You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Wednesday, 13 July 2016


So, after more than three and half years of reviews, analysis, and general ruminations I'm bidding farewell to Of All the Film Blogs.

Apart from a handful of very early pieces at university, it was here I did my first real film criticism and, if you're reading this, whether or not you've just stumbled across it, you've played at least a small part in supporting me. Every jump in the number of pageviews has helped give me an incentive to keep writing, so thank you.

I hope you'll continue to seek out my work at my new site, Of All the Film Sites (

For now, though: here's looking at you all.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016


How do you a find a new take on not one but two of the most imitated figures in modern history? From Forrest Gump to Bubba Ho-Tep, Secret Honour to X-Men: Days of Future Past, not to mention the cavalcade of films that bear their names, Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon are probably better known to us as personas than in person; partly by design, of course. Whether it’s the howling lycanthropic Nixon of Futurama or the gyrating heartthrob of Jailhouse Rock, only the core mannerisms remain in memory: the hunched back and beady-eyed stare; that cocky sneer and “a-thank you, thank you very much”. Though hardly an in-depth “character study”, Elvis & Nixon succeeds in getting — albeit shallowly — under the skin of both its leads. 

The film details the lead-up to the meeting that took place between the king of rock n’ roll and “Tricky Dick” on December 21st, 1970. It all began a few days earlier when Elvis (Michael Shannon) suddenly left Graceland and flew to Washington DC with the stated aim of becoming an undercover “Agent at Large” with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs — in order to combat the rise of drug culture in the United States, don’t you know. Accompanied by two of his so-called Mafia Memphis, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and lookalike Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville), he set about trying to secure some face time with the man he thought most likely to make it happen: President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey). 

Fortunately for Elvis, Nixon’s staff happens to include Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks), head of the Special Investigations Unit, and Deputy Assistant Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters). Both appreciate the positive impact an association with Elvis could have on Nixon’s appeal to the younger generation; even if White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman (Tate Donovan in cameo) takes some convincing. Krogh and Chapin make for an amiable pair of squares — they even have matching overcoats — but Watergate is on the horizon. 

Elvis, meanwhile, has grown disillusioned with the life he leads. The film, directed by Lisa Johnson, never delves into his obsession with law enforcement, but it’s clear that this a man for whom the giggling women (when he’s there they giggle) and expensive jewellery (he’s a prisoner of his fashion regime) have lost their charm; even if he never does. His former associate Jerry — half handler, half friend — truly loves Elvis, but feels himself being drawn back into the orbit of a man who can’t help but be the centre of everyone else’s world. 

Shannon, peering out from beneath that hair and those sunglasses, eschews all the markers of the usual Elvis performance. The accent, for instance, is his own. Instead, he offers an understated portrait of a public figure who, for all the karate and the stir he creates, feels like a UFO; serenely touches down where he pleases, seemingly oblivious to the world freaking out around him. It’s something of a departure for the famously intense Shannon — not least in being genuinely quite amusing. Aside from a brief inaudible scene involving an open-top car, two pretty girls, and CCR’s Susie Q, we never even hear him sing. Elvis & Nixon’s soundtrack notably features no Elvis — it would certainly make for a misleading addition to any CD collection. 

Similarly, excluding one snippet of a phone conversation with Henry Kissinger, the film offers us nothing of Nixon’s politics. Spacey’s performance may be the more typical of the two — there’s the apelike hunch, the prickly demeanour, that oh-so imitable voice — but, even as a known mimic, there’s no sense of impersonation. Shannon and Spacey bring a subtlety to their respective roles that pays off particularly in the interplay between a legend and a president; Elvis obliviously breaking protocol, Nixon grudgingly coming to respect this kooky interloper. 

Any such meeting certainly lends itself to comedy of the zaniest sort — Elvis believes his years of costume and makeup have made him a master of disguise — but it’s acutely observed enough that it never feels like its going for easy laughs. Elvis & Nixon’s script, written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes, may feel like a TV movie — a form in which the premise has already been offered —  and offers a few stagey moments of self-reflection on Elvis’ part. Even so, the film, if not quite kingly, certainly won’t leave you feeling crook. A-thank you, thank you very much.

Elvis & Nixon gets a 6.5 out of 10

Monday, 27 June 2016


They’ve back, just when we might have dared to hope that we were safe the next wave of big-budget blockbusters with meaningless subtitles sweeps into cinemas. Just as Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice failed to set the world alight by treating its material with undue reverence, Independence Day: Resurgence fails to set the world alight — while narratively doing exactly that — by treating its material with no reverence whatsoever. 

The film sets out to reprise more or less exactly what it did twenty years before with little of the novelty, a touch more irony, and nary a decent speech to be heard. While in 1996 the wholesale destruction of world monuments was considered worthy of “oohs” and “aahs” aplenty, nowadays it barely merits a “meh”. World-threatening peril, by forces alien, natural, or of our own devising — or, in the case of X-Men: Apocalypse, mutants — are more or less the spectacle du jour. As Jeff Goldblum’s wryly startled David Levinson notes amid plummeting skyscrapers and, one would assume, the attendant loss of human life, “They always go for the landmarks.” 

In all fairness, the dead do cast a large shadow over Independence Day: Resurgence; mostly in that the film’s younger generation (Liam Hemsworth’s cocky maverick, Jake; Jessie Usher’s too-earnest-to-be-quite-cool Dylan Hillier; Maika Monroe’s would-be Ripley, Patricia; ) can’t hold a candle to Will Smith’s cigar-chomping, alien-belting war hero from the first film. A lack of star power (or willingness to invest in it) doesn’t help counter the impression that this is primarily a cash grab. 

There’s a utterly subsidiary Chinese pilot, played by model-actress-singer Angelababy, who — despite serving as a would-be love interest for Travis Tope’s cheerfully dweeby Charlie — feels like a calculated play for a wider audience. Brent Spiner runs around dementedly in his undies with a matted white mane of hair and Bill Pullman salvages sound dignity as the shellshocked former Prez. The alien mothership may be substantially bigger, there are katana-wielding African warlords and magic spheres, but even the film’s high-tech lunar base feels like a case of Ender’s Again? For all of the heroic sacrifices none of them mean very much. 

This is Independence Day: Regurgitated*, a thin, warmed-over gruel that even the prospect of an intergalactic sequel can do little to infuse with any flavour.

3.5 out of 10

* Thanks to Amarpal Biring for that one.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016


Adult Life Skills

Adult Life Skills is one of those low-key, quirky dramedies that, if executed poorly, has the potential to be be near enough unwatchable. Fortunately, as executed by first-time writer-director Rachel Tunnard and her more than able cast, the film is instead a mopey, mirthful study of making magic out of mundanity. 

Jodie Whittaker stars as Anna, a bereaved twin who spends her days doing admin at a small-town Yorkshire rowing club and her nights making videos with a tinfoil spaceship and her anthropomorphic thumbs. She sees faces in places — in egg cartons, in wood grain. She flirts awkwardly with soft-spoken, number-driven real estate agent Brendan (Brett Goldstein). She also lives in a shed, which her mum (Lorrain Ashborne) despairs about ever getting her out of. It’s only when Anna is forced to look after Clint (Ozzy Meyers), a scowl-y, cowboy-obsessed kid with troubles of his own. 

Though perpetually verging on preciousness — Edward Hogg appears as a character credited as The Snorkeler — Adult Life Skills has enough insight into arrested development and grief to sidestep the trap of the twee.

6.5 out of 10

Tale of Tales

Tale of Tales is The Brothers Grimm as Terry Gilliam should have made it. 

Inspired by Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone — from which the film gets its name — and directed by Gomorrah’s Matteo Garone, it weaves together three archetypal fairytales: the jovial king (John C. Reilly) and bitter queen (Selma Hayek) longing for a child; one kindly yet capricious ruler (Toby Jones), his romantic daughter Violet (Bebe Cave), the flea and the ogre; and the two crones (Hayley Carmichael and Shirley Henderson) who inadvertently mislead a lusty prince (Vincent Cassel). Shot on location around Italy, sumptuously designed, and with a suitably fantastical score from Alexandre Desplat, Tale of Tales is baroque, bloody, alluring and repugnant. 

The film might not have much by the way of substance, nor is Matteo the first filmmaker to turn his hand to fable — fellow Italian Pasolini did so with his Trilogy of Life back in the ‘70s — but when the scenery is this sumptuous and the monsters this grotesque, it’s hard to begrudge a little fancifulness.

7 out of 10

The Neon Demon

Like its predecessor, Only God Forgives, Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest, The Neon Demon, was also booed at Cannes. Unlike its predecessor, only the film’s final third might merit such a reaction. 

The film starts as a glossy, lurid scrutiny of beauty and what it elicits. Elle Fanning embodies radiant ingenue Jesse whose arrival in Los Angeles stirs lust and possessiveness in the male fashion set — Alessandro Nivo as a verse-declaiming designer, Desmond Harrington as an intense, hollow-cheeked photographer — and jealousy amid a kind-to-be-cruel clique of models — including Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, and neighbourly but unreadable makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone). The film deftly plumbs these thematic depths with both clarity and unpredictability, which gives way to shock value and detached symbolism.  

An Under the Skin about the skin itself, Cronenberg’s Crash where the paraphilia is flesh instead of steel. There’s more to The Neon Demon than meets the eye till, all of a sudden, there isn’t.

8.5 out of 10

Sunday, 29 May 2016


Jodie Foster’s most recent directorial effort after 2011’s The Beaver, Money Monster seeks to combine the hostage dynamics of Dog Day Afternoon with the financial acumen of The Big Short, but lacks the portfolio to pull it off. 

George Clooney stars as Lee Gates, a smirking Wall Street whiz who makes a living giving out overblown stock tips on a bells-and-whistles cable show called Money Monster. His brash exhortations comes back to bite — or possibly shoot him — however, when an angry investor, Kyle (Jack O’Connell), turns up in the studio with a gun, a bomb, and a dead man’s switch, demanding answers. What really happened at IBIS Global Capital that wiped $800 million off the stock price? And where is the company’s smug CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West)? 

As IBIS’ conflicted PR officer, Diane Lester (Catriona Balfe), struggles with her conscience, Gates lends the inarticulate Kyle his voice; first unwillingly then, increasingly, as benefactor/accomplice. Meanwhile, up in the control booth, Gates’ deeply committed director, Patty (Julia Roberts), keeps the show running — even relaying the occasional shot choice to long-suffering cameraman Lenny (Lenny Venito) down on the floor.  

Money Monster’s most pressing dramatic issue is its lack of urgency. Kyle is more upset than unstable; even after a vicious bollocking from his pregnant GF, there’s no sense he might doing anything truly desperate. Meanwhile, he gaggle of cops out in the street, as played by beloved character actors — Giancarlo Esposito (Gus from Breaking Bad), Chris Bauer (the Sheriff from True Blood), and John Ventimigli (Tony’s chef mate from The Sopranos) — feel like such a side-show that they might as well be starring in a TV spin-off of Inside Man.

O’Connell rages, Clooney alternately cowers and crusades — and, of course, manages to be utterly charming while doing it — and Roberts holds it together, but the film itself is neither idea-driven or genre-focused enough to do very much more than exist.

By making the cause of Kyle’s plight fraud — the obvious dramatic choice — rather than say greed, stupidity, and lack of foresight on a grand scale, such as was arguably the actual cause of the recent recession, the film’s script takes the bite out of what could be excoriating Nightcrawler-like satire. Characters talk about quantitative analytics, about money as energy, about being intellectually in love with a stock, but this all feels like lip service in the context of a film that ends with a literal march on Wall Street (with Gates aiding and abetting).

Money Monster is daft, rabble-rousing liberalism targeted at everyone and anyone who might be pissed off with the state of the economy. With little sapient to say on the matter, though, the film is forced to conclude that things might sorta be okay if only the fat cats could be made to admit that the ruthless pursuit of money above all else is wrong. As messages go, it doesn't add up to much.

VERDICT: Huge dividends, dramatic or otherwise, are unlikely, but Money Monster might still be worth your time, if only as an eventual investment on VOD. 5 out of 10

Tuesday, 24 May 2016


The Nice Guys is your standard Shane Black neo-noir buddy comedy with a '70s retrofit but that's no bad thing. The film is a wild and seedy ride from the top of the derelict Hollywood sign, through — occasionally literally — the deluxe shag pads of Beverly Hills, and all the way down through the mean streets of L.A. The buddies in question are not mean per se, though they are respectively afraid and tarnished. 

Ryan Gosling plays shrill, ineffectual P.I. Holland March who drinks like a fish — if the fish in question were a just-about-functioning alcoholic — and whose most notable trait is a Looney Tunes-like ability to bounce back from a beating (or a fall or a self-inflicted severed artery after trying to punch in a window). Even his precocious daughter Holly is exasperated: "You're the world’s worst detective". He’s the opposite of your classic hard-bitten P.I. Bogart would have eaten him for lunch. Even Elliott Gould's stumblebum Phillip Marlowe might have been tempted to give him a slap. 

The hardbitten-ness comes vis-a-vis Jackson Healy, played by Russell Crowe, a wry, stocky bully-for-hire who ekes out a living delivering warnings to deadbeats, stalkers, and, on this occasion, Holland March. The warning Healy delivers to March — complete with a helpfully pre-diagnosed spiral fracture — comes courtesy of Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley), an insufferable rich kid environmentalist whose sudden disappearance seems to be connected to the recent death of a porn star and the Detroit automotive industry.

More than just the eminently quotable one-liners we’ve come to expect from any Shane Black joint — “I had to question the mermaids!” — The Nice Guys also features some impeccably orchestrated physical comedy. There’s a bit of a slapstick involving a gun, a cigarette, and a toilet stall door that’s up there with Abbott & Costello. The plot is more than vaguely similar to Black’s directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: egregiously bad parenting and porn-related hijinks are a recurring theme, as well as the obligatory ill-timed discovery/disposal of a corpse. 

This only matters, though, in the way that plot mattered in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye — a clear influence here — or P.T. Anderson's Inherent Vice; in that it more or less just provides opportunity for various thrills and spills. This orchestrated chaos happens to feature a henchmen who bares an uncanny resemblance to Sacha Baron Cohen, another who’s a dapper psycho (played by Matt Bomer no less) named for one of The Waltons; a Pam Griers-alike, Tally (Yaya DaCosta); a putty-mouthed Kim Basinger (reunited with Crowe, her L.A. Confidential costar); a giant talking bee; and Richard Nixon.

The Nice Guys is darkly comic, hilariously bloody noir in which bystanders take stray bullets and every neighbourhood kid’s a potential grifter. Cynical yet strangely good-natured, the film even has something vaguely resembling character arcs for both its leads. Unpredictable and scattershot, it certainly solves the case of what you should go see in the cinema come June 3rd.

The Nice Guys gets an 8 out of 10

Tuesday, 12 April 2016


After deciding not to commit any more time or words, written or otherwise, to analysing and dissecting Batman V Superman, I find comparisons to Zack Snyder’s crap-ton opus cropping up in the most unlikely of places – namely the work of a (once) genuinely visionary director. 

Knight of Cups is a film you could drown in – a vast thematic ocean lapping against the distant shore of some grand, obscure vision; and apparently I don’t have any swimming trunks. As a director-philosopher (or should that be philosopher-director?), Terrence Malick has always experimented with the medium, but his latest work seems to mark the crossing of a conceptual Rubicon. 

Where 2011’s Tree of Life – a genuine masterpiece – encapsulated the brevity and preciousness of human experience by juxtaposing the private grief of an All-American family in ‘50s Texas with the origins of the universe (over almost two and a half hours no less), Knight of Cups eschews such contrivances as plot and character almost entirely.

Following an itinerant screenwriter, Rick (Christian Bale), around Los Angeles and its surrounding environs, the film is directly engaged in a search for meaning and so diligently wades through meaninglessness. Malick’s camera drifts close behind the silently watchful Rick as he makes his way through lavish parties, down skid row, across desert flats, even via the Paramount backlot; switching occasionally to Rick’s POV as if to say, “This is you, you wanderer, you pilgrim.” 

Even an earthquake and a minor home invasion can’t shake our nomadic protagonist out of his reverie – or, Heaven forbid, prompt him to pick up a pen. Rick isn’t so much character as camera; the frame through which Malick unfurls this gauzy tapestry.

Less cinema than poetry told through images, Knight of Cups is replete with literary quotations – from The Pilgrim's Progress, from the apocryphal Hymn of the Pearl – but there is nothing at the centre of Malick's quest; no pearl, no progress, no common nucleus of human experience. There’s experience aplenty – kissing, running into the sea fully clothed, luminous body paint – Spring Break as high art – but no more significance to any of it than a handful of holiday snapshots. 

Repetition should lend meaning – a man cycling along a boulevard (different man, different boulevard) –  but these images provide no key in or out. The film’s ending, when it comes, arrives abruptly and without apparent foreshadowing.

Characters pass like ships in the light – Cate Blanchett as Rick’s physician ex-wife; Teresa Palmer as the “High Priestess” stripper; Rick’s bullish father (Brian Dennehy) and volatile brother (Wes Bentley).1 It’s clear by the level of talent – no fewer than four Oscar winners are involved onscreen and off – that Malick’s vision is alluring. 

Natalie Portman, who plays ‘Death’ AKA Elizabeth2 and attended Malick’s alma mater, Harvard, must have seen something in the fragmentary pages of script that, to my eye, certainly doesn’t survive . You’d never know of Malick’s practice of “torpedoing” — unexpectedly throwing cast members into scenes to force improvisation — because no real conflict reaches the surface.

Knight of Cups could play on a loop at a modern art installation without much loss.3 The patrons could pause momentarily to glean what they can from Emmanuel Lubezki’s radiant cinematography – bright, pale, and naturally lit, of course4 – or one of Malick’s cryptic snatches of voiceover – the rows of palm trees that line the L.A boulevards tell us, for instance, that anything’s possible – before simply moving on.5 

This is perhaps the only film that I wish they’d provided SparkNotes for going in; a handy how-to guide of reference points and symbolism. After almost two hours I almost, perversely, wished it would go on longer, just in the hope that it might all come together in one revelatory burst - alas.

In his review for The New York Times, Richard Brody described Knight of Cups in terms of “the confessional, the inside-Hollywood story, the Dantesque midlife-crisis drama, the religious quest, the romantic struggle, the sexual reverie, the family melodrama” – but, while all of these undercurrents are undoubtedly present, none of them have any hold. 

The film is all in the motion, like the breaking of waves; the journey rather than any single arrival or conversation. In this it resembles a 118-minute version of Sean Penn’s present-day perambulations in Tree of Life – reverently wandering between skyscrapers and riding in lifts as though travel were somehow the essence of meaning instead of a necessary transition between point A and point B.6  The film has so little actual structure to it, regardless of what the chapter headings proclaim, that just finding a rhythm to this review has, perhaps obviously, been challenging.7

Dealing with recurring themes in Malick’s work, like the death of a brother, this feels less like cinema than indulgence, therapy even, that, like Woody Allen and his recent travelogues – which are at least entertaining – is difficult to dismiss as navel-gazing simply because the navel in question is so remarkably well composed. Those few impressions that linger – the jaws of a dog, plunging futilely into a pool to recover a lost toy – endure only as curios; detached, adrift from that work that should encompass them.

Perversely, the film Knight of Cups most reminds me of is Batman V Superman - which, despite its subtitle, did justice to nothing and no one.8 Where that was too narrative-driven, this is slight; where that was too dark, all matte and gloss, this is light; where that was categorically shit, this is, well… wank. At least the former has the decency to be bad; this is just ephemeral.9 What films like BVS and KoC10 do, though, is make you appreciate tightly structured, disciplined cinema.11 

Knight of Cups is a film for which I've seen more than one positive review use words like "indecipherable" and "imponderable". Now, I can handle a certain amount of poetic obscurity,12 but, forgive me for being old-fashioned, I like my films to make sense.

One of Rick's myriad lovers – possibly Imogen Poots13 – informs him, "You're not looking for love. You're looking for a love experience." Knight of Cups is not a film but a cinematic experience; one that'll either sweep you away or leave you marooned, as it did me. 

The only reason I can't dismiss it out of hand is the lingering sense that maybe I missed something, that I was looking too closely (or else not closely enough) and the film's self-evident transcendence somehow got slipped between my bifocals. What was for me a tedious experience might well prove a transcendent one for you. Try as I did to engage, my latch was clearly broken. 

Ponderous and imponderable, and, like its protagonist, easily led, Knight of Cups gets a 4.0 out of 10 

1 Jason Clarke appears silently in one scene, presumably a victim of Malick’s legendary editing process.

2 Knight of Cups is divided into eight chapter, all named, as the film itself is, for tarot cards. After ‘Death’, fortunately, comes ‘Freedom’ – were it ‘Rebirth’ I might have been obliged to sit through the whole thing again.

3 The film is a canvas onto which you are almost obliged to project your own feelings, your own interpretations. Unfortunately I’ve never had the opportunity to bum around the L.A. party scene with a bevy of beauties on my arm and a seemingly inexhaustible wallet; otherwise I may have found Rick’s evident satisfaction with his lot in life a bit more relatable.

4 What is it with Lubezki and films I don’t quite get on with (even if they are Best Picture winners)? I liked Gravity but didn’t adore it as much as American Hustle; Birdman was fun and superficially profound, but I didn't even end up reviewing it. As for The Revenant

5 Hanan Townshend's ethereal string score is certainly relentlessly buoying.

6 You can count the moments of actual “drama” in Knight of Cups on the fingers of one fist. At one point I think Wes Bentley actually throws something. It very nearly startled me awake.

7 Hence the footnotes you are currently reading. The main body is for you; these are more or less just to help me work through any extraneous thoughts.

8 And that’s my last word on it – I promise.

9 Tightly wound films like, say Whiplash, which I haven’t seen since October 2014 and loved so much on girst viewing that I’m afraid to open my BluRay copy in case it somehow tarnishes the memory.

10 Malick’s next film, shot back to back with Knight of Cups, is actually called Weightless, but it’s hard to imagine it can be less substantial than this.

11 Okay one more parting shot: BVS is very close to IBS and KoC is a similarlyinspired acronym.

12 Carol Morley's The Falling was one of my favourites of 2015; a film no less ambitious in its own way for its commitment to actually telling a story. 

13 It is actually Imogen Poots. She’s called Della in the film – at least that’s what Wikipedia tells me – but for all intents and purposes she’s Imogen Poots. Antonio Banderas is charming and dances. Blanchet brings both fragility and strength in a minor role whose character motivations are provided explicitly via voiceover. Bale just looks about fixedly, occasionally giving a dopy grin or knowing smirk. “Hollow” characters can be fascinating – just see Nightcrawler or Bale himself in American Psycho – but there’s not even any pretence here.

Friday, 8 April 2016


Eye in the Sky is the type of film that lends itself to descriptors like “timely” and “prescient”. It may not be the first drama to tackle the spectre of drone warfare – Ethan Hawke-starrer A Good Kill did so through the lens of a character study – but it is certainly has the weightiest cast.

The eye in question is a MQ-9 Reaper, a US-manned drone equipped with two Hellfire missiles currently positioned 20,000 feet over a terrorist safe-house in Nairobi, Kenya. Commanding the operation is the steely Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) – not from the stark, sunny Nevada air-force base where her USAF pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is stationed, but from a bunker in early-morning Sussex; around which a whole network of checks and oversights is based.

Powell has been tracking a terrorist couple for six years – one a white British woman and clear analogue for the real-life Samantha Lewthwaite AKA the White Widow – and now, with her sights on them, is determined to bring them in. However, the mission changes when a bug operated by an undercover agent on the ground, Jama Farad (Barkhad Abdi), reveals preparations are underway for a suicide bombing that will most likely claim dozens of lives should they be permitted to leave the compound.

When the mission objective leaps from “capture” to “terminate" (or rather "prosecute"), Powell and the whole staff discover an added moral component: the presence of a young bread-selling girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), on the street outside the compound; introducing the probability of collateral damage. As politicians overseen by a Lieutenant General Benson (Alan Rickman) argue over the legality of a unilateral strike and look to cover their backs politically, all involved find themselves faced with an impossible decision.

Unlike Hood’s 2007 film Rendition – which dealt (understandably) one-sidedly with the issue of “extraordinary rendition” – Eye in the Sky approaches the situation from every angle. Powell is determined to prevent an attack, even if it means manipulating the odds. Watts and his colleague Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) are hoping to avoid pulling the trigger on an innocent. Jama is committed to saving the young girl’s life, despite the immediate risk posed to his own by the militant extremists who run the community.

While playing out essentially in real-time in a series of interlinking rooms – and, of course, that one street in Nairobi – Guy Hibbert’s script makes the most of the discursive material; specifically in the contrasting approaches to the dilemma. The US Secretary of State (Michael O’Keefe) barely steps away from a game of ping pong to brusquely give his assent; his British counterpart, the green-around-the-gills Foreign Secretary (Iain Glenn) faces the crisis from atop his porcelain throne.

Hood’s direction is pacey and assured, deftly handling the different narrative strands and steadily building up the suspense as decision time approaches. Even so, Eye in the Sky does stumble; slipping into superfluous sentimentality in scenes of the Alia joyfully hula hooping or learning maths from her enlightened father, Musa (Arman Haggio). Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian’s swelling Middle Eastern score similarly telegraphs emotion where Watts’ teary desperation says enough.

Aaron Paul’s strength as a performer lies in is his ability to wordlessly convey internal conflict – he always looks like a war is raging within his skull – and, by confining him to, essentially, a state-of-the-art Portacabin, the film plays to this strength. Forced to watch and wait as a decision is made by commanders and politicians a world away, the film captures, if only in brief, the trauma of those whose only recourse is to carry out those orders when they come – whatever they might be.

Director Gavin Hood’s first film since 2013’s Ender’s Game, Eye in the Sky also marks the welcome return of Barkhad Abdi to our screens for the first time since his Oscar-nominated debut in Captain Phillips. It also signifies the last time that Alan Rickman will grace us with his presence.

Though best recognised for the lightly sardonic air he brought to all his roles – the sense of an eyebrow perpetually raised – Rickman also brought an undeniable bedrock of sincerity. Whether struggling to purchase a doll for his daughter (who one assumes must be roughly the same age as Alia) or succinctly issuing a rebuttal to Monica Dolan’s self-righteous civil servant – “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war” – Rickman is a master of reserve. More than just the sneer and the drawl popularized by his omnivorous turn in Prince of Thieves, Eye in the Sky is a stark reminder of the talent we’ve lost with his passing.

It may offer no real opinion on the War on Terror itself, but Eye in the Sky is a well-observed (excuse the pun), intellectually rigorous look at a necessary evil of the modern age – somewhat compromised by its play for mainstream appeal. Call it "An Alright Kill".


Eye in the Sky gets a 7 out of 10

Saturday, 2 April 2016


The fourth film of 37-year-old Arkansan director Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special feels like a narrative made to fit its title. Named for an old folk standard, it follows Roy (Michael Shannon), and his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a goggle-wearing pre-teen gifted with supernatural abilities. As the three, including driver Lucas (Joel Edgerton), speed through Texas, heading for an unknown destination, both the Federal government — embodied by Adam Driver’s geeky NSA specialist, Paul Sevier — and  a Midwestern cult — led by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Sam Shephard — are in pursuit. 

The question of whether Alton is saviour or threat is ultimately irrelevant, though: new father Nichols’ interest lies, understandably, in father-son relationship, as seen through a distinctly Spielbergian lens. As Edgerton’s worn but well-meaning accomplice remarks they — along with Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) — “would have made a nice family”. David Wingo’s low, driving electronic score and Adam Stone’s sharp night-time cinematography evoke a variety of ‘80s sci-fi classics — as does a scene where Sarah’s mother is menacingly doorstepped by two cult members looking for “Sarah” — but Nichols’ exposition-free script focuses on character.

The exact nature of Alton’s abilities — his eyes glow with white light, he picks up encrypted government signals and brings down a satellite in a rain of fiery debris — and disabilities is left unclear — each episode leaves him physically weaker and, for reasons never explained, can only travel at night (hence, one presumes) the title. As with Nichols’ previous works, Midnight Special is all about how far we are willing to go to protect our family — albeit with a slightly different milieu from the working-class desperation that characterised his debut feature, Shotgun Stories

Shannon’s more reserved role doesn’t necessarily play to the actor’s full range — this is arguably the least remarkable of his and Nichols’ four collaborations; the most being his turn as the doomsaying family man of Give Me Shelter — but the buttoned-down intensity he brings to the role is faintly compelling. Lieberher’s Alton is, refreshingly, just an ordinary, slightly solemn kid (as opposed to, say, the kid from Mercury Rising— albeit one given to mysterious proclamations — and Dunst breathes life and nuance into an otherwise slightly thankless role. 

Despite some inconsistent mythology and a finale that takes the notion of “a better world for our children” way too literally  (think Tomorrowland meets A.I.), Midnight Special is, for the most part, a well-observed, no-frills genre/chase flick. Along with 10 Cloverfield Lane, the film makes the case that the mid-budget genre flick is alive and well and, it seems, living south of the Mason-Dixon.

Midnight Special gets a 6.5 out of 10

Wednesday, 30 March 2016



Is there a more potent symbol in American mythology than that of the witch? Though an export of the old world, the witch is also a symbol of modernity – a frightening sort of  progressiveness.  For potions and spells read medicine and psychology; healing and hysteria. In Robert Eggers’ The Witch, however, they are also the baby-killing devil worshippers of lore, but, in the context of the 17th Century wilderness the film conjures up, even this is almost condonable.

The initial folly here lies with William (Ralph Ineson), a fervent Puritan whose “prideful conceit” leads to him and his family being banished from a New England plantation. Having already travelled across the sea, William, his pregnant wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), daughter Thomasin (the first credited film role of Anya Taylor-Joy), and inherently creepy fraternal twins Jonas and Mercy journey out into the countryside to eke out of a living off the land.

Instead of purity, however, they find only hardship – crops die, animals escape traps – and misery to test even the hardiest of faith. If mankind is born into sin as William, not unkindly, contends then amid the foreboding placidity of black spindly trees, away from civilization, they takes salvation or damnation in their own hands.

The Witch eschews simple scares in favour of disquietment and a genuine sense of spiritual dread; Jarin Blaschke’s stark, all-natural lighting and Mark Korven’s score – unsettling ambience rising suddenly into a howling chorus – effectively see to that. Subtitled ‘A New England Folk Tale’, the film shows what happens when ordinary, decent people go up against the implacable forces of darkness.

In the face of evil a father’s weakness in telling his wife a hard truth, a son’s awakening sexuality, their mother’s grief-stricken piety, a daughter’s rashness of speech – all spell doom. The film isn’t simply an eerie meditation on man’s uncertain place in the universe. There’s also a yellow-eyed, twitchy-nosed rabbit that makes the one in Monty Python and The Holy Grail look like a timorous wee beastie and the film as a whole beats out The Revenant in the “Fuck Nature” stakes.

Ineson is a gruff, compelling presence while Dickie presents the acute image of a woman desperately longing to return to her former nature and relative state of grace (even if, alongside Game of Thrones, there’s a recurring motif of deeply ill-advised breast feeding.) While Scrimshaw’s Caleb is an innocent led astray, its Thomasin’s pale, unspoken – likely unrealised – anger that, more than red-lipped temptresses or Goya-esque  crones, gets at the film’s dark, corruptible heart.

If a new-born baby has no guarantee of entry into Heaven, how – and why – should man – or woman – withstand corruption? The plantation, with its almost comical clusters of blank-faced, identically dressed Puritans staring in judgment, may offer safety and security, but there is no hope of liberation within its walls or dogma.

Though it’s unlikely to win any modern-day converts to the Satanic Temple (though the group has since endorsed the film), The Witch stands alongside the likes of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England - if only for the language and setting - and Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers as an eerie study of human suffering and the absence of God. Stalking the periphery of the horror genre, the film is a theologic nightmare that will get under your skin and, just possibly, that bit deeper.

The Witch gets an 8.5 out of 10

Tuesday, 29 March 2016


With my written review having devolved into a more or less unprintable rant, here are my thoughts in spoken form instead; courtesy of Mr. Rob Daniel and the Electric Shadows podcast, of which I am lucky enough to be the co-host.

All and any feedback is kindly appreciated.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016


One woman, two men, and an underground bunker. 

As its residential title might suggest, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a far more localized affair than its so-called spiritual predecessor, found-footage monster flick Cloverfield. Both the output of J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company, and released under similarly mysterious circumstances, those looking for large-scale destruction here will likely leave disappointed. What unfolds instead is a tightly-wound tale of precarious coexistence in the wake of likely apocalypse.

Fleeing her home in New Orleans after a fight with her fiancée, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is involved in a car wreck and wakes up in an underground bunker. Her captor/host Howard (John Goodman) tells her that an unknown doomsday event has occurred, leaving the surface of the Earth contaminated. After some early well-founded scepticism, Michelle comes to reluctantly accept Howard’s claim and, along with rustic interloper Emmett (an endearing John Gallagher, Jr.), sets about trying to make the best of an impossible situation.

However, their attempt to form a nuclear family quickly turns toxic due to Howard’s volatility — and some serious worrying issues with women. There are moments of calm amid the communal storminess — of magazine reading, film watching (Howard has managed to preserve a collection of DVDs and VHS that would most likely appall the AFI), and heartfelt conversations about past regrets — but when every dinner table conversation or game of Charades is a minefield it’s obvious that this arrangement can’t endure for long.

Originally an original script called The Cellar, 10 Cloverfield Lane's only real connection to its predecessor is the idea of monsters — which, to quote the tagline, "Come In Many Forms". A far cry from the more ebullient menace he brought to films like Barton Fink, Goodman imbues Howard with a simmering narcissism. Even when he’s bumping along in front of the jukebox or recalling his absent daughter, there’s the sense that his resentfulness could surge into sudden violence. As far as chemistry goes, this is one brew that would choke Walter White.

Though it veers into outright genre in its denouement (by way of Chekov's whiskey bottle), before it turns her into Ellen Ripley the film makes Michelle into a protagonist who is both flawed  resourceful. For a film with almost no expectations attached — its existence was a closely guarded secret before January — this is one cinematic address well worth the visiting.

VERDICT: This may not be Abrams' first rodeo when it comes to bunkers - there's even a hatch! - but 10 Cloverfield Lane is equals parts LOST and Room, albeit with an intriguing sci-fi slant. First-time director Dan Trachtenberg's direction is slick but not showy (just check out the 360 pan when the camera first enters the homey main living area) and the film's script (rewritten by Whiplash's Damien Chazelle) is a tightly-wound triumph.

10 Cloverfield Lane gets an 8.5 out of 10

Monday, 7 March 2016


Everyone loves a good movie about the movies. Hollywood’s fetish for self-mythologizing1 lends itself to tales of stardom2 and scathing satire3 alike, but few films imbue Tinseltown with the same glow or seeming reverence as the Coen Brothers’ latest. 

Hail, Caesar! takes the real-life persona of Eddie Mannix (played here in highly fictionalised form by Josh Brolin)4, the archetypal studio “fixer”, and transforms him into a Christlike figure. When hapless matinee idol Baird Whitlock (George Clooney5) is snatched from the set of a sword-and-sandals Biblical epic — also titled Hail, Caesar!6 — it falls to Mannix to secure his return. 

This involves negotiating with his mysterious kidnappers7, a group who call themselves The Future; all while handling the (mis)casting of singing cowboy Hobie Doyle8 (Alden Ehrenreich), the pregnancy of an Esther Williams-like aqua-musical star (Scarlett Johansson)9, and being hounded by twin gossip columnists (both Tilda Swinton). 

Segueing through various period appropriate period pieces — including a perma-tanned Channing Tatum in a homo-erotically charged Anchors Aweigh pastiche10 — the film is comprised of a few witty cameos11 and some good ideas12, but its all subtext, no stakes.13 

Hardly the conquering hero, Hail, Caesar! is at best a knockabout second-rater amid the Coen canon. A Burn After Reading without the bite, Intolerable Cruelty without the cruelty, in looking at the stars, the film strays too far from the gutter, losing sight of the salaciousness that might have made this a memorable affair instead of just another trip to the movies.


Hail, Caesar! gets 6 out of 10


1 It can only be so long before we get a biopic of James Cagney that features an actor playing Cagney playing, say, Lon Chaney (as Cagney did in 195’s Man of a Thousand Faces), who is himself playing a character. levels performance balance
2 E.g. The Player.
3 E.g. A Star Is Born.
4 The real Mannix was an executive at MGM who had no kids and at least one longterm affair. He was also implicated in the apparent suicide of George Reeves, TV’s original Superman, as dramatised in the film Hollywoodland. In short, not the sort of guy likely to worry unduly about the cost to his immortal soul of sneaking a few cigarettes.
5 A worthy addition to Clooney’s roster of numbskulls, Whitlock is a goggle-eyed sap, an empty vessel ready to be filled with words and ideals, like the florid oratory of a Roman officer who undergoes a religious conversion when faced by Christ the godhead (who, incidentally, does not appear in this film).
6 Albeit with the added subtitle “A Tale of the Christ” — the film, after all, owes a debt to Ben-Hur.
7 The words of a Roman officer, or those of a “study group” of Communist screenwriters with a passion for Heidegger and lack of appreciation for irony.
8 A charming, slightly bumptious fellow who’s utterly loyal to the studio and good with a lasso. But not quite a home in Merrily We Dance, a cool, sophisticated prestige pic directed by Ralph Fiennes’  Laurence Lorenz, an impeccably mannered Vincente Minelli stand-in whose controlled, self-effacing frustration is a wonder to behold.
9 Introduced to us a manically smiling mermaid in an elaborate synchronised swimming sequence, she’s revealed to be a brusque Brooklyn gal: “How am I? Wet,”
10 Just call him Gene Commie.
11 Including Jonah Hill as the world’s most reliable surety agent (he’s bonded) and Dolph Lundgren in silhouette.
12 Mostly along the lines of how the division of God mirrors the division of labour, which plays into the surprisingly conservative notion of, essentially, “knowing your place”. They do give the rabbi a few good lines, though: “You worship a God who doesn't love anyone.” “Not true. he loves Jews.”
13 Excluding a nasty bit of business involving Frances McDormand’s hyper-efficient, chain-smoking editor and a projector — perhaps the film’s only true striking moment — there’s nothing harsher here than a few slaps. Even compared to Inside Llewyn Davis, which at least had some Greenwich Village pettiness and self-loathing, this is mild stuff.

Sunday, 14 February 2016


Okay, let’s do this. Hard-bitten cop “Dirty” Harry Callahan must save San Francisco from a killer who’s bumping off resident celebrities. No, wait, sorry: that’s The Dead Pool. Deadpool is the latest addition to FOX’s Not-Quite Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s their Guardians of the Galaxy with the weirdness factor ramped up to eleven. 

The red-suited mutant wisecracker is a role for which star Ryan Reynolds has a definite affinity. Ever since X-Men: Origins gave him a platform then sewed up his mouth, Reynolds has been fighting for a standalone Deadpool movie. It’s to his credit that the once and former Green Lantern actor more than takes his in-movie licks for both mistakes of the past and his offscreen PEOPLE Magazine persona. Deadpool’s genre-skewing, emoticon-laden marketing may, perhaps, be more consistently inventive, but, working within the bounds of otherwise standard genre fare, the film manages to give the fourth wall a few good kicks.

Wade Wilson (Reynolds) is a mercenary with a smart mouth who’s clearly made some bad life choices. His luck changes, though, when he meets Vanessa (Morena Baccarrin), an equally quirky escort with whom he falls madly, if somewhat unconventionally, in love. After a year of holiday-themed debauchery, Wade is diagnosed with terminal cancer with only one hope of survival: to take part in an experimental program designed to create superheroes. 

Having been subjected to the tender mercies of the smirking Ajax AKA Francis (Ed Skrein — Jason Statham without the boisterous swagger), Wade finds himself with a new ability that makes him more or less indestructible, but with an unfortunate side effect that also makes him, in his own words, “completely unfuckable”. As such, the newly christened Deadpool heads out to track down Ajax and get his pretty boy face back. 

Freezing the action at inopportune moments to offer commentary, Deadpool himself straddles the line between endearing and annoying, just like his comic counterpart. Violent, silly, profane, and self-aware, the film feels very much like the talkative, ADHD younger cousin of the X-Men franchise; even to the extent that it includes two of Xavier’s team, moralising metal giant, Colossus (Stefan Kapičić), and the sullen, atomic-powered Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), trying to recruit Deadpool. 

If you’re looking for the operatic, you’d be best to check out Batman v. Superman. If you’re looking for an all-star cast, Captain America: Civil War could be just the ticket. Still, if a deeply meta, crass yet sensitive romantic(ish)-comedy sounds like a your gore-filled, profanity-laden cup of tea, there’s nothing much else like it out there.1

Deadpool gets 7 out of 101

1 And a footnote free review, thank you very much, Ben and Rob. Oh wait, damn...

Saturday, 23 January 2016


Okay, so I have a problem with The Revenant. It’s not the same issue I had with Argo back in 2012 (a decent retro thriller, not a Best Picture) or even with The Theory of Everything or American Sniper last year (good performances, not much else — also by no means indispensable). The matter with Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s latest is, for me, is its lack of matter. 

Set amid the snowy Great Plains circa 1823, the film initially follows a party of fur trappers fleeing across the mountains in the wake of a bloody and chaotic massacre by Arikara warriors. When their guide, the guarded Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is mauled by a grizzly, Captain Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson) assigns two men – the self-interested John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and a then greenhorn Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) – to stay and tend to him until he passes. 

Fitzgerald, however, is not about to risk his life for a dying man and decides to put Glass out of his misery. When Glass’ half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), tries to intervene, Fitzgerald kills him as Glass looks on, horrified and helpless. Half-buried and left for dead, Glass crawls out of his own grave and embarks on a trek across hostile, inhospitable territory to claim Fitzgerald’s life. 

The majority of critics seem to have been swept away by Iñárritu’s tale of vengeance and survival – it currently holds an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes and has been nominated for twelve Oscars – but I found myself strangely unmoved.  

The Revenant’s shoot is already well on its way to becoming legend: shooting in sub-zero temperatures in twelve different locations, three different countries, with all natural light is certainly impressive, but it doesn’t in itself make for a better film. Van Gogh’s contribution to Post-Impressionism was not improved one iota by his having cut off his own era.

DiCaprio doesn’t act so much as endure; endure greasy furs, freezing waters, and a diet that Bear Grylls would baulk at (still-steaming bison liver or frozen bone marrow, anyone?). If DiCaprio walks away with the Oscar this year, as seems to be the likely outcome, it will be an award won with graft - blood and spit, teeth gritted, eyes rolling - as opposed to craft.  If the best acting is reacting, what else can you do in the face of ordeals such as these? The film's final shot of him, streamy-eyed and desperate, is the closest I've seen to an outright onscreen plea for acknowledgement. 

Hardy, meanwhile, is in full-on gruff and stare-y mode as the semi-scalped Fitzgerald, but it's neither he nor the omnipresent Gleeson's best film this year. This isn’t even either's best Best Picture candidate.

Based on a true story (though each of the words in that phrase are open to differing degrees of interpretation), Glass’ struggle against the forces of nature lends itself to spectacle — flaming arrows soaring overhead, a horse taking a tumble off a cliff —  but The Revenant isn’t content to leave it there. With its repeated cutaways to bare pines and pale skies, it feels like the film is attempting to offer some obscure commentary about nature’s indifference to man, but the impassivity of wood and stone is less than entirely compelling. 

There’s an assumption of profundity – that some grand statement is being made about mankind’s place in the universe – but The Revenant is too caught up in its survivalist trappings (pun semi-intended) to commit to making a definite statement.

The film avoids the cliche of treating the natives as noble savages — this isn’t Little Big Man — and a frenetic sequence where the camp is beset by armed braves, Iñárritu’s camera darting from one muddy conflict to the next, has a purity of vision. Repeated visions of Glass’ dead wife and a single shot of a comet blazing to earth suggest some religious subtext, and indeed Glass himself is born/reborn multiple times; from the grave, from a makeshift sweat lodge, from the literal belly of a beast, but the film lacks the thematic framework to support this reading. 

Perhaps the natives represent a brutal sort of honour, Fitz stands for base pragmatism, and Glass must walk a path between the two — what he wants and what is right —  but again that could just be my projecting. 

Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography has a chilly radiance and majesty, making the most of the film’s natural palette of whites, browns, and greens, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's ominous ambient score rising above the biting wind, and Iñárritu’s direction is superlatively competent, but The Revenant is not a film characterised by its artistry. Also, lacking, the opportunities for humour afforded to Birdman, it can't help but come across as incredibly self-serious.

What do we learn from The Revenant then? We learn that leaving your weapon lodged in your opponent’s calf leaves you open to getting it back blade first and that films universally described as “visceral” and “immersive” often have little else to say. The Revenant is all sinew and no heart; a period cod-Malick Death Wish with illusions of grandeur. Let’s just hope the Academy come to their collective senses and see fit to award Spotlight; otherwise the next mission of vengeance might not be cinematic but it may well be cinema-related (which is to say I intend to bitch about it online).

The Revenant gets a 7 out of 10.