Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Review of Tyrannosaur (2011)

"Tyrannosaur", a sophomore directorial effort expanding a short film made four years prior, from that most gifted of British actors Paddy Considine, is principally a film about dichotomies. It presents two visions of hell, one terrifying, and one sad, and almost seems to let them battle it out against each other. It also concerns a man with a fractured psyche who has a deep wellspring of rage within him, but enough of a conscience to know that his actions are abhorrent. There's something Nietzschean, or perhaps Freudian, to his character, such is the intensity of the war ongoing between his id and his ego.

This man is called Joseph and is played by Peter Mullan in a naked, brave performance. The very first scene sees him stumbling out of a pub, drunken and rambling, angry at some trivial thing or another. It doesn't take much to set him off. His dog whimpers at him, and he kicks it. The dog dies. The next day, he buries it in his back garden.

Described here, one could very easily hate Joseph, but Considine seems to be telling us that to do so would be taking the easy way out. There's something to his grief, and tenderness, the way he caresses his dogs' paw after the event conveying a deep regret at his actions, and a deeper regret at his inability to stop himself from performing them.

Joseph's world is the sad vision of hell.

Events place him in the company of the timid, Christian, charity shop worker Hannah (Olivia Colman). There is no easy rapport between them to begin with, and theirs is not some love story. Her innate goodness results in her trying to console him, but he lashes out and deeply insults her. Later she returns home to a pleasant suburban house, quietly drinks a lot of wine while sat on the sofa, and when she has passed out her husband James (Eddie Marsan) returns home and urinates on her.

Olivia's world is the terrifying vision of hell. A wedding photo of the pair hangs large in their living room, almost as a reminder of how dire her situation has become and how much has been lost in her life.

Indeed, for me the film's strongest and most affecting writing came in the presentation of their abusive relationship. James decides to beat her up, and when Hannah comes into work the next day, her assertion that she "slipped in the bath" feels as well-rehearsed as an old stagehand performing the role of Banquo. Without ever, really, saying so Considine conveys the rise and fall and stagnation of an entire relationship. James' pitiful apology to Olivia, a scene I had to look away from, is so devastating because it implies a vicious ongoing cycle, and also because it subtly shows James wheedling Olivia into the perpetrator, and him the victim.

These two worlds are presented side by side, with Joseph and Olivia's relationship the focal point in the centre. They are both so hurt, and so wounded, that they see a little of themselves in each other, and hence against their natures get drawn towards each other.

They key to the film's success is that it is so accurate and rings to true about the characters and situations it depicts. I have met people like Joseph, whose lives revolve around rage, alcohol, and self-pity, with just enough humanity to know that if he really, really tried they could turn it around a little. I have met people like Hannah, who carry inside them a small glow of goodness which touches all they speak to. I have even, from afar, observed the actions of people like James, who defy understanding, in the way we can understand Joseph, and appear to have been born into this world as just pure evil.

A vision of the world this bleak needs an accompanying visual design, and thankfully Considine hired cinematographer Erik Wilson, one of the best working today, and he creates an oppressive and dreary atmosphere greyer than the M5. A couple of outdoor scenes I assumed were set indoors; that's how overcast the film is.

At this point you may be wondering why you'd want to see a film like this. A not entirely invalid question, since although this is a first-rate production it is in the service of a miserable plot. Yet... I can't say it transcends the misery, but there's so much artistry surrounding it and so much essential human truth at the centre of the film, and it conveys the themes so cogently and effectively that I can't help but recommend it most highly.

Films like this, I think, are best for allowing us to observe worlds which we may not come into contact with, and hence it deserves respect. Bad things like this do happen, and just as we should not ignore them when they do, so, too, I don't think we should ignore this film.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Review of The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

There's a moment of utter preposterousness which occurs near the end of the Peter Jackon's "Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" which highlights the sheer ridiculousness of Warner Brother's decision (informed, I can only assume, by the allure of box office receipts) to split this slim book into three huge films. Two characters, I won't name who so as to avoid spoilers, have just had a twenty minute fight, replete with the "he's dead, HE ISN'T, he's dead, HE ISN'T!" beats every two minutes or so. Finally, the scene decides to end, and one character falls from a height which would DEFINITELY kill him. Then, just so we know this isn't a false death like the many that have preceded it, we see a huge rock fall and hit them. Splat. We get it.

I laughed, against myself, because it's just a ludicrous piece of film-making in a ludicrous saga, which has no good reason being this long. The plot itself has enough meat, perhaps, for two 90 minute films or one very fast-paced 150 minute film. It concerns a quest to a mountain which has been taken over by a dragon, Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch); that's it. But where the previous Lord of the Rings films (of which I am a fan) had a plot that was similarly simple, but embellished by a fierce sense of place, this film just drags, because the extraneous elements feel shoehorned in, as opposed to part of this world of awe and wonder.

There's just no sense of urgency. Characters stall and dither and shoot the breeze and make grandiose statements in big booming voices and reflect on the Terrible Nature of the events which have just occurred, and it amounts to piteously little. Elements which could have been nice emotional bookends on a smaller film, such as Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman)'s borderline homo-erotic friendship with dwarf Thorin (Richard Armitage) are here treated as if they carry the emotional heft of Bizet's Carmen. It's as stagnant a film as you can imagine seeing, and that's surprising when you consider that the title literally acts as a complete plot synopsis. It's a battle. There are five armies. There's a lot of bodice-tearing braggadocio and battlefield proclamations (which grow quite comical by the end).

Oh, there's so much to pick apart. The sound design was unusually woeful for a production of this heft; various scenes had dialogue when the characters' mouths weren't moving, the battle sounds felt like they'd been pulled from a child's sword/shield/helmet playset, and the whole film had a vague "you're watching this underwater", subdued quality to it. Even Ian McKellen's legendary wizard Gandalf, one of the most recognisable figures in modern day popular culture, is completely wasted, spending the first half of the film in a cage and the second half of the film commenting on the battle and strolling around.

If there's one saving grace, I suppose, it's that whilst the film is long (144 minutes for one battle and some moping) it doesn't quite hit the gross exorbitance of the last film in the trilogy, "The Desolation of Smaug", a 161 orgy of needless narrative excess and, on the record, one of the most boring films ever made. This film is, narratively, a complete whitewash- I cannot stress this enough, ONE BATTLE, SOME MOPING- but at least it wasn't as bad as one of the dullest films I've ever seen.

Small potatoes.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Review of Stranger By The Lake (2013)

Stranger By The Like is as much about loneliness as it is about lust, which is a key to understanding it amidst the un-simulated and frankly shot sequences of gay lovemaking. It could not be a simpler film, taking place at the eponymous lake which doubles as a cruising spot for a number of gay men. We are introduced to a man called Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), who is perhaps in his mid-to-late 20's, who frequents the spot. In the first scene, he walks up to a larger, older man called Henri (Patrick d'Assumcao) and starts chatting with him. We learn that Henri is recently divorced, with an ambiguous sexuality, but content to sit and watch the lake as the days go by.

The film has an eerie, voyeuristic tone to these opening scenes which simultaneously puts the viewer at ease, with its' gentle and luscious depiction of the tranquil lake and the surrounding woods, and also unnerves, as the various men lie undressed on the beach, go up into the woods to get it off with each other, and make idle chit-chat around this. It's an effective juxtaposition which underpins the entire film.

I was immediately reminded of Ulrich Seidl's "Paradise: Love", the first part of a trilogy, which saw an older woman travel to Africa to have sex with younger African men. They share a lot of stylistic choices; that film had a number of scenes set on a beach, and they both share a prevalent use of shallow focus photography, meaning that everything is on the screen in clear view. There's no lighting. It's as frank as can be, and shot primarily in long-shot and tableaux.

This idyll is somewhat shattered when the mysterious Michel (Christophe Paou) turns up. Franck is instantly attracted to him, but Michel has another lover. Franck silently stews, transfixed, and occupied with his conversations with Henri, until one evening after it has got dark, Michel drowns his lover in the lake. Instead of doing the sensible thing, Franck finds himself further drawn towards Michel, replacing his previous lover, and even being so bold as to name their love-making love, instead of simply cruising.

The events above are presented in such a placid, manner-of-fact way that as a viewer one has to constantly remind themselves of the true nature of the story being told. This is the stuff of pulp, elevated to what appears to be high-art. It's also, for me, a pitiful study of loneliness. As well as morbid curiosity and fatalistic lust, Franck's actions belie an intense loneliness. He's desperate to feel something with someone; look at how he says "kiss me" just as he is about to climax. This also explains his growing bond with Henri, who is also incredibly lonely but in touch with himself enough to admit it; he is a complicated character, but brutally honest, which Franck lacks.

The film does uncoil, slowly and then very quickly in a notably tense sequence, and comes off ultimately like a Hitchcock film directed by Bruce LaBruce (and shot by Haneke's regular cinematographer). This is not a bad thing; it's a b-movie with arthouse trappings, and this too does its' bit to unnerve the audience. Its' depiction of male sexuality is among the more overt examples of male (on male) gaze I've seen, and far from being exploitative we are forced to genuinely contemplate the male body in the same manner as looking at Michaelangelo's David forces us. Director Alain Guiraudie is fearlessly formal in framing his compositions around this remit, and he knows how to gain the most from shooting a sex-scene.

I do, however, have reservations. Whilst I cannot fault the manner of its telling, the story itself is dragged down by a couple of bits and pieces. The dialogue in the early scenes is a little heavy-handed, and one encounter with a man looking for women feels like it's establishing that this is a gay cruising spot; well, duh. There are a couple of clanging moments like that. And there's something to the disintegration of the sunny, peaceful tranquillity which is a little too complete for me; there's nothing in particular left to think about, or contemplate, and it doesn't go wider than the film itself. This seems like a bizarre criticism, but there's something to be said for the sadness I feel when I think I'm watching a great film which is going to endure and grow in the mind, and it turns out to be just a good one.

And yet, as I am wont to say, this is still a good film with a lot to recommend it. There's something marked about the restrained performances and lolling pace in service of the nasty plot which left a distinct impression on me, and a film willing to present male sexuality this bravely has to be commended. It's a shame it didn't do more, but then maybe I'm just asking a bit much.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Review of Sightseers (2013)

It reads like some kind of bizarre story you'd get in the back pages of a shady pulp magazine; or perhaps more like something you'd find plastered on the front pages of one of those glossy, grotesque "True Life Stories" magazines you assume no-one buys, yet someone must. A happy couple, in their mid-30's, on a caravanning holiday, which would end in a string of senseless murders.

He is Chris, played by Steve Oram, an amiable, bearded man, the kind of bloke you'd happily chat to down the pub. Bearded and opinionated in that way that British men in their mid-30's often are, he seems sensible, friendly, and almost remarkably normal. She is Tina, played by Alice Lowe, and her character is a bit more complicated. She's cute, pretty, but we sense a supreme loneliness inside her. Perhaps Chris is the first guy who's paid attention to her in a while. That she lives with her demanding, overbearing mother Carol (Eileen Davies), feels like a clue.

The very first scenes, with Tina preparing for the holiday, are like Mike Leigh on downers, as Carol bitterly spits in Chris' face "I don't like you" after he promises to bring back Tina safely. It's an odd opening, lacking any big laughs to hook the audience in, but funny enough to let us know we're watching a comedy, and it does set up the characters very well. The early scenes with the holiday itself work too; Chris and Tina are genuinely in love, and seem to complete each other in quite an endearing way. I liked them both throughout.

But all is not quite right; a man drops a Cornetto wrapper (a nod to the Cornetto Trilogy, I imagine, since Edgar Wright produced this film) on a tram, and Chris gets unduly enraged. Later he runs the man over with his caravan, in front of the man's wife and child, in what appears to be a terrible accident, although you can't help but notice Chris' little smirk...

Perhaps you can see where this is going. It is not long before Chris has pushed a man called Ian (Jonathan Aris) off a rock-face, seemingly for no other reason than Chris really didn't take to him. Tina finds out, but seems nonplussed at Chris' confession; "You can't do that... You'll ruin our holiday!." The bodies begin to mount up after that, but this is not some caravanning slasher flick. It's quite a hard film to peg, actually, but certainly a very intelligent one, and that's what I loved about it. Think a British "Badlands", where the characters have doubled in age and are prone to worry about not finding the right pasta sauce in a different town..

The film has a commitment to mundanity which is quite remarkable. It was quite uncomfortable to watch in places, actually, because it skewers a number of things which are very accurate about British life. Buying mints at petrol stations; holiday itineraries; the National Trust; the Daily Mail; the way some people get really, really funny about dog crap. Again, Edgar Wright's influences are writ large, but where his Shaun of the Dead poked fun at British life, director Ben Wheatley seems to dissect it and lay it bare. The film is so effective because you could probably edit out the killings, and you'd be left with quite a touching, romantic little love story.

But the killings are there, and this marriage of the macabe and the mundane becomes more pressing as the film goes on. It would, weirdly enough, make a fantastic double bill with John McNaughton's "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer", a film I admire very much, which intercut scenes of brutality with scenes of the killers shooting the breeze and drinking coffee. I watched this film with my father, who made a fair observation halfway through that this is, probably, what a fair few serial killers live like. Certainly, the perverse normality of it all made me relate to Chris and Tina, which made me creep-y and crawl-y, and there's something to be said for Chris' complete and utter lack of guilt, or remorse, and the way he treats all this as just a fact of life.

The film goes to some darker and deeper places later on, and I won't ruin how, but I will say to keep a very close eye on Tina and her behaviour in the final act. The film itself retains a mordant, unrepentant eye on the pair's actions, and as an audience we almost feel like accomplices ourselves. It is also very funny, never in a particularly laugh-out-loud way (although there are some good laughs), but it's more... Amusing. Constantly dancing on that knife-edge between discomfort and hilarity. And that works quite well. Perhaps if it had been too funny, that would have distracted from the bigger things at work under the surface.

A final note must also go to Laurie Rose's brilliant cinematography. She worked on Wheatley's "Kill List", which was a cultish, psychedelic hitman movie, and utterly unforgettable, in no small part due to her downright freaky shot arrangements. Here she keeps the creepy compositions down to a bare minimum, but allows for a few moments of beauty. The moment where Chris kills Ian has the most effective use of chiaroscuro, and is just fancy enough to let the audience know that the rest of the films' look, which has a kitchen-sink, warts-and-all feel to it, was a conscious choice.

This is a subversive, discomforting film, hilarious in the right places, gruesome in others, and has that quality that means it grows in the mind as you think about it. The script, credited to the principal actors, has that very British ad-libbed feel to it, which is perfect here. It's just vague enough to interpret, but overt enough to let you know it knows what it's doing, and it has a peculiar mood which is hard to describe but very easy to feel. In short, it's just right, and if that sounds like damning with faint praise then think about how many films you've seen which don't put a foot wrong from the first frame to the last. This is one of those films, and it's a rarity, and it deserves to be seen.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Review of Horns (2014)

There’s a passage in Milan Kundera’s famous and wonderful novel “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being” where the notorious philanderer and protagonist “Tomas” reveals that he enjoys sex with the less conventionally attractive women. The women with something distinctive and memorable to mark themselves with are the ones who make more of a lasting impression; the ones who are distinctly themselves. If I remember correctly, the passage involves a woman who is compared to a giraffe with her proportions.

Stretching this quite far, I often find the same applies, for me, to films. There are some films which are all very well and good, masterpieces maybe, but on occasion I am drawn to the rougher films which bear a more personal hallmark, or are just so odd and juxtaposed that they make a stronger impression that something more professional.

And so, we arrive at Alexandre Aja’s “Horns”, a film based on Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son)’s novel, concerning a young man Ig Parrish (Daniel Radcliffe) who, in the wake of the death of his girlfriend from childhood, starts to grow a pair of horns. The small American town he lives in is adamant that he is the guilty, he is desperate to plead his innocence, and we are uncertain for about two-thirds of the film what’s really going on, aside from that it involves Daniel Radcliffe slowly embracing his dark side.

There is an element of narrative trickery here, as extended flashbacks (rather in the style of Stephen King’s novels, it must be said) reveal, slowly, bits and pieces regarding what happened to Ig’s girlfriend. We get to know a few key players, such as Ig’s brother Terry (Joe Anderson), and Lee (Max Minghella), the lawyer defending Ig. James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan play Ig’s parents. We even get to know, kinda, Ig’s girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple). And then there’s the two policemen convince of Ig’s guilt, the waitress who wants Ig, Merrin’s father, the bastard Vicar…

This is a bloated film, chock-full of characters who probably could have been edited out. But that’s what I liked about it. And as the various narrative strings are pulled, tweaked and manipulated, the film digs itself into so many holes (and so many plot-holes) that to try and view it as a coherent story is futile. It instead has that quality of an old legend, passed down so often and through so many people that little elements here and there have been skewed, distorted, and come into contradiction with other elements. It’s hokum.

Why am I being so forgiving? A few reasons. Firstly, I’m warming to Daniel Radcliffe, post-Potter, immensely. Following his wonderful turn in “What-If” where he conveyed low-self-esteem and guilt so convincingly, it’s a relief and almost a miracle to see him turn on the “creep” factor. He is, at times, a legitimately chilling presence, and his eyes can truly bore into you. He has an intensity to him which is hard to forget.

The second reason I’m being so forgiving is that the film has such a keen and endearing visual style that, even when the “what” is in doubt, the “where” is right there in front of us. Filmed in Vancouver, Mission and Squamish, the film is painted large with greens from the forests, earthy ochres from the treehouse a number of flashbacks are set in, and generally there is the feeling that considerable work was done in post-production to make the reds more red, the blues deeper, the browns earthier. Uniformly excellent cinematographer Frederick Elmes deserve true commendation for his work here.

More superficially, the film has an excellent soundtrack, and any film that namechecks David Bowie’s “Heroes”, and then finds two opportunities to play it, gets a free pass in my book.

Some, understandably, will be more off-put by the jarring script than I. And while there’s one big-reveal that is quite moving, admittedly because it’s largely played off Daniel Radcliffe’s face, even I must concede that it arrives so unexpectedly and from out of nowhere that for it to have any meaningful emotional resonance is a big ask, even for someone as forgiving as this viewer.

It’s odd. It’s gawky. It jars. It’s bereft of ideas. By golly it makes no sense. But, forgive me, I quite liked that.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Review of Under The Skin (2013)

What is it that makes us human?

I do not mean in a specific sense, but rather in a more general one. What aspect is it, definable or not, that makes us as a species different from the apes, or the dolphins, or perhaps some as-yet undiscovered race lurking out there. I ask this question because Jonathan Glazer's "Under The Skin" has made me consider it. It is a film about an alien, played by Scarlett Johansson, who has come to earth to lure in men and do... Something, we are never quite sure, although it involves reducing them to sacks of skin. Where she has come from, why she is doing this, and what purpose it is serving, are irrelevant. She is both an alien, and alien.

Her other-ness is constantly made an example of. Early on we see her in a shopping centre, buying clothes, trying to fit in. But her face is distant and cold, and there is no doubt that she's going through the motions; how her face can go from expressive and friendly when she's talking to someone, to completely blank when she's left alone, is testament to Johansson's frankly stunning performance.

She carries on going through the motions. She sets about picking up men for the job she is doing. But something happens; as the film goes on, she begins to thaw a little. A chance encounter with a man (Adam Pearson) who has severe neurofibromatosis in his face results in her questioning her goals, Soon, she is experimenting with the typically "human" things, such as eating at a restaurant.

I have now described the plot up until about an hour into the film. I do not normally go as far as this, but this is a unique film. It could not be less concerned with the dynamics of story and motivation; it is predominantly metaphor and allegory. It has done a supremely genius thing in taking the trappings of your standard science-fiction story and turning them into an exposé of an entire species. This is not hyperbole; I have not seen a film with a higher command over the biggest (and, I suppose, smallest) fundamentals of existence, perhaps since I watched Three Colours Blue for the first time four years ago.

This is a film that understands us. It understands lust; look at how the men are drawn into Johannson's black room. It understands human empathy; look at how people help Johansson up after she falls down. It understands that the sound of a baby crying can unite all people to distress. It understands what it is like to be lonely, crucial since this is fundamentally a film about the ultimate loner. From the very first shot, which is a completely black screen slowly giving way to a small white speck, I assume earth, the film engages the viewer by showing them a picture of their existence from the outside, peering in.

It is, of course, opaque, maddeningly styled, and "arty" in a way that would make some people roll their eyes. I was not bothered by these things, because there was a higher purpose there. It is a film alive in all the ways that film can be, gently joyous, hitting notes of unrefined beauty in a number of key scenes. The cinematography by Daniel Landin is a marvel, and the editing by Paul Watts deserves a mention because he has taken what I assume were shards of film and composed them into a symphonic delight. All this is overlaid by the haunting, unsettling and distressing score by Mica Levi, which, punctuated by harsh violins and staccato, electronic sounding beats, is a masterpiece in and of itself.

Perhaps the most baffling thing, to me, is how this film was once a book, written by Michel Faber. It embodies the concept of pure cinema so well that to imagine it in another format seems... Well, alien. I am completely unfamiliar with the book, but I would be very interested to read it to see how it handles the themes that this film lays out so poignantly and thoughtfully, without ever quite spelling them out.

It is a masterwork. That it is one of the best films of the year is without doubt. But it is also miraculous, and highlights the power of film at its' most potent, to detail the human condition and allow an insight into us all. I'm fairly sure that's why we invented the arts in the first place. Yes, this is a film that goes that deep.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Review of Tom At The Farm (2013)

Tom At The Farm, the latest film from the prolific and prodigious Quebecois auteur Xavier Dolan and adapted from Michel Marc Bouchard's play, announces itself with a stillness and tranquillity bordering on the unsettling. This is unlike what we have seen from him before. It is also very effective; we see Tom (Dolan) driving towards the eponymous farm, in an overhead shot that recalls Haneke's "Funny Games". He destroys his sat-nav system in a rage. Then he arrives at his destination, and walks around. The camera follows him with a Kubrickian feel to it; think a rural "The Shining". His phone is out of signal. Nobody is at home. He walks around the farm, getting his bearings. 

In short, Tom is utterly alone, and Dolan's new found restraint has exacerbated this feeling into an almost nightmarish vision of isolation. These are new notes from someone who was teetering on the edge of repeating himself. Gone are the histrionics (mostly), gone is the slow-motion (mostly), and gone are the doe-eyed relationships obfuscated by the characters blinkered self-centredness (definitely). This is Dolan on horror mode, thriller mode, mystery mode, and the result is a confounding, taut and often beautiful tale full of small erotic pulls, subversive whims, and a certain dissonant quality. This is Dolan's artistic maturity.

Tom is at the farm for his recently deceased lover Guillaume's funeral. First he meets Guillaume's mother Agathe (Lise Roy), a widow. Something in her words, and Tom senses that she didn't know about Guillaime and Tom's relationship. That was some intuition; later, Guillaume's brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) wakes Tom up in the middle of the night, holds him down by the mouth and tells him that he isn't going to tell Agathe the truth, he's going to say something nice at the funeral, and then quietly leave Francis and Agathe alone forever. 

Quite why Francis is so desperate to conceal the truth from Agathe is never made clear; Agathe gives off no indication of being homophobic or backwards, and seems like the accepting type. She was expecting a girlfriend to turn up, but that's only because Francis lied to her in the first place. The film toys with incestuous overtones, but not too seriously. This is simply the first of many unanswered questions.

After a funny/painful/sad funeral scene, the film consists of the ever-shifting relationship between Tom and Francis, veering from the amorous (such as in a sequence where the pair rapturously dance the tango in a barn) to what feels like Stockholm Syndrome (in a scene where Tom refuses to leave the farm). It remains maddeningly enigmatic. For example, why does Tom feel such an affinity with Francis when he is so cruel to him? Why is Tom so willing to stay in such utterly hellish surroundings? What is Francis even doing? Is he a sociopath, or worse? Is a revelation regarding Tom and Guillaume towards the end to be believed?  

There is a scene, near the end, in a bar, which I suppose could be taken as an explanation for a fair amount of the above, but to me that seems like the easy way out. This is a film that doesn't want to answer any questions in particular, and that languishes in the murkiest depths of human nature. It's never willing to stick with one genre at any given time; the film can go from resembling "Calvaire" in one scene to some kind of hellish Mike Leigh picture in the next. Everything about it seems geared to keep the viewer on their toes. 

Thematically, it does match up with Dolan's previous work in the near-Oedipal overtones and the consistent obsession with the relationship between mothers and sons. But those are just Dolan's backgrounds; such as Fellini made films about women, Bergman about God, Kieslowski about human relationships, so to does Dolan stick with that one core idea. 

But here, we see him start to spin out a new web from this core, and seeing it is as exciting and bold as the films from the masters I have listed above; company in which I have long thought Dolan belongs, sure, but here is a film which would surely prove it to the sceptic. It's a fearsome, bold move and a fearsome, bold movie. 

Friday, 12 September 2014

Review of I Am Breathing (2013)

They should have been the perfect family. They had every right. The Platts. Him, Neil, her, Louise. Both of them young, intelligent, attractive. A beautiful son, Oscar. A home, loving family and friends. Everything seemed set.

But one day Neil discovers that there is something amiss in his foot, he isn’t walking right. At first he thinks it’s his shoes; he’s wrong. Some time after, he needs a walking stick. Then he is diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, a progressive and debilitating condition which impairs crucial links in the brain, slowly destroying your ability to walk, move your hands, and eventually your ability to talk.

I am familiar with the disease. I have encountered people who have it. The current Ice Bucket Challenge is raising awareness and funds for research. But as Neil says two thirds into the film, “there’s nobody on this planet who will understand what it’s like.” I’m not going to try.  Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon, the makers of this documentary, are simply conveying Neil's battle with the illness. Do not lecture and do not try and convey what the disease is actually like. They portray, they present, they show.

You may think this this would be an unbearably sad documentary from the description I have just offered. You would have every reason to skip it. But wait until the end of this review before you make that decision.

There are, of course, moments of intense grief, but the principle emotion the film evokes is warmth and fondness for the gentle domesticities of family life. A great deal of time is given over to small, relatively trivial moments such as eating takeaway whilst watching The X Factor, playing on the Nintendo Wii, and dunking biscuits into cups of tea.

We get the sense that the film is saying to treasure these moments. Then Neil comes out and says so near the end, in one of his many small monologues, when he states that he wished he’d done so much more, such as spending more time with his family. In this regard, the film makes the healthy viewer grateful, and reflective. These are noble aims.

Another emotion that the film evokes is togetherness. We see how Neil’s wife, friends and mother all band together to help him. One moment sees Neil’s wife, Melanie, explain her selflessness; “I want to be there for him when he passes… He would be there for me.” This is as honest a film about love as I can think of, about the many kinds of love and caring we can have for one another. Neil is creating a letter for Oscar, so that he can know his father to some degree, and in the letter he leaves a list of tasks, such as rock-climbing and orienteering, to a different “Uncle”. Instead of mourning the fact that Neil is not going to be there for his son, the film instead seems to want us to celebrate the fact that even in death, we are surrounded by people we can rely on, who respect our wishes.

The film-makers chose the right subject in Neil. This is not to say that any person suffering from this disease does not have a worthwhile story to tell, but Neil in particular remains an enigmatic, funny and wise presence even as his various functions are taken away from him. Even when he is being winched into a chair, a process which is undignified by its nature, Neil remains dignified, never pitiful.

He explains that the moment his abilities to swallow and speak are lost, then he wishes to die. This film is not about the moral intricacies presented by the "right to die" debate, but in presenting Neil never relinquishing his own personal autonomy, I would be hard-pushed to see anyone who could not agree with Neil’s decision, if only because he seems to absolute and sure of it. 

The only flaws in this film are ones that cannot really be called flaws; I could say that the film is a million miles from a professional-looking documentary, and in fact is a little crude. But look at what is actually there on screen; Neil is there. His family are there. His blog posts are there. This is all we need; it’s all I needed.

I have now reviewed this film. You may still think that you have no need to see it, that you might find it unbearable. I cannot argue with that decision. But if your curiosity has been piqued, if you think that there is something in what I have described about this film; the compassion, empathy, or something other; then you will be rewarded. It inspires intense reflection, but above all, it makes one happy to be alive. I think Neil would be happy with that. 

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Review of What If, Hector and the Search For Happiness, Lucy (2014)

Trying something new here for a change; I've noticed my reviews have tended to be on the longer side, so here I'm going to do three concise reviews of the three films I watched yesterday. There is often the trouble with shorter reviews that you simply can't say all you ever want to say; but then I always think of things I've missed in my long ones anyway. If you can get the general gist with main points, then I'll be happy.

Also, I loathe loathe loathe LOATHE that flashy, gimmicky style of reviewing found in short reviews by people such as Peter Travers, so I will be trying my utmost to not do that.

What If

Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan charm the socks off of each other, and us, during this unexpected gem. He is smitten with her, and she's in a five-year relationship; the chemistry is undeniable between them, and... Yeah, you can kinda guess where it's going, but in this case the formula works and doesn't feel formulaic because it is emboldened by characters who come across as entirely real and make us care for them. It is lent an extra twist by Michael Dowse's snappy and twee direction, and the cute animated drawings which come alive at opportune moments. This is one of the best films of the year, and I cannot wait to see it again.

Hector and The Search For Happiness

The distinct impression given by Peter Chelsom's Hector and The Search For Happiness is that of a film evaporating before your very eyes. Nothing about it sticks, from the distant cinematography down to the lazy script, and most crucially Simon Pegg's wasted phoned-in performance as a psychiatrist trying to find the root of happiness (clue: it was there all along). Even Stellan Skarsgard pops up for a bit and looks uncomfortable. How deliciously ironic that a film about a man trying to find happiness ends up being so relentlessly miserable.


Luc Besson returns after last year's hideous "The Family" with this phenomenal science-fiction/action film about a woman (Scarlett Johansonn) who, after ingesting an experimental drug, unlocks more and more of her brain capacity. Don't stick around to dissect the (bizarre) script, but do stay for one of the first big-budget studio films of the year that is truly alive; visually fascinating and cinematically beautiful, it has the feel of a personal pet project that's been percolating for years. It all goes off the rails, as per, but I haven't been more transfixed by the proverbial train crash in a long time. Cult material.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Review of Lilting (2014)

Few films have made me really consider the nature of communication the way Hong Khaou's masterpiece "Lilting" has, a film in which a fair half of the conversations are ones in which a translator repeats what we just heard in a different language, and then waits until the other person has said what they have to say, and translates it back into English for us. About a quarter of the Chinese dialogue in the film is subtitled, as a result of this. The approach is fascinating because it induces a sense of tranquility in which we study the faces and the intonations of in the languages we understand, and don't, for clues. This is also the only film I think I've ever seen where a character forgets what he's about to say, pauses, forgets, searches for it and then when he realises says it that little bit triumphantly. Think about how often that happens in real life; think about how you never see that in movies; you now have some kind of indication of the level of nuance this film is working at.

The plot is simple, reveals itself slowly, and I won't ruin any of it here because the nature of past and present, memory and events which happened some time ago yet impact the now are integral to the structural precision of the film. All I will say is this- there is an older Chinese woman living in a care home called Junn, played by Cheng Pei-Pei, a man called Richard, played by Ben Whishaw, who is the lover of Junn's son Kai (Andrew Leung), a translator called Vann (Naomi Christie), and Alan (Peter Bowles) who is Junn's potential suitor in the care home. 

All five performances are perfect for the film, but the two stand outs are Whishaw and Pei-Pei- they are the bedrock of this film and the film knows it. Shots are very content just to regard their faces for a little while, and the film does prove the old assertion that the human face is the most interesting thing you can have in a film. Both performances have their modes- Whishaw has a deep rooted sadness forever on his face, which is a marked contrast with Pei-Peis twinkly eyes which occasionally becomes sternness. 

There are so many little things about this film I adored. It is tackling big themes such as the grieving process, love, and the nature of relationships between mother and son, yet it is unafraid of going for big laughs (and getting them). It also manages to be compelling not because of the plot, but because it allows us to be invested heavily in the characters and makes us wish them well. Conversations go on and on and we listen intently, because the characters are actually talking about things that matter, and listening to what the other person has to say. Note how characters will say something to the translator, think about it and rescind it, rephrase it- the film explores how we tailor our words to those we are saying them to. 

Maybe I've made this all seem terribly dull and heavy- it's not. This film has a light, almost jolly tone considering, which is in part down to the rhapsodic cinematography from Urszula Pontikos, and predominantly due to the fierce wit which is a strong undercurrent (there are even penis jokes). 

A special mention must also go to the sound department, Anna Bertmark, Matt Johns and Joakim Sündstrom, whose work allows the film that final element which brings it to life. In various places sound overlaps, along with the occasional time-hopping the film does, and there is always the feeling of a tight control over what we can and can't hear. We become inspired to think about this, and why we are hearing what and what that means, and as a result the film is that bit more immersive. 

It's an ultimately noble enterprise, concerned with fundamentals of human experience, a deeply touching film of sensitivity and depth that lingers long after the credits, for creating real people and allowing us to care about them. It's one of the very best films this year, I adored it and cannot wait to see it again. 

Review of God Help The Girl (2014)

Stuart Murdoch, the lead singer of Belle and Sebastian (incidentally, my favourite band) takes on a task in his new film, and if I'm being frank he succeeds in about two thirds of what he tries. The story of the film will strike aficionados as being similar to Murdoch's own life story. A young girl called Eve (Emily Browning) with anorexia living in a hospital ward finds strength through music and her new-found band to overcome her illness over one lazy summer. 

Murdoch himself was struck with chronic fatigue syndrome over a lengthy seven year period and it took becoming a musician and forming his band to make him better and allow him to be a functioning member of society again. One scene early on in the film, where Eve is shown a triangle which has food and shelter at the bottom, relationships in the middle and morality and art at the top, feels like something Murdoch was told during his illness, even if it wasn't. It rings true. 

Other elements ring true. One scene where Eve, having just escaped from hospital, goes swimming, is shot with a subdued ecstasy and, as well as being aesthetically beautiful, feels like the kind of symbolism (baptism perhaps?) that would belong in a Kieslowski movie. And anther scene where Eve and her band, Cassie (Hannah Murray) and James (Olly Alexander) take a day trip canoeing on a river nails the kind of relaxed charm perfected by the old French New Wave films such as Jules and Jim, which had a lively quality. 

It should go without saying at this point that the score from Murdoch himself is wonderful, and is at least as good as the other Belle and Sebastian albums. Personally I slot it between Arab Strap and Storytelling in their overall canon- a lovely effort. 

I also, I think, enjoyed the quiet and contemplative tone of the film most of all. With beautiful cinematography by Giles Nuttgens the film takes it's time and doesn't want to rush things. This is a 80/90 minute film spread out lovingly over 111 minutes, and it's that loving aspect which worked best for me. Murdoch cares about these characters and wants us to care about them too, and coincidentally this is an aspect the film shares with the very best of Belle and Sebastian's songs. Whether it's Lazy Jane painting her lines, Sukie and her slut-slave, or Hilary going to her death because she couldn't think to anything to say, what makes them my favourite band is their sense of empathy for the people they conjure up in their compositions. To see this carried over into the film was a treat. 

And yet... I'm not going to say that Murdoch should stick to music, but there is a sense that what came to him so easily in one medium didn't quite come with the same ability in another. Narratively, this film is troublesome and scenes have a habit of not leading on from one another in a way that the audience can follow. This isn't to say I was confused, but there are times when the film resembles a narrative and others when it feels like a series of loose vignettes, and this distracted me ever so slightly. That the film has one toe in the realm of fantasy (the baying crowds for the band, Eve being let into the club) contributes to this, because if the film is being slightly fantastical then it should have pursued that slightly more doggedly. 

And then there's the fact that if Murdoch does want us to care about his characters, a little more for us to play with would have helped. Eve is a good person, but I would have liked a little more evidence for me to feel it instead of knowing it. Hannah Murray is a luminous presence but her character was woefully underwritten; essentially not written at all. I came away liking James the most, and his thoughtful, morose musings both tickled me and reminded me of myself, if I'm perfectly frank. He's also the character who most resembles Murdoch's persona now- the religious, arty thinker with unprecedented levels of faith in the power of pop music, and I responded to that. 

What we're left with is a film that is at least partially a success- certain elements don't work and the film has considerable issues, but as a whole it just about pulls itself together. 

(I went to see the film at the marvellous Harbour Lights Picturehouse in Southampton, and part of the screening included a recording of a live concert, I assume truncated from the actual concert, by the band. It was excellent, as you could have expected, and I appreciated them playing their early songs. They also teased some new material without playing it, so fans- be excited. I am).

Monday, 11 August 2014

Review of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007)

That title refers to the amount of time Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) has had a foetus in her body, although the film never quite spells it out. We do not, in fact, find out that Gabita is pregnant until about half an hour into the film, after we have observed the actions of her friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) as she goes about, collecting money, booking hotels, buying cigarettes, promising her boyfriend Adi (Alexandru Potocean) that she will make it to his mother's birthday party at five, and meeting up with a softly spoken yet menacing abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) to finalise the details. It is 1987 in Romania; abortion is very illegal, and if the foetus is over four months old, then the abortionist will go to jail for murder, not simply abortion.

Cristian Mungiu, the director, keeps us on our toes for these early scenes, and I was reminded of a film called "Le Fils" by the Belgian Dardenne Brothers. That film, which is a masterpiece, has an opening half hour in which we see a portly, divorced man stalking a young child before... Well, I wouldn't dream of ruining it, but the Dardennes took us around the trees before arriving at the forest. The same is the case here. This film also shares a liberal use of a handheld camera, and a certain slice-of-life feeling which goes hand in hand with a realism which the film doggedly pursues.

This is an immersive film, then, which is trying to plant us firmly in the shoes of its characters. It does an interesting thing in not, actually, being about Gabita but Otilia instead. In doing so, it completely dodges any ethical consideration of the issues of abortion. This is firmly a document of what happens when someone decides to have an abortion. Any reaction, good or bad, lies firmly in the hands of the viewer, and for that matter my opinion remains unchanged (abortion is sometimes a necessary evil and each case must be taken on its own terms).

What this film most resembles is a thriller with roots firmly in the character study. We get to know Otilia, and we discover that she is a very good person who goes way, way, way above and beyond the call of duty in helping her friend. Gabita is a lot more selfish, and seems to be at least partially blind to the sacrifices Otilia is making of her. However, once more in the tradition of the Dardenne brothers, we do not feel pushed to judge one side or another. This is simply how it is; circumstances have simply fallen this way. This is how these people are. The excellent performances from all concerned inform this objectivity.

There is a certain political element to the film as well; abortion might not be discussed, bet we do know it is illegal, and the recurrent use of ID cards both as plot device and a dating/setting device recalls a police state.

The film also does an interesting thing in taking on the qualities of a thriller; for better or for worse, this is a truly nerve-wracking film. One 20 minute scene between the abortionist, Otilia and Gabita, had me genuinely tensed up, and there's a genius 10 minute still take at a dinner table which, when you take the characters frame of mind into account, becomes torturous. This is where the camerawork comes into its own; the raggedy, loose style informed by the handheld camera allows us to share the state of mind of the characters perfectly; I've long thought that the best thing a director can do is allow a camera to reflect the mental states of the characters, so we feel as opposed to simply know their plight, and this film has that in abundance.

Yet... I do not think this film is a masterpiece. I see it has 97 on Metacritic, and that's not a score to be sniffed at, yet looking over the reviews they seem to be mainly superficial; Joe Morgenstern claims it is an "elegantly crafted, brilliantly acted film". Rene Rodriguez claims it is "brilliant and suspenseful". Kenneth Turan claims it has "a commitment to reality unlike any we're used to seeing".

That's all well and good; really, it is. On a purely superficial level, this film is an astonishment. Yet there does seem to be something reductive about how it takes it's subject matter and makes a thriller out of it. I hate to sound greedy, but it could have gone deeper. I'm going to recall "Le Fils" again, because that film had scenes that were similarly armchair-gripping, and yet when I recall the final scene, I see it as a totem of the most absolute form of forgiveness, and a statement on our capabilities for empathy as a species.

Alas, no such luck. Normally I would not take such an abstruse form of criticism, but this has the form and feel of a masterpiece... What a shame, then, that it's a four star must-see as opposed to a five star enduring classic. Still, though, that does mark it as a must-see and that's more than enough for most people.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Review of God's Pocket (2014)

Actor John Slattery's directorial debut "God's Pocket" is a mess that never really organises itself according to one principle or another, and how much that bothers you rests solely on your tastes as a filmgoer. I found it visually interesting and well-acted enough that the 88 minute running time went by quite quickly, yet I am also aware that this is a heavily flawed film, in places lazy, and it never rings true enough for the audience to really get their teeth into it. It feels like a rough cut of another, longer, better, more interesting movie. A minor version of a minor classic, perhaps.

The plot takes place over three days in the eponymous Vermont neighbourhood, concerning Mickey Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as he tries to sort out his affairs in the wake of his son Leon's (Caleb Landry Jones) death, which is reported to be an accident involving faulty equipment at the construction site he worked at, but was in fact a murder at the hands of a black worker he kept taunting. Leon, as far as we get to know him before he is murdered, is a thoroughly unpleasant young man who takes great relish in displaying his knife and telling graphic stories about cats he's murdered with it.

The fact that Leon is so despicable seems unnoticed by his mother Jeanie (Christina Hendricks), however there are hints that Mickey is aware of it, doesn't resent it, isn't mourning his son but isn't glad he's dead either, and is just trying to get the funeral to go ahead smoothly. Hoffman goes full DeNiro in this picture, utilising a Bronx accent and a moody stance. It's not his most striking or showy role, but it's still nice to see him onscreen since his tragic death. That his character feels unformed is the fault of the script as opposed to his acting; he brings his all here, as was his standard.

This leads into the biggest issue I had with the film; the script, written by Alex Metcalf and Slattery, adapted from a Peter Dexter novel, feels unfinished. Certain aspects, such as the fact that Jeanie intuitively knows that Leon's death was suspicious, reek of lazy unmotivated screenwriting. Richard Jenkins puts in a good performance as an alcoholic columnist who chronicles the lives of everyone in God's Pocket, reports Leon's death, and has time for two fleeting sexual encounters, yet we never feel like we know him. Why is he an alcoholic? Is he lonely? Shouldn't these things be clarified so we can form a connection with the character?

I am not asking to be spoonfed; I love figuring things out for myself, and I love it when filmmakers drop little clues into the film for the audience to chew upon. There are no clues here; much rather, there isn't much here at all. 

What saves the film from being terrible is Lance Acord's dirty, muddy cinematography, which is incredibly evocative of the dead-end lives that these characters are leading. I love a film that has a unique visual style, and a strong sense of place. Acord brings God's Pocket to life, even though he can't bring "God's Pocket" to life, and this plus the acting was enough for me, but I would gladly forgive anyone for whom this wasn't enough.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Review of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest output from the Marvel studios factory of superhero movies, opens with an unusually harrowing scene that took me entirely by surprise and reduced me to tears almost immediately. Needless to say, it was unexpected. We join Peter Quill in a hospital, aged roughly ten years old. He's listening to his "Awesome Mix vol.1", a mixtape we later learn was composed for him by his mother. He's invited in to speak to his mother, who is reaching out for him in her final moments. She holds out her hand; he doesn't take it. She passes on, and he immediately runs outside and is taken into space by a giant ship of some description.

These scenes are arguably corny, yet something about their immediacy and feeling hooked me. I cannot hide my predilection for scenes involving mothers and sons in movies, which is rooted entirely in personal reasons that I will not disclose in this review. Nevertheless, even though this level of emotional intensity isn't maintained in any way (how could it be? The film would be ruinous, to me at least) these early scenes set the tone well for Guardians of the Galaxy, and reveal the cards its going to play; earnestness, wonder, confusion, and an endearing imperfection. It's clear from the outset that this is a film with a big, beating, gooey heart, right down to the soundtrack, which includes Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling", "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", and The Jackson 5's "ABC". If you can embrace those songs, you'll also probably have a good time embracing this film. By the same token, cynics will probably have a hard time.

We cut forward some years to Quill all grown up, traversing planets in his custom spaceship and going by the moniker of "Star-Lord". He is now played by Chris Pratt, and he seems to embody that same kind of spirit the film shares. When he dances around an unknown planet, I found myself smiling; this is a film with a genuine sense of awe at the outer-space universe, aliens, creatures and planets it has created.

As an actor, Pratt has that same twinkly-eyed quality found in another actor I greatly admire, Ethan Hawke, and as a presence I warmed to him immediately. He carries the movie nearly effortlessly, hitting the various notes of  arrogance, resentment, sadness, and doe-eyed wonder with ease. He's the kind of not-quite antihero who has existed in the movies since they began. When we meet him, he is in the pursuit of an orb of unspecified origin and cause, and a number of contrivances surrounding him and this orb land him in prison with a green alien called "Gamora" (Zoe Saldana), a blue, superpowered, vengeful tank of rage called "Drax", and a raccoon called "Rocket" (Bradley Cooper) and his personal companion, a tree called "Groot" (Vin Diesel).

This ragtag group of individuals, each with their own interests and backstories, ultimately band together to stop a baddy called "Ronan" (Lee Pace) who broke into the orb, which contains an "infinity stone", which we gather can destroy worlds, and that's certainly Ronan's intention.

There's a lot of plot in this movie, and where the film stops short of being one of the landmark action/sci-fi films of the decade is that in the early scenes it gets terribly bogged down. Characters go to places and say things and do things, and I confess to being lost for the first half hour or so. There was a lot of talk of "treaties" and we were introduced to too many new planets and people too quickly that, simply, it took me a little while to catch up.

But I can't dwell on negatives too long; this is a film that relies on interplay, banter, and goodwill. It's exciting, accessible, and intriguing. It's beautiful in its own way and has the pre-requisite nods to Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Blade Runner, and it's nirvana for anyone familiar with the music and movies of the late 70's and early 80's. It feels fully conceived, like every alien and being has been planned out.

But, mainly, in rooting us in the core five characters we actually have something to care about. Drax is seeking revenge after his wife and child were killed, and we want him to find vengeance. Gamora is a baddy turned good, and her arc feels real. And then there's the duo of Rocket and Groot. Groot may be my favourite CGI incarnation, well, ever. He is quite literally a talking tree, and the only words he knows are "I Am Groot", yet his devotion to Rocket (left unexplained in origin) is simply adorable. His face is genuinely expressive, and I never noticed the fact that he was a special effect. Rocket, too, is a superb character, his voice-work by Bradley Cooper, conveying a character who is brash on the surface but has deep insecurities and a poignant backstory (he's the product of experimentation).

Gunn's direction is splendid, belying his indie roots and leaving an indelible personal mark on the whole thing. Tyler Bates' score is phenomenal. Ben Davis' cinematography is unique and out of the ordinary, a refreshing relief from the usual clean-cut composition we see. There were times when I felt the film could have done with a few minutes extra to clarify some bits and pieces, and as I've said the plot could do some work, but that doesn't so much feel like the fault of Gunn and Nicole Perlman's screenplay as how it came to be in the editing suite.

It's all in all a superb piece of entertainment. I am stopping short of calling it a masterpiece, but I have a feeling time will be kind to this one. After an opening of fits and spurts, it settles into an exciting, memorable and weird ride that is the perfect antithesis to the dark that has crept into modern superhero films. It's fun, by God, and sometimes that's all I want from a film, or at the very least a film like this.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Review of Hercules (2014)

Brett Ratner's Hercules opens ominously with a voiceover delivered by Ian McShane, in which he informs us that we "know nothing" (admittedly about the myth of Hercules). Immediately I was put at a sense of unease as this kind of address towards an audience more or less sums up the attitude of the blockbusters currently in our cinemas; ones which treat the audience as if they're idiots. Does this signal Hercules to be yet another dumb movie?

The answer is yes, but that's not as bad a thing as it could have been. Don't get me wrong; this film is dumb. It's also cheesy, predictable and formulaic to an almost unreasonable degree. Yet it embraces its inherent boneheaded-ness and whiteknuckle-ness head on, and despite not delivering the purported "truth" about Hercules (the end cheerfully asserts that the truth, whatever it is, doesn't matter), it nevertheless provides a diverting, relatively good-natured and rompy 98 minutes, and sets itself above the likes of Transformers and the similarly revisionist "I, Frankenstein" from earlier this year by not allowing itself to get bogged down. It's light, and zippy, and it works well.

The plot is a break from the usual Hercules myth, and comes after his 12 Challenges, which serve as the films' slightly irreverent prologue, and also set the tone. Shortly after, Hercules and his group are confronted by Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) to help her father, King Cotys of Thrace (John Hurt doing what John Hurt does), to purge Thrace of some Centaurs (in one of the films' more subversive moments, the Centaurs are revealed to just be men on horses).

That's about it in terms of plot, aside from some requisite u-turns and double crosses and the like which I won't spoil, although you could probably guess. The most interesting fact of the film is, in fact, the presentation of Hercules himself. Instead of being the solitary demigod legend of yore, he is in fact the leader of a team, who does not necessarily possess superheroic powers and certainly plays up to his role of celebrity. As the film begins with his 12 Challenges over, we discover that he is a self-titled "mercenary", looking to get together some money and retire in solitude.

The inclusion of some kind of team for Hercules is an interesting point, and the film references the fact that without them, he would simple be dead. Comprising Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø  Berdal), Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) and Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), they are all saddled with the fact that they are playing second fiddle to the feature attraction, and yet all bring something small yet memorable to their role. Tydeus is reminiscent of the mute Viking warriors of legend; Atalanta has some memorably salty lines ("your tongue is as inadequate as your manhood"); Iolaus is Hercules's nephew, and a gifted storyteller; Amphiaraus converses with the Gods, and is convinced that his doom is imminent at every opportunity. Perhaps the only weak link is Autolycus; ironically, given the mythological origins of the film, his character is reduced to deus ex machina in the final act.

Yet we never forget who their leader is, and an enormous factor in the films' success is the star presence of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. After performing in the truly odious "Pain and Gain" from last year, it was a relief to see him working in more innocent fare. He carries that swagger, smile, and cocksure attitude that audiences tend to respond to, and I warmed to him myself as the film went on. His character, the eponymous Hercules, suffers from underwriting, and also is saddled with a slightly ham-fisted back story which is too neatly resolved. He goes from being the amoral "mercenary looking for gold" to suddenly developing a conscience when the film needs it, although these quibbles are somewhat stymied by the fact that Johnson convinces. He's the real deal. He brings the necessary muscle. The fact that the film is one big play on the nature of celebrity ("that might have been exagerrated a little", when a child expresses awe at fighting a boar for three days and three nights), is something he pulls off well.

There are little niggles here and there; one sequence involving the threat of decapitation goes on a touch too long and is far too distressing for a 12A rating (although the film is generally pushing the edges of this category anyway; it's rather bloodthirsty in places). There are some dodgy moments in Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopolous's script, based on Steve Moore's graphic novel, and some of the dialogue consists of the kind of plateaus I honestly thought had been phased out of modern moviemaking- "Fighting is the most important thing in battle; other than surviving". And as I have said, the film is so formulaic it resembles a join-the-dots book that's already been filled in by a toddler.

And yet, the battle sequences are memorable and don't ruin themselves with an overly frenetic editing style; things such as overhead shots and establishing shots keep us rooted in the here and now. Johnson is a captivating presence. The supporting cast excel. And it's got to the point now where I'd happily take a simpler plot over one that's needlessly complicated. The film looks good too; Dante Spinotti's cinematography has some keen composition, and some of the locations are memorable and exciting, overcoming their computer generated origins.

It doesn't add up to much, but there's just enough here to warrant a trip to the cinema. It's undemanding, unassuming, good ripping fun, and whilst it doesn't overcome its shortfalls, it sidesteps them with enough finesse to retain its dignity.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Review of Pudsey the Dog: The Movie (2014)

Pudsey the dog, for those who are unaware (such as me, for example), is a Border Collie, Bichon Frise, Chinese Crested powderpuff cross, as Wikipedia helpfully informs me. Certainly he's small, has a white coat, is kinda cute, and he won the TV show Britain's Got Talent because, I gather, he can get on his hind legs and turn around.

I say "I gather" because rather unhelpfully I have never watched Britain's Got Talent, and this display of craftsmanship is the only notable thing Pudsey does in the film, unless having a CGI jaw eerily tacked on so as to divulge in the audience the droll witticisms of David Walliams, who voices Pudsey, counts as a talent, which I don't think it does, since Pudsey and not Walliams won the show. Anyway, this is an admission of guilt; I am perhaps the least qualified person to review this film, knowing nothing about anything that helped spawned it, and not even being aware of Pudsey as a cultural phenomenon until I watched the trailer. If it makes you feel any better, from the title I expected this film to be about that yellow charity mascot. I watched this film because, simply, it was a hot summer's day and me and a friend ducked into the nearest available film. Mistress Fate, or The Gods, or perhaps some other deity dictated that it was going to be "Pudsey the Dog: The Movie" (as opposed to "Pudsey: The Movie", or even "Pudsey the Movie: The Dog").

I'm digressing here, I know, so let me cut straight to the cold hard facts; this is an abominable movie. It feels rushed, stale and derivative, the script hangs by a thread, the characters are barely formed, and some of the acting from the children is atrocious (I don't blame them; I imagine director Nick Moore's attention was on other things during filming, such as getting Pudsey to stay still when necessary, and hence the kids were overlooked).

There is no plot, merely a collection of scenes seemingly constructed around the lovable antics of Pudsey. Well, I say lovable, because I got the impression that was how he was meant to be taken, but in all honesty I couldn't find much to love about him. Indeed, after the opening scene where he trashes a film set and runs away (perhaps a metaphor for the making of this film...?), I found no real reason to root for Pudsey- to do so would be tantamount to endorsing wanton chaos and destruction.

As voiced by Walliams, the range of his interests runs from sausages to making loaded barbs, and uttering pointless observations regarding the current circumstances ("I tried to warn you!") despite the fact that nobody, literally not a single person in the entire world, can understand him, for he is burdened with the existence of a canine.

Oh, but how cruel I am being. This is a kids' film, after all, although I'm going to whisper to you the fact that none of the children in my screen laughed once. What I will say, instead, was that I approached this film in a mood of jollity and found it absolutely hilarious. Not because of any particular funny lines (Paul Rose's screenplay is the equivalent of a sneeze), or comic setups, but because the film is weird. Plain strange. Near-Lynchian, in places, in fact, and there's even some misguided subtext regarding eldest daughter Molly (Izzy Meikle-Small) of the family that Pudsey ends up with. Upon having moved to a farm and seeing a farmhand she's interested in, her first words are "that's a big cucumber".


A later moment comes when Molly tries her hand at milking the cows, with the farmhand's guidance, and a rather unlikely spurt of white milk lands right in her eye, to which she yells "that's gross!"

A hidden treatise on the pitfalls of early sexual maturity, or lazy physical comedy? I leave that entirely up to you to decide.

There's even some approximation of fun to be had with John Session's dastardly Mr Thorne, who plans to bulldoze down the house he literally just sold to the family (headed by Jess Hyne's matriarch Gail), and build a fancy shopping centre, or something, on top of it- that old pitfall. It's nearly worth the vacuous waste of 87 minutes just to hear him utter the line "you scared away my Faustus!", referring to his cat, who runs away after Pudsey terrifies him into submission and leaves her a broken cat.

(Sure, it was meant to be lighthearted comedic play on the old feud between cats and dogs, but I saw what you were doing Pudsey, you cad.)

Other noteworthy moments of bafflement come when Pudsey hallucinates a bunch of sausages dancing in a forest in a sequence reiminscent of Walerian Borowczyk's "The Beast", and the moment the film tactfully implies that the children's father died ("Do you even know how to fix a tyre?"- "Dad did.")

What am I doing? I cannot, and am not, recommending this film, because it's terrible. Sure, I laughed, but I entered it in a good mood and read things into it that likely no other audience member will. I found it strange, baffling and misguided in equal measure.

Don't watch it. But if you enjoyed reading this review, then you have some sense of the kind of fun I had with the film; that comes with the disclaimer that you now have no need to watch the film. Go and watch Boyhood, or literally anything else that has ever been made, instead.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Review of In The Company Of Men (1997)

“You know, if we were living in India your girl would be burned on a pyre for even thinking about what she did to you.”

This dialogue, spoken by Chad (Aaron Eckhart) to his colleague Howard (Matt Malloy), occurs about ten minutes into Neil Labute’s film “In The Company of Men”. Howard has just been jilted by his longterm lover, and feels sad and rejected. Chad, too, has had issues with women in his life lately, and is consoling him. This dialogue, on the surface, is sinister yet seems like the kind of thing men would say to one another in a quiet, private, shared moment.

But look closely, because it reveals clues to their characters which are at the core of this movie. It reveals their lack of respect for other cultures. It belies misogyny. And it is also Chad’s gambit, his attempt to bring Howard round to his scheme by which they emotionally cripple a woman for life, as revenge for the (supposed) evils that have been enacted on them.

As a gambit, it succeeds. This line, and many others spoken by Chad early on, wheedle Howard into submission, praying on his insecurities and reassuring him. Chad makes the fundamentally evil seem palatable, which is his greatest trick. Note how he tiptoes around what he is actually planning to do. It’s not “we are going to ruin this woman’s life for no real good reason”. It’s more “out comes the rug, and us pulling it hard”. Salesman tactics. Shop talk. Chad delivers his words like a pep talk, or perhaps even a sermon. Pitched as an attempt to restore dignity to Howard’s life.

It is fitting, of course, that Chad and Howard are corporate suits of the type found in American Psycho, which isn’t too far off being an adaptation of the themes Ellis was getting at, a couple of years before Mary Harron’s film came along. These are men living in a clean, sterile world. Their jobs don’t really matter, only that there are near-constant moments for dick-swinging and male bravado to take over- take the scene where Chad flicks through a company prospectus, pointing at the men and repeatedly saying “I hate that guy”. We get the impression that this world has created a culture of hostility; at one point a minor character, when asked why he hasn’t decided to date Christine, a deaf girl working in the company, his only response is “in a company like this, with these guys around?” We are firmly in a world where male bravado runs supreme.

Christine, played by Stacy Edwards, is the woman that the two men ultimately choose as their prey, so to speak, and the rest of the film details their attempts at unravelling her life, which is undermined only by their insecurity and their own, barely-formed feelings. As a screen presence, she’s perfect for this kind of material. She’s pretty, and endearing, and we sense her joy at the interest apparently being shown to her by these two men. The men, too, even concede that she’s a “nice” person, and in one awkward yet perfectly pitched scene Chad reveals that he could see himself married to her.

Yet feelings and emotions do not come easily to these men, and vast sequences go by where the two men talk about things without talking about the things they actually want to talk about. This is, I think, what the film is actually about; pent up male rage, stifled psychological states, and how our modern corporate culture has created that. One scene sees Chad lecturing Howard on their great plan while Howard awkwardly occupies a toilet cubicle. Chad doesn’t seem to care, and occasionally asks Howard why he’s taking so long. The fact that he might want some privacy simply does not occur to him.

Labute’s screenplay is an excellent one, with layered and textured dialogue which is never boring to listen to, and could have been written by Mamet. It fearlessly plumbs the male mind. It was made on what I gather is a minuscule budget, yet never shows it. The camerawork from Tony Hettinger is largely still, and flat, allowing us to see the faces and hear the words, limiting itself to a couple of pans- this could very easily be a play. The colour range is dull, to reflect the hellish conditions that have led to this brutal anomie.

But mainly, it’s the actors who bring this film alive. Eckhart’s performance is genuinely chilling, and he brings to life a character whom you are never sure quite when he is being honest. His words, his laughs, all appear natural yet in the context in which we know him we are unnerved by how much of a façade this seems to be. Malloy’s character on the other hand is the beta to Chad’s alpha, a nervous man always wringing his hands, sick of his nice-guy status. Both performances get under the skin of the characters, and both end up being equally dangerous in their own ways.

This is a fascinating that just stops short of being a perfect one. A couple of stylistic choices held me back; one shot lingers just a little too long over some “CAUTION” tape, and there’s a bizarre tribal score that is occasionally intrusive. The end scenes work, although they veer slightly too close to being undeservedly “neat”.

Yet these are small niggles. This is a truly disturbing film, which I recommend wholeheartedly with the caveat that you’ve probably never seen evil like this before; armed with suspenders, a nice shirt, and a false smile. It does a dangerous thing in allowing us to empathise with the characters so as to condone them. But crucially, it never lectures, and any open-minded audience member is treated to a film which respects your intelligence; I mean that as a very high compliment indeed.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Review of The Purge (2013)

I must make a confession, because it will underpin this entire review; the core concept of James DeMonaco's "The Purge" intrigued me from the moment I heard about it. I do not mean that as a comment on the credibility of the idea, nor is that my way of saying that I think it should be enforced, but I found the idea that a Government would make crime legal for one night a year interesting. I doubt it's the kind of thing that would ever really get pushed through in America, but if you take it for what I took it to be, a hidden statement on human nature, then it takes on an interesting element.

Human nature, too, is something inherently interesting to me, and hence I was pleasantly surprised when this film revealed itself to actually be about that. Sure, it markets itself as and has the trappings of a home-invasion horror film, but there is a kernel of human truth here. Take the scene where a man, having been let into the home of a well-to-do suburban family by their pacifist, idealist son, is wanted by a group of sinister killers waiting outside. The family flip-flop between options; let the man go, let him be killed, but be safe themselves? Or keep him safe, but put themselves in danger?

Sure, it's hardly the Stanford Prison Experiment, but the film nevertheless is actually about something. The worth of a human life.

It's about other things, too. It's about a whole mass of things, and there's enough material here for a good four movies, which is astonishing when you consider the 80-odd minute runtime. The film begins on an unexpected satirical note with the mentality that the purge is a new American tradition, for which people should be thankful.

Again, it's hardly Orwell, but I did appreciate it.

The film even, in the final five minutes, does a u-turn that you can kinda see coming, but certainly not the way it arrives, and arrives at that most tricky of subject matters; an (again satirical) expose of small-town thinking and mentality.

Once more, we're hardly dealing with Bunúel or Lynch here, but y'know, sometimes you just have to go with it.

I went with it. And I came away with a certain admiration for this film, which spreads itself so thin that at times it resembles a wafer. But it's a damn tasty wafer, perhaps with a crude representation of John Locke's "Two Treatises of Government" engraved on it, or something.

The technical stuff; acting wise, it's as good as it needs to be, and then a bit better. Ethan Hawke, as the salesman of security equipment for the purge, and the patriarch of a solid family unit, proves once more that Ethan Hawke can elevate any film into at the very least watchability. Lena Heady, as his wife, initially appears to be saddled with the role of unquestioning spouse, but comes into her own and develops a conscience as the film goes on. Rhys Wakefield as the well-educated, well-spoken "Polite Leader" of the gang breaking into Hawke's house, whilst essentially stealing Michael Pitt's turn as a similarly mannered psychopath in Michael Haneke's "Funny Games", nevertheless delivers the sinister chills.

It's also made with a slick, clean Hollywood professionalism, which makes for a visually uninspired but nevertheless better than functional look. Cinematographer Jacques Jouffret has given us a grey colour pallete, perhaps reflecting the overall morality of the movie (or maybe a stylistic choice) but he also has fun with the little flourishes, such as using a first person perspective from a creepy baby doll on wheels made by Max Burkholder's aforementioned pacifistic son. It's not going to kickstart a new cinematic movement, but it doesn't disgrace itself, sticks to what it knows, and plays to its strengths.

It tries, goddammit, and it's never less than an engaging, interesting, fun, weird, original, occasionally brutal, consistently inconsistent ride that's relatively unlike anything you've probably seen. If you can get over the trappings of the home-invasion thriller lying at the films centre, then this is an oddball piece of work which could have been annoying, but ends up being not quite fascinating, but certainly intriguing.

I'm going to call it a bits and pieces movie. It doesn't stick to one creed, and flits about like a child with ADHD. But, y'know, sometimes all you want is some bits and pieces, especially if they're some damn tasty bits and some really flavoursome, ephemeral pieces.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Review of Boyhood (2014)

I cannot recall a film being made which is more geared towards my generation. I am 18 years old. If it doesn't seem presumptuous to say so, this film was made for me. I went to see it with my girlfriend, who is also 18, and although we didn't grow up together we did grow up with the same things, the same music, TV shows, books, and videogames, and I'm fairly sure this film was made for her as well.

The plot is simple, and the manner of telling is ingenious. We follow a young boy called Mason from the age of 5 to 18, with the catch being that the film was made over 12 years, with a segment being shot once a year. Mason is played by Ellar Coltrane, and he was born on the 27th August, 1994. I was born on the 9th December, 1995. There's only a year and five month's difference there. He would only be in the year above me in school, if we were to have gone to the same school. I cannot review this film objectively, because to do so would divorce me personally from the subject matter. However what I can do is give a take on the film grounded in the kind of child it's about.

First and foremost; the film represents an enormous leap of faith on the film-makers, and Richard Linklater, who wrote and directed, in particular. So much could have gone wrong. What if an actor had died? What if Coltrane had decided he no longer wanted to be a part of the film? What if there had been a disagreement during the making as to how the film should turn out? Yet this leap of faith merely highlights how miraculous, and precious, this film is. It is a compassionate and dignified work which humbles the viewer.

A wonderful tracking shot occurs very early on. To the tune of Coldplay's "Yellow", a song I vividly remember as being one of the first songs on the radio that I recognised, we start with a close-up of Mason's face. Age 5, he has the look of a dreamer. We pull back, and see him lying on the grass, looking at the clouds. A conversation with his mother reveals him to be an inquisitive young boy who does his homework, but forgets to hand it in because the teacher didn't ask. Unsurprisingly, he has a habit of looking out the window during lessons.

Consider these scenes, for a moment. Think about how they were shot. In 2002, Linklater and company were embarking on an epic voyage. Surely there must have trepidation; these are the scenes which are going to open a film set on the very precipice of innumerable opportunities. Get them wrong, and perhaps they set up the film badly. Maybe they're in a tone different to the one that will eventually pan out.

That they set the tone perfectly, and the sheer wonder in the film-making doesn't let up for all 166 minutes, simply shows how sure a hand Linklater has over his material.

From here, we go on to find the core people in Mason's life. His mother, played by Patricia Arquette, is a divorcee looking after Mason and his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's own son). She's at once a caring, thoughtful woman and that very rarest of movie mothers that I cherish; a damn good one. Flawed, perhaps, and with a self-admitted penchant for choosing alcoholic men to be a part of her life, but one who cares deeply for her children.

Samantha is the opposite of Mason in the way that siblings often are opposites; she starts out the film as a bold and brash, precocious and deceitful child, and is the counter to Mason's thoughtful youngster (although she doesn't necessarily end that way). We get to meet her as she sings Britney Spears' "Oops I Did It Again" (another song I remember from my youth) much to Mason's quiet chagrin.

Then the film bursts outwards, in the way our lives expand as we get older and meet more people. Mason's father, divorced from Mom, played by Linklater regular Ethan Hawke, is in Alaska to begin with, although he later moves back to be a more active father in the upbringing of his children, and by the film's close is a regular player (for which I am thankful, because Ethan Hawke is a welcome presence in any movie).

What grabbed me most immediately was how real the film seemed. None of these characters were clichés or stock characters. The mother is well-drawn from the outset. The father evolves from the guilty dad trying to make amends for his absence early on into a loving, thoughtful father (although a very well-written scene implies that he wasn't ready to be a father when Mason was born, and perhaps he did the kinder thing by ducking out of responsibility for the first six years of Mason's life- he's certainly the kind of man who does better with older children).

There are, as I have mentioned, a slew of alcoholic men in Mom's life, and these are perhaps the only characters who seem to be two-dimensional. But sit and think about it; some people are just plain unlucky. Certainly, the men, when Mom met them, were genuine and nice people. Their alcoholism reveals itself slowly, and then suddenly, as one particular dinner table outburst involving the first husband, Professor Bill Welbrock (a memorably slimy and nasty Marco Perella) devastatingly details. Mom, simply, has bad luck with men. Sometimes life just works out like that.

Which is fitting, because this film is as honest as anything where life is concerned.

It is also worth a mention how funny the film can be, especially in the scenes with Ethan Hawke. He brings a genuine puppy-dog enthusiasm that is near-palpable, and frequently hysterical. Whether it's offering up pseudo-intellectual (yet utterly valuable) advice such as "life doesn't give you bumpers", or the cringe/funny moment where he's trying to give Samantha advice regarding contraception and boys, his presence is a beacon of light in the film. I also appreciated the pop-culture references; little things like the songs I've mentioned, along with the TV shows like Dragonball-Z and even the inclusion of the Nintendo Gameboy Advance SP were all staples of my own childhood. Linklater has purposely made the film with a time-capsule kind of element, relishing on the details which were new at the time but are now dated. I like that; the film acts as a paean about, an ode to, and a document of the times in which it was made, times in which I grew up and which are infinitely familiar, and yet this exacerbates the timeless quality of the writing and the characters.

The cinematography, by Lee Daniel and Shane F Kelly has a certain subdued, observant quality which suits the material to a T; we are simply presented the actors in a non-stylised, plainspoken way which doesn't intrude, and allows us to bask in the film.

Where the film is at its best, and luckiest, is in the casting of Ellar Coltrane as Mason. He starts the film as one of the most adorable children imaginable, and ends it as the kind of teenager I knew; the kind of teenager I was, and I suppose am. Throughout the film he carries this abashed, ineffable curiosity and wonder at everything he sees. He also turns out to be that very rarest of movie teenager, like Patrick Fugit's William Miller in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, who isn't dumb. He's not sex obsessed, but rather just views sex as another part of growing up- which it is. He has his own ambitions. He's smart. He can be a bit lazy, but his focus is on the things he loves, which turns out to be photography and art. How special it is to find a teenager in a movie who has ambitions at all!

Yet this ambition is a quality shared by the film itself. It's 166 minutes long, and it's one of the shortest 166 minutes I've ever seen (Transformers 4, which is the same length, seemed twice as long). It doesn't waste a single one of those minutes. It touches upon many themes, such as religion, the Iraq war, the early-noughties political climate, popular culture of the time, the nature of family. It also understands the simple pleasures life can bring; the kind words of an acquaintance. A home-cooked meal. Summers spent in a swimming pool and a trampoline. Hell, even the how a bad haircut can be ruinous for a young person, especially in a school setting.

Oh, how I could go on. This is a film that contains multitudes, and is made with an abundance of spirit which cannot help but touch the viewer. I was touched, deeply. It represents an act of nobility on the part of Richard Linklater, who marks himself, along with his "Before" saga (which joins the same couple every nine years at different stages of their relationship), as a director immensely interested in the passing of time. As well as an immensely skilled director.

A personal note. I feel as though this is a film that I will take with me through the rest of my life. So many little touches encapsulate the first eighteen years of my existence. I cannot rate this film more, not just because of what it does, but because of what it means to me.

It ends with Mason finally at college. He has just had a tearful farewell to his mother, yet despite himself he is excited by the possibilities which lie before him. the life he can carve for himself.

In two months, I will be at university, the American equivalent of college. No doubt I will have a tearful farewell to my mother, and my father, which will also run alongside my excitement at the life I am about to live, a life I am about to carve for myself.

The final shot of this film is immaculate in its simplicity. Mason has made three friends on his first day of college, and has gone hiking with them. There is a girl he likes very much, and he is just sat next to her. We regard him, and her, looking about them, taking in their life, taking stock perhaps. They are on the verge of everything that is about to come, for them. The shot is just long enough to call attention to how long it is. Then we cut to black.

I can say what I want as objectively as I can about this film. But as someone who is going to experience their own hike of some description in the near future, all I will say is this; for circumstances as similar to mine, this film is a gift, to be cherished, and all I can say is to see it, see it now, allow yourself to become immersed in it, and come out the other side having seen one of the most humane and tender dramas, films, you could imagine.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Review of Transformers: Age of Extinction

Pure cinema is a concept, heralded by the old cinematic masters, which states the stripping back of film from plot, character and the like to the basics of vision and movement. There have been some utter masterpieces of so-called "pure cinema" over the years, from film-makers who break away from the usual rules of narrative cinema and let the feeling, mood and picture take over. For me, the purest example of pure cinema in recent years has come from Steve McQueen in his 2011 film "Shame" starring Michael Fassbender as a guilt-ridden sex addict. That film had vast stretches with no dialogue, and instead played the action off of Fassbender's face, his actions, and the cinematographic space around him. The result was a film which allowed a lucid insight into a self-imposed mental hell, as well as a film which knew how to describe, as opposed to explain, leaving an open-ended exercise where the audience is invited to empathise with how the characters feel, based on how the film has presented them.

This is going somewhere, I promise.

See, in my humble opinion, Michael Bay, the helmer of "Transformers 4: The Age of Extinction", has created an example of pure cinema.

Now I know what you're thinking. I've just described a concept of high-cinema, and here I am reviewing Transformers 4, the latest in a series of films hardly renowned for their nuance, clarity and depth. But let's look at the evidence; in a number of instances, Bay does away with plot, and thought, and allows images to play out onscreen. Further than this, there are perhaps up to twenty minute stretches where the film descends into complete, and utter chaos. Things hit things which hit other things which result in a tumultuous cataclysm of sparks, metal on metal, and fireball explosions. Wikipedia helpfully defines pure cinema as "minimizing story and plot, focussing instead on visual concerns by using close-ups, dolly shots, montage, lens distortions, and other cinematic techniques".

Well, at the very least, you can't argue with the first part of that description. There is a semblance of plot for about fifteen minutes; we are shown (not told; cinematic) the dinosaurs being wiped out by giant spaceships. Then we cut to the present day with the discovery of those spaceships. Then we are introduced to the protagonist, Cade Yeager (Mark Walhberg), and his 17 year old daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz). We are told basic and fundamental things about their characters; Cade is a right-wing, controlling father who constantly berates his daughter's short skirts and won't allow her to get a boyfriend (although she has one anyway, in the form of Jack Reynor's Shane Dyson). And Tessa worries about her father, who has a habit of forgetting meals and locking himself up in his huge shed full of gadgets and the like. He's an inventor, you see, and he plans to save his family from financial destitution by making money from junk.

Then, one day he discovers a Transformer, brings it to life and mends it (it's Optimus Prime, voiced by Peter Cullen). Then an anti-Transformer black-ops wing of the Government, headed by Kelsey Grammar's shady baddie, tracks down Optimus, threatens to kill Cade's entire family in a gruelling sequence entirely unsuitable for a kids' film, which this is. Then Optimus comes along, blows up some stuff, and the film ditches any semblance of character development (which was ropey to being with), and then the whole farrago descends into an incomprehensible orgy of stuff hitting other stuff and things going into other things and everything being very LOUD and EXPLODEY and EXCRUCIATING in that obnoxious way that Michael Bay has perfected.

So, yes, it is pure cinema. But it's awful pure cinema. And Transformers 4 is an awful film. What's most intriguing about it is how it turns the stuff that masterpieces are made from, and wastes it abundantly. I read that the budget for this film is £210 million, and all I can think is "what a waste". Say that money had been donated to charity, or given to someone like, say, Steve McQueen. He could make ten masterpieces with that money.

It's also awfully, awfully unpleasant, in a cumulative way that's hard to pinpoint in one particular aspect or another. Every character is either clichéd or horrible; Cade, as you might have gathered, is an unlikeable "Dirty Harry" stereotype who we are not invited to empathise with as much as we observe him, like just another special effect Bay plugs into his films like needles from that gross bit in the Matrix. There's also a dodgy business leader in the form of Stanley Tucci's Joshua Joyce. At one point, as a giant black hole/thing is sucking up various bits of Hong Kong, he looks straight into the void and screams "OH MY GODDD!!!" I fully understood how he felt. (also the dialogue is terrible, macho-comic book rubbish with utterings such as "my face is my warrant".)

And that's another thing; as well as making no sense, the action sequences are terrible by any usual criteria for action sequences. By this I mean, they go on for too long, and are only over when the Editors from Hell and their Overlord Bay deign them to be over. Now, I'm a sucker for moments where film-makers let rip and their vision is there on screen, for us to see. But Michael Bay isn't so much a director with vision as he is a shrewd finance manager, taking his £210 million and turning it into a huge profit (as I write, £750 million). The fact that a film that relishes upon terrorism and destruction and carnage, and is so full horrendously wonky sexual politics, and iffy stereotypes can gross as much as it has says something that I'll leave you to infer. (I wasn't joking about stereotypes by the way; the good Transformers "Autobots" comprise a Samurai, a mad war general and a Cockney geezer, voiced by Ken Watanabe, John Goodman and John DiMaggio).

I can't even quote Shakespeare's famous "tale, told by an idiot..." dialogue from Macbeth. Because this isn't a tale. It's a mess. An inchoate, distressing mess. It's an abhorrent, bloated, overlong and tedious mess. That it's being marketed as a kid's film troubles me; Fight Club isn't as nihilistic as this.

This is the kind of thing Nietzsche would watch and write a book about.