly keen on. It doesn't take away from how much you admire the work that went into it, but you can't say you enjoyed it as much as everyone else seems to have done. All credit to Anderson for creating what is clearly a smart and audacious work of art, and it is with this in mind I rate it as highly as I do, but would I watch it again? Perhaps once, to see what I missed, but after that, I don't think so. Many would, though, and I can't ignore that fact.
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Her (2013)
A poignant piece
17 March 2014
Spike Jonze is known for his wild way or working, but despite the story's strangeness, this may be his most obviously focused and interesting film. Yes, it slows a little too much for the second act, there is a lack of back-story and development in the characters played by Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde (one scene, and the most awkward one in the film at that, is surely a cameo?) and it certainly doesn't need to be over two hours. That's the bad.

The good? With stunning photography, a heart rending score and a lead performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twomble that is incredibly subtle and poignant (the actor seems to believe in quality over quantity of work; everything he does is solid), the film manages to overcome the flaws and deal well with an idea in a way that brings to mind the author J. G. Ballard. The architecture, the colour schemes, even Theodore's job, they are all geared for a story about modern man's cold distance, indifference and manufactured realities and emotions, only for the film to then delve into a story about the human need for closeness and love, exploring that emotion's sometimes painful complexity to the fullest, and taking an interesting look at sexual objectification at the same time.

For a story that appears to be about a man interacting with a machine, the movie's moments of surprisingly emotional weight and its conclusion about love in human relationships make it properly engaging, with a compassion and humanity equal to the likes of another of the year's hits, 'Dallas Buyers Club'. Its tone and most bombastic moments mean it won't be for the less adventurous viewer, and it may be that not all relate to the "lonely guy" element of the film, but this is certainly a more fascinating work than I would wager a lot of people imagine.
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Scorsese gets ballsy again
29 January 2014
After a flight into "general audience" land with the excellent 'Hugo', Martin Scorsese collaborates for a fifth time with the ever more dependable Leo DiCaprio, playing his second real life figure for the legendary film maker. Jordan Belfort came from nothing and built a Wall Steet empire like a true Gordon Gekko by, essentially, screwing over any sucker he could. The man did time, paid his dues, wrote a confessional, cautionary tale, and now performs sales seminars. None of this is spoiler; assuming you are at all interested in the topic, this should be unsurprising knowledge. It is also par for the course with this sort of Scorsese movie; you've seen the "rise and fall" riff from him a few times before now, right?

For the actor, everything he touches turns to gold right now; here he gives what is probably his most energetic performance, often invoking a young Jack Nicholson. Certainly an extraordinary, extended sequence involving the results of a narcotics overdose is due to be considered classic in no time! For Scorsese, the obvious touchstone here is 'Goodfellas'; the style of building momentum and "bad guy" narration is back, but again, the gangster epic remains the superior film. For both men as a team, 'The Aviator' is their obvious high point.

That said, there is much to be admired here: The excellent look of the film, the superb performances from Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey, the latter of whom only has about ten minutes screen time but leaves a huge impression; the fantastic use of music, again reminding us of Scorsese's ability to compose excellent montages, which drive us forward without much plot, and a masterful ability to turn the tone of the film on a dime, if only for a moment. This latter point results in unexpected laughs and gasps of disbelief; a sense of comedy arises from what is frequently a simultaneously rather obscene and absurd set of circumstances and behaviour, which leave you feeling quite horrified and/or disgusted.

On the downside, there is no excuse for its length and, toward the end, an upset rhythm. Up to a point we are completely on board, but as the film enters its third hour and is only then truly exploring the repercussions of Jordan's actions, along with his humiliation, we become painfully aware that with some more intelligent and brutal editing, there was probably a good forty-five minutes of the previous couple of hours that could have been easily expunged, leaving room for more of the final act and bringing it in at an easy 135 minutes. Perhaps we should turn to Leo as producer here and ask, "Why didn't you say no to a three hour cut of this?"

'The Wolf...' asks for a lot of investment in a set of characters it is pretty tough to care much for, and with ultimately little reward. The film is an impressive effort, and undoubtedly Scorsese's most ballsy film for some time, but it is also disappointing; looking at his career, we all know that this should have been a five star film! The sense that this master of cinema could have done a bit better is not easily ignored. Nevertheless, there is enough here to make it worth your while when it leaves the cinema.
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Breaking Bad (2008–2013)
Incredible television
31 December 2013
It is easier to talk about the things that are wrong with 'Breaking Bad' than those which are right, because it is such an incredibly short list. For the sake of balance, however, a summation of what makes 'Breaking Bad' worthy of the hype here follows:

A unique idea, fantastic writing which leaves very few holes (if any), perfect arc of characters and storyline, and excellent pace throughout every season. The tension of each season reaching a peak higher than the last, then dropping it back down but never quite as low as you were before, superb direction and production value, powerful performances that take you on a compelling emotional roller coaster ride and a sense of intensity that gets you truly caring about what happens to the people involved; the performances are phenomenal and they support the already well judged writing. With every bad event, every loss and pain, you the audience feel the weight of it. A great cast sell the whole thing perfectly, but standout performances throughout from Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston, Emmy-winner Aaron Paul, who really did surprise me as the show moved forward, and "the guy from every American TV show" Dean Norris, who plays the rather annoying but ultimately very good Detective Hank Schrader. The music throughout is perfectly pitched, with a lot of source material driving the drama home perfectly.

It is also a show that gets in, does the job and gets out; it doesn't hang around for superfluous, flawed seasons. It's the show you will miss, rather than wish had ended by now. It is fair to say that upon watching the first season, you may not see what people are so obsessed with; if you reach the end of season three and aren't addicted, you may not be alive. The show develops slowly, exploring the realistic repercussions of the drug world chemistry teacher Walter White and ex-student Jesse Pinkman get themselves involved in.

The bad? A couple of dud episodes throughout the show, and a lack of finality for some characters; would have been nice to have seen more time spent with certain characters toward the end. Ironically for a show that is generally a slow-burner, the finale feels perhaps a little rushed out. Walter White's development is superb, though ultimately he doesn't "bring the rain" quite as heavily as I was hoping/expecting before......well, that would be spoiling the end.

The small quibbles aside, there is no doubt that Vince Gilligan has again created a cultural phenomenon with a TV show. On a geeky side note, keep an eye out for episodes directed by Michelle McLaren, she's a fantastic talent!
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Prisoners (2013)
Grim, gripping, great performances. Not a masterpiece.
26 October 2013
Aaron Guzikowski's screenplay for 'Prisoners' was near the top of the list of best unmade for quite some time; at one point Hugh Jackman was attached to the project, but dropped out for reasons that remain unclear, though scheduling conflict may not be quite as pertinent as a lack of artistic cohesion with the original director. As serendipity would have it, the much later arrival of Denis Villeneuve as director, to his first English language feature, drew a mega cast of great talent, both in front of and behind the camera, including Jackman again. This is presumably based on the acknowledgement of his previous Award-nominated work. With Villeneuve on board, the screenplay seemed destined to become so much more than your average abduction thriller; to a great extent this fact is both the strength, and arguably the weakness of the final product.

The straightforward setup is of two quite different but friendly families whose daughters go missing after Thanksgiving dinner. When the detective assigned to the case apprehends a suspect and finds no evidence of any crime with which to charge him, he has no choice but to release him. The subsequent act of the film follows the predictable route of a father taking the law into his own hands, and raises important questions about the morality and effectiveness of torture, the dangers of all actions and judgements, right or wrong, being governed by instinct and not logic, and the most obvious: What would you do, and where would YOU draw the line? The final act reaches a little too hard for a "Gotcha!" finale, which may disappoint those who did not want to see it become a more generic thriller, but it does not undermine the movie too badly.

'Prisoners' is beautifully shot by the man responsible for some of the best looking films you can name, Roger Deakins. Much as with the late Conrad L. Hall, you can sense that every shot took forever to setup, but the result always justifies that time. With a constantly gritty, doom-laden tone, one really cannot help but keep thinking of David Fincher; with the inclusion of Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki, it is near impossible not to recall 'Zodiac'. There has been much made of Hugh Jackman's powerhouse performance as the angry Keller Dover, and there is no doubt his intensity is spot-on, but for me, Gyllenhaal actually quietly steals the show with a perfectly-pitched performance as a dog-tired, stressed detective who can feel his grip on the case gradually slipping; I don't think he has been better.

The film is paced with a deliberately painful slowness; its moments of tension and excitement are highlighted as quite so intense by virtue of their brevity. This is a story of depth, with a lot to digest and discuss on every level. The thoughtful watcher will, upon reflection, come to realise nothing in the film is irrelevant; as Detective Loki himself says, "Everything matters." The twists and turns in the final act build on the idea at the heart of the film, with the title growing increasingly relevant; this encourages deeper thought than your more average thriller. Something rather fascinating about the direction is that from quite early, a lot of the audience will already know HOW the film will end; it is HOW it gets there which might take most by surprise!

'Prisoners' isn't a movie you enjoy so much as admire; incredibly artful, it is more a film of ideas and thinking points. It may be possible to pick little holes in the procedural elements, but it remains a challenging piece that will probably benefit from repeat viewing. Due to the fact everything ties up well, it is not as hole-riddled as a casual viewer may think, although that is not to say that, as it heads into more generic "Fincher" territory, it does not become a little too convoluted for its own good; certainly there is little doubt the film is at its strongest as the tense, slow examination of a controversial topic. Despite the contrivances, the fact that it is, at times, more heavy-handed than it need be, and that Terrence Howard, Viola Davis and Melissa Leo are given frustratingly little to do, 'Prisoners' nevertheless remains a piece of work which demands attention and respect for the film making.

It would certainly be unjust to say this isn't one of the films of the year, and I definitely sense an Oscar for the cinematography here.
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Don't see this if you like your knuckles!
22 October 2013
With 'Captain Phillips', Paul Greengrass does what he clearly does best, bringing to life the events surrounding the hijacking of the Mearsk Alabama in 2009. As with all true stories, the question often asked is how close to reality are the events on screen. When it comes to this film, in terms of specifics, this is going to be a hard question to answer; there is a law suit ongoing and there seem to be some questions surrounding the supposed heroism, or lack thereof, of certain people involved.

It is good, then, that Greengrass has not made a film that feels like it's going for the truth, but rather a balls-to-the-wall thriller which happens to be inspired by true events. Setting up from the outset with an approach that is immediately Greengrass, we see the titular Captian and the Somali pirates preparing for their respective jobs, and the word "jobs" is key here, on both sides. The approach begins a motif, which returns at various points through the following two hours, of a mirroring of circumstances; as the film moves on, we see more and more that both Captain Phillips and Muse, the pirate leader, are victims of a wider issue, neither man much in control of anything. Much has been made of this humanising of the "bad guys", and whilst it is true, it is also fair to say that Greengrass never pushes the point to the extent that we feel forced to sympathise specifically with them. Rather, and more importantly, we are encouraged to consider, along with Phillips, how and why these emaciated men are driven to commit such crime, and how such a sad state of affairs is allowed.

Perhaps it may have been beneficial for the film to have explored the globalisation issues a little more, and it features a soundtrack which, whilst effective, does come across, at times, like a lazy rip-off of Hans Zimmer. That said, if it wasn't for the trademark voice of a director with whom we are now quite familiar thanks to the 'Bourne' sequels, we could be easily forgiven for thinking this is Ron "Apollo 13" Howard at his absolute must-see best. The performances from the pirates (first time actors) seem unabashed by Hanks' presence, and in fact the reality that they never met before filming only creates a more palpable sense of fear and confusion. Indeed, Barkhad Abdi does not seem to be acting, it is more like he has just wandered into the film; he plays Phillips' equal and opposite with an apparently unshaken conviction. As for Tom Hanks? This is his most impressive performance since 'Road to Perdition', a film which itself let us see a side of Mr Hanks we hadn't seen before. From the moment he steps aboard the ship and begins running drills, we are sold; Hanks disappears and the stern Captain Phillips emerges. From here, the performance becomes increasingly compelling; this man can do so much with so little and it seems effortless, which so often results in us forgetting it is a performance. Here, the gradual breakdown of a proud and pragmatic man is perfectly pitched throughout, and the final scene sees the actor do something quite incredible, finding a gut-wrenching truth and hitting notes I don't think I've ever seen him hit so perfectly before. Yes, Hanks reminds us, at a time when perhaps we needed reminding, of why he is one of the greatest actors alive. Let's be honest, we do tend to forget.

Greengrass makes the wise choices to never get melodramatic and to never leave the action, which never really lets up; events just keep escalating. From an early scene of pirates boarding the vessel, to a final act that makes the last half hour of 'Zero Dark Thirty' look fairly amateur, you frequently remind yourself that this must have been a logistical nightmare to shoot; the fact it has come out looking so great and edited so well is testament to a very controlled film maker. On nearly every level, 'Captain Phillips' is most certainly one of the films of the year. It is shot with energy, it is perfectly paced,with a knuckle-chewing level of intensity which rarely wanes. It is hard to recall the last time I was this completely engaged and "with a character"; I WAS that guy in the bathtub at the end of 'The Truman Show'! As well as the full throttle thrills, it offers a tragic human drama that leaves you some food for thought.

It may prove questionable as a documentary of fact, but as a thriller it is one of the best we will see for some time.
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Filth (I) (2013)
Surprising - the best in bad taste
12 October 2013
We have had a few fairly unremarkable adaptations of Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh's books, supporting the notion that with the one exception of Danny Boyle's phenomenal 'Trainspotting', his material remains pretty much impossible to put on the screen. Indeed, 'Trainspotting' itself was not a direct adaption as such, but rather an extrapolation of bits and pieces of it to make a cohesive narrative. In the Welsh lore, 'Filth' is put up there as one of the most difficult, and so it is with great surprise that Jon Baird's take on the book is not only a good piece of work, but also perhaps one of the most accomplished films of 2013!

Our protagonist, as is so often the case with Welsh, is not a person we would choose to meet. Detective Sargent Bruce Robertson is mean-spirited, racist, sexist, aggressive, vindictive, with a psychiatric disorder and a bitter past that won't let him rest, which he seems most happy to appease with a regular cocktail of drink, cocaine and sexual debauchery behind his colleagues' and family's back. Manipulative and out for himself, Bruce has a plan to appear to be solving the case of a murdered local resident, whilst playing all his colleagues off one another with a view to clearing an easy path for his own promotion to Chief Detective.

There are plenty of treats strewn through 'Filth', little cameos, smart, snappy dialogue, great jokes and wonderful performances from the likes of the ever versatile Jim Broadbent and Eddie Marsan. A subtle, schizophrenic soundtrack underscores so well the dark, cesspit nature of the journey the character is on, it raises the question, again, as to whether Clint Mansell will ever do wrong? The whole thing is shot with a seemingly intentional recklessness; an abandonment of sharp editing and an embrace of a sloppy, rough-around-the edges, almost unfocused approach make a film that feels as disgusting as the vomit spewing from character's mouths, both figuratively and, at times, literally!

The star here, however, is James MacEvoy. There has been much said about his performance being an Oscar courting one; whilst there is no guarantee of that, I am confident in saying this is a career-best from him, and this cannot be overstated. Welsh has said he thinks MacEvoy is "better than De Niro in Taxi Driver", and whilst I do not know if I agree with that, we can certainly understand the comparison. MacEvoy is not a man one might immediately cast in this role, and so it makes it all the more impressive when we watch a performance that simultaneously keeps us at a distance and pulls us close; the actor manages to be completely vile, and yet convince us with an equal conviction that he is a man with a buried and forgotten heart that used to pump warmth; I have not seen this level of complexity so well delivered since Peter Mullan in 'Tyrannosaur'. Scabrous, nasty, cold and angry, yet obviously vulnerable and lost, this is a perfectly balanced, well-rounded performance, and MacEvoy is perhaps most impressive when he is being everything at once! In one such scene, he says, "I used to be good at this job," which could well sum up Robertson's rather sad arc. Whatever your final take on him, we get a complete human being, and not one we ever feel the desire to condemn, despite all his awfulness.

In the face of common opinion that it simply wouldn't work, and after years of development, 'Filth' turns out to be a near masterpiece, whose recognition as such is only made less likely by the inevitable comparison with 'Trainspotting'. It is a ballsy adaption of a hugely admired novel, as unpredictable as its central character and charged with the vitriolic energy of the author's writing. A well balanced juggling act of tones; in lesser hands this would have been a mess! It is not always a pleasant watch, but like the central character, it finds its way to a strange, engaging and even rather emotional resolution. Whilst there is likely to be a good forty percent of casual viewers who are left completely cold, the remaining will see a successful, proudly Scottish film that is by turns dark, shocking, comical and moving, which also goes out on an incredibly catchy and surprisingly fitting 70's hit!

'Filth' is the film we would hail as the Irvive Welsh-penned grenade of British cinema, if only Danny Boyle had not got there first.
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The Imposter (2012)
An enthralling documentary
9 October 2013
When we watch a documentary, we usually view the subject through glass, under a microscope, certainly at a distance; we often already know the outcome of the events, and are watching out of interest in the topic rather than a desire for entertainment, strictly speaking. Even the most accomplished documentaries, in which we are most interested, are regularly little more than a set of talking heads and reconstruction; very rare is the exception to this format.

'The Imposter' is one such exception. Taking the story of a young boy who, in 1994 went missing in Texas, and then turned up three years later in Spain, looking and sounding completely different, Bart Layton dissects it with a careful precision, evenly and fairly showing each side of the story, as told from all points of view. The family, the law, and even the man who posed as the titular imposter all have their say. Lacing their interviews together with dramatic reconstruction, the director presents us with an utterly compelling drama, a drama which, if pitched to a studio as a fictional screenplay, would be admired for its audacity, but shot down for the gaping holes in the plot! Seriously difficult to believe, the story goes from strange, to unbelievable, to almost ridiculous, and with every step it is only more gripping. Part of the reason for this is that unless already told otherwise, we could easily believe what we are watching is not a documentary presented as a film, but a film presented as a documentary. Another smart move is that the film makers ensure that we make the discoveries and follow the twists in the tale as they did. There is no foreshadowing, forecasting, or foregone conclusions; the entire thing is as much a mystery for the audience to unravel as they go, as it was to the people involved.

Too many reviews elsewhere spoil too much; all I will say is this is absolutely one of the best films of 2012, not to mention one of the most honestly compelling and haunting documentaries I have ever seen, second only, perhaps, to 'Dreams of a Life', which took a similar approach.

A strange, creepy tale, very well presented. One to watch, and one to talk about with anyone else who sees it!
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The Call (II) (2013)
Most disappointing film of 2013?
7 October 2013
In the 90s we were asked to suspend disbelief to the point where we would allow a bus to speed at over 50mph, through rush hour traffic, for the sake of what turned out to be a fantastically exciting, not to mention underrated thrill-ride in 'Speed'. John McClaine should have died so many times through the 'Die Hard' series it became a bit of a joke, but we allow it for the sake of some exciting, quality cinema.

'The Call', at points, asks for a similar suspension, a willing overlook of a few rather ludicrous moments to allow the story of an abducted teenager, played by a suddenly grown-up Abigail Breslin, on an emergency call to Halle Berry's extremely convincing 911 operator, to play out at the highest level of gripping, breathless tension possible. The film does nothing extravagant, but it owes a lot to those forgotten 90s thrillers like 'Sleeping With The Enemy' and 'Pacific Heights', where the excitement comes solely form the drama of the situation the characters find themselves in. Indeed, after a genuinely scary and memorable opening, it plays the whole situation out very well, and for a good 80 minutes, we are right there with a couple of pleasantly strong female characters, fighting every step of the way. Then it all goes wrong.

Leading into the ending, we sense where we are going and it doesn't feel good, but we give director Brad Anderson the benefit of the doubt (after all, he made 'The Machinist!), even going with the unlikely drive of how and why they are in the final scenario in the first place. Then, in the last sequence, our fears are realised as 'The Call' turns into a film it never was, and never had to be; characters inexplicably change and the whole thing turns into a ridiculously implausible female revenge tale, which owes more to the likes of 'I Spit on Your Grave' than any of those great thrillers of the 90s.

All that is good about this film is a result of a solid director, taking pretty standard material and making it as thrilling as it can be. All that is wrong with it is down to dreadful writing by Richard D'ovidio, who wrote 'Exit Wounds' and 'Thirteen Ghosts'; you might say he is living up to his reputation nicely. It is frustrating that Anderson didn't do something about an ending that so obviously doesn't work, whether it be logically or legally; we could dare hope this is the an alternative ending for the DVD extras, cut in to the final print by mistake, perhaps. Most of the audience will be screaming in their heads, "Don't do this ending,", but just like his wonderfully creepy antagonist, Anderson's response would likely be, "It's already done!" Sadly.

Yes, this is the real ending, this is YOUR ending; it is like he simply gave up.

We are used to being a little let down by a film that has been too hyped for its own good, this is not the film's fault. What is truly disappointing is a film that undermines itself! By that logic, 'The Call' may well be the most disappointing film of the year. A couple of plot oversights and the stonking criticism of the last ten minutes aside, it is fair to say this is a deftly executed, tense thriller, which rarely lets up. If you're able to overlook the major flaws, this is a gripping ride.

Of course, it is the very fact that this should have so easily achieved a four star rating that makes how it falls apart quite so disappointing.
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A little miss, mostly hit
23 September 2013
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 giants, we would have had a perfect ensemble.

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.
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The Paperboy (2012)
It'll certainly linger...
13 September 2013
In one of its most audacious scenes, 'The Paperboy' features a sweaty, creepy, greasy, despicable John Cusack and a cheap, peroxide-blonde Nicole Kidman reaching simultaneous orgasm whilst sat across from each other in a prison....with an audience looking on. Although the word getting around that this is "that one where Nicole Kidman pisses on Zac Efron" was perhaps an early indication, it is nevertheless fair to say that 'The Paperboy', with its rather innocuous title and its poster headed by popular, bankable stars, is probably not the film you expect.

It really isn't! Co-written and directed by Lee Daniels, who drew a lot of attention with his harrowing sophomore film 'Precious', this is another often tough-to-take story of an investigative journalist, Ward, returning to his Florida hometown to look into the case of a potentially innocent death row inmate. With his younger, hormone-fuelled brother Jack as his driver, and the somewhat flimsy aid of a worryingly naive local woman who has been writing to, and has fallen for the inmate, Ward attempts to work out whether this man needs exoneration.

And so we enter Lee's world, and he is nothing if not consistent in his desire to create cinema that scars you. Set in late 60s Florida, 'The Paperboy' is imbued with the racial and sexual politics of its period, and its story is told with a wilfully unhinged and grungy eye.

In the time since its release, we have become used to the idea that McConaughey is taking on more challenging work, and certainly in this film his apparent contractual obligation to have his top off is fulfilled in an alarming sequence you will not find in any rom-com! Zac Efron is solid as Jack, the 20-year-old who is love-struck by Nicole Kidman's well-meaning hussy. In a relatively small role, John Cusack is the revelation who almost steals the show; we forget that this usually handsome man can REALLY act.

This film is all over the place; it is a mess, and is headed up by a man who seems either unable, or unwilling, to let it settle into any one groove. An amalgamation of dark comedy, disturbing psycho-play, investigative art house mystery, legal drama and even demented romance, it is sewn together with a defiance of settled pacing and shot through with shock factor. But plaudits must go to Lee for the bravery; having something to say and saying it with a film that, despite all the flaws, stuns and compels you to watch it through its slow first, strange second and 'Deliverence' style final act.

All-in-all this is a disaster, determined to keep you at a distance, and yet it is also a film that genuinely surprises you, and which you will not easily forget.

A very strange, confrontational film, and perhaps a brave one, but unfortunately 'The Paperboy' is never equal to the sum of its parts.
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2 Guns (2013)
Nuts and bolts, but really strong nuts and bolts
31 August 2013
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!
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