Friday, July 29, 2011


Once THE WIRE re-up was over, life seemed pretty empty. So empty that I submitted to a Buffy Re-Up, courtesy of two friends of mine who are super-fans of all things Joss Whedon. I was intially sceptical. Vampires? Teen angst? Lo-rent make-up effects? Seriously? However, I'm half way through series 2 and I have to say I'm really starting to enjoy Joss Whedon's wonderfully witty use of the English language - the energy and plasticity of it. I got that same sense of playfulness as I watched CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER. What gave it away? Characters uttering dead-pan cool witticisms rather than screaming when a big bad man blows up shit. The tone was anachronistically, inappropriately US-teen-cool for a movie supposedly set during World War Two. 

And then it all clicked! Joss Whedon had been given the script penned by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the NARNIA movies). According to IMDBpro he is meant to have done a light re-write to tie it in to the wider Marvel universe, and in particular THE AVENGERS movie that he's directing. But I suspect that Whedon did more than just tie up some narrative threads. Because when this movie is at its most entertaining, and its most emotionally real, it simply DRIPS Joss Whedon.  You can see the impact of Whedon on the success of the final film. It works best in the first two thirds, where it really is all about character and relationships. It works least in the final third when it descends into a pretty much super-hero-movie-by-numbers final battle scene....

But anyway, enough of my current Whedon-kick and on with the normal review. CAPTAIN AMERICA is the latest feature-length incarnation of the comic book hero created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in the 1940s - a deliberately patriotic and wholesome character designed to boost morale during World War Two. The superhero is really Steve Rogers - a physically un-prepossessing but morally upstanding young man desperate to enlist and fight the Nazis. Dr Abraham Erskine, a German-Jewish refugee and Papa Stark use a serum and some Vita-Rays (TM) - to turn Rogers into a buff super-soldier. 

Interestingly, rather than kicking Nazi ass immediately, the lone super-soldier takes a side-turn, and is consigned to marketing war bonds - a parody of his future super-hero status, and highly reminiscent of the subtlety and post-modernity of Alan Moore's WATCHMEN. After this false start, Captain America start to fight in earnest, under the direction of Colonel Chester Phillips and his attractive protégée, Peggy Carter, not to mention Papa Stark. Captain America also has a bunch of mere mortal side-kicks, including his best friend Bucky, but rounded out with a Japanese-American, an African-American, an Irish-American, a Frenchman and a Brit. This isn't so much tub-thumping jingoism, then, as the United Nations. I would love to know from anyone who has read the comics whether this rainbow-nation of do-gooders is, as I suspect, a highly modern and politically correct re-write.

Steve Rogers' journey to becoming Captain America makes for a fascinating origins story. Chris Evans (FANTASTIC FOUR) gives a fine and convincing performance as the sensitive young man fiercely opposed to bullies, and he is ably supported by Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Haley Atwell and Dominic Cooper as Phillips, Erskine, Carter and Stark respectively. Stanley Tucci's Erskine has a wonderful comic interchange early on with Rogers over a bottle of schnapps that quickly and efficiently establishes a bond that pays off a few scenes later. It's a shame no comparable emotional bond was created between Rogers and best friend Bucky (Gossip Girl's Sebastian Stan). 

I loved the sepia-tinted 1940s production design, the costumes, the hair, and the sheer atmosphere of it all. And whoever CGI-morphed Chris Evans head onto a short, weedy body deserves much credit because the work is utterly seamless. I also loved the make-up that transforms Hugo Weaving's mad Nazi into the evil head of Hydra, Red Skull - intent on using the power of the Norse Gods to unleash war on the entire earth. In fact, just for the nostalgic look of the film - half Indiana Jones - half Watchmen flashback - this is probably my favourite superhero film of the summer, alongside the X-MEN movie. It turned out to be, rather to my surprise, a wonderfully well-made, beautifully-imagined, and Whedon-witty movie.

That said, the movie does have its faults. The Bucky storyline doesn't pay off in the way it should. The final third is dull. Peggy Carter has the beginnings of a great character - a feisty, bright woman. But what's she there fore apart from to look good? Stark builds shit; Phillips commands shit; everyone else fights shit; but Carter just pouts. I mean, what is this agent really meant to be doing? Is she a scientist? A military mind? What? Poor writing.  Similarly, the politically correct side-kicks are fine, but where is the moral clarity that should come with a fight against the Nazis. Oh but I forget. We're not really fighting the Nazis are we - but some weird ambiguous generally evil guy, who's harder to get a grip on, or care about. Speaking of which, I really do wonder at director Joe Johnston's (THE WOLFMAN, JURASSIC PARK III) indulgence in allowing Hugo Weabing to do the entire film with a German accent that sounds uncannily like Werner Herzog. It was so pitch perfect that is seriously took me out of the movie in every scene - undercutting the serious subject-matter and high emotional stakes.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER is on release in Canada, Italy, Poland, the US, Iceland, the Philippines, Argentina, Australia, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Peru, Russia, Singapore, Slovenia, Thailand, Armenia, Brazil, Colombia, Estonia, India, Ireland, Lithuania, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Taiwan and the UK. It opens next weekend in Hong Kong, Hungary, Israel, Portugal and Spain. It opens on August 12th in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. It opens on August 17th in Belgium, France, Germany and Finland. It opens on September 1st in Greece, the UAE and Turkey. It opens in Japan on October 15th.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Leila Hatami, joint winner of the Berlin Silver Bear

This is the first of what should hopefully be a series of reviews from our new contributor, "A.H"':

After being denied permission by the law courts to a divorce in order to raise her daughter away from Iran, Simin (Leila Hatami), in an early scene of A SEPARATION, moves out of the apartment she shares with her husband, daughter and father-in-law, to live with her mother. The demanding familial situation she leaves behind becomes the work of Razieh (Sareh Bayat), whom Simin’s husband hires as a housekeeper and carer to his elderly, invalid father. In taking on these significant responsibilities, Razieh encounters difficulties almost immediately: she must travel a tiring distance to work each morning; with her own young daughter to mind in tow; and she finds herself unsure of what her religion will allow her to do in the nursing of a lost old man who is unable to clean or speak for himself. However, the larger problem that becomes clear by pieces as this unstylised, unhappy film unfolds is that Razieh herself, in accepting this unsuitable role and the money it will bring, is attempting to deal with the failings and inconstancies that have taken place in her own family. Her fraught situation further complicates the newly altered life of Simin’s family, and the elusive, final separation that Simin desires at the outset of the film.

The meeting of these stories is the intricate art of this drama, and the ensuing tangled involvement of these two families, from notably different classes, is worsened by a few heated, tragic events that move this private confluence from Simin’s family apartment and its environs into the Tehranian law courts. There the tragic events and the lonely histories behind them are variously debated and confessed, and their judgements are harsh and quick and always inadequate in comparison to the length and complexity of what has been previously witnessed and sadly understood – most of all by Simin’s daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Indeed, at the end of the film, when a final trip to the courts is made, a resolution to the contest of family, and moreover, to the contest of loyalty, becomes the most impossible and dreadful of tasks. That heart-wrenching scene is a testament to the subtly cumulative method and ultimately powerful work of this compelling film.

A SEPARATION played Berlin 2011, where it was the first movie in history to win 3 Bears: the Golden Bear for director Asghar Farhadi; and two Silver Bear for Best Actor and Actress given to the entire ensemble. It also played Sydney 2011 where it won the award for Best Film. It was released earlier this year in Iran, Belgium, France and Thailand. It is currently on release in the UK, Turkey and Germany. It opens in August in the Netherlands, Hungary and Spain. It opens in Sweden on September 16th; in Poland and Denmark in October; in Italy and Norway on December 25th; and in Brazil on January 6th 2012. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


After the turgid teen-moping of DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1, it comes as quite a relief to see the HARRY POTTER franchise close with what is essentially a two-hour epic battle between good and evil. Director David Yates' DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2 is visually stunning, beautifully constructed, and never falters in pace or tone. Indeed, in its tight pacing, Steve Klove's adaptation beats J.K.Rowling's baggy source-novel hands down.

It feels somewhat superfluous to provide a plot summary for one of the most popular children's books of all time, but for those of us who read the book on release and have since forgotten the mechanics of the ending, here it is. The movie takes place in contemporary England, where ordinary people live unknowingly alongside a world of magic. Young wizards are trained at a boarding school called Hogwarts, and older wizards are governed by the Ministry of Magic. But over the past seven films, we have seen the world of good magic over-turned by the reappearance of the evil Voldemort - a former Hogwarts pupil - with a particular vendetta against our improbable hero, Harry Potter. We pick up the story with Harry Potter and his side-kicks, brainy Hermione and loyal Ron, on the hunt Horcruxes - the magical objects into which Voldemort poured his soul. If the kids can kill the Horcruxes they can save the world from a reign of Black Magic; their school from a fierce magical battle; and Harry from a fateful confrontation with his nemesis.

The resulting film opens as a kind of heist movie, with Harry and co. breaking into Gringotts bank on the hunt for a horcrux, but pretty soon we are back at Hogwarts and into the final battle which absorbs the vast majority of the run-time. The visuals are simply stunning. I have always been impressed by the make-up and CGI effects that transform Ralph Fiennes into the snake-like Voldemort, but the image of his foetus-like horcrux was incredible and unforgettable. And Hogwarts is evocatively photographed in murky gloom (yes, even without those awful and unnecessary 3D glasses), and is hauntingly battered and bruised by the final act. We are basically in the realms of a war movie - and the producers do not shy from showing us death and destruction. The post-battle scene, with nurses dressed in WW1 style costumes, was both deeply affecting - as well as deeply British - as they all sit around and have a nice cup of tea! 

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is that the main characters are rather over-shadowed by Professor McGonagall's "Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more"-style battle-cry and Matthew Lewis' scene-stealing turn as Neville Longbottom. Indeed, on the back of his appearance in this film, 6 foot tall and looking for all the world like a young Clive Owen, one can't help but suspect that he might have a brighter post-Potter future than Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint!

If I had any difficulty with the film, it was the use of 3D. I didn't feel that it added anything, and enveloped an already hauntingly dark film in yet another dark veneer. My other two problems rest with the book rather than the film, which after all, has to be faithful or risk disappointing the fans. I continue to believe that J.K.Rowling lost her gumption when it came to Harry's final choice - that there was a darker but more satisfying ending that she could've written. And I rather felt that Neville Longbottom was short-changed in the epilogue.

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 2 is released globally on July 15th.

Monday, July 11, 2011


This review contains spoilers.

THE TREE OF LIFE opens with a mother in an idealised 1950s American Suburbia reacting to a telegram telling her that her that her son has died. This is inter-cut with a middle-aged man in a contemporary American city - a prisoner of the sterile modern architecture that he has helped create.  We intuit that this man is her son, the elder brother of the child who died. And he too is trying to make sense of his grief - to unravel the meaning of his life and his brother's death - and to understand - on the most profound existential level - "how did I get here?"  

This opening prologue sets up both the style and themes of the movie that is to follow.  Stunning photography of the natural world set against the world that ambitious men have created. Whispered voice-overs questioning the meaning of existence - the choice between Grace and Ambition.  The audience left to intuit what is really happening - and to glory in the sensory experience.  I suspect that most viewers will know at this point whether they are going to find the film a pretentious, wilfully obscure film over-loaded with hokey spiritual themes, or a cinematic masterpiece that pushes the boundaries of narrative cinema and has an earnest engagement with spiritual matters that leaves most contemporary cinema looking superficial and banal.  I fell into the latter camp. 

And so, after its opening prologue, the film moves into its first act - the most challenging in the film and presumably the point at which many audience members walk out. Because the questioning brother, now grown-up, tries to answer his questions by taking us right back to the beginning. Not to the beginning of his brother's life, but to the beginning of life itself.  We are immersed into a twenty minute display of creation - Kubrickian visuals that are quite simply wonderful in the literal sense of that world. Writer-director Terrence Malick wants us to wonder at the glory of nature - the power and beauty of it - but also to see that the tendency toward brutality was always there - even from the time of the pre-history.  My reaction to a scene where a dinosaur holds down the head of another injured dinosaur, and then tentatively lifts up his foot, was to see this is the same questioning of grace versus brutality.  I wouldn't blame others if they thought, WTF?  

In the second act we return to 1950s suburbia, and see the birth of three sons of the family.  Brad Pitt plays the father, truly loving but also a strict disciplinarian. It is a nuanced performance and arguably the best of his career. He has a harsh self-improvement philosophy, and is feared rather than loved by his children. The mother, played by Jessica Chastain, is cast as a kind of Virgin Mary figure - loving, forgiving, gentle, a source of succour.  She looks on mournfully as she sees the father castigate the children.  And so we have embodied the battle between the Ambition and Grace. It is a battle that the father ultimately loses - his musical career and his patents come to nothing  - and they have to leave their family home in a scene that ends the second act. He admits in a voice-over that his striving has brought him nothing but estrangement from his family and disappointment. He demands kisses from his children, he knows that they hate him.  The one son he is truly proud of - who he accompanies on the piano in a marvellous scene - is killed. And the elder son, who watches this scene of intimacy from outside the window, is left resentful.  

That isn't to say that this section of the movie is depressing - there are scenes of children goofing around that made me utterly nostalgic for my own childhood - and all portrayed with an intimacy that is captivating.  The camera is typically placed at the height of a child, looking around table-legs or looking up at adults. And the mother is portrayed in one particular scene as floating in the air - just as a little kid might ideate his mother as a kind of angelic figure. It is truly beautiful. 

In the final act of the film, we move into a kind of dream world, where the questioning middle-aged son is reunited with his family from the 1950s - including his kid brother. The mother and father are overjoyed to see the little boy, it feels to anyone familiar with the Bible like a reunion in paradise. And then we have, after two hours of questioning, a scene that I found utterly cathartic - a scene in which the mother seems to accept that God has taken her son, "I give him back to you", surrounded by the supporting embrace of the people on the beach.  A lot of reviewers have criticised this scene in particular as being an unnecessary epilogue - detracting from the scenes in suburbia. But to me, this is the most crucial part of the film. Without it, we have no resolution, no closure, and the film really has been for nothing.

I am fully aware at how earnest and pretentious this review might seem. What can I say? Malick approaches his material with such a sense of wonder and goodness and earnest questioning - his films are quite without cynicism and it seems mean-spirited to approach them with anything but that same degree of earnestness.  I suspect that this unabashed, heart on your sleeve approach - this wide-eyed wonder at the beauty of nature and the goodness in the world - is what irks so many modern viewers, so used to post-modern irony and nihilism.  This is a film that comes from a time before ironic detachment. In fact, it wants us to jump into our sensory experiences, without barriers, and to really feel everything.  It is, in that sense, a truly radical, truly stunning, beautiful, graceful film. It is, to my mind, Malick's best work since Badlands, a worthy winner of the Palme D'Or, and a true pantheon film.

THE TREE OF LIFE played Cannes 2011 where it won the Palme D'Or. It was released earlier this year in France, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Greece, Israel, Portugal, Sweden, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Canada, Poland, Germany, Austria, Taiwan, the Philippines and Australia. It was released this weekend in Hong Kong, Thailand, Ireland, the UK and the USA. It opens on August 12th in Japan; on August 25th in New Zealand and Finland; on September 2nd in Norway; on September 16th in Spain; on December 9th in Estonia and on December 15th in Argentina.

Saturday, July 02, 2011


History is written in broad brush-strokes, with the industrial revolution depicted as a battle between capital and workers.  But as an early scene in MADE IN DAGENHAM shows, by the late 1960s - a period we can now see as the dying breath of the British union movement - both capital and workers had settled into cosy set-pieces and horse-trading with white men on either side.   In this film those roles are played by Kenneth Cranham as the Union boss and Rupert Graves as the Ford boss. They are meeting to discuss equal pay for women, and both presume that the women's token representative, played by Sally Hawkins, should simply shut up and let the men decide what's what. That calcified system was ultimately dismantled by a woman - Margaret Thatcher - but she only got the political mandate to do so after the country had been brought to its knees in the mid-70s.  This movie takes place earlier, but still gives us three women bucking the system.  The first - our heroine - is Sally Hawkins' Rita - is a machinist working in Ford's Dagenham factory. She finds empathy from her boss's trophy wife/domestic slave, Lisa (Rosamund Pike) and support from Miranda Richardson's brilliantly spiky Barbara Castle. 

The film is a very easy watch, glorying in its period costumes and kitschy interiors, and rarely showing the true  hardships of a strike. It's all rather day-glo and, worst of all words, "feel-good". Still, insofar as it does make you feel good while teaching you something about the fight for equal pay (a fight still not yet won), that can't really be a bad thing, can it? That said, one might have hoped for a movie painted in less broad strokes and with less of a simplistic moral stance.

MADE IN DAGENHAM played Toronto 2010 and opened in Norway, the UK, Finland, Israel, the USA and Italy last year. It opened earlier this year in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, France, Portugal, Greece, Singapore, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Mexico, Denmark and Turkey. It is available to rent and own.

Friday, July 01, 2011


Evidently, the Nic Cage crusader-slash-religious-hysteria flick SEASON OF THE WITCH is a bunch of ridonkulous hokum. The key question is whether, like SOLOMON KANE, it manages to embrace its pulpy traits to become a truly entertaining piece of work. The sad answer is, "a thousand times No". SEASON OF THE WITCH is a confused, sub-par piece of hammy genre entertainment, in which Nic Cage is disappointingly not as crazy as he was in BAD LIEUTENANT

The plot is pretty simple.  Nic Cage and Ron Perlman are 14th century Crusader knights who, despite battling for their Christian Kings, end up falsely accused and on trial for their lives. Thus newly sensitised to the cruelty of arbitrary justice, they journey home through a plague-infested land.  A monk charges them to deliver a Witch to an exorcism designed to rid the country of the plague, but of course Nic Cage's Knight wants her to have a fair trial. And, after all, we sort of think that the plague might be caused by a travelling salesman with infected reliquaries rather than an innocent girl attracting unwanted attentions. That said, as Roger Ebert points out in his review, the film's post-modern cultural sensitivity is somewhat undermined by the fact that the poor girl doesn't even get a name!  

The look of the film is sort of lo-rent Conan slash Coppola's highly colour-coded Dracula with battle scenes from the Ridley Scott school of loud noises and incomprehensible editing. Lots of over-wrought CGI backdrops, mud and sweat, but not much actual inspiration or imagination. DP Amir Mokri (TRANSFORMERS 3, FAST & FURIOUS) obviously long since sold his soul to Michael Bay and is probably a better candidate for  salvation-by-exorcism than the poor girl. And as for Director Dominic Sena, where's the visual wit and verbal cheekiness that enlivened SWORDFISH? 

SEASON OF THE WITCH went on global release in January through March. It is currently on release in Italy and opens in Japan on July 30th. It is also available to rent and own.