The Best and Worst of 2010

2010 comes to a close with the traditional "Best & Worst" list. I have listed my favourites in no particular order here, but if I must pick one above all the others, it would be the sublime French prison drama A Prophet. Jacques Audiard’s powerhouse saga of how a young criminal works his way up the pecking order in a tough prison had me gripped from start to finish. As has become the barometer of these things, over the years, it is the only film I watched again in a cinema after seeing it at a press screening.

The rest of the Best:

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

(Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
Spellbinding and mystifying in equal measure, Apichatpong continues to invent new forms of narrative cinema.

(Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece)
Disturbing, bizarre and utterly compelling, this study of extreme familial dysfunction is a deadpan black comedy about paranoia, fear and freedom.

(Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
Korean director Bong’s brave and assured Oedipal thriller took brilliant characters, placed them in immersive locations and had them do fascinating things. He makes it look easy, but it really isn't.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
(Werner Herzog, US)
Herzog remade Abel Ferrara’s stomach-churning New York cop movie as a lurid psychodrama in sweltering New Orleans and extracted a late-career best performance from a deliriously loopy Nicholas Cage.

The Secret In Their Eyes
(Juan José Campanella, Argentina)
There’s not a note missed or a breath wasted in this richly scripted, involving thriller; a gripping story of love and death centred on an unsolved crime in 1970s Buenos Aires.

Samson & Delilah
(Warwick Thornton, Australia)
The bleak lives of two aboriginal teenagers are depicted in Thornton’s emotionally honest, visually stunning and semi-improvised drama.

(Christopher Nolan, US)
Christopher Nolan’s mesmerising metaphysical head-scratcher was devilishly complicated but beautifully shiny and new.

The Social Network
(David Fincher, US)
Top marks to Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher for making a vital mainstream studio film from the most unlikely subjects; the internet, business ethics and the legal process. A true Geek tragedy.

His & Hers
(Ken Wardrop, Ireland)
Wardrop’s deceptively simple and beguiling documentary was a series of sweet interviews with Irish women about the men in their lives and a word-of-mouth success at the box office

I Am Love
(Luca Guadagnino, Italy)
A sumptuous, floridly erotic Italian opera with a powerhouse performance from Tilda Swinton and the finest production design of the year.

Another Year
(Mike Leigh, UK)
A talented cast, made up of happy and unhappy characters, come together over the course of a year in Leigh's finely observed comedy drama.

Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, US)
Scorsese's hallucinatory homage to the B-movies of his childhood.

Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, US)
Woody and the gang wave goodbye in this funny and poignant series-ending sequel from Pixar.

Exit Through The Gift Shop
(Banksy, UK)
A sly, uncertain documentary about street art and bullshit artists.

The Worst Films of 2010

Mercifully, Matthew McConaughey did not appear in a film in 2010. If he had done, it would be listed in this space.

Sex & The City II
(Michael Patrick King, US)
Carrie and her superannuated chums reprised their hymn to conspicuous consumption just at the time when the money ran out.

Leap Year
(Anand Tucker, US/Ireland)
If the economy hadn't collapsed so spectacularly, this unwatchable collection of Oirish stereotypes would have been the greatest disaster to befall this country in 2010.

(John & Kieran Carney, Ireland)
If there was a joke here, I didn't get it, no matter how often it was repeated.

Vampires Suck
(Jason Freidberg, US)
If the Twilight franchise wasn’t anaemic enough, this lazy spoof was entirely bloodless. Proof that shooting fish in a barrel is tougher than you’d think.

The Collector
(Marcus Dunstan, US)
The last whimpers of the torture-porn movement. Nobody will miss it.

The Last Airbender
(M Night Shyamalan, US)
M Night Shyamalan made a kids movie. Poor kids.

Enter The Void
(Gaspar Noe, France)
The first hour of Gaspar Noe’s psychedelic point-of-view odyssey could easily have made the “Best Of” list. If only he had stopped there.

All About Steve
(Phil Traill, US)
Sandra Bullock follows her Oscar win with a dreadfully mistimed comedy about a mentally challenged woman stalking a news cameraman. Oh, the humanity.

(John Luessenhop, US)
A flashy menswear catalogue brought to life as a forgotten episode of Miami Vice.

The best film book I read this year was Steven Bach's saga about the making of Heaven's Gate, Final Cut (even if I was a little late in getting round to it). I also really enjoyed Simon Louvish's definitive double-biography of Laurel and Hardy, Stan & Ollie: The Roots of Comedy and Ruth Barton's temperate biography of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman in Film. The worst film book, by some distance, was Kevin Smith's semi-literate masturbation diary, My Boring-Ass Life which, like his recent films, is just awful. My song of the year was Wayne Smith's 'Under Mi Sleng Teng', an early-80s electro reggae track which featured on the soundtrack to Shane Meadow's tv series This Is England 86.

And that's it. Happy New Year!


What began as a fake trailer inserted in the middle of Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s failed hymn to the glories of exploitation cinema, Machete (the exclamation mark is implied) has now been expanded by writer and director Rodriguez into a real movie. He mightn’t have bothered; it was better as a two minute spoof.

In his first starring role in a 25 year career, leather-faced Danny Trejo plays a former Mexican policeman nicknamed Machete who is hired to assassinate a Texan politician (Robert De Niro) by a wealthy political fixer (Jeff Fahey). The fixer, in turn, is working for a Confucius-spouting drug lord (Steven Seagal) who is in league with a crooked white-supremacist sheriff (Don Johnson).

Helping Machete overthrow the devils oppressing his immigrant countrymen are his brother, a heavily- armed parish priest (Cheech Marin) and a twinned pair of scantily-dressed all-action women, a revolutionary truck-stop café owner (Michelle Rodriguez) and a sympathetic FBI agent (Jessica Alba). Later, Lindsay Lohan defies casting to type in a cameo as a dumb blonde, strung out on drugs, taking her clothes off on the internet “to please her fans”. When Machete’s mission goes wrong and he becomes a wanted man, he connects with the secretive immigrant underground in order to hatch an elaborate revenge.

What follows is essentially an extended elaboration on the same tittering exploitation themes Rodriguez really should have gotten out of his system after Grindhouse. Told in a series of breathlessly camp and eye-wateringly violent scenes of random butchery, sleazy nudity and grisly visual humour, Machete is realised as a live-action cartoon, albeit one strictly for grown-ups. The thin plot unfolds exactly as you might expect; a blizzard of crosses and double-crosses, beheadings and dismemberments, shootouts and standoffs.

Trejo has an unforgettable face but he makes for a less than charismatic leading man. His blazing eyes and rolling shoulders carry tremendous threat but he lacks the range to turn his sleazy angel of vengeance into anything other than a caricature of a mangled tough guy. Almost silent and dripping with knives, Machete beats the lining out of every man he encounters while every woman falls swooning at his feet. Rodriguez also employs his outcast anti-hero as the conduit for a series of pointed political messages, among them a parody of the recent attempts in Arizona to build an enormous fence along the border with Mexico and a racist election campaign television advertisement, which imagines illegal immigrants as scuttling cockroaches beneath the heel of the senator’s cowboy boot.

These moments of social commentary, studded throughout the wider narrative, are where Rodriguez finds the room to do what he does best: quipped one-liners, cynical visual jokes and self-consciously shabby, home-made special effects work. The director is less successful in sustaining his thinly-sketched characters as they jump through the various hoops in the story, with the result that when his film isn’t being randomly entertaining, it’s deathly dull. With a running time of just under two hours, perhaps the surprise is not that Machete wears out its welcome but how quickly it does so.

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part 1

Harry Potter is heading off. The first in a double bill of farewells, The Deathly Hallows Part 1, is a passable thumb-twiddler for impatient fans but the beginning of the end for this dwindling saga fails to generate the tension required to maintain interest in the conclusion to follow (in swanky but unrequested 3-D) next July.

As the last installment The Half Blood Prince hinted, the world of Harry Potter has become a scarier, more threatening place. This story opens with a series of poignant sacrifices as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) leave the comfort of their families and the alma mater of Hogwarts behind and strike out on their own. Harry’s mortal enemy, the now all-powerful wizard Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has taken control of the Ministry of Magic and declared the teenager to be “Undesirable No. 1”. The Orwellian Ministry, now overseen by psychotic housewife Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), has started a campaign against mudbloods, wizards born to Muggles, the echoes of Nazism underlined by black-shirted soldiers carrying scarlet banners.

Harry’s only hope of stopping Voldemort lies in his finding and destroying the mystical horcruxes, fragments of the Dark Lord's septic soul hidden throughout the magical world. The late, lamented Dumbledore has left behind a series of clues but the central trio must venture out on their own to locate the hidden objects by decoding symbols and tracking down lost witches and wizards, all without the support of their usual champions. Then, suddenly, the trio is split. Paranoid, jealous Ron leaves Harry and Hermione to continue the quest on their own, with director David Yates employing the divide to spin the series’ most unstructured, free-form chapter yet, a lumbering, bleak winter spent camping out, going from shadowy forest to windblown cliffs, as the trio join the dots on their quest while engaging in a timid teenage bicker.

Even with returning screenwriter Steve Kloves cleaving Rowling’s 700 page novel in two more or less equal halves, Yates’ film stumbles under the weight of its awkward exposition. The tone is richly gloomy but the choppy story never achieves the same uniform tenor, unfolding as a procession of crisis moments played as interchangeable action sequences; flashily photographed and edited and awash with impressive CGI effects but essentially inert and uninvolving. Far better are the film’s few quiet moments; the central trio’s bleak trek through the wintry British landscape, a beautiful shadow puppet-inspired animation that explains the origins of the title and a late scene in a snowbound cemetery that is one of the few occasions of emotional honesty in the entire franchise.

It’s not only the story that has matured; these characters have grown up in front of us. Harry’s serious face now sports tufts of wispy stubble, tomboy brain-box Hermione has matured into a sensible romantic heroine while Ron has gone from squeaky-voiced scaredy-cat to square-shouldered hunk. No longer able to hide behind the tag ‘child-actors’, these young veterans, who have been playing the roles for almost a decade, must carry the vast weight of this film entirely on their own. Radcliffe and Grint emerge as the victors, with Watson looking uncomfortable, even when sitting still. What is sorely lacking is something conclusive for any of them to do, with Part 1 only a drawn-out set-up for the last hurrah to come next year. And not a moment too soon.

Another Year

British director Mike Leigh's latest film tells the story of twelve months in the life of a happily married couple, Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) as they interact with a series of unhappy people; family, friends and work colleagues. Not as light-hearted as Leigh’s last film, Happy-Go-Lucky, or as sombre as the long run of films that preceded it, Another Year falls somewhere in between, an acutely observed, bittersweet character comedy.

The film opens with a series of tense, terse scenes where a depressed, middle-aged woman named Janet (Imelda Staunton) visits a doctor for sleeping tablets, before attending – under protest – a session with Gerri, the clinic’s counsellor. In another Leigh film, we might follow Janet’s story but in this one she is never mentioned again. We’re interested in Gerri, and so follow her home to the suburban London house she shares with her husband, the place where they raised their thirty year old son Joe (Oliver Maltman) and where they entertain, now and again, small groups of friends over a bottle of wine. Patient, calm Gerri spends as much time tending to her family and friends as she does to her neat garden and blooming allotment. For his part, steady, sturdy Tom works as a geologist specialising in building foundations, the bedrock of the city. They’re literally the salt of the earth.

Gerri’s closest friend is medical secretary Mary (Lesley Manville) they’ve worked together for twenty years. Scatterbrained and man-hungry, Mary likes to drink and talk, both of which tend to get her into trouble. Then there’s Tom’s childhood friend Ken (Peter Wight); a big, boozy Northern bachelor who comes to visit on his weekends off. As we gradually get to know these characters, not much of anything happens. Mary buys a second-hand car and it is a disaster. Joe brings home his new girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez) and she’s lovely; cheerful and chatty and easygoing. Gerri harvests some nice tomatoes. Tom worries about his brother Robbie (David Bradley). Ken gets drunk and falls over.

Chaptered into four separate sections, each titled after a season of the year, Leigh presents all of this in his typically unshowy manner, light on plot but heavy on character, filled with tiny moments of observational comedy and sneakily delicate drama. What distinguishes Leigh from his contemporaries is his ability to make a compelling story out of the material that other filmmakers use as filler. A cup of tea and a stray word turns into a crisis moment in a friendship, a fraught drive to the railway station hinges on an excruciatingly fumbled kiss, a rushed arrival at a summer barbeque opens up questions about the latecomers state of mind. All of these delicate moments might be lost in a busier story but for Leigh they are the reason for making the film in the first place, the entirety of the thing.

As we have come to expect from this consummate actor’s director, the performances from the entire ensemble are outstanding, intricately constructed, richly detailed and profoundly moving. It is a pleasure to spend a couple of hours in their company, even the sad and lonely ones. Especially them.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Oliver Stone continues his late-career run of unwatchable duds with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a sequel to his era-defining original, released just two months after Black Monday in 1987. The story of the fall from grace of Michael Douglas’ greedy Gordon Gekko might have been intended as a cautionary tale but it came to be regarded as an advertisement for the culture of excess it condemned. Twenty years later, everything is different. The markets might be volatile, but turning the ongoing financial collapse into a compelling and satisfying cinematic story requires a surer hand than Stone can provide.

As the new film opens, Stone’s semi-demonic anti-hero Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is being released from prison after serving an eight year stretch for insider trading. Shortly afterwards, the irrepressible Gekko has regained his place at the trough, writing a bestselling book about the state of the markets that garners him plenty of press attention and a lucrative lecture tour. “You're the NINJA generation—no income, no job, no assets,” he tells a crowd of applauding acolytes, including young investment banker Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf), who just happens to be engaged to Gekko’s estranged daughter, left-wing blogger and activist Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Jacob starts meeting with Gekko behind Winnie’s back, pumping the financial guru for career advice in exchange for facilitating a family reunion.

Not content with one villain, Stone introduces a new breed of reptile in Josh Brolin’s swaggering Bretton James. James came of age in a time when Gekko’s personal credo of “greed is good” became an aphorism, the first line on the first page of the Wall St trader’s handbook. James also serves to introduce rising talent Jacob to the good life, displaying his expensive art and lighting fat cigars and, later, challenging him to a macho race through upstate New York on expensive motorbikes.

Stone and his cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto bring a glitzy look to the melodrama, turning Manhattan into an arrangement of ornate structures and kaleidoscopic lights. Stone’s determination to decorate his moral sewer with glittering jewels reaches a climax in a bizarre scene at a glamorous reception where the camera glides through the crowd, settling on the enormous, sparkling earrings of the women in the crowd. Having arranged a seamless baker’s dozen of these elaborate jewels, the director hammers home his point about ill-gotten glories by closing on Mulligan’s demure pearl studs.

With characteristic modesty and subtlety, Stone is attempting to distil and define the recent financial collapse as a pantomime of good versus evil, pitting his cardboard cut-out characters against one another while, in the background, the world they inhabit collapses. In the underdeveloped script there are long passages when nothing seems to happen for long periods before a sudden tsunami of emotional crests all arrive at once. The death of Jacob’s mentor (a well-used Frank Langella) collides with his proposing marriage to the soporific Winnie. Later, the revelation that Winnie is pregnant, and Jacob’s realisation that he is soon to be a responsible family man, is crowded out by a quickfire series of Machiavellian manipulations from Gekko’s grinning villain.

Perhaps the time he spent with Fidel Castro for his documentary Comandante has eroded Stone’s faith in American capitalism. Wall Street II is not an investigation into the movement of modern money, or how lax banking regulation eventually breeds corruption, but rather a series of carelessly arranged vignettes on the themes of honour, loyalty and shame. The result is that while Stone’s second wander down Wall St never wants for incident, it is impossible to care about any of his characters and the story floats off into a sloppy, soppy conclusion.


IADT graduate and prolific short-subject writer and director Brendan Muldowney’s debut feature film Savage is a timely story about an increasingly violent Irish society undermined by ponderous characterisation and moments of frothy hysteria.

Darren Healy plays jobbing photographer Paul Graynor, who spends his working life outside the Four Courts, snapping criminals as they emerge from the back of police vans. Lonely and withdrawn, the only person Paul talks to, other than his elderly, ailing father, is the old man’s nurse, Michelle (Nora-Jane Noone). Having plucked up the courage to ask her out, Paul and Michelle start a tentative relationship. But on the way home from their first date, Paul is mugged in a side-street. His attackers respond to his cowering fear with an even more brutal assault, which leaves Paul with horrific injuries. Unable to come to terms with what has happened; mild-mannered Paul retreats to the isolation of his city-centre apartment where he hatches a plan for revenge.

Impressively photographed, edited and scored, Savage is a slick looking film, even more so when the very low production budget is taken into consideration. However, the glossy production work isn’t enough to override the fundamental flaws in the greasy story. The film is littered with moments of clanging implausibility. The assault Paul suffers (which, in fairness to the potential audience, I cannot reveal here) is burdened by an unnecessary metaphorical weight that the rest of the story struggles to carry.

Later, Paul’s interactions with authority figures, policemen, doctors and psychiatrists, are improbably perfunctory and glib; a complete misreading of the post-traumatic psychiatric care process and something that could have been rectified by further research or the application of common sense above cinematic expediency. These clumsy exchanges are not intended to help Paul but rather to push him towards his transformation into an agent of bloody vengeance. The point is hammered home in a sequence where Paul watches a reactionary television pundit espouse about our “brutal society” being at a “tipping-point” before pledging to kill anyone who breaks into his house.

The two leads give performances of more nuance than the material they have to work with. Healy is entirely convincing as the traumatised young man, struggling to come to terms with changed life prospects while Noone is both hard-edged and soft-hearted as the pragmatic nurse, looking to help him. But as the story develops, it becomes increasingly difficult to sympathise with Healy’s fascistically-drawn Übermensch, shaving his head, necking illegal steroids and waving a big knife while Noone, an angelic sounding-board, offers nothing but timid objections. Muldowney is clearly influenced by films such as Taxi Driver, Death Wish and Straw Dogs in depicting a man who reacts to the violence he meets by becoming violent in return. But the writer and director fails to capture the dangerous ambiguity of his genre predecessors and Savage deteriorates into a didactic lecture about the dangers of vigilantism. For all its flaws, Savage is a statement of intent from Muldowney and his producer Conor Barry, a film that shows their considerable promise for the future.

The Other Guys

For the first couple of minutes, Adam McKay’s frantic, funny buddy-cop comedy The Other Guys seems precisely like the kind of pyrotechnic action adventure Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer knocked out during the grim, high-concept 1980s. Swaggering super-policemen Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) and Danson (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson) race through the New York streets, firing off guns at random and reducing the streets to rubble in a series of mushroom-cloud fireballs, the same ones that top-line stars always emerge from unscathed. Shortly afterwards, Highsmith and Danson make an unexpected and permanent exit, leaving the road clear for their successors, mild-mannered forensic accountant Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) and his unwilling partner Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), an uptight loose cannon.

Somehow (the plotting is never entirely coherent) Gamble and Hoitz become involved in an investigation into a massive fraud perpetrated by Steve Coogan’s unctuous billionaire David Ershon. The more the two idiots dig around in Ershon’s affairs, the more pressure their superiors apply to have then drop the case. Eventually, with the help of their despairing captain (Michael Keaton), the two find a way to connect the billionaire investor with a deeper corporate conspiracy, a pointed message about the recent financial meltdown that sees the film conclude with an odd series of Michael Moore-like title cards that explain the mechanics behind a Ponzi Scheme. The loose plot is, of course, entirely beside the point and exists only as a platform for Ferrell to deliver a series of very funny riffs on various subjects.

McKay has scripted and directed a series of successful comedies with his chosen leading man Ferrell, from Anchorman to Step Brothers, with The Other Guys proving a close fit for the pair’s well-established blend of surreal comedy, sight-gags, subversive genre homages and incongruous celebrity cameos. Ferrell is very funny here, even if he is operating well within his limits as the dunderheaded, oblivious cop. As is so often the case with Ferrell, the funniest lines appear to be throw-away non-sequiturs, often delivered as off-screen asides. Perhaps the film’s greatest surprise is the delicate, frequently hilarious performance from Mark Wahlberg who plays the straight-man Hoitz as a frustrated Alpha male with barely concealed psychopathic tendencies. From the secondary cast, Eva Mendes gives a neat turn as Gamble’s unexpectedly beautiful and dutiful wife while Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans are outstanding as a pair of teeth-gratingly irritating fellow cops, straining to become the new superstars on the force.

The Other Guys is not a comic masterpiece for the ages but it is about as good as audiences can expect from a late-summer studio offering. It doesn’t all work, there are a couple of sequences that fall completely flat, but when Ferrell and Wahlberg do click, the film hums with an irresistible comic energy, combining note-perfect character comedy with a delirious send-up of cop-movie clichés.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World

Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright adapts Bryan Lee O’Malley’s cult comic book series Scott Pilgrim vs The World for a fast, funny modern romance.

As the story opens, twentysomething Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is engaged in a chaste, hand holding affair with a high-school girl named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). Knives thinks that Scott and his band Sex-bob Omb (with bearded frontman Mark Webber and the adorably bad-tempered Alison Pill behind the drums) are the coolest thing ever, but then by her own admission, she only discovered good music a few months ago. Scott spends his days playing the bass and sitting around. He doesn’t have a job, or much to do, and he doesn’t particularly care.

Then, on the same day that his roguish gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin) tells him he must move out of the apartment, Scott meets and instantly falls in love with a pink-haired parcel courier named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). His attempts to woo her with arcane Pac-Man trivia falls flat, so instead, Ramona presents him with a challenge: to win her heart he must defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends (and one girlfriend) in battle. So Scott’s eternally static life is periodically jolted into action by the regular arrival of flamboyant former flames looking to fight to the death, his only help coming from a series of snazzy power-ups and kung-fu special moves familiar to anyone who ever picked up a joystick.

The original comic books are a paean to gloriously wasted youth; an innocent, slouchy dissolution that squanders time on gaming consoles, television and movies. These disposable, quotable pleasures are the source of Scott Pilgrim’s infinite variety of catchphrases, inside-jokes and conversational titbits. Whether you’ll like the film or not is heavily dependent on your ability to tune your ear to Scott Pilgrim’s particular nonsense-frequency.

From the opening Universal credit sequence, rendered as a 16-bit animation, through to the rain of coins that accompany a vanquished foe, Scott Pilgrim is steeped in video-game culture. There are snatches of soundtrack from classic games like Zelda and Super Mario Brothers and visual lifts from dozens more, scattered throughout the story in a series of knowing nods to the audience’s misspent adolescences. Set in the local music scene in Toronto, this is a film about music, too. Buried beneath the babble of nerd-talk, Seinfeld theme tunes and Donkey Kong references, both comic book and film make a stirring case for listening to and playing music as the antidote to teenage boredom.

The pairing of an anxious, fumbling loser with a smart woman who is way out of his league is beyond cliché at this point, particularly for Michael Cera, who in his dozen films has yet to play any other character. That Scott Pilgrim rises above the familiar to become something surprising and fresh is partly owing to Wright’s kinetic visual style but also to the robust performances from the female characters, including Anna Kendrick as Scott’s snide sister and Aubrey Plaza as Julie, a coffee-shop barista who never tires of reminding our hero that he is an idiot. It’s not all fun and games, however. The burgeoning romance between Scott and Ramona is severely weakened by the regular arrival of yet another elaborately over-dressed bad-guy and another elaborately over-choreographed fight sequence. A few of these scenes might easily have been removed without harming the storyline, but that might have met with a negative response from comic book fans, who typically demand absolute devotion to the source text.

I got some big laughs from Scott Pilgrim, more than any other comedy so far this summer. It’s witty, sweet and very geeky and, best of all; it doesn’t ask to be taken seriously. There is no real purpose to any of the uncountable homages rendered other than that they are, or were once, something teenagers got a kick out of. That’s not to say the film is entirely empty. Wright imbues his characters with a charming sincerity and openness, with Scott and his friends willing to embrace novelty and accept difference. They’re smart, too. “Don’t let the past ruin the future”, someone says in a rare quiet moment, sound advice whatever the age bracket.


Korean writer and director Bong Joon-ho’s new film Mother is a slippery mix of Oedipal drama (as the title suggests), grisly murder mystery, robust physical comedy and cutting social commentary made with a deft grasp on a shifting tone and photographed with the director’s trademark visual acuity.

The film opens on an unsettlingly weird scene as Hye-ja Kim’s nameless single parent wanders through a grassy field before starting an awkward, arm-waving dance directly to camera. The owner of a small herbal remedy shop, she is mother to a mentally challenged young man (the neighbours unkindly refer to him as a “retard”), who she has protected since childhood.

Now in his early twenties, Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin) spends his days hanging out with his only friend Jin-tae (Jin Goo), drinking too much and talking about girls. One night, when wobbling home from the local pub, Do-joon finds himself trailing behind a local schoolgirl. He tries to talk to her, but she ignores him. The next morning, she is found dead on a rooftop with all the clues pointing to Do-joon as the culprit. His horrified mother refuses to believe the police verdict and while her son sits in prison awaiting trial, she launches her own one-woman investigation, retracing her son’s steps on the night in search of the truth. She is the only person in the rural town who believes her son is innocent, and in the face of public ridicule, stands alone in trying to clear his name. Her sleuthing leads her to uncover a sleazy schoolgirl sub-culture of sex and violence, hidden just below the polite veneer of Korean society.

As in Bong’s previous films, monster-movie The Host and police procedural Memories of Murder, the writer and director delights in establishing the basic schematics of the genre film, the wronged-man thriller in this case, and then gently teasing the threads apart before re-weaving them into something totally unique and utterly compelling. Mother is an impeccably realised murder mystery but it goes on to become a devastating character study of a woman pushed to the edge of reason by circumstances she failed to control. Kim Hye-ja, a Korean television actress previously unknown to me, gives an astonishing performance as the overprotective, intrepid mother, running the gamut from Mary Poppins to Miss Marple to Lady Macbeth.

Starting at one place and slowly, inexorably migrating to somewhere completely different, Bong’s combination of dazzling cinematic craft, psychological insight and compelling storytelling make Mother one of the films of the year.

The Secret In Their Eyes

The surprise winner of last year’s Academy Award for best foreign-language film, (pipping the twinned favourites A Prophet and The White Ribbon) Argentinean mystery The Secret in Their Eyes is a gripping story of love and death centred around an unsolved crime in Buenos Aires.

Ricardo Darin excels as Benjamin, a court investigator tormented by the rape and murder of a young bride in her home in 1974. Twenty five years later Benjamin, now retired and struggling to fill his days, is attempting to write a novel about the case and so casts his mind back to the original investigation he undertook with his partner Sandoval (the superb Guillermo Francella). When Benjamin takes a draft of his book to his former boss, Irene (Soledad Villamil), they begin to reminisce about their own relationship, professional and otherwise.

Alone at home, Benjamin revisits the details of the crime, looking to find closure, both for himself and his book. Through extended flashbacks, director Juan José Campanella reveals how the young woman was brutally killed, the effect her death had on her equally young husband Morales (Pablo Rago), and the fractured details of the original, stifled enquiry.

From these beginnings the director, from a screenplay by novelist Eduardo Sacheri, weaves a complex, novelistic story of delayed justice, using the long-forgotten crime as a springboard for ruminations on love and loss and the passage of time. Later, the story expands to incorporate a pointed political message about Argentina’s Dirty War in the 1970s, during which thousands of innocent people were “disappeared” by Jorge Rafael Videla’s military junta.

Although it arrives in Irish cinemas too late to take advantage of the Oscar buzz, The Secret In Their Eyes is the kind of movie they really don’t make very often anymore; a good story, well told. A standout chase through a soccer stadium, seamlessly assembled from dozens of individual shots, injects an adrenal thrill to the story at the mid-way point and is worth the price of admission alone. The complexities of how the scene was shot are as mystifying as anything in the story itself.

There are flaws; the film overplays a series of strangled romantic moments and, more pressingly, struggles to settle on an ending, but these are minor missteps in what is an absorbing drama filled with vivid, beautifully acted characters.

Knight & Day

Tom Cruise plays up to his reputation as a motor-mouth maniac in James Mangold’s Knight and Day, an intermittently distracting summer-season action-comedy-romance that crosses Jason Bourne with Jason Byrne.

Cruise plays Roy Miller, a highly-trained killing machine gone rogue from a secret government agency. We first meet Roy (as we first met Cruise’s other seemingly omnipotent killer Vincent in Collateral) as he walks through an airport. Roy is looking for a stooge to unwittingly carry something through security and finds her in Cameron Diaz’s June, a nervous car-mechanic. The switch made, the two get on their flight together, where Roy dazzles June with his teeth while she bats her eyelashes like a camel struggling through a sand storm. One unconvincingly-realised plane crash later, the two desperados are on the run. The rest of the plot, such as it is, circles around a manhunt for science-prodigy Simon Feck (Paul Dano), who has invented a super-strength battery that never runs out of juice. A nefarious Spanish weapons-dealer is desperate to get his hands on it, and has recruited someone crooked within the CIA to obtain it for him. The only thing standing in his way, and the musically named Mr Feck’s only hope, is the super-confident super-agent.

Since the day he jumped on Oprah’s couch in 2005, Cruise has watched his star plummet. No longer a sure-fire box office draw, his last four films have been critical and commercial disappointments; the superfluous Mission Impossible III, the po-faced Lions For Lambs and the officious Nazi drama Valkyrie all flopped. Knight And Day isn’t the film that will return Cruise to the top of the pile, but it is undoubtedly better scripted and more fun than anything we’ve seen from him lately. He gives an astute, energetic performance, fuelled at least in part by a degree of self-mockery, playing up to the public perception of him as an excitable, indefatigably positive weirdo. Like her co-star, Cameron Diaz badly needs a hit. There’s Something About Mary was a long time ago, but the actress is essentially playing the same part; a skittishly lovely foil for a floundering chatterbox, although this time she gets to shoot off a few guns.

The film’s greatest weakness is that once you get the joke, you get the joke. The perpetual-energy battery isn’t powerful enough to maintain momentum in the story, which comes to a standstill about half way through leaving the stars with nowhere to turn. The movie keeps going - and going - zipping from anonymous American cityscapes to snow-tipped Salzburg, via a sojourn in the Azores and a well-realised car-chase during a bull-run through a Spanish street. But all this mayhem-raising globe-trotting is for nothing; the lavish backdrops only highlight the paucity of what is happening up front. The chirpy banter between Cruise and Diaz is fun, for a while, but like the screen-filling pyrotechnics, the cacophonous shoot-outs and the blindingly obvious villainy, the thrill fades sooner than it should.

The A-Team

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. In fact, it’s not even close. The latest 1980s pop-culture totems to be whittled down into kindling and fed to Hollywood’s ever-hungry furnaces are the chopsocky empowerment tale The Karate Kid (not reviewed here) and the action comedy television series The A-Team. Now, nobody is claiming that either film or tv show represent the pinnacle of 1980s cultural achievement but they were nevertheless phenomenally successful; the Karate Kid spawning three sequels, and countless childhood tooth-chips, while the five seasons of the A-Team are still shown at the outer reaches of cable television worldwide.

Audience familiarity is director Joe Carnahan’s most immediate advantage in his beefed-up version of The A-Team but even this rose-tinted remembering is soon exhausted in a ponderously complicated action adventure. Anyone who spent their twelve year-old Saturday evenings sitting too close to the television will recognise these characters: leader Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) still loves it when plans come together; his first lieutenant Face (Bradley Cooper) still flirts with the ladies, getaway driver BA Baracus (Quinton Jackson) still pities fools while helicopter pilot Murdock (Sharlto Copley) is still nuts. The first part of The A-Team is concerned with establishing how the four came together, and how they became military outlaws – in other words, extending the story told in the television series memorably narrated, minute-long opening credits to about an hour.

After a twenty minute pre-credits introduction, a blur of bullets and bluster, the action switches to the US war in Iraq and a mission to stop a billion dollar counterfeiting scam organised by henchmen loyal to Saddam. The A-Team are called in by army specialist Charissa Sosa (Jessica Biel) to find the crooks, who are also being trailed by the CIA (represented by the vulpine Patrick Wilson) and a secret division of privately hired mercenaries. When the plan goes awry, the team are accused of theft and must flee before regrouping to solve the mystery and clear their names.

And that’s about it for character and story. The rest of The A-Team is given over to elaborate set-pieces, third-degree pyrotechnics and robotic digital effects. “Overkill is underrated” Hannibal says, at one point, but not from where I’m sitting. Fireballs aside, Carnahan’s biggest innovation is to cross-cut between the team planning their various gunfights and getaways and said gunfight or getaway being carried out. This device, while fun at first, like the rest of the film soon tires. The film’s camp humour offers some meagre compensation, with much being made of the behemoth BA’s reluctance to get on a plane and a decent visual joke at the expense of the new 3D format. But for a script that has been in development for a decade, and has five credited screenwriters, we might have expected a little more. It all adds up to two hours of dangerous scrapes and daring escapes. Not too shabby, if you’re twelve.


Christopher Nolan’s follow up to the blockbuster success of The Dark Knight is not a franchise installment, a remake or a re-imagining. Inception is an original screenplay, Nolan’s first since Memento, packed with complex ideas and mind-bending storytelling, that doesn’t fit easily into any summer-friendly genre. And it’s in fabulous, glorious 2D.

For a film in which the characters spend most of their time asleep, Inception doesn’t rest for a minute. The film opens, without preamble, as Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) attempts to steal top secret information from the sleeping mind of Saito (Ken Watanabe), a wealthy Japanese businessman who is in fact testing Cobb for a far bigger job. The new target is Saito’s nearest rival Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), the heir to an industrial fortune. This time, however, the mission is not to steal an idea, but to implant one. With the alien thought buried in his subconscious, the thinking goes, Fischer will dissolve his late father’s companies and clear the way for Saito’s monopoly. But the thinking goes far deeper than that.

Cobb’s closest ally is Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a fixer who looks after the technology, and keeps an eye on the watch. For the big job, Cobb calls up new recruits; English dandy Eames (Tom Hardy) can impersonate other people in the dream-world and Yusuf (Dileep Rao) can make a sedative that can keep the target dreaming. The last piece of the puzzle requires a specialist, so Cobb recruits psychologist Ariadne (Ellen Page) and teaches her how to mentally construct every street, building and room in the artificial world. More importantly, the newcomer serves as a sounding-board for Cobb to explain exactly how the trick, and by extension the film, works.

In short, and without spoiling the fun, when the subject is dreaming, Cobb uses his technology to draw them into another dream, where he can create yet another dream world, and so on. The genius of his invention is that time works differently, the deeper into the dream you do. A minute in the real world becomes ten minutes in the dream and, perhaps, a day in the dream within a dream. Below that, where Cobb and his team are preparing to go, time stretches on into years, maybe decades. This multi-layered set-up allows Nolan to keep three different clocks ticking at three different speeds, a device that works to heighten the tension three-fold as he cuts back and forth between worlds, between characters and between the real and the unreal.

It’s brain-freezing stuff, and like the spinning top that serves as a key plot device, Inception is always on the verge of falling over. That it never does is Nolan’s great achievement, but he didn’t arrive at it by chance. Inception is constructed like a maze, with the director acting as navigator, providing all the information required to comprehend what is going on at any given point, without ever giving the game away.

Impeccably conceived and photographed, Inception has a series of stand-out effects sequences; a Parisian street folding in on itself like a book and a dizzying zero-gravity getaway. The plausible sci-fi noir mood is the same as that found in the best work of writer Phillip K Dick, with Nolan broadening his range to pay homage to his inspirations. There’s a room that recalls Kubrick’s 2001 and a mirror effect taken from the similarly convoluted Lady From Shanghai, but also sequences that could have been taken from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and explicit visual nods to the impossible realities of artists Rene Magritte and M.C. Escher. If his references are intended to further identify Inception as a metaphysical puzzle, the film is a metaphorical one, too as Nolan shares Cobb’s ability to weave dreams, plant ideas and mess with our heads.

Twilight: Eclipse

The Twilight series marks time in Eclipse, a static, lead-swinging installment in the teenage vampire melodrama, which sees David Slade become the third director in as many films to steer Stephanie Myers’ tiresome, toothless saga to the screen.

We enter the story at the point where the last film, an even more glacially-paced and moody non-event, ended. Bella (Kirsten Stewart) and her bloodsucking beau Edward (Robert Pattinson) have been reunited, much to the chagrin of the Native American third wheel Jacob (Taylor Lautner). Confused Bella is torn between her two admirers; undead Edward, with his sparkly skin and flashing yellow eyes, and hot-blooded Jacob, who can transform into a virile, hairy werewolf on demand. As Bella hums and haws, an old threat returns in the form of redheaded outlaw vampire Victoria (Byrce Dallas Howard, replacing Rachelle Lefevre). Victoria is breeding an army of dangerous young vampires to avenge the death of her beloved at the hands of Bella and the Cullen clan.

The narrative, stretched to exhaustion across two long hours, is composed of almost nothing but flip-flops. Bella loves Edward, Bella loves Jacob. No, Edward. No, Jacob. In a rare moment of insight, Bella complains about being “frozen” in her life, unable to “move forward”. The same can be said for everyone else in this deadening parade. The geologically-timed pacing reveals tiny slivers of narrative progression, cutaways to the teenage runaways gathering for their assault and the vampires joining with their sworn enemies, the werewolves, to defeat them. There is never a moment when you think this battle might be lost, or a single strand of tension to connect this stiffly choreographed mayhem to the central story.

Bella’s notions of womanhood are so unnaturally retroactive, she might as well be mooning over Mickey Rooney in an Andy Hardy melodrama from the 1940s. Arriving at her 18th birthday, her sole ambition is to find a man who will solve all of her problems. She has found two, and must decide between them, the courtly vampire or the wild wolf. And that’s about all she has to do. There is a little chatter about exams and college but her star is set early on. Bella might be faced with a choice, but she doesn’t have any options.

Stewart’s performance is built entirely on her ability to bite her lip, flick her eyes and mope. She never relaxes, which I suppose is difficult when surrounded by fiends and monsters but she might at least be relaxed about being anxious. Stewart can act, she was good in Adventureland and great in a cameo in Into The Wild, but Bella’s character allows her nothing but fidgety stasis. It’s a vacuous kind of vacuum, too, with Bella repeating the phrase, “that’s so pretty”, to three different items presented to her over the course of the film.

Opposite her, Pattinson is consistently outperformed by his haircut. He is as wooden as a garden shed. As the elemental, shape shifting werewolf, Lautner shows he is better than either of them, particularly in scenes he shares with his family of mystical moon-howlers, but he can’t save the film on his own.

The fey sparkly theatrics are played down this time, the limp action sequences allowing for fewer emotional crescendos. The special effects work is understandably bloodless, given the 12A certificate, but the digital animation and scenic work is nowhere near as accomplished or eye-catching as work available in, say, The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, both originated almost a decade ago. This lag may be due to the filmmaker’s belief that their target audience of young teenage girls are not as visually savvy as their counterparts among the boys, but I suspect it is because it is cheaper not to bother.

Twilight has been sold on sight to a ravenous audience who don’t care that they are being short changed. Even so, the film should look and sound better than it does. The effects work is the equivalent of reasonably accomplished television and the soundtrack of bed-wetting emo rock is no substitute for an original score. The cheap look of the film is galling given that the franchise has banked considerable box-office returns and doubly so, since the pancake makeup, Weetabix wigs and wobbly CGI go some way towards disrupting the fantasy.

Shrek Forever After

How do you put the lid on a successful cartoon franchise? If you’re Dreamworks, wringing the last few bucks out of the billion-dollar Shrek, you take all the stuff that worked in the first three films, juggle it around for a while, add a few time-swallowing song and dance numbers and call it a finale. Oh, and make it in 3D.

The resulting Shrek Forever After, unsurprisingly, lacks the comic energy of the first two films but is still a vast improvement on the hopeless third iteration. From the novelty and fun of dragon-slaying and damsel-rescuing, the ogre Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) has been reduced to suffering a premature mid-life crisis. After just a year of married bliss with Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and their flatulent triplets, the ogre has lost his mojo. “I’m just a jolly green joke,’’ he whines.

Desperate to unshackle himself from responsibility, Shrek signs an ill-fated magical contract with the conniving Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dorn), who promises him a single halcyon day of being a monstrous ogre. But there’s a twist, which sees Shrek removed from history unless he can fulfil a clause in the contract before the sun goes down. The clock is ticking, so Shrek undertakes a quest to re-connect with Fiona, now leader of a gang of renegade ogres, the downtrodden Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), now a fat cat living the high life on a silken cushion, and get his life back.

The 3D work adds a few moments of head-ducking diversion, but the overall effect is not worth the extra effort involved. The audience is not watching the effects, they are there to laugh and although there are a few decent jokes, it is not nearly enough for comic satisfaction. Instead, the thin material is padded out with over-long chases, tiresome repetitions and the already mentioned and altogether tedious montages of awkward song-and-dance numbers. All too briefly, the film sketches out a couple of potentially interesting sidebars, (including yet another take on the central notion in It’s A Wonderful Life) considering the fates of the people Shrek cares about, if he had never been born. But these avenues remain mostly unexplored, blockaded by the franchise’s requirement to insert a poop joke or another dizzying pursuit.

It might not be fair to make comparisons between Dreamworks animated output (which consists of Shrek and not much else) and the vastly superior and prolific Pixar, but there is a glaring gulf between the two. Pixar, who will release Toy Story 3 in a couple of weeks, develop their own characters and write their own scripts. All four Shreks are distantly related to characters in William Steig’s children’s book, written twenty years ago. With the Shrek films, Dreamworks have proven themselves to be more interested in hit-or-miss one-liners, celebrity cameos and pop-culture references than telling a story. The story is all Pixar care about. It shows: Dreamworks films are forgotten by the time you strap the kids back in the car, Pixar make films that will be enjoyed for as long as there are people to watch.

Robin Hood

In Ridley Scott’s revisionist re-imagining of the iconic English hero Robin Hood, Russell Crowe doesn’t wear Lincoln green tights or a cap with a jaunty feather. He’s not all that interested in the redistribution of wealth or robbing the rich to feed the poor. He doesn’t have any men, merry or not, and his mortal enemy the Sheriff of Nottingham is mostly marked absent.

In their determination to reinvent a classic cinematic character, writers Brian Helgeland, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris have carefully excised all those elements we’ve come to expect from the legendary medieval outlaw. When so much of cinema is made up of warmed-over clichés, it seems churlish to complain when a filmmaker tries something new, but the result is an action film that might have been called anything other than Robin Hood, and a central character that barely merits the name. It’s like Gladiator in Sherwood Forest, except there’s no mention of Sherwood Forest either.

As the film opens, Crowe’s Robin Longstride is making his way back to England after a decade serving as an archer in Richard The Lionheart’s Third Crusade. Richard (a dissolute Danny Huston) is laying one last siege on a French castle before his return to London, but is killed by a (historically accurate) arrow through the neck. With the army scattered, Longstride and his almost anonymous cohorts, Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) and Alan A’Dale (Alan Doyle) come across the aftermath of an ambush led by the traitor Godfrey (Mark Strong). Robin takes it upon himself to deliver Richard’s crown to his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins) in London, while also returning a prized sword to Sir Walter Loxley (Max Von Sydow), the last request of his dead son. When he arrives in Nottingham to deliver the sword, he meets his former comrade’s widow, Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett). Marian and Sir Walter listen to the crusader’s story and pretend he is their son and husband returned from war, rather than face losing the family estates to the new King John’s (Oscar Isaac) crippling taxation.

As Robin settles in to his new-found home, the arrogant King John is persuaded by Godfrey to tax the already struggling northern lords for more money to fund his war chest. His short-sighted fiscal policies include killing everyone who doesn’t pay up, a wave of chaos that eventually arrives in Nottingham. At the head of the charge is Robin’s newly-minted mortal enemy Godfrey, determined to eliminate Robin before he reveals his treachery against the dead King Richard. At the same time, Robin is honing his own political points of view, a kind of Dark Age Socialism built on the idea that all men are created equal, and so fires the northern lords into forcing King John into signing the Magna Carta.

Built on a foundation of hastily assembled historical moments, this busy plot must also contain Robin’s romance with the no-nonsense Marion, his recovery of a series of repressed childhood memories, his assembling of a team of freedom fighters, a couple of rousing speeches and the staging of umpteen fight scenes and battles. This Robin Hood is no Errol Flynn, but he is still handy with a bow and arrow, and Scott is equally adept at filming pulsating action sequences. The problem with the film is that it tries to be a gritty action adventure and a bucolic comedy romance at the same time. The action is stirring but mindful of the 12A certificate, almost entirely bloodless. The romance is rushed and stilted and scattered with odd moments of witless wordplay. The final couple of scenes, which act as a sort of establishing yarn for an intended sequel, are followed by a title card that tells us “And so the legend begins”. Well, what have we been watching then?


“I just don't know what I’m doing with my life”, declares the 25-year-old nanny played by newcomer Greta Gerwig in Greenberg. Join the club, Greta. The rest of the people who meander through Noah Baumbach’s casually uncomfortable black comedy aren't going to be much help.

Gerwig’s listless Florence is left in charge when the busy Greenberg family, for whom she works as a Jill-of-all-trades assistant, take a long holiday in Vietnam. Florence is content to watch the house and walk the dog while the family are away, but she is also asked to look in on Roger, the dad's brother. Roger is about to turn 41 and works as a carpenter. He has come to LA from New York to find some space and quiet to help him recover from a nervous breakdown. When Florence asks him if he needs anything, he writes a shopping list: whiskey and ice-cream. Confused, lonely and feeling his way back to health, Roger finds his match in the vulnerable Florence, who drives him around the city and, in an excruciating early sex scene, almost sleeps with him. Despite the awkwardness, they are drawn together, seemingly by nothing other than a desire to do something with somebody, anything with anyone.

The plot gradually reveals other things going on in the same spiky mood and at a similarly low temperature. Roger meets up with an old ex-girlfriend (played by co-writer and producer Jennifer Jason Leigh). They go on an excruciatingly kind date, where Roger’s romantic notions are deflated as gently as a hot air balloon. Occasionally, he rouses himself from self-pity long enough to write letters of complaint to various companies and government departments, giving out about trivialities. He never gets a reply. Roger reconnects with his British ex-pat former best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), who used to play in their failed rock band, before he became addicted to drugs and alcohol. Now a bored IT technician, Ivan acts as Roger’s mentor, cheerleader and conscience for the few weeks he spends in LA.

If for long periods of the film, nothing much seems to be happening, Baumbach’s static mood and strained progression builds into an astute study of ordinary people not living the lives they had once dreamt they would or, somehow worse, rueing the opportunities they missed. Not that any of these characters improve themselves along the way; Baumbach deliberately avoids staging dramatic confrontations or preaching a sermon. Greenberg is not about redemption, it’s just a bunch of stuff that happens. What matters is who it happens to.

This is an understated study of awkward people, a film that will make you squirm with embarrassment even as you fall for the brilliantly drawn characters. We have become so accustomed to his frantic funny-man routine, it comes as a surprise to discover that Stiller can do straight drama. His inward-looking, angst-ridden performance as a man desperate to recover his mojo is, at times, dangerously unpredictable. A knot of maddening tics and complex anxieties, Stiller is not actively looking for us to empathise with Roger but we do, in time, anyway. He’s funny without being comedic, sympathetic without ever being amiable, sad without being maudlin. Opposite him, in a show-stealing turn as the woman who can organise everyone else’s lives but can do nothing for herself, Gerwig gives a performance of such consummate naturalism she doesn’t appear to be acting at all.

The move from his native New York to Los Angeles has done Baumbach a power of good. The new location, much like the film itself, is packed with contradictory elements: slanted golden sunlight and sudden, torrential rain, laid back hippies and twitchy businesspeople, lazy afternoons by the pool followed by frantic, house-wrecking parties. Unlike the New York of The Squid & The Whale, where the towering, bustling city overwhelmed the people, this little-seen backstreet vision of LA sits unobtrusively in the background, adding character without stealing the show.

His & Hers

Ken Wardrop’s first feature length documentary His & Hers opens with an Irish proverb: “A man loves his girlfriend the most, his wife the best, but his mother the longest.” While this cute aphorism might suggest that the subsequent film will focus on the loving men, the director turns the line on its head and concentrates on the women of his native midlands region and their life-long relationships with the men in their lives. Portarlington-born Wardrop, whose talent as a filmmaker has been obvious since the first short films he made with his producing partner Andrew Freedman, comes to cinematic maturity with this work, as vibrant and life-affirming a film as we are likely to see all year.

The film is deceptively easy to summarise. 70 women, from babes-in-arms to elderly grandmothers, discuss the men in their lives; fathers, boyfriends, husbands, sons and grandsons. Opening with a silent shot of an infant being laid on a blanket, and proceeding sequentially in ascending order of age, the women sit in front of Wardrop’s immobile camera and talk, openly and honestly, about their experiences with the opposite sex. The women remain anonymous and unnamed and the stories they tell are stripped of context, other than what emerges in conversation. But even as they share social and geographical backgrounds, these women are discrete and individual. They might all be talking about the same thing, but the glory in the film is the infinite variety in the way in which the stories are related.

They are sometimes exasperated, sometimes funny and sometimes sweet. As the film progresses and the women grow older, a note of poignancy creeps in, enhanced by the sensitive photography from Michael Lavelle and Kate McCullough and Wardrop’s measured editing, which allows each vignette flow seamlessly into the next without ever being distractingly random. The images are beautifully underlined by an unobtrusive, melodic score from composer Denis Clohessy. The stories are connected by the form the film takes, entering the room through doors or staircases, sat on couches or easy chairs, the few exterior shots framed by views from kitchen windows.

His & Hers is not a discussion, or at least not formally. There is no interviewer apparent on the other side of the camera, so there is no further exploration. The film is what it is, a statement, a collection of memories and moments, dreams and desires. Wardrop makes a feature of the restrictiveness of his central conceit, opening up a world of honest emotion from what, in another’s hands, might be nothing more than a series of fireside homilies.

We hear about first loves and marriages, the births of children and the trials of raising noisy, messy sons. There are monologues about the intimacies of marriage, sharing hot water bottles, watching television, domestic routines and quotidian details. The key to happiness, one woman tells us, is separate laundry. There is pride, contentment and, at times, sad regret. The most touching moment arrives with a woman telling the story of how her husband passed away in her arms after a slow dance at a relative’s wedding. You’d need a heart of stone not to be moved by it.

Anyone who spends time in the picture house will grow fat and listless on a diet of ersatz emotion. When we are confronted with the real thing, it can be overwhelming but it is invigorating too. This is a special, beguiling film; human and sensitive, delicate and kind. You will walk from the cinema with a smile on your face, and call your mother.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

If Nicholas Cage is a little unhinged in Bad Lieutenant, Jake Gyllenhaal is literally climbing the walls as the acrobatic Prince of Persia in The Sands of Time, a breakneck adventure based on the 1990s video game.

Those of you prepared to read beyond the words “based on a video game” won’t be surprised to discover that Prince of Persia isn’t much of a film. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, is hoping to establish a new franchise in the vein of his multi-billion dollar Pirate of the Caribbean behemoth, and so fashions an old-fashioned quest from the same popcorn elements; swashbuckling action, bickering lovers, glittering special effects, exotic locations and a dash of the supernatural. It doesn't work.

Gyllenhaal, all hair extensions and enviable abdominals, plays the dashing hero Dastan, a street urchin adopted by the 6th Century Persian King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) and brought to live in his glittering palace. Raised alongside the King’s two princes, firebrand Tus (Richard Coyle) and the more level-headed Garsiv (Toby Kebbell), Dastan spends most of his time climbing walls and jumping over buildings in an ancient approximation of the modern sport of free-running.

When the King’s brother Nizam (Ben Kingsley) enlists the princes to lead an army against the city of Alamut, Dastan is determined to prove himself a brave hero and so hares off over the battlements in his inimitable style. In a not-so-subtle Iraq allegory, the city is suspected of hiding weapons of mass destruction but after a thorough search, the armaments cannot be found. Instead, Dastan discovers a magical dagger called The Sands of Time, which, at the press of a ruby button, shifts time backwards by a couple of seconds.

It’s not the kind of implement that will allow you to breakfast with cavemen but the ornamental blade is handy, if like Dastan, you need to sidestep a swooping scimitar, dodge a rain of arrows or what have you. When the king is assassinated with a cloak of fire and Dastan is wrongly accused of the murder, he goes on the run to clear his name. Rather, he goes on the hop, skip and jump. Along for the ride is the vaguely supernatural Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton), a kind of vestal virgin without the virgin who is charged with protecting the sacred, time-reversing knife. Together they cross the desert, encountering an ostrich-racing Sheik (Alfred Molina), a gang of milky-eyed Hashhashin killers and sundry other ornately-costumed threats.

In an effort to pad out the inherent scrawniness of a script built around a button-bashing game, the writers have thrown together a handful of one-dimensional character types to enact a one-directional quest, scattered with a series of sword-and-sandal clichés. Taken together, this hodgepodge procession of energetic incidents and special effects sequences is supposed to add up to a story, but it never does. Remove the state of the art visual effects and Prince of Persia would be indistinguishable from the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks version of The Thief of Baghdad, albeit without the same measure of charm or daring spectacle.

The direction, from Harry Potter’s Mike Newell, favours exposition over characterisation and feels leaden and perfunctory. The performances are adequate, but no better than that. Gyllenhaal has the physical presence but none of the charisma required. Artherton does better as the spunky princess, but has almost nothing to play against until Molina’s ostrich arrives. Prince of Persia has its moments but they are fleeting, eye-pleasing diversions in a running time that nudges against two hours and feels decidedly longer.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Abel Ferrara’s bleak 1992 cult classic Bad Lieutenant is remade by Werner Herzog under the clumsy title Port of Call: New Orleans, but where the original film was a punishingly grim descent into hell for star Harvey Keitel, this version has Nicholas Cage as the punishingly entertaining Terrence McDonagh, a New Orleans detective addicted to narcotics and gambling.

As the film opens, McDonagh and his partner (played by Val Kilmer) rescue a convict from a jail cell about to be inundated by the rising waters of Hurricane Katrina. Shortly afterwards, the detective, who is covering the pain of a back injury with copious amounts of illegal narcotics, is asked to investigate the bloody murder of a Senegalese family by a gang of drug-dealers, led by the flamboyant Big Fate (Alvin Xzibit Joiner). While he maintains the pretence of his day job, McDonagh is supplying his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes) with cocaine, is trying to reconcile his alcoholic father (Tom Bower) with his equally drunk wife (Jennifer Coolidge) and avoiding the increasingly frantic demands of his bookie (Brad Dourif), to whom he owes a lot of money. McDonagh’s transgressions are not limited to inhaling narcotics. He steals whatever he can, shakes down Frankie’s customers for drugs, hallucinates slithering iguanas and the break-dancing souls of the recently deceased and, finally, steps over to the wrong side of the law in making a deal with the smooth Big Fate.

Cage hasn’t been this much fun to watch since the early days of his career, in films like Vampire’s Kiss and Raising Arizona. He is truly off the rails in Bad Lieutenant, bursting with nervous energy, his eyes popping wide, limbs constantly in motion. It helps, of course, that his character really is out of his mind. Herzog directs the performance with consummate facility, allowing his star to run wild and collating the results into a jittery black comedy thriller.

Although Cage maintains his mania throughout, the imbalance his histrionics brings about leads to significant problems in the second half of the film. Having spent considerable time establishing McDonagh’s problems, Herzog resolves them all in one hyper-realistic scene, a rush of conclusions played out with a blankly theatrical flourish. It’s as if the cop’s mounting problems don’t matter, or if they do, they don’t matter to Herzog. The story, from William Finkelstein, is far less important than the performances. No-one else in the cast can match Cage, but it doesn’t matter. His wild, untrammelled act turns the film into a one-man show. Despite these narrative bumps, or perhaps because of them, this version of Bad Lieutenant is a dark and devious delight, an anarchist film noir that seems, at times, almost as unhinged as its protagonist.

Hilary Swank & The Reaping

[My buddy John McKenna made the point that all the interviews I've posted on-line to date have been with male actors or directors. This 2007 interview with Hilary Swank, albeit for the tepid horror film The Reaping, is intended as a first step towards correcting that imbalance.]

As one of the primary repositories of supernatural stories in our culture, it’s not surprising that the Bible has so often provided filmmakers with their inspiration, particularly when the ancient scribes arranged the juiciest bits in neat sequences, like the mortal sins in Se7en, the splashy gore of Stigmata or the ten plagues of Egypt, a gruesome succession of afflictions which form the basis of the spooky new Hilary Swank psychological thriller The Reaping.

It’s been raining heavily for days, leading to a suitably biblical flood coursing through the narrow streets of Barcelona. Although I managed to jump the deeper puddles on my way to meet with Swank, the cuffs of my pants are dripping into my shoes as I sit waiting for her to join me. No such discomfort for the actress, who wanders in wearing a floor-length grey silk gown, red carpet style, her brown hair lifted off her angular face and a discreet but very sparkly diamond in each ear. In the movie Swank plays Katherine Winter, a former Christian missionary who lost her faith after her family was killed and has since devoted herself to studying and rationally disproving religious phenomena. When she is called upon to investigate strange events in a small Southern town called Haven, where the river has turned to blood and there’s been a rain of frogs, she gets caught up in a mystery that causes her to question again her lost faith, and challenges her notions of science. The first question, the most obvious one, is she religious herself? “That is the most obvious question, isn’t it, but I have to say I’m more of a spiritual person than someone who is part of any church, you know. I was never baptised or anything like that but I do believe in a higher power.”

“I wanted to do this film because I had never read anything like it before. The script was a real page tuner, and the ending caught me by surprise, which doesn’t happen that often. When it came to sitting down with the director, Steven Hopkins, he had me read Exodus, the part of the Bible that deal with the ten plagues of Egypt because that was our inspiration, but I have never read the whole thing. I also read some of the books that are out there about those people whose job it is to travel the world and perform a scientific analysis of myths and miracles and strange phenomena. Almost every miraculous event out there has a rational explanation, so a lot of the time it’s a question of being able to make a leap of faith, to accept that there can be a rational and irrational answer. We know how the sun shines but that doesn’t make it any less amazing”.

In one of the film’s best moments, Swank’s character gives a rational and reasonable scientific explanation for each of the ten plagues and how the effects of one led on to another. “When I read that part of the script, I thought it was a really interesting monologue that gave the scientific side of a historical story and an insight into how Katherine’s mind works; how she rationalises the events around her and forms logical connections”. I mention to her that right now there’s a case of an Italian nun who believes that writing the name of the late Pope John Paul II on a scrap of paper cured her of Parkinson’s Disease. “I haven’t heard about that but I am certain that for all the people who are making the case for divine intervention, there are people working to disprove it. That’s how it goes. Before we did the movie, I read a lot of copies of a magazine called The Sceptical Enquirer, which opened my eyes to these strange and weird things in the world. I’m fascinated by those things that are outside our normal experiences and I am definitely more of a believer than a sceptic and doing this movie didn’t change my views on that. If I sit and think about where I come from, and where I am now, I’d have to believe in miracles”. She laughs but she isn’t joking.

Swank was raised in a trailer park on the outskirts of a small rural town in Washington state, a tough upbringing that became even more difficult after her parents divorce. Although she showed promise as a gymnast, she was bitten by the acting bug early. “I knew I wanted to be since I was nine years old. I had a teacher who had us all write and perform a little skit before the class and something came alive inside of me. I loved it and even though I was very young and didn’t exactly come from a place where people could have those kind of ambitions, I knew I had found my calling, you know, the thing you are supposed to do in life”.

Years of junior theatre led to Swank and her mother moving to Los Angeles in the early 1990s, where they lived in their car until they could afford the rent on an apartment. Small roles in sit-coms and bit parts in movies led to a couple of months on Beverly Hills 90210. At the end of the season, her contract wasn’t renewed but her newfound confidence led to her securing what would become a breakout role as the gender-swapping Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry and her first Oscar. Another followed in 2004 when she played waitress turned boxer Maggie in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. Swank was just 30 years of age. “When I was a teenage actor, I’d see those people who won Oscars on TV and think, wow, that will change their lives, but that isn’t the reality. Although I do get offered more projects and have more opportunities as an actor, for which I am grateful, my life is more or less the same. I go home at night, like everybody else and I have the same ups and downs, the same challenges and the same obstacles I had before. People also have this impression that because of success, I don’t have to work as hard anymore, which is just crazy. There is so much more I want to learn, and working with great actors and directors gives me that opportunity”.

With a film like The Reaping, a flashy, spooky horror movie from Joel Silver’s Dark Castle franchise, Swank is certainly looking for new horizons. I ask her if she found if difficult to adapt to a very different kind of filmmaking, one that relies on special effects and computer generated imagery to support the storytelling. “Well, I didn’t have a lot of experience with special effects and really nothing like this, so I was relieved when I got on set and found that Steven had a lot of practical elements there for us to work off of. We didn’t use all that much blue-screen, add-it-later stuff. We shot everything on location in Baton Rouge in Louisiana and on the day there would be a way to make the effect more real for us as actors. Like in the scene with the locusts, where you see hundreds of thousands of these locusts invading the house, we had maybe two thousand there on the day. They were big suckers too, with a lot of legs. If it’s true that acting has a lot to do with re-acting, you know, that was not a problem. In that scene, when I get covered in locusts and get up and start thrashing about, there weren’t any insects on me, and I’ve never personally been covered in bugs, so I had to imagine it”. She throws her arms up in the air, thrashes her head around and lets out a mock scream. “I call it ‘sandbox acting’ because it’s like a child using its imagination at play time. It’s obviously ridiculous and if you were standing around watching, you’d think I had lost my mind, but you have to commit to it and just do it”.

Swank spent a couple of months at the end of last year in Dublin filming with Richard La Gravense on the adaptation of Celia Ahearn’s blockbuster novel PS I Love You. Swank claps her hands together and smiles a very big smile when I ask her about her experiences on the movie, which is set for release in the autumn. “Oh, I loved every minute of it, she sighs . “I was drawn to it in the first place because it is a beautiful, sweet romantic comedy and, like The Reaping, that’s different to any movie I had done before. But it gave me the chance to work with a great cast, like Gerry Butler, who is just gorgeous, Kathy Bates who plays my mom and Lisa Kurdow is my best friend. Isn’t that great? It’s one of those movies, the kind of movies I love, where you just laugh through the tears, you know?” I nod encouragingly but maybe a little unconvincingly. “Well, you probably don’t know, but it reminded me of what is really important in life, to hold onto the people you hold dear and not take them for granted, because you just never know what’s going to happen tomorrow”.