Thursday, April 28, 2011

DVD Review - What War May Bring (Ces amours-là)

The Film

What War May Bring is Claude Lelouch's 43rd film as a director. I know this because Lelouch himself announces it in a curious pre-film statement, and from there the film continues to take one unusual step after another. It opens on a modern-day orchestra recording the film's musical score, and then it shifts abruptly into a silent-movie sequence, complete with intertitles. The scene shows us a man and woman falling in love over an early movie camera, but before we know where we are, Lelouch takes us into the trenches of the First World War. Another silent sequence follows, depicting a bawdy comic scene of a near-naked nun chasing a priest around a confessional. Just what the hell is this film?

It almost feels as if Lelouch, perhaps believing that this will be his last major feature, is determined to throw every idea he's ever had about war, life, death, love and (above all) cinema into the mix. The result is a rather overstuffed pudding, but the sheer unpredictability of the thing keeps it thoroughly engaging for most of its running time. You're never quite sure whether sex or death is going to be next on the menu, as Lelouch skips capriciously between the many affairs conducted by Ilva (the fantastic Audrey Dana) and the global conflict that takes place largely in the background. In his opening statement, Lelouch calls his film What Love May Bring (a closer translation of the original title Ces amours-là), which is a much better fit for the movie, as romance rather than war is clearly the veteran director's chief concern.

We first meet Ilva as she stands in the dock, accused of murder, and her lawyer begins detailing the events that led her to this point, which then unfold in flashback. Ilva is described as a woman whose only crime is that she "loves too fast," and during the course of the movie we see her in bed with a Nazi officer (who, in a remarkable scene, plays La Marseillaise on a mouth organ), the heir to the Singer fortune, two American soldiers (at the same time!) and the aforementioned lawyer. Lelouch is in his element with this narrative, indulging in moments of gorgeous, sweeping romanticism...which admittedly causes an awkward fit with the sudden detours to Auschwitz. Even if it remains wilfully unbalanced, however, What War May Bring keeps driving forward with the same spirit and energy; in fact, the film often comes across as the work of a young filmmaker full of vim and big ideas, not a director in the twilight of his career.

That feeling changes in the film's more lugubrious latter section, when What War May Bring grows increasingly reflective before it unexpectedly develops into a meditation on Lelouch's own cinematic past. In a lovely sequence, the director allows the whole cast to break into song and then inserts himself into his own story, introducing a breathless montage of his oeuvre. If this is indeed Claude Lelouch's last film, he's determined to go out swinging for the fences. What War May Bring is occasionally silly, sometimes tasteless and often self-indulgent; but it's also a fascinating and singular piece of filmmaking, and you have to admire the chutzpah of the man who has made it.

The Extras

A 15-minute making-of feature mixes interviews with on-set footage, and it's great to see Lelouch at work, directing the actors and orchestrating scenes with such enthusiasm. The actors are fulsome in their praise for the director, marvelling at his energy and referring to him with an affection and respect that feels genuine.

Watch the trailer for What War May Bring here

Buy What War May Bring here

Monday, April 25, 2011

Review - Thor

The least interesting thing about Thor is how it will ultimately fit into Marvel's character-spanning Avengers universe. Every now and then in Kenneth Branagh's film, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) will pop up to remind us all that this story exists as part of a bigger picture (a bigger picture I still have misgivings about), but if you can ignore such complications, Thor is a grand entertainment. In fact, a lack of complications could be seen as the key to the movie's success. The story is built upon characters who have straightforward goals and motivations, and Branagh makes it work by playing these elements straight, making us believe in a tale that could easily have succumbed to Flash Gordon/Masters of the Universe-style silliness. Basically, if you can make a film in which a rainbow bridge plays a key role and not look ridiculous, then you must be doing something right.

That rainbow bridge links Thor's homeland of Asgard to the various worlds surrounding it, including Earth. When we first arrive in Asgard (after a dodgy prologue detailing a previous conflict with the Ice Giants), it is a day of celebration, with Odin (Anthony Hopkins) preparing to announce his eldest son Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as his successor. The ceremony is interrupted by those pesky Ice Giants, and after Thor reveals his tempestuousness by defying his father's instructions and declaring war on Asgard's foes, he is stripped of his power and banished to Earth, which leaves his devious younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) free to make his own grab for power back on Asgard.

There you have it. The plot, with all of its mythical and oedipal undertones, has been set in motion, and after the overstuffed calamity that was Iron Man 2, such a clean narrative comes as a blessed relief. Thor is unlike anything Branagh has directed before, but in an early action sequence on the planet of the Ice Giants he shows he's got what it takes, directing in a lively, punchy fashion. There is less action in Thor than you might expect, however, and when the main protagonist is sent to earth it takes on the shape of a 'fish out of water' comedy. Hemsworth, who is suitably brash as the all-powerful God of Thunder, also shows a light touch in the film's comedic aspects. In fact, the performances are Thor's strongest suit, and the aspect of the film in which Branagh's influence is most recognisable. He directs commanding performances from the three main actors in the film – Hemsworth, Hiddleston and Hopkins – imbuing the dynamic between them with a real sense of gravitas. Some of the supporting characters in the film are admittedly poorly defined; Thor's teammates never come to life, Rene Russo (hello again!) is entirely wasted, and Natalie Portman's Jane isn't strong enough to give the intended love story some any weight. Branagh pins everything on that central trio, though, and they succeed in grounding the fantasy in a kind of relatable reality.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Thor is that it never forgets to be fun, and in an age when "darker" appears to be the watchword for comic book movies, the film's bright design and the gusto with which Branagh directs makes it a pleasing anomaly. Although it runs for more than two hours, I was never bored with Thor, finding it a hugely satisfying and accomplished blockbuster...but then the credits rolled and The Avengers loomed into view again. Look, I know plenty of people are excited about the crossover potential for this series, but I fear superhero overkill will retroactively diminish Thor's achievement. Branagh's picture works brilliantly as a standalone comic book film, but of course it isn't a standalone film, and I do worry that we'll be sick of Thor and his fellow Marvel buddies by the time The Avengers and the inevitable sequels start filling the summer schedules.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Review - Sweetgrass

You want sheep? You've got 'em in Sweetgrass. This movie has more sheep than you can shake a shepherd's crook at, the screen often being filled with a mass of bleating wool as thousands of the animals are driven across a mountain range. The film was shot in Montana some time in 2003 and it follows a group of herders as they round up their enormous flock and prepare for the arduous journey over the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains. It is a tradition that has endured for over 100 years, but in Sweetgrass we are observing the ritual as it takes place for the last time, as the ranch in Sweetgrass County where the cowboys' journey began was shut down in 2004. This is a way of life coming to an end.

Not that you'd know all that from watching the film. Sweetgrass is deliberately free from context, giving us no backstory and no narration or interviews to guide us. If you search for a director credit at the end of the film you won't find one. The filmmaking team of Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor prefer the term 'recordist,' which does seem more appropriate for the work they have produced here. Sweetgrass is a pure piece of documentary filmmaking; it observes its subject and doesn't offer any editorialising or narrative beyond the natural progression of trek undertaken by the cowboys and the sheep. The pair shot thousands of hours worth of footage that they then edited down into this 100-minute feature. Imagine the patience it must have taken for them to collect and then work through this footage to find the finished film; you'll need a little of that patience yourself when watching Sweetgrass.

Long stretches of this movie consist of nothing more than sheep baaah-ing very loudly, but you get used to that, and after a while Sweetgrass starts to focus on the men more than the animals surrounding them. The party is led by grizzled old-timer John Ahorn and the younger Pat Connelly, and Sweetgrass shows them going about their business in all of its monotonous detail; trading jokes and stories, coordinating their enormous flock, and protecting it from nocturnal bear attacks. It's a tough business, and it takes its toll on Connelly, who is caught unleashing an astonishing (and highly amusing) foulmouthed rant against the uncooperative sheep. Later, we hear him phoning his mother from the top of a mountain and sharing his woes with her; "My knee's all screwed up! I need a day off" he complains, "I'd rather enjoy these mountains than hate 'em."

There is much to enjoy in those mountains for the viewer. Sweetgrass is full of striking images of the beautiful and spectacular ranges and fields that these men and their sheep travel through. These sights would have been all the more impressive if Sweetgrass had been shot on film or a higher quality video than Barbash and Castaing-Taylor used, but it still captures the grandeur of the landscape. For many, that won't be enough, and Sweetgrass will appear unbearably slow and free of action for some viewers. In fact, considering the fact that I fell asleep during the similarly styled Le Quattro Volte, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this. Any chance of catching forty winks was denied by the constant soundtrack of bleating (no silence of the lambs here), and I found the style and rhythm of the movie oddly entrancing. I was also truck by the elegiac tone of the film towards the end, as these men finish their task for the final time and drive back to the ranch while wondering what the future holds for them in a rapidly changing world.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Review - Arthur

What is Hollywood going to do with Russell Brand? Right now, it appears roles are being tailored to suit his particular (and dubious) gifts, resulting in a series of minor variations on his own persona, but for how long can a screen career survive on this strategy when the man in question is such a limited performer? In terms of live action films, Brand was at his most tolerable in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where his more measured supporting role meshed well with the other actors, but it was always inevitable that a film like Arthur would be written for Brand, and that it would ultimately expose his shortcomings. The film is a remake of the much loved by some (and mostly forgotten by others) 1981 comedy in which Dudley Moore played the lovably soused and feckless heir to a huge fortune. That picture largely succeeded on the back of Moore's charm, which is an asset that this new version lacks. All Brand has to work with is his familiar shtick, and let me tell you that shtick grows very tiresome indeed when placed at the centre of a film that runs for an inexplicable 110 minutes.

The 2011 Arthur, directed by newcomer Jason Winer (although it could be anybody) sticks closely to the template of the original film. Brand's Arthur is still a reckless playboy who delights in throwing away his money but who risks seeing his funds cut off if he doesn't marry the woman his family have set up for him. In this case, that woman is Susan (Jennifer Garner, stranded in an excruciating role), a sex-mad shrew who has her eyes on Arthur's $950 million inheritance. He, however, is more interested in Naomi (Greta Gerwig), who seems a much better fit for this overgrown child, as she herself is little more than a bundle of nice, fluffy quirks: she writes children's books, she loves cartoons, she wears a candy necklace as a bracelet. The 1981 equivalent of this character was a shoplifting waitress played by Liza Minnelli; in her place we've got an overdose of whimsy.

I like Greta Gerwig, she possesses the kind of naturalness and vivacity that a film like Arthur is crying out for, but she is never given a chance to display it in this cartoonish role. The same can be said for so many of the other actors in this film, all of whom are given a single note to play and no opportunity to spring a surprise on the viewer. Geraldine James (as Arthur's mother) is a cold, heartless bitch; Nick Nolte (as his future father-in-law) growls a lot to no effect; Luis Guzman (as his chauffer) just stands there looking like he's waiting for some direction – any direction – from Winer. The debutant filmmaker's work here is TV-level competent, but he finds it hard to manage the swing between the outlandish comic set-pieces and the insincere scenes of loss and learning that the picture gets bogged down in later on.

One aspect of Arthur works. In the role of Hobson the butler, which won John Gielgud an Oscar, we now have Hobson the nanny, played by Helen Mirren. She finds the right note in her delivery throughout and she actually seems to bring something out of her mostly awkward co-star, with the relationship between Mirren and Brand appearing to be based upon some genuine affection and chemistry. Their scenes together are the best in the film and the ones most likely to draw a few indulgent chuckles; and while Mirren has received praise and awards for many dramatic turns in recent years, her ability to inject some soul into this essentially disposable endeavour may be the greatest testimony to her calibre as an actress.

Review - Cold Weather

Cold Weather is a detective story, but you'd be hard-pressed to guess that from the film's leisurely opening half hour. Aaron Katz's third feature gives us that time to spend with the film's characters, getting to know them a little, and it gives every impression of playing out like any other 'mumblecore' feature. This didn't immediately get me on the film's side, as I've struggled to get to grips with the mumblecores I've seen in recent years, even if the characters in introduces are to are a genial bunch. There's Doug (Cris Lankenau), a forensics degree dropout now back living with his older sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). He takes a job at an ice factory, where he becomes friends with part-time DJ Carlos (Raúl Castillo), with whom he shares his passion for Sherlock Holmes stories.

For a while, Katz seems content to hang out with his characters and enjoy their interactions. This part of the movie flirted with tedium occasionally for me, but Cold Weather just about gets away with it. The actors are all comfortable onscreen and their relaxed, easygoing vibe sets the mood for the whole movie. Then, just as we're getting accustomed to the movie we think Cold Weather is going to be, it suddenly develops a plot, when Doug's ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), whom Carlos has been courting, suddenly vanishes. Carlos, energised by the Conan Doyle stories he has been devouring since Doug first lent them to him, immediately suspects that there's a case to be solved, and he ropes Doug in to investigate.

The effect of that seemingly aimless opening portion of the film bears fruit at this point, as we suddenly realises how involved we have become with these characters. Doug, Carlos and Gail are a fun trio to follow as they start to follow the clues surrounding Rachel's disappearance, and the film makes a playful use of standard genre staples: snooping around motel rooms for clues, breaking codes, tracking a suspect, etc. Cold Weather is not exactly 'plot heavy' – Katz remains deliberately sketchy on the details of his McGuffin – but he finely judges the film's momentum and tone, puncturing the surprisingly tense atmosphere with moments of comic relief (such as Doug and Carlos' encounter with a bewildered motel manager).

Katz is from Portland, Oregon, which is where Cold Weather is set, and the director's familiarity with his city is another boon for the film. The location work is superb, with Katz making Portland a rich and fully realised environment for his film, and Andrew Reed's slick, confident camerawork manages to be distinctive without drawing attention to itself or interrupting the flow of the movie (a similar feat is accomplished by Keegan DeWitt's fine score). It's such a pleasure to spend time in the world of Cold Weather that it almost comes as a nasty shock when the film ends in such a sudden manner. As soon as the mystery has been resolved and the story has run its course, Katz cuts to the credits, and in truth, it is a little unsatisfying. Still, by that point Cold Weather has already established itself as a beguilingly off-kilter noir, with a style, charm and personality that's all its own.

Friday, April 22, 2011

DVD Review - The Tourist

The Film

Films like The Tourist are very difficult to pull off. It's a romantic caper, a film about people who are not the people they claim to be, and a film imbued with all of the glamour and fantasy of the movies. To make a movie such as this work, you need a director with the sense of wit and timing of a Lubitsch, Wilder or Sturges, and God knows that filmmakers of that nature are in short supply these days. Still, it's hard to know what the producers behind this picture saw in The Lives of Others that led them to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. The director of that Oscar-winning drama seems utterly unsuited to such a light confection, and his heavy-handed direction of the absurd screenplay kills the entire project stone dead. We want to watch The Tourist and feel like we're walking on air; instead it feels like we're wading through treacle.

The film – adapted from the French film Anthony Zimmer and scripted by the incongruous trio of Christopher McQuarrie, Julian Fellowes and von Donnersmarck himself – opens in Paris with Elise (Angelina Jolie) being trailed by the police. They're not after her, they're after her lover, the mysterious criminal Alexander Pearce, who has swindled millions of dollars and is subject to an international hunt being coordinated from Scotland Yard by Inspector Acheson (Paul Bettany). To throw her pursuers off the scent, Elise picks up a random man on a train to Venice and passes him off as Pearce, that random man being Frank (Johnny Depp), an American maths teacher on holiday. What follows doesn't make a great deal of sense, but that's not the biggest crime for a movie like this; the biggest crime is how staggeringly boring it all is.

A plot this silly needs to be played at a lively pace in order to keep us involved, which is where von Donnersmarck's handling of the film immediately falls down. The film feels sluggish throughout, with the ineptly edited chase sequences failing to inject any momentum into the picture, and while Jolie and Depp work hard (she's actually very good, he's miscast) they can't do anything with such weak characters. There are interesting actors populating similarly underdeveloped parts all the way down the cast list – Steven Berkoff as a gangster, Timothy Dalton as a police chief, Rufus Sewell as something or other – but the plot holding them together is a total mess. The Tourist collapses entirely in its last twenty minutes with a plot twist that makes no sense on any level. It only invalidates everything we have been watching up to that point, and makes us realises that the movie has simply been a total waste of our time.

The Extras

The oddly American-sounding Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck provides an entertaining commentary track, in which he highlights plenty of minor details and references numerous other films and filmmakers. He is full of praise for his cast and crew; he even comments on the beauty of Johnny Depp's feet, although his constant references to Jolie's attractiveness do get a little silly in places (he describes one shot of her as "the pinnacle of female beauty" and "his gift to the world"). However, von Donnersmarck is refreshingly candid about a few scenes and shots that he feels he should have cut or re-done, and his revelation of the film's rushed production schedule may explain why the film feels so thrown together. Elsewhere on the disc, there are interviews with the director and a number of short behind-the-scenes features, in which everyone talks about the pleasure of working in Venice. There's also 85 seconds worth of outtakes, which is mainly shots of people giggling and isn't particularly funny.

The Tourist is released on DVD and Blu-ray on April 25th.

Buy The Tourist here

Review - Meek's Cutoff

A few minutes pass in Meek's Cutoff before the first audible words of dialogue are uttered, and it's even longer before two characters have the first conversation. In that time, we simply watch as the three pioneer families at the centre of this story slowly drive their wagons forward across rivers and the stark, arid landscape of the Oregon Trail. We see them gathering water, washing their clothes, eating and tending to the animals in their care. Director Kelly Reichardt allows these mundane actions to play out at her own pace, slowly immersing us into the reality of their situation as the days drag on and the destination they have been trekking towards refuses to appear. We see one character disconsolately carving the word LOST onto the bark of a tree.

They are indeed hopelessly lost. The families hired a guide by the name of Meek (Bruce Greenwood, almost unrecognisable under his thick beard and thicker accent) to lead them through this terrain, but now they doubt that he knows exactly where he's leading them. He has no doubt in himself, however; Meek is an arrogant blowhard who delights in telling possibly apocryphal stories and boasting about the riches that exist forever out of each on the other side of the mountains. We don't know how long they have been travelling for, but it feels like a long time. They trudge forward with a sense of weariness and despair, and an increasing sense of mistrust towards the man they're following. "We ain't lost," Meek insists, "we're just finding our way."

Meek's Cutoff simultaneously feels like a departure for Kelly Reichardt and a development of her consistent themes. Once again, Reichardt tells a minimalist story of lost souls in a remote location, and she has reunited with trusted actors (Michelle Williams, Will Patton) with whom she has done great work before. It's a departure in the sense of the period setting, however, and in the fact that she appears to be taking her craft as a filmmaker to a higher level with this feature. The film's gradually developing sense of tension is established through Reichardt's careful camera placement, Jeff Grace's unsettling score and the ingenious sound design (when the men confer out of their wives' earshot, we only hear the snatches of dialogue that they do). While most filmmakers would shoot these spectacular mountain ranges and desolate expanses in widescreen, Reichardt and her brilliant cinematographer Chris Blauvelt film in 4:3, focusing our attentions on the people in the frame. Long scenes consist of little more than these characters wandering across the square screen, the wheels of their wagons creaking incessantly, but it is utterly transfixing to watch.

At a certain point in the film, the tone changes when a new element is brought into play. The group discover a Native American has been tracking their progress and they capture him, leading to a debate about how best to deal with him. Meek believes the "heathen" should be shot immediately, but the families, having lost faith in their own guide, believe he may be a better bet to lead them to salvation. They begin to follow him, even if they don't know whether they are travelling towards water or towards fellow members of his tribe. The Indian (played by Rod Rondeaux) is an inscrutable figure. We know nothing of his thoughts or plans; he just sits there observing his captors, sometimes displaying a curiosity about the objects they carry, sometimes smiling enigmatically as they argue around him. Where will he lead these pilgrims?

Reichardt isn't interested in answering such questions. The true meaning behind Meek's Cutoff remains slippery, with the director deliberately refusing to clearly define it and instead allowing the film to play out as an ambiguous allegory. Its elusiveness and lack of action will frustrate some viewers, but even they will surely be able to enjoy the formal brilliance of the film and the uniformly exceptional performances. (is there a better actress around right now than Michelle Williams? I don't think there is.) I'm sure many viewers of Meek's Cutoff will be similarly exasperated by the manner in which Reichardt brings her film to a close, but while the ending may be abrupt, the effect of its haunting final image lingers long in the memory.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Review - Rio

The vision of Rio depicted in Carlos Saldanha's film of the same name is one we haven't seen in an animated feature before, but everything else about Rio feels disappointingly familiar. The film is a beautifully designed but ultimately rote adventure in which a timid macaw bird (Jesse Eisenberg), who has been domesticated in the comfortable surroundings on Minnesota, far from the forests of Brazil in which he was born. Eisenberg's strained vocal work is well-suited to the neurotic Blu, a flightless bird quite happy to remain with his owner Linda (Leslie Mann) and completely uninterested in returning to his homeland. It is his duty to return, however, as he is the last Blue Macaw in existence, which means he'll have to mate with Jewel (Anne Hathaway), the last female of his species, whether he likes it or not.

As I watched this tale unfold I thought about Newt, a Pixar project about two lizards forced to mate against their will in order to save their species. That film was cancelled last year and will now presumably never see the light of day, but I wondered how the filmmakers at Pixar would have handled their eerily similar premise – my guess is that they'd have carried it off with a lot more wit and invention than the team behind Rio have managed. The narrative here is very basic, with Jewel leading the terrified Blu out into the wilderness, where they are menaced by crooks and a villainous cockatoo (Jemaine Clement), and aided by a couple of wacky sidekicks. The problem is that all of these characters are extremely dull and blessed with only a single personality trait that they play on endlessly. The voice work (aside from Eisenberg and Clement) is mediocre and inconsistent, with Hathaway being particularly ill-suited to the role of Jewel, failing to even attempt an indigenous accent for a creature that has spent its whole life in Brazil.

It's lazy, uninspired stuff overall, with too few jokes and ideas and too many scenes of animals dancing. It feels like the filmmakers have made every effort to include everything it thinks we want from an animated film, but those elements have no sense of imagination or feeling behind them, and end up looking like token gestures. Sure, Rio looks gorgeous, but isn't that the very least we expect from a mainstream animated feature these days? Where's the excitement, daring and adventure? Rio is a stunning bird to look at, but it's too timid and uncertain of itself to ever risk stretching its wings.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Review - Essential Killing

For a film such as Essential Killing to succeed we need to believe completely in the central character and to believe that he is capable of committing the acts the story demands of him. Fortunately, Vincent Gallo is an actor who possesses such a natural intensity and unpredictability, we have no problem accepting the sight of him jumping feet-first into a freezing lake, eating a live fish, killing a man with a chainsaw or forcing a woman to...well, I think I'll let you discover that particular highlight for yourself. Behind his long hair and thick beard, Gallo's eyes are ablaze with fear, confusion and vulnerability, and one look at them tells us everything we need to know about this man's desperate desire to survive.

Gallo plays a Taliban insurgent in Afghanistan who finds himself being pursued by American troops. After being chased through a network of caves, he manages to kill three of his enemies with a rocket launcher before the explosion from a missile that lands nearby leaves him dazed and deafened. He is arrested and carted off to a US camp for interrogation, but he tells his captors nothing. Their questions and threats are drowned out by the incessant ringing the blast left in his ears, and he remains stoically silent even after he is waterboarded. Gallo doesn't utter a word throughout Essential Killing, never even revealing his name (although some credits listings name him as Mohammed) and letting his actions speak for him. It is a performance of remarkable conviction and physicality, and the driving force behind this peculiar thriller.

The other distinctive artist at work here is Jerzy Skolimowski, who has directed Essential Killing from a (presumably very short) script he wrote with Ewa Piaskowska. The film hinges on a few key plot details, with one of them being the accident that allows Gallo to escape from the van transporting him to a prison camp. He kills some US soldiers and flees into the snow-covered trees, with his American pursuers – armed with rifles, helicopters and dogs – on his tail. Essential Killing is chiefly concerned with the basics of survival and what lengths a man will go to in order to prolong his life, even if a bleak end seems increasingly inevitable. Skolimowski's direction is brilliantly direct, forcing his story forward at a gripping, relentless pace, and pushing his protagonist through ever more gruelling encounters. We see him almost freeze to death as he plunges into icy waters and trudges through the snow, we see him fall victim to a bear trap, get chased down by dogs, scavenge for food and shelter, and cling onto his life by his fingernails.

What's interesting about Essential Killing is how little influence this character's status as a (presumed) Taliban terrorist has on the story. While we are given glimpses of his faith at work, these become less important as the film progresses. We come to see him as a man, just a man, who is reduced alternately to the status of an animal and an infant at various points in his adventure by the circumstances his finds himself in. Although it initially opens as another exploration of the moral complexities of the war on terror, this is not a political film from Skolimowski, but a deeply humanistic one.

It is also an astonishingly vivid experience, with Adam Sikora's luminous cinematography superbly capturing the intimidating expanse of the stark desert and snowy mountain peaks that Gallo runs for his life through, and Skolimowski creating numerous extraordinary images, notably the one that closes the movie on a haunting note. This is a sensational piece of filmmaking, rich in its visual storytelling and fascinating in its exploration of what it means to be human when we are pushed to the very extremes of behaviour. In less than 90 minutes, Skolimowski has crafted the action movie of the year, and a film that lingers in the memory long after its incredible final shot has faded away. It is, in other words, essential viewing.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Review - Armadillo

At this stage in the seemingly never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, how many more documentaries can we bear to watch about the soldiers who have gone to fight, kill and die for their country? There is a risk that all of these movies will ultimately blur into one indistinct study of young men damaged and disillusioned by the conflict they have been thrust into. Case in point: no sooner has the Oscar-nominated Restrepo left our memories than the similarly themed Armadillo has arrived to fill its place. But while these two films may, on the surface, appear to be cut from the same cloth, the manner in which Armadillo chooses to cover this territory sets it apart from most documentaries of this type.

Armadillo follows a single unit of Danish soldiers on their tour of Afghanistan, but director Janus Metz eschews the standard interviews with the men, instead focusing on observing their actions and immersing us in their experience. True, the film follows a familiar narrative. It opens with the young men enjoying a raucous farewell party and saying tearful goodbyes to their anxious families. Their destination is Forward Operating Base Armadillo, which is based in the Helmand province. Their role is to provide a stabilising influence in the region, to stay vigilant against Taliban attacks, and to win the hearts and minds of the locals. Armadillo watches them at close quarters, seeing their boredom and frustration grow as they play computer games, watch porn and wait for their chance to test their trigger fingers.

Much of this is regular stuff for a platoon-based documentary, but the way Metz films it is not. This is a slick production, defined by its artfully lit and carefully composed camerawork and sharp editing. Metz is sometimes a little too neat in his cuts (from a video game explosion to the real thing) and some shots have the whiff of artifice (the image of a forlorn soldier in the shower has been much derided, with good reason), but he has constructed something impressive and compelling here. Many of the sights Metz and his team capture on their HD cameras carry more impact and truth than any staged sequence could ever do, and the shell-shocked expression on a wounded soldiers face speaks a thousand words. Armadillo gives us a taste of the troops' experience and we witness their anger, pain and frustration as their colleagues are wounded and killed, or as they witness atrocities such as a young girl falling victim to a grenade. The film slowly documents the build-up of turbulent emotions that the soldiers carry into battle, which may be at the root of the film's most notorious element.

The first thing that strikes you about the gunfights depicted in Armadillo is how remarkable it is that the cameramen shot this footage without getting their heads blown off. We are pitched right into the middle of the chaos, bullets whizzing overhead, guns blazing and mortars exploding around us. It's a terrifying spectacle and an extraordinary adrenaline rush, but one sequence of events led to the film becoming a major talking point in Denmark, when the soldiers apparently gunned down helpless Taliban insurgents in a creek and then joked about the incident. Armadillo shows us the repercussions of this action, but it refuses to judge any of the men involved; and how could it? How can we possibly understand the thoughts and emotions of young men who are placed in this situation and forced to kill or be killed at all costs? Wars may change, but the nature of war, and what it does to the men who fight, does not.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Competition - Win an Enter the Void poster signed by Gaspar Noé

One of the most extraordinary and singular films to be released in recent years, Enter the Void is a must for anyone with a craving for enormously ambitious, mindbending cinema. In Gaspar Noé’s third feature, the camera floats high above Tokyo and glides through walls to depict a young drug dealer’s posthumous out-of-body experience, and it feels like Noé is pushing at the very boundaries of what cinema can do. A beautiful and technically astounding piece of work, Enter the Void was one of my favourite films from last year (read my review here and my interview with Gaspar Noé here), and now to celebrate the film’s DVD release on April 25th, I’ve got an exciting competition lined up.

I’m giving away three of the film’s posters, which are every bit as gorgeous and psychedelic as the film itself. One of these posters will be signed by Gaspar Noé, while two runners up will receive an unsigned poster; but I’m sure you’ll agree that they’re a thing of beauty whether they are adorned by Noé’s signature or not. To win one of these prizes, just answer the following question:

What is the profession of the character played by Philippe Nahon in Noé’s Carne and Seul contre tous?

Send your answers to putting Enter the Void in the subject field. The closing date for entries is midnight on April 22nd, and winners will be notified shortly afterwards. First name out of the hat will receive the signed French poster (to the right) and the next two will receive an unsigned UK quad (above) each.

For more on the UK DVD release of Enter the Void, check out the film's Facebook page and its official site.

This competition is now closed

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Sidney Lumet: 1924 - 2011

When I heard about Sidney Lumet's passing this afternoon, I was shocked and saddened. I shouldn't have been so surprised, of course – after all, Lumet was 86 years old – but I felt the same way about Lumet that I had felt about Robert Altman when he died; he just felt like one of those guys who was going to be around forever. He didn't appear to have lost any of his desire or passion in his later years. His last film was Before the Devil Knows You're Dead in 2007, and it hardly felt like the work of a late master, whose career and life were beginning to slip away. It had the same toughness and vigorous energy that characterised the best films from his 50-year career.

Looking back over that career this evening, I was astonished once again by just how remarkable a career it was. Lumet was a maker of serious, intelligent pictures. He was someone who searched for the most direct and unfussy way to tell a story effectively, and knew how to get the best out of his collaborators. He despised the notion of an auteur, believing it to be self-indulgent and pretentious on the part of a director, and an idea that undermined the collective nature of filmmaking. Much better to describe him as a craftsman; a filmmaker who learned his trade in television and honed it when he made the move into cinema, always refining his technique to the point where his filmmaking appeared effortless.

Instead of drawing the focus away from the story with his filmmaking style, Lumet always ensured the emphasis was on his characters and themes. His body of work is astonishingly varied, but consistent throughout his oeuvre is the interest in observing human nature under extreme circumstances, and an abiding fascination with justice and corruption. In 1964, Lumet made two groundbreaking films; Fail-Safe, which brought cold war fears to life, and The Pawnbroker, the first American film to deal with the Holocaust and the first to receive a Production Code seal despite containing female nudity. It was the 1970's that saw Lumet do his best and most career-defining work, though. His two collaborations with Al Pacino resulted in the gripping true-life stories Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, and he joined forces with Paddy Chayefsky to make Network, a film that feels more relevant and brilliant with every passing year. Lumet was incredibly prolific in this decade but he managed to sustain an extraordinary level of quality with it. He also made The Anderson Tapes, The Offense and Murder on the Orient Express, and it was only in 1978 with The Wiz that he really stumbled. That black musical version of The Wizard of Oz certainly stands out as the most bizarre entry on Lumet's eclectic CV.

Perhaps Lumet's greatest quality was his ability to get the best out of his actors. He seemed to know exactly how to give them the space and freedom they needed to develop their performances to the very highest level, and one look at the actors who did arguably their finest work for Lumet tells us how potent his skills were in this area. Sean Connery (The Hill and The Offence), Al Pacino (Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon), Paul Newman (The Verdict), Treat Williams (Prince of the City), Nick Nolte (Q&A), Albert Finney (Murder on the Orient Express), Peter Finch (Network); all of these actors did amazing work with Lumet, and we haven't even mentioned the wonderful ensembles that often supported these great leading performances. Lumet was so skilled at drawing us into the real lives of the people in his stories, and that's essentially what he made movies about for fifty years – ordinary people, at their best and at their worst. Few other American filmmakers have traversed that territory with such intelligence and rigour, and I'm not sure if any will ever do it with the compassion, thoughtfulness and longevity of Sidney Lumet.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Review - Tomorrow, When the War Began

There's a promising idea at the heart of Tomorrow, When the War Began, and as far-fetched as the film's premise may be, there's no reason why it couldn't have resulted in a rousing adventure for teenage audiences. Instead, it's a desperately feeble affair, which never for a moment makes us care about its characters or believe in its story. The film focuses on a group of Australian teens who, having spent of a few days cut off from the world on a camping trip, discover that their hometown (and, we are led to speculate, the rest of Australia) has been invaded by foreign armed forces. As the only Australians who aren't languishing in prison camps, it's up to them to fight back, which is a narrative hook that could have been a lot of fun to play with.

Tomorrow, When the War Began feels so vague and sketched-in, though. We never get a sense of why Australia has been invaded or even where these troops have come from, and while it might be argued that we're only supposed to know what the teens know about this situation, the refusal to specify the invading nation feels more like a lack of balls on the part of panicky filmmakers. All we know is that they're Asians (ooh, scary!) and that they are utterly hopeless when faced with a bunch of teens, spraying bullets in all directions without ever hitting the target. On more than one occasion, a couple of the young heroes find themselves cornered, and escape by simply running away, with director Stuart Beattie cutting to them running down an empty street, having presumably lost their clueless pursuers. With no genuine threat in the movie there is no tension, and none of the film's set-pieces (except, perhaps, for an entertainingly silly garbage truck chase scene) manage to generate any real excitement. More often than not, the film generates unintentional laughter, with the devoutly Christian character's transformation into killing machine being a particularly comical moment.

The film looks good – particularly the explosions, which Beattie certainly knows how to film – but there's nothing going on under that glossy surface, a description that can also be applied to the film's cast. Caitlin Stasey is a limited (if disarmingly attractive) actress who tries hard in the lead role of Ellie, but the characters have no interesting dimensions – there's the blonde bimbo, the cowardly jock, the rebel, the awkward Asian (this really isn't a very good film for Asians). These characters are barely strong enough to carry a single film, and yet Beattie spends the movie's final minutes laboriously setting up a sequel, as Tomorrow, When the War Began is an adaptation of the first in a series of novels that has been enormously successful in Australia. Did the book have more detail, more coherence and more depth than this screen version? We can only hope so, and perhaps the film suggests as much with a scene in which Ellie finds her friend Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood) reading My Brilliant Career and is told that it's "better than the movie." "Yeah," Ellie replies, "Books usually are."

Monday, April 04, 2011

Blu-ray Review - Rubber

The Film

I was all set to love Rubber, the bizarre little film that has built up a cult following over the course of the past year, even if much of that excitement has centred around the film's premise alone. The idea of a rubber tyre going on a murderous rampage has – like Snakes on a Plane or The Human Centipede – been enough to capture the imagination of viewers and cause the film's reputation to swell by word of mouth alone, whether the people building that reputation it had seen the movie or not. I'm normally wary of such hype, but the opening scene of Rubber was so brilliant it hooked me in immediately. The film opens with a cop (Stephen Spinella) climbing out of the back of a car that has just knocked over a dozen chairs in the middle of nowhere and begins addressing the audience on the concept of "no reason" in the movies.

The cop details several perceived instances of "no reason" from cinema history ("In The Pianist, by Polanski, how come this guy has to hide and live like a bum, when he plays the piano so well? No reason.") and tells us that the movie we're about to watch is an homage to "no reason", before getting in his car and leaving. His assistant, a timid accountant (Jack Plotnick), begins to hand out binoculars to assembled crowd that we have hitherto been unaware of on the hillside. He instructs them to stare look into the distance, and the story of Rubber then begins to unfold in front of this confused audience.

By this point, barely seven minutes into the movie, Rubber had busted the fourth wall so comprehensively I was completely wrong-footed by it. I had expected Rubber to be a cheap and schlocky B-movie affair, but I wasn't prepared for something quite so surreal and arch. Rubber repeatedly defied my expectations in its opening scenes, unfolding in an inventive and weirdly enthralling way, as the rubber tyre protagonist rolled across the desert trying out his newfound ability to kill. He flattens a plastic bottle and scorpion before employing telekinetic ability to explode objects: messily doing away with a rabbit, a crow and finally various human heads. As all of this is taking place, writer/director Quentin Dupieux keeps cutting back to the audience, who comment on the action, bicker among themselves and pick holes in the plot before we do. It's all very clever and original, but it quickly grows tiresome.

There's a gnawing sense that Rubber is a little too in love with its own quirky cleverness, and instead of developing its ideas or its story, the film just continues to play silly games, which grow increasingly ineffective as the film wears on. The freedom afforded to Dupieux by his adherence to the "no reason" principle allows him to indulge in randomness, and while he may feel such randomness is sufficiently entertaining, it means nothing with some sense of imagination or purpose behind it. Scene after scene of a tyre rolling along, spying on a woman as she showers (Roxane Mesquida – what is she doing in this movie?), and blowing up people's heads feels repetitive and boring, and the film has a dead atmosphere, which Dupieux seems incapable of enlivening.

Essentially, Rubber feels meaningless, and 80 minutes is a long time to devote to a single indulgent joke in which every irrationality is explained away with the line, "no reason." It seems all of Dupieux's creative energies went into the unusual premise and that terrific opening scene; an opening, in retrospect, that the rest of the film could never live up to. Rubber is impressively shot and scored, but I can't help feeling that it's nothing more than a potentially brilliant short film blown out of all proportion.

The Extras

The self-consciously larky tone extends into the interview with Dupieux, who sits opposite a blow-up sex doll to answer questions, and the audio at times appears to run backwards (?), which makes it hard to focus on what he's saying. Stephen Spinella, Jack Plotnick and Roxane Mesquida are also interviewed and all are very enthusiastic and full of praise for their director, with this whole interview segment adding up to around 25 minutes in total. There's also a trailer and 47 seconds worth of tyre test footage, which seems entirely pointless.

Rubber will premiere in a special Midnight Movies screening at The Ritzy cinema on April 8th. It will subsequently be released on DVD and Blu-ray on April 11th.

Buy Rubber here

Sunday, April 03, 2011

DVD Review - His & Hers

The Film

The first person we see on screen in His & Hers is a newborn baby, who is placed on a bed in the centre of the screen and cries with confusion at the camera watching her. The affecting final image is that of an elderly woman, sitting alone in a nursing home, oblivious to the camera watching her from outside and lost in her thoughts. Between these two shots of woman at the beginning and end of their lives, documentarian Ken Wardrop has allowed 70 women from the Irish midlands to tell their stories. His & Hers, as the title suggests, is a film about the relationship between men and women, but the perspective the film offers on this relationship is strictly female. From young girls talking about their fathers to mothers taking about their sons, the film's subjects talk about the men in their lives with an honesty and humour that is both entertaining and ultimately moving.

Wardrop obviously has a way about him that encourages a sense of trust and openness in his interviewees. The people we meet in His & Hers are all unselfconscious in front of the camera and happy to chat about their men in a casual way, often while completing the daily household chores. It might sound utterly banal and tedious, but by interviewing women of all ages, Wardrop has crafted a narrative that tells the evolving story of their relationships over the years, and it is this approach to storytelling that makes His & Hers such a quietly absorbing experience. From the young girls complaining about being made to clean up their room by their fathers, the film quickly moves on to teenage girls, who blushingly discuss their first crushes, with one girl in particular fretting about the upcoming school disco.

What gradually becomes clear through these interviews is how universal these experiences and relationships are. The women are speaking in a deeply personal manner, but they are talking about a common truth, and that's what resonates as the film coalesces these voices into a single shared experience. The film moves seamlessly through women in their 20's planning for marriage and pregnancy to middle-aged mothers worrying about their teenage sons and then missing them when they leave the nest. Wardrop only spends a couple of minutes, if that, with each participant, but the clips he uses are judicious; full of wit, tenderness and warmth.

Wardrop shoots with a fixed camera, which has the effect of isolating his subjects, and that makes some of the scenes in the film's late stages almost unbearably moving. As His & Hers progresses, and its women grow steadily older, the spectre of death and illness inevitably grows in prominence. Most of the film's oldest subjects seem to have outlived their husbands, and I was deeply touched by their reminiscences. One woman recalls her husband collapsing in her arms after they had one last dance to "their song," while another laments the fact that sitting by the fire in the evening just isn't the same no she has to do it alone. There are still flashes of humour in this section of the film, but the general tone is more melancholy as it builds to a haunting final shot. As we look at the old woman left alone with nothing but her memories, our thoughts inevitably drift back to the fresh faced, optimistic girls we met barely 80 minutes earlier. Where does the time go?

The Extras

The His & Hers DVD will come with a commentary from Ken Wardrop and The Herd, an early short film from the director. Sadly, neither of these extras were available on the check disc sent for review.

His and Hers will be released on DVD on April 11th 2011

Buy His & Hers here

DVD Review - Somewhere

The Film

Sofia Coppola is a director who has a knack for capturing small individual moments, but she hasn't yet discovered the ability to assemble them into a wholly satisfying film. Her fourth film Somewhere shows little advancement from the previous three; it may be less irksome all round than her misconceived Marie Antoinette, but it's only fleetingly successful, in the same manner as The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation. Coppola's film is a study of ennui and emptiness in the life of a Hollywood star, but it emerges as an empty endeavour in itself, dramatically inert and devoid of emotional weight.

There is something to be admired in Coppola's stylistic choices, however, particularly in the way she stages shots and then holds on them for longer than we expect. The opening scene allows a sports car to make a couple of laps on a racetrack before Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) emerges from it, and Coppola retains her fixed perspective whether she's viewing two pole dancers performing for the bored Johnny, or observing as he sits encased in wax, his laboured breathing audible on the soundtrack as the camera slowly zooms in. Johnny is a movie star, but as Somewhere makes abundantly clear in its opening sequences, he's stuck in a rut, unsatisfied with a life of stardom, and no amount of women flinging themselves at him can lift his spirits. The idea of asking us to sympathise with the poor rich and famous guy threatens to hobble Somewhere from the start, and it probably would, if it relied on Dorff's performance alone.

Fortunately, Elle Fanning injects a vital spark into the picture. She plays Johnny's daughter Cleo who arrives to spend some time with him while her mother is away. Dorff is a flat presence on screen but Fanning is natural and alive, and she manages to bring something out of her co-star too. The relationship that develops between these two characters feels organic and true, and Coppola is smart enough to let scenes between them just play out, and to let the natural dynamic between them do the work for her. Some scenes consist of little more than Johnny and Cleo playing a video game or eating ice cream together, or watching Cleo make breakfast for her father, but as engaging as these sequences may be, they don't have any cumulative effect. Coppola has no idea how to take these moments and build them towards anything.

Instead, we have to endure comedy moments that Coppola again shows no facility for (a mix-up with a naked masseuse, more 'hilarity' at awful foreign TV shows à la Lost in Translation), and stabs at the hollowness of fame and the ridiculous nature of Hollywood which feel trite and second-hand. The final image in this film is laughable, completely bereft of the meaning and reaching for a profundity that the film hasn't earned. Coppola has ability, there's no doubt about that, and Somewhere is very easy on the eyes (Harris Savides' work is consistently wonderful) but after four films we still don't know if she has anything to say.

The Extras

The only extra feature on the disc is a 17 minute behind-the-scenes documentary called Making Somewhere, which offers footage from the set and interviews with Coppola, the cast and the crew. It's fun to watch and nicely assembled. One notable tidbit: Kristina and Karissa Shannon, who play the pole dancers in the film, were considering getting breast implants until Sofia told them not to. Well done Sofia!

Somewhere will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on April 4th

Buy Somewhere here

Review - Passenger Side

Fans of low-key, talkative indie road movies will find plenty to enjoy in Passenger Side, the third feature from Matthew Bissonnette, but others may feel they've seen this film too many times before. This is the story of two very different brothers who spend a single day together driving around LA, meeting a series of eccentric characters and heading towards an unknown destination. All of this is being orchestrated by younger brother Tobey (Joel Bissonnette), an ex-junkie with a history of reckless behaviour, who has persuaded Michael (Adam Scott) to accompany him on his 37th birthday, following Tobey's instructions without knowing where they might lead. Where they end up eventually feels rather anticlimactic and almost beside the point, as it's the journey rather than the destination that really matters here.

What's frustrating is how episodic and schematic much of that journey feels. At every step of the way, Bissonnette has Michael and Tobey encounter an eccentric character, and these hit-and-miss interludes disrupt the film's flow. While some of these scenes are amusing, such as Michael's bemused reaction when a transsexual prostitute steps into his care, others simply fall flat (the porn movie shoot), and while we're supposed to glean insights into the brothers' characters through the way they react to these wacky types, such revelations didn't occur for me. Scott and Bissonnette are both fine in the central roles, and both handle the smart-alecky conversations well (although the sarcastic dialogue often feels rather overwritten), but I struggled to get under the skin of these characters and understand their motivations.

As a result, Passenger Side feels underdeveloped and the final twists in the story are nowhere near as resonant or profound as Bissonnette seems to feel they should be. I found it to be a plodding disappointment but the picture does have two major saving graces. The cinematography by Jonathon Cliff is bright and atmospheric, and he brilliantly utilises the landscape and architecture of the city in his vivid compositions. The film's other redeeming quality is its fine, eclectic soundtrack, with the use of Leonard Cohen's Suzanne at a particular juncture in the film being a lovely, haunting highlight. Bissonnette certainly knows how to make a film that's a pleasure to watch and listen to, even if it ultimately leads nowhere.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Review - Oranges and Sunshine

For his first feature as a director, Jim Loach has told a story that may well have appealed to his father. Oranges and Sunshine is a film that exposes a shocking injustice and sets personal stories against a backdrop of major real-life events. The film opens with a scene that depicts a social worker taking a child away from its unfit mother, a scene that immediately recalls Ken Loach's films Cathy Come Home and Ladybird, Ladybird, but perhaps comparisons between the older and younger Loaches are unfair. Oranges and Sunshine is a confident and engrossing picture that deserves to be considered on its own merits, and while Jim Loach's TV background is evident in the film's conventional structure and lack of a distinctive visual identity, he scores highly in his storytelling and his work with actors.

In an all-too-rare leading role, Emily Watson is excellent as Margaret Humphreys, the Nottingham social worker who uncovered an extraordinary scandal involving thousands of British orphans who had been deported to Australia and placed in the care of the Christian Brothers, where they had often been forced to endure physical labour, harsh conditions and sexual abuse. Many of those who made this journey weren't even orphans; they were simply poor children that had been taken into care, and shipped to the other side of the world without their parents' knowledge. Extraordinarily, this practice, which had begun in the 19th century, was still being quietly sanctioned by the British and Australian governments until the late 1960's.

Oranges and Sunshine covers twenty years of Margaret's crusade to uncover this operation and reunite the now-adult orphans with the parents they never knew they had. The film begins on a small scale, with Margaret meeting an Australian woman who is searching for her mother, before the scope of her mission steadily grows, but Loach never lets the wider historical weight of the story overwhelm the characters. In two of the men Margaret meets in Australia, we can see the lingering shadow that their childhood experiences cast over their lives. Jack, played by an outstanding Hugo Weaving, is introverted and nervous, his emotional scarring clearly visible, while Len (David Wenham) hides his fragility under a brash demeanour. The journey of self-discovery and acceptance that Margaret leads these two men on is genuinely moving, even more so for the understated approach Loach adopts. He largely eschews both major emotional outbursts and strident political statement, instead playing this touching story out in a sensitive and human way that is extremely satisfying.