Friday, 9 September 2016

David Brent: Life on the Road

Ricky Gervais, 2016

Life is a boring burden. Shouldering it is relieved only occasionally and fleetingly by a moment of meaning. You can't create these moments for yourself; they arrive only by chance or through others' acts of mercy.

This vision of existence depicted in Life on the Road doesn't differ much from the vision in The Office. But now that David Brent is a decade adrift from the social structure of Wernham Hogg, he can no longer rely on his colleagues' occasional sympathetic participation in these life-affirming encounters.

Unfortunately this means no more Tim Canterbury, one of few characters with insight in The Office, whose functions included interpreting events for the viewer in the show's characteristic head-shot monologues. Instead Brent has to supply the philosophy himself. That would be fine if he hadn't also descended further into the depths of ham-fisted cluelessness: the film sees him renting session musicians to join him on a 'tour' of various jam nights and crap pub gigs in and around Slough, all the while waffling about bagging a major label contract. So when he shifts into Werner Herzog mode, it's a bit jarring. As are the occasional moments that deliberately reference popular jokes from the TV series. Life on the Road is still a mock-doc, and anything that pulls the viewer out of that is a moment of failure.

Having said all that, Life on the Road does have some great jokes, scenes of redemption, and an open ending that suggests that Brent might finally make peace with his place in the world and begin to build a happier life around it.

But that's also a problem, for this prospect seems hollow when you recall the structurally similar epiphanies and possibilites at the end of The Office's Christmas episodes. They really should had been the end of the David Brent story. This film, well-made, poignant and enjoyable as it is, sullies the ending of the TV series, presenting a bleaker vision of Brent's future. It may be capturing the zeitgeist, but it left me with a heavy heart.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher, 2011
BBFC rating: 18

I tend to think of actors as being like football managers: they need a reasonable level of competence, but those who've attained that level are more or less interchangeable. There are a couple of exceptions - I'll probably give a film a second glance based solely on its cast's including Willem Dafoe or Chloë Sevigny. But it's rare that a character seems so important that the actor chosen for the role is critical - after all, Daniel Radcliffe's Harry Potter is mediocre at its peak, but that doesn't spoil the movies for me.

However, having seen the original Swedish adaptations of The Girl... series - in which Noomi Rapace plays Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous female lead, to a tee - it seemed likely that this new version was going to stand or fall on the basis of Rooney Mara's take on the role. Fortunately, she does it very well indeed. She sulks, hacks, seduces, and zips about on an extremely cool motorbike, with style and attitude. Everyone else pays their part convincingly well enough, and the script, cinematography and pace are all about right - the latter, notably, despite this film's length of almost 150 minutes. It also retains the darkness and brutality of the source material, hence its 18 certificate.

Still, this was true of the original Swedish version of the film. I definitely enjoyed the American version more, but that's probably because it's now been over two years since I read the book, so the story seemed fresher - whereas I saw the Swedish version at the cinema in the afternoon after finishing the book that morning. The American version is better in its choice of graphic design and props, but the original wins for being in Swedish where the characters in the remake speak English in a variety of Scandinavian accents - bar Daniel Craig's Blomkvist who, oddly enough, has the actor's regular English accent. It would have been better for all the characters to do the same. I think the film just about gets away with this defect, and it's an otherwise very good adaptation of an excellent, exciting story. But I don't think I could recommend it over the original.

Friday, 21 October 2011


Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011
BBFC rating: 18

Like Taxi Driver, which is clearly a source of inspiration for this movie, Drive follows a man of quiet violence motoring around the streets, resolutely following his own unusual moral code, unaccountably putting all his eggs into the basket of a woman he barely knows but with whom he has a relationship of semirequited love. Gosling's unnamed character is like a cross between Travis Bickle and Ryan from The O.C., handsomely prowling Los Angeles in his heavy boots and gold bubble jacket. His journey is filmed in strikingly framed shots with artificial lighting (apparently) from mundane sources - strip lights, indoor lamps - that somehow manages to look mystical, transcendental at times. There are scenes of brutal, up-close violence which Mark Kermode likened to scenes from Gaspar Noé movies: certainly they bear some resemblance to the early death-by-fire-extinguisher section of Irreversible or the repeated car crash and aftermath segments of Enter the Void. But where Noé keeps the camera directly on the action, Refn's shots are briefer and more oblique. In other words, Drive is nowhere near as difficult to watch as the Noé comparison would suggest.

Having recently spent time driving in and around LA, I found the landscape gave me the excitement of vague familiarity and, frankly, I would have been happy just watching the scenes shot from our hero's bucket seat for minutes at a time. Fortunately for everyone else, none of these sections last long except in the less prosaic sequences where Gosling races and hides from the pursuing police like a naughty kitten intent on staying out after dark. The action builds, swells and breaks with a natural rhythm over the course of its 100 minutes, as its characters cross and backstab each other while the stakes rise along with the body count.

The only minor problem with Drive is that it's shot digitally, which means it suffers from the same distracting pixellation artefacts as other digital films. Of course that won't matter for the home video market (unless you've got a 15-foot tellly). But this was the only negative thing I could think of about Drive. It's The Fast and the Furious with guts, balls and acting; Taxi Driver plus Death Proof plus tension. Unmissable.

Picture credit: Pierrot Neron. Picture appropriated from the facebook fan page, which includes other such posters designed by the general public.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tomas Alfredson, 2011
BBFC rating: 15

I would never have looked any further than the title of this film had I not heard the hype, and found out it was directed by Tomas Alfredson (who turned a mediocre pulp novel into a masterpiece with Let the Right One In). It just sounds too silly. But I was bowled over by Alfredson's involvement and the rave reviews it's been receiving, and went for it. I found myself rather disappointed. It has the singular, atmospheric feel and look that Let the Right One In had, albeit here it's miserable, smoky, 1970s London rather than white, harsh Swedish suburbia. Unfortunately - and I realise this is more likely to be my fault than the film's - the plot was very difficult to follow, largely because there were so many characters and so little time in which to learn their names. Which military intelligence bod has sold them out to the Russians? It's very hard to tell when you can't put the hints about characters together because you can't remember which one is which. So while it's not boring, it is confusing, and seems longer than necessary. Or maybe it's just that I just would have preferred to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Vampire.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Kill List

Ben Wheatley, 2011
BBFC rating: 18

What makes the difference between a horror movie and a thriller? I think in many cases it's all in the ending. Films about the main players being trapped - like Buried and Frozen - would be thrillers if they culminated in escape and horror films if they didn't. This could depend on as little screen time as the final 15 or so seconds. Thrillers and horror movies often rely largely on tension ratcheted up over the course of the film, giving the audience time to acclimatise to the baseline and get to know and invest in the characters - to magnify either the horror when it arrives, or the sense of vicarious relief when it doesn't. Kill List straddles the thriller/horror boundary, moving across toward the latter as the film progresses. I can understand why it has been described variously as one or the other (and as the ambiguous 'chiller' in the quote on the promo poster above).

Much like Skeletons and The Disappearance of Alice Creed (a similarly brutal and enthralling movie), Kill List centres around the relationship between two male characters. The three also have in common low budgets, stark British landscapes and a melancholic tone as well as convincing acting, intriguing plots and fairly limited cinematic releases. My guess is if you like them, you'll like this too - as long as you don't mind a splash of horror with your thrills and drama.When the horror finally arrives, it's nicely done: jeopardy, chases, and blood and guts are all present, correct and stylish and the horror has overtones of A Serbian Film, The Wicker Man and The Last Exorcism. It's not quite got the conceptual strength to linger for ages in my mind like Martyrs did, for example, but it certainly has the balls and the guts to induce the queasiness and dread the poster promises.

Thursday, 2 June 2011


Asif Kapadia, 2010
BBFC rating: 12A

Documentaries examining motorsports, including their attendant tragedies, are popular this year, with Closer to the Edge still in cinemas as Senna is released. Sadly, this year's Isle of Man TT has already seem fatal accidents with a sidecar partnership both killed in practice earlier this week. Motorcycle racing is not the only dangerous sometime-road-based sport around, however. Last weekend's Monte Carlo grand prix gave us viewers a timely reminder that driving open-wheel sports cars round tight circuits at 200mph can be dangerous too. Sergio Perez's crash in the third qualifying session saw the first time since Felipe Massa's Hungaroring incident in 2009 that a driver remained in the car for minutes after coming to a stop with injuries of unknown severity - a tense scenario which fortunately had a happy ending on Saturday, as did Vitaly Petrov's less spectacular but still potentially nasty crash in the following day's race.

In fact anyone who pays any attention to Formula 1 will already know that Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian three-time champion, was the last driver to be killed in an F1 crash. Fewer people are likely to be aware of the internal politics and the macabre aura over that race weekend, and no-one had seen until this film the footage of Senna's backroom srguments with FIA bosses during pre-race driver's meetings, in which he pleaded for changes to be made to tracks to improve safety. In the post-screening Q&A at the preview I attended, the director said he saw footage of Senna criticising the specific corner on which his fatal accident later took place. However, he decided not to include that in the film - given the number of track features Senna remarked upon during his time in racing, he thought cherry-picking that footage would have added drama at the expense of authenticity.

I thought that was very admirable. And Senna is definitely authentic. The visuals are stitched together entirely from footage of Senna and, although there's the occasional snippet of interview voiceover to set context or explain what we're seeing, the story largely tells itself. The combination of previously unseen backstage footage and clips of classic F1 races on the big screen was for me entirely compelling. I thought the fact I found it hard to imagine anyone having a different reaction might just be down to my lack of imagination but surely not every reviewer who contributed to its 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating can also be a motorsport geek. In fact, even sport-hater Mark Kermode commended it on his 5Live show. Recommendations don't come much better than that.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Closer to the Edge

a.k.a. TT3D

Richard de Aragues, 2011

A couple of months ago the BBC broadcast a documentary about 'the killer years' of Formula 1 (here's a link to the first part on youtube). It documents how, in the 1960s and 70s, drivers were frequently killed in racing incidents. Their cars were fast but flimsy, easily breaking into pieces - which could then fly into the cockpit - or bursting into flames. The tracks were lined with trees and walls - rather than gravel run-off for a more gentle stop - and haybales, leading to spectacular inflagrations. The drivers lacked the fireproof suits and head-and-neck-support systems which nowadays prevent them from burning alive and snapping their spines respectively. F1 now has far fewer sickening moments and even fewer serious injuries. No-one's died in a crash since 1994, the year Ayrton Senna - the subject of a documentary opening on 3 June - was killed in San Marino.

The same cannot be said for motorcycle racing. Its competitors are prone to being flung from their vehicles - occasionally into the path of their competitors - and lack a surrounding chassis to absorb impact energy. Most  track motorcycle races are, however, held on circuits with similar safety features to those used in F1: Armco crash barriers, tyre walls, long run-off areas at corners. No such luxuries for those who race for the Isle of Man tourist trophies every June, though. This circuit round the roads of the island is lined with the features of everyday driving - houses, walls, lampposts - but the top racers average 130mph round the circuit, hitting 200 plus on the straights.

Shot in the lead up to the 2010 Isle of Man racing festival, the movie culminates with tense footage from the five main races of the weekend. The hero of sorts is Guy Martin, a straight-talking northern mechanic who loves fixing lorries, masturbating and, most of all, racing motorbikes. He's like a two-wheeled Karl Pilkington (a thought I was dismayed to discover wasn't an original one), with probably more self-awareness than he lets on but plenty of charisma and casual confidence in his singular worldview. Before 2010, he's had podium (top three) finishes in several TTs but hasn't won one - he's determined to put that right this year.

Since I had no idea what happened at the 2010 TT before I went to see this film, I found it as exciting and suspenseful as watching the action live would be. I'd strongly recommend anyone thinking of seeing it to do so without researching the results beforehand. Guy Martin is not the only rider the film-makers interviewed; there are many others, and the tension comes not only from wondering whether the riders you've met will win, but whether they'll survive - intact or otherwise. It's not giving much away to say that one or two of the later interviews' subjects are filmed talking from their hospital beds.

Closer to the Edge has a perfectly-balanced combination of race footage, backstage events and personal stories. Run by enthusiasts, populated by amateur riders and providing nail-biting thrills for spectators, the TT was so well showcased by this film that I'm now wondering how best to make it over to watch next year's in person.