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Saturday, 1 December 2012

End of Watch

William Friedkin heaped praise on this film calling it 'maybe the best cop movie ever made', and I can understand why. As far as cop movies go, End of Watch is a fantastically entertaining 2 hours with a sharp script, extremely visceral action and two outstanding performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as two patrol cops who get embroiled in the violent struggle with a Mexican drug cartel in L.A. It's filmed to give the maximum impression of realism, using POV and documentary style camera angles which double up as a narrative device as Gyllenhaal's Brian Taylor records their daily watch, and also works to show the cockiness and bravado of two cops who initially don't treat their work that seriously. But as the film progresses they both realise the danger of their profession and the possibility of either man dying in the field as they uncover the increasingly disturbing and macabre activities the Mexican gangs are into - after saving three children in a house fire neither man feels a hero, just more mortal than before. What elevates End of Watch above other cop movies is the excellent character development of Taylor and Zavala and an incredibly naturalistic partnership between Gyllenhaal and Pena. Whether they're bantering about Mexican versus White culture (some of the funniest exchanges I've heard at the cinema all year), discussing Taylor's love life, or covering each other in a gunfight, their rapport is engaging and instantly believable. Even if the film appears to wander at points, Gyllenhaal and Pena both turn out powerful performances which would be Oscar worthy in the right kind of film. It does appear to run out of steam towards the end, where I thought it would be slightly less predictable - I thought they would expand on the subplot where Taylor and Zavala are warned by shady government ops not to interfere with the cartel investigations - but nevertheless the film works on the strength of the dynamic between the two men.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012


As both character and franchise, James Bond's cinematic legacy is one of the most famous and quite potentially infinite, at this point in time. The problem with the series before Casino Royale and Daniel Craig's gritty interpretation of Bond, was the non-sequitur approach to the character, as multiple actors took on the role but with little reference to the films that preceded. In other words, there was a lack of character development from film to film. But with Skyfall, importantly the character, as much as the franchise, is as strong and assured as Bond's first iteration onscreen - it began with the vital reboot of Casino Royale, breathing life into an exhausted icon, and now over the latest three films it's been a demonstration to future Bond directors on how to (re)build a character, and make him compelling again. By really persevering with a strong narrative arc through the current chapter of the series, it ensures the core of what makes the character great will be preserved for a long time yet.

What Skyfall does so well is to combine the new, more reflective direction the series has taken with the sense of fantastical adventure which mainly characterised the Roger Moore years of Bond. Former Bonds and tropes are riffed on with Bond referencing Moore's famous crocodile stunt in Live and Let Die, and Ben Whishaw's Q douses Bond's mock enthusiasm for exploding pens by offering him a radio instead. There's a great sense of abandon that was lacking in the somber Quantum of Solace, and of the three films Craig clearly seems to be at ease with the more mischievous side of the character.

Simultaneously, the film shows an intelligent self-reflexivenesss about the existence of Bond in an era of techno-terrorism, delving into the politics and relevance of the secret service when the terrorists are constantly one step ahead - a post modern approach to Bond, if you will. Where the Bond of old would take his mission briefing, share a witty exchange with Moneypenny and fly off to kill Dr Evil, Craig's Bond is a barely stable, ageing rogue, resentful of the executives above and aware of his role as a government trigger. It's in the questioning of the Bond formula that distinguishes Craig's Bond films from previous ones, as Judi Dench's M makes a decision that almost kills Bond and is forced to retire, replaced by Ralph Fiennes' Mallory. For the first time I can remember in any Bond film, M faces a tribunal to explain the loss of government records of secret agents around the world, based familiarly on the mishaps of current goverments losing precious national records. Whereas this might have been a little dry and time consuming, the machinations behind the scenes at MI6 are genuinely compelling, mirroring the sense of archaism in MI6 with Bond, which the film knowingly acknowledges as a character with the sensibilities of times past.

Producing his finest performance as Bond, Craig gives 007 an unfamiliar dimension of melancholia. For the first time in the series James Bond visits the place of his birth in Scotland, adding a shift of tone to the film which distinguishes Skyfall from its predecessors. Craig plays it with brilliant control, conveying the look of a man who is emotionally exhausted, but with an edge of resentment towards M, and the organisation who took an orphan and created a government agent. As a two hander between Craig and Dench, the final act is highly moving, their reluctant mother-son relationship paid off with a peaceful farewell.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Javier Bardem's Silva is a marvellously conceived, darkly funny antagonist, and easily enters the pantheon of great Bond villains. Extremely self-assured, and a sideways, leering smile constantly animating his face, Bardem is a scene stealing presence, his character nonetheless motivated by a seething desire for revenge against M. As it transpires, Silva was a former agent for MI6 abandoned by M in a pragmatic trade off which spared others' lives in sacrifice of his - which in a genial stroke of writing is the exact decision M makes at the start of the film, resulting in the near death of Bond. It's a brilliant idea to make Silva the flip-side of Bond, who is every bit the equal of 007 but oppositely working to subvert the organisation that betrayed him. His entrance is fantastic, as he slowly approaches Bond center screen in a wide long shot into a close up, and gets uncomfortably intimate in a scene of homo-eroticism you would never imagine in a Bond film 30 years ago, toying with the hyper-masculine Bond. It's a tense, but deeply humorous scene and from then on Bardem is superb to watch.

Behind Skyfall's excellence is Sam Mendes; the difference when the series employs a brilliant director - not to mention the masterful cinematographer Roger Deakins - is strongly apparent. The film is superbly shot, the action crisply and excitingly edited, and as ever with Mendes he knows exactly how to string together and balance action with subtle drama. For the majority of Bond films I cannot honestly name each individual director, but Mendes style is unmistakeable and seems to work perfectly for Skyfall's story - the shot composition in the final showdown at Bond's farmhouse in Scotland is breathtaking. As with American Beauty, Revolutionary Road and Road to Perdition, the subtlety in Mendes' direction is perfect for the emotional conclusion of the film.

Skyfall is the high point of the Craig years, and continues the revivification of Bond which began with Casino Royale. Exhilarating action with compelling human drama and a sly referencing of the Bond canon, along with superb central performances and a brilliant Bond villain ensure it shoots right up there as one of 007's finest mission outings.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Mist

With each rewatch the weak special effects are not any less jarring, but this is still a bold, relentlessly bleak horror where the real terrors are located more with the nature of humanity than the creatures brought by the mist enveloping the town. Early on the film's B-movie feel - a blood covered survivor runs in proclaiming 'something out there, in the mist!' like an RKO movie tagline - gives the impression of a monster movie with a siege setting like Hitchcock's The Birds, but this is belied by its pessimistic view of society, as the survivors gradually split into two groups, one of them led by Thomas Jane's David, the other by the frighteningly zealous, Christian doomsayer Mrs Carmody, played by a brilliant Marcia Gay Haden. I don't think a character has ever made me say 'fuck yeah' for someone's death with more conviction than when Toby Jones shoots her in the head, but the really disturbing thing is I can imagine there are some people in this world like her. It's a film which really doesn't pull its punches, not just in regard to its much discussed, depressing ending, but in its depiction of religious mob justice, as one of the soldiers is murdered by Carmody's crowd of converts. Thomas Jane is strong in the lead as the father-with-son who leads the band of sane survivors, and Tony Jones is his ever reliable self as the store clerk who knows how to handle a gun, although the boy who plays the son is a fucking whiny sissy boy who seems to be crying every other scene. Although the effects do let it down at times and the creatures are for the most part forgettable, Darabont nonetheless builds tension expertly at the right moments and keeps the atmosphere of human paranoia strong.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

28 Weeks Later

Its predecessor 28 Days Later reinvigorated the zombie horror subgenre, re-animating (give me one pun) the deceased as rabid, frenzied creatures instead of the lumbering incarnations of George Romero's zombie series. Other films such as REC latched on to this re-imagining of the zombie in modern horror to great effect, with Danny Boyle's 2002 original used as the blueprint for the walking dead. 28 Weeks Later picks up where the infected zone, Great Britain, has finally isolated and contained the contagion and begun to reconstruct after the nationwide mayhem brought on by the virus. London is now a militarised zone, governed by American forces. However, the events of the prologue, in which Robert Carlysle's character leaves his wife for the infected in the farmhouse they were hiding in, come back to haunt him as his wife reappears, found by her children in an abandoned house. She hasn't transformed, but is a carrier, valuable to Rose Bryne's army doctor for potentially developing a vaccine. Don visits her in quarantine but is infected by her, rapidly turning into an infected and killing her brutally. Moments later quarantine is broken and the infection spreads once again, and the military mobilises, implementing code red - killing without discrimination, infected or human.

As with 28 Days Later the direction and editing is frantic, ably continued by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo and there are some impressive uses of sweeping long shots, for example in the prologue as Carlysle's Don escapes from the horde of infected, and a fantastically gory set piece in which masses of infected are wiped out by a helicopter blade. The London setting lends a greater sense of scale to the expansion of the contamination and when Code Red is invoked an extra dimension is added for the band of survivors as they have to avoid both the infected and the military. The survivors this time comprise the ever reliable Jeremy Renner (adding to his roster of military tough guys) as a deserting sniper, Rose Bryne's army medic, and Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton as the brother and sister who have had both parents taken by the Rage virus. So the plot focuses on the survival of the two siblings and Byrne's Scarlet as their protector, but compared to the previous film it is much more straightforward as a result, with character development secondary to the tension of the escape. The subplot of the infected Don chasing his children through London is also an overstretched plot point - does it suggest that he retained some memory of his family despite the transformation? It doesn't make complete sense. Overall however, 28 Weeks Later is an effective thriller and  a worthy sequel which leaves its conclusion suitably open for another instalment, with the possibility that the children carry the key to a vaccine; but also an even more apocalyptic - global - contagion to destroy.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Haloween Season Cinema!

With Haloween coming up I'm going to be reviewing any horror film I see in the build up to the traditional day of horror and the supermatural, along with the films I consider to to be classics of the genre. I'm also very excited to see the re-released version of The Shining when it comes out, so expect an appraisal of Kubrick's masterpiece, which I'm sure will still terrify audiences today. So (adopts Vincent Price voice) enter  my vault of horror, as we slash through the grue and the gore, ghosts and nightmares to celebrate the fears of man !

Monday, 24 September 2012

Killing Them Softly

I thought this was an excellent, superbly crafted thriller with a strong ensemble of performances and a really fascinating attempt to square what is essentially a gangster movie with the economic realities of recession era America. If you think the film is a Brad Pitt vehicle you'd be wrong. He doesn't appear until after roughly 20-25 minutes, and even then it's not all about his character. But this is exactly the point - it's about the everyday travails of the criminal working class and the necessity to carry out hits for money in order to survive. It's an intelligent update of the source material and provides for an interesting social commentary, but also some unexpectedly funny incidents - the opening robbery by two incompetent bit part gangsters demonstrates the lengths to which these criminals are willing to go to make money. In a way it's like an inverted Goodfellas (cf. casting of Ray Liotta) in which  the gangsters are scraping for pennies in a recession, not pulling scores in a boom.

When Brad Pitt is on a screen he's an engaging presence. An absolute professional in the way he treats his murder as work, he's a dispassionate killer trying to navigate through the underworld of blood money and gangster bureaucracy represented by Richard Jenkins go-between. Throughout their meetings there's a current of dark humour behind their conversations as Pitt's Cogan ridicules Jenkins about the gory as well as financial details of carrying out a beating on Liotta's Marky, who is suspected to be behind the robbery, after having set up the robbery of his own business before. That Cogan is more concerned about his potential earnings than the hit itself means we read his actions apart from the moral dimensions of good or bad - he's a pure pragmatist.

It's an interesting variation on the gangster genre, which when paralleled within the recent historical framework of the economic collapse half a decade ago gives the film a pointed set of politics. The opening and closing scenes of the film are book-ended by George Bush's speech to the nation announcing the collapse of Wall Street and the victory speech of Barack Obama, and throughout televisions blare out the doomed state of the economy. A lot of criticism has been levelled at the film's politics as being awkwardly superimposed but on the other hand I would argue that it works by reason that outside of the references that the series of President's speeches give us there are few identifying features to determine where in America the gangsters are operating. The film does suffer from some tonal inconsistency with an admittedly funny conversation between a stoned Squirrel and Frankie perhaps overly experimental but the target of the film is very clear. Pitt's final speech hammers the point home with a scathing revision of Thomas Jefferson and his final line is an absolute corker, cynically debunking the myth of America not as a united country, but an individualistic business machine where all is reduced to a dollar value.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Bourne Legacy

5 years since Ultimatum seems like a reasonable enough amount of time to start the studio machine up again and squeeze more life out of the Bourne franchise but Legacy is unfortunately for the most part an inert attempt to expand the Bourne universe. Although it has a great cast with Renner as a believable successor (contemporary?) of Damon's Bourne, a good dynamic between Renner and Weisz and Ed Norton inherently watchable, the script becomes confused too early on and fizzles out. Everything seems a bit rote after it was so excitingly done in the Bourne trilogy, and although the final chase in Manila is very good, it doesn't quite match the superbly orchestrated sequences in Ultimatum. The first act suffers badly from a case of crosscutting mania as the elaborate machinations within the CIA are intercut with Aaron Cross on a training mission in the mountains - whereas in the trilogy the political warfare within American secret intelligence is actually compelling to watch here it is dry and unimaginative, Joan Allen's absence being a particularly conspicuous one. There are some interesting echoes in there about Cross' dependency on chems and his body's degeneration in a similar vein to Bourne's coercion into the Treadstone program, but it isn't as intriguing as Bourne's amnesiac quest to discover his real identity. So a passable thriller, but an unnecessary addition to the Bourne series.

Monday, 11 June 2012


I had genuine faith (please dont mention the irony) that Ridley Scott's return to the genre that defined his early career would yield something special, if not a classic, at least a thought provoking film that could stand on its own as one we might appreciate in years to come like Alien or Blade Runner. Lofty expectations, but that's just the problem - Prometheus cannot shake the lustre of what has gone before with its predecessors,  Alien and Aliens. Either way, measured on its own or with reference to the Alien canon, it falls down very early on and never manages to recover.

For starters the very opening of the films destroys the mystique that the original Alien sustained masterfully. The mysterious Space Jockey encountered in the original film which posed so many questions and theories is immediately revealed in the first few frames as a porcelain skinned alien, essentially humanoid in appearance. With all of the possibilities and the iconic work of Giger as a template, it is disappointing to find out straight away that beneath that ornamental, elephantine mask of the Space Jockey, is an anaemic, oversized human. Furthermore, the Promethean moment where the Space Jockey consumes the dark liquid and kick starts the evolution of mankind I felt sucked a strong element of discovery out of the plot. Immediately the who is taken away and we're left with just the why. The why is fundamentally more interesting because of the notions of God, human agency etc. but at the same time I didn't want to know so early on who the creators, or 'engineers', are. What made Alien so brilliant is that you never know who or what the xenomorph is until much later in the film. The reveal turns out to quick and unimpressive after all that has gone before.

As others have already said, Prometheus also suffers from a severe lack of narrative direction, tonal consistency and intelligent character development. I understood perfectly that the film was meant to be an interrogation on the origins of mankind and the nature and existence of God, but this gets lost amidst a chain of inexplicable plot diversions and incidences that left me completely incredulous by the final quarter of the film. Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw, a believer in God and divine creation is drawn to the answers posed by meeting the makers of humanity, but the significance and magnitude of this theme is diluted through being interspersed with action and gory set pieces, as well as a remarkably unintelligent script. Only in the last twenty minutes or so does it seem that the scriptwriters remember to make an attempt at following through on the grand questions of creation and/or teleology, and ultimately there is no payout. What cheapens it even further is that with Shaw's departure with David to meet the maker (or the maker's maker) to understand why mankind was targeted for destruction the idea seems to have been so sow the seeds for a sequel, whilst in the meantime expecting the audience to be contented with a distinct lack of closure. There are very occasionally some great lines, mainly spoken by Michael Fassbender's David about the nature of humanity and the relation between creator and created, but these are overwhelmed by the constant shifts in focus and the tendency to revisit the tropes of the original Alien universe, only this time a lot less subtly. The shifty company plant/android sub-narrative returns, but we've seen it all before with Ash and Bishop, and Charlize Theron's Vickers seems to be almost completely redundant; Ripley, er Shaw gets pregnant with an alien; and the scriptwriters make the fatal attempt of trying to cross the gritty character development of Alien with the machismo posturing of the Aliens marines. The result is lines like 'I'm a geologist! I love rocks!', and a complete apathy to the gruesome fate accorded to the entire crew, save for the only interesting characters, Shaw and David. Logan Marshall-Green's Holloway is a thoroughly dislikeable, arrogant prick who I couldn't take seriously as a scientist, Sean Harris is not much better as Fifield, and Rafe Spall's Milburn does possibly the dumbest thing you can do in a Sci-Fi/Horror film when he invites a pre-formed facehugger to get intimate with him the only way a facehugger knows how. I was also bugged by how nonchalant most of the crew apart from Shaw seem to be about their amazing discovery - if I were a scientist having discovered an alien life form with the same strand of DNA I'd be astounded - but you just don't get that feeling from the characters.

Out of the rest Idris Elba is watchable as the straight shooting A to B captain, but no one is free from shoddy writing as his character suddenly becomes privy to the increasingly forced philosophical meanderings which later motivate Shaw to take the Engineers' ship to their planet of origin. The writing, by and large, makes absolutely no sense - after Shaw escapes after being sedated for quarantine, why does no one seem to pursue her? She undergoes the whole surgical procedure without anyone breaking in and even when she leaves to discover in a ridiculous plot twist that Weyland is aboard the Prometheus, none of them seem shocked about what has happened to Shaw, who is covered in blood. Also, why doesn't she just flee after realising that she was going to be sedated in cryo by the company so the alien she was impregnated with would be transported back to Earth? Moments of intrigue such as when they bring the Engineer out of cryo stasis are dashed when it turns out the Engineer is just as malevolent as the xenomorph and would rather kill than communicate about their designs on humanity. In reiteration, it's that inability to stay in one genre that weighs the film down - the monster movie horror moments undermine the more cerebral intentions and as a result the explosions of viscera dominate, to the detriment of taking the questions of grand design seriously.

For all of this however, the one shining, saving grace is Michael Fassbender as David. As with the previous androids he garners our distrust in him with memories of Ash from the first Alien, yet we sympathise with the glimpses of humanity he displays; his questioning of his makers, his appearance of innocence, and his imitations of humanity. The dependent relationship he and Shaw have upon one another by the film's end is genuinely touching, and thinking about it the film would have benefited from more scenes between Fassbender and Rapace. On his own, Fassbender is the most compelling presence on screen, communicating curiosity, duplicity, and suggesting the potential for synthetic consciousness Scott probed originally in Blade Runner. It really is a marvellous, fascinating performance from one of the finest actors of his generation.

Prometheus is a case of a brave, interesting concept collapsing under the weight of a botched execution. It strives to provoke and ask compelling questions about humanity, but this is a lost amidst aimless narrative direction and a confused script. It has some memorable moments, exemplary visuals, and Fassbender's performance is particularly worth revisiting, but unfortunately it cannot hold the elements of intelligent science fiction and horror together to create a coherent whole.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The Prometheus Trailer

For the past few months the teasers and trailers for Ridley Scott's Prometheus have been drip fed to a salivating audience until the release of the official trailer this week, which looks mind blowing. Backed by a clever viral campaign featuring the character Peter Weyland from the Alien universe (played by Guy Pearce) giving a TED talk, the build up has been outstanding for Prometheus and the trailer has only bumped my anticipation up further. The trailer gives us plenty of fevered talking points but without allowing us to connect too much together, and there are tantalising glimpses of how Prometheus ties into Alien. For example the carving of what looks unmistakeably like the xenomorph into a temple wall, the eerily familiar shots of eggs which may or may not contain the forms of facehuggers, and the shot of what we assume to be the Space Jockey, fossilised into the throne which the crew of the Nostromo would go on to encounter in Alien. According to the most recent issue of Empire magazine, it has been tentatively suggested that the closing minutes of the film will thread Prometheus into the events of the 1979 sci-fi horror classic, and if that is so there is still the possibility that Giger's infamous monster will make an appearance. Questions abound until June 8 when the film is released, and I for one am charged with excitement about seeing how Mr Scott unravels the plot and attempts to capture the imagination of audiences the same way he did in 1979.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Twilight Zone: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

A favourite among many TZ aficionados, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is memorable for starring a young William Shatner, and being one of the most thrilling episodes of all 5 series. Bob is a recently discharged sanitorium patient returning to the original scene of his mental breakdown aboard a plane, which happened over a year ago. His sanity supposedly cured, it is immediately jeopardised when he thinks he has seen something on the wing of the plane, but whenever he accosts someone to look, it mysteriously disappears. Set amidst a storm, the episode is a masterclass in suspense from the Twilight Zone's frequent contributor, Richard Matheson (author of I Am Legend), and the dichotomy between madness and sanity is played brilliantly by Shatner, whose character is so convinced he has seen something, but fears the possibility of being accused of insanity and having a mental breakdown again, thus fulfilling a recurring nightmare.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Maine to host International Mustache Film Festival

As a prelude to the international Mustache Film Festival in Maine, USA, and a proud wearer of a mustache myself I thought I'd include a portfolio of my favourite movie 'taches in all their glorious forms. The festival will feature short films featuring a main character with a mustache, or a mustache oriented storyline. As Michael Caine in the Cider House Rules might say, 'Good luck you bristly kings of New England!'

I am sure I have ommitted many great uppper lip adornments, contributions are welcome!

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Waltz with Bashir

A documentary based on the massacres of Sabra and Shatila during the Lebanese war, Waltz with Bashir is a powerful, unique example of cinema acting as a medium for memory and self-reflection. The documentary follows its director, Ari Folman, in his search to recover the memories which had vanished about his time serving in the Israeli military, during which he had witnessed but could not recall the massacres. He interviews various soldiers who served with him and are the only witnesses who can confirm that he was present at that horrific event, and in narrative sequence, his memory eventually begins to unravel through the probing of his comrades'. It is highly intimate film-making made even more complicated by its situation around a war atrocity and told from an Israeli perspective, but it is nonetheless a fascinating immersion in Folman's personal quest to recover a defining moment of his past. Many of the memories of his interviewees are plagued with recurring dreams and nightmares about their experiences of the war, and articulates the irremovable mark war leaves upon the minds of its participants, and the nature of memory as a shifting filter which cannot fully process events quite as they are happening, or happened. In a wider sense the film engages with the effect of trauma upon the memory and the dis-associative effect between the witness and the event, and this is where the decision to use animation instead of real life footage is striking, apt, and provocative. It acts as a metaphor and a visual filter for Folman's memory, which is a form of representation itself, in the sense that it is an imagination of his history rather than a clear re-enactment of events, precisely because he could not remember them. Memory also becomes a politicised concept around events as inhumane and tragic as the Lebanese massacres, and it has not gone unnoticed that the film skirts around the Israelis' acknowledgement of responsibility over the genocide - the denial of memory in some ways might be interpreted as a defence mechanism, or a circumvention of guilt. Refusing to remember is sometimes an act with a deeply political agenda.

The animation also suggests a kind of hybrid documentary style, a new way of merging the real with the cinematic - a clash which is emphasised powerfully at the end when the film finally segues into real footage of the aftermath of the massacres. It is a startling change from the jaundiced but beautiful dreamscapes of the animation and it hits like a sledgehammer, leaving the visual residue of murdered bodies firmly in your mind. Rarely has a documentary film challenged its own medium to produce such a startling effect, and it is Folman's innovative decision which makes the film one of the greatest documentary films to have ever been made. While there are political wranglings over Waltz with Bashir, the essential examination of the atrocities of war and the physical and mental destruction produced by it is undeniably powerful.