Sunday, November 28, 2010

Review - Monsters

You might expect alien creatures to be the focal point of a film entitled Monsters, but one of the surprises offered by Gareth Edwards in his debut feature is that the monsters themselves are kept out of sight for much of the movie. However, their presence can be felt at every step of this inventive drama. As the film's two lead characters wander through Mexico, we see evidence of alien infestation that has lasted six years. Signs warning the public of quarantine zones, the debris of damaged tanks and fighter planes, even a kids' cartoon on a local television network that has incorporated the monsters into its story. Everything is depicted in a naturalistic and matter-of-fact manner and it is instantly convincing as a portrait of a world that has learned to adapt and accommodate this new element in their lives.

Monsters will inevitably draw comparisons with last year's District 9; both films are directorial debuts, both offer allegorical tales of mankind learning to live alongside alien creatures, and both successfully incorporate slick visual effects that belie their relatively small budgets. This is particularly true in Monsters' case, which was made (for a total that has been reported as anywhere between $15,000 and $500,000) with little more than a camera, a couple of actors and plenty of ideas, with director Edwards filling in the background details on his computer later. Whether it's just a result of his financial limitations or more indicative of his filmmaking personality, Edward's minimalist approach works wonders for Monsters, and makes it feel like a fresh discovery. In many ways it reminded me of early Spielberg and specifically Jaws and Close Encounters, which held back on the revelation of their creatures and instead focused on atmosphere and characters. If Steven Spielberg had made War of the Worlds in 1975 rather than 2005, it might have looked something like this.

Edwards relies heavily on his two actors to carry the film and Monsters often feels more like a road movie with romantic comedy undertones than a sci-fi picture. Cynical photojournalist Andrew (Scoot McNairy) and rich tourist Samantha (Whitney Able) are thrown together when Sam's father – the publisher of the magazine Andrew works for – instructs the photographer to ensure his daughter gets across the border to the US safely. A series of unfortunate events leave them with no other route north than through 'The Zone,' the quarantined area inhabited by the most active creatures, and so they venture into danger, occasionally hearing ominous sounds in the dark forest around them, or catching a glimpse of an alien tentacle in the river that they are nervously sailing down.

The improvised dialogue between McNairy and Able doesn't provide the characters with much depth, but they are a likable pair whose growing attraction and emotional attachment feels real as it develops throughout the movie. They do enough to hold our attention as Edwards' films proceeds at a surprisingly measured pace. He allows his characters to stop occasionally and take in their surroundings, from interacting with a family who offer them food and shelter to gazing in awe and fear at the ghost towns they pass through, or the enormous wall built across the US/Mexico border. The director is good at generating tension too, staging a nighttime attack on the guerrillas escorting Andrew and Sam and a later sequence in which an alien's exploratory tentacle lurks in uncomfortable proximity to the cowering pair.

These are the moments in which Monsters is at its most effective, when Edwards is displaying his firm grasp of filmmaking technique and utilising his visual effects sparingly but brilliantly. He is less surefooted when he tries to graft a clunky immigration moral onto this simple narrative, or too clumsily rams home his "who are the real monsters?" tone. He also struggles to bring his film to a truly satisfying climax, delivering an ending that feels weirdly abrupt, but it's easy to forgive a multitude of sins when faced with the kind of beauty Edwards unexpectedly throws up when he finally gives us our first unobstructed view of the creatures interacting with one another. It's the kind of moment that would be gorgeous and memorable on any budget, and it's the point that confirmed for me the fact that this guy is a real filmmaker, with an eye for lyrical, striking images and the skill to pull them off. Monsters is a remarkable debut, and it will be fascinating to see where Gareth Edwards goes next.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Review - Machete

The perennial problem with films based upon jokey conceits is that the joke will often wear thin when it is stretched to feature length. Machete is 105 minutes long, but perhaps it was a more natural fit for the two and a half minute trailer that originally introduced the character. That trailer was conceived by Robert Rodriguez as part of the Grindhouse package he and Quentin Tarantino offered to filmgoers in 2007, before discovering that the majority of filmgoers weren't particularly interested in their deliberately trashy homages. Nevertheless, it appears enough people subsequently pestered Rodriguez about the possibility of a feature length expansion on his trailer to make Machete a cinematic reality. Be careful what you wish for.

Anyone who has seen Machete in its trailer form will already know the story. This film sticks closely to the narrative already established there, even recycling a couple of shots and lines of dialogue, but it possesses a few more big names in the cast alongside Danny Trejo, Jeff Fahey and Cheech Marin. Those actors are important to Machete, because in his first starring role, Danny Trejo doesn't bring much to the party aside from some monosyllabic grunting and a face that looks like it has taken a beating from life. Granted, Rodriguez doesn't ask for anything beyond that from his leading man, but the lack of wit, passion or energy in Trejo's star turn has a deadening effect on the picture. He stalks through the movie wearing a permanent scowl, slicing off limbs and heads with his trusty weapon of choice, but watching scene after scene of such action does grow awfully repetitive.

Occasionally, Machete displays a sense of outrageous invention that enlivens the whole movie. In one scene, arguably the film's highlight, a cornered Machete jumps through a window and swings into the floor below by hanging onto a dying man's intestine. That sequence gets a big laugh, but Rodriguez too often lets the pace flag and lets the energy levels drop in between such gleefully over-the-top stunts, attempting to inject some social satire into the film with his depiction of America's reliance on its immigrant underclass, but that element of the film doesn't really take us anywhere. Rodriguez has a co-director credited on this production, with editor Ethan Maniquis stepping up, but it's hard to tell what effect, if any, that has had on the film. The direction, as is often the case with Rodriguez, is slack and uneven, making it difficult to discern exactly how much of the film's slapdash appearance is part of the bad movie tribute and how much is a result of the filmmaker's limitations.

Some mild relief is provided by that eclectic supporting cast. While a couple of them (like an alarmingly bloated Steven Seagal and a typically expressionless Jessica Alba) struggle to impose themselves on the film, the majority have fun with their roles, and their enjoyment is infectious. Robert De Niro, Jeff Fahey and Don Johnson are all on ripe form, while I particularly enjoyed Cheech Marin's turn as a shotgun-toting priest ("God has mercy. I don't"). However, these are just bits and pieces scattered throughout the film; entertaining scraps in a picture that cannot sustain the generous running time it has set for itself. Machete is lazy, self-indulgent and surprisingly dull, but I'll say this much for the film – it would probably make a great trailer.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Review - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Luftslottet som sprängdes)

During the course of this Swedish film trilogy, as the quality level has sharply declined, the one thing we've been able to rely on has been Noomi Rapace, whose star-making performance as Lisbeth Salander has often been the only element holding these shoddy productions together. Rapace is an actress who draws the viewers' attention at all times, bringing a quiet watchfulness and remoteness to her damaged, distrustful character, and making Lisbeth tough, resourceful and vulnerable as the role demands. Whenever Stieg Larsson's plot gets too silly – and it does get very silly – Rapace keeps the movie focused, providing it with a central protagonist who keeps us hooked on a deeper level than the flabby narrative can reach. All of which makes it utterly dismaying that the third and final film adapted from Larsson's Millenium Trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, gives its most prized asset so little to do. In fact, she spends most of this extremely long and utterly boring film sitting down.

Those who have followed the story up to this point will already know why Lisbeth is in such an inactive state. At the end of The Girl Who Played With Fire, she was shot, beaten and buried alive by her father (Georgi Staykov) and hulking half-brother (Micke Spreitz, still a ludicrous figure), before rising from beneath the earth like an avenging angel to attack her dad with a axe. The film closed with Lisbeth being carted away from the scene in an ambulance, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest picks up from that point, as she slowly recovers in hospital and finds out that she is facing a murder charge. Her only ally remains Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), the dogged investigative journalist determined to prove Lisbeth's innocence and to unmask the criminal conspiracy that wants to shut them both up.

This setup turns Lisbeth into a frustratingly passive figure, and the fact that she and Mikael are once more kept apart for the whole movie negates the relationship that was a key strength behind the series' first and best instalment, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Without that tension between the likable, lovelorn writer and the mysterious loner, the subsequent two films have felt unbalanced and lethargic, which suggests that Niels Arden Oplev, director of the first picture, was wise to hand over the reins when he did. His successor Daniel Alfredson has completely failed to juice up the inferior material at his disposal with any kind of cinematic verve. Under his direction, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest have been drab and sluggish ordeals, and whenever Alfredson attempts to enliven matters with an action scene, he botches it through some desperately unimaginative staging (I groaned inwardly when a woman pushing a pram walked out in front of a speeding police car).

Essentially, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is nonsense, and it's often quite distasteful nonsense, with the majority of male characters being potential rapists and paedophiles (Lisbeth is accused of harbouring "grotesque fantasies" at one point, which seems an apt description of the film). I found it impossible to maintain any interest in the film as it crawled towards its meaningless conclusion – even the comparatively enjoyable final ten minutes failed to suck me back in – and instead my thoughts turned towards the forthcoming American screen versions of Larsson's books. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (which is surprisingly being directed by David Fincher) is already in production, and depending on that film's success, the two sequels will surely follow. Will they provide a more consistently engrossing production, or will they be hobbled by the structural deficiencies and clumsy plot twists that are presumably ingrained in Larsson's novels? I have to say, I'm cautiously optimistic. The American films won't have the indelible presence of Noomi Rapace, but aside from that, there's room for improvement in every single department.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Review - Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat )

Within the first five minutes of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives you'll find my favourite cinematic image of 2010. The film opens at night, and we watch as a tethered ox breaks free and wanders into the woodland. He is eventually caught by his owner and led back from whence he came, but there is something else lurking in this jungle, and the sharp cut that introduces it is startling. He is a shadowy, ape-like figure, standing upright and staring directly at us. His eyes, like small red lasers, are the only distinguishing features on this mysterious silhouette. This is our first glimpse of the monkey ghost, and it is an arresting start to this amazing film, but it is by no means the last unusual happening that we'll experience as we venture into the world according to Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

What's remarkable – and delightful – about the presence of mysterious creatures in this film is the matter-of-fact way that Apichatpong, and his characters, deal with them. Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is a farmer living in a remote area of Thailand who is slowly dying of kidney failure. In his final days, he is being cared for by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) and Jaai (Samud Kugasang), a Laotian immigrant. One evening, as they sit together at the dinner table, a spirit slowly materialises in the empty chair next to Tong. This is Huay (Natthakam Aphaiwonk), Boonmee's former wife, who died many years before. A few moments later, they are joined by a red-eyed monkey ghost, who wanders in from the night and takes a seat, before revealing himself to be Boonmee's long-lost son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong). This is the strangest of family reunions, but that's exactly how Boonmee and the others welcome these mysterious apparitions – as family – registering less shock than delight at once again seeing those they had lost. "Why did you let your hair grow so long?" is the first question Boonsong is asked.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul doesn't draw a line between any of the inhabitants of his jungle, whether they are humans, animals or spirits, and he suggests that it's the most natural thing in the world for one to flow into another. "I only know I was born here," Boonmee says, "I don't know if I was a human or an animal," and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives is a film driven by the ideas of Karma, reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. After the bipartite structure of his earlier works, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Pas Lives appears at first to be a more linear work, but the director is always ready to digress at a whim down some strange avenue, and one such tangent takes us into the story of a princess, distraught at her fading beauty, who has an encounter with a talking catfish. What is the relationship between this story and the main narrative? Is this an episode from one of Boonmee's former lives? Is he the catfish? That may be the case or it may not, but Apichatpong refuses to make anything concrete, preferring to leave his film entirely open for us to interpret as we wish.

I hope that doesn't make Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives sound challenging or impenetrable, because I honestly believe nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, it is true that this director makes films like nobody else, but all it takes to appreciate his work is a slight adjustment to the distinctive rhythm and openness of his style, and a willingness to follow the path he sets for us even if we know we may not understand everything we see. Apichatpong is not an elitist, deliberately withholding the meaning of his films from the viewer, he is actually an extremely generous filmmaker, simply making a film that feels right to him and then asking the public to take what they want from it. I've seen it twice now and on both occasions I have been moved in different ways by the picture. Some viewers will be touched by the meditation on death and the cycle of life; some will see resonant allusions to Thai history and culture; some will simply marvel at the lyrical weirdness of it all. All responses are equally valid.

The one constant in every viewing will surely be astonishment as Apichatpong's stunning technique, the careful way he composes his shots (when he shifts to handheld camerawork late in the film, the effect is startling), the hypnotic rhythm of his editing and the stunningly involving and atmospheric sound design. Even if you don't understand what you're looking at in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the film is so mesmerising on a technical level it's impossible to look away. This director has always had an impressive command of his craft, but after two viewings, this strikes me as his most accomplished work, full of extraordinary examples of Apichatpong's rich imagination at work.

Many of those amazing moments are saved for the final section of the film, which sees the characters venturing out into the jungle, so Boonmee can rest in the pace where he will finally leave this life. He is led there by Huay – the dead guiding the living from one life to the next – but the sadness of these scenes is tempered by the knowledge that he will return, in some form or other. Similarly, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a film that takes many forms and one that endlessly shifts as we try to pin down its meaning, but there's also a simplicity and an essential truth to the way the film deals with encroaching death and asks us to find beauty and wonder in the everyday. Each viewing yields new treasures and for that reason it is one of the year's great films, but even with the Palme d'Or behind it, will viewers be willing to surrender themselves to the film and allow it to work its magic? All I can say is – take a chance. Enter the wonderful world of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and you may find you don't want to leave.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Review - Carlos

Carlos might have been made for French television, but this is no ordinary TV movie. For a start, it has been made by a real filmmaker, with Olivier Assayas cementing his reputation as one of the most exciting and mercurial directors currently working. He invests Carlos with an irresistible, propulsive sense of momentum that rarely flags across the film's five-and-a-half hour running time. This film is a good deal longer than both Steven Soderbergh's Che and last year's double-bill Mesrine, but Assayas' decades-spanning biopic somehow manages to feel shorter than both of them. It switches countries and languages with a remarkable fleetness of foot, and introduces characters at a dizzying rate as it hurtles through its subject's eventful life. Don't be deterred by Carlos' epic length, for this is one of the most audacious and exhilarating cinematic events of the year.

It also contains a central performance as good as any other you'll see this year. Édgar Ramírez plays Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known by his nom de guerre Carlos, and he is utterly convincing at every step of his character's journey, possessing a swagger and physicality that reminded me of Brando and De Niro in their pomp. When we first meet Sánchez, in the early 1970's, he is a man driven by a clear ideology – "Behind every bullet we fire, there will be an idea" he announces early on – and that conviction drives him to commit acts of terrorism in the name of the PFLP. In the film's final section, he is a bloated shadow of that young firebrand; a man living in a changing world that no longer has any use for him. Carlos' narrative unfolds in a traditional manner, employing a three-act structure (the French TV presentation was in three parts) that depicts his rise and fall in a familiar fashion. But Carlos feels so much more alive than most screen biopics, with Ramírez's performance and Assayas' bravura direction energising the film.

In the film's opening third, Carlos the character rarely stays still (at one point, we see how he quickly he loses his shape and sharpness when he is forced to lie low for a period of inactivity) and Assayas' restless, dynamic camerawork matches him stride for stride. The film moves fluidly from Carlos' political motivations to his womanising and acts of violence, and lends each encounter the same sense of authenticity and the same gripping tension. At times, admittedly, the ceaseless rush of Assayas' filmmaking can leave us struggling to catch up, particularly when supporting characters – introduced with onscreen captions announcing their name and affiliation – appear and then disappear so abruptly. The director is less interested in explaining background details and offering exposition than he is in simply showing us Carlos the man and letting us experience his actions, but this approach can result in some areas of the film feeling murky and vague.

On the other hand, his style also fills Carlos with so many sublime moments, and it seems ridiculous to grumble about small deficiencies when confronted with filmmaking of this stature. In particular, Part 2 of Carlos deals almost exclusively with his most famous act, the taking of hostages at the OPEC conference in Vienna in 1975. Running to an almost feature length in itself, this is an indescribably brilliant piece of sustained filmmaking from Assayas, whose confident pacing and masterful control of tone develops and then maintains an electrifying sense of tension, even as Carlos and his cohorts sit motionless on an airport runway, their plan slowly crumbling around them. This sequence in itself would be enough to ensure Carlos' status as one of the films of the year, and as I left the screening room at this point for the interval, I wondered if Part 3 could live up to what had gone before.

I'm afraid to say it doesn't. That's not to say the third part of Carlos is bad – it's far from that – but after the explosive, sexy and thrilling action of the first two parts, it feels a little more laborious and it's the first time that Assayas seems to suffer from the constricting confines of the biopic as a cinematic storytelling form. It is fascinating to watch Carlos being cut off from his former allies as communist regimes fall one by one, and to see how lost this international terrorist is without the states that once shielded him, but it also feels like we're marking time as we wait for justice to finally catch up with him. The third act drag is a perennial problem in biopics that deal with the whole arc of a person's life, but it's particularly disappointing here after that life has been rendered so thrillingly for the preceding four-and-a-bit hours.

Again, however, I need to set those complaints against the frequent displays of the director's brilliance in Carlos, and the filmmaking comes out on top every time. I haven't even mentioned the roster of outstanding supporting performances, including Nora von Waldstätten as his wife and Julia Hummer as his volatile accomplice. I could have also gone into more detail describing sensational individual sequences, such as the Japanese Red Army's bank assault, Carlos' escape from the police after he is betrayed, or the botched attempts to blow up Israeli planes at Orly airport; there's simply so much here to digest. Carlos is available in two forms, both as a five-and-a-half hour version and as a cut-down 165-minute film. I haven't seen the latter, but I really can't imagine how you could chop almost three hours' worth of incident from this film without losing something special, because very little of it feels like filler. I'm not entirely sure if Carlos possesses the depth to match its length, but it's a ceaselessly invigorating cinematic spectacle, and an awesome directorial achievement.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Review - Let Me In

When Let the Right One In was first released on DVD in the US, there was much anger over the subtitles on the disc, which appeared to be a simplified and dumbed-down version of those that appeared on the theatrical release. For many fans of that Swedish horror, the title of Matt Reeves' American remake, Let Me In, might suggest a similar policy at work, ironing out complexities and making the film more palatable for a mainstream audience who can't be bothered reading subtitles. Such accusations do carry some weight, it must be said, because there really is no reason for Let Me In to exist. For the most part, the film slavishly adheres to the template of the original – sometimes looking like a shot-for-shot remake – but I came away from Let Me In liking the film a lot more than I expected to, and in some regards actually admiring it more than its acclaimed predecessor. Let Me In might well be a pointless exercise, but as pointless exercises go, it's not a bad effort.

I should say at this point that I never quite saw Let the Right One In as the masterpiece that many hailed it as, but it's an undeniably beautiful and bold film, filled with numerous remarkable sequences and driven by two excellent performances from its young leads. Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel has much to recommend it, but I found it oddly unsatisfying, respecting it more as a collection of standout scenes and daring choices rather than embracing it as a fully accomplished and cohesive horror.

Let Me In shares many of the original's virtues and flaws, while offering up a few additional virtues and flaws of its own. The story remains essentially the same, focusing on two lonely children, each troubled in their own way. Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is friendless and frequently at the mercy of the school bullies, while the breakup of his parents' marriage ensures his home life offers little stability or comfort. The only person he connects with Abby (Chloe Moretz), the girl who moves in next door and only comes out at night. Abby is a vampire, living with her guardian (Richard Jenkins, fine if underused), who has to go out at night and find blood to satisfy her insatiable hunger. The smartest decision Reeves makes in his adaptation is to focus more intently on the emotional connection between Owen and Abbey, and he is rewarded by excellent performances from his young actors, with the mysterious Moretz and vulnerable McPhee bringing a sense of intimacy and tentative affection to their quiet scenes together. In fact, Let Me In is just as effective – perhaps even more so – when regarded as a story of teenage romance and a coming-of-age tale than as a horror.

Reeves makes a few judicious choices elsewhere in his handling of Let Me In. The ambiguity over Abby's gender – depicted in a confusing, muddled fashion by Alfredson – is dropped here, as is the rather silly cat sequence from the original, while the addition of a car crash sequence filmed entirely from the back seat works superbly. Generally, however, Let Me In is at its best in the quieter moments, wherein Reeves can establish a mood of encroaching dread, and the unconvincing, CGI-enhanced method of Abby's attacks unfortunately tends to punctuate the sinister atmosphere. Despite such missteps (and the director's overreliance on 80's pop references), Let Me In strikes me as a more fully formed film than Let the Right One In, even if it lacks the original film's ambition and imagination. The sense of warmth that Reeves manages to inject into the central relationship gives the film a greater dramatic pull, and it simply feels more consistent overall, although it is similarly let down by the unsatisfying and implausible climax. Let Me In is a commendable piece of work then, and instead of the lazy, rushed travesty that fans must have feared, Reeves has unexpectedly produced a film that still possesses some bite.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Review - Another Year

The first character we meet in Another Year is Janet, and she is unhappy. When asked by her doctor to rate her happiness on a scale of one to ten, she doesn't hesitate before snapping back "One," with her misery evident in her uncomfortable, closed-off body language, and the tight grimace on her face. Janet seems utterly resistant to the idea that anything short of "a different life" could lift her out of her depression. "What's the point?" she asks despondently, "Nothing ever changes." Despite being played by Imelda Staunton, the star of Mike Leigh's 2004 film Vera Drake, Janet only appears in two scenes in Another Year, the second of which introduces us to Gerri (Ruth Sheen), the counsellor she has been referred to. After that, she leaves the picture never to return, and we wonder what has become of her. Did she keep up her sessions with Gerri? Did she manage to overcome her woes and turn her life around? Or did she slide further into misery and decide to end it all? Leigh isn't saying, but he leaves all of the options on the table.

Even though Janet plays a tiny role in Another Year, she seems to embody one of the film's central subjects, that of people trapped by their own unhappiness, unable or unwilling to change their lives, and finding it impossible to see the light at the end of the tunnel. This description might make Another Year sound like it ranks alongside Vera Drake as one of Leigh's bleakest works, and quite a comedown from his upbeat Happy-Go-Lucky, but it actually settles somewhere in between those two extremes, as it explores states of happiness and sadness and the gulf in between.

The lighter side of Leigh's new film focuses on Gerri's marriage to Tom (Jim Broadbent). This couple might have been together a long time, but they haven't lost the sense of affection and playfulness that has sustained their marriage, and they seem entirely contented with their lot. They also share a great relationship with their son Joe (Oliver Maltman), who seems similarly satisfied with life, and in no great hurry to change his single status despite his mother's gentle prompting. One of the great joys of Another Year lies in watching the way Leigh's characters interact, with their easy familiarity and shared sense of humour creating a convincing, warmly enticing portrait of a real family. Leigh uses this family as the anchor for his film and gradually introduces supporting characters who offer a severe contrast to their sunny disposition.

The most fascinating of these is Mary (Lesley Manville), a workmate of Gerri's and someone who has been a regular visitor to Tom and Gerri's home for many years. Mary is around 50, although she makes an effort to appear younger, and she is unhappily single, frequently drowning her despair in drink as she contemplates a lonely future. When Manville first appeared in the film, twitching and chattering nervously, I thought she was overplaying her part, but it gradually dawned on me that Mary is trying so hard to keep it together, and to maintain some sense of hopefulness, which is exactly what makes her such a heartbreaking character. Manville beautifully expresses the depths of her character's neediness and desperation, and she's devastating in those moments when she drops her forced chirpiness to reveal the sadness within. In a couple of awkward scenes she flirts with the friendly but clearly uninterested Joe when she joins the family for a summer barbecue, but we know she's destined to leave the party alone once more.

Other characters come and go in Another Year. There's Ken (Peter Wight), an old friend of Tom's whose situation mirrors Mary's, but who is even more pitiful as he eats and drinks too much and bemoans his lonely existence. Then there's Ronnie (David Bradley), Tom's older brother who is left bereft by the passing of his wife, and his son Carl (Martin Savage), with whom he shares a fractious relationship. The way Leigh introduces and then dismisses these supporting players gives Another Year a sense of life going on outside the frame, and the impression that we are only dipping into these characters' lives. Leigh frames his film as four snapshots of a year, marking the progression of his narrative by the passing of the seasons. The seasonal chapters are subtly delineated by Leigh and his regular DP Dick Pope through variations in tone, with the most dramatic of these switches occurring in the Winter section, shot in a grey, shadowy hue, and haunted by a sense of loss.

Generally, however, 'dramatic' is not the correct word to use when describing Another Year. Leigh tends shy away from major revelations and explosive confrontations, and instead the film works as an accumulation of details, with the director's camera always ready to capture the gestures, the meaningful glances and the awkward silences that define their relationships. This is the kind of film that only Mike Leigh could have made, with his thorough, character-driven preparation bearing fruit in an ensemble that appears to be fully invested in their roles. The director observes his creations with compassion, and Another Year is one of the most emotionally piercing and resonant films he has yet produced, climaxing with a masterstroke of a final shot that focuses on Mary as she contemplates her future. Again, Leigh gives us no clue as to what lies ahead for this troubled, hugely sympathetic figure, but with the despairing Janet still fresh in our minds, we can only hope and pray for better times ahead.