Life In Black & White

Following his triumphant examination of 1980s sink-estate Britain in This Is England, director Shane Meadow’s re-recruits his teenage star Thomas Turgoose for the contemporary follow-up, Somers Town, a minutely-observed portrait of youthful friendship set in an underdeveloped part of 1990s London.

Turgoose plays Tommo, a bright but troubled sixteen year-old who, for reasons we never quite discover, runs away from Nottingham to pitch up in Somers Town. On his first night on the streets, he is robbed by a gang of thugs who take his clothes and his money. Loitering in a café, Tommo meets Marek (Piotr Jagiello), a Polish immigrant teenager who lives in a nearby tower block with his father, a builder on the Channel Tunnel railway line.

The two lads are well met; Tommo is a talkative, cheeky troublemaker while photographer Marek is more sensitive and less certain of himself. With nowhere else to go, Tommo convinces Marek to allow him to hide in his room while his father is at work, or out drinking, and the pair form a bond through their shared isolation, boredom, lack of money and a growing obsession with French waitress Maria (Elisa Lasowski).

It doesn’t sound like much in synopsis, but over the course of his just-too-short 70 minutes, Meadows and his regular screenwriter Paul Fraser spin an affecting, unassuming story of outsiders making the best of difficult circumstances. Despite the bleak landscape, Meadows balances his theme of urban poverty and the immigrant struggle with customary earthy humour, relying on the natural, unaffected grace of his two inexperienced leads for semi-improvised banter. There could have been more of it, though.

Turgoose and Jagiello’s essentially optimistic performances are central to the film’s success, sharing a freewheeling chemistry that lights up the screen, particularly in their interactions with local wide-boy Graham (Perry Benson) and a long scene where they wreck the flat after swilling down their first bottle of wine. Meadows and cinematographer Natasha Braier present the story in glowing monochrome high-definition video with a simple, gritty lyricism that finds unexpected flecks of beauty in the corners of a city in transition.

The Devil's In The Details

The phenomenal success of his Spanish Civil War fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth turned Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro into a force in world cinema, but he goes back to his comic-book roots for his follow-up Hellboy II: The Golden Army, delivering an even-better sequel to his 2004 comedy-action-adventure, this time pitting his demonic hero against a mechanical army led by a goblin king determined to rid the world of humans.

Having already shown us Hellboy’s beginnings, summoned from hell by Rasptin (to help the Nazis fight WWII), Del Toro opens with his adopted father Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) telling the red-faced, horned and now five year old demon a bedtime story. Here, in a beautifully realised stop-motion animation, we see the origins of the story to come – an ancient war between humanity and goblins - while teasing us with just how achingly gorgeous it will be.

In the short version, man and fairy share an uneasy truce: we get the cities, they keep the forests. But humanity has reneged on the deal, and destroyed the natural world. In an effort to save his people, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) defies his father the king of the goblins and plots to awaken the Golden Army: 70 times 70 robot warriors buried under the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim. Standing against him in the upcoming battle is the fire-engine faced Hellboy (Ron Perlman), his fire-spewing lover Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) and super-intelligent merman Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), who all work for a secret government agency, keeping the real world safe from fantastical creatures. Tensions mount when their boss (the very funny Jeffrey Tambor) drafts in a new mission specialist, an ectoplasmic German called Johann Krauss who has been transformed into a wisp of shape-shifting smoke, trapped inside a clanking bell-diver’s suit.

Ron Perlman gives another winning performance as the cigar-choming, wise-crack spouting anti-hero, his massive chest carved with arcane tattoos and his right arm cast in crunching concrete. He’s tough on the outside, but tender underneath, loving kittens and Barry Manilow and desperate not to lose the love of his life, Liz. This romantic element is sustained with surprising effectiveness throughout the adventure to come, a sign of the film’s true intentions, to marry explosive action and eye-popping monsters with the grand themes of love, unity and ecology. This last element, the death of the natural world, is lyrically communicated in a vast sequence where Hellboy must battle a leafy, green God of the Woods and later, strike a bargain with the Angel of Death, a gruesome creature with a hundred eyes strewn across its black wings.

There are echoes of the classics of fantasy cinema throughout Hellboy II; a princess carrying a powerful charm from Star Wars, the half-forgotten fairy folk asserting their right to live as they do in Narnia while the endlessly fascinating Troll Market brings to mind the hidden places of Harry Potter. Del Toro isn’t paying homage; he goes deeper than that, taking as his source the stories that inspired these stories. Filled with moments of genuine visual wonder, the film is a unique accomplishment, standing in stark contrast to the soulless production-line of summer blockbuster entertainment, made to achieve a profit margin. Del Toro has loftier targets to hit.

This is a filmmaker with a unique way of seeing the world, but better than that, he has an innate understanding of how myths legends work in the mind of the viewer. He knows what it is about legends that entertain us and how, when properly told, they can still deliver powerful messages.

Bra Vo

Winner of the Best First Film award at last year’s Galway Film Fleadh, Marian Quinn’s charming, tender 32A is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in Dublin’s Raheny in 1979. We first meet 13 year-old Maeve (Ailish McCarthy) as she tries on her first bra, the measurement the same at the bus route to her suburban estate. Maeve and her friends are obsessed with breasts and bras, staring chest-height at other women and endlessly discussing their burgeoning pubescence. From there, the formative events of Maeve’s young life are covered in a familiar rite of passage, from her first period to her first kiss and her first disco (the Northside’s legendary Grove, complete with DJ Cecil Nolan in a cameo). When they meet at a party and spend an innocent night racing around a garden, Maeve starts dating the local heartthrob, sixteen year old Brian Power (Shane McDaid). Her friends can’t believe it, and their sense of injustice is doubled when Maeve skips an important meeting to go on a date instead.

Quinn places these emotional moments, humiliations and embarrassments against the backdrop of Maeve’s mother Jean (Orla Brady) spending time in hospital with “women’s problems”, while across the road, her best friend Ruth (Sophie Jo Wasson) is looking to reconnect with her long-lost father (Jared Harris), against the wishes of her bitter mother (played by the director herself). Although each element of the storyline fizzes with the same mood of teenage angst and shares the same sense of observation, the film struggles to tie these separate threads into a compelling whole, sketching outlines of an emotional landscape but leaving perceptible blank areas on the canvas.

Despite that uncertainty, the young cast give lively, unaffected performances taken, no doubt, from their own recent experiences. As Maeve, newcomer Ailish McCarthy is a real find; beautifully expressing the excitement of discovery through a big pair of blue eyes and later, nimbly finding the faces required to express frustration and disappointment without letting anyone other than the camera know. Her gang of friends (Wasson, Riona Smith and Orla Long) share an irrepressible energy, guiding one another over the various teenage hurdles before falling out, snubbing one another with consummate authenticity. More than boys and bras, its here at the centre of a gaggle of girls that 32A finds its heart.

From the magenta masthead on the Evening Press to the precise shade of industrial green paint on the walls, Quinn recreates late 1970’s Dublin with tremendous facility. Costume, production design and soundtrack are all note-perfect and the film is superbly photographed by PJ Dillon.

Mommy Issues

The third instalment of Stephen Sommer’s Mummy franchise, The Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor finally nails the lid down on the dusty old sarcophagus, seven years after the original revival gave a significant fillip to the action-adventure genre while handily providing Brendan Fraser with something to do in movies.

Last seen battling the supernatural Scorpion King in Egypt in the 1930s, Fraser’s thrill-seeking archaeologist Rick O'Connell is now retired in the post-war English countryside, living the life of a country gent with his wife Evelyn (Maria Bello, stepping in for Rachel Weisz, who has graduated from this sort of thing). He’s learning how to fish and shoot while she writes adventure novels but they both yearn for the old excitements. When a spook from MI5 arrives at the house and asks them to deliver the mysteriously glowing Eye of Shangri-La diamond to a museum in Shanghai, they quickly agree, in the process reuniting with Evelyn’s brother Jonathan (John Hannah) and their twenty-year old son Alex (Luke Ford), a dashing adventurer and a chip of the old block.

Alex has recently discovered the long-lost tomb of the Dragon Emperor (Kung Fu superstar Jet Li) hidden in the vast underground chamber that holds his terracotta army. The opening prologue has already told us how, thousands of years before, the ruthless Emperor betrayed the powerful sorceress Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh) by killing her beloved after she had agreed to grant him a magical immortality. Instead she imprisoned him and his legions in clay and buried them underground. Now, with the O’Connell’s having delivered the diamond that revives him, the undead Dragon Emperor is returned to power and starts a new campaign of death and destruction.

In his first film since the disastrous Stealth, director Rob Cohen masticates this material into an unattractive bolus of computer-generated mush. The resulting goo lacks any genuine thrill or sense of entertainment, but it is noisy and belligerent. Late on, Li and Yeoh face off in a typically nimble sword fight, but it's a fleeting moment. Fraser and Ford are closely matched as father and son, in that both give equally bland and tuneless performances, not helped by the witless script’s cheesy one-liners, aiming for sparkling Golden Age repartee and landing on news anchor banter.

The usually edgy Bello is hamstrung by not being Rachel Weisz. A wobbly cut-glass accent and scant reason to be there finally collapse her. Even further in the distance, John Hannah’s familar slapstick comic relief suffers the same inane scripting; being at one point upstaged by an airsick animatronic yak. Liam Cunningham does his best as Mad Dog Maguire (no relation), a wild-eyed Irish pilot with a limited sense of self-preservation and a propensity for inappropriate balladeering, but there's nothing anyone could do to revive this corpse.

ET, Phone In

The X Files was the monumental success story of television in the 1990s, the seemingly endless adventures of moody crackpot Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and his reluctant medical sidekick Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), devoted to uncovering conspiracies, chasing monsters and seeking out E.T. Now, ten years on from their first big-screen adaptation and nine years after everybody stopped caring, the partners are reunited in I Want To Believe when a female FBI agent is abducted in snowy West Virginia and a psychic priest claims to know where she is.

Spooky Mulder is now a recluse, living under the radar in a remote farmhouse in self-enforced retirement, spending his days clipping strange stories from the newspapers and cultivating a rabbinical beard. His former partner has left the FBI and is now a hospital paediatrician, working on a particularly tricky case of a young boy with a brain disease. When the agency – in the form of rapper Xzibit and Amanda Peet - come and ask Scully to reconnect them with Mulder, she convinces him to take on the case, in the process rekindling their romantic relationship and convincing him to leave the house. The plot thickens when another woman is abducted from a swimming pool and Father Joe (Billy Connelly) once more leads the cops to uncover vital clues, seemingly driven by angelic visions. But the priest is a convicted paedophile, the missing women have mysterious connections and the new FBI agents don’t trust the old guard anymore.

It’s a complicated story, but not that much more so. Remove the supernatural X-Files hook and this is just another gloomy cop drama, steadily traipsing through a procession of ethereal clues and not-so cunning misdirections, feeble stand-offs set against tepid chases and choreographed procedure. As the agents race around the snow-bound landscapes searching for the missing women, Scully is drawn into a battle with the religious hospital administrators when she suggests treating her dying patient with experimental stem-cells. This she accomplishes by googling “stem-cell research”, printing off a ream of documents, scratching her head and then, in the next scene, confidently injecting the child’s brain with a syringe filled with pink goo.

Duchovny and Anderson do bring a convincing maturity, call it tiredness, to their best-known creations but their chemistry is not nearly enough to carry the lumpy story, which starts without involvement and doesn’t improve. Opposite them, Connelly is miscast as the spooky priest, unable to add any complexity or emotion to what is an underwritten, lazily sketched character, polishing his Scottish burr on the choice dialogue. In the end, all three resort to gimmicks and tics to struggle through the signposts; wearily pitting God against Science and seemingly uninterested in the outcome. Written and directed by the series originator Chris Carter, there is just enough here for hardcore fans on a nostalgia trip but almost nothing of the old mystery remains.

Highly Strung

‘Breathtaking’ is a rather over used word in film criticism; a handy catch-all phrase that describes everything from a starlet’s liquid eyes to pyrotechnic stuntwork or pretty landscape photography. It is only rarely employed to express the actual sensation of gasping in a cinema seat, but that’s what happens in James Marsh’s dizzying documentary Man On Wire, about a day in 1974 when a daredevil Frenchman strung a high-wire across the gap between New York’s Twin Towers and walked out into the ether.

A circus performer from a young age, the pixie-like Philippe Petit had already attracted the world’s attention by traversing the towers of Notre Dame cathedral and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but as he tells it himself in a series of interviews, from the moment he saw an architect’s drawing of the World Trade Centre in a newspaper, he knew would have to try to cross it. From that half-cracked idea, Petit and his team of accomplices spent eight months planning the execution of what they called their ‘coup’ in painstaking detail. Like a team of bank robbers preparing a heist, they would have to find a way to gain access to the top of the half-finished towers, carry the 200 foot cable into position, secure it against the high winds at 1350 feet and do it all without getting caught.

Structured like a thriller, Marsh (who previously directed the oddball Wisconsin Death Trip and the equally edgy drama The King) uses new interviews, archive footage and seamless reconstructions to bring us inside Petit’s unique world of risk and danger, brilliantly evoking a time and place and making the audience - even those unaffected by acrophobia - feel like part of the adventure.

Petit, who was only 24 when he completed the walk, makes for an engaging interview subject; still driven by his unique artistic vision and an endless supply of adrenaline. His accomplices, including his then girlfriend, exasperated best friend and the inside man, a thrill-seeking American lawyer, each give their chronological version of the event, recalling the constant sense of danger but also the simple joy involved in pulling off a high-concept prank. The result is an engaging and compelling documentary that dances on the line between art and obsession, the knee-trembling images beautifully matched to Michael Nyman’s evocative score.