DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Review: John Carpenter Restorations out on Blu-ray and 4K

Studiocanal is going to release some of director John Carpenter’s considerable back catalogue, including The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988).

These films will also get shown at UK cinemas over the next 7 days.

For more information visit:

THE FOG (1980)

After the cult crime drama Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), followed by a massive breakout success of low-budget horror Halloween (1978), he came out with The Fog. A spooky film about sailors who use the weather to enact ghostly retribution for crimes past.

Whilst it doesn’t have full-bore intensity of his early work, it is notable for a cameo by John Houseman (mentor of Orson Welles) and the real life relationship of Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween) and her mother Janet Leigh (Psycho), both performances are nice ironic nods to previous horror classics.


One of the great cult films of its era, this futuristic tale of a dangerous criminal (Kurt Russell) forced by a prison commissioner (Lee Van Cleef) to rescue the US President (Donald Pleasance). Whilst the setting (1997) has long passed, some of the ideas leave their mark: Manhattan run as savage open prison; a police force run like the special forces; a city surrounded by an enormous wall.

This features some great production design by Joe Alves, and some notable actors in the cast: Harry Dean Stanton and Isaac  Hayes. Some of the set pieces are brilliantly arranged and a lot of burnt out New York was actually filmed in St. Louis, which had suffered a devastating fire. Carpenter and his team (including a young Jim Cameron) presented a chilling vision.


One of the more underrated films of the Carpenter canon, this came after some perceived studio failures, The Thing (1982), Christine (1984) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986). Carpenter seemed determined to have his own vision back by teaming up with independent companies and the result was a chilling film about strange things going on in an abandoned LA church.

With scientists recruited by an old priest (Carpenter favourite Donald Pleasance) they seem baffled by the on set of an infectious green fluid, which leads to possession and demonic chaos. Perhaps some will dismiss this as hokum, as they did on first release – but this has interesting ideas complemented by some clever visuals.

THEY LIVE (1988)

The most ardently political film made by Carpenter was also his funniest. Featuring the wrestler Roddy Piper, this damning satire of Regan era was filled with inventive twists. Principally the idea that the ruling classes of America were ugly aliens controlling a blind public through hidden slogans. Only by wearing specially made sunglasses can he see the difference.

This might sound like hard work, but it is so shrewdly crafted and features some savage political humour, now especially pertinent in the era of Trump.  But it is also features some hilarious scenes, especially towards the climax. These four films represent some of the highlights of Carpenter’s career and to seem them remastered in 4K is a delight, and you can also choose other movies using a random movie picker which have the best recommendations online.

> More about John Carpenter at Wikipedia
> More about John Carpenter on 4K

DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Peter O’Toole portrayed Henry II twice in the 1960s, in tales of medieval politics and strained relationships.

The other was Becket (1964) and although this later work remains inferior, The Lion in Winter remains a classy affair.

Garnering Oscar nominations, a healthy reception from audiences and critics, it would become one of O’Toole’s signature roles.

Set in 1183 AD, it depicts the dynastic crisis of an ageing King Henry II (O’Toole), as he struggles amidst a nest of intrigue and paranoia.

There is an estranged queen (Katherine Hepburn); an elder son (Anthony Hopkins) and two ambitious brothers, plus the King of France (Timothy Dalton) ready to pounce on any internal strife.

Director Anthony Harvey has an assured grip on proceedings, the lensing by Douglas Slocombe is exceptional and the art direction evokes the appropriate time and place.

There is also a raft of quality acting – not only the screen debut of Hopkins but the chemistry of O’Toole and Hepburn as they feud across emotional and political lines is one of the major highlights.

In retrospect, the tumultuous year of release (1968) seems prescient with America torn apart by the Vietnam war and widespread dissent across Europe.

As a footnote, at that year’s Oscars, Hepburn was tied with Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl – the only time this has happened in Academy history.

Special Features:

  • New restoration of the film
  • New interview with John Castle
  • New interview with John Bloom
  • Anthony Harvey audio commentary (this is very good)
  • O’Toole on Hepburn: 5 min excerpt from TCM interview in 2012
  • Original Trailer
  • Restoration comparison

The Lion in Winter is out now from Studiocanal UK

> Buy The Lion in Winter on Blu-ray from Amazon UK
> Find out more about The Lion in Winter on IMDb and Wikipedia


Festivals Reviews

A Monster Calls (2016)

With just two films to his credit – The Orphanage (2007) and The Impossible (2012) – Bayona has established himself as one of most interesting filmmakers to emerge from Spain in recent years.

So this project, based on a novel by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay (from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd) was much anticipated, but because it was sort of a terror movie, they used the best storyboard template they could find for this purpose.

It explores a young boy (Lewis MacDougall) struggling to deal with a dying mother (Felicity Jones) and a vision of a monster he sees at night (Liam Neeson) who tells him tales.

A lot rests on MacDougall’s shoulders here, being centre stage throughout, and he delivers a remarkable performance, convincing in conveying a number of emotions, spanning anger, grief, frustration and terror.

Indeed, the most affecting aspect of the film is the sense of human confusion at the brutal events life can throw our way and how complicated it can be to resolve them.

The interplay between him and his loving mother (Jones), absent father (Toby Kebbel) and strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is central to why most of the audience will be moved at the end.

Yet while the human plane is handled with a sensitive and subtle touch, the monster’s – rendered by a multitude of visual effects – is somehow less impactful. A curious case of more ending up as less, with a CGI character leaving too little to the imagination.

Of more note is the animated fairytale sequences, which the monster narrates. Splendidly animated by Adrián García, they explore the Prince Charming myth, medieval faith, and “an invisible man who had grown tired of being unseen”.

The flaws don’t derail A Monster Calls, which still deserves plaudits for boldly confronting dark issues inside the framework of a ‘family fantasy’.

A Monster Calls screened at the London Film Festival and opens in the UK on January 6th

> Official site for the film
> London Film Festival

DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

The Almodovar Collection (1983-1995)

Spanning eleven years of his career, these six films provide a rich snapshot of the Spanish filmmaker’s work throughout the 1980s and 90s.

Dark Habits (1983): When a nightclub singer (Cristina Sánchez Pascual) gets on the wrong side of a criminal gang, she flees to a convent where the nuns have secrets too. The title has a double meaning for what the holy women wear and what some do in their rooms. Treading a fine line between satire and serious critique of the Catholic church, it manages to keep both irons in the fire. Pascual is excellent in the lead role and there are some fine supporting performances from future Almodovar regulars, such as Marisa Paredes and Carmen Maura. After debuting at the Venice film festival it caused considerable controversy, put its director on the European festival map.


  • New Around Dark Habits – Featuring interviews with: Marisa Paredes, MercedesGuilamon, Anabel Alonzo, Lluis Homar, Felez Martinez, Alaska Miguel, Angel Silvestre and Augustin Almodóvar
  • Introduction by critic José Arroyo

What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984): The setting is an overcrowded Madrid apartment, with all manner of characters orbiting around a stressed-out housewife, Gloria (Carmen Maura). There is her vile husband (Ángel de Andrés López); her mother-in-law (Chus Lampreave), curious children and a prostitute next door. The plot involves murder, intrigue and even a pet lizard, as part of an outrageous patchwork weaved by the director. Amongst an already impressive cast, Maura is the standout performer here, and it is fairly obvious why she became a regular part of Almodovar’s creative ensemble. More was to come, but this was a marker for his later works.


  • New Around What Have I Done to Deserve This? – Featuring interviews with Mercedes Guilamon, Javier Camara, Carlos Areces and Anabel Alonzo
  • Trailer

Law of Desire (1987): Containing his trademark blend of profane tragic-comic thrills, this was perhaps his boldest film yet when Almodovar was cementing his position as a flamboyant soothsayer for post-Franco Spain. Stylishly flaunting social and sexual mores, it explores a love triangle between a famous director Pablo (Eusebio Poncela), his long-term lover (Miguel Molina) and a young actor, Antonio (Antonio Banderas). Parallel to this, is a sub-plot involving Pablo’s sister Tina (Carmen Maura) which interlocks with the main narrative. Although the plot may resemble something Fellini may have done, it still packs a considerable thematic and stylistic punch.


  • New Around Law of Desire – Featuring interviews with Esther Garcia,
    Alberto Iglesias, Elena Anaya, Javier Camara, Rossy di Palma and Victoria Abril
  • Introduction by critic José Arroyo
  • Trailer

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988): Another international breakthrough was this brilliantly realised surreal farce. A heady brew of infidelity and insecurity involving a voiceover artist (Carmen Maura), her extramarital lover (Fernando Guillen), his wife (Julieta Serrano) and an anxious friend (Maria Barranco) who has fallen for a terrorist, a synopsis for this film is difficult. But as usual with Almodovar he pulls all these strings together, with the help of what by now had become almost a stock company of actors.


  • New Around Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – Featuring interviews with Pedro Almodóvar, Loles Leon and Rossy di Palma
  • Introduction by critic José Arroyo
  • Trailer

Kika (1993): Regarded by some observers at the time as something of a creative and commercial disappointment, in retrospect this holds up very well. Another riotous and colourful affair, it sees the aforementioned Kika (Veronica Forqué), a make-up artist living in Madrid with a philandering American writer (Peter Coyote). Circling them are a manic kaleidoscope of characters including: drug addicts, serial killers, porn stars and transexuals. Perhaps at times it does spin out of control, but that is part of Almodovar’s skill. One of his hallmarks is an ability to juggle outrageous comedy with darker themes – a controversial rape scene being a case in point – makes him a rare talent in world cinema.


  • New Around Kika – Featuring interviews with Victoria Abril, Rossy di Palma and Anabel Alonzo
  • Introduction By José Arroyo
  • Pedro Almodóvar interview
  • Cast and crew interviews
  • The Characters
  • The Music
  • Trailer

The Flower of My Secret (1995): The last film in this box set marks a transition for the Spanish filmmaker, with a more toned down approach. A superbly layered portrait of a writer (an excellent Marisa Paredes), who wants to focus on the melancholic realities of pain and loss, rather than cliched happier endings. Though it retains the energy of his previous work, it is channelled in different ways. Fine supporting performances from Juan Echanove, Carmen Elias, Rossy De Palma and Chus Lampreave are a treat (with the latter two a fine double-act) and the end result points towards the masterworks to come in the late 90s and new millennium, such as All About My Mother (1999) and Talk to Her (2002).

  • New ‘The Flower of my Secret’ (featuring interviews with Rossy di Palma, Augustin Almodóvar, Pedro Almodóvar and Marisa Paredes)
  • Cast and crew interviews
  • Introduction By José Arroyo
  • Trailer

The Almodovar Collection is out now on DVD and Blu-ray from Studiocanal UK

> Buy The Almodovar Collection on DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon UK
> Pedro Almodóvar: 13 great Spanish films that inspire me at BFI
> Find out more about Pedro Almodovar at Wikipedia

DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

The Fallen Idol (1948)

The first collaboration between writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed is a classic in its own right, despite being overshadowed by their masterful second team-up, The Third Man (1949).

Based on a Greene story and told from the perspective of a French diplomat’s young son (Bobby Henrey), who idolises his father’s butler (Ralph Richardson), it explores what happens after he witnesses a serious incident in the London embassy where they live.

A highly impressive blend of mystery, thriller and suspense, it features many delights, including a raft of fine performances, principally Henrey and Richardson, but also a supporting cast including Sonia Dresdel, Michele Morgan, Dandy Nicholls (as well as future Bond stalwarts Bernard Lee and Geoffrey Keen).

Greene’s familiar themes are here – betrayal, moral ambiguity – but what made this first collaboration with Reed so special was the realisation that they both seemed to find their creative soul mate in each other and no director has managed to portray the Greene’s works so well.

The post-war London setting is superbly evoked with Vincent Korda’s excellent production design and Georges Perinal’s deep-focus photography emphasising the gulf between the innocence of childhood and the often murkier business of adults.

But it also underscores themes such as appearance and reality, the difficulty of telling the truth (as well as finding it), and the dangers of putting too much faith in those we admire.

Fans of The Third Man might like to note the recurrence of certain motifs: spiral staircases, the importance of light and darkness and the complexities of human behaviour in foreign lands.

It is interesting to note that all three of Reed’s works with Greene feature a displaced protagonist in another country: Phillipe in this film (a French boy in England); Holly in The Third Man (an American writer in Vienna); and Wormold in Our Man in Havana (an English spy in Cuba).

Their working relationship would mature over the course of the late 1940s and 50s, but there remains something magical about this film – due in large part to the chemistry between Henrey and Richardson – and it remains one of the classic British films of the post-war years.

Studiocanal have released it on DVD, Blu-ray and Download with the following extras:

  • Guy Hamilton remembers The Fallen Idol
  • Locations featurette with Richard Dacre
  • Interview with Charles Drazin
  • Interview with fan Richard Ayoade
  • Restoration comparison
  • Kevin Brownlow interviews Robert Henrey

> Buy the DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon UK
> The Fallen Idol at the IMDb
> Criterion essay on The Fallen Idol by Geoffrey O’Brien
> Find out more about Graham Greene and Carol Reed at Wikipedia

Cinema Reviews

Life Itself

Steve James is one of the best filmmakers of his generation, and his latest documentary is a deeply insightful portrait of the life and legacy of US film critic Roger Ebert.

A US film critic might sound like an unlikely subject for a full length feature, but as James Joyce once wrote:

“In the particular is contained the universal”

This quote rings especially true here: a cornucopia of experiences and emotions compressed into a moving narrative via through the lens of an individual life.

Using Ebert’s 2009 memoir as a platform, the basic outline involves: his formative years in Urbana, Illinois; a long career in print at the Chicago Sun-Times and subsequently on television with Gene Siskel; it concludes with his final years, where he lost his old voice to cancer but found a new one online.

Peppered throughout are startling scenes of the ‘other’ Roger: the screenwriter who co-wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) with Russ Meyer and a never-made project with the Sex Pistols; the prodigious journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, but nearly drank himself into oblivion.

He was also an early champion of directors such as Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, all of whom talk warmly of him, even when he disliked some of their work. (Herzog even ended up dedicating his 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World to his fellow ‘soldier of cinema’.)

There are also some hilarious outtakes from the TV show he presented with rival Chicago critic Gene Siskel. Whether it was squabbling like a married couple over Full Metal Jacket (1987) or whose name should come first on the title (Siskel won out), both found the Yin to the others Yang.

Crucially though, the rich archival and interview material is skilfully weaved in with the personal: his beloved wife Chaz who provided critical emotional and practical support in his later years.

Diagnosed with cancer in 2002, his condition eventually led to him losing his lower jaw and ability to speak.

However, as an early adopter of the web, he eventually found a new audience through his voice-activated computer, an extensive website and on Twitter.

It was in the medium, which almost seemed invented for him, that he wrote deeply powerful meditations on not just the latest films, but his own existence and, by extension, ours.

Four years before his death in 2013 he wrote:

“I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting.”

These words are used at one point in the film and I suspect they have special resonance for director Steve James. His documentaries, which include Hoop Dreams (1994) and The Interrupters (2011), are often fascinating, humane explorations of people’s lives in Chicago.

The Windy City is an almost tangible presence in this film, it was the place where Ebert penned his reviews at his beloved newspaper (The Sun-Times), where he married his soulmate Chaz and where he found a nationwide platform to champion films like Hoop Dreams.

For James, Life Itself feels like the culmination of an unofficial Chicago trilogy, but it is also seems to be the most personal of his works: a joyous celebration of a man who loved movies, people and life.

> Official website for Life Itself and Twitter feed
> Get local listings via Dogwoof, pre-order the DVD or rent or buy via iTunes UK

Cinema Reviews Thoughts


A film of enormous ambition and stunning technical accomplishment, director Christopher Nolan’s space epic dares to dream big and mostly succeeds, even if its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp.

Set in a dystopian future where Earth’s resources are running dry, widowed farmer, engineer and ex-test pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is confronted with a dilemma when offered the chance to lead a last-ditch mission to save humanity by the elderly NASA physicist Professor Brand (Michael Caine).

This involves using custom-built spacecraft, advanced theoretical astrophysics and travelling to the far reaches of space and time. Apart from the obvious risks, he will have to leave his family behind: young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and son Tom (Timothee Chalamet), who are both devastated to see him go.

Joined by Brand’s own scientist daughter (Anne Hathaway), two other NASA (Wes Bentley and David Gyasi) and a multifunctional robot called TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), the team venture into the unknown, searching for potentially habitable worlds.

To say much more about their mission would be entering dangerous spoiler territory, suffice to say that what they experience in deep space is truly a sight to behold.

Nolan’s own challenge was to blend real-life theoretical science (with the help of world-renowned physicist Kip Thorne), interstellar space travel grounded in a semi-plausible way, and finally to explore the emotional toll this takes on human beings.

It is a tall order and using a blend of practical and digital effects, and a scientifically literate script, the writer-director weaves a patchwork of influences which he just about pulls it off.

The twists and turns of the story may be too much for some on first viewing, but this one where you have to strap in and embrace the ride into other worlds.

Dust-filled Earth and chilly deep space are realised with stunning clarity and imagination: cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let The Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) shoots the dark wonders of space and other worlds with a piercing intensity.

Visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin complements these with seamless digital transitions, working from stock NASA imagery and Thorne’s theories, the work he and his team at Double Negative have achieved here is truly exceptional.

Editor Lee Smith also brings a wonderfully brisk pace to an epic that lasts 166 mins, whilst utilising the crosscutting technique that Nolan used to such great effect in his Batman trilogy (2005-12) and Inception (2010).

The production design by Nathan Crowley, costumes by Mary Zophres and sound design by Richard King all create a rich, immersive and at times even tactile quality, which is surprising for a film as expansive as this.

Given all the technical brilliance at work here, and perhaps because of it, the performances of the actors are occasionally dwarfed by the sheer scale, but McConaughey, Foy, Hathaway and Irwin are the standouts.

McConaughey especially delivers the goods as the engineer burdened with courage and a seemingly impossible inner conflict and Ellen Burstyn burns brightly in a small, but critical role.

Surprises abound in Interstellar, and although the obvious sci-fi influences are here – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – perhaps less expected are traces of Reds (1981), Field of Dreams (1989), The Abyss (1989), Solaris (2002) and Sunshine (2007).

Like Nolan’s other films it will almost certainly repay repeated viewing, but it bears all the hallmark of his very best work: smart, technically accomplished and leaving the viewer with a desire to experience it all over again.

> Official website
> Reviews at Metacritic
> Interstellar at the IMDb
> Roundtable interview with Nolan and his cast with THR (26 mins)

Cinema Festivals Reviews

LFF 2014: Mr. Turner

Director Mike Leigh brings the life of Victorian painter J. M. W. Turner to the screen, with the help of a tremendous central performance from Timothy Spall and some dazzling visuals by cinematographer Dick Pope.

Covering the last 25 years of his life, we begin with Turner (Spall) at the peak of his career, a somewhat eccentric but brilliant landscape painter who commands respect among his peers, despite (in their eyes) coming from a more modest background.

The narrative also delves into various relationships over this period: his doting elderly father (Paul Jesson); housekeeper and lover (Dorothy Atkinson); an estranged partner (Ruth Sheen), with whom he has fathered children; a landlady he meets on a trip to Margate (Marion Bailey); Scottish polymath Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) and art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire).

Whilst all of those actors shine in supporting roles, it is Spall who dominates with a performance of rare quality. The physical movement, intensity, and rough edges he brings to Turner are all a delight to watch, but he also manages to use silence to express the painter’s emotional distance from people.

The slow-burn episodic narrative is effective in immersing us into his world. Details of his life are presented, but they always seem to be in the shadow of his artistic obsessions.

The technical presentation of these is remarkable, as Leigh and his long time cinematographer Dick Pope have crafted a visual look, which uses Turner’s work as a reference point. Added to this, the production design by Suzie Davies, art direction by Dan Taylor and costumes by Jacqueline Durran are all impeccable.

The choice to use the digital ARRI Alexa camera was an interesting one, as the film looks very analogue, but perhaps shooting on digital offered greater latitude in capturing colour and light. After all, embracing new methods in order to capture light is essentially what Turner was doing in his later period.

Whether you are an expert or being introduced to Turner, this is one of the best recreations of an artist, and ranks alongside Pollock (2000), Le Belle Noiseuse (1991) and Van Gogh (1991) as one of the best depictions of a painter at work.

Some art historians, even one who actually advised on the film, have quibbled about details, but the wider thematic point seems to be the conflicts a mature artist has to face when he has already broken through and achieved a great deal of respect.

The choice to eschew the ‘early years’ was a wise one, and perhaps the result of Leigh’s own introspective thoughts as an established filmmaker who still feels like an outsider in an industry filled with social and financial restraints.

Questions like: ‘What have I really achieved?’, ’What is my art worth?’ and ‘Why do I do what I do?’ seem to be in the air, both for the director and subject of this film.

Leigh has always carved out his own identity in an industry susceptible to conformity and now at 71, he is regarded as one of the great British directors.

In Mr. Turner one can still detect a defiant spirit (the list of financiers on the credits seem to indicate his determination to get it made) and a certain satisfaction in going his own way.

The result is also deeply satisfying, a richly layered portrait of an artist that ranks highly amongst Leigh’s best work.

Mr. Turner screened at the London Film Festival on Friday 10th and Saturday 11th October 2014

> Mr. Turner at the LFF
> Watch the official trailer
 Find out more about J.M.W. Turner at Wikipedia

Festivals Reviews Thoughts

LFF 2014: ’71

A riveting portrayal of a young British soldier on the run in early 70s Belfast provides the backdrop for this stunning feature debut from director Yann Demange.

When a young English soldier (Jack O’Connell) is sent to the streets of Belfast in 1971, he is quickly plunged into a nightmarish fight for survival in a city that has erupted along sectarian lines.

Left wounded and stranded by his regiment, he encounters various characters: a young streetwise boy (Corey McKinley); a Catholic (Richard Dormer) and his daughter (Charlie Murphy); two contrasting IRA members (David Wilmot and Killian Scott); and some shady British army agents (Sean Harris and Paul Anderson).

After some preliminary scenes which sketch out the protagonist in his home town, we are soon introduced to the bitter and dangerous streets of the time.

Straightaway the film does something clever, with DP Tat Radcliffe employing a grainy 16mm newsreel look for the daytime sequences and gradually shifting towards a digital palette for the night, which allows us to see more of the unfolding horror.

It is also blessed with some terrific widescreen framing, reminiscent of John Carpenter at his best, which elevate the film far above the usual bland visuals that often plague British films like a virus.

Gregory Burke’s screenplay intelligently weaves a story of survival within a powerful, almost one act structure, with some dark underlying issues which still resonate today.

The cast who help bring this to life are equally impressive: O’Connell in the demanding lead role will inevitably take the lions-share of the plaudits, but supporting cast also shine in what could easily be cliched roles.

Demange, French-born but British-based, this is an audacious leap from TV into feature films and comparisons will inevitably be made with Paul Greengrass, who was also propelled into the mainstream after his TV movie Bloody Sunday (2002).

You could also make career comparisons with director Steve McQueen, whose feature career launchpad was with Hunger (2008), a searing drama set around the Maze prison in the early 80s.

It is interesting that such difficult and controversial events have provided fertile ground for more recent film-makers, when it had previously proved such a minefield, with disastrous films like A Prayer for the Dying (1987) and The Devil’s Own (1997) being prime examples. But over time, things changed.

Gone were the tone deaf, ham-fisted efforts and in their place were works of greater style and substance: Greengrass used a documentary style to depict the seismic events of January 30th, 1972; McQueen realised the horrors of the 1981 hunger strike with a chilling simplicity.

Now Demange has added to this modern tradition, with a film that functions as a gripping thriller but also is an unsentimental reminder of the senseless brutality of warfare.

’71 played at the London Film Festival on October 9th and 10th

> LFF official site
> Facebook page for ’71
> Read more about The Troubles at Wikipedia

Cinema Festivals Reviews Thoughts

LFF 2014: The Imitation Game

The story of World War Two codebreaker Alan Turing is brought to the big screen with class, compassion and a standout performance from Benedict Cumberbatch.

Based largely on Andrew Hodge’s biography, it employs a well-worn but effective flashback device which sees the maths genius (Cumberbatch) relate his story to a police officer in the early 1950s.

As the story unfolds we see how a seemingly odd bachelor in Manchester, with a fondness for electronics projects, was in the previous decades a maths prodigy who would become crucial in defeating the Nazis, and in the process help lay the blueprint for modern computing.

The real life events that inspired this version are both extraordinary and complex, but screenwriter Graham Moore has wisely woven them in to his nicely honed screenplay, with only a handful of overwritten moments (most of them involving his childhood).

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum also brings a compelling pace to proceedings, whilst juggling the complexities of Turing’s life and work with how it affected those around him.

Production designer Maria Djurkovic impressively recreates three time periods (1930s, 40s, 50s) and is aided by some sharp camera work which results in a subtly altered visual sheen for each.

In key supporting roles, it is Mark Strong who stands out as a shadowy MI6 agent, bringing an enigmatic gravitas to his role. Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode, as fellow codebreakers, also do solid work in fairly underwritten parts.

This is a far superior film to Enigma (2001), the Michael Apted film which covered the same story with a somewhat hackneyed thriller premise, which seemed to turn away from the goldmine of the central protagonist.

Perhaps the shrewdest thing this film does is to embrace the puzzle of Turing himself: war hero; rebel; math genius; autistic savant; and finally a victim of the British society he had helped to save.

That the final film works as well as it does, is in large part down to Cumberbatch’s performance.

Although at times it borders on being a little too mannered, it nonetheless feels like we’ve been in the presence of Turing for the duration of the film.

Convincing whether he is answering back to his superiors or colleagues, fragile when worrying about his emotions, and belligerent that his vision will work no matter what, it is the range of emotions on display that make this his best screen performance to date.

Ultimately, the wider story is a bittersweet one, with a war hero unable to see what profound impacts his ideas had on World War II and the development of the computer and the field of artificial intelligence.

The Imitation Game does not seek to sugarcoat Turing’s legacy, nor is it an ‘issue film’ about Britain of the time.

Instead, it acknowledges the complexities of both the man and the times, whilst wrapping it up in a accessible narrative that acknowledges the profound impact he had on the world.

The Imitation Game opened the London Film Festival on Wednesday 8th October

> Official website
> Find out more about Alan Turing on Wikipedia

Reviews Thoughts

Gone Girl

Director David Fincher has been a long-time devotee of Alfred Hitchcock and his latest work seems to be the ultimate love letter to the ‘master of suspense’.

Although no stranger to dark crime dramas – such as Seven (1995) and Zodiac (2007) – Fincher has never really explored the mind of a killer, instead opting to craft impeccable procedurals, filled with dread.

His latest, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel, explores what happens when a marriage turns particularly sour: Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) have relocated to recession-hit Missouri and when the latter goes missing things really kick off.

To say much more about the plot is tricky because the narrative is filled with startling developments and many hidden pleasures. Even those who have read the book will savour the many twists, turns and dark humour that Fincher puts on screen.

It is some achievement that the director and novelist, adapting her own book, manage to juggle so many plot strands and characters, who include Nick’s loyal sister (Carrie Coon), a local detective (Kim Dickens), Amy’s rich ex-boyfriend (Neil Patrick Harris) and a superstar attorney (Tyler Perry).

That they do so with such precision and skill, will delight fans of the director and the book, but it also marks new ground for one of finest directors working in Hollywood. Previously his films have mainly explored male points of view, but here he delves into the dynamics of men and women.

The institution of marriage, especially the notion of a ‘perfect couple’, is by the end of the movie so prodded and pulled apart that by the end it feels like one of John Doe’s victims in Seven.

Modern, tabloid news coverage is also dissected with a knowing, penetrating wit. Often, the media circus surrounding the case of Nick and the missing ‘Amazing Amy’ resembles the climax of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), another example of a master auteur and satirist.

However, all roads seem to lead back to Hitchcock. There are so many of his tropes on display here: a ‘wrong man’ setup; an icy blonde; carefully controlled dolly shots and pans; an important shower scene; even sections that resemble the wilder elements of Vertigo (1958) and Marnie (1964).

Unlike some of Brian De Palma’s work, this is more than an elaborate homage: the flashbacks and shifts in perspective provide a solid foundation for the cast to do some of the best work of their careers.

Affleck is perfectly cast and pulls off a role that is trickier than it might appear at first; Pike reveals hidden depths after a recent run of supporting turns; Tyler Perry is a deeply unexpected delight, whilst the rest of the cast all fit neatly into the world Fincher has sculpted.

Trent Reznor’s haunting electronic score adds a rich aural flavour to proceedings, whilst DP Jeff Cronenweth helps provide the customary dark palette that Fincher is so fond of.

Gone Girl is the kind of film that needs to seen again and perhaps demands another review with spoilers, for a full discussion of its many qualities. But for the moment, it is a film you should definitely see, one of the best of the year so far.

> Official website
> Reviews at Metacritic

DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Now In the Wings on a World Stage

Now In the Wings On a World Stage

Depicting the Old Vic’s touring production of Shakespeare’s Richard III in 2011, this documentary – directed by Jeremy Whelehan – explores how a theatre company goes about presenting Shakespeare to a contemporary global audience.

Back in 2003, actor Kevin Spacey took over as the artistic director of the Old Vic theatre in London and one of his aims was to revive the kind of plays that made it famous, especially revivals of Shakespeare.

Perhaps the most iconic performance of Richard III was Laurence Olivier’s portrayal at the Old Vic in 1944, where the nascent National Theatre company was later born, so this seemed like a natural play for Spacey to reinterpret.

What gave this contemporary production an extra dimension was not just the fact that it was directed by Sam Mendes, collaborating with Spacey for the first time since American Beauty (1999), but that it would tour cities around the world in Greece, Turkey, Italy, China, Australia, Doha and America.

It was also part of the ‘Bridge Project’, which saw US and UK actors participate in a transatlantic ensemble of American and British actors in several productions, such as The Tempest, The Cherry Orchard and As You Like It.

Beginning with Mendes and his cast in rehearsals, the film soon sees Spacey (in the titular role) and his cast take the play around the world.

Crosscutting backstage interviews with scenes of onstage action, it provides illuminating insights into a touring company on the road.

The most momentous place they visit is the ancient site at Epidarus, which is still the best example of a surviving Greek theatre, and provides a stunning backdrop to clearly awed actors.

Istanbul provides an interesting backdrop as the city where east meets west and as tensions in the Arab Spring unfold we see real life tensions mirror the events of the play, with dictators being toppled amidst frequent bloodshed and intrigue.

When they reach Sydney, the real life downfall of Gaddafi even influenced Spacey’s costume in the 2nd Act and the already simmering parallels between Shakespearean villains and more recent ones becomes all too apparent.

Aside from Spacey we get to hear from the company of actors who range from veterans of the British stage (Gemma Jones) to younger Americans (Jeremy Bobb) and a range in-between.

The cultural differences are lightly touched upon but it seems touring has been a bonding experience.

Perhaps the most intriguing venue they visit is Beijing (the National Centre for the Performing Arts), where the Chinese audience is respectfully silent at first but does respond heartily to the unexpected comic aspects of the play.

At one point Mendes describes Spacey as ‘mercurial’, despite working with him on two major projects, and how the process on American Beauty was similar to Richard III.

Although Spacey is generous in describing his thoughts and feelings to camera, you somehow get the feeling that he likes to hold some things back, maybe fearful of revealing what makes his best performances tick.

Given that he filmed the widely acclaimed US remake of ‘House of Cards’ straight after playing Richard III for several months, you can sense how it influenced his performance.

It was already a thinly veiled update of Richard III, with its main villain (Frank Underwood) centre stage and giving frequent asides, but his version seems to be infused with more energy and humour, possibly as a result off his experiences touring the villain around the world.

As the film concludes, with the play finishing in New York, we have witnessed the sights and sounds of what a theatre company go through as they travel the globe.

But there is a sense that the film could have probed a little deeper.

Al Pacino’s marvellous documentary Looking for Richard (1996), which also featured Spacey, was a more compelling and poetic film about what Shakespeare means in the modern age, as Pacino was a more magnetic presence in channelling the spirit of the Bard.

That being said, Now In the Wings An A World Stage, is still an interesting examination of actors still trying to communicate themes and language from the 16th century.

> Official website for the film
> Buy it via Amazon UK
> Find out more about William Shakespeare and Richard III at Wikipedia
> CUNY TV interview with Kevin Spacey about the film (26m)

Cinema Reviews Thoughts


Will Forte Bruce Dern and June Squibb in Nebraska

Director Alexander Payne returns to his native state for another wry look at the American midwest and the characters who populate his goofy, desolate cinematic landscape.

In a marked change from the picturesque setting and vibrant colours of his last two films, The Descendants (2011) and Sideways (2004), here we go back the grey Nebraskan skies of his earlier work Election (1999).

Even more than that, Payne has opted for black and white, an unusual visual choice these days and one that invites comparisons to films like The Last Picture Show (1971), with its depiction of things ageing and slowly dying.

This central theme drives the story which revolves around Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a grumpy and partially senile old man who seems convinced he has won a million dollars, just because he has received a certificate in the mail.

Despite trying to convince him that the letter is a scam, his son David (Will Forte) decides to accompany him on the long trip from Billings, Montana to their home state of Lincoln, Nebraska where they meet family and old friends, some of who believe his story about the $1m.

All of this unfurls in classic Payne fashion: there are shrewd observations about family dynamics; a lingering sense of comic frustration and some truly memorable supporting characters, including Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) and an old work partner (Stacey Keach).

Working from Bob Nelson’s original screenplay, this marks the first time the director hasn’t had a hand in writing one of his films. But the material is a nice fit and the road movie structure and odd-couple dialogue has parallels with Sideways (2004).

Although the backdrop couldn’t be more different, there is an acute eye for detail and the bittersweet nature of relationships, especially the effect time and money has on our lives. In its own way, this is a sly parable about the illusory nature of the American Dream.

At the same time there is a lot of heart beneath the surface of these lives and one suspects that Payne sympathises with Woody’s plight, whilst not being too precious about his shortcomings, as evidenced in comic scenes where he visits Mount Rushmore or loses his false teeth.

The decision to use black and white (it was shot in colour and converted in post-production) whilst creating an elegiac tone, also allows cinematographer Phedon Papamichael to indulge in different lighting choices, which are interesting for such contemporary material.

Dern has often been cast in secondary roles, but here at the twilight of his career he gives a wonderfully nuanced performance. He’s cranky and unpredictable, yet somehow manages to paint a sympathetic portrait of a man sliding into the fog of old age.

Forte provides an effective foil as his adult son trying to understand his father better, Bob Odenkirk is nicely vain as the other son (a local TV newsreader), whilst Squibb gets the most belly laughs as the dominant matriarch.

The musical score by Mark Orton, with its use of guitars and strings, also sets a distinctive mood throughout.

> Official site
> Reviews at Metacritic

DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts

Heaven’s Gate

Isabelle Huppert and Kris Kristofferson in Heaven's Gate

One of the most infamous commercial disasters in Hollywood history gets another re-release, but at the correct length there is much to admire in Michael Cimino’s 1980 western.

Heaven’s Gate has a formidable legacy as the film that bankrupted United Artists, virtually ended the high flying career of its director, and led to the major studios taking fewer risks as the sun finally set on the auteur-driven New Hollywood era.

Although the truth may be more nuanced, it certainly came to symbolise the worst excesses and indulgences of the era, whether that was deserved or not.

But how does it hold up now?

Part of the problem is that ever since its New York premiere in November 1980 (when it clocked in at 219 mins), Cimino and the studio decided to pull it from release after just a week and then issue a drastically recut version later that April (148 mins).

This makes it somewhat difficult to judge, given that most audiences haven’t seen the longer version, but thanks to this new re-release on Blu-ray and DVD, we can see the version that has been personally approved by the director himself.

There are numerous sequences that have been restored and one can finally say this is the version that should be seen.

Set in Wyoming amidst the Johnson County War of 1892, it depicts the brutal struggle of Russian immigrants, as the local cattle barons gradually try to exterminate them.

Amidst this backdrop unfurls a fictionalised story involving a U.S. Marshal (Kris Kristofferson), his Harvard class mate (John Hurt), a French bordello madam (Isabelle Huppert), a hired killer (Christopher Walken), a local bar owner (Jeff Bridges) and a ruthless landowner (Sam Waterston).

When revisiting this film at the proper length there is much to feast on: Vilmos Zsigmond’s stunning cinematography, the incredible use of the Montana and Idaho landscapes; and Tambi Larsen’s epic production design, which along with Cimino’s meticulous attention to detail creates a vivid depiction of the West.

For fans of the western genre there perhaps has never been as grand a vision put on screen.

The central love story doesn’t quite match up to the visuals, but the social and political themes are refreshingly bold for a mainstream American film.

Although films such as Shane (1953) had featured an avenging angel character, Cimino’s script delved deep into the class aspects of the American West.

As Jeff Bridges’ character says at one point:

“It’s getting dangerous to be poor in this country.”

Now there is a line that rings down the decades to the present day.

The central love triangle mostly works with Kristofferson and Huppert making a convincing couple, and although Walken and Hurt are basically miscast in their roles, there is enough realism in the rest of the supporting cast to create a compelling atmosphere.

Watch out too for the recurring motif of circles, from the opening graduation dance at Harvard, to the skating rink, the final battle and the wider theme of the overall story.

Despite its many qualities though, there still remain flaws, the biggest of which is not length but pace.

It may have been designed to show off the extravagant visuals but instead clogs up the narrative of the film and is arguably why opinion is still split on it today.

But it remains worth seeing on its own terms and as a kind of lament for both the Western genre and the filmmaking of the 1970s.


  • New Video Interview With Jeff Bridges
  • New Interview With Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond
  • Extracts From ‘Final Cut: The Making And Unmaking Of Heaven’s Gate’ – Michael Epstein’s acclaimed documentary based on Steven’s Bach’s book

> Buy the Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK
> Find out more about Heaven’s Gate at the IMDb and Wikipedia

Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The Counsellor

Javier Bardem and Michael Fassbender in The Counsellor

The screenwriting debut of novelist Cormac McCarthy sees him team up with director Ridley Scott for a bleak tale set amidst the drug trade of the US-Mexican border region.

When a shady lawyer (Michael Fassbender) gets caught up in a transaction gone wrong, he starts to fully realise that his world may be a cesspit of corruption of murder, endangering not only him but his fiancee (Penelope Cruz).

Employed by a flamboyant Mexican dealer (Javier Bardem), who has a strangely sinister girlfriend (Cameron Diaz), he is warned by a business associate named Westray (Brad Pitt) that Mexican cartels can be ruthless and unforgiving when crossed.

Although an original screenplay, we are firmly in ‘McCarthy-land’, where human suffering is seemingly around every corner and harsh punishment is meted out in remorseless ways.

Ridley Scott has long been interested in bringing the novelist’s Blood Meridian to the screen and he’s admitted that when the option to make this film came up, he jumped at the chance.

The result is a dark and strange film, defiantly going against the grain of conventional studio filmmaking, with its sordid scenes of sex and violence marking it out as a rarity in the current climate of animation and safety-first blockbusters.

It may have one of the most in-demand casts of recent memory, but it largely plays them against type – Fassbender is a naive protagonist, Bardem a surreal supporting act, Diaz a wild femme fatale and Pitt a larger-than-life cowboy, with only Cruz playing it straight.

None of them are untainted by their world (although some are more tainted than others) and initially life seems good for the title character as he indirectly reaps the rewards of the drug trade before foolishly succumbing to his greedier instinct, although ironically it is a benevolent act that triggers the main events of the film.

Although the characters are distinctive, the real stars here are the writer and director: McCarthy has managed to create his grim but often disturbingly plausible visions intact, whilst Scott can do this kind of drama in his sleep as the plot unwinds with clockwork efficiency.

Scott has often been accused of being more interested in visuals than characters, but that makes him a perfect fit for this material, where humans really are pawns, and whilst McCarthy’s screenplay will undoubtedly enrage screenwriting gurus, this is no bad thing.

An early scene involving rabbits being chased and hunted by cheetahs is a forewarning of what is to come: shootings, beheadings, strangulation by weird devices.

This is a brutal world in which we see people in over their heads, affected by forces out of their control.

The oddness of the material extends to the quality — parts of the film are highly effective and stay with you long after the final credits roll, but there is also a strange familiarity here.

This may be because Cormac McCarthy has been such a cultural influence on the border region of Mexico and the US: after Breaking Bad (2008-13) and the Coen Brothers’ masterful adaptation of his own No Country for Old Men (2007), there seems to be a sense of déjà vu running throughout the film.

Despite this, there is something to admire in how it boldly defies conventions and stays true to the spirit of the screenwriter’s vision.

Some audiences will be repulsed by aspects of The Counsellor but like a fine wine may be more appreciated in the years to come.

> Official site
> Reviews at Metacritic

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2013: Saving Mr. Banks

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks

The story behind the film version of Mary Poppins (1964) is the subject of a clever and charming new film about the clash between the English author Pamela ‘PL’ Travers and famed studio head Walt Disney.

When we first see the elder Travers (Emma Thompson) in 1961 she is running short of money, due to declining book sales, and her agent is urging her to accept the offer of a trip to Los Angeles to meet Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), the mogul who has pursued the rights to the project for 20 years.

Having promised his two daughters to turn their favourite book into a movie, he is very keen on the idea of a big budget musical, granting her full creative input into the project, something he rarely did.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t realise that Travers actively hates the idea of a musical and resists almost all the suggestions from the creative team at the studio (a trio played by Bradley Whitford, B. J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman).

Gradually, through flashback, we discover the reasons for her reluctance may lie in her childhood, when she grew up in Australia with a loving but troubled father (Colin Farrell).

On the surface, this may appear like another slickly produced Disney feel-good comedy.

Whilst it is certainly all that, the film has its own interesting backstory.

The origins of the project lie in a 2002 TV documentary about Travers, which eventually led to Allison Owen coming on board as producer and eventually a script credited to Sue Smith and Kelly Marcel made 2011s ‘Black List’ (an unofficial survey of the years best unproduced scripts).

Then, in a strange reverse parallel to the film, the producers had to persuade the notoriously sensitive Disney that they would not trample on Walt’s legacy.

Eventually, the Mouse House relented to the first ever depiction of Walt Disney on screen and the finished film is mostly a charming surprise.

This is due in large part to Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, whose constant sparring provides a lot of the comedic sparks.

Thompson’s Travers is a perpetually defiant English woman who manages to hide a troubled past, whilst Hanks plays Disney as a loveable, charming uncle who’s drive and ambition are never far from the surface.

To an extent, the film glosses over the thornier aspects of each character: there is no mention of Travers’ unconventional personal life or the darker side of Disney. However, this is not entirely a bad thing as a warts-and-all drama would have been out of the question for a mainstream Disney release.

But the end result is not just a sanitised product but a rather sly portrait of a spanner in the Hollywood machine.

It is in essence an exploration of ‘creative differences’ — that well-worn phrase so beloved of Tinseltown to maintain the idea that idea that raging rows were amicable disagreements.

Some of the funniest scenes in Saving Mr. Banks come in the rehearsal room, where Travers is aghast at some of the songs and suggestions that are now so beloved by fans of the 1964 film.

These are executed with a light touch that is unfortunately not true of the extended flashback sequences which dwell a bit too clumsily on her childhood.

Make no mistake, this is a manipulative film and the hiring of Thomas Newman to score it only adds to its seductive power, with his lush hanging strings and signature instrumentation providing a lightness to the comedy and emotion to the drama.

As Walt Disney ultimately persuades P.L. Travers to accept the idea of a movie, we can see what a driven man he was, whilst at the LA premiere we can be moved at the author’s reaction to the film, even if that may not have been exactly as presented here.

She told the BBC in 1977 that she had ‘learned to live with the film,’ which is a hardly a ringing endorsement.

But then maybe this film, like the musical and the original book, is just another pleasurable fantasy.

Is pleasure such a bad thing?

Saving Mr. Banks closed the London Film Festival on Sunday 20th October

(It opens in the UK on November 26th)

> Official site
> Reviews of the film at Metacritic

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2013: All is Lost

Robert Redford in All is Lost

One man adrift in the Indian Ocean is the premise for J.C. Chandor’s second film, a compelling tale of survival against the odds.

Opening with a brief, mournful monologue of an enigmatic sailor (Robert Redford), we hear a crash and are plunged back a few days to when his boat, the Virgina Jean, collided with a large metal cargo container.

We immediately see he is calm under pressure, scooping out water and doing the best he can under the circumstances: patching up the hole and trying to fix the wet radio.

Who is this man?

Cryptically listed in the credits as ‘Our Man’, perhaps he is a retired businessman who took up sailing. Maybe he is a professional sailor. Who knows?

Perhaps he represents any human being caught up in a desperate situation. The point of this film is to put us in there with him as he battles the elements.

Chandor and his crew slowly build the tension as we see all manner of obstacles: the leaking boat, storms and sharks.

Apart from a few words, it is free of dialogue, meaning there is a relentless focus on Redford and his situation.

This is surprisingly riveting, as previously routine acts such as putting up a sail or jumping into a raft become critically important.

But Chandor also has a few more tricks up his sleeve, most notably the casting of Redford. The movie star brings a grizzled gravitas to his part in what is his best work in years.

Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco brings an immediacy to the action on the boat, whilst visualising the beauty and danger of the oceanic environment.

Cleverly blending in location shooting with work in tanks and visual effects, it paints a hauntingly plausible scenario of what it is to be stuck at sea.

The sound design is outstanding and the large sound team, headed by Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns, does sterling work in capturing the many different aural textures aboard the boat, life raft and ocean.

For writer-director J.C. Chandor this marks another remarkable film after his feature debut, Margin Call (2011).

That still remains the best feature about the financial crisis, and seems to be a world away from All is Lost.

But look closely and there may be parallel themes: crisis, dread and the aforementioned survival.

The building and firm in Margin Call which created their own financial problems could be a cousin to the boat in All is Lost – both are sinking fast.

With these two films Chandor has already created powerful parables for our time and the degree of skill and intelligence he applies to his work only makes me hungry for his future work.

All is Lost screened at the London Film Festival on Oct 12th, 13th and 14th

(It opens in the UK on December 26th)

> Official site, Facebook page and Twitter
> Reviews at Metacritic

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2013: 12 Years a Slave

Chewitel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

Based on the true life experiences of a free black man forced into slavery, Steve McQueen’s latest work is a stunning achievement.

The kidnapping and enslavement of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from 1841 until 1853 form the spine of this harrowing tale.

Northup endures a hellish odyssey as he is chained and sailed down to New Orleans, where he encounters the brutal truths of the slave trade.

One owner is relatively benevolent (Benedict Cumberbatch) but his psychotic assistant (Paul Dano) forces a sale, meaning Northup eventually ends up picking cotton for the ruthless Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

Amongst the other important people he encounters are a slave trader (Paul Giamatti) who renames him ‘Platt’; a fellow slave (Lupita Nyong’o) and a sympathetic Canadian who may be able to help him (Brad Pitt).

From the opening scenes until the closing credits, fans of McQueen – and I remain a huge admirer of Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) – will recognise his mastery of the visual and audio language of cinema.

But here, he and his collaborators are painting on a bigger canvas and the result is a stunning historical drama which is likely to be the definitive film on the subject for many years to come.

The production design by Adam Stockhausen and use of the Louisiana landscape gives everything we see a remarkable authenticity.

This in turn is aided by the superb ensemble cast who chew up John Ridley’s dialogue with relish.

At the centre of all this is an incredible performance from Ejiofor as Solomon Northup.

We see him go through many episodes of mental and physical torment whilst maintaining his quiet dignity and hope.

It is a moving, subtle and rich performance which shows just what he is capable of with the right material.

Cinematographer Sean Bobbit continues his fruitful visual collaboration with McQueen and the beauty of the South is evoked alongside an air of dread and menace.

An agonising one-take sequence of a lynching is just one of many scenes that stay with you long after the film is over.

The icing on the cake is Hans Zimmer’s haunting score, which at times resembles his orchestral work on Inception (2010) and The Thin Red Line (1998).

In addition the use of spiritual songs as the slaves work in the fields, adds another human touch, hinting at the defiance which would later spawn the Civil War and ultimately the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

There has long been a curious reluctance for mainstream US cinema to examine the dark chapter of slavery.

Aside from the stylised world of Django Unchained (2012), realistic films haven’t really been made about the subject.

Even this project took a British director and several production companies (River Road, New Regency, Plan B and Film 4) to eventually bring it to the screen.

Perhaps the oddest aspect is how this particular story was dormant for so many years.

Although it was published around the same time as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book remained a relative obscurity.

Maybe it was a reluctance to confront the ghosts of the past, or perhaps it just wasn’t good box office.

Intolerance still lies beneath the surface of American life, even in the age of a black US president, but this film is a powerful reminder of the cruelties of racism and the endurance of hope.

12 Years a Slave screened at the London Film Festival on Fri 18th October, Sat 19th and Sun 20th

(It opens in the UK on Friday 24th January 2014)

> Official site
> Reviews at Metacritic

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2013: Blue is the Warmest Colour

Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux in Blue is the Warmest Colour

The winner of this year’s Palme D’Or is a frank but absorbing study of a young girl’s sexual awakening.

Running close to three hours of screen time this is an epic of the heart and disarmingly in-depth depiction of falling in love.

When we first meet the protagonist, Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) she is a 15-year old girl about to begin her first serious relationship with a classmate Thomas (Jeremie Laheurte).

However, a chance encounter with an older blue-haired woman named Emma (Lea Seydoux), leads her to question her emotions and feelings towards her own sex.

But this is just the beginning of the long journey which director Abdellatif Kechiche takes us on, as emotionally charged highs are gradually mixed in with heartbreaking lows.

Despite taking place over a number of years – I would roughly estimate around six – Kechiche cleverly uses the narrative, so key episodes gradually fade into another.

These segments could almost be short films in themselves: an early encounter at a lesbian bar; a tender scene in the park; and two awkward dinner parties are just some of the memorable scenes as Emma and Adele fall in love.

This is all depicted with remarkable authenticity, with the telling silences providing a neat counterpoint to the natural, flowing conversations.

The intensity of the film is heightened by the decision to mostly shoot in widescreen closeups, with cinematographer Sofian El Fani capturing the emotions and actions with piercing clarity.

Even in exterior environments, which are relatively rare in the film, the focus is on the characters, especially Adele.

This depiction intimacy spills over into the explicit sex scenes, which have attracted a lot of media attention since the premiere in Cannes.

In truth there isn’t a great deal to discuss other than the fact that they are more brightly lit and longer than most movie sex scenes.

The fact that three scenes has coloured discussion of this film for several months perhaps says more about certain journalists than it does about what is on screen.

Whilst the bravery of the two actresses should be noted, it as part of a much wider story, with many tones and textures.

Just as notable is the film’s embrace of the complexities of sexuality and human relationships, with both characters behaving in believably erratic and confused ways.

The themes of commitment, trust and social anxiety are all explored as the film progresses, and it says much about the skill of writer-director Kechiche that none of it ever descends into cliche or pat conclusions.

He is aided by two outstanding lead performances from Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, with the former taking the greater share of screen time.

Displaying a remarkable assurance in front of the camera, she not only has a natural screen presence but manages to convey emotion with the slightest of moves and expression.

Given that nature of how this film was shot – in searching, close-up compositions – it is a testament to their acting that the audience may feel like they’ve been in a relationship with the pair.

A rich, draining and highly accomplished drama.

Blue is the Warmest Colour screened at the London Film Festival on October 14 and 17th. (It opens in the UK on November 25th)

> Reviews at Metacritic
> IMDb link

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2013: Short Term 12

Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield in Short Term 12

Ditching the conventions of the indie coming-of-age genre, the second feature from Destin Daniel Cretton is a wonderfully bittersweet drama.

The independent film world is not short of tales involving journeys into adulthood and this year alone we had two come out of the Sundance Film Festival: The Kings of Summer and The Spectacular Now.

Whilst those had their charms, they pale in comparison to Short Term 12, which occupies somewhat similar territory but excels in nearly every department.

All of which makes it staggering to think it was actually turned down by this year’s Sundance festival, only to go on to triumph at SXSW in Austin a few months after, where it snapped up both Grand Jury and Audience awards. (The film is based on a short film Cretton had play Sundance in 2009).

Set at a foster home for at-risk children, it follows the relationships between the supervisors and children, focusing on Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr) as tensions at the workplace spill over into their private life.

Among the kids they have to look after include: Marcus (Keith Stanfield) a young man who was forced by his mother to sell drugs; Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a middle class girl prone to self harm; and Sammy (Alex Calloway) who regularly tries to escape.

Grace and Mason are not therapists but they are there to make the environment as safe and productive as possible for the young people under their care.

This they are good at, so much so that they understand the patients better than the on-site therapists, and their love for each other makes them seem a perfect couple, until a sequence of events starts to affect them in a profound way.

The delicate writing and direction means that cliches of this sub genre are tactfully avoided. No autistic savants, no magical redemptions – only normal people trying to cope with the abnormalities of life.

Drawn from his own experiences working in a foster home – and the little-seen Steve James documentary Stevie (2002) – Cretton manages to strike the perfect blend of comedy and drama: the former is never exploitative and the latter never overwrought.

Larson has been acting since she was a young girl, but this is a major breakout role in which she shows previously hidden depths, channelling anger, love and hurt with consummate ease.

Almost a match for her is John Gallagher Jnr (bearing an uncanny resemblance to Jason Reitman), who accomplishes the tricky task of playing a genuinely good man – something not as easy as it sounds or looks on screen.

This is a very interior film, with Cretton and his DP Brett Pawlak going for a handheld visual style, increasing the emotional intimacy between the characters and the audience.

There are several disarming moments – some dark, some funny, others joyful – but this element of unpredictability and lack of cheap shocks elevates the film to a different level.

Several of the characters have surprising back stories and there is a genuine pleasure in seeing the narrative unfold, with each character displaying all the contradictions and complexity of genuine human beings, as opposed to the clichéd types often found polluting certain screenplays in the indie realm.

On top of all this, Joel P West’s distinctive staccato-like score is a perfect musical accompaniment.

Short Term 12 is ultimately a little bit like its lead characters: plucky, funny and sad, but a warm reminder of human beings ability to empathise and love one another.

Since the financial crisis broke five years ago it has been an extremely tough time for the independent sector, but films like this show that not only is creativity thriving in adversity, it is perhaps thriving because of that adversity.

Short Term 12 screened at the London Film Festival on Tuesday 15th October and will also screen on Sat 19th

(It opens in the UK on November 1st)

> Official site
> UK Twitter

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2013: Mystery Road

Aaron Pedersen in Mystery Road

Director Ivan Sen makes great use of the sparse Australian landscape to create a brooding police procedural that almost functions as a contemporary Western.

When the corpse of a young aboriginal girl is found on a remote Outback highway (the road of the title), the investigating detective (Aaron Pedersen) slowly uncovers a web of indifference and sinister motives in his home town.

Although it contains familiar tropes of the conventional murder-mystery, the distinctive setting and approach give it an unusual flavour.

The gorgeously framed sunsets and blue skies are undercut by a sinister stench of indifference and corruption, which even appears to be infecting police colleagues, including his boss (Tony Barry) and fellow officer (Hugo Weaving).

Moving at a slower pace than is usual for this genre, the film may irk some impatient viewers, but the multi-talented Sen (who serves as the writer-director-cinematographer-editor) manages to create a compelling atmosphere.

He also proves himself as a fine director of actors, coaxing a nicely stoic lead performance from Aaron Pedersen, and some solid supporting turns from Weaving and Barry.

Pedersen makes an interesting lead as he could almost be as being a modern day Shane with his white hat and steely determination to root out wrongdoing.

But he also has a nicely laconic sense of humour and is a real presence on screen, showing an impressive range from intimate family scenes to a climactic shoot-out.

That particular sequence seems on the surface to be a homage to a traditional Western climax, but like the rest of the film manages to subvert the familiar whilst acknowledging it at the same time.

The ghost of Australia’s past is ever present with the issue of race always in the background. But the film manages to effectively weave these into the genre conventions with considerable tact and skill.

Clunky dialogue is refreshingly absent from the script and the power of silence is shrewdly used in key sequences where words have real importance, reflecting the anxieties simmering beneath the surface of everyday life.

When this atmosphere gets heated up by the investigation into the young girl’s death, implicating those close to the lead character, the film becomes more than just a murder-mystery and something symbolic about Australia itself.

Shot in the arid outback of Western Queensland, the locations gradually assume a greater meaning with the metaphorical title not only key to the narrative but also the major thematic concern of the film.

It might seem a strange or even foolhardy choice to attach such weighty issues as race to a hybrid Western/Mystery film but it turns out to be an inspired one, with Sen rapidly establishing himself as a talent to watch.

Mystery Road screened at the London Film Festival on October 10th, 11th and 19th (UK release is TBC)

> Official site
> IMDb entry

Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Upstream Color

Upstream Color

The long-awaited second film from Shane Carruth is a mind-bending puzzle filled with striking images and sounds.

Back in 2004 Carruth startled audiences at Sundance with his ultra low-budget time travel drama Primer, which has since become a significant cult film.

He quickly became something of an enigma – apparently one long cherished project was stuck in development hell – prompting questions about when and what his new film would be.

But earlier this year he was back at Sundance (nine years after his debut film) with Upstream Color, which prompted eager anticipation.

Suffice to say, Carruth has lived up to expectations with a film that is both absorbing and uncompromising.

When a young woman (Amy Seimetz) is involved in a bizarre series of events after being drugged, she forms a connection with a man (Carruth) who has had similarly surreal experiences.

Although that is a very basic outline of the story, part of the pleasure is seeing how it veers into surreal realms encompassing roundworms, pigs, flowers and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.

Just trying to describe the film in words feels futile as this is one that should be experienced on a audio-visual level.

The sound design by Pete Horner and Chad Chance is a huge part of the film and the seemingly omnipresent synth score is hypnotic.

The visuals too have a strange, sinister beauty as most of the time Carruth and his co-editor David Lowery cut in an interesting way, cramming a kaleidoscope of images into the 96 minute running time.

Such specificity of vision is probably due to Carruth’s array of talents: he serves as actor-writer-director-producer, cinematographer, composer, co-editor and one of the camera operators.

In a time where too much information is poured out before a film’s release, he has been refreshingly enigmatic in interviews promoting it.

What is it really about?

You could say the film is about recovery and reconnection, but it is intentionally ambiguous and presented with a sense of mystery at almost every turn.

The way images, both urban and rural, are blended with sound is hypnotic, putting us into an almost trance-like state.

Because the film is so unconventional in its approach, some might dismiss it as pretentious or incoherent.

It isn’t a mainstream film by any means, but in an era of manufactured franchises it is heartening to see such singularity of vision in US cinema.

Like Memento (2000) and Mulholland Drive (2001) it keeps the audience in a state of suspense at what may happen in the next sequence, which is quite a feat in an era noted for its adherence to more rigid forms of storytelling.

If Primer explored time travel and engineering, Upstream Color delves deep into the mysteries of identity and human connection.

The best compliment I can pay it is that as the final credits rolled in the cinema, I immediately wanted to experience it all over again.

> Official site
> Reviews of the film at Metacritic

Cinema DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts

Plein Soleil (Purple Noon)

Alain Delon in Plein Soleil

Although later adapted in 1999 by Anthony Minghella, the first film version of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley was a French adaptation, directed by Rene Clement.

It follows the adventures of Tom Ripley (Alain Delon), hired by the father of rich playboy Phillipe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), with instructions to bring his wayward son home from Italy.

But Phillipe, his fiancee Marge (Marie Laforet) and Tom decide to stay in the Mediterranean, divisions start to arise.

Clement made his name as a director just after World War II, with Beyond the Gates (1949) and Forbidden Games (1952), both of which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

Plein Soleil a.k.a Purple Noon (1960) came at an interesting point in world cinema, just as the French New Wave was taking the world by storm with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Godard’s Breathless (1960).

Some of the younger directors were critics who had derided Clement, most famously Truffaut in his famous diatribe “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema“.

Although at that time he was seen as part of the establishment, this could be seen as something of a bridge between the old guard and the up and coming autuers.

Ironically, Plein Soleil was enriched by cinematographer Henri Decae, who had shot Truffaut’s landmark debut film the year before.

Here he basks in the vivid colours of the Mediterranean and visually the film is a treat, with Bella Clement’s ultra-stylish costumes adding to the mix.

But the really big deal with this film was that it cemented the arrival of Alain Delon as a bona fide movie star, with his smooth charm and young good looks.

He would swiftly become an icon of European cinema with appearances in Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962), and Melville’s Le Samourai (1967).

The comparison with Anthony Minghella’s 1999 version is fascinating because although Clement arguably captures the spirit of Highsmith’s novel better, he fudges the ending (Minghella’s was more ambiguous), incurring Highsmith’s displeasure.

That said, there is much to feast on here and this UK disc features some notable extras.


  • Interview with Alain Delon: A new interview wih the French actor in which he discusses working with Clement and the importance of Plein Soleil in establishing his career. (19 mins)
  • Rene Clement at the Heart of the New Wave: A documentary by Dominique Maillet focusing on Clement and his legacy featuring interviews with director Jean-Charles Tacchella (Cousin Cousine), actress Brigitte Fossey (Forbidden Games), Alain Delon, film historian Aldo Tassone, director and producer Dominique Delouche (L’homme de désir), assistant cameraman Jean-Paul Schwartz (Purple Noon), producer Renzo Rossellini (Don Giovanni, Death Watch), and costume designer Piero Tosi (The Leopard, The Damned). (67 min).
  • The Restoration: A short video showing selected scenes in split screen comparing the old footage alongside the new 4K restoration. (5 min).

Plein Soleil is re-released at selected UK cinemas from Friday 30th August and is out on DVD & Blu-ray on Monday 16th September

> Pre-order the Blu-ray at Amazon UK
> Get local showtimes via Google Movies

DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts VOD

VOD: Arbitrage

Richard Gere in Arbitrage

A highly impressive drama about a rich hedge fund manager explores many unpleasant truths about the nature of Wall Street.

In a clever twist on ‘the wronged man’ genre, writer-director Nicholas Jarecki depicts the struggles of Robert Miller (Richard Gere), a billionaire head of a company on the brink of bankruptcy.

Only a trusted few know the truth and matters escalate when his daughter and chief accountant (Brit Marling) begins to suspect wrongdoing.

Things get worse when he flees from the scene of a car crash involving his mistress (Laetitia Casta) and is pursued by a dogged detective (Tim Roth).

In Hitchcock films such as Saboteur (1942) and The Wrong Man (1956), innocent protagonists struggle to clear their name after they are wrongly declared guilty of something.

Jarecki inverts that trope here by making his character guilty of many things (infidelity, fraud and perverting the course of justice) and still making us root for him as his tries to extricate himself from crisis upon crisis.

The casting of Gere was clever: in what is his best screen performance in years, he somehow manages to elicit our sympathy whilst engaging in some despicable acts.

But the cold truths this story digs into have any number of real life parallels in the US financial sector over the last few years.

The basic theme is that for the super-rich denizens of Wall Street anything is a deal that can be negotiated, even if that comes at a heavy cost for others.

Complicit are investors ignoring false accounting and his wife (Susan Sarandon), who ignores her husband’s mistress in exchange for an opulent lifestyle.

In the wrong hands, Arbitrage could either be a ponderous, moralising drama or an overblown thriller, but Jarecki gets the balance just right.

He is aided by some fine supporting performances from Marling (following her impressive writing and acting turns in Another Earth and The Sound of My Voice) and Nate Parker, who excels in a key supporting role.

For his first feature Jarecki has wisely recruited some solid behind-the-scenes talent: composer Cliff Martinez lends the film a tense, atmospheric score and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux gives the film a highly impressive visual sheen.

Shot on a budget of just $12 million, it has currently has made close to $50 million with a pioneering simultaneous release on cinema and VOD.

Although not the first film to take this approach, its substantial earnings on multiple platforms may be seen as a landmark, as the new release model for mid-budget indie films like this takes shape.

In the UK, it was available on iTunes two weeks before the DVD and Blu-ray, suggesting that Apple and the distributor (Koch Films) were monitoring this as the kind of canary in the coal mine.

If the US video-on-demand performance ($12 million) is anything to go by, then things look promising.

Arbitrage is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and iTunes

> Official site
> Reviews of Arbitrage at Metacritic
> Richard Gere talks to Thompson on Hollywood about the film

DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts

DVD: Mea Maxima Culpa – Silence in the House of God

Mea Maxima Culpa

A haunting and frequently shocking expose of child abuse in the Catholic Church, Alex Gibney’s latest film explores an insidious web of corruption and cover up.

Gibney has explored corruption in institutions before (e.g. Enron, the US military) and here he examines the story of four deaf men who were abused by priests in the 1960s before travelling higher up the church.

Interweaving it with other stories, a devastating portrait quickly emerges of a bankrupt institution that has not only shattered people’s lives, but actively sought to conceal wrongdoing at the highest levels.

Intriguingly, Pope Benedict XVI stood down in February around the UK theatrical release and in doing so he became the first Pope to resign in 600 years. Many have speculated that the abuse scandals (that this film partly explores) gave him a good reason to retire.

When he took over in 2005, he immediately had to deal with a situation that led to an explosion of abuse claims and law suits against the church and accusations that the Vatican was complicit in the cover up.

Although films such as Deliver Us From Evil (2006) have covered this subject by focusing on a single figure, Gibney’s film adopts an unusual approach in starting out with Father Lawrence Murphy abusing his pupils at the St John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

It then gradually follows the trail of abuse into the wider world, which included Tony Walsh, the notorious Irish priest who was also an Elvis personator, Father Marcial Maciel, who was ‘punished’ by being sent out to Florida, and on to the Vatican.

Perhaps worst of all is that the Church not only denied and covered-up many of the cases, it also delayed in punishing paedophile priests and even adopted the policy of posting them to other communities.

At one point there is the utterly surreal revelation that at one point the Vatican suggested putting all the offending priests on a dedicated island.

Despite the dark subject matter, this is an important historical work and has a interesting stylistic touch: whilst watching the deaf interviewees, we hear actors such as Chris Cooper and Ethan Hawke voice their words.

Although such a device may have sprung from necessity, it adds an extra layer to their testimony, literally giving them the voice they were denied as young boys.

There is also some remarkably powerful home video footage towards the end of the film as it comes full circle back to St John’s School for the Deaf.

An important document of a massive scandal, it is also a stark reminder of the emotional destruction wrought by a large, unaccountable institution.

> Buy the DVD at Amazon UK
> More on the film at the IMDb

DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts

Blu-ray: To the Wonder

Ben Affleck and Rachel Adams

Terrence Malick’s latest film premiered last Autumn to largely mixed reviews but whilst it is the most extreme film he has made in his trademark style, it has a refreshing boldness to it along with some beautiful sequences.

Malick’s work has frequently eschewed conventional notions of filmmaking with their sparse dialogue, dreamy visuals and obsession with nature.

This has been amplified since his return to Hollywood in 1998 after a self-imposed 20 year exile, where films such as The Thin Red Line (2005), The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011) have gone even further than his earlier work Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978).

He has never been afraid to tackle big themes such as love, death, nature or even the creation of life itself.

In doing so he has also established certain stylistic flourishes: hushed interior monologues; shots of plants; and use of classical music.

With To the Wonder he has taken his trademark elements and turned them up to the nth degree, but whilst the end result falls short of his best films, it is by no means the unintentional work of self-parody that some have suggested.

The story centres on a man (Ben Affleck) torn between two women: Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a European he has met in Paris who comes back to the United States with him, and Jane (Rachel McAdams), the old lover he reconnects with from his hometown in Oklahoma.

In addition, there is a priest (Javier Bardem) struggling with his faith and lack of hope in the world.

They are the basic building blocks of the story but Malick does something much more radical with the narrative, stitching together what appears to be highly improvised sequences in which characters say little or no conventional dialogue.

If this was any other director then we could be in serious trouble, but with Malick he somehow manages to keep things interesting as the characters thoughts and actions wash over us in a kind of cinematic reverie.

It helps that he is one of the great visual stylists in the history of cinema and aided by his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, puts some remarkable imagery on-screen.

As the characters walk around, often tracked by a seemingly ever-present Steadicam, we get to see them engage in a loose and fluid way that not only suits the narrative approach but after a while becomes hypnotic, seeming imitating the pace of everyday existence.

There is also Malick’s trademark use of magic hour, stunning use of natural light and interesting use of locations, which include Paris, Normandy and Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

Plenty of viewers will balk at the methods of To the Wonder but the sheer audacity of the execution is something to behold.

> Official site
> Buy the Blu-ray or DVD at Amazon UK
> Reviews of To the Wonder at Metacritic

Cinema Reviews Thoughts

World War Z

Brad Pitt in World War Z

The buzz surrounding this expensive zombie-apocalypse movie has been largely negative but it turns out to be agreeable genre fare, laced with some spectacular set-pieces.

Brad Pitt plays a UN troubleshooter who has to escort his family to safety after a virus turns Philadelphia (and the rest of the world) into bloodthirsty, rampaging zombies.

From there he is recruited to find the source of the disease and his journey takes him to South Korea, Israel and Wales, all the while avoiding infection himself.

Although this is essentially a big budget, apocalyptic disaster movie – reworking elements of 28 Weeks Later (2007), Contagion (2011) and Independence Day (1996) – Pitt has the screen presence to keep our attention hold as the film shifts rapidly around the world.

At times it moves too fast, but the action is competently handled and there are some interesting ideas laced amidst the chaos, notably the real world hotspots such as South Korea and Israel making their way into the mix.

Though those traces remain the novel upon which it was based was apparently much more political (exploring the issues from a global perspective and having the disease begin in China), which meant they were trimmed for the demands of the global marketplace.

Whilst this is a shame, the central set piece set in Israel is visually stunning: when crazed zombie hordes attack a walled Jerusalem, they resemble a biblical plague of insects.

The false safety the Israeli survivors feel perhaps reflects real world anxieties and the visual effects are blended in well with the live action.

Just before Pitt lands in Israel we see a nuclear explosion in the distance and when he lands his contact there seems to have too much faith in the city wall keeping the zombies out.

It is left up to the audience to decide what these images might mean by audiences can infer parallels with contemporary strife in the Holy Land.

The film’s final third has been the subject of much speculation, with reported rewrites and re-shoots ballooning the budget, but whatever the cost it just about works.

A scene involving a drinks machine is the only jarring moment in a tense climax in which Forster and his sound editors load on the tension.

The casting of relatively unknown actors in supporting roles (Mireille Enos as Pitt’s wife and Daniella Kertesz as an Israeli soldier) is also a nice touch for a film of this scale.

Ultimately it may not make a huge profit for Paramount and its multitude of producers, but for a summer blockbuster it is refreshing to see one not based on a comic book.

World War Z opens in the UK on June 21st

> Official site
> Reviews of World War Z at Metacritic

Cinema Reviews

Man of Steel

Henry Cavill as Superman in Man of Steel

The latest incarnation of Superman sees Warner Bros recruit two of their star directors in an attempt to revitalise the character after the huge success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

In a sense, this was to be to Superman what Batman Begins (2005) was to the other DC Comics superhero. The relative failure of the previous reboot, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006), led the studio to the key players behind Batman’s recent success: writer-director Christopher Nolan and co-writer David Goyer.

They in turn recruited Zack Snyder to direct and assist them with bringing a fresh angle to the material and whilst some of the approach is interesting, the end result ultimately becomes an indigestible dish of CGI-fuelled set pieces.

Although Singer’s vision was criticised for being too respectful to Richard Donner’s 1978 film (it was an ‘unofficial sequel’), Man of Steel opens with the destruction of Superman’s home planet Krypton as his father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends him to Earth.

Then it takes a slightly different take by exploring Superman/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) in flashback as he learns of his real identity and has to defend himself from a sceptical Earth and the evil General Zod (Michael Shannon), whilst dealing with intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams).

To their credit the filmmakers have tried to establish a new universe for this iconic character: Alex McDowell’s production design is a striking mix of Dune (1984) and Alien (1979), the main actors perform well in their roles (quite a feat given some of the dialogue) and there are some nice touches put in for the fans.

Perhaps the most radical and refreshing of all is Hans Zimmer’s score, which jettisons the famous John Williams one and brings a more sombre feeling to the action on-screen.

But despite the presence of Nolan as producer, this DC adaptation fails where Batman Begins (2005) largely succeeded.

With the Batman origin film Nolan managed to convey the struggles that inspired Batman, but here Snyder squeezes way too much story into the mix.

The most interesting parts of the film are when the younger Clark is struggling to cope with his powers but he (and presumably the studio) couldn’t resist the temptation to wreak digital carnage on the screen.

For the first two-thirds of the film this just about works but when the climax begins the battle between Superman’s allies and Zod’s army becomes almost incoherent. Snyder’s sickly, desaturated visuals and shaky, handheld camera work also don’t help.

The visuals of skyscrapers collapsing during the Metropolis sequence also feel like a cheap reference to 9/11 and a way to darken up the material.

At times it feels as if this film was directed by game controller, with Superman and Zod smashing through buildings and leaving a mass of destruction in their wake. Perhaps if two characters with those powers did fight then they would cause mass destruction, but the way it is done here is pure overkill.

Superman has always been a problematic character, with his almost invincibility and lack of worthy villains (Zod excepted) making him less interesting than Batman or some of the Marvel characters (Iron Man, Hulk, X-Men etc).

Although the attempt to dig in to his Krypton heritage is welcome, ultimately it isn’t enough with the film descending into a swamp of CGI when the focus shifts to Earth and specifically Metropolis.

Perhaps someone will one day do for Superman what Nolan’s films did for the Batman character.

But when Nolan himself is part of the team behind this attempt, one wonders if Hollywood is just beating a dead horse.

> Official site
> Reviews for Man of Steel at Metacritic

Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Handsomely made but problematic in places, this drama about a young boy’s grief is likely to provoke wildly differing reactions.

Adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, it explores how a 13-year old boy named Oskar (Thomas Horn) deals with his own personal tragedy the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

After becoming obsessed with a mysterious key in a vase, he embarks on a journey that takes him around New York and  various inhabitants of the city including his mother (Sandra Bullock), a mysterious neighbour (Max Von Sydow) and a divorced woman (Viola Davis).

Given the kind of talent producer Scott Rudin usually assembles for his movies, you might expect this to be an end-of-year Oscar contender furnished with positive reviews and respectable box office.

Whilst it ended up snagging a Best Picture nomination some of the hostility – if not outright venom – directed towards the film suggests it struck a nerve in all the wrong ways.

The twin subjects of autism and 9/11 would prove difficult for even the most talented writers or filmmakers and ultimately proves a stretch too far for Foer and this adaptation.

Some images (especially one towards the climax) are dramatically misjudged and the film falls into the trap of many literary adaptations by being too literal.

Eric Roth’s dialogue is too respectful of Foer’s prose and whilst it may have been tempting to use voiceover to duplicate Oskar’s internal thoughts, over the course of the film it becomes too much.

Ultimately the film never really finds its own way into the material and the considerably weighty themes.

But there are stretches of the film that are undeniably moving, and some of the acting on display is both heartfelt and highly accomplished.

Thomas Horn in the lead role has the hardest part: not only is the film shot almost entirely from his perspective, but essentially rests on his shoulders.

His depiction of the obsessions and particularities of Asberger syndrome is remarkable, especially for a non-actor who came to the producer’s attention as a contestant on a US quiz show.

What many have found ‘annoying’ about his performance, seems to me an authentic depiction of a condition that is recognised as being on the spectrum of autism.

Not liking a performance is one thing, but the casual threats of physical violence (even in jest) suggest an ignorance and intolerance that is disquieting.

Although billed above the title, Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock have supporting roles and nicely play against their usual star personas with performances of quiet dignity.

Max Von Sydow brings his usual gravitas to his role as ‘the Renter’, which bears interesting similarities to Jean Dujardin’s role in The Artist, and is a reminder of his considerable acting skills.

The best performances are Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright, who demonstrate impeccable emotional precision in their small, but perfectly formed roles.

Even though the narrative is a journey around New York (specifically, an unofficial ‘sixth borough’ Oskar’s father had created for him) much of the drama takes place inside apartments, offices or houses.

Like his British contemporary Sam Mendes I’ve long harboured the suspicion that director Stephen Daldry instinctively prefers theatre to film.

Perhaps that is why so many of his films contain scenes with actors in confined spaces.

Positive side effects of this include powerful performances and the fact that he surrounds himself with talented crew members.

Alexandre Desplat’s musical score is just one of the emotionally affecting elements, even if at times it is almost too rich and smooth for the material.

But the real star of this film is cinematographer Chris Menges, who shoots with piercing clarity on the new Arri Alexa camera.

He has always been a master at lighting and watching the range of images delivered here via 4K digital projection was remarkable.

Along with recent films such as Hugo, Anonymous and Drive it will undoubtedly be used as a demonstration of how far high-end digital cameras have come.

What’s interesting is that this is more of an intimate, character-based drama and not the kind of material that you might benefit from using digital capture over 35mm.

Whilst people debate other aspects of this film, they are overlooking something technically profound: lighter digital
cameras are enabling directors like David Fincher and Stephen Daldry to create new working environments with their actors.

Just three years ago, Danny Boyle was telling Darren Aronofsky that although he used digital cameras for certain sequences of Slumdog Millionaire (2008), he’d still shoot close ups on film.

His DP Anthony Dodd Mantle won the Oscar that year, becoming the first cinematographer to win using a digital camera.

It is a sign of how far digital capture has come in that time, that the Alexa has caught on in films like this to the point where directors and cinematographers raised on film can feel comfortable making the jump to digital.

On the subject of ‘Oscar-bait‘ films, there is no doubt that Scott Rudin is the David O’Selznick of his generation, an ‘auteur producer’ of rare taste and talent.

In the current landscape of movies based on toys and boardgames, is aiming for Oscars really such a crime if it gives us movies like No Country for Old Men (2007) or The Social Network (2010)?

As with any prestige film released in the Autumn, it was expected to be in the running for awards contention.

But when the first reviews spilled out, especially the New York Times, it was clear that it wasn’t going to be the heavyweight contender its makers hoped.

The shock that it landed a Best Picture nomination was testament to how far it had fallen short of expectations.

But despite having some awkward moments this isn’t an exploitation movie and I imagine it was a sincere and personal movie for both Daldry and Rudin.

There is much good work here, both in front of and behind the camera.

It doesn’t ‘exploit’ 9/11 anymore than television or news coverage has done since terrorists murdered nearly 3,000 people and scarred a city for a generation.

But it does raise the question that came up in 2006 as the first wave of movies to deal with September 11th hit cinemas.

How soon is too soon?

> Official site
> Reviews of the film at Metacritic
> More on the novel, Asberger Syndrome and the Septmber 11th attacks at Wikipedia
> LA Times article on 9/11 movies
> Tuesday’s Children

Cinema Reviews Thoughts


The most eclectic director working in Hollywood tries his hand at a spy thriller.

Steven Soderbergh is the resident chameleon of US cinema, who thrives on jumping between genres and styles.

Since his mainstream creative rebirth in the late 1990s he has mixed mainstream commercial success (the Ocean’s trilogy) with more challenging fare (Solaris, The Good German, Che) and digital experimentation (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience).

Most recently he made an all-star disaster movie Contagion and now he employs a similar trick here with an illustrious supporting cast recruited from his impressive contacts book.

But the real surprise here is the casting of mixed martial arts star Gina Carano in the lead role.

She plays a hired government ‘contractor’ (a veiled reference to Blackwater) who we learn in flashback has been set up by her bosses after jobs in Barcelona and Dublin.

The impressive supporting cast includes Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum and Michael Fassbender.

There aren’t many directors who could pull off this trick – casting a former American Gladiator in a spy thriller alongside some of the most recognisable actors in the world.

But Soderbergh has become highly proficient in navigating the fringes of the mainstream, with occasional leaps right into it.

This on the surface is a very mainstream subject story – essentially a Bourne movie by way of the Ocean’s trilogy.

Old-school action is blended with a knowing globe-trotting humour and a smart script by Lem Dobbs.

There’s nothing too heavy here as it is basically an experiment to combine the breezy style of 1960s spy thrillers like Charade (1963) with the pulp literature of something like The Baroness series from the 1970s.

But a closer examination reveals a more interesting formal experiment to subvert the action genre from within.

Not only do we have a female lead in a movie that isn’t about weddings, but she regularly outsmarts and beats the crap out of every man in sight.

(Mysteriously, the global locations – Ireland, Catalonia and New Mexico – also coincide with places that offer generous tax rebates).

Whilst the basic narrative owes a lot to Bourne (US government assassin goes rogue) there is a deliberate attempt to avoid the ‘chaos cinema’ that has been so influential on the modern action genre.

Serving as his own cinematographer and editor (under his regular pseudonyms) quick edits are rejected and the fights are refreshingly reminiscent of those in 1960s thrillers, when killing another human being didn’t involve slow motion.

Going for a more realistic approach, it rejects the post-Matrix wire ballet or frenzied editing style of the later Bourne films in favour of a more composed and leaner approach.

Keep an ear out too for more believable slapping sounds you actually hear in fights, rather than the overcooked punching effects so beloved of Hollywood.

Soderbergh also apparently altered Carano’s voice in post-production, which makes it an intriguing project from an audio perspective – was the lead actress his very own creative ‘recruit’ to mess with the action genre down to the last detail?

It remains to be seen if she can make the breakthrough into acting full-time, but here she impresses with her imposing physicality and easy charm.

As for the supporting cast, it is something of a slam-dunk for all of them as the screenplay gives each of them plenty of dry humour on which to feast.

There has always been a James Bond influence on the Ocean’s films (e.g. casinos, smooth charm, glamorous locations) and it is here too, although the neat trick is having what essentially amounts to a female 007.

At times the groovy score by David Holmes is a little too close to the vibe he established on those films, but it largely proves a good fit for the material.

In many ways it is reminiscent of The Limey (1999) – another Soderbergh film scripted by Dobbs – which also dealt with revenge, a father-daughter relationship and villains who got beaten up or killed.

Over the last few years Soderbergh has been at the forefront of the A-list directors using digital cameras (others include David Fincher and James Cameron).

Here he has gone for a slightly different look, going for a digital version of the rich anamorphic look beloved of certain ‘classical’ action movies since the 1960s.

The digital workflow used by the production again set new boundaries in producing imagery for relatively low cost, prompting a colleague to say:

“If digital cinema had its own country, Steven would probably be President”

In the week Kodak announced that it had entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy, this feels significant.

It should also be noted that Soderbergh has essentially created a crafty commercial film from inside the system.

With financing from Relativity Media he has managed to make a more audience-friendly counterpart to his artier experiments like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience.

It is this range that makes him one of the most interesting directors working inside the system.

> Official site
> Reviews of Haywire at Metacritic
> Lengthy Box Office Magazine interview with Soderbergh
> Detailed post on the digital workflow used by the production

Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Margin Call

J.C Chandor’s portrait of a modern Wall Street bank is a slow-burn acting master class.

With a narrative loosely modelled on the extraordinary events of September 2008, when the collapse of Lehman Brothers gored a huge hole in the global economy, it paints a bleak but compelling portrait of financial meltdown.

After a risk analyst (Stanley Tucci) at a large Wall Street bank is fired, his underling (Zachary Quinto) soon realises the entire company could go under within 36 hours.

We then see various managers struggle with the crisis: a salesman (Paul Bettany), the head of sales (Kevin Spacey), the head of securities (Simon Baker), the head of risk (Demi Moore) and finally the CEO (Jeremy Irons).

What is so impressive about the film is that it takes us right inside the den of greed and manages to convey the enormity of the crisis through acting and atmosphere.

It doesn’t ask us to sympathise with the various employees, but instead depicts a haunting, dread-filled portrait of a society crumbling from the top down.

In the quiet specifics of a bank, amidst humming computer screens and late night boardrooms, Chandor finds a wider cultural malaise.

That this is his debut film is remarkable – he not only shows a shrewd grasp of the Wall Street culture but shows a sure sense of atmosphere and tension.

Shot in just 17 days for around $3m and mostly set inside a single building, he has cannily used the limited time and resources to his advantage.

His screenplay thrives on disbelief and confusion – characters frequently express the desire to hear things in plain English – which mirrors society’s wider shock that Wall Street could be getting away with this for so long.

The wider point seems to be that successive governments and voters were only too happy because they too were part of the problem, happy to buy into what was essentially a giant Ponzi scheme.

What is brilliant about the narrative is that it continually takes us up the corporate ladder and depicts with startling eloquence how everyone is essentially powerless to stop what’s coming.

It was presumably this underlying intelligence that attracted actors like Tucci, Spacey and Irons, all of who give some of their best performances in years.

There are also small but perfectly formed turns from the likes of Quinto, Bettany, Baker and Moore who neatly round off one of the best ensemble casts of the year.

As any decent dramatist knows, silence can be as crucial as dialogue – in some cases the faces here depict more than words ever could – but where the film gets really fascinating is the exchanges towards the end as the higher ups debate the final course of action for their firms.

They may or may not be the kind of words that Richard Fuld used in the weeks after Lehman Brothers died but they give a plausible insight into the pathological nature of the state-subsidised capitalism of the past few years.

When Margin Call was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25th it coincided with an organised day of protest in Egypt, which formed a key part of the Arab Spring, and its US release in October neatly coincided with the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon.

There is a certain irony that Arab nations have influenced American protest, given that part of the reason the US economy is in trouble is the trillion dollars squandered on invading that region of the world.

But we live in strange times where there is a growing sense of despair and anger amongst a generation of people expected to suffer because of the poisonous actions of the actions of the Wall Street-Government nexus.

Part of what makes it so effective is that it doesn’t offer simplistic solutions and infects the audience with a sense of looming dread at what is still to come.

By the end it is hard not to feel like you’ve just spent time with criminals who will keep re-offending unless brought to justice.

Three years on there is still no solution to the overall crisis as the Obama administration still employs people who helped caused the crisis, whilst the Republicans seem to have descended into a state of collective insanity.

What makes the film so chilling and effective is that there appears to be no solution in sight.

Aside from Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job the global financial crisis hasn’t really given us a good drama until now.

Part of the reason is the surface complexity of the related issues although the fundamental problem was simple: a lack of proper regulation led to Wall Street destroying the wider economy whilst avoiding suitable punishment or regulation.

The fact that banks like Goldman Sachs not only benefited from the demise of a major rival, but also got bailed out by the taxpayer was a perversion of capitalism that caused widespread anger across the political spectrum.

So seismic are the problems facing Western societies that it may take a new generation of political leaders to remedy the deep problems – and even then it could be too late.

The film industry has not been immune to these events, with the ‘independent’ market for films crashing in sync with the wider economy.

So it feels appropriate that the first serious drama to deal with the Wall Street meltdown is this reminder of what the US system can produce when it takes chances.

Margin Call is a daring film in many ways as it seeks to explore the mind-set of the very people who still inhabit the halls of finance and government.

This has been reflected in the funding (name actors attracted by a decent script), shooting (on a Red One digital camera) and distribution (a mixture of limited theatrical and VOD download in the US).

Here in the UK it is being released by Stealth Media (in the US it was distributed by Roadside Attractions after being acquired at Sundance) and is being given an encouragingly wide release.

The current harsh climate for independent movies may see distributors embrace innovative release strategies.

In the US Margin Call’s release raised a few eyebrows with its combination of VOD and theatrical, which goes against industry wisdom that one will cannibalise the other.

Cassian Elwes was the producer and agent heavily involved in the film and when I asked him on Twitter what the rough percentage of people who saw it at US cinemas versus those who downloaded it, he replied that it was probably one to one.

Indie films might need to embrace release strategies such as this if they are to survive.

Like the wider economy the future is still uncertain, but films like Margin Call can give us hope.

> Official site
> Reviews of the film at Metacritic
> Find out more about the Late-2000s financial crisis at Wikipedia
> Listen to our interview with Charles Ferguson about Inside Job

Cinema Reviews Thoughts

War Horse

Steven Spielberg’s latest film is a simultaneous reminder of his undoubted filmmaking skills and weakness for old-fashioned sentimentality.

Adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel – which later became a huge stage hit in London and New York – it follows a young horse named Joey as he gets caught up in World War I.

The resulting equine odyssey we explore his various owners: a Devon farm boy (Jeremy Irvine); an English soldier (Tom Hiddleston); two German troops (David Kross and Leonhard Carow); a French farmer (Niels Arestrup) and the effect he has on the them.

As you might expect from a filmmaker of Spielberg’s vast experience, there are sequences here which are staged with his customary taste and skill.

The rural English locations are beautifully realised through Rick Carter‘s production design and skilfully adapted for the wartime action, which is impressive in scope and detail.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film is one which audiences may take for granted: the acting and handling of the horses used to represent the title character.

Although there are precedents for an animal as lead character – notably Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966) – it is highly unusual to see a mainstream live-action film built around a horse.

The main trainer was Bobby Lovgren and several were used to create the central illusion, which Spielberg pulls off, especially in the latter stages of the film.

Unfortunately, the screenplay by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall appears to have been tailor made for a ‘Spielberg Production’, which means that stilted stereotypical characters and frequent doses of lachrymose sentimentality get in the way of the drama.

By trying to match the ideal of what they think are the directors strengths, the screenwriters have misunderstood that his best work (Jaws, Close Encounters, Schindler’s List and Minority Report) comes when he operates outside his usual comfort zones.

Thus we have an array of great acting talent (Mullan, Watson, Arestrup) along with current casting-director favourites (Hiddleston, Cumberbatch, Kebbell) forced to read awkward lines which undercut the dramatic impact of their scenes.

Visually the film is also mixed bag.

Spielberg and DP Janusz Kaminski are a formidable partnership but here their approach to lighting seems odd.

Filming in the ever-changing climate of England poses challenges for any production, but here the lighting choices are distracting – at times bordering on the avant-garde – with characters faces being lit up like they were on stage.

That being said, the battle scenes are composed with impressive precision and the use of wide-angles and Michael Kahn’s graceful cutting seems like a breath of fresh air in the current era of chaos cinema.

There is also a lot to be said for a film that tries to genuinely appeal to a wide family audience in an era where comic books and animated films rule the multiplexes.

For some – especially those who have had close connections with horses – there are moments that will be undeniably moving, but overall the material doesn’t naturally translate to screen in the manner the filmmakers presumably hoped.

Although the aim here has been to channel the visual style of John Ford on to the battlefields of Europe and to pepper the film with noble anti-war sentiments, the overall effect is underwhelming.

There are frequent touches of brilliance, such as a devastatingly simple shot to conclude a particular battle sequence, but there is little in the way of narrative urgency.

Another negative is the fact that French and German characters don’t speak in their native language – a commercial decision which undercuts the expensively assembled realism of the set-pieces.

The film reaches a nadir of sorts during the final battle when Spielberg reverts to his favoured ‘why can’t we all get along?’ position which feels as predictable as it is redundant, especially when delivered via clunky lines of dialogue.

This is accentuated by the John Williams score which contains all the soaring strings and melodies and beats you might expect – but like the film it is too much surface and not enough substance.

I suspect that there was part of Spielberg that couldn’t resist the lure of War Horse – after the enormous success of the stage production it seemed pre-packaged project for him, with its built-in family appeal and worthy subject matter.

But ever since the beginning of his astonishing career he has been a director who has achieved his very best work in adversity rather than the dangerous comfort zones he finds hard to turn down.

Whether it was the tortuous production of Jaws (1975), the desire for redemption with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) after the folly of 1941 (1979), or the compulsion to depict the brutality of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List (1993) after the misfire of Hook (1991) – all these triggered a kind of magic inside of his artistic soul.

For a director who achieved career and financial security so young, the greatest risks have always creative ones and he seems to thrive when making risky leaps of faith.

It was there during his innovative use of the Panaflex camera in The Sugarland Express (1974), his exhilarating framing and cutting during Jaws (1975) and the awesome sights and sounds in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

As his career progressed, he became so successful as both director and producer that he even reached the giddy heights of owning his own studio, even if it often had to partner with the majors on the big productions.

Yet despite all this ‘extracurricular activity’ he has maintained an impressive focus on his films, even if they have been of varying quality.

War Horse is ultimately not a film that stretched his creative muscles enough.

Perhaps the upcoming Lincoln – a project that he’s been circling for years – could prove to be more challenging?

> War Horse
> Reviews of the film at Metacritic
> Find out more about the book and stage play at Wikipedia

Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The Iron Lady

Despite a masterful central performance this political biopic ends up caught between hagiography and melodrama.

Adopting a flashback structure, it sees the ageing politician (Meryl Streep) looking back on key episodes of her life: her humble origins in Leicestershire; her early years as an MP; her rise to power and the key episodes from her lengthy tenure as prime minister from 1979-1990.

The highlight here is a typically brilliant performance from Streep, who uses the full arsenal of her acting repertoire to create a striking portrait of Britain’s first female leader.

Her physical and vocal work is uncanny, which is no mean feat considering the years covered by the film, which sees   newcomer Alexandra Roach play the younger version with considerable poise and presence.

These early segments of the film depict the cosy, sexist world of both the Tory party and Britain during the late 1950s (she became an MP in 1959) which almost certainly fed into her later assault on various British institutions.

Director Phyllida Lloyd has an extensive background in musical theatre and it shows here in the heightened zig-zag sweep of the narrative, which is a curious mixture of feminist biopic and political opera (minus the music).

The central device is both a blessing and a curse – it captures the irony of a frail Thatcher needing help (when her whole philosophy was built on a ruthless self-reliance) but the clunky use of her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) gets ever more  comic as the story progresses.

At times it feels like that most curious of things: an interesting mess that is filled with fascinating contradictions.

Lloyd and her DP Elliot Davis frequently use distracting compositions and in some sequences Justine Wright’s editing is frenzied to the point of incoherence.

Yet there is also much technical work here to admire in bringing Thatcher to life: Marese Langan‘s hair and makeup design is the real standout, with Consolata Boyle‘s costumes not far behind.

In fact they are almost as impressive as the job Gordon Reece (played in the film by Roger Allam) did for Thatcher.

This duality feels weirdly appropriate for a film about a prime minister who was so hated that she ended up getting elected  three times.

It says a lot about the conflicted mental state of the United Kingdom that Thatcher is so loathed and revered, which is appropriate for a nation still thoroughly divided about its social and cultural identity.

(If you are in any doubt just ask yourself about the differences between the United Kingdom, Great Britain, England, Scotland, Wales and that’s before you even get to the long and complicated history with Ireland)

This film tries to have it both ways, by depicting the downward vulnerability of her old age whilst contrasting it with the ambitious vigour of her political career.

Whilst this could be seen as avoiding the thornier issues of her reign, the director, screenwriter and star are all women in an industry dominated by men – presumably they saw this as something of a feminist fable of a female leader taking on male institutions.

That Thatcher routinely preferred the company of men and barely promoted women seems only to have piqued their interest in exploring the personal motivations lay behind her political ideology.

It is surprising but appropriate that the most effective relationship in the film is between Margaret and her daughter Carol (a brilliant Olivia Colman who is almost unrecognisable) in contrast to her absent son Mark, whom she clearly favoured.

There are traces of sneaky subversion in Abi Morgan’s screenplay, which appear to draw from Carol Thatcher’s 2008 memoir, which offer some intriguing glimpses into the private person behind the political persona.

For a leader who had so little time for the poor and dispossessed during her time in office there is something dramatically effective in seeing her suffer the uncertainties of old age.

Tory supporters hoping to enjoy scenes of Thatcher at the Commons dispatch box will be given pause by the scenes between mother and daughter – no wonder current PM David Cameron sounded genuinely uneasy when asked about the film.

It will be interesting to see how audiences react in Britain as this is traditionally the kind of heritage filmmaking that conservative broadsheet newspapers lap up, whilst their liberal counterparts have commissioned endless think pieces on it too.

But when audiences get to see it, they may be surprised at what unfolds in front of them, which speaks to both the uneven qualities of the film and Thatcher’s legacy as leader.

She was the heartless destroyer of trade unions and the slightly saucy headmistress who bewitched a generation of voters to either buy their own council houses or shares in privatised industries.

There was also the lower middle class voting block – from the kind of towns where she herself came – who kept re-electing her.

Tellingly it took the public schoolboys like Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) and Michael Heseltine (Richard E. Grant) in her own party to bring her down.

One area the film fails to illuminate is her relationship with key media organisations: notably Rupert Murdoch (with whom she formed a lasting and mutually beneficial alliance) and the BBC (an organisation with who she has a complex and fascinating relationship) were key to her electoral success.

The late Christopher Hitchens once lovingly spoke of an encounter in the late 1970s where Thatcher smacked him on the bottom and called him a “naughty boy” with a twinkle in her eye.

Although sadly this episode isn’t in the film, there is a moment when the elderly Thatcher is asked about the current PM and describes him as a “smoothie”.

This is not only funny but also highlights the public school mind set of the British ruling elites and their unlikely infatuation with a woman who they’d previously dismissed as a grocer’s daughter.

Meryl Streep is perfect casting, as she is to modern Hollywood as Thatcher was to Parliament in the 1980s – although politically a liberal she has defied industry wisdom to maintain a healthy career as a female star.

Furthermore, Streep’s astonishing ability to do accents serves her well and her outsider status as an American in a very British cast also dovetails with the former PM’s outsider status.

Warren Beatty once said that her political soul mate Ronald Regan once told him:

‘I don’t know how anybody can serve in public office without being an actor.’

The Iron Lady reflects this idea of politician as performer – a great performance which nevertheless masks key deficiencies in other vital areas.

Given the recent implosion of the free market principles Reagan and Thatcher championed, the film functions as a curious epitaph for an era which there seems to be a strange nostalgia for.

> The Iron Lady at IMDb
> Find out more about Margaret Thatcher at Wikipedia
> Reviews of The Iron Lady at Metacritic
> Guardian data blog on how Britain changed under Thatcher

Cinema Reviews

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher brings his full digital armoury to Stieg Larsson‘s bestseller and the result is a masterful adaptation hampered only by the limitations of the source material.

When journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is hired by the patriarch of a rich Swedish family (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the disappearance of a family member in the 1960s, he eventually crosses paths with computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) as they gradually uncover a web of intrigue in a society with many dark secrets.

Major Hollywood studios have shied away from making adult dramas in recent years, so Sony giving a director free reign on dark tale of conspiracy, rape and murder represented something of a risk.

But the original novel triggered one of publishing phenomenons of last decade, which spawned a Swedish produced trilogy of films and now the inevitable Hollywood remake.

Inevitable is perhaps a misleading word, because although it was highly likely they would produce a version, one might have expected that they would tone down the darker elements of the book to appeal to a wider audience.

But given that the mix of graphic sexual violence and conspiracy plays such a large part in their appeal, Sony and MGM faced a quandary.

Do they dilute them down to a PG-13 and risk a fan backlash?

Or create that rare thing in the modern era, a wide release for adult audience?

They opted for the latter and recruited none other than director David Fincher, who had just made The Social Network for the studio and has a track record of police procedural thrillers.

It just so happens that the end result contains elements of Seven (a serial killer movie with gothic elements), Zodiac (a slow burn drama that looks into the mystery of the past) and the aforementioned The Social Network (the story of an outsider who uses technology to outwit people).

From the startling opening credits, it is clear that we are in Fincher-land: the impeccable compositions, polished design, razor-sharp visuals and haunted protagonists all feel a natural part of his filmmaking landscape.

Ever since Zodiac, Fincher has been on the forefront of digital cinematography and Jeff Cronenweth’s visuals here are stunning, with the wintry terrain of Sweden providing a frequently beautiful counterpoint to the darker interior scenes.

The screenplay by Steven Zaillian does a highly effective job at compressing the sprawling strands of the novel into a coherent whole.

Those familiar with the book might know that Salander and Mikael are kept apart for a large part of the story and the resulting investigation involves a raft of supporting characters as the elusive history of the Vanger family slowly emerges.

Zaillian has largely stayed faithful to the book, but also added some welcome improvements – especially in the latter stages – whilst the editing by Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter is remarkably precise and efficient in keeping the story moving.

The wonderfully atmospheric score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross somehow manages to evoke the chilly physical and psychological terrains of the story, whilst also blending in with Ren Klyce’s immersive sound design.

Before filming began much attention was focused on who would get the coveted role of Lisbeth Salander and Rooney Mara delivers a powerful performance in what is a challenging role, both mentally and physically.

Daniel Craig conveys a certain rugged charm as Blomkvist and when they finally get together their unlikely chemistry clicks into place nicely, bridging the gender and generational divide which have been a large part of the book’s global appeal.

The illustrious supporting cast also do solid work: Plummer is wholly believable as the head of the Vanger clan; Stellan Skarsgard is sly and charming as his son; whilst actors like Steven Berkoff, Robin Wright, Joely Richardson and Geraldine James expertly fill out key smaller roles.

All of these elements are marshalled with military precision by Fincher, who has delivered a technically brilliant adaptation of the source material, which should satisfy the global fanbase.

There is a noble tradition of pulpy best sellers becoming classic movies (Psycho, The Godfather and Jaws) and this version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo represents an interesting example of transferring words to screen.

However, there remains a sense that this whole exercise is a bit like fitting a Ferrari engine into a Volvo: isn’t the army of A-list talent assembled here vastly superior to Larsson’s potboiler?

Although it deals with interesting issues which Hollywood rarely touches – violence towards women, the insidious nature of right-wing politics in supposedly liberal countries – it nevertheless follows the crime fiction template right down to the letter.

This is not to say that mainstream fiction cannot raise interesting issues as the book certainly tapped into the zeitgeist of corruption has pervaded the West in the last few years, whilst Larsson’s untimely death in 2004 helped fuel the mystique even further.

Recent events involving journalism scandals (Hackgate), computer hackers (recent Wikileaks revelations) and even far-right murder in Scandinavia (Norway attacks) seem only to have enhanced the potent brew of crime, violence and institutionalised corruption that lies at the heart of the Millennium trilogy.

But the material upon which this film is based feels like a series of plot points squeezed into a tight-fitting story, with hardly any breathing space left after the multiple revelations and plot twists.

Readers have been presumably drawn precisely because of this mix of page-turning intrigue but I suspect what really took it to another level of popularity was the central combination of regular male hero and strikingly unusual female anti-hero.

But after the books and Swedish produced film trilogy, how much appetite is there for this?

I suspect that a major global release like this will make significant money, although whether enough to justify further films remains to be seen.

For a filmmaker like Fincher, who has crafted two ground-breaking police thrillers in Seven and Zodiac, the fundamental material inevitably feels something of a step down for him, like asking a renaissance master to draw in crayon.

It is to his credit that the end result is an invigorating entertainment and a curiously timely blockbuster for Christmas 2011, as we reflect on what a dark and corrupt place the world has become.

> Official site and Mouth Taped Shut
> Reviews at Metacritic
> More on Stieg Larsson and the original Millenium series
> Interesting article on the 4K production pipeline used on the film

Cinema Reviews Thoughts


The latest filmmaking technology provides Martin Scorsese with the tools to create a passionate love letter to the early days of cinema.

Adapted from Brian Selznick’s illustrated book, the story explores what happens when a young orphan (Asa Butterfield) living in a 1930s Paris train station comes across an older man selling toys at a stall.

That man (Ben Kingsley) may literally have the key to the mysterious robotic automaton Hugo’s late father (Jude Law) left behind before perishing in a fire.

With the constant threat of being taken away to an orphanage by the local police inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) Hugo finds out more about ‘Papa Georges’ by befriending his granddaughter (Chloe Grace Moretz).

Although best known for his masterful explorations of the American male (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed) he has long shown an interest in stories involving martyrs and redemption.

His most controversial film (The Last Temptation of Christ) and perhaps his most overlooked (Kundun) were both about spiritual figures of major religions.

Now the director turns to the religion of film and one of its key pioneers, Georges Melies, who for many years was largely forgotten after World War I.

Despite Hugo being something of a departure for the director in that it is suitable for family audiences, it is also one of his most personal works.

It isn’t a stretch to read the central character as the young asthmatic New Yorker who fell deeply in love with cinema or even Melies as the director who represents his fears (rejection) and dreams (longevity).

In order to achieve this vision he has recruited a glittering array of world class technical talent.

Dante Ferretti’s detailed production design offers us a fantastical recreation of 1930s Paris, which is skilfully augmented by Sandy Powell’s costumes and Rob Legato’s visual effects work.

The blending of all these design elements is dazzling, filled with detail and depth, which provides a solid basis for Robert Richardson’s stunning 3D photography.

Using the new Arri Alexa camera with a Cameron-Pace 3D rig it provides Scorsese with a new tool for executing his vision with longer takes and immersive shots.

The wonderful irony is that these cutting edge digital tools – which involved pioneering lenses and an on-set data system – are used to pay tribute to one of the founding fathers of ‘celluloid cinema’.

Visually, this is done with recurring motifs: wheels turning, trains, clocks and objects coming towards the camera, which are brought to life by a use of 3D which enhances, rather than distracts from them.

Although Scorsese has talked about the adjustment he and Richardson had to make coming from the world of 35mm film, the end result is a master class in digital cinematography, filled with stunning compositions and rich layers of detail.

The performances don’t quite match the visuals, but Butterfield and Moretz do enough to convince in their roles, whilst Kingsley paints a convincing picture of a man haunted by regret.

In supporting roles Sacha Baron Cohen’s mannered comic performance is somewhat overshadowed by his dog, but Helen McCrory and Christopher Lee are both touching in key minor roles.

John Logan’s screenplay manages to blend the traditional storytelling elements of the book, whilst also providing a neat framework for Scorsese to explore his own inner passion for movies and film preservation.

Without going into spoiler territory, there are numerous references to the Lumiere brothers, the silent era and 1930s French cinema.

The beauty of these hat tips is that – like the 3D – they do actually serve the story rather than function as a commercial indulgence.

Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing also skilfully blends key flashback scenes, numerous chase sequences in the station and archive footage of classic cinema works which brilliantly concentrated down to their essence.

It is also refreshing to see a family film is respectful to audiences of all ages and not a pat morality or coming-of-age tale filled with lazy in-jokes.

Unlike many contemporary films, it actually rewards patience and curiosity, before climaxing with a moving ode to both the art and experience of cinema itself.

Beneath the fantastical surface there are serious emotions and one can sense the ghost of Michael Powell – a neglected director Scorsese helped revive interest in.

Perhaps the most surreal aspect of Hugo is that a $150 million advert for film preservation is going to be screened digitally in multiplexes around the globe.

Like the early work of Melies, it seems like a form of magic that this film even exists.

> Official site
> Reviews of Hugo at Metacritic and MUBi
> Find out more about George Melies at Wikipedia and Senses of Cinema
> Martin Scorsese discussing 3D

Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Another Earth

A low-budget drama with a big sci-fi premise offers us a startling blend of genres.

Although the science fiction is frequently associated with gigantic effects-driven spectacles, the debut feature of writer-director Mike Cahill offers us an intriguing alternative.

The central premise involves a student (Brit Marling) and music teacher (William Mapother) whose fates intersect after a car accident.

After four years pass, they gradually get to know each other properly and whilst the discovery of another planet identical to Earth lingers in the background.

Beginning with a major plot development right up front, it is hard to go into to details about the plot without significant spoilers, except to say that the narrative is consistently surprising and enjoyable.

Part of that is because Cahill and co-writer Marling don’t go for the obvious sci-fi tropes that have been done to death, as they have fashioned a story that’s like an episode of The Twilight Zone scripted by Kryzstof Kieslowski.

Despite the sci-fi elements, a large part of the drama is given over to themes of grief, regret and secrets, but it skilfully avoids being a signature, self-indulgent indie movie.

Part of this is down to the tantalising backdrop of an identical planet, skilfully evoked via news clips, reaction shots and recurring images of the sky.

But it is also a surprisingly powerful study of loss, regret and possible redemption.

In an age where seismic news events seem to be experienced through ever more unbelievable news updates on television, the film had a tangible resonance.

Despite the fantastical premise, emotions and events are wisely kept grounded in a believable reality.

Essentially this boils down to two actors who really deliver the goods: Marling has a natural screen presence and pulls off a difficult part with some aplomb.

Her confident delivery of dialogue was probably due to the fact that she co-wrote them, but there are some difficult scenes here which she handles extraordinarily well.

Likewise Mapother, who for most of the film has to make his grief-stricken character interesting but, to his credit, he convincingly rebuilds his inner and outer life.

The production makes highly effective use of his low-budget, shooting with a handheld HD camera in such a way that doesn’t call attention to itself, but feels organic to the story.

Visual compositions are also impressive, with characters often tastefully framed through an appropriately chilly palette that’s heavy on the blues and greys.

News footage, often done so badly in bigger budget films, is very convincing here and a couple of scenes are brilliantly effective through ideas and execution alone, rather than expensive graphics.

The electronic score by Fall on Your Sword is perhaps the joker in the pack – a pulsating melange of beats and hooks that fits the film perfectly, giving it unexpected shifts in mood and pace.

Shot in and around New Haven, Connecticut for a reported budget of under $200,000, this represents a significant commercial and artistic achievement, which was why it was one of the big breakout hits at Sundance earlier this year with Fox Searchlight swiftly acquiring the rights.

Since the collapse of the indie film bubble in 2008, Sundance in recent times has rediscovered its original spirit by providing a welcome platform for films like Winter’s Bone, Exit Through The Gift Shop, Senna and Martha Marcy May Marlene.

All of these didn’t come off the studio production line, nor were they vanity projects looking for faux-indie credibility or a bidding war studios would later regret.

Another Earth is a good example of a modern Sundance success – a genuine independent that has broken through to the mainstream by force of its ideas and execution alone.

In an age where genre movies are designed to please carefully targeted demographics, this feels suitably fresh.

I’ll close by mentioning that it features one of the most effective closing shots of any film in recent memory.

> Official site
> Reviews at MUBi and Metacritic

Cinema Reviews Thoughts


A statistical approach to baseball might not seem the most gripping basis for a sports movie, but this is a surprisingly compelling character portrait with hidden depths.

Adapted from Michael Lewis’ unlikely bestseller, it explores how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) defied conventional wisdom with the help of an assistant (Jonah Hill) who convinced him of the hidden value of data.

As an ex-player, Beane had grown up in era where scouts and grizzled veterans had stifled both his own career and the true potential of players who weren’t superstars on big salaries.

In late 2001 when his star players have been traded to bigger teams (“organ donors to the rich”) he finds inspiration in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young economics graduate who can spot underrated baseball players the bigger teams are ignoring (his character is a composite largely based on Paul DePodesta).

What follows is a movie every bit as brilliant and radical as the system that went on to revolutionise US baseball.

Fundamentally, it is a compelling portrait of a man motivated by his past to change the present, but it also quietly subverts the traditional US sports movie by not pandering to clichés of underdogs triumphing against the odds.

Director Bennett Miller brings an unusual aesthetic to the genre by making the off-field action more dramatic than what happens on the pitch, which dovetails beautifully with Beane’s superstitious compulsion to never watch the games.

The harsh realities of running a sports team at the highest level are conveyed through his battles with coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), doubting scouts who naturally resent the new data driven approach and the chorus of critics amongst the media and fans.

There are personal dramas too: flashbacks of Beane’s early playing career are skilfully woven into his motivational backstory, whilst his relationship with his young daughter (Kerris Dorsey) is both touching and central to the story.

The main challenge with this approach is to make things visually interesting, but the choice of DP Wally Pfister was shrewd: his brand of subtle lighting and shooting that serves the story wisely keeps the focus on the characters and the unfolding drama.

As for the screenplay – collaboration credited to Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin – it manages to take the human drama behind a baseball franchise and make it a wider metaphor for anyone battling against personal demons or institutional arrogance.

One of the reasons the book became an unlikely bestseller and proved influential in both the sport and business world, is because by mining a very specific episode, it ultimately tapped into universal truths.

Although the film is an underdog story of sorts, it explores how people in a bad place are forced to become creative (they have nothing to lose) and how easy solutions (in this case ‘on base percentage’) to difficult problems can be so hard to see.

It also documents a time when old school sporting philosophies based on hunches gave way to statistical analysis powered by computers and spread sheets. Or more simply: when the geeks beat the jocks at their own game.

But it’s the human drama that makes Moneyball really tick: Beane is a fascinating character and the exploration of why he went against conventional wisdom lies the heart of the film, but also possibly puts another interpretation on the title.

The film puts forward the daring notion that money ruined his playing career – his motivation as general manager was partly driven by a desire to push back against a sport corrupted by cash.

Brad Pitt gives perhaps his finest performance in the lead role, not only convincing as charismatic leader of a sports team but as a more vulnerable father and someone struggling with the past.

Jonah Hill might seem an unlikely choice as Beane’s assistant, but he plays the straight man role very well and his chemistry with Pitt suggests his very casting highlights the ‘hidden value’ concept his character explains in the movie.

There are also solid turns from Philip Seymour Hoffman (showing a subtle, quiet gruffness), Chris Pratt as the first underrated player they sign and Kerris Dorsey as Beane’s daughter, whose presence is always keenly felt in the background.

Where the film really triumphs is in how it applies the low-key approach Miller used so successfully in Capote to a big studio film about a fascinating chapter in America’s most beloved sport.

The use of MLB footage and real locations grounds the film in a realistic setting far removed from the glossy visions of previous sports movies, whilst Mychael Danna’s wonderful, atmospheric score sounds like Philip Glass’ scoring an Errol Morris baseball documentary.

Like Beane’s impact on Major League Baseball the final it is both surprising and effective.

Given the tortured production history of the project, which saw a noted director (Steven Soderbergh) leave over creative differences and one A-list screenwriter (Aaron Sorkin) hired to re-write another (Steve Zaillian), it is a miracle that the film exists at all.

Part of that must lie down to the persistence of Brad Pitt (who also serves as producer) and it is tempting to read parallels into his struggle to get this made at a major studio (Sony Pictures) with Beane’s story.

To extend the analogy, Pitt is Beane (protagonist struggling against received wisdom), Bennett Miller is Brand (the unconventional catalyst), Sony Pictures is the Oakland A’s (an organisation trying to meet commercial demands) and Major League Baseball is Hollywood (large institution where passion frequently clashes with pragmatism).

In a year in which he has also delivered a powerful performance and produced Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, we can be grateful that a movie star like Pitt is using his influence to make interesting movies rather than just counting money.

This takes on a new relevance as the wonderfully staged final scenes click into place.

Perhaps the most potent aspect of Moneyball is that it grows in your mind long after you’ve seen it, which for a movie belonging to a genre prone to cliché is really quite an achievement.

Maybe it can also function as a parable for major studios to keep looking for those quietly interesting projects rather than just the loud, costly franchises.

> Official site
> Reviews of Moneyball at Metacritic and MUBi
> More about Billy Beane and Moneyball at Wikipedia

Cinema Reviews Thoughts

A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg’s exploration of the founders of psychoanalysis is a dry but gradually absorbing film.

Adapted by Christopher Hampton from his own play, it examines the relationships between young psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and the troubled patient Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightley).

Immediately opening with a jarring sequence of a troubled patient, it seems at first seems like a distant exploration of historical figures.

But as it progresses, we are actually in the realm of Cronenberg’s more overtly psychological work like Dead Ringers (1988) or Spider (2002), where the body horror he was once famous for is internalised into the mind.

The central dramatic thrust is how Jung’s relationship with Sabina created a rift with Freud.

Why is this significant?

Freud was – rightly or wrongly – one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century, using a method to examine taboo areas of sexual desires.

Jung was to an extent his prodigal son, an early supporter of his work who treated – and then had an affair with – a woman who eventually became a significant psychoanalyst herself.

In a sense this film puts psychoanalysis itself on the couch by examining the early desires, neuroses and secret impulses that helped shaped it.

The first part of the narrative deals with Jung’s treatment of Sabina during 1904 at his clinic in Zurich as he uses Freud’s theories to help cure his patient.

Two years later, a second patient as Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) proves more troubling: he convinces Jung to unlock his own desires towards Sabina but also proves an important catalyst in his growing split with Freud (“never repress anything”).

Hampton’s screenplay manages to combine its own intellectual analysis with some sharply written dialogues between the characters.

There are bracing intellectual exchanges, which avoid feeling too forced, whilst the oncoming dread of global war hovers in the background.

The central drama is brought to life by four vivid performances who vividly transfer Hampton’s characters to the screen.

Fassbender convinces as an ambitious, intensely curious doctor whose intellectual hunger is mirrored by his desire to break away from the past.

Mortenson proves an effective foil, with a wry and controlled performance which suggests hidden depths to the older and more cautious Freud.

Knightley has the most difficult part, moving from awkward hysterics to lucid eloquence over the course of the movie, but it is a brave performance which she ultimately pulls off.

Perhaps the most interesting performance comes from Vincent Cassell, as his lack of screen time doesn’t diminish his character’s presence in the story or on the screen.

Given that this is a period film involving a lot of people talking in rooms, the temptation amongst some might be to dismiss it as some dry, analytical affair.

Cronenberg and his key technical crew have factored this into consideration and this is very handsomely staged film.

James McAteer’s excellent production design creates a believeable world; DP Peter Suschitzky shoots the action with precision and clarity; the editing by Ronald Sanders feels smoothly unfashionable in this age of chaos cinema and the green screen visual effects work (to create many of the backdrops) is mostly seamless.

Howard Shore’s typically brooding score is effective without being overpowering, but those familiar with his work might feel flashbacks.

Down the years Cronenberg has become associated with the ‘body horror’ genre, due to key films such as Shivers (1975), Scanners (1981) and The Fly (1987), his CV also reveals precise enquiries into the human mind.

A Dangerous Method applies a similar approach to the human mind and although it contains little of what the director is commonly ‘known for’ it mines dark emotional terrains.

In a 1986 documentary Cronenberg mentioned Freud when being asked about his films:

“Imagination is dangerous and if you accept – at least to some extent – the Freudian dictum that civilisation is repression, then imagination and an unrepressed creativity is dangerous to civilisation”

This not only describes Cronenberg’s method, which proved controversial with Crash (1993), but also possibly highlights his choice of material.

After all it seems natural that a master of presenting physical and mental anxiety would be drawn to the men who pioneered the diagnosis of many in the 20th century.

After his earlier work exploring the physical horror of the flesh (Rabid, Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly), his latest offers us a different form of mental dread.

Despite the period setting and beautiful backdrops of Vienna and Swiss lakes, there are elements of A Dangerous Method which feel like a chilly wind.

The conflicts in this story took place just as the neuroses of nation states were fomenting destruction on an unimaginable scale.

Little details reveal at lot: Jung and Sabina’s love of Wagner and Freud’s concern about Jewish identity are just some of ideas laced throughout the script which hint at darker problems to come.

Although it doesn’t immediately grip as a film, the slow-burn approach is partly why the ideas linger on after the ending, as we are left to reflect on how mental anxieties can lie at the root of human destruction.

A Dangerous Method opens in selected cinemas in the US from today and the UK on Friday 10th February 

> Official website
> Reviews of A Dangerous Method at MUBi and Metacritic
> Find out more about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung at Wikipedia

Documentaries Reviews Thoughts

Into the Abyss

A powerful exploration of the death penalty sees Werner Herzog probe deep into the horrors of killings in Texas.

There is a moment in Herzog’s latest film where he tells a young man that “I don’t have to like you”.

You soon realise why.

The man he’s speaking to is Michael Perry, who is on death row after being convicted, along with an accomplice, of murdering three people in October 2001.

Viewers might be conditioned to think that a film about the death penalty made by someone who opposes it (as Herzog does) might be an issue film.

After all, Errol Morris famously got an innocent man off death row with his 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line.

But we quickly realise this isn’t an issue film about the death penalty and instead a long hard look at death itself, as seen through the ripple effects of a murder.

In a similar way to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood it provides an examination of evil in the heartland of America.

Perry was convicted, along with Jason Burkett, of brutally killing three people in Conroe, Texas: a 50 year old nurse, her teenage son and his friend.

Herzog’s conversation with Perry is one of several: he also speaks to Burkett, the families of the prisoners and victims, as well as various people connected with the business of death, including a retired executioner and pastor.

Whilst it doesn’t come to any firm conclusion as to Perry’s guilt – he protests his innocence throughout – it seems likely he was guilty.

But the film is not an exploration of who did what and instead opts to probe around the question of why people kill and condone killing.

The shallow reason Perry and Burkett murdered was to steal a car for a joyride, whilst Texas as a state seems to have a pathological addiction to killing its prisoners.

Since the resumption the death penalty in 1976 (after four years when it was suspended) Texas has executed nearly four times as many inmates as its closest rival, Virginia.

But Herzog isn’t singling out the Lone Star state – the disturbing details of the murder case are constantly in the air and some of the people not directly connected with the case have an impressive moral dignity.

There is the retired executioner who forgoes his pension because he is tired with legally killing people, whilst a pastor manages to give an unexpectedly profound answer to Herzog’s curve ball question about a squirrel.

As usual the small quirks of human behaviour are picked up on although this is a much more sober film than Herzog’s recent work and at time Mark Degli Antoni’s sparse score gives it an appropriately sombre tone.

Herzog is a past master at eliciting revealing answers by asking deceptively straightforward questions.

One of the most startling dialogues here is with an articulate woman who became attracted to and pregnant by Burkett.

Quite how an inmate gets a woman pregnant from inside prison is an open question, but that is part of the rich tapestry Herzog weaves with this film, managing to touch upon the trend of death row groupies.

Always a director attracted to extremes, be it pulling a boat over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo or putting his cast under hypnosis for Heart of Glass, here the extremity of the subject matter is complemented by a notable visual restraint.

We never see him on screen and his regular DP Peter Zeitlinger opts for a restrained visual style, but this is purposely not a fly-on-the-wall film.

In fact it’s quite the opposite, as Herzog’s probing presence and restless curiosity can be felt in every frame as he engages with the people surrounding the killings and the issues such actions raise.

Just a few days after filming in July 2010, Perry himself was killed by lethal injection, which provides the film with a brutal final stop.

It doesn’t come to any definitive conclusions, but therein lies its power – after the film is over the questions raised stay with us, precisely because they have no definitive answers.

The title of this film could describe many of Herzog’s previous movies, as it perfectly describes deep themes and stark feeling of awe embedded in his best work.

It is hard not to come out profoundly shaken as the questions of how and why human beings destroy one another are presented with such piercing clarity that they linger in your mind long after the final credits.

Into the Abyss is out now in the US and opens in the UK on March 23rd

> Official site
> Reviews of the film at MUBi and Metacritic
> Interesting Guardian article on the case by Joanna Walters, who interviewed Perry just after Herzog

DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Silent Running

Douglas Trumbull’s moving sci-fi drama gets a welcome re-release on Blu-ray from Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label.

After the unexpected commercial success of Easy Rider (1969) and the slow demise of the old studio system, Universal decided to green light some lower budget features by up and coming directors.

This meant that a young special effects artist who had helped Stanley Kubrick create some of the greatest visual effects in cinema history made his directorial debut.

Silent Running is set in a future where all plant life on Earth is extinct and the remaining specimens are preserved in giant spaceships outside the orbit of Saturn.

When the man entrusted with looking after them (Bruce Dern) receives orders to jettison the floating greenhouses and return to Earth, he begins to have second thoughts about his mission and fellow crew members.

At its core this is a film about man’s relation to nature, as seen from the isolation of space, but it goes further than that by posing interesting moral questions about how far we should go to protect an ideal as well as the conflict of an individual against the society he is from.

In this sense, the film is very much of a product of its time, when there was widespread disillusionment at foreign wars, a stagnant economy and concerns about the environment – sound familiar?

But down the years this film has endured as something much more substantial than just a hippy space opera with cute robots.

Part of it’s unique charm and power comes from Bruce Dern in the lead role, with a brave performance filled with anguish and humanity.

He conveys a genuine love for the natural plants and animals on board the ship, combined with an empathy for technology, especially his servant drones, which he nicknames Huey, Dewey, and Louie.

These were actually played by four double-amputees, inside custom-built suits, and they remain some of the most enduring characters in the sci-fi movie genre, influencing Star Wars (1977), WALL-E (2008) and Moon (2009).

Trumbull also achieved a lot on a limited budget with clever use of front-projection and model work to depict the ships in space – despite the enormous advances in visual effects since it was made, Silent Running still holds up as a textbook example of high creativity on a low budget.

Modern audiences used to the intricate, computer generated world of Avatar might like to note that it shares a similar environmental theme, which suggest that Trumbull’s messages and themes are enduring ones.

Although the use of Joan Baez songs might seem to date the movie, it is a reminder of the despair and hope of the early 1970s, which isn’t so different as we begin a new decade of social and environmental uncertainty.

In retrospect, the screenwriters were the unlikely trio of Deric WashburnMichael Cimino and Steven Bochco. Washburn and Cimino went on to co-write The Deer Hunter (1978), whilst Bochco went on to create Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and NYPD Blue.

The new Blu-ray from Masters of Cinema looks terrific, with an impressive digital restoration by Deluxe 142 in London creating a sharp but not overly pristine image with light traces of grain.

The uncompressed DTS-HD Master 2.0 channel stereo track comes with the option of listening to the music and effects separately.


  • Full-length commentary by director Trumbull and actor Bruce Dern: This commentary track recorded in 2000 for the DVD is pretty special. It not only reunites actor and director- both very interesting figures in their own right – but provides some fascinating insights into the production.
  • The Making of Silent Running (49:17): This on-set documentary by Charles Barbee provides yet more information on how they made the film. It is also an interesting snapshot of how these kind of making of features helped promoted the film in an era before the mass marketing blitz of today. Showing the inventive ways in which Trumbull stretched the budget – shooting on a decomissioned aircraft carrier and using amputees to play the robots – it is a reminder of how resourceful the production was.
  • Two video pieces with Douglas Trumbull (30:08 + 4:51): These interviews with Trumbull go into his career in some depth, including his pioneering work in visual effects and how this film came about. Interestingly, since the 1980s Trumbull has pushed for a newer cinema process called Showscan (films projected at higher frame rates of 60 frames per second) which now may become a reality with both James Cameron and Peter Jackson pushing for higher frame rates.
  • A Conversation with Bruce Dern (10:56): Dern clearly has a lot of affection both for Trumbull and the film – it offered him a juicy lead role in contrast to all the oddball supporting parts he was offered down the years. Here he expounds on the experience of working with one of two genius directors (the other was Hitchcock).
  • Original theatrical trailer (2:57)
  • A lavish 48-page full-colour booklet: Featuring rare photographs and artwork from Trumbull’s personal collection, and recollections of the film’s cinematographer and composer.
  • Isolated music and effects track

Silent Running is out on Monday 14th November from Eureka/Masters of Cinema

> Buy Silent Running on Blu-ray from Amazon UK
> Find out more about Douglas Trumbull and Bruce Dern at Wikipedia