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Sunday, 15 September 2013

Chris Nolan Rises

By now it must be irrefutable that Christopher Nolan is one of the greatest film-makers working today, and I would argue till I am blue in the face with anyone who says he has made a single feature that is not a superb example of the film-making art. He can do it all, complex, thought-provoking, exciting, adventurous, heart-rending, challenging, cerebral. He has taken mind-bending arthouse conception and made it mainstream with 'Memento', he has taken crime drama and elevated it to art with 'Insomnia', made recording slight of hand an unexpected delight with 'The Prestige', but the greatest trick that he ever pulled, his greatest achievement to date must be his realisation of the cinematic holy grail, the one thing that everyone from the business men to the punters; the technicians to the marketeers; the film buffs to the thespians have been craving for decades, an action triology that is good all the way through, an action triolgy that is intellegent, surprising, rewarding and successful. With Batman that is what he has done. Okay, it's not perfect, no film is. In this latest installement there is still a quibble or two. Bane's voice is annoying. Presumably the queer Dickensian tone was chosen to draw a distinction between it and Bale's gravelly drawl, but there is no obvious rationale for such sub Carry On comic accent. Also, Warner Brothers can expect a class action suit for whiplash after the tirade of cuts in the last 15 minutes, but these are quibbles, when the whole is an audaciously grand construction of a scale dwarfing most blockbusters, beautifully capturing the feel of the Batman stories, and not drenching them in stultifying darkness as has been done before, but having the courage to shine a light on the man behind the mask. Because Nolan knows that a blockbuster is just a big empty shell if it is not peopled by living breathing characters. They are here in abundance, and it is the very personal loves, friendships, rivlarlies and hatreds between them that drive the movie, that fill Nolan's magnificent construction with life. And in the end it all pays off, the huge set pieces, the fights, the flashbacks, the fiesty dialogue, the human relationships, every element is resolved, tied up and presented to the viewer with a big bow on it. Nolan knows what we want, he knows how to present it to us, and he provides it to us in spades - satisfaction.

In The Loop

Enjoyable SF effort from emerging auteur Rian Johnson, writer and director of the excellent 'Brick' and the very good (but not excellent) 'Brothers Bloom', 'Looper' is a challenging time-travel yarn, which finds Joseph Gordon-Levitt trying to unpick the tangled plot strands that run through what is a stylish future thriller. The make-up work to alter JGL and make him more Willis-like is remarkably good, and there's a functional matter-of-factness about the technology of the future that makes it easy to accept, a believable near(ish)-future, and the whole thing looks wonderful thanks to DP Steve Yedlin. But 'Looper' is not without issues. Being told more than once not to think about the implications of time travel felt patronising, even when it is the very excellent Jeff Daniels doing the telling - and Mr. J. could have done a lot worse than take a leaf out of the book of the superlative 'Primer' (find it, watch it) and Shane Carruth in that regard. It all goes a bit 'Witness' in the third act, but there is sufficient chemistry between Emily Blunt and JGL that the tension is maintained, and the climax is impactful and highly satisfying. What higher recommendation can there be for Mr. Johnson's abilities than the fact that he has delivered three episodes of the seminal 'Breaking Bad'? We should be awaiting his next project with bated breath.

An Affair to Remember

Often grim, but always enthralling period piece directed by Nikolaj Arcel, who co-wrote the screenplay for the original Swedish produciton of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Arcel is favoured by remarkable performances from his leads. The incomparable Mads Mikkelsen is as intense as ever and commands the screen, while Alicia Vikander gives an accomplished performance as the young queen, but Mikkel Følsgaard as 'mad' Christian must be the standout, he is entirely convincing in a role that clearly demanded a considerable range of emotion and temperament. You will recognise numerous other faces and we should continue to be thankful that Scandanavian cinema is deservedly enjoying so much attention, and broadening our viewing horizons, it is such a rich source of material and talent. 'A Royal Affair' is not an easy watch, like so many historical pieces that chart the lives of monarchs and those around them, there is a thick vein of tragedy running through the story. It is not a film likely to be pulled out on a cold winter's evening for its hearwarming properties, but it is a rewarding experience and should open viewers up to seek others works from Scandanavia's increasingly excellent film industry.

Friday, 2 August 2013

On The Bounce

'Ricochet's strong opening sequence, reminiscent of titles straight from a Hitchcock movie, bodes well and it's Denzel to the max from the opening frames. The film is very much a product of the 80's in its look and sound, and there's a hard edge and some snappy dialogue that really pushes the action forward without pulling any of its numerous punches. This is most likely down to the screenplay being penned by Steven de Souza who wrote Die Hard; Die Hard 2; 48 Hours and Another 48 Hours, some of the previous decades' defining films, aided and abetted by director Russell Mulcahy of Highlander fame. John Lithgow's performance is suitably deranged, Kevin Pollack provides solid support (nice impression in the early stages). It's a good story, not without a Hitchcockian twist or two, arguably not particularly polished as a final product, but still a barrel load of kitschy '80's fun (even though it was released in 1991). Well worth a look, especially for Denzel Washington fans who might have missed it.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Reitman For The Job



Cutting satire from Jason Reitman who also wrote the screenplay, and he directs an excellent cast, some in blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameos. Aaron Eckhart is every inch the unscrupulous and single-minded PR wiz, sauntering through a slightly chaotic series of episodes, surrounded by a host of well drawn characters. The scenes featuring the cabal of Eckhart, Mario Bello (booze) and David Koechner (guns) are biting, and a triumvirate of Robert Duval, JK Simmons and William H. Macy provide the gravitas (sort of!). As if that wasn't enough to keep your attention, there are appearances by Sam Elliot, Rob Lowe, Dennis Miller and Todd Louiso. Katie Holmes plays reporter with her sights on the protagonist well enough. All in all it's an entertaining piece and should get the grey cells going, but for Reitman it perhaps serves best as a warm up for what followed, namely 'Juno' then 'Up in the Air'.

Where's Liam?

'Unknown' is a solid espionage thriller with a very good cast and excellent locations in Berlin, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, and preceded by the Spaniard's third film 'Orphan'. Liam is a rock (not The Rock) in the lead, now thoroughly established as a main man in the action movie business, and he has excellent support from Frank Langella, Diane Kruger and January Jones, but it is Bruno Ganz who steals the show in terms of acting chops as a former Stasi officer, indeed the short scene that he shares with Langella is the film's most tense and poignant, superb acting. There’s something of the feel of Roman Polanski’s ‘Frantic’ in the perilous pursuit through a European capital, although this is a grittier affair and probably the better for it. Not to be confused with 'Taken' which is a completely different animal.

Quack, Quack, Ooops

'A Dangerous Method' is an intriguing intellectual ménage a trois, with compelling work by its leads. Keira Knightley, Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen are uniformly excellent, their sparring enlivening the potentially po-faced historical events that lie behind it. But we are in the hands of a master, and there is no danger of David Cronenberg dropping the metaphorical ball as he wrangles Christopher Hampton's screenplay, from his play 'The Talking Cure', from John Kerr's book ' A Dangerous Method' - are you with me? So how should this make us feel? Well it's a highly enjoyable costumed romp through the early days of psychoanalysis, made with flare and driven by strong performances. There is ample opportunity for DC to provide some signature body-shock moments, which he does, and these are central to a brave turn by Keira Knightley, whose performance is the stand-out (arguably topping the Fass himself, no mean feat). ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ this is not, more like 'Love Actually' Cronenberg style.

Made to Last

A heart-warming ode to life in industrial Britain in the late '60's, 'Made in Dagenham' is a superb film, focused on the plight of female workers in a male-dominated world, and the ladies are well and truly to the fore, none more so than a brilliant Sally Hawkins who gives us a quietly determined and ultimately unshakeable character to root for. Geraldine James and Andrea Riseborough are as good in her support, infusing very different parts with careworn vulnerability and indomitable bravado respectively. And the men are by no means made of straw, the always excellent Bob Hoskins is in top form as the wily union rep, while Daniel Mays makes playing second fiddle an art as the sidelined husband, and there is a rousing performance when Richard Schiff makes a delightfully unexpected appearance as the uncaring American exec. It would be easy to go on rhyming off wonderful turns by fine members of the cast, but two more must be singled out for attention. Miranda Richardson is superbly short-tempered and impatient as woman-at-the-top Barbara Castle, and Roger Lloyd-Pack's performance is a heart-wrenching reminder of a war not so long past at that time. In the end 'Made in Dagenham' is a triumph on many levels, and great credit must go to writer William Ivory and director Nigel Cole, it is worth watching for the production design alone. Made in Britain, Rule Britannia, God Save the Queen, etc.

Friday, 26 July 2013

The 'more the Merrier

Delighful and occasionally infuriating, 'Rushmore' is another Andersonian gem, littered with challenges to the conventions and roles of adulthood. Jason Schwartzman teeters on the brink of believability as Max Fischer, seeming at times to be straining against the physical aspects of the part, but in the end this conceit (JS was only 3 years older than Max at the time) is can be accepted as events breeze past it. All the roles are beautifully inhabited by a fine cast, Bill Murray seemingly effortless as usual, Olivia Williams quietly captivating. The smaller parts tend to flit in and out of the story, but always to great effect and staying in the memory, they contribute to a sweet and highly enjoyable piece with a riproaring conclusion. As expected, the soundtrack is a chocolate box of unexpected but carefully chosen treats, knitted together with original music by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh. Rushmore is a  great pleasure after some initial annoyance, when parents in the audience may have the urge to react to Max's petulance, but it's nicely judged, another diamond on the already glittering path followed by fans of the Fantastic Mr. Wes.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Show Me The Moneyball

'Moneyball' is a good addition to the great pantheon of sports movies, to the credit of to-die-for writing team of Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian, who do their best to refrain from trotting out the old sports movie clichés (there might be the odd one). Director Bennett Miller does not drop the ball, assembling a good looking film that does for sports stats what ‘The West Wing’ did for politics – look for greatness in the future from the man whose previous and first directing job was ‘Capote’.

A particularly nice touch is the interweaving of flashbacks to the back story of Pitt’s ‘Billy Beane’ through the events of the first act. Brad evokes strong memories of Robert Redford in ‘The Natural’, not just in his physical appearance (increasingly craggy) but in his unhurried delivery and deceptively casual style.

The best elements of 'Moneyball' are the conflicts, especially the head butting between Brad Pitt and the Oakland A’s staff (notably Philip Seymour Hoffman), which is crackling – but without the histrionics of say ‘Any Given Sunday’ (although that has its place). Notably, Jonah Hill puts in a nicely judged performance, good to see him in a serious roll, fitting comfortably in the room with Pitt and Hoffman.

At the bottom of the ninth, 'Moneyball' is everything that 'Jerry Maguire' is not. The characters are engaging and the dead pan humour is glorious. Highly recommended.

Friday, 28 June 2013

(Not) Pot Luck

Potiche is a delightful French comedy from Francois Ozon (director of Simming Pool) starring Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu. There is gentle humour but with the style and lightness of touch that one would expect from our European cousins across La Manche. Deneuve and Depardieu are highly watchable, and well supported by the rest of the cast, but it is very much support with Catherine and Gerard at the centre of attention. The plot meanders somewhat, but this need not be a bad thing as it allows some breathing space to take in the beautiful production design that puts the film firmly in mid 1970's France. I cannot help thinking of a comparison with Carry On At Your Convenience as a double bill that would highlight the differences between British and French humour, not to mention culture. That is obviously unfair, since Carry On... was a product of the actual 70's, rather than a film made in 2010 and looking back, but if nothing else Potiche should be taken as a recommendation to go and seek out French comedies of all ages.

Life In The Fast Lane

The Runaways is an entertaining story of the rise and fall of the eponymous band, with good lead performances by Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning as the mainstays of the group, Joan Jett and Cherie Currie. The story itself is a familiar one, no less so because it is probably largely true of the arc of many rock bands, an arc lampooned brilliantly by This is... Spinal Tap, and you will see comparisons between this film and that comic fiction, but what Christopher Guest did not stretch the limits of his fiction to are the wild-eyed antics of crack-pot impresario Kim Fowley, brilliantly played by Michael Shannon. Among the many fresh faces on show is an older one who was the child protégé of her day, Tatum O'Neal (ask your mum), daughter of Ryan O'Neal (ask your gran), as Cherie's mother. Enjoyable stuff, if not exactly family fayre, and definitely not one to watch with your 16 year old daughter (eeuw!).

Grey Days

Guillaume Canet (the French guy in The Beach, but with many other acting and directing credits) writes and directs an excellent cast in a languid tale that wonders through the lives and relationships of a group of friends holidaying in the beautiful surroundings of Cap Ferret. The mix of characters and temperaments is played nicely by an engaging collection of thesps Francaise   including Marion Cotillard, Francois Cluzet, Gilles Lellouche and Jean Dujardin, and Canet gives the main characters plenty to do, with various parallel story threads pulling them together, these threads mingle to coax the film forward, but at a pace consistent with that feeling of being on holiday when nothing has quite the same imperative as it does in the world of work. Canet guides proceedings ably toward the denouements of the various strands with a gentle touch, and there is a nice variation in tone throughout, with moments of real passion, drama, comedy and conflict, perhaps tending to melodrama in places, but without tipping over into multiple Kleenex territory. Events are brought together effectively in the third act, and Canet and his cast deliver an emotional conclusion that is highly satisfying, and you might need that hankie at the end after all.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Quality of Light

Thinking further on the subject, this image pointed me back to what is surely the most fundamental component of any photograph, light. Is it not the quality of the light in an image that draws the eye? Something in that one particular picture that sets the scene, the view, or the object apart from the thousands of others that the eye takes in, processes and disposes of each minute?

Rather than trying to create something new, such as when using 'Shift', here I was trying to capture the tone of the light falling from the skylight in an artist's studio in Cornwall. My Sony DSC-P72 produced this image at an equivalent F-stop of f/5.6 with an ISO-100 setting, a 1/400s exposure and +0.7 exp bias so as not to lose the interior to shadow.

The studio in question is in St. Ives (clue for those who have visited that charming town), and belonged to a sculptor, namely Barbara Hepworth. My daughter, at age 11 in 2006 when this picture was taken, had discovered an enthusiasm for sculpture, so Hepworth's studio (where she died in a fire in 1975), was a must-see. There is an excellent collection of Hepworth's work in the garden there, in what is now the Barbara Hepworth Museum.

I find this image inspiring, perhaps a latent memory of the inspiration that I felt at the time in seeing my daughter's enthusiastic reaction to the place and the sculpture. Something in the tone of the light, which is subdued, seems to me to offer a backdrop for creativity, for ideas. I made sure that the composition included the mirror, which shows a reflection of sculpting items on other surfaces in the room, but particularly the calendar on the wall, which displays 20th May, the day that Hepworth died.

The Upward Spiral

This picture was taken in the entranceway of the apartment where we stayed in Rome in July 2007. I've mumped on in previous posts about the line between pointing the camera and pushing the button, and creating something that might be described as art. 18 months between that post and this one, and I'm coming from the other direction here in accepting that the line in question is blurred at best.
Clearly, there are elements such as composition, framing and exposure that are fundamental to the result, and good judgement in making choices for these elements can be considered as skill in photography. These decisions lead to an image being pleasing to the viewer or not, but are they enough on their own or in combination to result in art being created, or does there need to be an element of the unexpected and unusual, the novel and original, that goes further?
That, of course, is a big question, and well beyond me to answer for anyone else. Suffice to say that I thought I had answered it from my perspective in my last photography post but, in looking back through my photographs to put more images up on the blog, I think I need to consider that question further.
Here, for example, is another picture taken using my Sony DSC-P72, ISO 100, f/2.8. The exposure is 1/2 second (no bias), long enough to get some light from the rendered ceiling of the spiral stairway and to over-expose the glass roof of the stairwell and create an intense brightness there. The artificial lighting gives the white render a soft orange tone that I liked, and I think there is a pleasing convergence in the lines of the railings that draws the viewer into the bright light above.

10 out of 8


A superlative film from J.J. Abrams, clearly channelling the work of producer the fabulous Mr. Spielberg, Super 8 takes the joyfully freewheeling sensibility of ET and brings a darker more adult tone to a story that borrows several themes from Earth-bound Science Fiction, but Abrams takes these and makes them his own. Hinging the story around the youngsters shooting a movie is a clever and affecting touch, evoking memories of childhood dreams in the audience, and the young stars have a great chemistry that makes the whole premise engrossing. But it would not work so well if the adult performances did not anchor events in the 'real' world of grown-up cares and concerns, and good turns from Kyle Chandler and Ron Elard do just that, especially in the opening scenes where the film's emotional level is established. The youngsters are not upstaged however and the leading lights of the cast-within-a-cast, Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Riley Griffiths are entirely believable, but it is Fanning who steals the show in the key train wreck scene, which is fraught with tension and excitement even before the train arrives and, like a certain scene in David Lynch’s 'Mulholland Drive' featuring Naomi Watts, is a highly effective illustration of what proper acting looks like. Super 8 is essential viewing for fans of Abrams, Spielberg or just plain wonderful movies.

It's Space Opera, Jim - not Aida!


Ignore the sniping campaign that beset John Carter from before it was even released and watch this movie through the lens of some important facts. Edgar Rice Burroughs' first story was serialised in 1912, and he invented much of the language of modern SF stories, arguably doing more than anyone to create the Space Opera form that long after spawned Star Trek, Star Wars and all that followed them. To say that we have seen before most of what Andrew Stanton puts on screen is a narrow view, and to say that it is confusing implies a conscious unwillingness to put some thought into following the story (that's you, Dr. Kermode). It's sad to think that we will probably not see any of the other books now, all because of the deliberately constructed scuttlebutt designed to sabotage the film. Mark Strong and James Purefoy have both alluded to this in interview and how completely disproportionate that opprobrium was. Those of us who are fans can only hope that John Carter becomes the long term success that it deserves to be, it's a cracking adventure movie, Lynn Collins is every inch the feisty Martian princess and definitely could take Princess Leia in a fight (no blasters allowed). The cast is filled out with a mighty throng of British thesps, including the aforementioned plus Samantha Morton, Ciaran Hinds and Dominic West, and the mighty Bryan Cranston and Thomas Haden Church are also present. But what about Taylor Kitsch? Well he does just fine, the role is not taxing and he's got the muscles for it, I mean come on, it's space opera, not Aida.