Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Review: ABOUT ELLY...

Simmering tensions and questions of honour enshroud a group of Iranian friends and their young families as they visit a villa by the sea. The eponymous Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), one of the children’s teachers and friend of central female figure Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), is invited along with the group as a potential suitor for one of their number but things fall apart when she disappears during a flurry of potentially fatal activity.
What begins relatively sedately gradually shifts to something more uneasy. Suspense is ratcheted up little by little as more revelations about the missing woman, and her acquaintances, come to light. By the time of the third act it is heart in mouth stuff. The sense of unease created through characterisation alone is palpable.
Accusation and apportioning of blame is the focus of much of what transpires but, as all that is happening, human frailty is exposed. It never explodes in the way that you might expect. Guilt manifests in various guises with each character choosing to cope in a different way. The ensemble seems all-encompassing while never seeming artificially forced together to satisfy a need for different types.
While not a thriller in a traditional sense, it has enough of those elements to make it thrilling. It has more to say about domestic life in Iran than it does the story of a missing person. Featuring some of the cast from Asghar Farhadi's later work, A Separation, the performances are all pitched at exactly the right balance of natural and heightened.
The dynamics between the different couples which make up the party are fascinatingly rendered. The interplay among, and between, couples can swivel at a moment’s notice. Where you might expect the female characters to languish among such strong male interaction, their characters are forcefully well realised. No one sex is more culpable than another when it comes to the problems encountered but the gender balance comes into play in enthralling ways.
Farhadi is proving himself a force in world cinema capable of telling intense human stories with a minimum of fuss and scarcely a frame wasted in telling the emotional story behind the events.
Overcast skies and expressionistically colourless vistas aren’t maybe what you’d associate with a Persian landscape but they’re used to great effect here from the moment the film’s pivotal event takes place. The cinematography has a satisfyingly loose style that fits the flux of the action and is ramped up when needed, most notably during an anxious rescue.
It's rich and textured in a completely unhurried way and for those unfamiliar with the inner workings of Iranian society it's a fascinating insight. Emotionally mature and occasionally agonising, it's a work of quiet tragedy that rarely sets a foot wrong.

Sunday, 16 September 2012


The presence of Tim Burton and Henry Selick loom large over this film. While not in an official capacity, the world of horror inflected stop motion animation is their hallowed turf. Anyone seen to be breaching this ground is bound to be labelled a sub-par intruder but the makers of ParaNorman have equalled, if not bettered, those by the sub-genre superstars.
Taking its cues from The Sixth Sense, ParaNorman concerns eleven-year-old shock haired Norman, who can converse with dead people. Cleverly that isn’t seen as a problem though – at least not for him. The problem lies in the eyes of others; from his concerned mother and appalled father to bullying contemporaries at school.
For a film that starts out with a flickery grindhouse homage and the image on a trodden-on brain, it’s no surprise that the film is uncompromising in its content for a film with this demographic, and rightly so (sample joke topics: homosexuality, goosing, tits and ass). It would be untenable and pointless to construct a film – animated or not – around the subject of the risen dead and not pay homage to genre hallmarks.
That’s not to say there isn't a moral backbone to this illicit children’s film. It is warmly nostalgic in its vision of warped Americana and the central tenet of accepting difference in others runs through it like fresh brains through a putrefying intestinal tract. There’s an infectious glee in the way it doesn’t hold back on showing gruesome sights, such as a corpse’s lolling tongue flapping onto our hero’s face.
The character design is positively grotesque – and that’s just in the living. Blotchy skin, puffy eyes, asymmetrical faces, wobbling bingo wings and monstrously protruding guts all feature heavily. The voice cast seem to completely inhabit their parts. Softly spoken Kodi Smit-McPhee is a beguiling lead as Norman, in stark contrast to his flustered parents voiced by Leslie Mann and an exasperated Jeff Garlin. Playing against type, Casey Affleck is completely unrecognisable as a lunk-headed Jock while Anna Kendrick flies in the face of her usually prissy screen persona as Norman’s callow, vapid sister. If anything, the characters are too stock but even that’s in keeping with much of the genre it riffs on.
While obviously dancing in the general area of parody, the film doesn’t stuff itself with references to other films. This is its own thing. It takes time to establish its own world, drawing from sources as varied as gory b-movies and its New England setting's history of puritanical witch trials. The influence of John Carpenter does make itself apparent in the score and a couple of sly nods to Halloween but never to the extent that it seems homage is more important than plot.
What will leave the most lasting impression are the stunning visuals. The model work and stop motion have a tactile charm but in coupling those with fantastically audacious camerawork and liberal application of CGI, it reaches new heights. The autumnal hues and ragged aesthetic give it a lived in feel that completely fits the plot and the characters that inhabit it. A scene of atmospheric turbulence in the skies above the town of Blithe Hollow is mind blowing in how well realised it is.
Of course it’s relatively bloodless and the undead of the film are rarely concerned with anything worse happening to them than losing a dangling limb. Of course when that limb is 300 years old and decaying, it’s all played for comic effect. There’s nothing too troubling – at least no more so than munching on a jelly brain sweet.
Pleasingly plot driven and without the unnecessary baggage that usually accompanies message focused animated films, it’s a flesh creeping delight. It might not have the innocent charm to guarantee its longevity but it’s a delightful, if slight, romp that doesn’t scale back on the visceral pleasure of watching a horror film.

Thursday, 13 September 2012


What happens when an unstoppable force (Meryl Streep’s unbridled optimism) meets an immovable object (Tommy Lee Jones’ craggy scowl)? Well, they go to marriage counselling and seek to repair years of damage to their emotions and libido.
The film’s biggest strength lies in the fact that it’s very much a two-hander. It’s absolutely Streep and Jones’ film and both actors are more than game. It’s solidly structured around these two with only one significant supporting actor in the form of Steve Carell’s therapist. As such it doesn’t feel cluttered and eschews unnecessary comic relief.
It’s relatively gentle humour in spite of broaching the subject of sex matter-of-factly but it plays to the actors’ strengths. The set pieces are fun but never at the expense of characterisation. Jones’ guttural growl when faced with uncomfortable situations is always pleasing and Streep takes charge of the film’s more heightened moments with seemingly effortless panache.
It’s warmly natural, touchingly tender and occasionally very funny. It’s not quite as predictable as you might expect and character expectations are sensitively subverted. The progression feels balanced and fair; it’s not a battle of the sexes. It walks the fine line between schmaltz and melodrama (in the best possible way) while managing a few barbs but doesn’t resort to comedy of embarrassment tropes.
It has a lot to say about relationships and how, without noticing, they drift into monotony and need reassessing – especially as years turn to decades. It might not be breaking new ground but they’re resonant themes and it’s refreshing to see sex approached in a way that isn’t puerile or throwaway.
Unfortunately it’s slightly marred by a jarringly fast wrap up and an ill-suited punchline (that strangely chimes with similar problems in the last act of Take This Waltz) but there’s plenty to admire in the thoughtful restraint of this post-middle age comedy-drama.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Review: DREDD

It looked like 2000 AD’s toughest lawman would never see the big screen again. A string of flop films based on ‘mature content’ comics and a much maligned previous adaptation in 1995 had seemingly put paid to that.
But here it is. It’s uncompromised, it’s adrenalised, and there’s no Stallone in sight. It’s also one of the most visually revolutionary action films of recent years. Establishing the lore of this dystopian future and setting up the grand scale of Mega-City One, before confining the bulk of the action to one location, is a remarkably effective way of allowing for characterisation of Judge Dredd himself.
For the Dredd of Alex Garland and Pete Travis’ vision is not quite the indestructible, gung-ho portrayal that’s attached itself to the character in the past. Karl Urban’s Dredd expresses caution, restraint and faith in other characters. While not shying away from all the action hero stuff you’re watching for, he’s more rounded than could reasonably be expected.
His interaction with rookie Judge Anderson is a sheer joy to behold. The entire treatment of the Anderson character is fascinating. Not only is her character nuanced and well written but they way the filmmakers have handled her powers is impressive. The portrayal of her psychic powers is immaculately realised in a way that makes X-Men’s similar approach look frankly silly.
Anderson is one of two genre-defying well rounded female characters. Lena Headey as the film’s villain, Ma-Ma makes an invigorating change in that her sex is almost incidental. It’s never dwelled upon or used to affect her actions. She’s brutally cold but softly spoken and with a calm demeanour and that’s what makes her scary. A scene recounting her back-story could have been a hackneyed piece of exposition but it’s told with such a visual flair that it never feel like it is.
There’s a grounded feeling to the way that Mega-City One has been developed here. From shot to shot it looks real world (a result of its South African shoot and budget) but in landscape shots it’s fascinatingly structured; relatively ground level slums studded with vertical cities in the form of the blocks. Budget limitations do show elsewhere, not least in Dredd’s Lawmaster bike that looks like a fibreglass bug shield tacked onto the front of someone’s Yamaha.
Where the film really succeeds is in its usage of slow motion. By making slo-mo imagery a side effect of the narcotic of the same name, it becomes not just a stylistic effect but a diegetic device. It thickly coats the imagery in a translucent sheen that’s translates beautifully to the screen. While slow motion isn’t new in action films it has rarely looked as good, or made as much sense, as it does here.
Comparisons with The Raid are inevitable due to the tower block setting and similar plot beats but there’s much more at stake here. While The Raid tied itself up with manufactured twists, Dredd is more concerned with using the location and device of secluding the heroes as a means of world building.
There’s a minor problem in the disposability of many of the villains but that’s cleverly explained away by a lean plot mechanism: they’re not henchmen, they’re ordinarily people cajoled into action. It adds an extra layer and is effectively explored in a scene involving Anderson and a mother whose husband has adopted a role as bounty hunter.
At 95 minutes, it never leaves time to get stale. The block is so well realised as a location that it seems like they could have afforded further time to investigate it. The dark humour of the comics makes an appearance (not least in some spectacularly gruesome deaths) but never feels the need to offer a comedy sidekick to liven things up. With the world now established on screen, seeing other corners of Mega-City One’s sprawling metropolis explored could be an intriguing prospect. As a neo-fascist satire on a grand scale, it’s a fascinating and heady mix.

Friday, 7 September 2012



The latest in a long line of television to movie adaptations is a quintessentially British affair that desperately wants to compete with its American counterparts. It’s glossy and polished in a way that the original series never was and it can’t wait to let you know there’s more to British policing than Bobbies on the beat. While Hot Fuzz has already played with the concept of transposing this iconically American genre to the UK, this certainly isn’t playing for laughs.
It’s played reassuringly, and refreshingly, straight with no room for nudges and winks in this vision of London as a cops and robbers battleground. We’re introduced to the no-nonsense Flying Squad (‘Sweeney Todd’) of the title through a rough ‘n’ tumble conversation about the fitness of birds before we’re launched into watching them rumble a heist. Anyone familiar with director Nick Love’s oeuvre would be getting worried about now. The laddish banter and casual violence are present and correct.
While not quite on a par with the squalidness of his previous efforts, it does set a worrying precedent. Happily, it turns out those preconceptions are mostly ill-founded and Love proves himself to be adept at handling most elements of the film. He shares a writing credit with John Hodge (who adapted Trainspotting to blistering effect) so you would expect the script to shine through. However, it features more “slags” than your average knocking shop and rarely rises beyond parody, which is a problem when the film takes itself so seriously.
The plot is a bit of a slog and anyone who’s ever seen an episode of a primetime cop drama will be miles ahead of this supposedly crack squad when it comes to piecing together the evidence. It makes them look lumbering and merely reinforces the notion that they’re all about brawn and less about brain, which makes it doubly baffling when they seem to be based in the kind of hi-tech, inner city foothold that would make S.H.I.E.L.D. blush.
In many ways it’s akin to a British take on Elite Squad (minus any of that film’s nuance). Aside from the obvious police squad similarities, it’s similar in its politics in that it suggests it takes a bit of fascistic head-knocking to really uphold the law. It’s a glowing exaltation of police brutality, without any attempt to analyse or criticise. Even early themes of police corruption are quietly swept aside and forgotten about. The film is completely in thrall to their machismo; unfalteringly in awe of the methods they employ.
The problem with this is that there’s no outsider character to lead you in and let you experience any of these methods through their eyes. As a viewer, you're very much positioned as one of The Sweeney and, indeed, the only real example of someone outside the circle is painted as an effete, sexless prick from the off.
Ray Winstone plays Jack Regan as Ray Winstone and Ben ‘Plan B’ Drew as George Carter shows that he’s really not much of an actor when not required to look a bit tasty with his fists. Proper nawty geezers and armed bastards make up the bulk of the other characters, with the exceptions of Damian Lewis and Steven Mackintosh as pencil pushers. Hayley Atwell is pleasingly given a role that lets her be just as hard as the men but, unfortunately, that’s balanced out by also making her inexplicably fall into bed (or, rather, a toilet cubicle) with Winstone at every opportunity.
All these problems are well and good but moot points if you can focus on the content of the action instead. Aside from the minor thrill of seeing exciting things happen in iconic locations, the action is a bit of a mess though. A strangely bloodless shootout in Trafalgar Square is shoddily edited and lacking in tension but at least the car chases and punch ups, which made the John Thaw and Dennis Waterman version so iconic, fare better. A high speed chase through a caravan park is exhilarating and the few scenes of mano-a-mano scrapping are crunchingly effective.
"You're nicked" seems an appropriate phrase to echo through the film as it applies to a score that’s often eerily similar to that of The Dark Knight. Meanwhile, the second unit must have struck a deal with Alan Sugar to lease b-roll from The Apprentice as it’s hard not to look at the glossy aerial shots of London without hearing ‘Montagues and Capulets’ playing in your head while Lord Sugar informs you he’s “not looking for arse-kissers”.
And that is a fairly apt description of The Sweeney’s ambitions. It’s not looking for anyone to shower it with plaudits. It just wants to please a post-pub Friday night crowd and show that British film doesn’t have to be genteel. In that respect, it’s a relative success. Job done.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012


Dawn of the Brown Bread.

This is very much an ideas film. The title is at once evocative and playful and, strangely enough, quite intelligent. Pairing East End iconography and stereotypes, which is among the most distinct of any region in the UK, with the well established tropes of zombie iconography is an absolutely sound comic premise.

It cleverly assembles a cast of up and coming young talent like Rasmus Hardiker, Michelle Ryan and Harry Treadaway and places them alongside a good value assortment of senior scene-stealers like Alan Ford, Richard Briers, Dudley Sutton and Honor Blackman. Although the zombie outbreak has been done to death there’s still a lot of mileage in it as a means of getting across an allegorical message.

Unfortunately the reading of the outbreak as a metaphor for the escalating viral gentrification of London’s East End is only touched upon. It’s clear the inhabitants of this filmic East London welcome the regeneration of their beloved stomping ground as much as they do the undead overrunning it. It really is just about the title and all that evokes; tasty geezers, wideboys and brassy matriarchs facing off against the shambling undead masses. Although Shaun of the Dead, with its North London setting, might seem an obvious reference point there’s really very little in common.

There are nice innovations though, like the upfront addressing of the reason for the outbreak. There’s no faffing about in letting us know that zombies were sealed away by Charles II during (presumably) The Great Fire of London and uncovered during development work. This is never dwelt upon, or even fully explained, but that’s what makes it so refreshing.

The film’s biggest problem is a leaden script that tries a bit of everything but rarely succeeds. It starts out using well-timed, if overly familiar, short burst of cutaways as a visual shorthand but they're dropped soon after and don't reappear. Within minutes though, it’s already getting lazy and piling stock character upon stock character. While certainly different, character motivations are dull and underexplored with no real sense of progression.

The film is essentially a series of neat visual gags stitched together as a plot by any means necessary. Some of them work (such as a zimmer frame chase scene) but others are so telegraphed that they come lumbering into view even slower than the zombies.

When it comes to the undead, there’s no attempt made to 'characterise' the zombies. Each one is mere cannon fodder; a gore inflected punchline. You’d be hard pushed at the end to think of a single iconic one in the way you might remember, for example, Mary from Shaun of the Dead or the cemetery zombie from Night of the Living Dead.

The film’s most insurmountable problem is that there’s very little in the way of emotional weight. While the splatter might be what gets people watching, it’s the characters and relationships that keep it memorable and there’s scarce meat on the bones here.

Unarguably visually impressive, with an impressive illustration-encompassing opening, there’s fun to be had in seeing stereotypes vs. stereotypes but there’s trouble and strife in store for anyone looking for something with more bite.


Monday, 3 September 2012

Review: [●REC]3: GÉNESIS

Taking place simultaneously with the events of [REC] and [REC]2, the third instalment has arguably the neatest conceit of the three by combining the same zombie outbreak with a readymade assortment of savages - namely, a wedding party. All walks of life (and, thusly, death) are brought together, from doddery geriatrics to lusty mates and drunken bridesmaids. It’s a perfect storm.

However, [REC]3: Génesis bravely kicks away the crutches of the only element that truly set the series apart from the rest of the zombie sub-genre – its found footage lynchpin. After a twenty minute cold open where good use is made of the multitude of cameras documenting Koldo and Clara’s big day, it’s all dropped. The aspect ratio shifts and we’re into classic narrative cinema territory.

As things kick off and zombie hordes cut a swath through the turquoise and fuchsia festivities, it becomes clear that this is far more full-on than its predecessors. All sense of restraint is dropped along with the documentary aesthetic. It still takes the opportunity to play with form a bit but the realist elements that were so strong before are dropped in favour of striking iconography. It plays more like a parody than the relatively grounded first two.

The thing is, all this change in style and subversion of expectations is to the film’s credit. As if the filmmakers who once rode this zeitgeist realise, like most of their audience, that it was time to get off and change-up. They’ve done found footage and this is their chance to possibly end the series on a grander canvas.

The blackly comic humour redolent of many zombie films, including previous [REC]s, is still there. It doesn’t think twice about dropping names like Dziga Vertov and Jean Renoir to a horror crowd because this is a film that exudes confidence. There’s a biting satirical edge that has time to riff on copyright infringement and music royalties while limbs are torn off and viscera is strewn.

The innovative, playful mythos of this world's zombies is nicely carried over and expanded upon from [REC]2. The explanation for them is a nice idea and it’s good to see it taken to its fitting conclusion.

The two leads, Leticia Dolera and Diego Martin, are captivating as these two doomed lovers who just want to see through the remainder of their wedding day together. Dolera looks like a Tim Burton drawing made flesh and assumes a role as one of contemporary horror’s most striking protagonists; not least when hacking apart her bloodied bridal gown with a chainsaw to reveal a blood red garter underneath.

For all the reasons it’s massively enjoyable to watch, it’s also bit on the slight side and lacking in real tension as a result of the outré tone. That’s close to a cardinal sin in horror terms but when it keeps up the frenetic pace as it does for its all-too-brief (but not more so than the other two) running time, there’s little room to notice what’s not there above what is.