The Best & Worst of 2011

The approaching change in the calendar brings with it the irresistible urge to look back over the year and compile a list of the best, and worst, films of 2011. I have listed my favourites in no particular order but if I must pick one above all the others, it would be Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, as entrancing as it was baffling. 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 Best Films of 2011

The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick tackles life, the universe and everything with his semi-autobiographical, epoch-spanning film about a boy growing up in 1950s Texas, by way of the Big Bang. Poetic, spectacular and only occasionally overblown, there was enough food for thought to serve whole banquets of leftovers in the weeks that followed. At least there was for me.
David Michôd’s Australian crime drama was a masterful examination of a gangster family collapsing under the weight of their own corruption, with a superb performance from Jacki Weaver as the Machiavellian grandmother.

Take Shelter
Better than von Trier’s overblown Melancholia, writer-director Jeff Nichols and his intense star Michael Shannon tell a low-key, anxious story of a man plagued by visions of an impending apocalypse. It captures the unsettled global zeitgeist better than any other film this year.

Top notch performances from Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis anchored Darren Aronofsky’s wildly melodramatic study of a ballet dancer disintegrating while preparing for her role in a production of Swan Lake.

On the surface, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest was a lurid melodrama about the extremes of body modification, but beneath the shocks and twists lies a masterfully told story about guilt, identity, obsession and redemption.

The Coen Brothers’ fascination with the tropes of the American Western comes to a natural conclusion with this vastly entertaining horse opera, featuring a breakout performance from newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.

The Guard
John Michael McDonagh’s hilarious black comedy was the most invigorating Irish film of the year, with an indelible performance from Brendan Gleeson as a devil-may-care rural Guard.
Tomas Alfredson, director of 2009s best film Let the Right One In, brought a new atmosphere of damp and decay to his adaptation of John Le Carre’s classic spy novel aided by a stellar cast, especially Gary Oldman as the meticulous George Smiley.

More than a decade after Audition prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike finds the same masterful touch with the chanbara genre as he did with horror, and almost did with all the westerns, romantic comedies, noir thrillers and cannibal musicals he's filled the time with since. His remake of Kudo's 1963 film is an instant samurai classic; boldly told and beautifully visualised without the use of computer effects.

Asif Kapadia told the story of Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna through a masterfully assembled flow of television footage and home movies. In a fine year for documentary (which included Project Nim, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Knuckle) Senna was the stand-out. 

Very Nearly Great: Drive, Kill List, The Fighter, Poetry, Bridesmaids, Knuckle, Cold Fish, We Need To Talk About Kevin, I Saw The Devil.

The Worst Films of 2011

Matthew McConaughey had three films released in 2011 but none of them made it over here. So this year's Worst list was short three places, for about ten seconds. "We make a lot of shitty movies", a guy called Ron Meyer said in November. He's the president of Universal Studios. 7 of the 10 top-grossing films at the US box office in 2011 were sequels. The other three were remakes, of one stripe or another. Five of those seven sequels were actually three-quels, or more.

The Green Lantern
The mucoid green colour palette was the most appealing element of this disastrous superhero film.

Once more unto the breech for Johnny Depp and his accountants in Disney’s hyperextended franchise installment which was as loud and obnoxious as it was boring.

Larry Crowne
Say it ain't so, Tom Hanks. This is one of those movies Ron Meyer was talking about.

Jim Sheridan’s hopelessly muddled, haphazard and half-hearted haunted house horror wasted the talents of Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, and the time of anyone unlucky enough to watch it. Another one of Ron's.

Greg Araki’s sexual soap opera gets top marks for daring and no marks for everything else.

Cars 2
An unrequested sequel to their weakest film and Pixar’s first real turkey, Cars 2 was little more than a cynical exercise in merchandising.

Zach Snyder’s lingerie-scattered CGI fantasy was dumb, derivative and fatally creepy.
Empty vessels make the most noise and there are few in Hollywood quite as resoundingly hollow as Michael Bay. A deafening digital dirge, the extra dimension here isn’t depth of field but brain-melting stupidity. And Shia LaBeouf is fast becoming the new Matthew McConaughey.

The Three Musketeers 3D
More 3D slops with this foolish fantasy that gives Dumas’ classic swashbucker an unnecessary contemporary spit-and-polish.

Your Highness
David Gordon Green’s comic slacker fantasia had a decent cast and a promising idea but floundered on a limp screenplay which didn’t include any funny jokes. A little Danny McBride goes a long way.

I spent most of the year reading Patrick O'Brian's outstanding 20-volume Master & Commander series, which didn't leave a lot of time for movie books - but the most entertaining cinema read of the year was Brian Kellow's biography of film critic Pauline Kael, A Life In The Dark; which spurred me into re-reading some of Kael's collected criticism, among them Going Steady, I Lost It At The Movies and Raising Kane and other essays. All superb (Raising Kane in particular contains a thrilling idea on almost every page) but more than 20 years after I first picked up one of her collections, I find I still don't agree with her half the time.


Growing up in New York’s Queens district in the late 1940s, Martin Scorsese was a sickly child, often bedridden by asthma. He couldn’t play in the streets, so his parents began to bring him to the local cinemas, where he immersed himself in the fantastical worlds created by Howard Hawks and Michael Powell; brightly-lit places where nobody wheezed.

Now, decades later, Scorsese makes his first children’s film with Hugo, an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s best-selling illustrated book The Invention Of Hugo Cabret; the story of a lonely child saved from abandonment by the magic of movies. It is a film that the young Scorsese would have loved, one that captures the enduring draw of cinema, old and new, in a fantasy about dreams, adventures, family and inventions.

Using the latest 3D technology for the first time, Scorsese’s Hugo opens with a panoramic sweep of a glittering Paris that tracks all the way into the tiny crevices in the walls of a train station where Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives among the steaming pipes. An orphan since the death of his clockmaker father (Jude Law in cameo), Hugo lives in the spaces between the walls of the station, surviving alone on whatever he can scavenge as he keeps all the station clocks wound and in good order while dodging the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a martinet in knee-high boots and a kepi

Hugo’s only remaining connection to his father is a mysterious metal automaton, a moving sculpture of a man with a pen, that he is trying to repair using the scattered cogs and wheels he finds among the machinery. That obsessive quest for gears leads Hugo to a confrontation with the bitter old man (Ben Kingsley) who runs a toy shop in a quiet corner of the station, who confiscates the boy’s treasured notebook and makes him work in order to return it. The old man also has a granddaughter of about Hugo’s age named Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) whose free-spirited quest for adventure has been encouraged by the books she borrows from the crammed bookshop run by M. Labisse (Christopher Lee at his most crepuscular). When Isabelle’s derring-do leads Hugo to discover an important component for his automaton, the two adventurers join forces to uncover a long-forgotten secret that throws new light on who her grandfather really is, or once was, following a course that takes them back to George Méliés and the birth of cinema itself.

Scorsese’s 3D experiment is visually flawless but the new technology brings with it a requirement to expand the frame with a series of overly frantic chases as Baron Cohen and his massive dog pursue Hugo through the train station, tripping over an entire company of underutilised British actors including Richard Griffiths, Frances De La Tour and Emily Mortimer. As adapted by John Logan (who scripted Scorsese’s The Aviator) Hugo’s story elements fit together like the well-oiled machinery that so commands the boy’s imagination. The performances, however, are as broad and inconsistent as those of the silent cinema that Scorsese adores, with the young duo appearing, at times, to be over-directed to the point where their natural liveliness is quelled to allow the camera sweep around them.

Dream House

Director Jim Sheridan finds himself deep in arrears with Dream House, a daft and derivative haunted house horror that falls some way short of its top-of-the-market valuation.

As the story opens, literary editor Will Atenton (Daniel Craig) has resigned from his job at a New York publishing house to spend more time with his family; wife Libby (Rachel Weisz) and their two young daughters, Trish and Deedee (sisters Taylor and Claire Astin Geare). Will has moved the family to a big house with a big lawn somewhere deep in the suburbs, where he is hoping the change of air and newfound quiet will help him complete his first novel, now just a tangle of scribbled false starts. With Libby giving the house a lick of paint and the two children busy exploring, everything is going well until Will has a run in with their scowling next-door neighbour Jack (Marton Csokas), divorced from Ann (Naomi Watts) and fighting for custody for their daughter Chloe (Rachel Fox).

Unsettled, Will returns to the house only to find his daughters have started seeing a sinister hooded figure in the snowbound woods and Libby has discovered eerie echoes of the house’s former inhabitants; pencil marks on a door jamb recording the children’s heights and an abandoned playroom, filled with tattered toys. The first sign of real trouble comes when Will, woken from sleep, has to chase a gang of ludicrously over-enunciated punk teenagers from his basement where they were holding a candlelit vigil for the previous inhabitants, a slaughtered family whose ghosts are said to haunt his home. This is news to Will, of course, but not to anyone who has seen The Shining, or any of the dozens of films that followed in Kubrick’s wake.

To say any more would spoil the remaining hour of Dream House, although if you have seen the two-minute trailer, the studio’s marketing people have already done that for you. The second half of the film focuses tightly on Craig’s increasingly craggy face as he starts the not-so difficult process of putting together the puzzle that the house presents, while coming to terms with a severe case of buyer’s remorse. The local police are no help but Will finds a local doctor with a scratchy surveillance tape who, between pauses and rewinds, carefully spells out Will’s part in the mystery and with it, the rest of the story.

From that mid-way point, Dream House implodes into a long parade of misjudged scenes, over-emphatic exposition, clumsy set-pieces and tacked-on special-effects sequences as the players grind out a denouement that we have already been told. The film is a mess but the real mystery is not what secrets the house might hold but why a pedigree cast and a supremely talented director saw any merit in David Loucka’s limply convoluted, unambitious screenplay. Craig does what he can to make his collection of tics and trembles into a convincing character but is continuously wrong-footed by the tissue-thin supporting characters. Weisz’s role as the dutiful wife is anaemically underwritten while Watts and Csokas struggle with momentary parts that require them to fix an expression – baffled blankness or stink-eyed menace, respectively – and stick to it.

Sheridan, a gifted storyteller once he has a story worth telling, proves a poor match for this sort of tepid genre material. Reportedly unhappy with the results and not having control over the final cut of the finished film, the director threatened to take his name off the project unless he was allowed extensive reshoots. The extra effort wasn’t worth it, with Sheridan unable to find any traction with the script’s mishmash of hackneyed inspirations and crucially, never generating anything resembling a moment of genuine dread or suspense. The film aimlessly switches between timelines and tones as the story collapses into splinters. In film, as in architecture, a lasting construction requires deep foundations.


I know nothing at all about baseball and even less about statistics but I was enthralled by Bennett Miller’s stirring adaptation of Michael Lewis’ 2003 non-fiction book Moneyball; a film about how America’s national sport was transformed not by a talented new player or an inspirational manager but by a guy with a spreadsheet.

Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, a retired baseball player who, after failing to fulfil his promise on the field, became the general manager of the impoverished Oakland Athletics, who are struggling in the Major League. Beane’s already desperate situation becomes even more hopeless when, just before the start of the 2002 season, the owner of the club sells three of his star players. After a fruitless search for replacements, hampered by a dwindling salary budget, Beane meets and is impressed by a pudgy Yale economics graduate named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) who proposes a new formula for sporting success.

With his thick glasses and sheen of sweat, even when sat at his computer, Brand is nobody’s idea of an athlete but he has developed a statistical analysis that values players based on their core competencies. In short, Brand argues, an ordinary player who can be relied on to do what is required a certain percentage of the time is worth more than a naturally skilful player who will do something extraordinary once in a while. Brand hasn’t reached his conclusions by watching a lot of baseball; he absorbs reams of statistics that tell him what combination of players will produce the most runs and stop the other team from scoring. The Corinthian spirit of sport doesn’t enter into the equation; success is all about the data. It sounds simple, but Brand’s theories are revolutionary in a sport that still clings to heart-warming notions of soul and tradition. Burrowing into the depths of his computer, Brand emerges with a ragtag squad of seemingly washed-up players that can fit in the new system and, more importantly, the team can afford to buy. Beane has tried it the old way and it hasn’t worked. He’s ready to try anything.

Despite vehement objections from his backroom staff, Beane hires the players the computer has selected, including a pitcher with an unorthodox throw Chad Bradford (Casey Bond) and Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), whose injuries have left him with no feeling in his left arm. Beane’s taciturn team manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is baffled into near silence but sure enough, the team starts to win. And then they can’t stop winning.

Director Bennett Miller and his screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian cut through the complications of the sport itself, and Brand’s mathematical formulas, to tell a sharp, simple story about a mismatched pair of underdogs, the gung-ho jock and the deadpan boffin, who beat an unfair game. Beane is the former baseball prodigy still frustrated by never quite making it as a star while Brand is the smartest kid in the room, whose genius with numbers goes unappreciated. The chemistry between this decidedly odd couple carries the film as they struggle to form a working language somewhere between macho maxims and mind-bending mathematics. It’s a fine comedy double act, perfectly pitched. As the season is played out in a combination of archive television footage and convincing reconstructions, we learn more about Pitt’s Beane. A maverick loner, divorced from his wife (Robin Wright) and seemingly friendless, Miller’s attempts to give Beane a fully rounded character fall prey to sentimentalism at times but even a couple of dewy-eyed songs from his guitar-strumming daughter (Kerris Dorsey), can’t dent Pitt’s fine performance.

Like last year’s The Social Network, also written by Sorkin, Moneyball turns an unlikely subject into something fascinating; an All-American fable about the value of innovation, trusting in instinct and beating the odds.

Wuthering Heights

An audacious but ultimately inert attempt to revitalise Emily Brontë’s much-adapted 1847 Gothic novel Wuthering Heights for a new generation, Andrea Arnold’s gritty film shares strands of DNA with Cary Fukunaga’s recent Jane Eyre in framing a historical fiction in an ultra-realistic physical and emotional landscape.

Forget notions of Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon striding across a sound-stage moor. This is not your grandfather’s Wuthering Heights. Opening with images of a rain-soaked, wind-swept Yorkshire, Arnold takes us inside the drab eponymous farmhouse where young teenager Cathy Earnshaw (played first by newcomer Shannon Beer and later by Kaya Scodelario) lives with her stern father (Paul Hinton) and cruel older brother Hindley (Lee Shaw). One night, the father returns from town with a stranger, a young black escaped slave who he takes into the house as an act of charity. Although her first reaction is to spit on the bedraggled young man, Cathy and Heathcliff (Solomon Glave, and later, newcomer James Howson) soon become friends. 

She teaches him to speak English, sitting patiently with him as he struggles to speak or wandering the muddy hills, watching the birds. Heathcliff is treated as a member of the family, but when Mr Earnshaw dies and Hindley inherits the farm, the youngster is reduced to the level of a servant and sent to live in an outhouse, where a hatred for the people who once praised themselves for their good work festers. Heathcliff continues to feel close to Cathy, a free-spirited, bright girl, even when she is encouraged to spend time with their wealthy neighbours the Lintons, forming a bond with their eldest son that might result in a beneficial marriage. Years later, the connection that formed between the young teenagers will return to damage both of them in tragic ways.

Working from a script by Olivia Hetreed (who previously adapted Tracy Chevalier's Girl With A Pearl Earring), Arnold deserves respect for radically reinterpreting a classic novel, coming at the familiar story from a new perspective of gender, race and class division. Taking her lead from Brontë’s description of Heathcliff as “a dark-skinned gypsy”, the director has, for the first time, cast a black actor as the anti-hero, a novel touch that quickly becomes irrelevant; Glave and later, Howson, give performances that are far deeper than the colour of their skin. But the same cannot be said for the rest of the cast who, typically for Arnold, are made up of a combination of professional and non-professional actors. 

The film’s greatest weakness lies in the fact that the story does not survive the mid-way switch between younger and older characters, the later players being unable to match the emotional honesty of the first half, despite the story’s intricate complications being laid out in an unerringly straight line. There is little dialogue, with the characters speaking in an odd blend of archaic and modern language, a distracting touch that sits uneasily with the director’s carefully crafted naturalism and cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s tactile and immediate images. Nimbly photographed in a free-form hand-held style, interspersed with tightly framed images of decomposing nature, dead animals and rotting fruit, Wuthering Heights is a chilly, curiously lifeless film; over-considered, over-extended and ultimately, underwhelming.


Writer and director Tom Hall’s droll and daring Irish sex comedy Sensation is the coming of age story of a timid Limerick farmer who meets a New Zealand call girl, falls in love for the first time and learns something about how the world works.

Opening with a scene where lonely, mid-twenties Donal (Domhnall Gleeson) masturbates in a field while his flock of sheep look on, bemused, Hall sets a confidently complicated tone pitched somewhere between comedy and tragedy. Returning to the farmhouse, Donal finds his widowed father dead on the stair-lift and, having buried the old man with due reverence, immediately sets about spending his inheritance on sex. Using the internet handle "sweetdick", virginal Donal books an appointment with Courtney (Luanne Gordon), a call girl in the city, who arrives on a house-call to the farm and stays the night. Smitten and sated, Donal makes breakfast the next morning as Courtney explains that she is in fact Kim, a wandering Kiwi who fell into sex work during her time in London and now works independently from an apartment in Limerick city.

Soon, Donal and Kim's relationship has moved from strictly service-client into something more enduring, and endearing. Too long living under the strict gaze of his father, whose notions of sexual relationships are medieval at best, Donal is ready to experience something of life. Flush with cash, he sees the potential when Kim explains her long-held ambition to open her own escort service. The two join forces. He sells his flock of sheep and makes plans with the local property developer Liam (Owen Roe) to unload the land while Kim goes about recruiting some young women. With Kim providing the know-how and Donal putting up the money, they rent an apartment, launch a website and wait for the customers to arrive. Donal’s only friend, the otherwise idle Karl (newcomer Patrick Ryan) volunteers to work the door, providing both the apartment and Donal with the illusion of security.
Operating as discreetly as is possible in a small community, they start receiving clients and making money but emotions soon get in the way. Having gained some gumption by his exposure to the worldly Kim, Donal is transformed into a better groomed, sharper dressed and more confident young man, no longer tongue-tied around pretty shop-assistant Melanie (Kelly Campbell) and able to stand up to Roe’s sleazy huckster as he tries to hustle him into a bad deal for the farm. But Donal’s late-arriving loss of innocence doesn’t include any instruction on how to deal with relationships and as quickly as they came together, Donal and Kim find themselves drifting apart.

“This isn’t Pretty Woman”, Kim says in a heated moment, and she’s right. Sensation isn’t a glamorised story of outlaw entrepreneurship or a how-to-guide for budding sex-workers, but rather a faintly desperate story of rural isolation and social unease, where the overriding emotion is repression and shame. What prevents the straightforward story from slipping into simplicity interesting are the superb performances from the entire cast, with Gleeson proving he can carry a movie on his own and Gordon providing a convincing mix of brittleness and sensitivity. Credibly played and intelligently scripted, Sensation is a curious film (not least because Irish cinema rarely addresses sex as a theme), but one that will reward a enquiring audience.

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of The Unicorn

The life’s work of Belgian illustrator Georges Remi (whose nom de plume was Hergé), the Tintin comic series – originally published in French between 1929 and 1976 – has evolved in the intervening decades into a multi-billion euro business that includes dozens of international translations and more than 200 million sales, animated television series and films, two live action movies and even a dedicated museum in a Brussels suburb. A mysteriously youthful journalist with an even more inexplicable tuft of ginger hair, together with his devoted dog Snowy, Tintin resolutely follows his nose for a story as it takes him around the world, solving mysteries, exposing villains and engaging in swashbuckling adventures.

Now, thirty years after he first secured the film rights, Steven Spielberg has joined forces with fellow producer and director Peter Jackson to add a new chapter to Tintin’s tales, grafting state of the art 3D performance-capture technologies onto a characteristically fast-paced, globe-trotting treasure hunt, The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of The Unicorn. After a sweetly animated opening credits sequence, which outlines the story to follow in abstract vignettes, we first meet baby-faced Tintin (Jamie Bell) as he is getting his caricature painted in a Brussels street market. As he pockets the artist’s familiar line-drawing, Tintin’s attention is drawn to a complex model of a 17th century sailing ship called The Unicorn. Having bought the model for a couple of pounds, Tintin is buttonholed by the sinister Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who offers to buy the ship from him, at any price. Despite being warned of dire consequences if the model is not restored to the original owners, Tintin declines to sell it on and is quickly drawn into an intrigue involving a vast treasure lost at sea centuries before, when a certain Captain Haddock’s ship was sacked by the dread pirate Red Rackham (also played by Craig).

With the only clue to the origins of the treasure stolen by a pick-pocket, who is in turn pursued by bumbling detectives Thompson & Thompson (Simon Pegg & Nick Frost), Tintin is kidnapped by Sakharine’s goons and thrown in the hold of a steam ship, hijacked from the grizzled Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), the only surviving descendant of the doubloon-losing original. Teaming up with the whiskey-soaked skipper, Tintin undertakes a daring mission to solve the mystery, taking in shipwrecks, plane-crashes, swashbuckling duels and dangerous feats of derring-do.

Spielberg’s first animated feature film is, essentially, a throwback to his original Indiana Jones trilogy, a slapdash, rip-roaring adventure that balances the stirring romance of old-fashioned serial adventures with the limitless toy-box of slick modern computer-generated imagery. In a succession of dazzling set-pieces, the director takes full advantage of the total freedom offered by the computerised medium but the script from British talents Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, values complicated action and a breakneck pace above the solid basics of character, wit and progress. The big set-pieces are exquisitely handled but the human details are found wanting. Tintin, in short, remains a rather dull fellow (even for a Belgian), dependant on the supporting cast of colourful caricatures and the curiously weightless stunt sequences to give him life.

Even with his bank of computers and an army of highly-skilled technicians (the end credits run a full eight minutes) Spielberg doesn’t quite match what Hergé managed with pen and ink. The first in a proposed trilogy, a cliff hanger ending sets up the next installment, to be directed by Jackson.

We Need To Talk About Kevin

After almost a decade of silence, Scottish director Lynne Ramsay is back with a bang with an exquisitely realised adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s bestselling novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, the story of a mother who must clean up the dreadful mess left behind when her psychopathic son commits mass murder at his school.

The film opens with a long overture as Eva (Tilda Swinton, superb) is hoisted aloft among a writhing mass of bodies at the Tomatina festival in Spain. The screen fills with red (the colour Ramsay uses throughout as a touchstone), a chill foreshadowing the bloody events to come. Free-spirited Eva has travelled the world as a writer, a career that comes to a stop when she meets the faintly gormless Franklin (John C Reilly) and settles down in New York. They marry and shortly afterwards, she gives birth to Kevin. A fussy, noisy baby, Kevin cannot settle in the city so the family move to the suburbs. It doesn’t help. Eva cannot connect with Kevin (brilliantly played as a malevolent imp by Jasper Newell), who seems intent on destroying the house and breaking up the family. 

Kevin is uncontrollable and unteachable. He refuses to be potty trained. He destroys his toys and smears paint on the walls. He seems to have an innate gift for playing his parents off of one another, convincing his oblivious father that everything is fine while openly mocking his despairing mother. Time passes but things do not improve. At the age of fifteen (and now played by Ezra Miller), Kevin is an intelligent young man but he is isolated from his peers and sneeringly cynical. He spends his days online, alone in his unnervingly neat bedroom. One unexceptional morning, he leaves the house, never to return.

This is not a film about a school shooting, not really. We are never witness to precisely what Kevin does; Ramsay distils Shriver’s wordy novel to shift focus onto the consequences of his actions for his family, Eva in particular. WNTTAK is a film about blood, the blood bond between mother and son, the blood he spills through his actions, the blood that still runs through Eva's dreams. Vilified by the community, she must live out the rest of her days in purgatory. She will always be the mother of the boy that massacred his classmates, somehow just as culpable as if she had committed the crime herself. How can she carry on? Was Kevin just a bad seed, a statistical anomaly, or did Eva have a hand in making him into a monster

As Ramsay switches back and forth in time, Eva endlessly replays the story of Kevin’s life, haunted by her own conscience as she continues to question and doubt herself, her marriage and her future. The director never settles the question, leaving it to Swinton’s extraordinary face to fill in the blanks in what is an exceptionally intimate and brittle performance, present in almost every scene and actively filtering her own tortured conscience. The film’s other great strength is Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s beautiful photography; delicately composed, strikingly severe and washed again and again in tones of crimson red.

Midnight In Paris

Even as Woody Allen’s star has waxed and waned in the last decade, he has always been adored in France. For his 41st film, the writer and director consummates this love affair for Midnight In Paris, a warm and funny fantasy about the eternal allure of the City of Light. Allen's valentine opens with a montage of postcard-pretty shots of boulevards wet by recent rain and an upbeat jazzy score as Owen Wilson explains, in his unmistakable Texan twang, how the French capital is one of the most exciting cities in the world. Wilson’s Gil is a Hollywood screenwriter whose only regret is that he didn’t stay in Paris years ago, when he had the chance, and hone his skills as a novelist. Instead, he returned to Los Angeles and became a hired hack for the movies, successful but unfulfilled.

Now returned on holiday with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her wealthy parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), Gil has fallen in love with Paris again. Looking for inspiration for his debut novel about a man who runs a nostalgia shop, Gil has taken to walking the streets in the rain, soaking in the city’s unique ambience (although Allen has somehow scoured the place of graffiti and his characters never once step in dog mess or get lost on the Metro). While her fiancée wanders aimlessly around the city, the much less enthusiastic Inez goes shopping for pricey antiques with her snippy mother and tours the galleries and museums with her old friends, pompous know-it-all Paul (an amusingly unbearable Michael Sheen) and his simpering wife Carol (Nina Arianda).

Gil can’t stand them. One evening, after a wine tasting, he takes another solo walk around the city. Slightly drunk, he takes a rest on a church steps as a clock strikes midnight. A vintage Peugeot drives up and the equally inebriated occupants beckon him into the car. They drive him off to a party where everyone appears to be dressed in vintage clothes and – the first clue that something is amiss – are smoking indoors. To his astonishment, Gil finds that he has somehow been dragged back through time to the era between the world wars, a time when exiled American writers and artists were drawn to the bohemian city. He has a wide-eyed chat with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), shares a bottle of wine with Ernest Hemmingway (Corey Stoll) and gets a tutorial on writing from Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates).

While passing an hour in Stein’s art-filled studio, he meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a fashion designer who has been lover and muse to a series of artists, including Picasso and Modigliani. He falls in love, not only with the beautiful girl but with everything: the people, their ideas, the time and the place. They are so much more exciting than real life in 2010, with its blowhards and braggarts. So he returns again and again to his magical spot, where he can listen for the chimes and step into the past.

If Paris is the real star of the film, Wilson’s charming performance is the key to its considerable appeal. Gil is so awed by meeting his heroes, so excited about the possibility of interacting with genius, his enthusiasm radiates off the screen. Allen has considered the allure of history before, in films like Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo, exploring the notion that the past always seems much more vibrant and consistent than the time his characters live in. This time, the director uses the concept of time travel to explore Gil’s unease at his contemporary situation, inextricably tied to McAdams’ shallow wife-to-be, despised by her snooty parents and trapped in a job whose rewards are only financial. He is out of sorts and out of place, so why not go somewhere he can feel more at ease? But the more time he spends in the past, the less he wants to return to the present.

Allen doesn’t offer any explanations for his magical time-slip, instead using the caprice as a platform for his unassuming hero to interact with a parade of legends in cameo, including Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali, Tom Cordier as Man Ray and Sonia Rolland as Joséphine Baker. The sole awkward misstep in Allen's otherwise graceful fantasy is a moment where Gil meets the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel and pitches him an idea for a movie where the guests at a swanky dinner party find themselves unable to leave. In a throwaway scene, Gil goes from being a fortunate witness to history to actively offering his heroes tips on how to do the very things he admires them for doing.

For a long time, it seemed that Allen was so bereft of inspiration he might have taken the wittering of an oddly-dressed visitor from the future to heart. How else would you explain Cassandra's Dream, a film whose time we can only hope will never come. With Midnight in Paris, the director puts a stop to a long run of deeply mediocre films, making the most of a dazzling, fun idea and a cast on top form.


It’s the end of the world as we know it and nobody feels fine in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, the Danish provocateur’s take on the apocalypse which blends soaring celestial special effects with gloomy, earthy melodrama.

As with von Trier’s previous film, the punishing morality play Anti-Christ, Melancholia opens with an eight-minute overture; a collection of slow-motion tableaux set to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. We see glimpses of the story to come as a woman in a wedding dress floats impassively down a stream, in a nod to Millais’ Ophelia, or stands in a field as blue electricity sparks from her fingertips. Birds fall from the sky as a staring horse collapses in a heap. We see another woman drag a young boy across a golf course, a look of anguish in her face as she sinks up to her ankles in the suddenly boggy ground. And we see the cosmos, a black sheet of stars against which von Trier places the Earth and the newly-discovered planet Melancholia, as they glide inexorably towards one another.

The rest of the film is divided into two sections of more-or-less equal length. The first chapter, reminiscent of von Trier’s friend and Dogme 95 collaborator Thomas Winterberg’s caustic family drama Festen, opens with the woman in the bridal dress, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her newlywed husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), sitting in a stretch limousine as it attempts to negotiate a winding driveway. They are hours late for their own reception at a palatial hotel, hosted by Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who lives there with her wealthy husband Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) and young son. As the wedding party sits to eat a long-delayed meal, von Trier slowly reveals deep divisions between the other family members, especially the sister’s divorced parents, their gadfly father (John Hurt) and cantankerous mother (Charlotte Rampling). Justine works in advertising and her slimy boss (Stellan Skarsgård) hovers at her shoulder like a wasp, pressuring her to deliver a new slogan for a fashion campaign. The only glimpses of humour are the barbed asides from the despairing wedding planner, played with a sniff by Udo Kier. As the evening wears on, Justine’s behaviour becomes increasingly strange as she falls prey to anxiety, doubt and paranoia. The evening ends in disaster, of no consequence when set against the impending apocalypse, but disaster nonetheless.

A few weeks later, the second chapter sees Justine’s depression evolve into a complete nervous collapse. Slumped and unresponsive, Claire moves her sister into the mansion to look after her. Isolated from the rest of the world and, for some reason, unable to cross a bridge to get into town, the three adults and one child rattle around the house as the planet Melancholia makes its relentless way towards Earth. Amateur astronomist Jack believes the scientists, who say the galactic interloper will pass harmlessly by. Justine and Claire trust their instinct, which tells them that the sky is falling down and that the ever-growing blue ball in the sky will signal the end of everything.

Melancholia is not quite on the same level of cruelty as Anti-Christ but, as a companion piece, it carries the same dread air of awkward manipulation and tiresome fatalism. Von Trier crashes planets together but I never felt the earth move, despite a brave and compelling performance from Dunst (who won the Best Actress award at Cannes even as the director was expelled from the festival for making boorish remarks about Jews and Nazis). Compare von Trier’s thesis on the end of time with the graceful expression of its beginnings in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Malick sees the glory and wonder in creation and displays it like a treasure, while von Trier looks at the same world as it blinks out of existence and sees only squalor and sadness.

Brilliantly played, technically adroit and at times breathtakingly beautiful, Melancholia is still a cold and uncaring provocation, a poke in the eye with an ornately carved stick. You can admire the craftsmanship, even as it blinds you.


Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn makes his Hollywood debut with Drive, a hyper-stylized crime thriller which combines the shadowy trappings of traditional film noir with glossy, ultra-modern violence.

Ryan Gosling stars as the anonymous driver, a car mechanic and stunt-performer for the movies who moonlights as a getaway wheelman for criminals. He is a strictly professional accomplice, giving robbers exactly five minutes of his time to get as far away as possible from the scene of the crime, for a price. His skills are cleverly demonstrated in an opening scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film as The Driver (we have to call him something…) sits outside a jewellery warehouse in an everyday car, souped-up by his boss and friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston). After picking up the two thieves, he takes them on a careful jaunt around the back streets, sticking to the speed limit, stopping at red lights and otherwise remaining completely ordinary. Avoiding the squealing tyres and flaming pile-ups of the standardized Hollywood action movie, they smoothly glide to safety.

Naturally, the Driver lives alone. His neighbours in the apartment building are Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son, Benicio (Kaden Leos). They meet one day at the garage where he works and, going against his own rules, he starts to develop feelings for her. Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison and, when he gets out, The Driver breaks another of his rules and befriends him. Forced to pay off a massive debt by robbing a pawn shop, The Driver offers to help. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well.  Soon The Driver and Shannon are up to their necks in trouble with jittery psycho Bernie (an impeccable Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman), who has the impermeable features of an Easter Island statue.

Drive is awash with echoes and allusions to classic Californian car movies, Peter Yates’ Bullit and Walter Hill’s The Driver in particular, yet they are reassembled into something hypnotically intense and achingly cool. At one point, Albert Brooks’ gangster says that he used to produce action pictures in the 80s that ‘the critics called European’, a knowing nod from Refn whose film could be described in the same manner. Although Drive is, in part, an exercise in reinventing genre clichés, Refn and his screenwriter Hossein Amini (adapting James Sallis’ novel) take unexpected swerves down little-used side streets.

Newton Thomas Sigel’s immaculate cinematography gives the film a glowing neon sheen, underlined by a throbbing synth soundtrack from Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez. The entire cast give strong performances, Gosling’s almost mute anti-hero in particular, but the real star of the film is Refn who proves he is a master of sustaining mood and tension; by turns violent and romantic, muted and melodramatic. But it doesn’t last. If the first half of Drive is involving and thrilling, the second half is a little less so. As The Driver abandons his strictly delineated rules, dramatic logic go with them, to be replaced by rapidly escalating violence. The carefully modulated mood fractures as Refn’s characters seem to wake from their dream-like torpor and savagely set about one another. The director doesn’t seem all that interested in exploring why these people are causing each other such pain, his attention distracted by the formal beauty in his jarringly graphic images; a fountain of blood, an exploding head, a switchblade applied to a vein.

The fact that Drive evaporates from the memory much more quickly that might be expected points towards Refn’s film being a triumph of style over substance, of execution over essence. But what extraordinary style, what flawless execution.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

For his first English language film, Swedish director Thomas Alfredson adapts John le Carré’s seminal spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for a beautifully acted and absorbing cold war thriller that is one of the best films we will see this year. This is a chill, autumnal film that perfectly suits the season, as the summer’s jumping pantomimes and fiddly 3D toy advertisements finally give way to more mature, grown-up cinema.

Opening with grainy images of a muted London in 1973, the story begins as Control (John Hurt), the head of MI6 (colloquially known as the Circus), dispatches field agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) on a secret mission to Budapest in order to convince a Hungarian army general to defect to the West. As Control explains it, the general holds a “treasure”, the identity of a mole within the Circus. Someone in the upper levels of the organisation has been sending secrets back to Karla, the Soviet’s spy master, and must be exposed before he does any more damage.

From his ramshackle flat on a sided-street, Control has narrowed down the suspects to five top men and code-named them according to the old nursery rhyme: “Tinker” for the ambitious Scot Percy Alleline (Toby Jones); “Tailor,” for the too-smooth Bill Haydon (Colin Firth); “Soldier,” for the granite-faced Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds),  “Poor Man” for the dicky-bow wearing Toby Esterhase (David Dencik); and finally “Beggarman,” for his own right-hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman). But Prideaux’s mission ends badly. Control is retired, falling on his sword and taking Smiley with him. Some time later, government gonk Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) brings Smiley back from the cold and asks him to take over his former boss’s investigation, operating in total secrecy from outside the bureaucratic Circus with only loyal company-man Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to help him. At the same time, rogue junior spy Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) returns to London from a mission in Istanbul brimming with new information that might offer a clue to the mole’s identity but also makes him a target.

All the major plot points from le Carré’s source novel have been retained in the screenplay by Peter Straughan and his wife, the late Bridget O’Connor, which skilfully condenses a lengthy, labyrinthine book into two hours of riveting storytelling. The plot reshuffles some of the novel’s events, changes a few locations and invents a few new scenes, but for le Carré fans, the fundamentals are all there. There are films where hopes are formed, only to be dashed, where early promises are not kept and where a meticulous construction collapses as the last few bricks are put in place. This is not one of those films. Even more remarkably, Alfredson has pared the dialogue back to a minimum, using his actor’s expressive faces and some inspired directorial grace notes to communicate the story visually. An extended set-piece where Cumberbatch’s Guillam charms his way into the service’s secret file room to smuggle out vital documents plays out in almost total silence, capturing the essence of breathless suspense in an extraordinarily nimble balance between success and failure. A moment when we watch a train junction shift into place as Smiley puts the pieces of the puzzle together is immensely satisfying and says more in a moment than a page of lines, however cleverly written and beautifully delivered.

From a first-rate cast made up of the best British and Irish acting talent available, Oldman gives a stand-out performance; delicately shaded, masterfully controlled, flitting from light to shadow like some grey-winged moth. With his oversized glasses and buttoned-up trench-coat, Smiley maintains a careful anonymity but his poker-face hides a razor-sharp intellect with a ruthless edge. Oldman has featured in two of the biggest film franchises of the last decade – Christopher Nolan’s Batman series and the Harry Potter saga – but there’s a lingering impression that he rarely takes the lead. Well, he takes it here. He grabs it with both hands. This is a superb performance, a master class in understatement and the management of expression and silence.

Jane Eyre

Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre has proven a popular and enduring subject for cinematic adaptation, being seen more than a dozen times from hand-wringing silent-era melodramas to Robert Stevenson’s swooning 1940s romance and a trio of BBC television miniseries, the most recent in 2006.

For this handsome interpretation of the literary classic Sin Nombre director Cary Fukunaga and his screenwriter Moira Buffini have streamlined the book’s chaptered chronology into a clever and effective non-linear structure. The story opens right in the middle as frantic Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska) stumbles over a windswept moor, escaping some dread fate. Rescued by upstanding, mutton-chopped pastor St John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his adoring sisters, Jane begins to recount her life in flashback; detailing her orphaned childhood, her early life with her cruel aunt (Sally Hawkins) in a remote mansion house and her subsequent removal to a grim boarding school run by the gimlet-eyed Mr Brocklehurst (Simon McBurney). As Jane explains where she has come from we come to know something about her character: she is modest, intelligent, strong-willed and direct.

Years pass at the school and Jane is trained to become a governess. She finds her first job as tutor to a young French girl named Adele at Thornfield House, a rambling stately pile in the middle of nowhere. There she is met by the kindly housekeeper Mrs Fairfax (Judi Dench), who makes her welcome and explains the unusual structure of the household. The master of Thornfield Mr Rochester (Michael Fassbender), only mentioned in passing, spends most of his time away from the house on business. Months of routine solitude pass before the gruff Rochester returns to the house where, over the course of a year or more, he falls in love with plain-speaking Jane. Despite the rigours of the class system and Mrs Farifax’s tutting adherence to protocol, she falls in love with him. But there is more to Rochester than his polished appearance would suggest and just as Jane seems to have finally met her destiny, a long-hidden secret threatens to spoil her happiness.

Fukunaga sets his Jane Eyre apart from all the other adaptations by casting the film with young actors, more accurately reflecting Brontë’s original descriptions and giving the romantic strains a fresh tremble. The heart of the story remains Jane’s anguished love for Rochester with Wasikowska and Fassbender making for an mutedly charismatic romantic couple, her forthright humility and independence set against his brash arrogance and cynical sense of entitlement. What the story lacks, perhaps unsurprisingly after decades of retelling, is any element of emotional suspense with the adaptation’s more arch Gothic passions being dampened to better allow the characters to smoulder.

Photographed in painterly candlelight by Brazilian cinematographer Adriano Goldman, emphasising the house’s claustrophobic gloom beneath scurrying grey skies, and scored with a haunting soundtrack from Dario Marianelli, Fukunaga’s Jane Eye is subtly shaded and evocatively understated, reanimating Brontë’s timeless story for a new generation.

The Skin I Live In

Having made his debut in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1982 farce Labyrinth of Passion and made his name in 1988s Oscar-nominated black comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, before decamping to Hollywood and international celebrity, Antonia Banderas reunites with the Spanish auteur for The Skin I Live In. Loosely based on Thierry Jonquet’s French novella Tarantula, the film is a gloriously florid melodrama with shades of inky horror that includes all of Almodovar’s trademark motifs; sexual desire, betrayal, confused identity, grief and long-simmering revenge.

The film opens with operatic images of a mysterious, beautiful woman performing yoga-like stretches while clad in a flesh-coloured body-stocking. She is Vera (Elena Anaya), who lives in a starkly appointed room at the top of a mansion owned by Banderas’ Dr Robert Ledgard, a noted plastic surgeon. Having established his own clinic at the house, Ledgard has devoted years to developing a plastic skin, impervious to the effects of fire, spurred on by the death of his wife in a car accident. Vera is his muse and test subject, her body being reformed under his scalpel as he perfects his techniques.

Despite being captive in the house, or perhaps for that very reason, Vera has fallen in love with the Doctor and, after years of standing aloof, it seems that Frankenstein has begun to feel the same way about his home-made monster. Ledgard’s devoted housekeeper Marilla (Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes) is not keen on this development, and regularly chides her employer for his foolishness, but the Doctor doesn’t care to listen. Events come to a head when Marilla’s fugitive son Zeca (Roberto Álamo) arrives at the front door, triggering a violent series of events that begins to unravel the past and causes Ledgard’s forensically composed façade to crack. The narrative swings back and forth across the years, the still-ringing echoes of the past driving his characters actions in the present.

And that’s about all I’m going to say about the plot. The Skin I Live In holds a secret, a stunning, audacious twist so delicate and monumental that even revealing that it exists at all might spoil the film for the audience. To reveal any more would draw a map through Almodóvar’s serpentine plot and cast a light on his dark obsessions. Forewarned is not always forearmed at the picture house, and going into the film expecting to have everything turn head-over-heels at any time might distract the viewer from the director’s almost-Gothic economy and austerity. Forget I mentioned it.

Returning to Spain for the first time in twenty years, a revitalised Banderas casts off the shackles of his Latin-lover persona to deliver a wholly engrossing performance as the obsessive surgeon, neat and precise in everything he does but hiding deep, dark shadows behind his hooded eyes. Having had a small part in Almodóvar’s Talk To Her, Anaya is a revelation in the leading role, whether posed in a series of achingly beautiful close-ups or wild-eyed and dangerous in sudden, unexpected ways. A highlight – as with many of Almodóvar’s films – is a couple of powerful live musical numbers from the Spanish singer Concha Buika that swell the already swooning mood into something approaching hysteria.

Cowboys & Aliens

“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his 1936 essay collection The Crack-Up, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” At its best, Favreau’s genre mash-up Cowboys & Aliens demonstrates the kind of smarts Fitzgerald describes, crossing two previously uncrossed streams of cinema narrative and making sense on its own terms. But the hold doesn’t last and the story dissolves into random nonsense, fun for a while but ultimately empty and unsatisfying.

Placed firmly at the intersection between a traditional western and an alien invasion sci-fi, Iron Man director Favreau’s film (based on the comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg) is the first in a new breed of genre mash-ups that presages upcoming titles such as Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

The title tells you all you need to know, really. We’re in the Old West at the end of the 19th century. There are cowboys, like Jake the outlaw amnesiac (Daniel Craig) and crotchety Civil War Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who live in the faded frontier town of Absolution, in the middle of a vast, rocky plain. And there are aliens, bug-eyed monsters from beyond the stars who descend on the town in whirring UFOs to wreak intergalactic havoc.

As the story opens, Craig’s hard-bitten Jake has woken up in the desert with no idea who or where he is. He has a gaping wound in his side and a mysterious metal bracelet on his wrist. Wandering into town, he meets Percy (Paul Dano), the trigger-happy weasel son of Ford’s true-grit Colonel who uses his father’s position as a rich cattle-baron to demand free whiskey and shoot up the place. Establishing himself as the hero, Jake stops the youngster with a single punch but he can’t stop himself from being thrown in jail alongside him.

When the Colonel rides into town to effect a rescue, he is stopped in his tracks by strange lights in the sky. A heartbeat later the aliens attack, snatching up the townsfolk, including Percy, with metallic lassos and whisking them away to parts unknown. Jake and the Colonel must put their enmity aside and join forces to mount a rescue. Joining them in the posse are saloon-owner Doc (Sam Rockwell), gun-slinging beauty Ella (Olivia Wilde) and the local preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown). On the way, they enlist the help of a tribe of Native Americans, who seem to recognise the ethereal Ella and are eager to mount a war party against their common enemy.

From that point on, Cowboys & Aliens barely pauses for breath but what the adventure lacks in coherence, it makes up for in spectacle. Despite the presence of two genuine superstars, the film’s biggest pulling power derives from its clever concept and execution. The story plays with the conventions of the standardised horse opera while joining them with the not-dissimilar tropes of the sci-fi blockbuster; questing discovery, survivalism and the battle for resources. The results are occasionally compelling, if only for the sheer audacity of the plot, but Favreau (and his five credited screenwriters) never settle on the right balance between fun and force and the film is surprisingly humourless and violent.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Very old rope is re-braided once more in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a special-effects heavy prequel that arrives a full four decades after Charlton Heston woke up in a world where apes rule, OK.

James Franco plays Will, a scientist working for a Machiavellian pharmaceutical corporation (is there any other kind in movies) working to develop a genetically-altered virus that will reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Well-meaning Will is racing against the clock, hoping to accrue the double benefit of making billions for his boss (David Oyelowo), who is funding his lengthy research, and curing his ailing father (John Lithgow), fast fading into dementia. It appears Will has reached a breakthrough when a chimpanzee named Bright Eyes, captured and used for laboratory testing, responds well to a particular strain of the drug. On the very day the board meets to approve a human trial, Bright Eyes escapes her cage, runs amok and is killed.

It transpires Bright Eyes had given birth to a baby and her outburst was a result of the protective instinct rather than an adverse reaction to the drug. Regardless, the promising trials are shelved. In the tradition of white-coated movie boffins since the dawn of cinema, Will must continue the research and so adopts the little chimp, taking it into his suburban San Francisco home and naming it Caesar. Three years later and Caesar has evolved into a super-chimp; he can use sign language, play chess and (in a witty cameo) put together a scale-model toy of the Statue of Liberty. Convinced his drug is responsible for the chimp’s newfound capabilities, Will injects his father with a shot. The next morning, Dad is playing the piano and reading Shakespeare. Meanwhile, in a preposterously shoehorned romantic sub-plot, sullen Will has met and somehow charmed zoo vet Caroline (Freida Pinto), who tags along for the remainder of the film, saying and doing nothing in particular.

Fast forward another five years and things have gone wrong. Will’s job is at stake, his father’s Alzheimer’s has returned with a vengeance and his neighbours are starting to freak out about the toothy-looking chimp who stares down at them from an attic window with an unnervingly human glint in his eye. When an interaction between chimp and neighbour goes wrong, Caesar is shipped off to a shelter for unwanted primates run by father-and-son sadists played by Brian Cox and Tom Felton. While Will attempts to free him by needling low-level government employees, Caesar sets about establishing himself as top-banana with the other caged monkeys and formulating his own plan of escape.

The doubled-up “of the” in the title hints at a clumsiness that pervades the film, an clunky, uneven narrative that struggles to make three-dimensional characters of human and ape alike. Specialist Andy Serkis (who played Gollum in Lord of the Rings and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake) invests Caesar with a full measure of personality through the indelibly human look in his eyes. Mostly, though, he looks like a computer-generated special effect. The Uncanny Valley is the name given to the phenomenon in computerised special effects where digital actors look almost, but not quite, like real actors. The same goes for monkeys, and goes double for monkeys that think they’re people. Even Franco doesn’t look like himself, and there’s no trickery involved in his performance, other than the fact that he seems to have been recently hit over the head with something heavy. I realise its important to emphasise just how clever Caesar has become, but the film does this at the expense of making Franco the dimmest scientific mind since Keanu Reeves’ cold-fusion engineer inadvertently blew-up the world in Chain Reaction.

When the apes eventually rise up against their human masters, director Rupert Wyatt gathers his forces to stage a pitched battle along a fog-bound Golden Gate Bridge. This shuddering action sequence gives a much-needed boost to proceedings, replacing the formulaic science-lab machinations, animal-welfare moustache-twirling and rickety romance with the sight of an angry 500lb mountain silverback charging towards the screen with his jaws bared. Soon after this, the first action in a war for supremacy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes to a dead stop: a hopeful gesture on behalf of the inevitable franchise to come but an unsatisfying conclusion to the film just watched.

Super 8

The creator of TV series Lost, producer of monster-movie Cloverfield and director of sci-fi reboot Star Trek JJ Abrams was doing OK just being JJ Abrams but for Super 8 he has written and directed a film his mentor and producer Steven Spielberg would have been proud of; an end-of-childhood adventure with supernatural touches that has the master’s imprint all over it.

The title derives from the small-gauge film format that was popular in the time before video and digital cameras. As a child, Spielberg made 8mm films with his friends in the streets and fields around his home town in Arizona. Firelight, the last of these amateur films, would be reused twenty years later as the beginnings of Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind and the story of its production, with a borrowed camera and home-made special effects, seems to have inspired the first section of Abrams’ story.

Set in the suburban homes of a rural Ohio town in the late 1970s, Super 8 opens as 12 year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is helping his excitable best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) to make a zombie movie for a local film festival. With Charles as director and Joe handling make-up and special effects, the two enlist their friends, including new-recruit Alice (Elle Fanning) to help however they can; acting, holding a microphone, setting off pyrotechnics or stirring buckets of fake blood. Late one night, having snuck out of their respective houses, the kids are filming surreptitiously at an abandoned train station when a truck veers onto the tracks and causes a spectacular train crash. In the midst of the chaos, something escapes from a shattered freight trailer. Unnoticed by the fleeing kids but recorded on their camera, whatever it is escapes into the fields.

To say much more would spoil Super 8’s carefully-laid surprise but what follows will not startle those who have seen the films from which Abrams has spliced his cinematic DNA: E.T., Close Encounters and Richard Donner’s Spielberg-produced children’s classic The Goonies. The kids are so preoccupied with making their zombie movie they barely notice the uncanny things happening in the grown-up real world. We see a flash of Walter Cronkite on the evening news, talking about the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island. Every dog in the town has vanished, cars and machines are acting strangely and a troop of soldiers (led by Noah Emmerich’s blank-faced sergeant) have quietly established a cordon around the town.

Abrams is telling his own story, from his own screenplay, but Super 8 is a hybrid; a combination of coming-of-age drama, comedy and science-fiction. It touches up against Spielberg’s favourite themes of broken family dynamics, suburban boredom and the feeling that, behind the closed doors of a small town, there are adult stories that remain secret and untold. There is a palpable sense of nostalgia here, not only for the time and place but for the kind of films American directors were making at the time; films that used the embryonic effects technologies to bolster their stories and bring life to their imaginations, rather than as a hammer to bludgeon audiences into submission. It’s no accident that Super 8 eschews the feeble, eye-straining attractions of 3D.

The movie is at its best when Abrams, like Spielberg, distils the innocence and enthusiasm of childhood into short, pithy scenes, particularly in the early set pieces when the pubescent protagonists are given the space to interact. There is a very clever use of the kid’s film-within-a-film, as the cash-strapped youngsters employ the ‘real-life’ movie that’s happening around them as a backdrop for their own fictional one. Later, Abrams attempts to blend the emotional and the fantastical into a seamless whole but the two elements of the story seem to float past one another, just failing to connect. His mostly young and unknown cast are uniformly superb, with Fanning in particular striking the right note of gumption and vulnerability, but the bonds that tie them all together feel more contrived than considered.

The pleasures to be found in Super 8 might be deliberately familiar, but they are robust enough to be handed down to a new generation. For his own part, Spielberg has two films set for release this year, his first animation The Adventures of TinTin, based on Belgian comic book author Hergé’s much-loved books and WWI drama War Horse, from the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo. Spielberg has nothing left to prove but it will nevertheless be interesting to see if the real thing can match his imitator.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Already this year we’ve been introduced to a whole new order of superheroes, with The Green Hornet, X-Men First Class, The Green Lantern and Thor filling out the space previously occupied by Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. There is probably enough room in cineplexes for four new franchise heroes, but each iteration carries with it an unavoidable feeling of repetition; predominantly because most of these films are origin myths, telling the same story of how these heroes came to be and, the individual particulars aside, all following the same basic formula.

The latest superhero goes by the name of Captain America, so we know his military rank and country of origin before we begin. For those of you unfamiliar with comic book history, the character debuted in 1941 as a free-thinking do-gooder who spent the war years fighting the Axis powers and socking Hitler on the jaw. Now in 2011, Captain America is the last character to be introduced to cinema audiences before next summer’s much-vaunted superhero-extravaganza The Avengers, where he will join up with fellow Marvel Comics heroes Iron Man, Thor and The Incredible Hulk for a four-way superhero-extravaganza. This film acts as a set-up for that reunion but, luckily for audiences, it’s an entertaining summer blockbuster in its own right.

As the story opens, Chris Evans’ scrawny, asthmatic Steve Rogers wants to serve his country in World War II but is passed over by every recruiting officer. Determined to play his part, he is chosen by Army scientist Dr Erskine (Stanley Tucci) to undergo a top secret experiment that will transform him from 90 pound weakling into a muscle-bound super-soldier. Despite the misgivings of his commanding officer, Colonel Phillips (a wry Tommy Lee Jones), the now-muscular Rogers joins his best pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan) in a special secret division that includes British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and boffin Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), who just so happens to be Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark’s father.

With his alter-ego code name and a red, white and blue outfit (including his trademark indestructible shield) Rogers is ready to dish out starry, stripy justice to the Nazis. But before he can deploy to Europe, a red-faced Rogers is forced to perform in a travelling U.S.O. show, to raise money for war bonds. Once joined with the rest of the American troops fighting to push Hitler back to Berlin, Captain America meets his nemesis in Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who also goes by the name Red Skull because, underneath the rubber mask that looks a lot like Hugo Weaving, he’s got a red skull.

An even greater threat than The Fuhrer, Schmidt runs an occult terrorist wing of the Nazi party codenamed Hydra, which is developing advanced weapons of mass destruction. Schmidt can do this because he has access to “the science of the Gods”, an energy source called The Cube that acts as a running thread through the Marvel Comics universe. Schmidt has also been injected with a prototype version of the same serum that transformed Rogers, sharing his superhuman abilities and making him a deadly opponent.

Director Joe Johnston, whose Wolfman reboot underwhelmed last year, does better with the grand sweep of a WWII adventure. The retrofitted steam-punk technologies allow Johnston to exercise the same talents with eye-popping special effects and sci-fi gadgetry as he did in his good-humoured adventure The Rocketeer, in which a 1930s pilot invented a futuristic jet-pack that allowed him to become a masked hero. Just like this summer’s X-Men prequel and the third Transformers installment, Captain America re-writes history to meet the needs of a superhero story, and executes the trappings of both genres very well, for a while.

After a bright, bustling opening, Captain America tumbles headlong into all of the customary pitfalls of an origin story. The time and effort expended explaining how the Captain came to gain his superhuman abilities means there is not enough room to expand on the character. Our hero’s amped-up metabolism, Peggy tells him, burns energy four times faster than the average persons. The same is true of the movie, which generates such a tremendous head of steam in the first hour, it is exhausted by the second half. The pace shifts into quick montages and clichéd vignettes, with all the compulsion in the story squeezed out to make room for an inevitable, unavoidable series of stare-downs and stand-offs.

How they’re ever going to create enough space for four of these lycra-clad legends in one movie remains to be seen.

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part II

All’s well that ends well. After eight films in ten years and cumulative box-office returns of more than $6 billion, the Harry Potter franchise comes to a rousing conclusion in The Deathly Hallows Part II.

Having inherited the series from originator Chris Columbus and predecessors Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell, continuing director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves have combined to bring a brisk efficiency to JK Rowling’s meandering, lumpy prose; trimming the story to the bare bones and giving the drama a sturdy bedrock on which to place a series of carefully orchestrated stand-offs and set-pieces. The tone has darkened considerably over the course of the saga with the conjuring tricks of the early films maturing into a shadowy landscape where magic is an expression of an inherent emotional state, be it good or evil, white or black.

The Deathly Hallows Part II brings all those bubbling themes to a head in a final showdown between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), an end-game that audiences have been waiting a decade to see. The film opens with the images that ended the previous installment as Voldemort lifts the all-powerful Elder Wand from its resting place in the now-dead Dumbledore’s tomb. The next thing we see is Hogwarts surrounded by a cordon of ragged wraiths as Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) continue their quest to find and destroy the four remaining Horcruxes (fragments of Voldemort’s soul), each successful discovery making their mortal enemy weaker in turn.

With access granted by the black-eyed goblin Griphook (Warwick Davis) to a bank vault owned by Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), the three are in sight of uncovering the last few clues. With the help of Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth (an almost unrecognisable Ciarán Hinds), they make their way back to Hogwarts where they are re-united with their old school friends, including Harry’s girlfriend Ginny (Bonnie Wright) and the now-heroic Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis). There, surrounded by his supporters, Harry faces-off against the slippery, sinister Snape (Alan Rickman) and Voldemort’s ever-growing army of ghouls in a seemingly-hopeless final battle for the fate of the wizarding world, and his life.

Perhaps it is the knowledge that the adventure is coming to an end but with this film Yates achieves a deeply satisfying sense of convergence, weaving together the countless thematic, dramatic and romantic themes from the past seven films, up to and including the ultimate, long-awaited comeuppance.

The Potter series has always been at the cutting edge of visual effects work, even if the balance between storytelling and spectacle hasn’t always been as finely judged as it might be. For this last installment Eduardo Serra’s brooding cinematography has been given an unrequested, rather underwhelming stereoscopic 3D conversion. The extra dimension adds a few humpbacked thrills to an early roller-coaster ride through the vaults of Gringotts’s bank and gives a greater sense of depth to the crowded spaces where Yates stages many of his scenes but the effect is, for the most part, imperceptible. The best of the effects work, and some of the most involving action in the entire series, is found in the final battle at a besieged Hogwarts. Here is a spectacle of death and destruction that plays out on a scale unlike anything else these films have attempted, the familiar halls and turrets crumbling in a tumble of stone around our heroes heads.

Having played Harry for exactly half his life, Radcliffe draws the curtain on his character with a grim-set sense of destiny, achieving the catharsis that, at times, threatened to remain forever beyond his talent. Although Grint and Watson are given ample screen-time they are essentially passengers in this section of the story, their long-awaited clinch not withstanding. Yates splices the rollicking action with valedictory cameos for the long list of British character actors who have graced the series, granting Maggie Smith, Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters a final curtain-call. Like the series itself, they go out on a high note.

Read my interview with Daniel Radcliffe and Brendan Gleeson on the set of The Order of the Phoenix here.