Friday, 30 January 2015

Seven films I'll be giving a shit about in


JUPITER ASCENDING

There is no middle ground here: Jupiter Ascending will either be the most bonkersly brilliant film this year or an absolutely colossal, catastrophic cacksplosion which will bring an end to filmmaking for good. Either way it'll be something to talk about on Twitter. (6th)

SELMA

I love civil rights, me. Ruddy love 'em. Give me those civil rights and give them to me now, I need a great big civil rights hit right in my kisser. I don't know why I'm saying this. Selma looks good though. (6th)

COHERENCE

I vaguely recall, months ago, reading something somewhere that said Coherence was worth watching for a very specific reason. Annoyingly I can't remember the reason, or where I read it, but I do remember the title Coherence, and on that basis I'm giving a shit about it. I suppose I could always watch the screener that's in the drawer under my telly, but then I'd have to get up and we all know that ain't happening. (13th)

THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY

The best-smelling film from last year's LFF. Features some excellent undercrackers too. Here's a review if you like reviews about sweet-smelling films about excellent undercrackers. (20th)

IT FOLLOWS

I don't like horror films because I am a massive baby, but I am also a sheep, so when lots of people said It Follows was good I took my massive baby sheep self to see it. They were right. (27th)

MONSTERS: DARK CONTINENT

I didn't much care for Monsters, and I'm not a massive fan of sequels that don't involve anyone who made the first film, so why I should give a shit about this is beyond me. Yet here we are. Funny old world. (27th)

WHITE GOD

I did give a shit about this at one time, but then I saw it and I'm afraid to say it's not as shit-giving-worthy as I'd hoped. It is quite mad though so feel free to give it a go. Here's a review I wrote which contains lots of awful dog jokes because I was bored. (27th)

Monday, 26 January 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

For 24 hours in late 2005, Matthew Vaughn was under the impression - not unreasonably, having apparently been offered the gig by the head of MGM - that he would be directing Casino Royale, the film that brought us the James Bond origin story we never knew we wanted. Whatever he did to get himself evicted from Bond Street, it's obviously been giving him nightmares ever since: he's now on his third fantasy hero origin movie in a row, and this one pulls down its pants and presses its spotty arse on the back window of the school bus at 007, following behind in his Aston Martin and praying for the lights to change.

While the ghost of a stillborn career directing Bond films might haunt Vaughn, Kingsman: The Secret Service probably owes more to The Avengers - the real Avengers I mean, not the attention-seeking Marvel superheroes - than Bond. Its diabolical mastermind, wafer-thin plot and sartorial choices - all double-breasted, patterned suits and old school ties - would make for a much more successful present-day update of the TV series than 1998's Ralph Fiennes-starring abortion.
*shudder*

But Kingsman, as it frequently reminds us, isn't that kind of movie. Vaughn's style is too hyperactive for Bond, and John Steed would need a nice sit down with a pot of Earl Grey if he saw some of what Colin Firth gets up to here. What it is, however, is enormous, guilty fun: a wilfully, gleefully offensive eruption of panto violence and adolescent fantasies drowning in inventive set-pieces and bawdy LOLz.

Kingsman's story doesn't bear too much scrutiny, not least because doing so invites a number of wider readings of the film which were probably never intended. Cartoon chav Eggsy (the origin of the nickname remains, sadly, a mystery) is plucked from his thinly-sketched underclass life by Harry Hart (Firth), a suave secret agent in a Savile Row suit, and taught how to kick ass like a first class gentleman. Sharp schmutter is their armour, politeness is their primary weapon (other weapons include guns and hand grenades; politeness will, after all, only get you so far). Meanwhile Samuel L Jackson's lisping, squeamish villain Valentine, the CEO of a global consumer electronics company, is hatching an evil plot straight out of Moonraker - only sillier, if that's even possible.
"I HAVE A DREA- shit, sorry. Wrong audition."

Like every other origin story, Eggsy's training - which involves some glorious action sequences undertaken in pin-striped jumpsuits - runs parallel to the buildup of the bad guy's scheme, and both storylines hit all the beats you'd expect them to. But because Kingsman is based on a Mark Millar comic, everything comes supersized, with a side order of irony and an XXL cup of meta. In the comic, for example, Millar has actor Mark Hamill kidnapped by the bad guy; in the film, the kidnappee is a dotty professor played by Mark Hamill. Do you see? There's quite a lot of this kind of thing, and I make no apologies for enjoying all of it.

Vaughn's set-pieces are delirious crowd-pleasers, and he does well to sustain dangerously high levels of insanity for the whole running time. The bonkersometer peaks with a remarkable (and, like much of Millar's work, morally questionable) scene in a church which should delight and disgust you in equal measure. Kinetic camerawork and eye-watering stunts are the order of the day, but as fun as they are you can't help being reminded of another visually innovative British director: while Edgar Wright's action scenes feel like the work of a clinical perfectionist, though, there's a distinct feeling that Vaughn sometimes signs his off with a hasty "that'll do".

Taron Egerton is convincing enough as Eggsy, if suspiciously buff for a character who we are to assume subsists almost entirely on Big Macs and beer. Colin Firth has an absolute ruddy ball as his answer to James Bond (not that anyone ever asked the question); Michael Caine, thankfully, gets more lines than Christopher Nolan ever gives him, and Samuel L Jackson wears a lot of bright colours. Sofia Boutella's bionic-limbed baddie Gazelle, meanwhile, is terrific fun, and deserves an origin story of her own.
I cannot pretend for a single moment that I did not enjoy the shit out of this bit

What Kingsman isn't, as you may have guessed, is particularly clever. Deliberately referencing Pygmalionesque stories like Trading Places, Nikita and Pretty Woman, Vaughn and Millar give themselves a fertile opportunity to explore notions of class migration and self-improvement, but choose not to bother. Eggsy's arc, such as it is, involves achieving success by ditching the alarming printed bomber jacket and Nike Air Force 1s in favour of dressing like a toff (the "changing room" in the agents' tailors' shop is as metaphorical as it is literal); there are some mumbled lines about how being a gentleman is more about how you behave than what you look like, but you'd be forgiven for leaving the film with the impression that it only furthers the demonisation of the working class from an establishment perspective.

That said, Kingsman is a film that features exploding heads, a henchwoman who bisects people with razor-sharp prosthetic legs and a spectacularly crude anal sex gag, so you have to wonder whether it's worth getting worked up about the lack of social commentary. Sometimes you just need to be entertained, and in that sense Kingsman succeeds with great big flashing neon nobs on.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

A Most Violent Year

JC Chandor's third film as writer and director is about as far removed from his second as is possible: where All Is Lost was a one-man show with barely any dialogue set in a single location (more or less), A Most Violent Year boasts a tremendous ensemble cast, a dense, layered script and hops effortlessly around the industrial edges of New York. Both films, though, are about one thing: survival, and what must be sacrificed to achieve it. At least in this story, thankfully, nobody is forced to contemplate the consumption of their own wee.

Ambitious businessman Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, sheltering beneath a towering quiff) owns and runs the Standard Heating Oil Company (named, presumably, after Isaac's character in Drive). Operating in a shady grey area somewhere at the limits of the law and aided by his aggressively determined missus (Jessica Chastain), he's on the verge of sealing a deal that will finally put him on the map, if only mysterious external forces wouldn't keep sabotaging his business. If any of that - plus the film's early 1980s setting - sounds familiar, then yes, you saw a suspiciously similar story when Bob Hoskins tried to redevelop London's Docklands in The Long Good Friday. But whereas that film predicted Thatcherism and the ruthless ambition of '80s England, A Most Violent Year is very much an American tale, concerned primarily with three of the USA's foremost preoccupations: oil, money and guns.

Morales' situation is small-scale in a film that feels like it should have a more epic, Godfather-y scope. Maybe that's down to his more-than-physical resemblance to Michael Corleone (not to mention fellow immigrant Tony Montana; if Isaac becomes this generation's Pacino, as is entirely likely, film historians will point to A Most Violent Year as the most obvious correlation), but in fact what we're watching is The American Dream in microcosm. And parts of it are more relevant to the present-day US than many of its citizens might comfortably admit.
It's a canny move by Chandor to address gun control as he does here: Morales' trucks are being hijacked by pistol-packing thugs, but he's determined not to allow his drivers to arm themselves - despite pressure from their union - for fear of escalation of violence. The wider societal parallels are blinding, but at the same time the situation works to further exacerbate Morales' problems: he needs money from the bank to buy a new production facility, the bank need him to be clean. His wife Anna, meanwhile, has no intention of allowing a little thing like the law stand in the way of her husband's success.

Anna is played, in true Lady Macbeth style, by a lip-smacking Jessica Chastain. She's mad as eggs, but her desperation for wealth is all in the detail: she dresses like she thinks rich women dress but only has about three costumes throughout the whole film, and her obviously fake nails are a cheap attempt to cover the metaphorical dirt on her hands. Chastain's scenes with David Oyelowo's inquisitive District Attorney bristle with defensive animosity, and her chemistry with Isaac is almost perpetually on the edge of explosive.
A Most Violent Year is surprisingly unviolent; not just in terms of on-screen savagery but in its general demeanour. Chandor doesn't let the leads showboat, and there's only one scene that looks like it might have given the studio's purse-string holders cause for alarm. What it lacks in pizazz, though, it makes up for in smart dialogue and a steely performance from Isaac, with classy support from Chastain, Oyelowo, Albert Brooks and Elyes Gabel as one of Morales' put-upon drivers. In an effort to replicate the muted browns and greys of the era, Bradford Young's cinematography is perhaps the weakest link in the chain, occasionally threatening to drown the film in a wave of dull, flat beige, but this is a minor quibble; A Most Violent Year is further notice of JC Chandor's intention to build a formidable filmography, and also happens to be the best Oscar Isaac film out this week.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Ex Machina

People have been telling stories and making films about robots, arguably since before the term was even invented in 1920. It wasn't long before some of those moviebots had artificial intelligence bestowed upon them, and then it was but a matter of time before filmmakers began to question what it meant to be artificially intelligent; to be capable of independent thought but to be a permanent resident of the uncanny valley where you were neither fully automated nor fully human. As fertile ground for storytelling, AI has been dug over by some of the fiercest intellects in film: daring pioneers hoping that by probing the creation of man-made consciousnesses they may finally unravel the secrets of the unbearable existential torment of humanity itself.
Exhibit A.

So many films have been made about what seems like a fairly limited subject - ranging in quality from 2001 to I, Robot - that it's a brave soul who attempts something new. Last year it was Spike Jonze, whose Her was a fascinating gawp at the complexities of love through the prism of a man shagging his iPhone; now it's the turn of Alex Garland, who, like Jonze, directs his own script about man / machine interaction and the perils and pitfalls thereof. Garland's first film as director is stylish and entertaining thanks to three terrific performances, but Ex Machina feels - not least because of the presence of Domhnall Gleeson - more like a lesser, lengthy episode of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror than a truly cinematic sci-fi classic.

Garland was clearly paying close attention to Mark Romanek when the latter directed the former's screenplay of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go: Ex Machina carries the same weight of ominous science-fictional mystery as that film, and sells its crackers concept equally well: that the world's most advanced synthetic human has been painstakingly created by lone beardy genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac), using data harvested from the customers of his globally-used search engine "Bluebook". Why Garland didn't just go with Bing remains a mystery.

Nathan invites employee Caleb (Gleeson) to his IKEA showhouse in the middle of nowhere in order to test the AI-effectiveness of Ava (Alicia Vikander), his modern promethe-ess, but this innocent-sounding jolly evolves into a three-way battle of wits where trust is a luxury nobody can afford.
Also unaffordable: gloves

The three leads are perfectly cast here: Isaac is already one of the most watchable actors working in films right now so can pretty much do what he likes (including, here, a sexuality-questioning disco dance); Gleeson nails just the right levels of nerd and hero to pull off his role of, uh, nerdy hero; Vikander is painfully innocent but convincingly dangerous when necessary. Plus, she's precisely as hot as an artificially intelligent sex doll built by a lonely male genius should be.

Garland's forays into Ava's sexual attributes are representative of most of the story: tantalising but unfulfilled. Nathan describes Ava's nether regions in utilitarian detail to Caleb ("she has an opening", he drily remarks), and there's a substantial implication that Nathan has availed himself of that facility on more than one occasion, but we never really get to the bottom of what that means to either party. The focus instead is on Caleb's relationship with Ava, and who's really testing whose intelligence. That's fine, but it takes the form of pages and pages of dialogue which sound like they should be revealing a great deal more than they actually do.
"Does my posterior waste evacuation unit look big in this?"

References to Oppenheimer and the atom bomb (Caleb even listens to OMD's Enola Gay in his room, just to hammer the point home) seem intended to suggest a cataclysmic event on the horizon, but Ex Machina's fuse is dampened by a low-key, though still unexpected, finale. Characters talk about the misdirection of magicians, and sure enough you'll be conjuring up your own endings as the dialogue scenes stretch out, but Garland's own misdirection is misdirected: in hoping for a climax better than those you've been encouraged to imagine, he delivers instead one that fails to send you home thinking about all you've just seen.

On its own terms, Ex Machina is entertaining, often surprisingly funny (again, can't recommend the dance scene enough) and teases you with big ideas. But it feels a little like a flaccid Philip K Dick adaptation, and compared (as, unavoidably, it must be) to AI-probing predecessors like Blade Runner, AI: Artificial Intelligence and Her, it fails to capitalise on those ideas. As a writer and a director Alex Garland has undoubtedly proved himself, but on this evidence his best work as a writer/director is still ahead of him.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Rod Taylor
1930-2015

"I don't care much for the time I was born into.
It seems people aren't dying fast enough these days."
- George Wells, The Time Machine

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Enemy

If you can find one of the 0.004 cinemas in the country currently screening Denis Villeneuve's Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal in a dual role as, uh, two Jake Gyllenhaals, then I highly recommend that you do so. Now that we're in 2015, however, which is officially The Future as ordained by Sir Bobert of Zemeckis, you can already watch it at home, with your central heating cranked up to max and your cat licking off the tuna paste you smeared on your genitals. That's the beauty of Video On Demand!
Drenched in a yellowy-brown fug like all Polaroids taken in the 1970s, Enemy is a creepily paranoid nugget of weirdery reminiscent of low-budget, high-concept debuts like Shane Carruth's Primer. Way more satisfying (despite being almost inexplicable) than 2013's Prisoners, in which Villeneuve also directed Gyllenhaal, this film is more subtle and sinister, and benefits from J-Gyzzle sporting better hair. And a lovely beard. Two, in fact.

It's entirely pointless telling you anything about the plot, but if you like films about doppelgängers and were unexpectedly frozen out by the coldness of Richard Ayoade's The Double last year, then Enemy is for you. It builds its unease meticulously, with Gyllenhaal delivering two performances not so polar opposite that he's crying out for awards, but just different enough to sell the plot and a possible explanation, whatever that may be. I genuinely have no idea. But it doesn't really matter; Javier Gullón's script and, notably, an eerie score by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans make this all about the experience rather than the payoff.

That said, don't be surprised if you shit yourself at the very end.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

It's The Incredible Suit's 1000th post!

I have literally no idea how to celebrate this. Look at this lovely picture of Roger Moore as Sherlock Holmes while I think of something.