Il Divo

For his fourth feature film, director Paolo Sorrentino crafts a dazzling and damning biopic of disgraced former Italian Prime Minister Guido Andreotti, the seven-time premiere whose reputation was destroyed by allegations of mafia involvement, political assassination and financial corruption.

Il Divo opens with a long, information-heavy series of title cards before Sorrentino introduces his subject in a long, slow tracking shot that gradually fills the frame with Andreotti’s face, dotted with acupuncture needles, his tiny black eyes peering out from behind thick glasses. Fitted with pointy prosthetic ears and with his back stooped in a crouch, Sorrentino’s regular lead Toni Servillo plays the politician like Max Schreck’s Nosferatu, a misshapen man forced by chronic migraines to live in the shadows, an unsettled insomniac who stalks the corridors of power, constantly scheming.

Then, in the style of a flashy gangster movie, Andreotti’s cadre of closest supporters is given an individual slow-motion vignette as they emerge from sleek sports cars to gather in the courtyard of the prime minister’s Roman villa. These are the men that enact their master’s bidding; some of them serving him for decades under the banner of his Christian Democrat Party. They all have nicknames, The Brute, The Lemon, The Cardinal. The film’s title is what the used to call Andreotti, Il Divo, “the divine one”. Behind his back, they called him Beelzebub.

Andreotti’s gang have become accustomed to power and the gifts it bestows, but as they talk through their latest political plans, they are unaware that this will be their last stand. A scandal known as Tangentopoli (or “bribesville”), which exposed the political system as ruthless and corrupt, is about to blow up and nobody will escape unscathed.

On one level, Il Divo is a biography of a fascinating man told in a combination of real events and fantasies that mixes hard-nosed facts with equally flinty speculations. On another, the film is an extended metaphor for how Italian society has been bled dry by corruption, a position it shares with Matteo Garrone’s blistering Gomorrah. ‘Irony is the best defence against death’, Servillo whispers at one point, and although the film is filled with quotations from Andreotti, this one was written by Sorrentino. In keeping with the detached, sardonic style he has developed, the director condemns his subject at an oblique, making a political biopic in the style of a ganger movie, re-writing real events as hyper-stylised fictions and using sound and vision to create startling contrasts that subtly snip away at Andreotti’s reputation, and more cuttingly, his vanity. It is a remarkable performance from Servillo who show’s an uncanny ability to sustain a character who does not want you to know anything about him.

I went in knowing nothing about post-war Italian politics and I came out again having learned little more but I was gripped throughout by what is a brilliantly told story that, as we continue to wade through a decade or more of political sleaze, has a particular resonance for Irish audiences.


Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn tells the story of the life and crimes of “the most dangerous prisoner in Britain” in Bronson.

Born Michael Peterson to a respectable 1950s Luton family, our subject was a school bully and petty criminal who had made a name for himself as a bare-knuckle boxer, changing his name to Charles Bronson, after the tough-guy actor, at his promoter’s suggestion. Then, in 1974, looking to find enough money to buy an engagement ring, Bronson robbed a post office. He got away with a little over £26 and the police arrested him within the hour. Since then, Bronson has spent almost 34 years in prison, 30 of them in solitary confinement, despite never having murdered anyone or committed a serious crime.

Refn, still best known for his trilogy of hard-boiled Pusher films, takes the bare bones of Bronson’s story to construct a visionary, highly-stylised biopic in concert with his lead actor, Tom Hardy. Hardy, who has a small part in Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla last year, has piled on muscle, shaved his head and cultivated a twirling Victorian moustache to completely inhabit his character. It is an extraordinary performance, part comic, part tragic, which focuses on the man’s self-confessed hunger for fame, any kind of fame, eventually settling on being the most notorious man in the prison system.

Brock Norman Brock’s script unfolds primarily in flashback, bringing us through the significant events of Bronson’s life on the outside before focusing on his need for violence and, once incarcerated, his campaign of kidnapping and assault against other prisoners and staff. Later, after time spent in a mental institution, Bronson starts his life in solitary confinement, his only respite being a weekly art class. His art teacher (who is eventually, inevitably held hostage) sees promise in his work and encourages him to express himself. Bronson sees physical violence as his medium, his fists as his brushes, his life inside as a vast, endless performance.

Cinematographer Larry Smith worked on The Shining and photographed Eyes Wide Shut and the influence of Kubrick, particularly A Clockwork Orange, is apparent in Refn’s long, slow moving takes, use of music and air of artificially elevated theatre. Regardless of his inspirations, the director real focus in on his lead actor and Hardy gives an incredibly powerful and physical performance that he sustains throughout every scene of the film, often addressing the camera directly in a peculiar combination of obnoxious charm and terrifying wrath. Refn’s recurring device, our anti-hero on stage in a cathedral-like theatre alone in front of an appreciative audience, becomes wearing after a while, despite Hardy filling the space with explosive bursts of manic, dangerous energy. Later, the director creates animations from the real Bronson’s child-like drawings and employs them to change the tone when, as it regularly does, events turn dark and mean.

Consistently challenging and ocassionally transcendent, Bronson is a film that stands alongside Andrew Dominik’s Chopper as a modern classic of the prison genre.

American Teen

The documentary American Teen takes a snapshot of the lives of adolescents in the flyover states, but the results feels somehow photoshopped.

Director Nanette Burstein (who waded through Robert Evan's bullshit for The Kid Stays in the Picture) spent ten months filming at a school in Warsaw, Indiana, a town we are told is “mostly white, mostly Christian and mostly Republican”. The result of her experiment was over 1,000 hours of footage which the filmmaker has condensed down into a snapshot of life as it is lived by the young in Middle America. As the school year starts, Burstein introduces her subjects, kids that could have been plucked out of any 1980s John Hughes movie: The Rebel, The Queen Bee, The Sporty Guy, The Nerd and the Heartthrob. Having established them as snug fits for stereotype, Burstein then looks to explore their lives in detail, analysing their relationships with one another, their families and the school.

The central character, arty rock-chick Hannah Bailey, likes music and movies and feels like a misfit in the conservative town. She dreams of escaping to San Francisco after graduation and becoming a filmmaker. Her parents warn her about the dangers of life for a young girl alone in the big city. “It’s my life,” she tells them, but there is a quiver in her voice. Earlier, Hannah had missed weeks of school after he boyfriend dumped her, unable to face the world she is so desperate to explore.

Her opposite number, blonde and pretty Prom Queen Megan Krizmanich, is the daughter of a wealthy family and the most popular student in the school. She drives a swanky car, has dozens of twittering friends and a mean streak a mile wide. Even the teachers are a little bit afraid of her. Megan dreams of following her father to Notre Dame University, but secretly fears she is not smart enough. As a distraction, she undertakes a campaign of social exclusion against anyone that comes into her orbit; a bitchy reign of terror that extends to petty social crimes like vandalism and nuisance phone calls. From the first moment we meet Megan, we are awaiting her comeuppance.

Colin Clemens, the sporty guy, is a well-liked, good natured basketball player who knows his best chance of getting a college scholarship derives from his athletic abilities. The alternatives, his father tells him repeatedly, are enlisting in the army or following in his footsteps as an Elvis impersonator on the hotel lounge circuit. Colin doesn’t care much for either option, but as the year continues the pressure proves too much for him and his form on the court dips.

The nerd, Jake Tusing, only breaks a sweat on his XBox. Jake has a bedroom full of taxidermy and a brain that is even less lively. A self-proclaimed introvert, Jake is desperate to find a girlfriend, but is restrained by his shyness, his braces and a spectacular spray of acne across his cheeks. Painfully awkward and grinding with self-consciousness, his silver tongue is in need of a polish. “I like you because you suck at life…like me”, he tells one prospective girlfriend, on a first date. She looks at him like he has five eyes. The heartthrob, Mitch Reinholt, has no such problems. A good-looking, sporty All-American teenager, white-bread Mitch comes into the story when - in a move that cuts across the school’s rigid social stratification - he starts dating kooky Hannah. Rather than hang out in Megan’s house with all the other popular kids, Hannah dresses Mitch in a green dragon costume and has him roll around on the grass while she films him. The love affair doesn’t last.

Essentially a vérité take on The Breakfast Club or Mean Girls, American Teen is a slickly produced documentary filled with incident and insight, some of which feels real and some of which feels scripted. Burstein spent most of her American publicity tour defending the film’s authenticity but still that nagging sensation that you are watching something pre-arranged never quite dispels. Given unlimited access to their lives, their computers and mobile phones, the ease with which events collide points towards the possibility of directorial guidance. If it's all true, it is fascinating. If it is not, it is an egregious cheat.


In the mid-1980s, revered comic-book writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons collaborated on a graphic novel called Watchmen that became an instant phenomenon; selling in the millions, inspiring countless imitators and establishing the graphic novel as a legitimate literary form. Almost as soon as it was published, movie studios lined up with their chequebooks out, only to shuffle quietly away once they had actually read the thing. A vast, meta-textual post-modern story about a group of damaged people pretending to be superheroes, set in an alternative 1984 where Nixon is still president and nuclear war looms on the horizon, the book was deemed ‘unfilmable’ for the last twenty years. Until, that is, Zack Snyder proved he could handle this sort of material with his frame-by-frame adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 and the long-awaited Watchmen movie was resurrected.

Following a beautifully photographed credit sequence that sets out the breathtaking visual scheme and establishes an alternate historical context, Watchmen opens with the brutal murder of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a retired super hero. After a cursory police investigation, it falls on Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a masked vigilante and our gravel-voiced narrator, to find out who killed his former colleague. Having reconnected with his now-outlawed crime-fighting group, Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman) and the only true superman, the atomically-mutated Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup), Rorschach uncovers a vast conspiracy to kill off all the remaining superheroes in an effort to provoke a nuclear war.

That’s the heavily abridged version. Snyder’s take on the book runs two hours and forty minutes, following the complicated contours of the source novel but without the same graceful mechanism that builds to a multi-layered philosophical enquiry. Watchmen the movie is frequently visually dazzling but the story is choppily told and lags badly before the end. Perhaps the problem is that Snyder uses Gibbons’ original panels as a storyboard but cannot find a straight line through the narrative. Following a series of disastrous adaptations of his work, the nadir being the gruesome League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Moore now refuses to take a screen credit and he had no involvement in the script. Gibbons is a supremely talented artist but Moore is a storytelling genius and Watchmen is probably his masterpiece.

Where Christopher Nolan’s staggeringly successful Dark Knight offered a simple binary relationship between order and chaos, good and evil, Watchmen presents a vast spectrum of moral positions and character perspectives. It asks why people want to be heroes in the first place, what drives ordinary men and women to fight crime and whether or not they are suited to the task of delivering justice. It explores their good and bad sides, their altered-egos, their private and public lives. We see their memories and dreams. Most of the third act takes places on Mars.

The novel is constructed like a Swiss watch, a recurring symbol, delicately establishing a cauldron of four or five disparate ways of seeing the world and explicitly asking the reader to figure it out for themselves. This isn’t really possible in cinema, which unfolds at a set rate, twenty four frames a second, and abhors eternally parallel narratives. You cannot flick back through the pages of a movie if you miss something or fail to make a connection. You have to get it the first time.

Snyder’s version grinds through the gears of the story but the director prefers slow-motion fight scenes to intellectual tussles. He stages the major incidents of the book with a fastidious eye for detail, guided by his own fanboy reverence and a team of special-effects imagineers, but his series of scenes, inventive and attractive, never come together in a dramatically satisfying way. If you haven’t read the book, I don’t see how you can follow the story as it is told here.

First and foremost a noir-influenced crime drama, Watchmen is also a fascinating alternative history of America (the home of the superhero), a meditation on the nature and value of heroism and a blood-soaked giallo horror. It is as close an adaptation of the original novel as it could possibly be, but it still misses something bigger lying just beneath the surface of its source, a sense of existential malaise and a fear of the future. Having made minor adjustments to the ending, in order to maintain some sense of realism, Snyder makes the bigger mistake of allowing his anti-heroes take on some of the characteristics of the supermen the original story is attempting to subvert. Regardless, Watchmen is - for fans at least - an essential film, brave and bold, beautiful but flawed.


She’s spent most of the last decade raising laughs in comedies like Adaptation and The Devil Wears Prada but for John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, Meryl Streep goes back to her actorly roots for a stony-faced portrayal of a 1960s Brooklyn nun whose darkest suspicions are raised when a priest in her school becomes friendly with a newly arrived African American boy.

From beneath her midnight-black habit, topped with a bonnet, Streep’s Sister Aloysius radiates waves of ice cold professionalism. Her face is waxy pale, her red-ringed eyes are framed with tiny, glittering spectacles and her thin lips are pre-set in a cluck of disapproval. Dubbed ‘the dragon lady’ by her terrified charges, Sr Aloysius is the headmistress of the local Roman Catholic school, a private kingdom she rules with an iron grip. She plays everything by the book, imposing strict rules on both her students and her teachers, watching everything, absorbing all sources of information.

When, one morning, she spots Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) make a kindly gesture to Donald (Joseph Foster), a newly arrived boy, she makes an instant interpretation. With typical froideur, she asks a younger nun, Sister James (Amy Adams) to keep an eye on the priest. The timid, unworldly younger woman returns with her observations and Sr Aloysius gradually assembles her evidence. She begins circling Father Flynn, bringing him to her office on trivial matters of school policy before delicately turning the conversation towards the boy. Flynn, no fool, is quick to understand what the senior nun is accusing him of, and the two lock horns. He proclaims his innocence, offering excuses and witnesses, but she has already made up her mind.

Streep revels in what is a juicy, wholly absorbing character whose development is as carefully plotted as a roadmap. She plays the cunning old nun with shades of Gothic horror, a tyrannical presence who clings to process and procedure because it is the only way she knows, regardless of the outcome. Opposite her, Hoffman is an initially bright presence, delivering compassionate sermons at mass and pressing for simple reforms in the school, but as the story progresses his shadow lengthens. Between these two, acting as the referee, Adams is a wide-eyed innocent, slow to comprehend the implications of the mission she has been assigned and unwilling to allow her heart to harden.

Director Shanley, a Bronx native educated by nuns, has adapted his own play for the film but there remains a nagging sense that he hasn’t adapted it enough. His actors give remarkably involving performances, helped considerably by the reams of crackling dialogue and crested emotional peaks. All the pieces are here, but they are artlessly assembled. Shanley overplays his camerawork, seeking out odd, unnatural angles and settling on obvious, clamorous symbols that go towards undermining the film’s delicate nuance: the howling wind scatters ominous leaves, the lightning flares behind Streep’s cowled head, the camera swoops around the steeples.

Because of Shanley’s uncertain, indelicate approach, Doubt remains a piece of theatre; a stage-bound, solemn parable of faith and moral conviction that explicitly asks the viewer to take sides but seals the judgement in a dusty file.

The International

Sometimes timing is everything. In these calamitous days, what could be more appropriate than a paranoid thriller in which the bad guy turns out to be a bank? Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer’s The International is a well-photographed, occasionally diverting pile of nonsense, as broad as the budget deficit and as stuttering as the Minister of Finance’s latest parliamentary speech.

After a taut opening sequence, which sees a man assassinated outside a train station, we meet grizzled Interpol agent Lou Salinger (Clive Owen), a righteous man fired by his determination to bring down a crooked Swiss bank which is funding arms sales to third world dictatorships. In keeping with his position as a renegade copper, Lou has a history of professional misconduct and a solitary private life. In the course of his dogged investigations, Lou has uncovered a wall full of photographs of creepy-looking bankers but every time he comes close to cracking the case and bringing down the bank, his witnesses are killed in freak accidents.

The bank, headed up by the narrow-eyed Jonas Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen), has connections at every level of government, a team of sharp-suited lawyers and a secret division, more murders and assassinations than mergers and acquisitions, controlled by former Stasi commander Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Wexler handles the bank’s prime asset, a professional killer known only as The Consultant (played with unerring blankness by Brian F O’Byrne), who travels the world doing the dirty work while keeping one step ahead of the trailing Lou.

Into this already soggy pudding lands sharp-suited New York lawyer Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), who shares Lou’s bleak world-view and resolve to clean up the murky sewers of international finance. Together, the two race around Europe on the trail of the killer, knowing he is the key to cracking the case. This chase inspires a series of complicated action sequences, the highlight of which is a jaw-dropping fifteen minute shoot-out at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. It is the finest on-screen gun battle since Michael Mann riddled downtown LA in Heat but much of the rest of the film is gibberish.

Owen clenches his jaw in his own peculiar approximation of a driven man, but Lou is an underwritten, underwhelming hero. Watts is just awful, a clanging, unconvincing character who exists only to provide the story with a female lead. To say she phones in her performance is an insult to telecommunications. The story whimpers to a dead stop after an hour, but Twyker keeps plugging on regardless, delivering a series of increasingly uninteresting finales that are as hard to watch as today’s news headlines and just as depressing.