Tuesday, 27 December 2011

'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol' review:

Within twenty minutes of Brian De Palma's original 1996 'Mission: Impossible' it is clear that any relationship with the original 60s TV show doesn't extend too far beyond the title, the theme music and those improbable latex masks that enable our hero to convincingly pose as other people. De Palma almost immediately kills off every member of his initial team bar producer-star Tom Cruise, whose IMF agent Ethan Hunt then carries a pretty routine espionage thriller.

John Woo's follow-up, 2000's 'Mission: Impossible II', was just as individualistic if tonally entirely different - ditching any pretence of subtlety or teamwork during a brainless orgy of slow-mo gunfire, bright orange explosions and even oranger fake tan. Whilst the third entry, directed by J. J. Abrams in 2006, is pitched somewhere between the two: a straight action picture, with some vague, convoluted secret agent stuff (that makes almost no sense) amid the shooting. It did however feature, at last, a clearly defined team working with Cruise.

The fourth entry, 'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol', is closest to the third in the balance between action and espionage, with Abrams remaining involved as a producer. Unlike the first three, it also enjoys some degree of continuity, with Ethan's wife from the last film (Michelle Monaghan) referenced throughout and Simon Pegg's nebbish computer expert promoted to the field team, which now includes Paula Patton and Hollywood's new favourite everyman Jeremy Renner.

Under animation legend Brad Bird's direction, each of the four players (including Pegg's comedy sidekick) are allowed to get in on the action meaningfully, receiving ample screentime and combing together well. Though Cruise is undoubtedly still the star and steals all the most heroic moments, this is the most egalitarian of the series by far and also (not coincidentally) the most fun.

Though 'Ghost Protocol' is tighter and more coherent than either Woo or Abram's efforts, it manages to move at an even faster pace, rarely pausing between consistently inventive and exciting action. But even if the excitement never stops, there is far less emphasis on guns than in previous entries, with much more scope and imagination.

Most of the thrills come courtesy of superb choreography rather than carnage. For instance, there are plenty of remarkable stunts - the highlight of which sees Cruise scaling one of the world's tallest buildings - set against an impressive number of backdrops (sand storms, lavish parties, the Kremlin), involving gadgets which provide the coolest vision of the future since 'Minority Report'. Lost amongst all of this is a wafer thin plot (Mikael Nyqvist's extremist wants to start a nuclear war and is in possession of several MacGuffins that must be pursued around the globe) but it honestly doesn't matter.

The pleasures of 'Ghost Protocol' are right up there on the screen and easy to explain. It's a film where ultra attractive people (this time even the villains look like Léa Seydoux) travel effortlessly between varied exotic locations (Budapest, Moscow, Dubai, Mumbai and San Francisco) and take part in thrilling escapades, as captured with great dynamism by Bird.

The team are, together and individually, the best in the world, utilising the coolest gadgets (even if they don't always work) and with access to the most glamorous vehicles (I didn't realise it was still possible for a car to look "futuristic" in 2011). What's more, the characters are easy to get along with. They seem to genuinely enjoy each other's company in a film that - save a creaky concluding ten minutes - takes itself exactly the right amount of seriously.

'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol' is out now, rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Monday, 26 December 2011

'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)' review:

Having hated the Swedish film adaptations of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy" - a series of unspeakably nasty TV movies - I wasn't looking forward to spending another 2 1/2 hours in that disturbing world courtesy of David Fincher's new English language version of 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'. I never doubted Fincher's take would be slicker, more artful and, as a consequence, a more gripping experience than its European forbear, but I couldn't imagine taking any pleasure in the company of vengeful, anti-social computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (now played by Rooney Mara) and her boring investigative journalist friend Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig).

The 2009 film played like a boring sub-Agartha Christie detective story with bagfuls of added sadism, as we watch see our heroine subjected to every kind of injustice, and are afterwards expected to relish her "eye for an eye" take on brutal sexual violence. Yet this version at least understands that two rapes don't make a right.

Despite Fincher's reputation as a cold hearted bastard behind the movie camera, his version of the story (as scripted by Steven Zaillian) is a little more humane and, as a result, infinitely more enjoyable even if it retains all of the original's most unpalatable moments. It helps that this Lisbeth doesn't spend the entire film looking either indifferent or angry at the world, as Noomi Rapace's did. She is every bit as cold, sullen, bad-ass and capable (in a fight and as an ace investigator) when she needs to be, living in an equally gritty version of modern Sweden, but Mara brings out more of the character's vulnerability and fear, playing her as a tragic figure - a lifelong victim of violence at the hands of sadistic men.

With Mara's nuanced Salander even showing some affection and warmth, as well as contempt for manfolk, we can see her as more than just a leather clad angel of vengeance, every bit as "evil" as those she despises. She is a person who we feel for: whose triumphs we enjoy and whose relationships we can invest in. She is in fact a much more interesting character than the story she inhabits - a motorcycle riding punk with a photographic memory and a past she'd rather forget.

Whilst there are stomach turningly nasty sequences, mostly of a sexual nature, less emphasis is placed on violence in this version and, when Salander is transgressive, we relate that more to her troubled back-story and precarious mental health, instead of being encouraged to view her as an anti-hero and potential outlet for fantasies of "fuck you" nihilism. Mara enjoys good on-screen chemistry with Craig - who makes for an almost equally engaging Blomkvist - whilst the presence of Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård, Joely Richardson and Steven Berkoff, in the ranks of the nefarious family of aristocratic former Nazis, gives the dialogue some heft.

The book's tired murder mystery storyline - with Blomkvist invited to a remote island by an old patriarch in order to investigate the 40 year-old disappearance of a young girl - retains some crippling structural problems: Blomkvist and Salander don't meet until halfway through, whilst three separate plot threads never really connect satisfactorily. Yet this rote whodunit benefits from the overall improvement in cast, atmosphere and some typically inventive directorial choices. Sound is especially key to its success, as aided by a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (fresh from Fincher's 'The Social Network'), this is consistently tense where the other film was just boring.

'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' is out now in the UK, rated '18' by the BBFC.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

'Moneyball' review:

"How can you not be romantic about baseball?" asks Brad Pitt's jaded team manager Billy Beane of himself, somewhere near the end of 'Capote' director Bennett Miller's engaging sporting biopic 'Moneyball'. Billy's relationship with the game is bitter-sweet, having given up a college scholarship on the advice of talent scouts only to come up short as a professional athlete, before moving upstairs into the frustrating and thankless world of sports administration. His love affair with the game may be in jeopardy but, as co-written by 'The West Wing' and 'The Social Network' scribe Aaron Sorkin, you suspect he'll come to bask in that romance again - and that we'll bask right along with him whether we care about the sport of not.

'Moneyball' is the intelligent, talky film you'd expect from Sorkin, who balances rapid-fire sporting jargon between top-end professionals with pithy, memorable one-liners. It's a drama with deft comic touches and populated by earnest, well-meaning characters for whom the proper running of a baseball team is a sacred vocation.

It begins with Beane's (relatively) modestly budgeted Oakland Athletics suffering a heartbreaking, but expected, end of season loss against the titanic force of the New York Yankees - a much better funded team, who compound the Athletics' misery by poaching their star player. Fed up with trying to compete against much wealthier teams using the same player recruitment strategy, Beane enlists the help of a Yale economics graduate played by Jonah Hill, who has come up with a whole new way of putting together a winning team based on a new set of principles founded in dry statistical analysis.

This philosophy sees the duo - who enjoy a surprising on-screen chemistry - recruit a roster of misfit, imperfect players long since overlooked by Major League scouts, our inherit love of the underdog being skilfully exploited to offset any reticence we might have at seeing the rules of this traditional game rewritten (with seasoned scouts being overruled by a young maths-whizz with no history in the game). All of baseball, including the team's taciturn head coach played by the always brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman, think Billy has gone insane. The stakes therefore go beyond simple sport: if this bold new strategy doesn't succeed Billy will find himself out of a job - an unemployable laughing stock.

Pitt, who looks increasing like Robert Redford, is a force of understated charisma even as this serial loser (at baseball if not in life) who obsessively wants to compete but, at the end of one terrific sequence (that sees the Athletics break a hundred year old record), finds mere winning hollow. Billy doesn't just want his team to win: he wants his team to change the world. Anything less will plunge him into a depressive coma lessened only by the love of his precocious daughter (Kerris Dorsey).

If 'The Social Network' made computer coding and the founding of a social media website play as cinematic, then 'Moneyball' does the same for contract disputes, statistical analysis and the economics of sports management. We spend more time in the offices of the Athletics then we do on the field of play - though the film still has its share of lovably cliché fist-pumping sports movie moments.

'Moneyball' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and on limited release in the UK now.

Friday, 23 December 2011

José Padilha interview at The Telegraph

An interview I did with Brazilian director José Padilha, to coincide with the DVD release of his gritty, violent police thriller 'Elite Squad: The Enemy Within' (released December 26th), has gone up on The Daily Telegaph website. I mainly spoke to him about his plans for the upcoming 'RoboCop' remake, which sounds like it should be, at the very least, interesting. Read the interview here.

I'm pretty excited about this interview, from a personal point of view, because it's the first freelance thing I've written and then pitched to a newspaper subsequently. It's exciting because the story - having gone up on the site of a major paper - has been quoted elsewhere, meaning my work is also (kind of) up on NME and The Metro, which is quite fun!

'Arthur Christmas' review:

The second computer animated feature from beloved British stop motion specialists Aardman, 'Arthur Christmas' is a thoroughly enjoyable family movie which, in the tradition of festive films, sees an enthusiastic youngster try to save the holiday against all odds. Our Christmas-loving hero of the hour is the titular Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) - the youngest son of the incumbent Santa (Jim Broadbent), himself the latest of a hereditary line of jolly, present-giving fat men dating back to the original Saint Nick.

Something of an overlooked, accident-prone outcast on the North Pole, Arthur customarily spends this time of year replying to children's letters in the shadow of his older brother Steve (Hugh Laurie): the brains behind the family business, groomed as their father's successor. But in Steve's increasingly soulless, mechanised version of Christmas - where presents are delivered via a spaceship manned by teams of high-tech elves - one child has been accidentally overlooked due to technical error. Arthur is horrified when told that Steve - who swears the evening has been a statistical success - won't be going back to deliver little Gwen's (Ramona Marquez) bicycle and takes it upon himself to ensure she wakes up to a gift from Santa, lest her fragile heart be broken.

This daring, covert mission involves pairing up with a former Santa - Arthur's cranky, old fashioned 136 year old grandfather (Bill Nighy) - to pilot a forgotten reindeer-powered sleigh and make the hazardous journey to the girl's Cornwall home before sunrise. But without the benefits of Sat Nav they end up rocketing across several continents facing danger and petty inconvenience along the way - evading everything from hungry African lions to British military fighter jets whilst careening between city streets and mountain ranges in set pieces of effective 3D spectacle.

Aside from the guileless, faultlessly good-natured Arthur, each member of the Christmas clan is written with a touching degree of subtly, with none overtly heroic or particularly villainous. The grandfather is the most fun, constantly coming out with opinions and anecdotes which are well observed, if exaggerated, versions of the sorts of (often offensive) things people of "the greatest generation" say. Meanwhile Broadbent gives his slightly rubbish Santa a touching air of vulnerability. The whole thing benefits from a cynicism free spirit of fun, with action scenes, earnest character development business and everything in between peppered with inspired visual gags, deftly written one-liners and delightfully daft concepts. The result is something that's surprisingly laugh out loud funny, as co-written by long-time Armando Iannucci collaborators Peter Baynham and director Sarah Smith.

'Arthur Christmas' is rated 'U' by the BBFC and is out now in the UK.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

'Margaret' review:

When a completed film spends years gathering dust before a perfunctory release it's usually because the studio behind it is aware said film isn't any good. It's odd then that Kenneth Lonergan's 'Margaret', shot in 2006 and just released at the tail end of 2011, should be earning so many rave reviews from critics. Apparently its time in cinema purgatory was the result of a protracted legal clash between the writer-director and 20th Century Fox over the final cut, with Martin Scorsese and long-serving editor Thelma Schoonmaker eventually brought in to mediate between the two - producing a final cut which runs at two and a half hours. The result is one of the year's most emotionally affecting and thought-provoking dramas - even if its protagonist is comfortably one of the most infuriating screen creations of recent memory.

The drama exists principally in the "moral gymnasium" of Lisa Cohen, a high school student played by a fresh-faced Anna Paquin, who is the unwitting cause of a traffic accident which sees a woman (Allison Janney) killed by a speeding bus - the immediate aftermath of which is truly, utterly harrowing. Lonergan's sprawling follow-up to 2000's 'You Can Count On Me' is chiefly about taking responsibility for your actions - something Lisa spends about two hours and twenty minutes singularly failing to do, intruding on and causing trouble in several other people's lives in the process. Her mother (J. Smith-Cameron), a successful Broadway actress, bares the brunt of her contemptuous attitude and insensitivity most fully, though a mild-mannered English teacher (Matthew Broderick), a hunky "math" teacher (Matt Damon) and the friend's and family of the deceased also have to deal with her inexhaustible pouting, arguing and self-important drivel. And firmly in her cross-hairs is Mark Ruffalo as the bus driver who Lisa is determined to see punished for the accident in order to assuage her own guilt.

Lisa is a brilliantly written character. She's truly horrific, yet she isn't a caricature and Lonergan's treatment of her is infinitely humane. I even related to her a little: she's a perfectly observed example of youthful know-it-all-ness. She literally has an answer for everything, never listens to anybody and asserts half-formed, confused opinions about the world as if they are ironclad facts - often seeming foolish in the process (such as when she vents her frustration with an extremely helpful detective by irrelevantly chiding him about the history of racially motivated police brutality). She consistently chooses her friends with unfailing superficiality, being nasty to both the boy who earnestly likes her (John Gallagher, Jr.) and Broderick's affable teacher, whilst sucking up to the cool kid (Kieran Culkin) and Damon's square-jawed hunk. If that reads like a cliché, then it's one Lonergan survives because he writes all of these people equally nice, rather than creating any goodies and baddies. It's more important what Lisa projects onto these people, without consideration of their feelings, than who they actually are.

'Margaret' is a brilliantly conceived character study and never less than compelling as a look at life in the shadow of tragedy, even if it's theme rich and character packed to the point of distension (I haven't even mentioned the incongruity of Jean Reno as Colombian lothario Ramon). But conceived in the more immediate aftermath of 9/11, it's disquieting how relevant it remains to the political moment given its protracted post-production period. Set in New York, with heavy emphasis placed on the city, there are frequent heated exchanges about the rights and wrongs of American foreign policy between Lisa and a Syrian classmate. Here Lisa's refusal to at least share responsibility for the accident is presented as having moral equivalence to her nation's emotional, reactionary blindness towards the human cost of the "war on terror". The fact that this element of the film still registers (even a reference to a disliked "current President" survives the change in administrations) is a monument to how little has changed in the last half-decade.

'Margaret' is rated '15' by the BBFC and on a limited release in the UK now.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

'We Have A Pope' review:

Nanni Moretti's new comedy opens on a grieving Vatican as throngs of Catholic mourners mass in the streets following the death of a pope. They are sombre but also excited because, inside the corridors of power, Cardinals from around the world have gathered to agree upon a new pontiff. After several inconclusive rounds of voting - tied between the bookmakers favourites - the assembled religious leaders turn to a surprise candidate: the humble, shell shocked Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli). Melville, succumbing to peer pressure, reluctantly assumes the mantle of pope, but before he can be introduced to the waiting world he suffers a massive anxiety attack, brought on by feelings of inadequacy, and runs away screaming. Desperate to find a quick solution to this crisis, the Vatican's press officer (Jerzy Stuhr) calls in the self-proclaimed world's best psychoanalyst (Moretti), an atheist.

'We Have A Pope' reads like a recipe for high concept comedy and possibly even a ballsy satire of the papacy. Yet those expecting a damning indictment of the institution will be disappointed. Moretti declines to make cracks at paedophile priests or the church's irresponsible position on contraception in Africa. However there is some implicit criticism of the church which comes in two flavours: the first of these is a recurring joke which sees Moretti mix the sacred with the mundane. Here the Cardinals are made to appear slightly ridiculous - if in an affectionate, gentle way - as they play volleyball in full regalia. Elsewhere they are made to behave like slightly naughty schoolchildren. They are not exactly portrayed reverently, though their religious conviction is never placed in doubt.

The second (and much more effective) way in which Moretti critiques the church is in the organisation's handling of Melville. This is effectively the story of a bewildered old man being bullied into spending his last few years sitting in a glass box being waved at. Forgoing a lot of easy laughs, Moretti treats Melville's sudden depressive episode with utmost compassion and, in the second half, tips the film towards drama rather than out-and-out farce. It's possible that a lot of the comedy is in delivery and doesn't carry over if (like me) you can't understand Italian, because Melville's scenes - as he goes AWOL and wanders around Rome - struck me as more sad than funny. Moretti's analyst character certainly is funny, but - beyond one initial (hilarious) scene as he's introduced - his story is quite separate from Pope Melville's belated odyssey of self-discovery.

'We Have A Pope' is a strange film that doesn't go where many will expect it to - or indeed want it to. It could be considered frustrating, toothless and too slight, and I can certainly see all of those criticisms in it. But if taken on its own terms I think it's quite a poignant and faultlessly humane look at how a frail, mentally ill person in such a position would struggle to find compassion or understanding amongst peers who deny the existence of depression - especially in one supposedly selected by God. In their one scene together, the analyst is not allowed to ask Melville any of the questions he might usually ask his patients. Discussions of childhood, repressed sexual desires, his mother and dreams are among those declared off limits by the pope's advisers, who insist the session takes place in the middle of a large room full of Cardinals. It is said you can feel all alone in a crowd of people. Moretti, almost without judgement, is asking us to imagine how it must feel to be pope.

'We Have A Pope' is out now in the UK, rated 'PG' by the BBFC.

Monday, 19 December 2011

'Las Acacias' review:

Pablo Giorgelli's little Argentine road movie 'Las Acacias' tells a simple story with minimal incident and even less dialogue. In it a long-distance lorry driver called Rubén (Germán de Silva) reluctantly drives a stranger, Jacinta (Hebe Duarte), and her baby girl all the way from Paraguay to Buenos Aires at the behest of his (unseen) boss. It's really just these two characters and an adorably smiley baby - probably the cutest on record - sitting in a lorry not talking to each other very much for 85 minutes. They make a couple of short stops, but otherwise the film is comprised of real-time snatches of this epic and awkward drive.

As with all road movies the journey is part metaphor, paralleling the development of the characters, though unlike most road movies there is little, if any, emphasis on landscapes. What we see of the overcast Argentine countryside is gleaned incidentally through the cabin window, with Giorgelli's camera more interested in - for want of a less pretentious turn of phrase - the landscape of the human face. The story takes a predictable arc and is far less compelling the talkier it becomes, as Rubén and Jacinta become more at ease in each other's company, but for the first half the emotional story is told with laudable economy, through glances and emphasis on small details.

For instance, it is notable that Rubén is uneasy when he finds he'll be driving a mother and child. Later Rubén swigs a bottle of water without any thought of offering it to his passengers, which gives us some indication of his reluctance to let them into his life. As he washes we see a large scar across his abdomen, emblematic of the emotional scars he carries - which we will come to understand as he opens up. His gestures become less misanthropic and he realises that his chosen life of isolation on the road is not necessarily where it's at. So it goes.

This reliance on visual metaphor might seem heavy-handed when read on the page but it's carried off with a pleasing degree of subtlety. This premise could probably have made a more compelling, not to mention tighter, twenty minute short without really losing anything other than the sense of time spent on the road. (As a case in point, the above trailer more or less contains all the key events in the narrative (and in order) in around 100 seconds.) Though in spite of this incredibly slight story, Giorgelli's film never really comes close to outstaying its welcome.

'Las Acacias' is out now in the UK and rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

My Top 30 Films of 2011: 10-1

This is the concluding part of my 2011 top 30 films list. You can read the previous entries here: 30-21 and 20-11.

10) Pina, dir Wim Wenders, GER

What I said: "[Wenders'] use of space, the way he stages the action, is just incredible and wholly new, whilst the cinematography and camerawork is beautiful to behold. 'Pina' is a technical masterpiece and a bold piece of work all ways around. Watching it I was struck by how conceivably any film characterised by incredible blocking and interesting use of space would not only work in [3D] but would in fact be enhanced by it... 'Pina' proves there is a place for 3D in the arthouse and in the hands of auteurs."

3D adds depth, obviously, but is that useful and if so how? Its advocates often compare stereoscopy to the additions of sound and colour, yet it seems clearer to us what those advancements have enabled filmmakers to convey from a dramatic or artistic standpoint. A Marx Brothers comedy would simply not work if we couldn't hear Groucho's rapid-fire one-liners, whilst 'The Wizard of Oz' would probably not dazzle us so much if it remained in black and white after Dorothy set foot in the fantasy realm of the title. But, by comparison, what does 3D offer and what do we stand to lose without it? How can the addition of depth be used beyond the initial spectacle, in order to assist a director in telling a particular type of story or giving a very specific experience?

This year 3D has been used by some heavyweight talents, whose movies are perhaps more familiar to arthouse patrons than mass audiences. Werner Herzog used the technique to give us a rare glimpse inside the Chauvet caves in 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams', whilst Martin Scorsese had a lot of fun with its possibilities making 'Hugo' (more on that below). But it's really Wim Wenders who has provided the most compelling evidence that 3D can undeniably add something to a cinema experience that you'd miss greatly if it were taken away. I'd watch most other 3D movies in 2D with minimal complaint, but to me it seems central to what made Wenders' 'Pina' work.

A quasi-documentary, the film is a tribute to the late experimental dance artist Pina Bausch, bringing together a series of dance sequences as performed by her troupe. These expressionistic pieces range from harrowing to comical to downright bizarre and are separated by passionate monologues delivered by those who knew her, talking about Bausch's character and attitude to art. The 3D allows us to appreciate the dances more fully than we might otherwise, giving a proper sense of how the performers negotiate space. Wenders shoots almost every scene from a slightly elevated angle that emphasises the depth of each frame and gives us the best possible view of Bausch's inimitable choreography.

9) The Skin I Live In, dir Pedro Almodóvar, SPA

What I said: "When reviewing so-called "World Cinema" you often encounter brilliant films that you know stand next to no chance of reaching a wide audience. For most 'Of Gods and Men' would be far too austere and ponderous, whilst even 'The Tree of Life' was far too esoteric for the crowds that flocked to see "that Brad Pitt movie". Yet 'The Skin I Live In' has such tremendous, heartening potential for cross-over appeal, thanks to its tight, well-paced and surprise-filled story. It's never less than engaging for a single frame and, with its ruminations on identity and moral complexity (to put it lightly), must also rank among the year's most intelligent and thought-provoking films."

It's a slightly tawdry premise in keeping with the bulk of director Pedro Almodóvar's filmography, handled with the same mix of black humour, cheerful amorality and brightly lit, intensely colourful cinematography. In 'The Skin I Live In' a mysterious prisoner (Elena Anaya) is kept locked up within the mansion of a mad scientist (Antonio Banderas). He's a world class plastic surgeon and it becomes clear that this beautiful woman has undergone extensive, experimental surgery transforming her unrecognisably from whoever she once was. But who is she?

Seldom does a plot twist have this much impact on me, but 'The Skin I Live In' kept me guessing all the way through and, when the big reveal is made, left me gasping. Almodóvar very cleverly misdirects the viewer, making them draw conclusions throughout which, with each passing scene, make events seem more outrageous and Banderas' character seem ever more psychotic. But beyond this guessing game the film is surprisingly profound as an exploration of identity. To what extent are we defined by what we look like and how people treat us? Are we much more than the skin we inhabit?

8) Rise of the Planet of the Apes, dir Rupert Wyatt, USA

What I said: "'Rise' is a dramatic story first and an action film second and this all comes courtesy of [Andy] Serkis and WETA. It is a combination of a skilled character actor and tremendous animators that creates such a compelling and credible character in Caesar. A chimp adopted by James Franco's scientist after his mother is killed in the lab, he is the focus of the entire film and we follow him from newborn to energetic teenager, before he is brutalised and locked away. Caesar then (perhaps reluctantly) takes up the mantle of revolutionary leader to free apes from their human oppressors, grappling with moral and existential concerns along the way. What nuance the film has is in this journey, as key moments include subtle looks in the ape's eyes as we see his worldview change wordlessly."

The human characters - who include James Franco and Freida Pinto - might be a little bland, but 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' is all about the titular chimps as they get smart and begin a revolution which will (eventually) lead to the crazy, upside down world of the original 60s movie. As nominal head of the ape revolution, Caesar is the focus of the story - as played by Andy Serkis in a masterpiece of motion capture performance - and we see events through his eyes, coming to empathise with the apes rather than our own kind. But it's more than just an animal welfare story, with the apes' rise emblematic of how a mistreated underclass may act if pushed too far. That the press screening I attended coincided with the London riots was lost on no one.

I think a large part of my loving it also came from the film's use of the city of San Francisco, where I had been only weeks before the screening. Hitherto unknown director Rupert Wyatt shoots the city in a way which is entirely consistent with the real layout and - although the climactic (magnificently staged) battle takes place on the Golden Gate Bridge - he doesn't overdose on landmarks. I was also really amazed by how credible Wyatt's movie is able to make the entire 'Apes' premise. How is it possible for chimps to organise the overthrow of mankind, with all our guns and helicopters? This is how.

As the marvellously dystopian credits rolled, my cheering for the apes gave way to the realisation that it would soon be curtains for mankind. Proof if it were needed that we will basically root for anything if asked to by a filmmaker.

7) Hugo, dir Martin Scorsese, USA

What I said: "'Hugo' is not the most exciting, consistent or perfectly structured children's film you'll ever see. In fact it often seems like a slick piece of educational programming rather than a fun family movie - with the slapstick chases around the station the least effective sequences. It's almost as if Scorsese has engineered a self-indulgent piece of fan fiction as a clandestine way to educate children about the art form he loves and give some of his favourite film clips a fresh airing for a new audience. But as a fellow lover of cinema I find this entirely admirable. It's heartening to see such an unabashed celebration of art."

It's perhaps not an entirely successful family film, seeing as how every person I've spoken to saw it with only half a dozen middle aged men for company, but 'Hugo' made me smile with its brazen, unapologetic love for cinema. It's less a children's adventure story than an excuse for Martin Scorsese to show us all his favourite silent movie clips and even stage an overdue lifetime's achievement evening for cinema's first magician Georges Méliès. Though it hardly matters when the result is this joyful and affirmative about the importance of art - as well as the preservation, history and criticism of that art.

I worry that it's ended up only preaching to the converted, though I fancy a lot of kids would find themselves inspired by Martin Scorsese's beautiful cinema history lesson, even if just as many were bored to tears. And whilst not as experimental or accomplished as that in 'Pina', the use of 3D here is another powerful statement of intent from a respected pro. Scorsese may be approaching 70 but he's clearly still every bit as excited about the future and the possibilities of his medium as anyone.

6) Hanna, dir Joe Wright, GER/UK/USA

What I said: "The first time we hear anything of the intricate, energetic Chemical Brothers score is when Hanna makes a conscious decision to leave the safety of life with he father and accept her deadly mission. The music makes her anxiety and excitement palpable, and every time we hear it subsequently – such as when she is escaping from a military facility in a spectacularly choreographed light show – it forms part of a hyper-stylised representation of Hanna’s psyche. When soldiers surround her log cabin near the start of the film, the score stands for the nervous anticipation of first contact with people other than her father. In this way 'Hanna' is an example of proper cinema which, rather than being a slave to dialogue, tells its story through the harmonious marriage of sound and image – and with magnificent economy."

An exuberant, hi-octane modern fairytale, 'Hanna' is a coming of age story about one young woman whose years in near isolation are ended suddenly, opening up a new world of senses, sounds and experiences. The titular teen assassin (Saoirse Ronan) spans Europe, running for her life to a breathless Chemical Brothers score, chased by a wicked witch (Cate Blanchett's obsessive CIA operative) and her campy German goons (led by Tom Hollander). Director Joe Wright tells a very simple story with singular vision and confidence, with sound and image merging together in a way that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

I liked it the first time I saw it, especially because of its immensely capable if socially challenged heroine, but only really started loving it on repeat viewing where it all started to make much more sense. It's the sort of film I find literally mesmerising, in that I'd be compelled to continue watching it if I saw a single scene.

5) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, dir Tomas Alfredson, UK/FRA

What I said: "This is not a glossy, establishment picture of Britain we're being sold. It's a world very alien from that James Bond inhabits, as our spies juggle with mundane concerns and petty office politics as well as the very real risk of death at the hands of enemy agents. It's a film where our heroes spend most of the movie secretly investigating their friends and, in effect, battling their own government whilst (ironically) trying to catch out one charged with doing the same. Seldom have the words "we're not so very different you and I" seemed less like hollow cliche as they do here, as [protagonist George] Smiley - not an idealist or ardent anti-communist by any standard - ponders on the moral equivalence of it all."

The source of more violent disagreements than any other on this year's entire top 30 list, Tomas Alfredson's follow-up to 'Let the Right One In' is not to everybody's taste. It's cold, slow, complicated and packs little action. There isn't much to be gained here by trying to guess who the Soviet spy is either, with little effort made to plant seeds, and I don't think that's the intention anyway: the reveal is supposed to be anti-climactic and disappointing (a fact which is clear in the novel). For a film which, on the face of it, promises to be a Cold War thriller, it isn't exactly thrilling. It's in many ways the anti-Bond, where spies live quiet, unfulfilled lives and never get the girl. Yet as a study of isolation and faded idealism it can't be beat.

I enjoyed Afredson's adaptation so much that I read John le Carré's original novel (which I also enjoyed greatly) straight afterwards and discovered, to my delight, that the film version still holds up incredibly well. The novel is, of course, much bigger: with more detail, more incident and a greater number of characters. But viewing the film subsequently I don't think there's anything important missing, as Peter Straughan's screenplay combines with Alfredson's eye for the smallest detail to ensure everything is there, even if it's only captured in a glance or a brief close-up. 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' is a film that rewards those who watch films with both eyes open and their brain switched on. It desires to be read, studied and actively engaged with - not merely because of the labyrinthine plotting, but because Alfredson shows all and tells almost nothing.

It needn't be said that Gary Oldman gives a performance of understated brilliance as protagonist George Smiley (a man of more advanced years than his own), whilst everyone else, from Colin Firth to Mark Strong, is also terrifically cast and linger in the memory even with minimal screen time. Especially Tom Hardy as cocky maverick Ricki Tarr and Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam, here re-conceived as a closet homosexual.

4) Captain America: The First Avenger, dir Joe Johnston, USA

What I said: "The best thing about Johnston’s Captain America is that it’s completely earnest... Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers is played almost completely straight. Other characters make jokes about his shrimpy pre-experiment figure, but Steve himself is on the level. When asked why he wants to kill Nazis he delivers what is, for me, the film’s key line of dialogue: “I don’t want to kill anybody. I just don’t like bullies.” Laugh if you want but that’s a glorious sentiment at a time when cold-hearted revenge movies are at a premium. It also serves to ensure that Steve’s wish to go to the front isn’t because he is some kind of wide-eyed boy adventurer who never read any Wilfred Owen... He isn’t an alpha-male douchebag, he’s a little guy motivated by a desire to protect the weak from the strong. His motivations are pretty much that simple and it makes for a likable, surprisingly compelling character, with Evans a thoroughly engaging presence from beginning to end."

My most controversial choice here, by some distance, 'Captain America: The First Avenger' is not a film I suspect will register on the best film lists of even the most blockbuster-friendly critics. But it's no fluke that I've put it here. I've seen it four times since release at the time of writing, and I've enjoyed it just as much on each occasion. In fact the last time I saw it I was moved to tears (I honestly was) by its simple, honest charm and unimpeachable good nature.

You see, as someone who was bullied and carries a certain amount of insecurity and anxiety with him as a result, a hero like Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) means a great deal. He's a man defined by weakness of body and faltering health; a man whose every day has been lived as the butt of every punchline. Yet he's kind and compassionate to a fault in spite of it all. This is his greatest strength: he is basically a nice guy. Living in 40s New York, Steve believes in everything America represented and without question. He believes in the idea of America regardless of the reality and this is something Joe Johnston's comic book adaptation allows this unambiguous hero to do without sniggering and covering its ass with irony.

It's completely earnest and totally lacking in cynicism. Which is - beyond being admirable - disarmingly brave in an age where ironic distance is a knee-jerk response for so many. When Rogers is made a beefcake super soldier, and assumes the mantle of Captain America, we don't hate this newly muscle-bound Adonis because he remains at heart the same weedy kid with wide-eyes and good intentions, not intent on killing enemies but solely set on protecting the weak against the strong.

But beyond the fact it clearly touched me on a personal level, it also made me smile - almost more than anything else this year. Alan Silvestri's triumphant score accompanies daringly stylised visuals from Johnston, reminiscent of his 90s flop 'The Rocketeer' and with a definite Steven Spielberg's 'Amazing Stories' vibe. There is even a song, with lyrics by Disney veteran Alan Menkin, sung by chorus girls during a sparkly USO show (my favourite section of the film). In 2D the special effects look somehow much less impressive - and the ending is more about setting up next year's 'The Avengers' than closing Johnston's movie - but I could care less. I just plain love this movie.

3) Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, dir Takashi Miike, JAP

What I said: "With '13 Assassins' Miike playfully mocked Japanese tradition and criticised the country's historic cultural values. He questioned why honour and death are so often linked and had his heroes kick dirt in their enemies faces - fighting for survival rather than as part of some slickly choreographed pageant. Here these criticisms are foregrounded. Social class, poverty and a culture of obligation are targets, as well as the wisdom of bushido. And just as the child-murdering, woman-deforming lord in '13 Assassins' represented all that's contradictory about a society which saw swordplay as equivalent to penmanship and poetry - outwardly representing all that was considered beautiful - in 'Hara-Kiri' such vanity is attacked again."

Takashi Miike is fast becoming one of my favourite active filmmakers, having produced two masterful samurai epics (probably the greatest of all genres) in as many years. I find it hard to choose between this and '13 Assassins' (high up on last year's list) but at the moment I'm leaning towards regarding 'Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai' as the superior film - even if it's far less exciting in terms of visceral bloody action.

What I really like about 'Hara-Kiri' is that it takes Miike's subversion of tradition and satire of violence to new levels as he abandons his usual fun, anarchic sensibility to make a heartfelt and passionate period melodrama. In this deeply humanist film, Miike contrasts real honour and courage with the pretence of honour, found in ritualised (dehumanising) behaviour. I don't want to repeat myself, so I'll just put a link to my review here - if you're interested in how he subverts feudal Japanese values and why I loved it so much.

The film is also notable in that it's the first straight drama I've seen designed for 3D (in fact it's the first 3D film in history to play in competition in Cannes) and it works very well. It seems entirely appropriate that a film involving the elaborate and precise staging of a ritual should wish to fully exploit depth and create a sense of space, though this also has a dramatic effect, distancing our hero from those who sit in judgement and occupy more lofty positions in society.

2) A Separation, dir Asghar Farhadi, IRN

What I said: "[A Separation] is a tightly made ensemble piece that is as enthralling as it is tear-inducing. It is quite simply the best film I have seen so far this year and the first film to really knock me for six at [this year's Berlin Film Festival]. A human story of great social relevance as well as unmatched depth of feeling. Sincere, passionate and intelligent."

I feel as though I've been going on about this one all year - since even before it had a localised English title and I was still calling it 'Nader and Simin: A Separation' - following its triumph in Berlin. It was, without doubt, the best film I saw at that festival, though that's taking nothing away from the competition because 'A Separation' is a film of singular greatness. It tells a morally complex story populated by well-rounded, fully-formed characters. It would be possible to pick any character and side with them fully in this feud between two families (divided by class and religion) who go to a "family court" in Tehran to solve a highly complex dispute.

Director Asghar Farhadi reserves judgement on proceedings almost entirely, allowing his camera to act as an impartial observer and in doing so gives us a very humane, apolitical account of life in his country. It isn't as stylishly shot as many of the other films on this list, though it's certainly handsomely made, but in this case the content more than justifies the form (making it pretty much the opposite of 'Drive').

1) Melancholia, dir Lars Von Trier, DEN

What I said: "Von Trier has long been able to dazzle critics with his technique and 'Melancholia' is an immensely beautiful film, comprised of haunting and truly spectacular images from start to finish. Taken at face value the impending apocalypse plot is also dramatic and terrifying. But more significantly, what we have here is his most candid and revealing film. It's thought-provoking, personal, earnest and far less oblique than some of his previous work."

A highly personal choice, as I hope you'll appreciate from my review (and my evangelical, hyper-passionate podcast on the subject), 'Melancholia' has divided critics this year but I was among those deeply moved and inspired by it. Having struggled with depression myself over the years I find Kirtsen Dunst's star turn here as deeply affecting as Von Trier's stunningly realised story, which works in its own right as intriguing doomsday sci-fi. Here the imminent destruction of the planet by another heavenly body is a potent metaphor for the suffocating, world-ending effects of the illness.

But forgetting my personal attachment to the themes, 'Melancholia' is also a beautiful experience full of droll satire and deftly-observed social observations. The art design and special effects are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, whilst there isn't a bad performance among the terrific cast. I can't think of a more perfect film this year. It beats out long-time frontrunner 'A Separation' by virtue of Von Trier's virtuosity and because of the deep, personal connection I feel to every minute I spent locked in this world.

'Melancholia', for me anyway, perfectly captures what it feels like to be depressed and, as a result, I can't imagine a film less depressing or more life-affirming. Often knowing that someone else is going through a similar thing can be helpful and there is no greater thrill than seeing my own scattered thoughts and feelings distilled in this way, far more competently conveyed than I could hope to do in words. He might have pissed a lot of people off with his daft comments at Cannes earlier this year, but Lars Von Trier has helped me a great deal and I will be forever thankful.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows' review:

Since surpassed in the imagination of the British public by a (by all accounts) brilliant BBC TV series, Guy Ritchie's 'Sherlock Holmes' was something of a surprise box office smash back in 2009, despite coming out in the shadow of James Cameron's world-conquering 'Avatar'. The script was alright, Ritchie's direction mercifully restrained and the action marginally above average, so I suspect the chief reason for its success was the appeal of charismatic "women love him, men want to be him" leading man Robert Downey Jr as a scruffy, debauched version of literature's most celebrated detective. His on-screen chemistry with Jude Law's Dr. Watson certainly helped matters and the material was elevated substantially whenever they appeared together, becoming damned funny. The film took over $500 million worldwide and revived Ritchie's flagging career in the process. A sequel was inevitable.

Two years later that sequel has arrived in the form of 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows'. It's basically the same film again with a bigger budget, more action, less restrained direction from Ritchie (whose handling of action is cumbersome and over-reliant on slow-mo) and with Rachel McAdams traded in for Sweden's Noomi Rapace (of 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' fame) as a stock fiery gypsy. Stephen Fry is an amusing if underused addition as Holmes' brother Mycroft, whilst 'Mad Men' actor Jared Harris is terrific as long-term adversary Professor Moriarty - the detective's intellectual equal and evil opposite. But all the superficial changes and cast additions are ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that Downey Jr and Law are together again, playing the characters as barely repressed homosexual lovers.

If in the first film the duo's status as quarreling lovers was arguably just a gag: a riff on the incongruity of two ostensibly straight men having "domestic" arguments. In the sequel this subtext is much more pronounced, being felt in the plot as, for instance, one catalytic event sees Holmes, in drag, preventing a newlywed Watson's honeymoon. McAdams reprises her love interest role at the beginning but, tellingly, she is removed from the equation before the credits.

Rapace is nominally her replacement, yet there is never even the pretense of a romance this time round. Holmes even cuts short a dance with her in favour of his handsomely moustached friend. Holmes, who is vocally opposed to Watson getting married, is even openly pleased when he is forced to delay the consummation of Watson's marriage, announcing that their own "relationship" is not over. "Relationship?" queries Watson. "Partnership", says Holmes as though to correct himself - though we know the best mind of his generation never misspeaks.

This conflicted, unspoken love is deeply embedded in Holmes' character arc and the resolution of the story. He only bothers defeat Moriarty because he refuses to leave Watson alone and it is only through Holmes exiting the picture that Watson might be able to go along with married life. The filmmakers of course will tell you this love is Platonic, but through their sly delivery and knowing glances Law and Downey Jr infuse this otherwise rote action flick with a delicious hint of sexual ambiguity. The implicit romance between these male leads is what gives the film its slightly subversive energy, allows the madcap bits to work and provides the emotional bits some semblance of weight.

'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows' is out now and rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

My Top 30 Films of 2011: 20-11

This is the second part of my 2011 top 30 films list/shameless vanity exercise. If you haven't already read through entries 30-21, then do so here.

20) Midnight in Paris, dir Woody Allen, USA

What I said: "It is fair to say my expectations for 'Midnight in Paris' were set extremely low - especially given that Allen's last film ['You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger'] was utterly abysmal. But for the first time in what feels like a decade, I absolutely loved a new Woody Allen film, almost without qualification. For the first time since childhood I laughed at one of his movies: not knowing laughs of polite recognition, but hearty, belly laughs. For the first time in around a decade, here is a Woody Allen film with imagination."

"Return to form" is an overused phrase critics have trotted out to describe almost every Woody Allen film since the early 90s. His fall from talent has been exaggerated in part because, however enjoyable 'Whatever Works' might be, it's never going to measure up alongside the man's most iconic 70s masterpieces, 'Annie Hall' and 'Manhattan'. Allen has gone from being mentioned in the same company as Fellini and Bergman, to being merely considered occasionally brilliant. Had an unknown director given us 'Deconstructing Harry' or 'Sweet and Lowdown', perhaps critics (and audiences) would have been more enthusiastic.

In any case, this year's Woody Allen film, 'Midnight in Paris', not only warrants the phrase "return to form" but also, for the first time in a long time, lives up to its billing as a comedy. Unlike the banal dramas that have followed in the wake of the dreary 'Match Point', here is an Allen movie that has the sort of bizarre premise he used to be known for, with time travel central to the plot as Owen Wilson's Gil Pender travels between modern Paris and its boisterous 1920s past. Allen's shooting of the city itself could be dismissed as the dreaded "tourist's eye view", but he shoots Paris as romantically as he's ever shot his beloved New York. It exists here as Pender imagines it, without cynicism: as a place of unimpeachable beauty and radiant charm.

19) Caves of Forgotten Dreams, dir Werner Herzog, FRA/USA/GER

What I said: "It seems clear to me that the man who once pulled a steamboat over a mountain is again revelling in a self-imposed impossible challenge, perhaps as a reaction against the fact that he is forced to use amateur cameras for the expedition. It is entirely possible that [Herzog] only considered making the film [in 3D] due to the fact that it wouldn’t even have occurred to anyone else that it could be. “One small, inexpensive camera? I bet I can do a 3D film this way” I can imagine him saying to himself, as if for his own sense of pride and amusement. It’s bonkers and brilliant, especially when he attaches a small RC helicopter to his camera in order to pull off a series of sweeping 3D aerial shots of a ravine, all on a micro budget."

For me the release of a new Werner Herzog documentary is a keenly awaited cinematic event that never disappoints. He asks strange and profound questions that wouldn't occur to anybody else, seeking out odd, often dangerous, subject matter armed only with a grim Teutonic stare. Yet for all the bad impressions of his distinctive narration, Herzog manages to seem sincere and unpretentious even when he chooses to end a documentary on pre-historic cave paintings musing on the significance - and possible future proliferation - of "mutant albino crocodiles".

'Cave of Forgotten Dreams', filmed innovatively in lo-fi 3D, takes us into the Chauvet cave in southern France - thought to be home to the earliest examples of human art, hosting elaborate cave paintings over 30,000 years old. It's a revealing documentary which, like the best history, explores how similar our ancestors were to us as opposed to sensationally playing up superficial differences (what I like to call the "how did Henry VIII go to the toilet?" line of enquiry). Here Herzog suggests the paintings provide us a glimpse into the aspirations of the artists who painted them - showing us how they perceived the world around them: a Europe filled with bears, tigers and rhinos, yet familiar in surprising ways. At one point he describes the paintings as a kind of "proto-cinema", projecting dreams onto the walls of a darkened room. Whatever you make of that, it's difficult to watch this existential documentary in anything other than a state of awe.

18) The Tree of Life, dir Terrence Malick, USA

What I said: "'The Tree of Life' offers a simplistic and idealistic version of nature and of our place within it, where spirituality is unchallenged from its dominant Hollywood position where it stands for "depth" and "truth". In this way Malick has made a movie which supports the dominant ideology almost wholeheartedly, however ambitious it might be in scale. It's a seductive tapestry and, in a few instances, it is genuinely heartfelt, yet something is missing. The anti-war sentiment of 'The Thin Red Line' and its critique of capitalism ("the whole thing's about property") or the nihilistic, satirical edge of 'Badlands', seem like they come from a very distant place from 'The Tree of Life', which unambiguously advocates an intelligent design view of life on our planet. Religion has always formed a large part of the sub-text, and even the text, of Malick movies - but never to the same extent as this passionate hymn."

I'm deeply conflicted about where I stand on Terence Malick's 'The Tree of Life'. I don't share its creators reductive, idyllic view of nature - which reaches its nadir during one preposterous sequence in which carnivorousness dinosaur shows a wounded herbivore compassion. Nor do I particularly care about the questions he is asking in relation to the increasingly trite concept of "faith", let alone God and/or heaven (tweely presented as a beach where we can hang out with all our favourite people). It's a sappy, sun-soaked, slightly ponderous film, however technically accomplished, and its place at the apex of so many other "best of 2011" lists will likely always be a thing of mystery to me.

So why is it on my list? Why have I placed it higher up than, say, 'Midnight in Paris', which I adored? Simply because no other film has inspired as much debate this year and because few other films (and I mean in history) have been as ambitious. This is a movie which gives you the beginning of time, the end of time (by far the most impressive sequence emotionally and cinematically), Sean Penn living in the future, Brad Pitt living in the 1950s and CGI dinosaurs. It's a film that exists purely to ask big unanswerable questions like "why are we here?", "what is there next?", "do our finite (mortal) existences have meaning?" and, more to the point, trusts cinema at its most visual as a tool to explore them. I applaud the scope of 'The Tree of Life' and the boldness with which it was made. I like that you can spend hours discussing it when the vast majority of movies are forgotten days after leaving the cinema.

17) Attack the Block, dir Joe Cornish, UK

What I said: "Far from being the sustained, middle class wink that I'd feared, 'Attack the Block' is the smart, funny and slickly produced feature that I'd hoped for. As a first time director, Joe Cornish has displayed a level of assuredness that is encouraging and - if he can resist the inevitable overtures of Hollywood - his brand of eye-catching, socially conscious and unpretentious comedy could be a sizable boon for British cinema for years to come."

Thanks to people like Owen Jones - author of one of 2011's best-selling books: Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class - use of the word "chav" is increasingly unfashionable. For the best part of a decade it has been the acceptable face of bigotry in the UK to make glib jokes at the expense of the urban poor, with the fashion, patois and even leisure choices of the country's most disenfranchised social group providing years of material for middle-class, millionaire comedians like Jimmy Carr.

With social class now returning to political discourse, Joe Cornish's 'Attack the Block' could have been ill-timed: the latest tired re-hash of a joke that peaked with Little Britain almost ten years ago (and even then wasn't very funny). A comedy-horror about an alien invasion of a council estate, I worried it might be little more than a series of jokes about people saying "innit blood". Instead it's one of the most timely and significant British films of the year, taking these urban boogie men (young, hoodie-wearing males) and humanising them without condescension.

In fact Cornish manages a very difficult balancing act which involves presenting the kids both as threatening examples of gang culture, not sanitising their manner or attitude to violence as they begin the film robbing a woman at knife-point, whilst also making us care for them and - hopefully - understand their concerns. It's a cultural minefield navigated with preternatural skill and no lack of cinematic flare. There are jokes about the culture, of course, but they are gentle and affectionate rather than just plain derogatory. For instance, one of the gang responds to the alien invasion by saying, without irony, "I wanna go home, lock my door and play FIFA." That's probably the single funniest line of 2011.

16) Thor, dir Kenneth Branagh, USA

What I said: "'Thor' is good value entertainment with its share of climactic fist-pumping moments. It's also not as shallow as you might expect, with pretty well-rounded characters and a sympathetic villain. Its director is best known for adapting Shakespeare for the screen and, had the Bard penned a treatment of the screenplay, it would be easy to imagine this story from the point of view of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as a great tragedy."

For me the year's two biggest surprises have been Marvel comic adaptations, with the unsung and potentially ridiculous 'Captain America' and 'Thor' both far exceeding my meagre expectations. Both exist, primarily, to set up next year's 'The Avengers' superhero team-up movie and, as such, could have been little more than glossy, two hour long trailers (just like 'Iron Man 2'). But both were actually incredibly good blockbusters, far better than the average shlock served up to "the kids" and made with a genuine sense of style. Tightly paced, intelligently realised entertainment.

'Thor', directed by Kenneth Branagh, is made with a great deal of care, love and attention to detail, working from a smart script populated by interesting characters. The story arc of the titular god of thunder (Chris Hemsworth) must go on that familiar trajectory of growth and discovery, yet it doesn't feel contrived or hokey in the least. The performances (notably from Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman) are terrific, the action is exciting and Branagh even manages to suspend audience disbelief enough that we accept an alien world of Viking gods is connected to our own without sniggering. It's a colourful, fun superhero movie that proves you can stick closely to the source material without being either campy or knowing.

Making a big-budget movie version of 'Thor' was a risk on Marvel's part, with the blockbuster success of niche superhero franchises never a sure-fire thing. History is littered with the corpses of 'Daredevil', 'The Fantastic Four', 'The Punisher', 'Hulk', 'Ghost Rider' and, lest we forget, this year's universally panned 'The Green Lantern'. So to make a movie about an alien in a red cape, who comes riding on a rainbow from a world of Viking gods in order to "find himself" with a group of plucky tornado chasers in the New Mexico desert - and to play that concept almost totally straight - was a ballsy move. A move that could have even jeopardised other now co-dependant franchises, such as 'Iron Man'. To greenlight that movie and assign it to a director primarily famous for Shakespeare adaptations? Sometimes the studios get it right.

15) Blue Valentine, dir Derek Cianfrance, USA

What I said: "'Blue Valentine' isn't that sad little emo poem of a movie you might think it is from the poster. It's a riveting film that says as much about love and romantic relationships as any other film I've seen as it bravely and skilfully jumps between emotional extremes with great economy and even subtlety. If it doesn't resonate with you on some level then I can only surmise that you haven't ever left the house. It's one of those movies that makes two hours feel like twenty minutes and leaves you feeling satisfied by the art form you love so much, despite the fact it so often breaks your fragile little heart."

Kicking off "the year of the Gosling", which has since seen the internet meme/indie heartthrob star in 'Drive', 'The Ides of March' and 'Crazy, Stupid, Love', 'Blue Valentine' is the story of a tempestuous relationship between a blue-collar high school dropout (Gosling) and a troubled medical student (Michelle Williams). Williams - as the reining queen of American independent film - is Gosling's female equivalent and the duo brood, pout and sigh through their ups and downs, pausing only to look moodily handsome.

As I contemplated in my original review, 'Blue Valentine' is easy to poke fun at in these terms, especially if you haven't seen it. The thing is it transcends this stereotype and becomes something much more emotionally affecting and much less preening. It was hyped at the time of its American release for supposedly being sexually explicit, though what's striking about the film is actually the rawness of both actors emotional commitment to each new argument or moment of exquisite joy. Unlike the relationships depicted in a lot of lesser movies, the married couple here convince as best friends in the early stages, with genuine chemistry, and do just as good a job portraying the later bitterness as strangers sharing a bed, tied together by a sense of obligation.

14) The Forgiveness of Blood, dir Joshua Marston, USA/ALB

What I said: "It’s old testament justice in the age of Facebook, mobile phone videos and PlayStation games, and the film shows this problem of a country straddling two eras by highlighting the divide between young and old people. Mark [Refet Abazi] is an agricultural worker and yet his eldest son, Nik (Tristan Halilaj), dreams of opening an internet cafe. However, Nik’s dreams – along with those of his siblings – are put on hold after [Mark commits] murder, as custom dictates that they stay in their homes on the understanding that any male who leaves is open to a revenge attack. The children are therefore no longer allowed outside and can not attend school. And though women are generally considered immune from the threat of violence, Nik’s little sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej) is also forced to abandon her dream of going to college as she has to take on the workload of the imprisoned males, which forces her to grow up prematurely."

A difficult film to adequately describe, 'The Forgiveness of Blood' may be set in contemporary Europe but it's so culturally specific to its northern Albanian setting - dealing with barbaric medieval blood feuds that are a widespread occurrence in the region - that it might as well be set on the moon. Director Joshua Marston is an American, but an Albanian co-writer (Andamion Murataj) and a cast primarily made up of local non-actors give this bleak family drama an air of rare authenticity. It's with no small amount of indignation and disbelief that I watched the film, as I never thought a system of institutionalised revenge could exist in a country only a short ferry ride from Italy.

Rather than have me explain the practice in a drawn-out fashion here, I'd recommend you Google "Albanian blood feuds" and have a quick look for yourself. What I will say is that the sense of social isolation and frustration felt by the children in the film is palpable, whilst it's beautiful to look at as it takes you to a place few tourists venture and few movies are set. 'The Forgiveness of Blood' is certainly eye-opening, which would be enough in of itself, yet this is also a brilliantly made film by any standard - as you might expect from the man behind 'Maria Full of Grace'.

13) The Guard, dir John Michael McDonagh, IRE

What I said: "Like the characters of 'In Bruges', Boyle [Brendan Gleeson] has a subversive sense of humour, which rubs [Don] Cheadle’s more disciplined law man up the wrong way. “I thought only black boys were drug dealers” Boyle says incredulously – and it’s never clear whether he is knowingly confrontational or just ignorant. When [Cheadle] is offended by his racism Boyle replies, “I’m Irish. Racism is part of me culture.” To say The Guard is ‘black comedy’ is to put it lightly. In addition to being a heavy drinker, Boyle beds prostitutes and makes extra money from selling firearms to the IRA. The film opens on his observing a car crash only to walk over to the dead body of a teenage victim and frisk it for drugs, which he finds and then uses on the spot."

A terrifically funny film (in fact the highest ranking comedy on this year's list), 'The Guard' is - like Edgar Wright's 'Hot Fuzz' - a routed in the juxtaposition of Hollywood movie police archetypes with rural law enforcement across the pond, in this case the Irish Garda. Don Cheadle's FBI Agent is a dispassionate professional and a less dangerous character than Brendan Gleeson's hedonistic local Gerry Boyle, with whom he is paired in order to track down a group of homicidal drug dealers in the Irish countryside.

Almost every aspect of the film operates on some slightly bizarre comic plane, from the incongruous use of Latin American music in an overcast Northern European setting to Boyle's wholesale lack of anything resembling duty, respect or good taste (always an interesting combination for a hero). There's humour in incidental details too, such as the Daniel O'Donnell poster that hangs on the Irish policeman's bedroom wall. Directed by the brother of 'In Bruges' writer-director Martin McDonagh, 'The Guard' does compare to that film with its pitch black comedy and cleverly written characters, who in both instances have an unexpected innocence which prevents the film from being nasty.

12) We Need to Talk About Kevin, dir Lynne Ramsay, UK

What I said: "Ramsay tastefully avoids depicting the horrific event itself (or indeed many of the preceding horrific events), but even so she manages to make even the most banal instances (a drive through suburbia, a trip to the supermarket) intense and frightening throughout. This has a lot to do with punchy editing, jarring musical choices and a stand out performance from relative unknown [Ezra] Miller."

As with 'The Tree of Life', this is a film I have developed a complicated relationship with. Framed around the questions of nurture vs. nature, we contemplate the "evil" actions of the titular schoolboy (Ezra Miller) and ponder the culpability of his mother (Tilda Swinton). The problem for me is that I don't have any time for the suggestion that evil exists, let alone the idea that it could possibly be an innate property. Therefore one reading of the film leaves me totally unsatisfied, as we are shown a small toddler who seems to maliciously undermine his mother at every turn. The other idea, that the boy's upbringing/environment is to blame for his crimes, is equally lacking, with trite finger-pointing at "the media" and violent video games which fails to treat the issue with appropriate levels of engagement.

It works slightly better if you switch focus from vainly asking "why?" and look at it as a study of Swinton's despairing mother, living in the aftermath of her son's actions. We see her slapped, spat at, harassed at work and out at the supermarket. Her house and car are repeatedly vandalised and her family has been destroyed. What must it be like to live in the shadow of a relative who's committed a famous violent crime? That seems, to me, a more interesting and unorthodox question. And whilst the film doesn't delve too deeply into Kevin's psychology (however brilliantly he's played by Miller), Swinton's performance is full of nuance and depth.

But if the film doesn't totally work for me - at least on its own terms - then why is it so high up this list? The simple answer is because Lynne Ramsay has made one of the scariest, most uncomfortable, most tense films I have ever sat through in a cinema. The permanent sense of unease created by the film owes a lot to the editing, the claustrophobic shooting style and some inspired musical choices. Especially as the climactic acts of violence are never shown. As a sensory experience - and as an acting showcase for Tilda Swinton - 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' is almost unbeatable.

11) Weekend, dir Andrew Haigh, UK

What I said: "Director Andrew Haigh's naturalistic screenplay, along with the fine performances of both leads, brings to life a film of emotional substance and nuance, in which neither character is judged by the filmmaker even as they judge and contradict each other. Glen's cynical take on marriage, as a sort of fay middle class obligation, is every bit as persuasive as Russell's suggestion that the ritual represents a bold public declaration of love. In this way the lengthy, often drug-fuelled, exchanges between them - as they discuss art, sex and gay rights of passage - are always interesting, funny and heartfelt - never sentimental or contrived."

Films are very expensive to produce. That might seem obvious but it's worth pointing out here anyway. This, I would argue, is the reason we don't see many films about homosexuality at the multiplex. Producers will make anything (and I mean anything) as long as they think it stands a chance of making money, which is why we see so many obnoxious movies ostensibly aimed at young, white males. There is a reason 'Fast Five' has that "five" in the title: because films about muscle-bound douchebags blowing stuff up and driving really fast cars consistently reap commercial rewards.

At the risk of seeming naive, I think prejudice and bigotry are less the cause of this kind of thing than cold market forces. Simply put: prove that there's a huge audience for mature movies about homosexuality that aren't tacky or condescending and you might just see three more pop up in its place. 'Weekend' is that pioneering movie: a huge independent sleeper hit that forced cinema after cinema to take it on long after its release date due to fervent popular demand.

'Weekend' is on this list in part because it's a refreshingly frank and, as far as I can tell, honest depiction of a minority group that's under-represented in the mainstream media. It's so high on this list because it's a superbly made film by any standard: sweet, thoughtful and funny, with two terrific lead actors and an intelligent screenplay.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

'My Week With Marilyn' review:

It begins with a sizzle: Michelle Williams is introduced as Marilyn Monroe during a sultry song and dance routine, watched by our besotted, film-obsessed protagonist Colin (Eddie Redmayne) on a cinema screen, in the company of a dozen or so other lecherous men. It's no exaggeration to say Williams makes love to the camera and the sensitive, indie movie actress convinces totally, becoming the hyper-sexual 1950s bombshell before our eyes. Here Colin's leering does something to suggest not only the appeal of Monroe, the movie star, but also the terms upon which she was judged and the slightly sinister way in which audiences implicitly came to own her. Sadly Simon Curtis' movie goes rapidly, dramatically downhill from there.

'My Week With Marilyn' feels like an overwrought Biography Channel drama operating on an unusually high production budget. The presence of Williams - not to mention Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Derek Jacobi, Emma Watson and Dougray Scott - is all there is to remind us that this is in fact a piece of Weinstein-produced Oscar bait and not a straight-to-DVD knock-off. The film follows Monroe during the time she spent in England in the summer of 1956, starring opposite Sir Lawrence Olivier (Branagh) in light comedy romp 'The Prince and the Showgirl' - the production of which was apparently run like a Gulag under the stage legend's Stalin-like gaze and (in one bewilderingly pointless scene) the tyranny of a unionised workforce.

Based on the memoirs of the young Colin Clark, the fraught production's lowly third assistant director, the film sees Redmayne's Colin very much as the centre of attention: instantly loved by Monroe and soon indispensable to Olivier. A key mediator in the ensuing war between the two actors, he's the reason the film is completed. It is even implied he prevented the troubled, pill-guzzling sex symbol from committing suicide - six years before her eventual overdose. By the end of this alternately zany and maudlin adventure he's improbably become trusted confident and bestest friend in the world to both stars. Along the way he also finds time to casually reject the affections of Emma Watson's doe-eyed wardrobe assistant and becomes accustomed to receiving knitwear from an appreciative Dame Sybil Thorndike (Dench), for some apparent off-screen kindness that's best left unimagined.

The film is so obsessed with our old Etonian everyman hero Colin that the more interesting figures who surround him are only painted as wafer thin archetypes. Olivier, who Branagh parodies with 'Wild Wild West' levels of restraint, is glimpsed several times in dramatic, slow-zooming close-up reciting Shakespearian verse - just like Olivier must have frequently done in real life. You know... because he was famous for doing Shakespeare.

Meanwhile Williams is a more troubling proposition as Monroe, playing her emotionally withdrawn moments as though she were a fay, mentally deficient cousin of Mickey Mouse. She may have been troubled, depressed and paranoid but Marilyn Monroe was, by most accounts, a very witty woman and not likely a ditzy airhead. Yet here Monroe is shown as barely able to recall who Leonardo Da Vinci is, let alone correctly identify his picture of "the smiling woman". Fair enough if you're going to be casual with historical figures, but this doesn't make sense within the context of a movie in which an early press conference scene has Monroe wowing British journos with her quick-witted charms and clever turn of phrase.

In isolated moments Williams nails the quiet vulnerability of the character, just as she turns the vivacious sexpot persona on and off, yet these feel like separate extreme caricatures rather than parts of a fully formed, if conflicted, whole. As with 'The Life and Death of Peter Sellers' or Andy Kaufman biopic 'Man on the Moon', 'My Week With Marilyn' is content to paint a reductive (and only superficially deep) picture of its complicated subject. Yet the performances, though campy turns rather than real human beings, are at least watchable. What really kills the film is Adrian Hodges' literal-minded screenplay.

A good 'My Week With Marilyn' drinking came would involve taking a shot 1) whenever someone tells you exactly what they're thinking or feeling; 2) whenever a character explains who somebody is or reminds you what has just happened; or 3) when something is said to underline a point already made through the characters' on-screen actions. The writing is needlessly descriptive, always telling rather than showing (or showing and then telling just in case). Dialogue often sounds like scene-setting narration rather than speech, whilst Olivier and Monroe routinely self-analyse in embarrassing cod psychology.

In 'My Week With Marilyn', the film star's life is presented as one long tragedy, hidden from public view behind moments of immense, if superficial, glamour. This, it turns out, is a very effective metaphor for the film itself, which only attains any sort of life when Williams is called upon to perform as a woman giving a performance.

'My Week With Marilyn' is out now in the UK, rated '15' by the BBFC.