Felony **** (out of five)
Felony Movie POsterYou always know a really good movie in the first few minutes. It feels in control, on top of things, and you can allow it your trust, and settle back. Within about five minutes, a really good movie has put you in some sort of suspense – all good movies, no matter the genre, rely in some way or another on suspense – all stories do – because all stories should have you wondering “what happens next?” And certain really good movies invoke a response, in critics and filmmakers often conscious, in general moviegoers often subconscious: wow, this is a good script.

Felony, written by Joel Edgerton, is a really good script, and Matthew Saville has directed a really good, really suspenseful movie out of it. Inhabiting the nighttime, short sleeved, coffee cups and cheap suits world of police sergeants, officers and detectives who all feel real – as they did in Saville’s excellent Noise (2007) – Edgerton plays the superbly named Mal Toohey, a good cop who lets his good sense momentarily, and complicatedly, desert him, and then wrestles with the consequences… which, inevitably, grow, and grow worse.

Everyone’s good in the film. Edgerton has generously written for Wilkinson (and Saville has closely, and thus generously, framed) the kind of single-take, long monologues that are easy to clip into movie awards shows and easy to honour with movie awards; he will win some for his work here, no doubt. But Edgerton, in a role similar in moral complexity to his Dave in the brilliant Wish You Were Here (2012), and Courtney, who may have the most difficult role, being the straightest, are every bit as compelling.

This is gritty cop stuff at its finest. It smells authentic, the dilemmas are immediate and relatable, and the suspense is relentless. And that’s just the first five minutes. See it.

20,000 Days On Earth **** (out of five)

20-000-days-on-earth-posterLet’s face it, if you’re a Nick Cave fan you’re going to see 20,000 Days On Earth, the strange, melancholic, and terribly beautiful quasi-documentary from British duo Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth. If you’re indifferent about Nick Cave you may still be fascinated by the construction of this fable-like creation, which tells the story of one day (the “20,000th day”) in the life of Cave as he runs errands only a rock star can run. If you don’t like Cave you won’t be seeing this film, which is just as well, because it’s wall-to-wall Cave.

We literally begin with Cave waking up, attending to his morning bathroom, dressing. We’re in his Brighton house, his wife is still asleep in his bed, and it’s as intimate as things get. Next we’re sitting in on an early-morning lyric writing session before getting into (presumably Cave’s actual) car and heading off into the rainy Brighton day, Nick dressed as is his wont, in a nice dark suit with a crisp white shirt, his long black hair slicked back. Refreshingly and comfortingly, he looks like no-one other than an ideal Nick Cave, the Nick Cave of your favourite album covers, the Nick Cave of your dreams.

Cave’s errands include lunch with collaborator Warren Ellis at Ellis’ house in Dover, rehearsals with Ellis in France (which is sort of folded into Brighton; we never get on a ferry or dip into any Chunnel) and a visit to Cave’s archive, which is entirely constructed and staged as a bunker-like cellar near the famous Brighton pier. Along the way a few famous travelling companions appear magically in Cave’s car and share the drive for awhile: Ray Winstone, who discusses ageing with Cave; Blixa Bargeld, whom Cave engages in a discussion about how one relates to one’s old songs; and Kylie Minogue, who brings out in Cave some terrific insights into his performance style.

These three conversations, for a Cave fan, or anyone who’s interested in the creative life (particularly of a rock and roll composer), are worth the admission alone. The conversation with Bargeld, in particular, is a jaw-droopingly fascinating look at how great musicians appreciate, and understand, their own work; Cave fans also will be pleased to learn from the Winstone discussion that Cave has no desire to re-invent himself or ever stop performing – the Cave we’ve always loved is the Cave that’s here to stay.

The day winds down with some performance, which is presented (with footage taken from two very disparate venues) in a way that is beautifully integrated with what has come before; rather than just getting some sort of climax, we get true artistic follow-through and a great and emotive catharsis. In this way the film follows the moods, tones and structure of some quintessential Cave songs; in this way it proves to be an astonishingly thoughtful, respectful, bold and intriguing piece of work. Let’s face it, if you’re a Cave fan, you’re going to love it.nickcave

Big and Little

Posted: August 20, 2014 in Uncategorized

Guardians of the Galaxy ***1/2 (out of five)

Among the million pieces of alchemy that made Star Wars great was that it told the story of how a family came together – a misfit family, a family of odds and ends, a naive young farmboy, a cocky smuggler, two droids, a monkish old man, a princess and a big hairy wookie.

The same story is told in James Gunn’s Marvel Comics adaptation Guardians of the Galaxy, except here we have a cocky thief, a green she-warrior, a branded hunk of purple muscleman, a talking racoon and one of the tree-men from The Lord of the Rings (not really; this is another tree-man). They bicker, quarrel, fight, what have you, but, of course, come together to become Guardians… of the Galaxy.

The source material dates from 1969 – way before Star Wars – and perhaps was a major influence on that film. However they may – or may not – be linked, there is no denying that Guardians of the Galaxy is the closest film, in feel, to the original Star Wars in a long, long time, and that has to do with tone: the films share humour, a lightness of touch, and heart.

The plot is bonkers, and there’s way too much CGI, but the core little group of disparate characters manage to latch themselves to you, and you’re in. Chris Pratt, as the extremely Han Solo-ish leader of the pack (insomuch as there is a leader) becomes a movie star here. Good fun; I’ll be there for Number Two.

Palo Alto ***1/2 (out of five)

We don’t really need another story about California youth – I certainly don’t lie awake worrying about the lives of privileged white teens in privileged white Silicon Valley – but Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto – based (no, really) on a volume of short stories by James Franco – is centred by Emma Roberts, a naturally engaging young actress I’ve never encountered before, and you can’t really look away. Without her, this may have been completely disposable; as it is, it announces a major new talent, and that’s always exciting.

The film is hampered by its roots – there are scenes that were obviously great little scenes in great little short stories but which go nowhere, dramatically – and as such feels dangerously close to being too loose, meandering, and inconsequential. But it holds together through the performances and a stylistic integrity; Coppola’s voice is quiet but firm. She has an eye and an ear, and if, at the moment, they are only for things she knows well, they are likely, based on Palo Alto, to develop well.

Ug

Posted: August 14, 2014 in Uncategorized

The Expendables 3 ** (out of five)

Collect the whole set.

Collect the whole set.

Stallone must go after Bad Guy Mel Gibson, who isn’t allowed to play good guys anymore. Stallone is worried his team of old guys will die, so he gets Kelsey Grammar, some sort of muscle pimp, to get him a team of young guys. But his old guys are bored, so they come along to. Many bullets are fired.

The wittiest thing about the film are the many, at times quite obscure, references to other Stallone films. Cliffhanger, Rocky, and Cop Land are all subtly referenced within one five minute section. Unfortunately that leaves nearly another two hours of barron, witless entertainment. Whenever bullets aren’t flying there is an attempt at witty banter. Unfortunately each and every time it’s a failed attempt. Best, from Gibson to Stallone: “Either you snappin’ my spine or me snappin’ yours – you know, make it snappy.”

Dolph Lundgren looks awful. Antonio Banderas looks great. Gibson looks a combo of the two. Harrison Ford shows up in a bureaucratic role and Arnold Schwarzenegger does too, although both get to pilot things. Grammar gets the most dialogue, but Stallone gets the most close ups (Gibson comes second, despite having. Relatively small role; perhaps Aussie director Patrick Hughes was paying respect, or perhaps Stallone, who owns is franchise, was).

It’s no fun, no rah-rah adventure; it’s violent and coarse. Maybe the first one, or the second one, was one to go to with one’s dad for fond, nostalgic popcorn grins; there’s nothing to grin at here. A repetitive, obsessively morbid focus talking about death and dying doesn’t lighten the mood. The action is relentless and decent but not fresh, and fresh, frankly, is all that was needed here.

A Most Wanted Man ****1/2 (out of five)

a-most-wanted-man-673x449Anton Corbijn’s third feature is a modern masterpiece in a minor key; a rare example of the director, scriptwriter and creative team producing an original artistic work that it is completely, and successfully, committed to having nothing less than full integrity in relation to the intentions, style, tone and voice of the underlying source material.

That source material belongs to John le Carré, who has been surprisingly well served by adaptations over the years despite being known to be notoriously tricky to adapt. Perhaps there is a correlation: only those skilful enough to adapt le Carré have the balls to try. The best versions of his books have been The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (mini-series, 1979), The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles, 2005) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011) but to my mind A Most Wanted Man is the best yet.

Set in Hamburg, post-911, the film follows German spy Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his team as they follow leads, connect dots and try and gather information in the face of various other departments – of various nationalities – wanting speedy results. In particular, they are interested in a known Chechen Muslim, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who has popped into Hamburg illegally, looking like a homeless man and seeking the help of a humanist lawyer, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams). Theoretically, Karpov can lead to a bigger fish, who can lead to a bigger fish, and so on. There is no real objective, just the relentless gathering of intel; no real product, just endless, meticulous process.

I don’t know if the intelligence gathering game works like this but it sure feels like it does; the movie bleeds with authenticity, or at least its perfect illusion. Andrew Bovell’s rich and idiosyncratic screenplay manages to ride a perfect line of accessible complexity and Le Carré obfuscation (a line which I felt the 2011 Tinker Tailor crossed, to its detriment); it’s a challenging plot, but always within reach, and time is allowed for many, many sublime character moments – just wait for Günther’s little moment in a seedy dive bar.

6a00e0097e4e68883301a511f0603b970cEvery single shot – and I mean every single shot in the whole movie – is exquisite. Corbijn, cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, and the production, set and costume and artistic design team work together to create a stunningly photographed and realised Hamburg full of ordinary spies and suspects going about their work; every scene is banal, and yet every scene is beautiful. Somehow, with some dark magic, Corbijn and Delhomme achieve perfect framing in every shot (Corbijn is also a renowned still photographer); it’s the best looking film of the year thus far.

Hoffman wears a very large gut like Bogart wore a trenchcoat, as an indelible signifier of character; I can’t recall him ever being fatter on screen, and, with his constant smoking and extremely pale face, he looks dangerously unwell (Günther also drinks scotch throughout the film, but we can assume that, at least, is a prop). It is a quick and obvious leap to suspect that Günther, unless he radically changes his lifestyle, is headed for a young death, and real-life circumstances hover around the film and Hoffman’s performance in a way that, sadly and weirdly, is in perfect alignment with everything that is going on: in one scene, Günther offers a cigarette, and when told by his companion that she quit, he offers, spookily, “Good luck with that.”

AMWM-Trailer-01But the role with the most meat, the most dilemma, and there most heart, is that of Annabel, and McAdams once again scores on all levels. This luminous Canadian could easily have gone down the route Hollywood reserves for women as beautiful and inherently likeable as her, but she chooses with intelligence and bravery, coming to roles like this and owning them. Although there are many excellent actresses who must have been considered for the role (among them, supposedly, Amy Adams, Jessica Chastain and Carey Mulligan), by the end of the film you can’t imagine anyone other than McAdams in it. She’s really good.

And this is a fantastic film. Corbijn’s first film, Control, succeeded almost perfectly; his second, The American, was too interested in its look to worry about its story, but here, all stars have aligned. He dispatches each scene like a maestro snooker player sinking balls, with power, style, and, most importantly, absolute precision. See it on the big screen.

Scrappy!

Posted: August 5, 2014 in Uncategorized

The Selfish Giant ***1/2 (out of five)

20130903030737!The_Selfish_Giant_posterIt’s always something special when a director finds, and gets a brilliant performance out of, an exciting and natural child actor, and that specialness can become magic when a director finds two such kids who can effortlessly play off each other. Such is the overwhelming attribute of Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant. Arbor and Swifty, two lads from somewhere in the grey, moist, downtrodden north of England, have a relationship that echoes George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men and, perhaps even more so, Ratso and Buck from Midnight Cowboy; best mates mainly by both being otherwise outcasts, Arbor is small and explosive, quick with an idea but also to lose his temper, while Swifty is large, strong, and slow, with an almost mystical knack with horses. When Arbor gets kicked out of school, they embark on an adventure – to become scrap metal merchants – despite being only thirteen.

selfish giantFor me at least, the milieu is as exotic as Copacabana, and the sense of place – the damp, the arresting juxtaposition of a simultaneous rural and industrial landscape, the faces – is exquisite. There is a plot (adapted from Oscar Wilde’s famous short story of the same name), and it’s a good one, but the atmosphere, characters, and tone are more important. And most important of all are Arbor and Swifty, played to pure perfection by little Connor Chapman and big Shaun Thomas; these amazing young thespians do indeed bring the magic.

Luc Does What Luc Does Besson

Posted: August 4, 2014 in Uncategorized

Lucy *** (out of five)

Lucy_(2014_film)_posterLuc Besson does not need to pitch. His production company, EuropaCorp, is a unique powerhouse, a hugely cashed-up independent studio with a creative lock on a particular style of English-language EuroTrash shoot-em-up that makes squillions of dollars in all corners of the globe. It is Besson’s fiefdom, where he concocts (often very slight) variations on a theme, casts from his repertory company of players (including golden boy Jason Statham, legendary luminary Jean Reno and a suite of Asian bad-asses) and farms them out to cheap directors who make films a la Besson. Very occasionally, he’ll direct one himself.

In this case, he’s taken his B movie formula and given it an A movie cast (well, two A list actors), a bigger than usual budget, and himself as director. If he did have to pitch it, Lucy would be described as “The Transporter meets Limitless meets Under The Skin.” The Transporter because it’s the same old chase around Europe (particularly Paris) with cars and guns, Limitless because it’s about someone who takes a drug and then can use all of their brain’s capability, and Under The Skin because it features Scarlett Johansson in “alien” mode and a lot of black gooey stuff.

"Isn't this Tarentino's vibe?"

“Isn’t this Tarentino’s vibe?”

It’s nowhere near as clever or well thought out as Limitless in coming to terms with its subject matter, the ending is appalling, and the same old chase stuff really is just the same old chase stuff, down to slow-motion machine-gun fights with Asian dudes in black suits and white shirts. It’s old hat.

But Johansson is in every scene and watching her be weird is great fun. She saves the movie through a combination of her extraordinary screen charisma and her total abandonment to odd, spasmodic choices. Besson knows the technical side of filmmaking so well that he seems to switch up styles for the sheer hell of it, utilising 70s zooms in an airport scene, say, probably because he watched Three Days of the Condor the night before. No-one shoots a Parisian car chase like him, and he’s capable of a garishly vulgar set piece; the set-up of the movie – the opening twenty or so minutes – is quite excellent. It’s total EuroTrash, but with a Scarlett sheen.lucy-movie-scarlett-johansson