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.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Noruwei no mori

a.k.a. Norwegian Wood

Tran Anh Hung, 2010. BBFC rating: 15.

Being a teenager is rubbish. This film gets that right - though really these kids should, by the age they've reached (which seems to be about 19), have at least begun to grow out of the stage of sulking and sobbing. On the contrary, however, the kids in Norwegian Wood spend their time moping, crying, walking melancholically around fields, killing themselves, and having awkward, miserable sex. Sometimes they combine these activities. 

And they're the lucky ones. At least adolescent angst is interesting to the angstee: what's in it for the audience? Well, we get some pretty cinematography. But that's about it. There's the occasional laugh, no doubt unintended by the director, as when our hero stands on a cliff screaming at the sky to the backing of a screeching orchestra. (Yes, really.) The score is awful - grating, hammy, and distracting. Apparently it was put together by Jonny Greenwood off of Radiohead, which makes it rather a fall from grace for him.

Mind you, the film is actually rather reminiscent in tone of early Radiohead. Take "Street Spirit" with its adolescent, portentous and surely in retrospect embarrassing lyrics ("cracked eggs, dead birds, scream as they fight for life": 'cause if you're 14, you know that life's really all about death), which is tonally similar to this. There are two major differences, however. First, "Street Spirit" is shimmering and evocative, unlike either the music or the narrative of Norwegian Wood. And, more importantly, it lasts just over four minutes. Norwegian Wood lasts over thirty times that long. Avoid.

Monday, 28 February 2011

Never Let Me Go / Splice / Legion

I have seen a couple of newish films recently so I'll quickly share my views on them.

First up is Never Let Me Go, the adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel of the same name. The novel is pretty much perfect - allowing the reader a glimpse of an other (but not very other) world through the eyes of a character immersed in a small part of it. She gets only small clues, the significance of which she rarely understand, and it's left to the reader to infer the science behind the fiction. Unfortunately the film is a little more explicit about that than the novel - some things that should be left to the viewer to infer are presented directly instead - though not to the extent that it spoils what is an excellent adaptation. Like the book, the movie is all about its three main characters and their love triangle. And I was relieved to find that the song after which the book is named is up to the job it has in the film.

Splice, which I missed at the cinema and caught recently on bluray, is altogether different. Science in this is a case of throwing lots of exciting data and cells and swirling nucleotides around, mixing them all up, and seeing what happens. It's as close to the reality of genetic engineering as Hackers was to the reality of bypassing network security. It's really nicely shot - lots of great low angle shots of labs and shacks - and it has a good monster (secretly created by the rockstar science bods in an act of rebellion when their boss asks them instead to make boring proteins all day). Fun, but very silly.

Not as silly as Legion, mind you, which I just watched on bluray. This is The Terminator meets From Dusk til Dawn meets the nativity story. Except even more portentous and absurd than that sounds. Still, again, it's pretty good fun.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky, 2010.
BBFC rating: 15.

There's a book by called The Black Swan about 'the impact of the highly improbable'. It may be full of interesting facts and astute analysis, but I will never know because the first few pages, which are all I managed, are such an absurdly over-written, insufferably smug, self-congratulatory wankfest that I threw the book into the bin lest some other unfortunate soul should find it and suffer the same blood-boiling rage that I did. This has nothing to do with Black Swan, a far superior piece of work; I am simply providing a public service by warning you off its awful titular twin.

Black Swan tells the story of Natalie Portman's obsessive, uptight ballet dancer and her struggle to embody the dark side of her Swan Lake character. It has a fairly straightforward horror movie narrative: we are introduced to the characters and follow them around for half an hour or so before the occasional strange happenings multiply and intensify, accelerating us towards the inevitable conclusion. Though clearly belonging in the psychological horror category, Black Swan was featured on the cover of high-end coffee table film mag Little White Lies as well as grindhouse periodical Fangoria: it has transcended the genre, such that several unsuspecting souls have found themselves traumatised at the end of a film they anticipated would be a nice family ballet movie. It's not. But, while its sticking to horror convention makes its plot predictable - as with many such movies (including Heartless, of which it rather reminded me) - that is no bad thing. It is, of course, all about the journey - which is well worth making.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

127 Hours

Danny Boyle, 2010
BBFC rating: 15

Self-surgery is quite an ordeal for someone with the training, skills and equipment to carry it out - as recorded in this case report of a surgeon who, stuck in the Antarctic and faced with death as the alternative, removed his own appendix. Included are extracts from the surgeon's diary:
An oppressive feeling of foreboding hangs over me ... This is it ... I have to think through the only possible way out: to operate on myself ... It’s almost impossible ... but I can’t just fold my arms and give up...
I didn’t permit myself to think about anything other than the task at hand. It was necessary to steel myself, steel myself firmly and grit my teeth...
I grow weaker and weaker, my head starts to spin. Every 4-5 minutes I rest for 20-25 seconds. Finally, here it is, the cursed appendage! With horror I notice the dark stain at its base. That means just a day longer and it would have burst...
But even this looks controlled and safe compared to the 'operation' Aron Ralston carried out on himself five days after his arm became trapped under a huge boulder down a crevice in the middle of a desert. He had to deliberately break both bones in his forearm before cutting through the muscle, blood vessels, tendons, nerves and probably various other tissues that would be very painful to snip using a blunt penknife. 127 Hours, as its title implies, tells the story of what happened over that period. Now the story above might make you wince in sympathetic agony, imagining the horror of being faced with the choice between that and death yourself. Or you might agree with Michael Legge (I usually do; his blog is brilliant, the best written by a comedian that I know of) who has a less sympathetic take on the scenario:
The whole way through the film your head can't help shouting "YOU STUPID FUCKING PRICK" constantly. Who the fuck does these things? Who invented extreme sports? Why is smashing yourself to bits thought of as a rush? Isn't Batman on the Wii enough? 127 Hours is a true story about a man who likes going into the middle of the desert, WHERE NO ONE CAN FIND HIM, and climbing deep down into tiny crevaces hundreds of feet into the rock. WHAT A CUNT. I hate him. When he falls, traps his arm and spends six days going insane until he cuts his own arm off, it was all I could do to stop myself standing up and shouting "THERE YOU GO, YOUNG MAN. YOU DESERVED THAT..."
I can see his point.

As Ralston waits to die - slim chances of rescue slipping away - he remenisces about an ex-girlfriend, played by Clémence Poésy (seen recently in Harry Potter and Heartless), whose presence would brighten any film. Like The King's Speech, this is a true story so its narrative and conclusion are unlikely to surprise anyone. The only mystery is how Boyle is going to make it interesting. Which he does, with brass knobs on. It's certainly more interesting than reading interviews with Ralston himself, who seems to largely blather on about fate and Gaia and spirituality and other such drivel. 127 Hours is totally gripping, in part because of the memory sequences and the hallucinatory sections (which play out much like the cold turkey scenes in Boyle's Trainspotting). But it's also remarkable just how enthralling the footage of a man stuck under a rock manages to be. 

Friday, 28 January 2011

The King's Speech

Tom Hooper, 2010.
BBFC rating: 12A (on appeal)

For anyone who doesn't already know, The King's Speech depicts the relationship between King George VI and his speech therapist over the period in which he ascends to the throne and the start of the second world war is declared. The reason Bertie (as he is known to his familiars and, to his chagrin, the therapist) needs the therapist is his stammer, which has destroyed any previous attempts he's made at public speaking (whether in person or on the radio).

It's interesting for being one of few films to have its initial rating overturned on appeal. Given a 15 certificate at first for language, its rating was dropped to 12A after the producers challenged the BBFC. The key line from the second decision, I think, is "The strong language is not aggressive and not directed at any person". This is the difference between The King's Speech and Made in Dagenham; the producer of that film complained about its 15 certificate, too, but the BBFC's decision on that film notes that "Generally the uses [of 'fuck'] occur as part of heated exchanges between characters, occasionally they are angrily directed." It's the intent and the subject of the speech that matters. And Bertie is expressing only his own frustration, about his inability to express himself, at himself.

Colin Firth is expected to win the Oscar for this performance, and he indeed wholly convincing - as he was in last year's A Single Man. And, like that film, The King's Speech is a self-contained piece, as narrowly focused as the poster picture above, which perfectly achieves its aims. However, it's weirdly insubstantial, especially given the gravitas of its subjects. Possibly this is because, as Andrew Collins points out, there is not a surprise in its entire length. And  it's not a film I would ever bother seeing again; nor is it one that needs to be seen at the cinema. But it's good while it lasts.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Love and Other Drugs

Edward Zwick, 2010.
BBFC rating: 15.

In Love and Other Drugs Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jamie, a university drop-out from a family of doctors who is hired as a trainee drug rep by Pfizer. His job largely consists of trying to persuade medics to drop Prozac in favour of Zoloft, while his principle leisure activity is seducing countless women. Sometimes the two parts of his life overlap. He gets involved in an unlikely love triangle with Maggie (a client's patient, played by Anne Hathaway) and an ex-military rep from a rival pharma firm. Meanwhile, there are rumours about a forthcoming drug for erectile dysfunction. Suiting perfectly his work-life balance, Viagra is the drug he was born to push. But might Jamie also be coming round to the idea of being a one-woman man? And, if so, is Maggie - who has a degenerative neurological condition as well as a feisty attitude - willing to be that woman?

So there's an interesting story underlying Love and Other Drugs. Unfortunately the film doesn't seem to quite be sure of what it's trying to do. On the one hand it's a romantic comedy, according to which Jamie must both grow up and overcome a series of obstacles to win Maggie's affection and fidelity. On the other, it's a sort of expose of the nepotism and corruption in the relationships between the medical and pharmaceutical industries in the United States. It's also trying to sensitively portray Maggie's dealing with and learning about Parkinson's disease. And it manages all of these with some limited success, but as a result it seems uneven. I found it difficult to settle into a mode of watching it, often not knowing quite the point of each scene until it was over (if at all). It's a shame this project wasn't handed to Jason Reitman (director of Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air), who is a master of this sort of material, managing to court the emotive, the comedic and the profound without fully committing to any, but without selling any of them short either. That's something that Love and Other Drugs fails to achieve.