The Best and Worst of 2009


The Best Films of 2009

1) Let The Right One In

Swedish director Tomas Alfredson adapted the bestselling novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist for this darkly atmospheric vampire story about a 12 year old boy called Oscar and his friendship with an unusual young girl named Eli. As delicate, evocative and poetic a film as you are ever likely to see, the film’s complex ambiguities and haunting mood stayed with me throughout the year. A Hollywood remake is in the works. See it now, before they ruin it.

2) The White Ribbon
There are more scary kids in Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winning film about a black cloud of mysterious violence that passes over a Northern German village on the eve of WWI. Shot in stark monochrome and with a constant air of menace, The White Ribbon is extraordinarily gripping but frustratingly slippery, with Haneke deftly refusing to answer the questions he asks about family, community, faith and how they combined in the minds of the young people who would allow the Nazis to prosper. A singular film.

3) A Serious Man
The Coen Brothers follow the frothy caper Burn After Reading with this mordant, pleasingly pessimistic re-telling of the Book of Job as the story of a 1960s mathematics professor plagued by injustice and iniquity who attempts to find comfort in the teachings of his rabbis. A Serious Man is one of the very few films of 2009 that I watched twice.

4) Il Divo
Paolo Sorrentino offers a scathing analysis of former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, told with consummate style, wit and a towering central performance from Tony Servillo.

5) Up
The first twenty minutes of Pixar’s 3D animation Up are amongst the finest ever committed to film, an emotionally devastating thumbnail sketch of a quiet American marriage. The rest of it is pretty special too.

6) The Wrestler
Mickey Rourke had come a long way since his heyday in the 1980s, but the trajectory was mostly downward. By the time he was offered the title role in The Wrestler, Rourke had become a parody of himself. His director, visionary wunderkind Darren Aronofsky wasn’t doing all that better, smarting after the costly commercial and critical failure of The Fountain. The Wrestler saved them both: Rourke will play the baddie in this summer’s Iron Man II while Aronofsky is currently filming the thriller Black Swan.

7) Slumdog Millionaire
Danny Boyle swept the Oscars with this rollicking rags-to-riches story about a young man from the slums of Mumbai who appear on the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”. Breathless and beguiling, Slumdog Millionaire boasted the best final scene of the year; a Bollywood-style dance-off staged at Mumbai train station.

8) Mesrine I & II
Vincent Cassel excelled in this tough, stylish diptych about the life and crimes of notorious French gangster Jacques Mesrine.

9) The Hurt Locker
Katherine Bigelow’s stylish and gripping war film told the story of a bomb-disposal expert as he completes a tour of duty on the streets of Iraq. Tightly focused, horribly claustrophobic and seething with anger and adrenaline, this is the best film yet about the war in Iraq.

10) Anvil: The Story of Anvil
The documentary of the year, this touching portrait of a failed Canadian heavy metal band was like Spinal Tap made real, up to and including the brilliantly redemptive finale.

The Next Ten Best:
Bright Star, Broken Embraces, District 9, Doubt, Frost/Nixon, Frozen River, Gran Torino, Katyn, Moon, Rachel Getting Married.


The Worst Films of 2009

1) The Boat that Rocked
The Boat That Sank, more like. Richard Curtis’ appalling comedy about a 1960s pirate radio station was noisy and busy and extraordinarily lengthy, but never funny. Not even once.

2) Love Happens
This ghastly rom-com about a relationship between a bereaved self-help author and a lonely florist is told as a series of fatuous homilies about ‘recovery’. This entire list could have been composed of failed, foolish American studio romantic-comedies.

3) The Ugly Truth
Like this one. Charisma vacuums Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler combine to losing effect for this charmless comedy black hole. See also: Bride Wars, Marley & Me, Couples Retreat…

4) Lesbian Vampire Killers
The stars of TV’s Gavin & Stacey squander their reputations on this lazy, puerile comedy homage to Hammer Horror.

5) Dragonball Evolution
Or, indeed, any film that has been adapted from a video game, ever. Unwatchable garbage designed to appeal to unusually dim-witted thirteen year old boys.

6) Triangle
A sailing-party of pretty young people are lost at sea and wind up wandering through a rip off of Kubrick’s Shining, brandishing shotguns and unresolved mommy-issues. Pointless.

7) Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant
Limerick writer Darren Shan has written twelve Cirque du Freak books. The costly failure of the first adaptation, a cheap-looking, poorly-acted shambles, means it looks like we will be spared the rest.

8) Last House on the Left
Like the similarly pointless Friday The 13th, a glossy, gory remake of a 1970s horror that serves only to highlight Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy.

9) Transformers II
Micheal Bay fails to repeat the trick with his second film about shape-shifting space-robots. Eye-wateringly stupid and agonisingly lengthy. See also: X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Terminator Salvation.

10) Creation
The dullest film of the year, or any other year, Jon Amiel’s plodding story of Charles Darwin’s struggle to write On The Origin of Species saw Paul Bettany share a scene with an orang-utan, who acts him off the screen.

The best film book I read this year was Stephen Prince's keen analysis of the life and work of Akira Kurosawa in The Warrior's Camera. The worst was Robert Sellers' idiotic, priapic Bad Boy Drive. Away from the picture-house (although not that far removed) I really enjoyed reading Patricia Highsmith's quintet of Tom Ripley books.

Song of the year was RL Burnside's See What My Buddy Done from the album Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down.

A Serious Man


The new Coen Brothers comedy A Serious Man is a jagged, absorbing and brilliantly acted fable about one man’s struggle when a seemingly endless rain of problems starts to fall on his head.

The film opens with a short prologue set long ago in a Polish shtetl, in which a man and his wife are visited by a kindly old man. The suspicious wife thinks the visitor is a dybbuk, a kind of Jewish zombie, and dispatches him without thinking. Has she saved their lives, or cursed countless generations forever? We never know for sure, but the suspicion remains.

Flash forward to an unnamed American city in 1967. Mathematics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is attempting to explain Schrodinger’s classic thought experiment to his bored students. A cat, he tells them, is put in a sealed box with some radioactive material that might kill it at any time. Until the box is opened, we can observe the animal exists in two states; alive and dead, saved and cursed. The students don’t really understand, but perhaps Larry isn’t explaining himself very well. He’s in an unstable box himself.

There is catastrophe - or worse, potential catastrophe - wherever he looks. At home, his marriage to the brash Judith (Sari Lennick) is failing, his son is preparing for his bar mitzvah by smoking pot and watching television and his teenage daughter is demanding a nose job. Then there’s the matter of his deadbeat (Richard Kind), a deeply annoying moocher with a mysterious medical condition. At work, things are no better; A South Korean student is bribing him for a better grade and someone has been sending unflattering letters about Larry to his superiors.

Faced with this onslaught of calamity, Larry seeks the comfort and guidance of three Rabbis, a series of uproarious consultations that provide the story with a firm backbone. Can any of these learned men help him stop his life from dissolving around him and help him become an upstanding person – the serious man of the title; a mensch? But what can Larry make from the ramblings of his religious leaders when he struggles to articulate his questions? “God doesn’t owe us anything,” Rabbi Nachtner tells him. “The obligation runs the other way.” But why, Larry wonders, won’t He fix any of life’s problems? “He hasn’t told me,” the rabbi responds.

A Serious Man is the first Coen brothers film with an autobiographical edge and it perfectly captures both the time and culture of growing up Jewish in the heartland of 1960s America. The film acts as a distillation of the themes and techniques that have occupied the filmmaking brothers for their entire careers; a witty, idea-packed script that tells a compelling and engaging story, filled with cinematic and literary references, visual winks, cultural touchstones and delightfully complicated dead ends. The film is brilliantly acted by the unfamiliar cast, predominantly stage actors, the standout being Stuhlbarg’s floundering Larry, a study in panic trying to understand why God has cursed him to suffer. Shot in luminous tones by their usual cinematographer, Roger Deakins, and scored by their regular composer, Carter Burwell, A Serious Man is a darkly funny and wholly absorbing film that is deliberately, deliciously evasive, right up to the final scenes. It is one of the films of the year.

The White Ribbon


Austrian auteur Michael Haneke’s superb new film The White Ribbon is a stark and gripping period drama about a German town on the eve of WWI plagued by a series of violent incidents that act as a dark omen of the horrors to come.

The story, narrated by the film’s central character, a young schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), is structured around a string of misfortunes that befall the citizens of Eichwald, a rural village in Protestant Northern Germany. Half of the townspeople are dependent on the thunderous Baron (Ulrich Tukur) for work and the other half take their spiritual sustenance from the church minister (Burghart Klaussner), who wields the power of the pulpit with understated force.

The film opens as the local doctor (Rainer Bock) is thrown from his horse by a tripwire, strung between two trees outside his home, and is badly injured. It was obviously no accident, but the culprits cannot be found. Not long after, a woman working in the Baron’s mill falls through a splintered wooden floor and is killed. Then, over a period of weeks, several children are taken from their homes and found severely beaten in the woods. Later, the Baron’s hay barn is set on fire. Who is behind these troubling events, and what possible motive could they have for destroying the peace? Carefully placed in between these horrors are glimpses of the daily life of the village: the brutal punishments handed down to the children for the slightest infractions, a little boy questioning his nanny about the nature of death, a boy nursing an injured songbird back to health, a sun-dappled courtship between the teacher and a sweet-natured girl (Leonie Benesch).

Photographed in lustrous black and white and stunningly composed with a rigidly static camera, Haneke constructs his story with surgical precision, revealing the dark spots of human behaviour with a delicate scalpel. The White Ribbon is like The Village of the Damned rewritten as Greek tragedy, except the Greeks had a reason for everything. Haneke’s story is not so much a whodunit as a ‘who didn’t’ that contains elements of fable, morality tale and thriller. Like his earlier film Cache, Haneke steadfastly refuses to solve the mystery at the heart of his film. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The White Ribbon is an audacious parable about the psychology of fascism, a portrait of a dysfunctional society, built on mistrust, injustice and fear, which is headed for the chaotic destruction of the First World War. The society these characters have created will not survive the war, but Haneke’s film is about the world that follows after the defeat. Thier children will go on to create an evil and unjust society, built on arrogance, hatred, greed and violence. Where did they learn that from?

Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, The White Ribbon is a bold and troubling film that exerts a powerful narrative hold. It’s extraordinary energy and exactitude confirms Haneke as one of contemporary cinema’s most provocative and perceptive minds.

Bright Star


Bright Star, writer-director Jane Campion’s first film in six years, tells the story of the English romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his relationship with Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Their love affair was short and unconsummated, cut short by the poet’s death from tuberculosis in 1821, at the age of 25. She was just 18. Loosely based on Andrew Motion’s biography of the poet and the 40 surviving letters he wrote to Fanny, Bright Star is a sublimely lush and tender film about star-crossed love bolstered by a delicate treatment and exemplary acting performances.

His first book having been published to general indifference, the penniless Keats arrives in a leafy corner of Hampstead to stay at the house of his friend and patron Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). Fanny, the girl next door, is a quick-witted young woman who lives with her mother (Kerry Fox), younger brother Samuel (Thomas Sangster) and darling little sister Toots (Edie Martin). Fanny’s beauty and wit offers the young poet respite from days spent sitting in dark, smoky rooms narrating his poems in a near-trance to Brown. Dark-eyed and wan, Keats is lost in melancholy, distraught by the death of his younger brother and by his perilous financial situation. Fanny recognises his anguish and makes a determination to get to know him, and his work, arranging lessons in appreciating poetry and having him eat at her table. But Brown, who is footing the bill, sees Fanny as an unnecessary distraction, a nuisance whose incautious flirting will deprive the poet of the time he needs to write. At the same time, Fanny’s mother regards Keats as a charming houseguest, but without any means, an unacceptable match for her eldest daughter.

The standardised treatment for a literary biopic would be to concentrate on the poet’s struggle with his muse. Campion does something far more interesting with the material, she makes Fanny the focus of her story. The film opens, not with an inky quill crossing paper, but with a scene where Fanny sits at her bureau embroidering a piece of cloth. The young woman is a 19th century fashionista; a dedicated amateur seamstress who delights in clothing and style and boasts that hers is “the only gown with a triple-tiered mushroom collar in the whole of Hampstead.” When a jealous Brown offers a snide remark about her self-designed clothing (“It’s the well-stitched Miss Brawne”), she mentions that at least she makes some money from her craft.

Nothing of Fanny’s correspondence with Keats has survived, so the director is free to create a woman who would be, within the restrictions of the time she lived in, as inspired by fashion, stitching and needlework as her poet love is by words. Her emotional journey becomes the engine of the film, as the poet and his poems fill the wondrously detailed background. This delicate treatment extends to the intimate pacing, which is carefully graduated to allow the chaste lovers to come together naturally. We know their love affair will not last, but Campion presents their joy in each other in such a precise and vibrant manner, that knowledge doesn’t intrude on the story.

There are poetic graces too in the telling, with Campion’s static camera searching out stolen frames of everyday life in the household, piling on the detail to create an immersive world. These moments are counterpoised with grand dramatic sweeps that climax in heaving gulps, a sun-dappled kiss, a heavy loss, a long separation. Campion favours a striking image to a page of dialogue, so conversations are short and sparse. Saying that, there is a fascinating scene early in the story where Keats responds to Fanny’s sincere questions about the proper understanding of poetry that seems to capture the meaning of the film itself. “A poem needs understanding through the senses”, the poet tells her. “The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought”. It’s not being overly lyrical to suggest that the same is true of Bright Star.

Fantastic Mr. Fox


Writer and director Wes Anderson rebounds from the back-to-back commercial disappointments of The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Ltd with his first animated film, Fantastic Mr Fox, made in the directors signature fastidious manner using old-fashioned stop-motion techniques. Roald Dahl's 1970 children’s book about a family of wily foxes and their woodland friends eluding the predatory attentions of the local humans has been transformed by Anderson, co-writer Noah Baumbach and a team of dedicated animators into an idiosyncratic, charmingly hand-crafted tale of family dysfunction and middle-class tedium.

The second talking-fox movie this year, following Lars von Trier's Antichrist, Fantastic Mr Fox opens at the same pace it maintains throughout, breakneck. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) and his beloved vixen wife (Meryl Streep) are out hunting chickens when they are caught in a trap. She chooses the opportunity to tell Fox she is expecting their first cub, and makes him promise to give up his dangerous, chicken-stealing ways and settle down. Twelve “fox-years” later, their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is a weedy, self-conscious teenager, further embarrassed by the arrival into the den of a talented, athletic cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, the director’s brother).

In deference to his wife’s more refined tastes (she’s wears an apron and dabbles in landscape painting) Fox has foresworn his hunting instincts and taken a job as a newspaper columnist. But Fox’s instinctive appetite for pullet-poaching has returned. With the help of a dim-witted opossum (Wally Wolodarsky), Fox plans his “one last big job”, robbing the three nasty farmers, Boggis and Bunce and Bean (Michael Gambon), “one fat, one short, one lean”, who live on the opposite hill. Tired of the impudent fox raiding their supplies, the farmers resort to increasingly desperate measures to capture and kill him, eventually putting all of the woodland creatures (including Bill Murray’s Badger and Willem Dafoe’s Rat) in danger.

This being a Wes Anderson film, much of the joy comes from tuning into the director’s unique visual sensibility. Unlike the seamless, polished image-making of the computerised animations, Fantastic Mr Fox pursues a roughly-hewn aesthetic that gives enormous energy and wit to proceedings; as stylized and inventive as anything Anderson has done previously. The stitch-perfect costuming, brilliantly textured character design and gloriously autumnal backgrounds aside, there are a plenty of highlights: Mr Fox and his chums burrow through geologically precise soil strata, our woodland chums hide from the humans in a vast cider-bottle warehouse, they stage their climactic shootout in a gorgeous facsimile of an Olde Worlde British village, complete with sushi bar and courier service.

It might be a cartoon, but Mr Fox is still a Wes Anderson film, through and through with the same attention to detail, eclectic soundtrack, airily witty dialogue and chaptered storytelling that have delighted his fan base in the past. They should be delighted again, even if younger audience members might find much of the precious chatter about existentialism, crème brulees and yogic meditation unfathomable. Incidentally when I met Anderson during the publicity tour for The Life Aquatic, he was wearing the same copper-coloured corduroy lounge suit that Foxy sports in the movie. If you share the director’s taste for fine retro tailoring, you might just like Fantastic Mr Fox.

Thirst


Korean Park Chan-Wook’s Thirst is a variation on the horror-standard vampire origin story, imbued with the director's signature visual bravado, narrative contortion and deadpan comic touch.

Sang-hyun (Korea’s best known actor, Song Kang-Ho) plays a Catholic priest who follows a vocation to help people and travels to Africa to take part in a medical experiment investigating a strange blood disorder. It doesn't go well. After his life is saved by a blood transfusion, the priest gradually realises he’s been turned into a vampire. A good, God-fearing man, he finds himself unable to resist his new desires, particularly when he meets the beautiful Tae-Ju (Kim Ok-Bin), a married woman with an idiot husband and an interfering mother in law.

With all of his superhuman senses now awakened to the possibilities of life (while technically, undead), the priest falls in love with the girl and they conspire to find a way to be together forever. He is determined to fight his new-found desires and tries to cause as little harm as possible to the humans he feeds on, but she loves her new unnatural nature and enthusiastically pierces the neck of anyone who comes within her grasp.

Thirst might not be the greatest vampire movie ever made (it is certainly not the most coherent) but there is something utterly unique and unsettling about the way it is presented, performed and considered. A note in the press material reveals that Thirst is loosely based on Emile Zola’s ‘Thérèse Raquin’. The reference would have passed me by, but the book is about a murderous marital affair and an interfering mother-in-law. More so than the narrative skeleton, Park seems to have been inspired by a note Zola made in the preface to the novel, where the writer explains his goal was to “study temperaments, not characters”. There is more here than mere blood-soaked fun and games. The clue to Park’s film is in the title. Thirst is about sensation, need and appetite.

Bold, brave and frequently beautiful, it isn’t quite in the same class as the director’s masterpiece Oldboy but it is still a million times more interesting and involving than the trendily fanged flirting of Twilight. There are, perhaps, deeper seams in the story than Park can mine in the finished film. Park’s priest never comes to deal with the philosophical question of being, or loving, one of the undead. More prosaically, the film feels too long, with Park spinning the central section into a repetitive dance around a single idea, allowing the attention to wander just at the time it is most required.

The Invention of Lying


Fiction - and the imagination that dreams it up - is essential to the smooth running of society, from the little white lies of social etiquette to the bigger questions that can’t be answered, can’t even be properly formulated, without making an imaginative jump from one point to another. Ricky Gervais’ second big-screen outing as male lead is a high-concept comedy, set in a horrible alternate world where everyone tells the truth.

In The Invention of Lying, Gervais plays Mark, a struggling screenwriter who is in danger of losing his job at the film studio where, in the absence of fiction, they make dreary historical documentaries, read out by actors sitting in armchairs. Even so, Mark is about to be fired. He has run out of things to write about. Broke and despairing, while standing at a bank counter one day, Mark has a brainwave. Instead of telling the cashier how much is actually in his account, he makes up a number. She hands over the cash without question, after all, Mark must be telling the truth. (Incidentally, this does not work in real life.)

So Mark tells another lie at another bank, and then another, and is soon flush with cash. Money and the confidence it bestows makes it a lot for Mark to woo the lovely Anna (Jennifer Garner), who had previously considered him “genetically inferior”. Mark goes back to work and presents his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) with a new script, a ‘real-life’ epic, forgotten in the archives, about a 1st century between the massed armies of men, dinosaurs and space ninjas. Then Mark tells another story, this time to his mother (Fionnuala Flanagan) as she lies in a hospital bed. It’s a story about a wonderful place you go where you die, where all your family and friends are waiting and everything is great. But the yarn is overheard by doctors and spreads like wildfire. Nobody doubts that it couldn’t be true. Mark has accidentally invented God.

Like Moses on the mountain, Mark stand in front of a vast crowd of disciples and preaches a deviously complicated sermon about the rewards of living a good life. It’s a well-worked scene that plays to Gervais’ strengths as a stand-up comic, blustering double-takes and exaggerated flop-sweats, but like his tablet-wielding inspiration, Gervais is leading us into a narrative desert. His elevation to messiah, however inadvertent and unwanted, tires badly when syrupy emotion and redeeming messages start to fill the space that should contain jokes.

A world where people can only speak the truth is an interesting notion for comedy, but in fact Gervais’ characters don’t so much speak honestly as speak without self-censorship, which is not quite the same thing. It’s a narrative cheat that reduces the altitude of the high-concept but is less of an issue than Gervais casting himself once again, following Ghost Town, as an ordinary guy, touched by fate, who overcomes his misanthropy to use his powers to help those around him. If telling lies is a sin, vanity is too.

Opposite Gervais, Jennifer Garner overcomes the obvious lack of chemistry with her leading man to deliver a dryly amusing, well-rounded performance as the innocently offensive career woman with a heart of gold. There are funny moments too from an underused Tina Fey as Mark’s assistant and Rob Lowe as a slimy love-rival. Filling out the cast are comedians Jonah Hill and Louis C.K., as a suicidal neighbour and a boorish best-friend, but neither serves any purpose in the second half of the film other than to provide Mark with someone to save. With a tighter script and better direction, all the good ideas in The Invention of Lying might have coalesced into something special. As it stands, it’s just OK. Honest.

Up


The opening fifteen minutes of Pixar’s latest digital animation Up is the finest quarter hour of cinema I have seen so far this year – a jaw-dropping sequence that would be the pride of any of the American greats; Chaplin, Welles, Kubrick or Spielberg.

In a few deft, deliberate strokes, directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson encapsulate the life-long love affair between the square-headed Carl Fredericksen and his delicate wife Ellie, from their first meeting as children through marriage, middle-age, happy retirement and, brace yourself, her death. Yes, death. It’s an indication of how advanced and ambitious Pixar have become that the company not only write stories for human (as opposed to superhuman) characters, they have the courage to put them into emotionally realistic (and, going by the stifled sobs at the screening I attended) quietly devastating situations.

From that point on, viewers who can keep their eyes dry will witness one of the sweetest, funniest stories the animation studio has produced yet. Widowed and retired from his balloon-selling business, 79 year old Carl (Ed Asner) wants only to live out his days in the house he built with Ellie. But, a giant construction company wants to buy him out, and after a series of unfortunate incidents, Carl must concede. Rather than move to a retirement home, however, Carl straps 25,000 helium balloons to the roof of the house, prying it from its foundation and carrying it skyward.

Carl intends to fly his house to Venezuela and visit the Lost World he heard his childhood hero Edward Muntz (Christopher Plummer) talk about, seventy years before. However, he’s got a stowaway in the form of Russell (Jordan Nagai), a chubby boy scout who happened to be standing on the porch when the house took off. Together, the two mismatched heroes begin an adventure that takes in forgotten explorers, gawky 15-foot rare birds and a platoon of talking dogs.

Although it’s easy to forget as you get caught up in watching it, Up is a film that is aimed at children. Notwithstanding the continuous movement and endless incident that the family audience demands, Pixar have crafted an incredibly refined and delicate picture, which places visual beauty and hard-earned emotion ahead of flashy sensation and pop-culture references. The computing power required to generate the wondrous 3-D images is one thing, but the real cinematic craft on display here is the same one that has been exercised since the dawn of movies – careful, considered writing.

The scripting and characterisation that acts as the foundation for Pixar’s success is so well-engineered it can support any flight of fancy the filmmakers care to build on top of it. This bedrock extends to the perfectly chosen voice cast, with brilliant turns from a gruff Asner and a smooth Plummer matched by nine year-old first-timer Nagai as the tireless Russell.

Up must be the first kid’s film to feature an extended homage to Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, along with nods to The Boys From Brazil and Indiana Jones. Keen-eyed viewers will also spot Pixar’s recurring in-jokes; a voice cameo from actor John Ratzenberger (who has appeared in all of the companies films), a prominent use of the alpha-numerical code A113 (after the room at CalTech where the Pixar boffins studied) and another drive-by from Toy Story’s Pizza Planet delivery van.

The Soloist


Director Joe Wright’s third feature is a significant departure from his two previous movies, Pride & Prejudice and Atonement. Those were both period dramas, adapted from beloved literary sources, which focused on the social and romantic complications of the British aristocracy. The Soloist, by contrast, is adapted from a series of articles from journalist Steve Lopez that appeared in the Los Angles Times in 2005 and is set on Los Angeles’ skid row; Wright’s customary bonnets and blushing belles replaced by crack-pipes and down-and-outs.

The film, like this year’s other journo-drama State of Play, opens with a loving montage of newspapers flying through a printing press before we are introduced to the LA Times star columnist Lopez, played by the always watchable Robert Downey Jr. Lopez is in need of a good story, anything to placate his peevish editor, and ex-wife, Mary (Catherine Keener). While out driving one day Lopez encounters a homeless busker Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), playing a virtuoso solo on a two-stringed violin.

Dressed in a suit of lights made from dozens of colourful rags, Nathaniel stammers out his story to the intrigued writer. He was once a student of the prestigious Juilliard School of Music before his undiagnosed schizophrenia made continuing his education impossible. He drifted away from New York and migrated to LA, “because you can sleep outside all year round”. Lopez has found his story, and writes it up as a column that is met with a wave of positive reaction from readers. More columns follow and a relationship develops between the two men. A reader’s donation of a cello brings Nathaniel and Lopez into contact with an LA homeless shelter, a place where the troubled man can get respite, if he chooses to take it, and the writer can find his subject when needs be.

Downey Jr played a journalist in David Fincher’s Zodiac and is again, wholly credible as an essentially honest, hard-working professional; his physical fluidity and clipped delivery going to underline his character as a keenly intelligent, doggedly inquisitive mind. The real life Lopez must be delighted with him. As Nathaniel, Foxx is a decent counterpoint to Downey Jr’s restraint, playing a man terrified by his own mind and reliant on music as a respite from the pain of his existence.

Director Wright doesn’t handle the transition to real-world, real-life drama all that well, seeming to prefer artful camera technique and delicate tableaux over the cut and thrust of a present-day drama. Despite Lopez being just a shiny halo short of sainthood and Ayers’ being a deeply sympathetic character, The Soloist fails to do justice to their shared story. This contemporary narrative has the germ of fascination but in Wright’s hands it emerges in lumpy spurts from a series of awkwardly conjoined sequences, alternately pretentious or bland, that settle unattractively into a globular mass of information. There are distracting sub-plots that arrive from nowhere, only to return there immediately, like Lopez's struggle with raccoons that have taken over his garden, and his somewhat less urine-soaked attempts to reconnect with his ex-wife.

Aside from a deftly presented multi-coloured light-show, that hints more at Nathaniel’s synesthesia than his schizophrenia, Wright strains to find any grandeur in his imagery and displays little understanding of his characters or the hard truths of homelessness. Wright’s attempt to depict schizophrenia from Nathaniel’s point of view collapses in a muddle of overlapping sound, crashing edits and indecipherable flashbacks.

For all its sensitivity to the horrors of mental illness, The Soloist ends up feeling a little unhinged itself; distracted, fidgety and self-absorbed. Wright’s regular cinematographer Seamus McGarvey fires off every cannon in his considerable arsenal - long tracking movements, swooping crane shots and delicate compositions - but the camera fails to bring grace to what is essentially a humdrum treatment. Far better is the thunderous score from another Wright regular Dario Marianelli, which amends and underlines a selection of Beethoven concertos to winning effect. Like the two central performances, it deserved a better film.

Stanley Kubrick: Taming Light


Stanley Kubrick is my cinematic idol. He died ten years ago, in 1999, shortly after completing Eyes Wide Shut. As a devotee, I wanted to mark that sad anniversary but in a way that showed how his images and the emotions they evoke are still with us.

So, inspired by a Shining graffito I photographed in Berlin, I decided to host an exhibition of painting, photography and illustration inspired by Kubrick's life and films.

The result is Stanley Kubrick: Taming Light, which runs at the Light House cinema, Smithfield in Dublin from October 1st - 31st.

The exhibition is comprised of new work from a roster of established and emerging artists I put together over six months this year. I am absolutely delighted with the quality, intensity and tender-hearted homage the artists have shown to Kubrick and his films. The show is non-sales, not-for-profit and free to Light House visitors.

The image above is the exhibition poster, designed by the extraordinarily talented Martin Ansin, a Uruguayan artist and illustrator who captured Kubrick and his indelible characters perfectly. The poster is available as a print (in a limited edition of 250 only) at the Light House cafe, signed and numbered by Martin. It is a beautiful, desirable object.

I want to thank all of the artists for taking part in the show and paying their tribute in such a wonderful way. I also want to thank the Light House, for allowing me to commandeer their space for a month, and thank Kubrick, for the films.

If you have Twitter, why not follow the show, or join the Facebook group

The exhibition has a dedicated website, designed and built by the ever-so patient Niamh Redmond, at www.kubricktaminglight.com.

John

Adventureland


The recent rash of quirky teenage romantic comedies continues with Adventureland, yet another skewed coming-of-age story, this time concerning the comical trials of a group of college kids working at a run-down Pittsburgh theme park in the summer of 1987.

On the face of it, Adventureland isn’t much of an advance on writer and director Greg Mottola’s last film Superbad; scattergun stories of slack-jawed youths galloping around colourful locations in search of something to kill the time. But where that raucous comedy was made under the auspices of uber-producer Judd Apatow, Adventureland is a sweeter, more sincere film about first loves and uncertain futures, based on the director’s own experiences.

Awkward, nerdish and virginal, recent college graduate James (Jesse Eisenberg) thought he’d be heading off to “sexually permissive” Europe for the summer but his parent’s Reganomic reality-check has forced him to go looking for a summer job before he can go on to complete his pricey education. Having exhausted all other avenues, James pitches up at the titular Adventureland to operate the rigged carnival games; “the work of pathetic lazy morons”, as his new best friend Joel (Martin Starr) puts it.

The first day on the job, James meets and falls for Em (Kristen Stewart), a cynical slacker with a hang-em-all mentality and mild domestic problems. The rest of James’ co-workers might be comedy stereotypes, but they are well-written and convincingly played. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are the dim-witted, married park managers Bobby and Paulette, Margarita Levieva is the sassy other-girl Lisa P and Matt Bush plays James’ obnoxious neighbourhood friend Frigo. The only duff note is struck by Ryan Reynolds as the park handyman Connell, who seems too old and mannered for the role, a married lothario with dreams of rock stardom.

Rather than attempt to re-invent the coming-of-age story, Adventureland is a demonstration of what the genre looks like when filtered through a new sieve. Mottola has a keen ear for dialogue and an all-embracing sense of humour that finds room for visual puns, spiky banter, bodily embarrassments and gangly slapstick. Eisenberg does well as Mottola’s alter-ego, convincingly over-intellectualising everything with inelegant couplets of poetry or allusions to Russian literature. Opposite him, Kirsten Stewart shows, as she did in Twilight, that she can play listless and cool without strain, even if sometimes her performance comes across as an extended photographic tutorial in lip-biting and coy glances than what you might call acting.

Adventureland, like all the other quirky indie teenage films that have gone before it this year, attempts to mix ribald humour with bittersweet observation but never really comes down on one side or the other. The funny is funny, but rarely to the point of laughing out loud. The characters go through the standardised coming-of-age process but the lessons they learn, while engaging and empathic, don’t gather enough force to burrow under the skin. The almost forty songs on the potent period soundtrack, everything from Falco to Judas Priest to The Replacements, bring constant aural entertainment even if the film at times seems to be merely going through the paces.

Fish Tank


Andrea Arnold’s striking second feature Fish Tank continues the English director’s exploration of female desire (established in her debut Red Road) by painstakingly dissecting the obsession that develops between a teenage tearaway and her mother’s new boyfriend over the course of a few weeks in an overcast summer. Like Red Road, Fish Tank is at once a woman’s fantasy, a grim kitchen-sink drama and an unguarded snapshot of a decaying society writ large through the actions of its characters.

Mia (newcomer Katie Jarvis) is a tough, wiry fifteen-year old who lives on a sink estate outside an unnamed city. Alienated from her friends because of her unpredictable temper – the story opens with her delivering a head-butt to one of her tormentors – Mia has an unhappy home life, constantly fighting with her coarse, peroxide-blonde mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and delightfully bratty little sister (Rebecca Griffiths). As a way of escaping her troubles, Mia dances; alone in an abandoned flat, with her earphones on and nobody watching.

When she sees a flyer looking for new dancers, Mia prepares an audition tape that she hopes will get her out of the estate for good. In the meantime, she finds herself intrigued by Joanne’s new boyfriend, Irish security guard Connor (Michael Fassbender), who is new and funny and not constantly shouting abuse at her. Is she attracted to him, or just looking for a father figure? The clue to that perhaps lies in Mia’s ongoing attempts to free a white horse from a nearby traveller camp, owned by Kyle (Harry Treadaway).

It’s an indelicate metaphor for burgeoning sexuality, notable only for of it’s incongruity in what otherwise a fiercely naturalistic look at a teenager’s life in modern Britain. Arnold and her cinematographer Robbie Ryan keep the film grounded in a rough, granular realism, attempting to describe a world that few people witness up close with as much cinematic truth as is possible. Almost the entire story is told from Mia’s point of view, the camera constantly tracking her through cramped rooms and along thin corridors, the horizon offering nothing but other buildings, ringed with scrub grass. The close-quartered sound design adds to the feeling of claustrophobia, emphasising ambient sounds, snatches of music and breathing.

In her first professional acting job, Katie Jarvis is a revelation. Mia is a complex, unpredictable character, prone to anger and violence, but Jarvis somehow makes all her turmoil honest and delicate. Mia’s journey takes her to some dark and frightening places, particularly in the intensely unnerving closing section, but Jarvis matches the action beat for beat, showing glimpses of vulnerability under her clenched façade. Around her, the ensemble performances are excellent; Wareing instantly dislikeable as the self-serving mother, good-time artist Fassbender alternating between smouldering sexuality and affable parental concern, the eleven-year old Griffiths providing moments of disarmingly foul-mouthed comedy.

Dark, brittle and wildly unpredictable, Fish Tank is a sharply observed, painstakingly naturalistic account of chaotic lives lived in hope of something better.

Broken Embraces


Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s latest hymn to his favourite leading lady Penelope Cruz is a labyrinthine web of story and genre that straddles two distinct timeline, the mid-1990s and today, and features a dozen or so interconnected characters. A lavish, noir-influenced melodrama told in flashbacks, Broken Embraces opens with an introduction to Mateo (Lluís Homar), who was once a successful film director but is latterly a blind, cranky recluse who writes screenplays under the name Harry Caine. His protective agent Judit (Planca Portillo) keeps a close eye on him, employing her son Diego (Tamar Novas) to assist him in his Madrid apartment.

When an encounter with a bitter director opens up old wounds for Mateo, he recalls a period a decade before, when he fell in love with Lena (Cruz), a beautiful, sad-eyed young actress, on the set of what would be his final film, Girls & Suitcases. A former secretary, Lena has traded on her charms to win her debut part, helped by the fact that she is the mistress of powerful businessman and producer Ernesto (Jose Luis Gomez). When filming starts, the jealous Ernesto places his son Ray (Rubén Ochandiano) on the set, in the guise of shooting a “making-of” documentary, and discovers the affair. The lovers flee to Lanzarote, where they are happy together for a while before fate intervenes.

That description doesn’t begin to encompass the twists and turns in Almodóvar’s lavish, heady story, which gathers together a neat pile of cinematic clichés then cleverly subverts them, one by one. Like Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Broken Embraces is a film about films; a valentine to cinema awash with references and stylistic nods. The first half of the film sees Almodóvar pay homage to the gloomy noirs of the 1940s before the tension gives way and the story becomes a swooning melodrama, with an explicit reference to Roberto Rossellini’s neo-realist romance Journey To Italy. And just like Tarantino, Almodóvar relishes in his own fetishes and fixations, revisits his back-catalogue to turn the vibrant film-within-a-film into a re-imagining of his breakout success, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

But for all the flounce and bright-eyed bravado, there are dark depths in Broken Embraces, sober shadows that fall across the story and add a painful edge to the heaving emotions. Almodóvar fills the screen with repeating patterns of colour; the static in a television, a fluttering curtain, a pockmarked hillside. He repeatedly frames his characters within the frame, through a camera lens or against a window, underlining their scripted destines in the artificial, claustrophobic world of movies. Perhaps the director is acknowledging the agony he puts his hapless characters through, how lonely they must be before he brings them together and the suffering he inflicts on them when, for the sake of the story, they must separate again.

The film is full of fine performances, Cruz in particular, who attacks her first post-Oscar role with gusto, seamlessly delivering whoever Almodóvar requires of her at any given time; grieving daughter, timid secretary, gilded-cage wife or fleeing lover. Although the time-shifting narrative suffers a few inelegant bumps, watching Almodóvar juggle his stories, his characters and his genres is a joy, even if he cannot decide when he has reached the end. Restless, rangy and unwaveringly seductive, there is much to savour here.

The Hurt Locker


Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, from a script by former embedded journalist Mark Boal, is the best American film yet about the war in Iraq. Arriving after a long series of similarly-themed war films like Jarhead, Lions For Lambs and In The Valley of Elah, none of which found any traction with audiences, The Hurt Locker is as explosive and visceral as it’s subject matter; the moment-to-moment experiences of a bomb-disposal squad on the streets of Baghdad.

The film gets right down to the business at hand, foregoing time-expensive political context for an immediate adrenaline thrill as soldiers J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) watch helpless as an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) goes off in the face of their sergeant (a cameo-making Guy Pearce). Enter Sgt William James (Jeremy Renner) as the new leader of the unit, a cocky, reckless young soldier who is nevertheless, fearless and clinically effective.

Although she hasn’t made a film since the costly failure of submarine adventure K19: The Widowmaker in 2002, Bigelow hasn’t lost her touch with action and spectacle. The Hurt Locker is incredibly tense, a cinematic emotion that is far easier to introduce than it is to sustain. Bigelow’s visual economy and eye for telling detail distils the essence of the ordinary soldier’s experience of modern urban warfare into a series of powerful, nerve-shredding set pieces. The IED is the perfect cinematic device for this war drama, being the signature weapon of the Iraq conflict and the soldier’s greatest threat. Bigelow arranges her soldier’s encounters with these bombs as concentrated, intimate dramas, watched over by Iraqi bystanders who stand on balconies or watch through binoculars as the theatre of life and death plays out beneath them.

The mostly unknown cast are a revelation, in particular Jeremy Renner as the witty, fearless James. The film opens with a quote from Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent for The New York Times, who declares that “war is a drug” and it is easy to see James is a strung-out war addict, a danger junkie whose thirst for adrenaline must be satisfied, regardless of whose life he puts in peril. Later, however, a cameo appearance from Ralph Fiennes (who starred in Bigelow’s underappreciated Strange Days) seems oddly out of place among the carefully-maintained verisimilitude, as if to say, what’s Voldemort doing in the Iraqi desert?

The Hurt Locker is a triumph for Bigelow. It’s one of the great war films, impressively photographed by Barry Ackroyd’s ultra-realistic handheld camera, brilliantly edited, lucidly positioned and overwhelmingly exhilarating to watch.

Inglourious Basterds


Quentin Tarantino has been talking about his WWII film, Inglourious Basterds for a decade, and writing it for fifteen. A wild fantasy made up of elements of a combat adventure, alternate history, character comedy and exploitation horror, the film is not so much a running story as five segmented chapters revolving around a central nub.

First, a note on the film’s title which is Tarantino’s deliberate misspelling of an obscure 1978 Italian war adventure, his declared inspiration and the first of hundreds of references to other films Inglourious Basterds contains. The film proper opens with another, a nod to Sergio Leone in the scene-setting chapter heading “Once Upon A Time in Nazi Occupied France”, in which a French dairy farmer who is hiding a Jewish family is visited by the film’s bad guy, Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz). In a few deft strokes, the director lays out the scene as Landa interrogates Denis Menochet, who plays the dairy farmer, at his kitchen table. It is the best section in the film, brilliantly played, nerve-wracking and daring and among the finest in any Tarantino movie.

The story then switches to the exploits of Lt Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a tough-talking hillbilly soldier with an unexplained scar around his neck. Raine commands the Basterds, a specially-recruited squad of vengeful Jewish soldiers sent on a secret kill-on-sight mission behind enemy lines. He has charged each of his men to deliver him one hundred Nazi scalps; an act of barbarism intended to strike terror in the hearts of the German ranks. Of the eight men in the troop, only half are introduced to us by name and only a couple are given a back-story, evidence of the amount of editing Tarantino’s decade-long script required in order to release the film at a tolerable length.

In a parallel story, we meet Soshanna Dreyfuss (Melanie Laurent), a young Jewish girl who watched her family killed by the demonic Col. Landa and is living under an assumed identity as a French cinema-owner in Paris. The next three chapters combined tell the sometimes long-winded story of the Basterd’s finest hour; an audacious mission to bomb Soshanna’s cinema during the screening of a propaganda film attended by Hitler and his high command. Helping them is German movie-star turned spy Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), who presides over a massively over-extended sequence set in a French cellar bar where the Basterd’s and Michael Fassbender’s clipped British Lt Archie Hicox (a former film critic, no less) mingle nervously with the Nazi’s over a card game and a pint. Meanwhile, in Paris and unbeknownst to the Basterds, Soshanna has hatched her own plan to blow up the cinema, using a pile of highly combustible nitrate celluloid as explosive.

Even more than his last film Death Proof, a misjudged celebration of sleazy 1970s exploitation cinema, Inglourious Basterds is a love-note to cinema. Almost every major character has a direct connection to the world of film; there’s a producer and a critic, a cinema-owner and a projectionist, an actor and an actress. Although Tarantino’s most immediate reference point is gung-ho war caper The Dirty Dozen, Inglourious Basterds is composed of sketches derived from another dirty dozen entirely; an arch pastiche of obscure spaghetti westerns, forgotten B movies, gory giallo horrors and 1930s German expressionist drama.

If the fragmented story is tricky to follow, it proves impossible to keep pace with the director’s catalogue of influences, name-drops and cameo tributes. Best not to bother. The film is intended as an experience, not a lecture in cinema sub-genres or, given the licence the director takes with history, a documentary on WWII. Through the blur of homage, violence, gore and snappy backchat, what emerges is a vision of Tarantino’s alternate, hyper-realistic world, a place peopled by movie characters, where anything is possible. This is a film about sensation and spectacle. It’s about that indefinable, impalpable quality: cool.

Leaden in parts and talkative to the point of irritation, Inglourious Basterds is no masterpiece but it is still Tarantino’s best film since Jackie Brown. I am prepared to forgive the director his egotism, his fetishism, his know-it-all arrogance and his verbosity because when he is good, he is really very good indeed. There is the nagging sensation, however, that Tarantino is serving up junk food when he has all the ingredients for a sumptuous banquet.

Read my interview with Tarantino for Death Proof here

Mid-August Lunch


Mid-August Lunch is a miniature gem, a simple, unassuming comedy of manners that plays out over a sunny weekend in a few dusty streets in central Rome.

Gianni (played by writer and first-time director Gianni Di Gregorio) is a middle-aged bachelor who lives with his widowed, elderly mother (Valeria De Franciscis) in an old apartment block. Unemployed and undemanding, Gianni’s life revolves around looking after his mama. As the film opens, he is reading her to sleep, a chapter from The Three Musketeers. In the morning, he makes her breakfast. She accepts his ministrations with queenly grace. What time Gianni has outside the house is spent with his drinking buddy Viking (Luigi Marchetti), sipping wine in the shade outside the local shop.

The day before the August bank holiday known as the Ferragosto, when the citizens traditionally escape the city heat for the coast, Gianni’s landlord asks him to take care of his mother for the weekend. In exchange, he will settle some of the service charges Gianni has ignored for years. Strapped for cash, Gianni is forced to accept. Treacherously, the next morning, the landlord arrives with two old dears, the mother (Marina Cacciotti) and Aunt Maria (Maria Cali).

Overwhelmed by the prospect of a houseful of elderly women, Gianni feels a little faint, so he calls his friend, a doctor. After a reassuring examination and some wheedling smalltalk, the doctor foists his own mother on him, “just for one night”. Crammed together in the small apartment, at first, the four women bicker over access to the television and the dinner menu. Soon, however, they have bonded over palm-reading sessions around the kitchen table as Gianni runs around, catering to their every need.

Di Gregorio fills out his story with a series of offhand moments; a mortifying romantic fumble on the couch, a trip across the deserted city to buy fish from the banks of the Tiber, a much-debated recipe for pasta bake. Elegantly played and emotionally lively, Mid-August Lunch is might be small but it is perfectly formed, deftly revealing over the course of it’s seventy minute running time, the obsessions of the Italian male; mama, food and hypochondria.

A kitchen-sink comedy is not the sort of film you would expect from Di Gregorio, who co-wrote the gritty mafia drama Gomorrah (one of the best films of last year) with director Matteo Garrone, who produces here. As a director, Di Gregorio moves the camera around the cramped apartment with seamless grace but even in the golden summer sun, the results are at best, perfunctory. Still, it's not about chocolate-box photography, it's about character.

Astonishingly, none of the women have acted before. As the lead, and essentially playing himself, Di Gregorio maintains a good-natured stoicism, dealing with whatever minor dramas the old women throw in his face but the curtailed nature of the story, more an anecdote than a fully-fleshed drama, doesn’t allow Gianni much room to develop. He seems perfectly happy with things the way they are, and when they are as simple and pleasurable as this, who can blame him?

Orphan

Movies have been trying to tell us for years that children are inherently evil. From little Patty in The Bad Seed to Damian in The Omen, via Rosemary’s Baby and The Children of the Corn, there is an entire nursery of demon movie kids whose only purpose is to wreak havoc when brought into ordinary families.

Families like the Coleman’s in Orphan; Kate (Vera Farmiga), John (Peter Sarsgaard) and their two children, 10 year-old Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and adorable six year-old Max (Aryana Engineer), who was born deaf. In an effort to put the pain of a recent miscarriage behind them, Kate and John plan to adopt a third child. On a tour of a local orphanage, they meet little Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), and strike up a rapport with the bright, intelligent child.

Russian-born Esther is unfailingly polite and immaculately turned out in Victorian pinafores with delicate frills. She paints with a talent beyond her years; naïve, faintly surreal canvases that cover her bedroom walls. She can sit down at a piano and belt out a lively Tchaikovsky number. So why, after only a few weeks in her new home, is her adoptive mother so scared of her? As the film’s poster proclaims, there is something wrong with Esther.

Bad things happen around the dark-eyed child with preternatural regularity. A school friend falls from a playground climbing frame, or a parked car rolls backwards down a steep hill. There is an unsettling air of examination in the child’s placid stare, and a queasy self-awareness in her eager innocence. Esther’s everyday conversations seem to carry a note of spiky threat or psychological cunning.

The Little Bo Peep outfits are one thing, but why does she insist on wearing thin black ribbons on her neck and wrists? And what’s with the tattered black Bible she carries everywhere? That can’t be good. When Kate begins to suspect that the source of all the family problems is the new cuckoo in the nest, she becomes a target for Esther’s devious manipulations.

Orphan
is an effective and entertaining horror that generates enough old-fashioned dread to carry it through its many implausible moments. Although solid throughout, Farmiga and Sarsgaard are comprehensively out-acted by their much-younger co-stars, with newcomer Fuhrman in particular giving a delightfully mordant turn as the mini-monster.

Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra has never given any indication he had the talent to pull off a story like this in his previous films, the Paris Hilton-starring House of Wax and football sequel Goal II. Cleverly, rather than drown his story in flashy special effects, Collet-Serra relies on tried and trusted horror techniques, mostly played in-camera, to ratchet up the tension, topping the thrills with an audacious, elegantly played last-reel twist.

Antichrist


Pretentious, preposterous and utterly vile, Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist is a graphic, Gothic chamber piece about a woman going through a violent mental breakdown. Buoyed by a wave of controversy since its debut at Cannes, the film is a great glob of self-loathing and despair, hurled directly onto the screen as a form of primal therapy.

After a set of provocative, hand-scrawled title cards that read ‘Lars Von Trier’ and ‘Antichrist’, respectively, the film opens with a prologue in which a married couple, known only as He and She (Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) make love in a room while, in another part of the house, their infant son falls to his death from an open window. Shot in black and white, entirely in slow-motion and scored with an aria from Handel, the sequence would be indistinguishable from a fancy perfume advertisement if it wasn’t for the flashes of unsimulated sex and splattered blood.

She descends into a spiral of guilt and depression so deep she is hospitalised and heavily medicated. Her husband, a therapist, insists he knows better, demands that she abandon her medication and undergo his own brand of talking therapy. The two make a trip to their remote country house, named Eden. There, he subjects her to endless, merciless psychobabble, relentlessly chipping away at her behaviour, beliefs and defences. He talks and talks, but nothing of what he says is memorable, or as it turns out, all that effective.

Antichrist is Von Trier’s version of the Fall of Man, his take on the passages in Genesis where Man is cast from Paradise and Satan is introduced to the world. Into that, the director adds his own greasy, malformed theses on the subjugation of women through history (dubbed ‘Gynocide’) and the process of undergoing psychotherapy. According to Von Trier’s Gnostic reasoning, it was Satan, not God, who created the world, so nobody should be surprised when bad things happen. Evil is part of the design, represented here by a spurious star-map showing three constellations; the deer, the fox and the raven. All three animals show up at various points in the narrative, in various forms of distress. By far the most startling, and inadvertently comic, is the talking fox, who pops up from a thicket to croak “chaos reigns” (in the director’s voice) at an unfazed Defoe.

The fox, as it turns out, is right. For his big finale, Von Trier takes a clumsy lurch into the voguish realms of the torture pornography found in Hostel or Saw. Haunted by visions of her child’s death and goaded into action by her husband’s incessant talking, She turns violent, knocking Him out, drilling a hole in his leg and inserting a millstone. Later, she takes a heavy wooden block to his crotch, castrating him, before mutilating her own genitals with a scissors.

Von Trier shows us these actions in graphic detail, seeming to delight in degrading his actors and repulsing his audience. The director is more concerned with putting his audience through the wringer than with saying anything interesting. For a film full of signs and signifiers, some more subtle than others, it is damning that the violence that Von Trier inflicts on his characters, and on us, carries no symbolic weight whatsoever. These scenes seem to exist only to allow Von Trier exact his own revenge on the characters. This is torture as a taunt, with the director goading the viewer into revulsion, wallowing in his own childish ability to upset, a repugnant, self-indulgent misanthropy.

Chaptered into four sections, each given a portentous title, there is no rhyme or reason to the events that occur, they happen at the whim of the director. In interviews at Cannes film festival, Von Trier claimed to have been in the throes of an incapacitating depression while writing Antichrist and there is evidence of a disturbed mind in every frame. Or at least, there is a facsimile of madness, which might well be the joke. This being a Von Trier film, there has to be a joke, however sour.

Von Trier saves the biggest laugh for the end titles, an incongruous dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky that should be an apology to David Lynch. There isn't a sniff of the Russian master anywhere, but there are allusions to Lynch’s films throughout Antichrist; strange machine noises, banks of circling fog, timeless slow-motion sequences, sinister landscapes and skies filled with star-maps. Other images recall the work of visual artists like Hieronymus Bosch or the Chapman Brothers; tangles of human limbs, misshapen creatures and nightmare visions of teeming humanity. Von Trier is free to make whatever film he likes, but he should at least make it his own.

Full marks for hype and top score for spectacle but as a film, Antichrist fails utterly and absolutely. Watching it is the equivalent of being beaten into submission. Its cruelty is unrelenting and terminally dull.

Moon


This year being the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, the timing couldn’t be more appropriate for Duncan Jones’ admirable, if derivative, low-budget science-fiction think piece Moon; a pared down exercise in minimalism that serves as a one-man show for its edgy lead, Sam Rockwell.

Co-writer and director Jones covers the opening ground quickly, a mock television commercial explaining that Earth’s energy needs are now met by mining the moon for Helium 3, converting rocks into fuel in massive robotic factories. Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a Lunar company employee who is coming to the end of a three-year stint as the sole human inhabitant of the mining station Selene. He is not entirely alone, however. His companion is a computer named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey in a soothing monotone) who looks after the mine’s complex systems and thanks to a robotic arm, assists Sam’s in his work.

Owing to a problem with the communications satellite, his only communication with his Earth-bound wife (Irish actress Dominique McElligott) and baby daughter is via pre-recorded videos. The constant routine of work, exercise and sleep increase Sam’s sense of cabin-fever, his isolation and paranoia. With only a fortnight to go in the mission, Sam starts hearing and seeing things. When a routine operation goes badly wrong and he is knocked out for a couple of hours, the now-bedraggled astronaut awakes to discover that things have changed in his absence.

Watching Moon, it is virtually impossible not to be reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there are nods also to other sci-fi classics of the 1960s and 1970s; Silent Running, Outland and Alien, films that posed questions about the nature of humanity or considered the possibilities of the future. To say much more might ruin some of the surprises in the film's sparse, delicately positioned plotting. Jones immerses the viewer into a future world, quickly explains the mechanics of the narrative and uses the rest of the time to marry the intricacies of the story into a wider theme, in this case asking moral question about human identity in a world where creating life has become laboratory science.

This is not the kind of cosmic environment evoked by Star Trek, a chummy club of adventurers scooting around the universe surrounded by safe, reliable technologies. This is a cold, indifferent place, where machines built by humans are corroded by use and contain built-in errors. Jones constructs a credible, realistically grimy space station interior, a modular, utilitarian place instantly familiar and satisfyingly real, at least to genre fans. There are ironic touches everywhere, from Gerty’s simple emoticon interface to Sam’s wake-up call, a shrill blast of Chesney Hawke’s 'I Am The One And Only'.

Moon never quite reaches the heights of its inspirations, but neither does it explode on the launch pad. In his feature debut, Jones (who is no doubt sick to tears of people going on about him being David Bowie’s son) displays an impressive technical command of his budget-restricted special effects, spinning a spare, genre specific chamber piece into a thoughtfully considered and consistently inventive story filled with ideas, even if some of those were originally Kubrick’s.

Harry Potter & The Half Blood Prince


Harry Potter and his magical chums are all grown up in The Half Blood Prince, the sixth film in JK Rowling’s franchise, which has darkened considerably since the jolly schooldays fun of The Philosopher’s Stone back in 2001. The Half Blood Prince is a stop-gap film, designed to drag these characters into young adulthood while providing Harry with the motivation to confront his evil arch-nemesis Lord Voldemort in the series finale The Deathly Hallows, now split into two parts for release over the next couple of summers.

The film opens with a wordless shot - in what will become a signature inky monotone - of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), battered but victorious after the events of The Order of the Phoenix. The story closes, two stirring hours later, at a sensational moment familiar to readers of the book, a time when all hope seems lost. The Half Blood Prince is a film made up more of fleeting emotions, moods and tones, than a strictly plotted story. Harry has returned to Hogwarts school for the start of another year when the demonic Death Eaters, led by Voldemort, start wreaking havoc throughout the country, including attacks on Muggles, ordinary people not connected to the wizard world. Sworn to protect their leader, and destroy Harry, a covert Death Eater has followed him to Hogwarts and begun hatching a sinister plan.

Harry has his suspicions, but his friend and headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is more interested in preparing the young wizard for his most dangerous mission so far, the discovery of a vital clue to destroying Voldemort known as a Horcrux. The key to finding this fragment of Voldemort’s black soul is known only to Hogwarts’ new Potions Professor, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), information Dumbledore can retrieve from his memories and display on a shining bowl of silvery water. At the same time, Harry is benefiting from helpful notes jotted in the margins of one of his schoolbooks, a battered old text that used to belong to a young prodigy who signed himself “the half-blood prince”.

Meanwhile, teenage hormones are casting a spell of their own. Harry’s moon-eyed pursuit of Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) is developing into something deeper, helped by their shared skills on the quidditch field. Harry’s best friend Ron (Rupert Grint) has spurned his long-time crush Hermione (Emma Watson) and become entangled in the lavish affections of Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), to everyone’s annoyance.

The ins and outs of Dumbledore and Harry’s quest might prove confusing to the uninitiated, but otherwise Yates and his screenwriter Steve Kloves draw clear, clean lines through the reams of Rowling’s original text, dropping everything that doesn’t contribute to their ever-darkening theme of momentous change. In the process, characters like Robbie Coltrane’s ungainly Hagrid and Maggie Smith’s pernickety McGonagall are relegated to remember-me cameos or solitary, declamatory scenes.

If there is no real urgency in The Half Blood Prince it is because we have waited so long for these events to arrive, and are still awaiting a final conclusion, that the film feels like it is spanning a gulf in time and development rather than standing alone as a narrative. Everything is pointed at the catharsis of the final reel, meaning much of the rest is incidental; a series of comforting comic asides, cleverly introduced flashbacks, distractions and side-bars. They might mean very little but these sequences are beautifully rendered by Yates and his creative team, who create a tangible atmosphere of foreboding with muted, spectral light, innovative angles and a sparing use of the series’ occasionally intrusive special effects.

Read my set-visit and interview with Daniel Radcliffe here

35 Shots of Rum


The films of French director Claire Denis are maddeningly reticent and ephemeral things, wisps of character and story that, depending on ones disposition, will either linger long or disperse at the slightest breeze. Her latest, 35 Shots of Rum is a bittersweet story of a phase in family life told with the director’s signature languor.

The first time we meet Josephine (Mati Diop), she is buying a rice cooker, an everyday item that becomes a symbol of the young woman’s growing independence. A student and part-time worker, Josephine lives with her train-driver father Lionel (Alex Decas) in an apartment in a modernist block on an anonymous street in the outer ring of Parisian suburbs. Their life together has settled into a comfortable household routine which often sees them sitting together at the table and eating steaming plates of rice, topped with scarlet harissa.

Their chain-smoking taxi-driving neighbour Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) holds a lingering flame for the leonine Lionel, waiting for him on the stairs and writing poetic love notes. Upstairs, the suave, jet-set Noe (Grégoire Colin) is cautiously circling the feline Josephine, batting away rivals for her affections and catching her eye with meaningful glances.

Halfway through, the story that Denis is forming appears to be about this foursome pairing off in their own romantic directions, but the director aspires to more subtle methods than that. Gentle ripples begin to appear that reveal a smaller, more intimate story that the director wants to show us, not tell us. A night out that doesn’t go as planned leaves all four stranded in a cafe where they drink, flirt and dance to The Commodores’ Night Shift. Later, father and daughter take a road trip to Germany; a journey that explains how father and daughter came to be living together alone just as Josephine will soon leave home.

The trouble is that by the time these critical moments come about, they might pass unnoticed among the rest of the perfectly photographed, comfortably meandering incidents and trajectories. Does it mean anything that Lionel’s colleague has recently retired? What, if anything, are we supposed to glean from the lecture about the Breton Woods System that Josephine delivers to her classmates?

Suitably for a film that opens with a ten minute montage of trains, 35 Shots of Rum is more about the journey than the destination. Denis is reluctant to signpost anything, preferring to gently nudge her characters into place and have the viewer decide what is important. Her way of telling a story places manners and behaviour over action or plot, working a delicate web of gestures and actions that threatens, at times, to not form into a film at all. This kind of construction requires a talented cast to make it work, and Denis ambitions are well realised by fine performances from the ensemble, in particular her regular male lead Descas, who brings power and dignity to what is a slightly-written character.

Public Enemies


The short, sensational life of 1930s Chicago gangster John Dillinger passed into folk legend even before his corpse grew cold. During the Great Depression, Dillinger robbed the banks that in turn had robbed the public, in the process becoming a hero to the public and a lightning rod for gangsterism. He was the first crook dubbed “Public Enemy Number One” by J Edgar Hoover’s newfound FBI, who eventually cornered their man outside a Chicago cinema, the Biograph. In time, Hollywood even came to made films about him; Lawrence Tierney scowling down the barrel of a tommy-gun in 1945’s mostly fictional Dillinger and Warren Oates repeating the trick in John Milius’ ribald 1970s retelling.

Now, following his redundant attempt to revitalise Miami Vice, Hollywood’s specialist crime auteur Michael Mann brings us his biopic of the ‘gangster’s gangster’, with Johnny Depp playing an unlikely but mesmerizing Dillinger. It is an electrifying story, brilliantly told by Mann from a historically precise script based on Bryan Burrough’s book of the same title, adapted by Irish writer Ronan Bennet, which casts the bank robber as a man caught between criminality and celebrity, a real life movie character.

Public Enemies opens at a gallop in 1933 with Dillinger already infamous and the head of his own criminal gang. Brought to a vast Ohio prison in shackles, Dillinger turns the tables on his jailors and breaks his gang out of the jail, including Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), Harry Pierpont (David Wenham) and Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi). The gang are soon back doing what they do best, robbing banks across the American mid-West, a series of increasingly audacious robberies that makes Dillinger’s capture the priority for Hoover (Billy Crudup) and his best FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). As the cops start their pursuit, Dillinger becomes involved with Billie, a half-French nightclub dancer, played by Marion Cotillard in her first role since winning the Oscar for La Vie En Rose.

This is the crime movie stripped down to bare essentials; fedoras, sub-machine guns, bags of loot, fast cars, spinning headlines and lipsticked molls. Mann takes all these creaky devices and uses them to make an old story feel new and unexpected, exhilarating and emotionally moving. From the straightforward biography of a daring thief, Mann spins a multi-layered history that documents the seismic shifts in both crime and justice that defined the era; the establishment of a continental police force, the FBI, and the rise of the Mafia, who see Dillinger’s attention-seeking methods as dangerous to their way of life. However, Mann’s deliberate paring has the effect of rendering some of the secondary cast, including Stephen Dorff and Shawn Hatosy, almost completely anonymous.

Photographed with digital cameras in glorious deep focus, Public Enemies moves at a breathless pace, banging out the story in a series of staccato set-pieces and illuminative diversions. Jailbreaks are followed by bankheists and getaways in a tumble of adrenal scenes before the tension is broken by a moment of character, like an eerie sequence that sees Dillinger walking alone through a police station, looking at his own photograph on the wall. Better yet is a surreal scene, in a packed cinema, where Dillinger sits and watches a newsreel clip that asks the audience to check of the man sitting next to them isn’t the infamous gangster.

Depp plays Dillinger with effortless charisma and confidence, a timelessly glamorous cross between Robin Hood and Clark Gable. Opposite him, but relegated by the story into a grim-set cipher, Bale does well as the clenched, driven Purvis. There is a gripping inevitability to the way in which Mann places two opposing forces at either end of the spectrum and gradually, carefully brings them to a point of violent convergence, as he did in Heat, or Last of the Mohicans. With Public Enemies, this payoff happens during a bullet-ridden shootout at a remote hotel, filmed at the actual historical location, where Dillinger and his gang, including Stephen Graham’s Baby Face Nelson, are corner by the G-Men and must shoot their way out. It is an extraordinary centrepoint scene; frantic, percussive, bloody and brutal.

*Read my interview with Micheal Mann for Heat here.