Wednesday, May 06, 2020

The Tommy Conlon Novels

So I wrote these novels. If you enjoy any of the writing on this blog, you might want to check them out.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

My Comics Gone By

This year, with less time than I've ever had before, I read fewer books and more comics. Which means this is quite a long list. Its mainly mainstream - I don't read as many indie comics as I used to or as I would like. Lots of good mainstream comics these days, you see...

(Peter Bagge)
Bagge does sci-fi, only he does it Bagge style, meaning it's about a bitter man confronting his regrets and failures, and it's full of black humour and dark truth. A project uses technology to allow a subject to relive his past experiences. But they choose a stand-up comedian turned actor whose life hasn't turned out how he planned it, and his attempts to set right his own past begin to effect the people in charge of the project too. Bagge's art and writing is as perfect here as it ever is, and he finds a way of making such high-concept material feel personal and intimate.

(Darwyn Cooke)
Cooke's sublime series of adaptations of Richard Stark's brilliant Parker novels reaches a third chapter, varies its tone somewhat with the introduction of Parker's friend Grofield, but stays just as high-quality as the other books. The Score is more of a caper, with a huge cast and a nifty plot, and Stark does justice to all of it.

(Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples)
Vaughan gives us a great big rollicking sci-fi tale full of alien races, big concepts and nicely turned genre beats, yes. But he also gives us a moving romance across the barriers. And as always, his characters are strong and instantly likeable - everybody has their reasons - and his dialogue is frequently brilliant. Staples has the versatility to handle all of the moods thrown up by the material, and the whole things looks great.

(Jonathan Hickman & Nick Pitarra)
Hickman does high-concept better than anybody this side of Grant Morrison, and this might just be his best attempt at combining that ability with a sort-of-superhero book. The heroes here are fictionalised versions of real-life historical scientists like Oppenheimer and Einstein, working for the US Government. Here, they don't just stop at the atomic bomb, no. Here they encounter alien races, create new energy sources, open inter-dimensional portals, and generally act like genius bad-asses. Oppenheimer is a psychopath who likes to eat people and absorb their essences, Einstein may be his own doppelganger from an alternate reality, and then theres Harry Daghlian, a floating irradiated skull encased inside a radiation suit. Hickman always has a long term plan, and his long game is only just becoming visible, but each issue is so stuffed with great ideas and neat character moments that it doesn't matter. Then theres Pitarra's detailed, dynamic, clean-lined art and fine design sense, which brilliantly suits the material.

(Brandon Graham & various)
Perhaps the very worst of Rob Liefeld's many terrible Image creations reimagined as a Heavy Metal/Mobius 70s -style sci-fi Epic with a massive Conan influence by Graham and a series of different artists, each of whom brings a different style and sensibility to bear on the material. Big concepts, great action, fine - if at times slightly challenging - storytelling and some fascinating tones and textures make this comic feel like just about nothing else, ever. Don't believe me? Heroes have love affairs with bug-aliens. Races make living creatures into cities. Melancholy robots fulfil endless missions. Our hero is one of an endless army of clones. And that is just the tip of the iceberg...

(Sammy Harkham)
Harkham is perhaps best known as the editor of the Kramers Ergot anthologies, but he is a gifted cartoonist in his own right, and this collects most of his work into one essential volume. That includes the seminal Poor Sailor, his fable-like story, plus some autobiographical cartoons, sketches and gags. Its a great package from a cartoonist whose only weakness is that he doesn't work more.

(Matt Fraction & David Aja & Matt Hollingsworth)
Hawkeye is the most acclaimed title from either of the Big Two (Marvel and DC) this year, and theres a good reason for that; its absolutely brilliant. It takes the slightly second-rate archer who is uncommonly visible after his appearance in The Avengers movie and does something unusual and even - imagine! - original with him. It depicts his days off, the moments we never see in the pages of the Avengers comics, him having barbecues with his neighbours, getting involved in street level crime and utterly fudging relationships. Fraction is a great writer at his best - his run on Iron Man is easily the best in the history of that character and two of his other titles, Casanova and the sadly-cancelled Defenders also belong firmly on this list - and here he takes a quirkier approach to his storytelling, cutting up chronology and messing with perspective throughout. But his characters are great and he never stints on the action, either, even indulging in the pure geek fodder of showcasing every trick arrow in Hawkeye's quiver in one story. Then there is the art. Series regular Aja has matured at an amazing rate on this title, with work that recalls David Mazzuchelli's genius on Daredevil (and that is high praise) and a line of beautiful covers too. When the schedule has overwhelmed him, Hollingsworth has stepped in ably.
Brilliant stuff, and the single comic I most look forward to every month.

(Hermann Huppen)
This post-apocalyptic buddy adventure - which may be familiar to some as the source material for the late Luke Perry tv show of the same name - is massive in Europe and Dark Horse's handsome hardback reprint series looks to be doing it justice in English. Huppen's art is stunning: brilliant storytelling, insane detail and energy, and if the meandering storyline is more to European taste than we are used to, well it has an Epic quality combined with vivid characterisation which goes a long way to explaining that success.

(Darwyn Cooke)
I was dreading the Before Watchmen books DC brought out this year. They seemed a needless cash-in on what is a near-perfect original series. But some of the creative teams excited me. As it turned out, none of them produced work of any real value. Except for Darwyn Cooke, that is, who ambitiously took on a Minutemen series and made it a stylish, fun, brilliantly crafted superhero series. It may not be in the same league as Watchmen, but on its own terms, this is a fantastic mainstream comicbook; gripping, funny and beautiful. It even gets in a few digs at Alan Moore and his reading of the genre, while remaining faithful to the story he wrote.

(Rick Remender & John Romita JR)
Remender follows Ed Brubaker's near-definitive run on Captain America with a completely different approach inspired by Jack Kirby's solo run on the title in the 1970s, meaning he plunges the character headfirst into a deliriously pulpy sci-fi adventure and runs the whole thing at 500 miles an hour with a very Frank Miller narration over the top. What really sells it though is JRJRs art, as energetic and muscular as ever, depicting Cap in combat with mutants and villains and making all of it look just beautiful. Theres a slight suspicion that this could be any character, but who cares when its this entertaining?

(Brandon Graham)
Graham's more personal work - as opposed to the work-for-hire of Prophet - is determinedly quirky and individual, richly detailed and ecletic, with traces of manga, erotica and mainstream US comic art obvious in a wonderful blend throughout. Like the amazing King City - also rereleased this year - Multiple Warheads is uncategorisable and indescribable; a sic-fi road comedy thriller distinguished by Graham's loopily inventive imagination and his beautifully stylish artwork.

(Mark Waid & Chris Samnee)
Waid and Samnee capture the appeal of Dave Stevens' character and world as well as anyone has since the man's death, and more than that, they tell a fun little adventure story while doing it, with comedy, action, romance and intrigue all balanced nicely. Waid is a very consistent writer - his Daredevil remains one of Marvel's best titles, even if it has slipped slightly in quality since last year - and he and Samnee are a tremendous team. For me, Samnee is currently second only to David Aja in terms of artists on regular mainstream comics; a great storyteller with a lovely line and sense of design (look at the cover above!) whose work on Daredevil is just as strong as his work here.

(Garth Ennis & Goran Parlov)
Ennis basically is the MAX line, and here he is allowed to indulge himself with a book showcasing lots of his interests. He looks at Nick Fury in the years after his WW2 adventures when he served in Vietnam, beginning when it was still controlled by the French, and in Cuba during the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Its a hyper-masculine fantasia; part spy comic, part noir, part War, with an awful lot of James Ellroy in the mix, loads of tough-talking macho dialogue, hot women in tight 1950s dresses, and some incredibly brutal violence. Parlov collaborated with Ennis on Punisher MAX and his work is evocative and rich with fine storytelling and strong characterisation. They make a great team. Not only that: Dave Johnson is the cover artist on this series, which should be enough reason for anybody to buy it...

(Chris Wright)
A vivid, often frightening pirate story published by Fantagraphics, Black Lung somehow feels just as literary as it does visual. Wright, obviously just as influenced by the likes of Sam Peckinpah, Herman Melville and Cormac McCarthy as he is by anyone working in his own medium, here crafts a sweeping story, fills it with some horrific violence and illustrates it in his uniquely scratchy, detailed style. The result is often breathtaking and even haunting.

(Brian Wood & Becky Cloonan)
Wood's Conan is the best treatment the character has had in a long, long time. It helps that he's adapting a great chapter of Robert E Howard's original Conan writing - these stories all concern Conan's time at the side of Bêlit, the Pirate Queen of the Black Coast, and that gives them a slightly diferent dimension to the hundreds of tales of Conan wandering Hyboria alone. That doesn't give the writer enough credit. Wood's work here elevates the material, respecting its mythic qualities but emphasising the strength of the characterisation, too, making Conan a living, breathing person in a way few writers can manage. Cloonan is perfectly suited to the character too. Her art is elegant, beautifully attuned to mood and tone, and she does action with a clean dynamism that is enviable.

(Grant Morrison & Chris Burnham)
It feels like Morrison is nearing the end of his long, brilliant run on the Batman titles, and as such its worth comparing the work he's doing with that currently appearing in the other books in the Bat-family. Scott Snyder's run has been greatly acclaimed, and much as I love Greg Capullo's art, Snyder seems to rewrite the same story time and again, retro-engineering continuity to introduce a villain from Gotham's past, then stretching out his plotting to a ridiculous extent. Meanwhile Peter Tomasi's Batman & Robin is never better than average. The current Joker story stretching across different titles seems a pale shadow of better Joker stories of yore. Thankfully Morrison is basically left alone to do his own thing, mostly ignoring continuity to finish his epic yarn of Bruce Wayne's establishing Batman as a sort of international franchise. Burnham might have initally seemed like a sort of Quitely-lite, but his work is lovely; energetic, with a beautiful line and some great storytelling choices. When Morrison is done with Batman, the character will miss him. So will comics in general, if his middling Happy with Darrick Robinson is any indication...

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Saturday, August 04, 2012

If I Had a Sight & Sound Poll Ballot

North By Northwest (Hitchcock) Heat(Mann) Seven Samurai (Kurosawa) Days of Heaven (Malick) Once Upon A Time In The West (Leone) Paisan (Rosselini) Tokyo Story (Ozu) Godfather II (Coppola) Manhattan (Allen) Barry Lyndon (Kubrick)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Who Is Parker?

I love Parker. That's Richard Stark's Parker, the professional Thief who stars in a series of 24 fine crime novels, beginning with The Hunter from 1962 and ending with Dirty Money from 2008. Parker is one of the most memorable, sharply drawn and singular fictional characters I know. He is a thief, a killer, a thug, yet more than just a protagonist he is firmly the hero of these novels, frequently cast against even more vile - or cowardly, Sadistic, double-crossing - villains. Parker is confident, deliberate, and he reminds me somewhat of another couple of fictional icons of 20th century pop culture machismo: Robert E Howard's Conan of Cimmeria and Ian Fleming's James Bond. Not that he is like them, but he is so vivid, so unapologetic and simple within himself as a character that he registers sharply and unforgettably in a similar manner. The Parker novels have recently enjoyed a huge upswing in critical popularity with The University of Chicago Press currently involved in reprinting the entire series with new introductions by some heavyweight novelists including John Banville, Luc Sante and Dennis Lehane, and it's not before time.

Stark was a pseudonym for Donald E Westlake, whose brisk, precise style is perfectly suited to the hard-boiled world in which Parker operates, filled with Arrogant mobsters, wise-cracking thieves, cynical assassins, duplicitous whores and brutal cops. There is a joy to Stark's descriptions of Parker at work, his single-minded focus and aggression, the way he attacks obstacles and scares enemies, and also a beauty in his terse but perfectly observed character descriptions.
A few of the Parker books have been filmed. Most famously, The Hunter was adapted as Point Blank by John Boorman in 1967. Westlake sold the rights to books, but he would not allow filmmakers to use the name Parker unless they committed to making a series of films. So the protagonist has a different name in each adaptation. In Point Blank Lee Marvin played Parker, here symbolically renamed "Walker" and the action shifted from New York to a dreamy, abstract Los Angeles. It's an outstanding film, yet it misses so much of what is great about Stark's world. Closer is John Flynn's tough, gritty The Outfit from 1973, wherein Robert Duvall plays Parker (here known as "Macklin") in a film which takes the central idea and a few plot elements from Stark but feels true to the source because the tone is just right. The Outfight is cynical, seedy, bleak, blackly funny, just as Stark could be.
Payback, Brian Helgeland's adaptation of The Hunter casts Mel Gibson as "Porter". The theatrical version, released in 1999, is a botched compromise of Stark's novel. Gibson and the studio supported Helgeland's vision of a true adaptation, capturing all of the characters brutality and lack of emotion or empathy until they saw the film, at which point it was taken from the writer-director, rewritten, reedited and whole scenes added, dramatically altering the tone, plot, and most importantly Gibson's character. The directors cut, Payback: Straight Up, is much truer to Stark, and a virtual tribute to tough 70s thriller like The Outfit.

What I am concerned with here is who plays Parker. Other versions of Stark saw the character played by Jim Brown, Peter Coyote and even Anna Karina. Westlake claimed that Duvall was his favourite but has also stated that he envisioned Jack Palance when he originally wrote The Hunter. The desciption in the opening pages of that book certainly fits Palance.
There is a new Parker film due for release in 2012, based upon Flashfire, one of Stark's later Parker novels. It's directed by Taylor Hackford, and the cast would largely seem ideal for Stark's world, including as it does Nick Nolte, Michael Chiklis, Clifton Collins Jr, and even Jennifer Lopez, who made a great Noir broad in a few film's before superstardom claimed her. This film is called Parker, and the title character is played by Jason Statham. That might not be quite as bad an idea as it seems. His fluid accent aside, Statham's default onscreen persona is a grumpy, deadly crook who you mess with at your peril. He's played several variations on that role, and Parker, stripped of complexity, would be merely another. I like Statham, I like the simple purity of his persona, the brutality of his action scenes, the unapologetic way he satisfies his fan-base with straightahead action films alongside the occasional more dramatic role (The Bank Job or Revolver, say).
But at the same time, he is all kinds of wrong for Parker. Too short, too English, too contemporary, too slick, too smug. While he may exude physical menace through that slow-burn simmer crucial to the dramatic arsenal of any action star, he doesnt have quite the fearsome personality demanded of Parker. Nor is he a bruiser, which Parker most certainly is; he is clearly capable of snapping a man's neck with his bare hands should he decide to, using sheer brawn.

So who could play Parker in a modern film, given that modern movie star masculinity is far more splintered and disparate than it was when Stark created the character? Many of the leading men of today are too pretty or at least not quite rugged enough for a character like Parker. Then the more actorly types would not be able to pull off the physical side of the role, which would require more than just a few months in the gym. Parker is a big man. Robert Mitchum could have played him, or Nick Nolte in his beautiful prime. There are a few stars with the requisite machismo and some thespian prowess (most of them British, Irish or Antipodean); Michael Fassbinder, say, or Russell Crowe, a few others. But something seems just slightly off in each case: too old, too thin, too short, too contemporary.

I would perhaps cast Vince Vaughn. He'd have to lose a lot of weight, but he's a big man, and back when he still cared just a little about stretching himself, back when he did riskier fare like The Cell and Return to Paradise and Domestic Disturbance he revealed a nice capacity for onscreen malevolence and threat, usually only evident in the sarcastic one-liners he injects into comedies. At 6 foot 5 inches and with a massive frame, dark hair and cold eyes, if he was Slimmed down and slicked up, he could be Parker. Better still would be John Hamm. So far he's only played slick smoothies, dapper company men in suits, but he's a fine actor, handsome, macho, and I don't doubt he could find his inner thug.

For a director to get Parker right, I'd go for either Walter Hill or John Dahl. Hill is a dab hand at hard-bitten poetry and could handle the violence and Sleazily masculine atmosphere with ease. Dahl was once the great hope of Neo-Noir, but he hasn't made a film since 2007s You Kill Me, instead working across a selection of tv shows, from Dexter and Battlestar Galactica to Breaking Bad. In his early work the pulpy Noir vibe was perfectly achieved and maintained, and I think he'd be able to understand the world Parker lives in.
Or if Parker must be modernised, then go for the real thing and get Tony Scott, whose hyper-adrenalized approach might just work for the character and his universe.

But instead we get Statham and Hackford, and that will just have to do. At least Parker, unlike many of his crime genre peers - John D McDonald's Travis McGee, say, or Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer - is still attracting the attention of filmmakers, fifty years after he was created. In any case, it's doubtful any cinematic adaptation could possibly match Darwyn Cooke's terrific Parker comics, which faithfully turn The Hunter and The Outfit into distinctive, stylish and gripping comic art without sacrificing any of the characters hard edges or nuance.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

14 Genre Films from 2011

As a sort of adjunct to my Best of 2011 list, this is a list of my favourite Genre films, all released in the UK in 2011:

(George Tillman Jr.)
Alongside Jason Statham, the most dependable action star presently working in American cinema is Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson. He is utterly convincing in action sequences - this is a man who could cause serious damage if he felt like it - he can act just enough to never become laughable in emotional scenes, and he has an appealing ability to inject irony and wit into his performances where appropriate. He perhaps makes too many family films, but his regular forays into action are generally more than worthwhile.
Faster is exceptional; a taut and tight revenge thriller with a post-Tarantino sensibility to its characterisation, especially in the supporting cast, some brutally lucid action, a great Clint Mansell score and Johnson playing a driven, emotionless killer with commendable intensity.

(Jose Padilla)
This somewhat schizophrenic Brazilian film is an angry cry of frustrated rage at the police and government corruption which besets the Country, told with the staccato rhythm of a documentary. But its also a ferocious action film in love with the adrenaline rush of violence, and fetishizing weaponry at every opportunity. There are massive shootouts with assault rifles in the Rio favelas, there are amped-up chases and beatings scattered regularly amidst the political debate. Somehow it all holds together coherently, and what's more, even works quite well.

(Kevin MacDonald)
An old-fashioned sword-and-sandal mini-Epic which could have been made, with only a few alterations, in the 1950s. I write that as a good thing, since it means an emphasis on strong storytelling, on classically shot scenes, and on solid characters and plotting. The two leads - Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell - should be the weak point, but they are both good here, and the action scenes are excellent; rousing and visually interesting but never gory or exploitative. Better than last years superficially similar Centurion, which I also liked.

(Jeon-Beong Lee)
There are three Korean films on this list, testament to how well that particular national cinema handles genre material. Of the three, The Man from Nowhere is the most commercial and unoriginal, a familiar (in conception at any rate) action thriller about a hollow shell of an ex Government Agent tracking down the little girl next door who has been kidnapped by gangsters. Leading man Won Bin is a Superstar heartthrob in his homeland and he excels in the brilliant action scenes here, each of which crackles with visceral energy and bravura style. Added to that is a surprising dose of emotional weight and that inimitably Korean tonal variance which makes films like this so unpredictable and exhilarating.

(Simon West)
Statham, playing your standard existential focused hit man - frowny, liable to have planned how to kill everybody in the room and get away Scott free at any moment - gets involved in a mash-up of two hoary old genre plot stand-bys. "This time its personal" meets "the student turns on the teacher". But this is a tight, commendably stripped down action film with strong set-pieces, Statham in the kind of role he's best at, Ben Foster offering great support as another of his damaged wild cards and slick direction from ex-Blockbuster genre hack West.

(Joe Wright)
I love the collision of the art house and the action genre. Here Joe Wright takes the chilly European setting and choppily edited action of a Bourne film, blends in some fairy-tale whimsy, a little Godard, a touch of Brit sitcom, some Fassbinder, a little techno, and makes a thoroughly modern action film. Saoirse Ronan puts that unearthly quality to great use in the lead, the supporting cast are pure-breed class and having great fun, and the Chemical Brothers score is another example of a recent trend for dance, electronica and trip-hop musicians excelling while scoring movies. Add to that the best action scene of the year: Eric Bana fighting multiple agents in a subway. In a single take. Awesome.

(Takeshi Miike)
I had issues with Miike's distancing and deconstruction of the samurai genre in this film. But they all fall away, to some extent, during the lengthy carnage of the central battle, in which the 13 warriors face hundreds in classic fashion, and where Miike tries to have his cake AND eat it (ripping the genre to shreds while also indulging in it's greatest excess) and largely succeeds. Full of casually immortal classic action beats, face-offs and heroic deaths, and lots of blood. Lots and lots of blood.

(James English)
Speaking of blood, this ultra-violent siege and battle B-film has plenty of it. A small group of hardened warriors defend a castle from a larger force in a series of gritty, brutal clashes. James Purefoy has become something of a specialist at sword-wielding lead roles and he is central here as the killing machine Templar caught up in this fightnon his way back from the Crusades. The moment where he finally unleashes a massive broadsword he has held back is built up by director English and the chaos he causes with the weapon shows why. Paul Giamatti adds some class as the villainous King John, snarling and scenery-chewing his way through the film.

(Ji-Woon Kim)
A serial killer thriller so violent, intense and disturbing, it was cut for release in Korea, a country not exactly famed for squeamishness where cinematic standards of violence are concerned. A serial killer butchers the fiancee of a Special Agent, whose revenge is to make the murderers life a living hell in a game of cat and mouse, repeatedly hunting him down, beating and mutilating him, then releasing him only to do it all again. Undeniably overlong - its 140 minutes could have been cut down to 90 or so - but the genuine emotion of the first act infuses the entire film, giving it a weight denied to much work in this genre, Director Ji-Woon Kim stages, paces and shoots each scene brilliantly,particularly the set pieces, and its two leads are great.

(Nicolas Winding-Refn)
If this had come out in 1978, or 1983, it would have been taken for what it is; a cool, stylish little genre flick. A little bit Michael Mann, a little bit Walter Hill, a little bit To Live & Die in LA Freidkin allied to a pretty classic action-Noir plot (from James Sallis' smart little novel), it allowed Refn to show how good a technician he is, gave Ryan Gosling a movie star role to bask in, and somehow appealed to hipsters and a certain brand of Cineaste both. It's empty, beautiful, and full of pure cinematic pleasures.

(Tsui Hark)
This slightly overripe, consistently ravishing Kung Fu epic shows Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies how this sort of material should be done. Andy Lau's Detective Dee investigates the spontaneous combustion of a couple of Government officials and gets into a fistful of sprawlingly impressive fights; all set against a vividly realised historical backdrop. There is also a talking deer, some dodgy cgi compositing, and Tsui Hark's direction, as imaginative and authoritive as ever.

(James Wan)
The first half of this low budget shocker is absolutely terrific; creepy, disturbing, and atmospherically tense throughout as it lays out a generically familiar tale of the haunting of a typical suburban family. The central couple are played - very well - by the ever-excellent Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, who invest it with more emotion than this material usually warrants. It all falls apart to some extent in the second half, with explanations mixed in with climactic narrative pyrotechnics, but this is still an interesting, high-quality horror film.

(Na Hong-Jin)
No guns, but the most visceral and thrilling action film of this year concerns a taxi driver who gets into debt and agrees to carry out a hit for the mob. Only things get complicated - not least by his own plan to murder his cheating wife, once he's done - just as he's about to do the job and soon he finds himself on the run. Rooted in a grittily realist view of people scrabbling to make money on the margins of society, Na Hong-Jin's film showcases a series of brutal, awful knife fights and exhilarating chases through the city, and every minute of it has terrific impact. It starts off as a Noir, turns into a chase thriller and ends up a mix of gangster and action film, each element extraordinarily well-directed and gripping.

(Tobias Lindholm, Michael Noer)
Grim, hard-as-nails Danish prison film with some superficial similarities to Audiard's A Prophet. A young man ends up on a wing full of terrifying lifers during his first stint inside and has to learn the ropes fast; which means getting involved in the Prison drug business, selling to the Muslims in another wing. But that only makes his life more complicated. Starkly, intimately shot in mostly tight close up, full of moments of uncomfortable tension, dreadful suspense and horrible explosions of violence, and with a cast full of nastily-memorable character actors glaring at each other, this is a sort of perfect model of how to do this genre well: relentless, compelling, always convincingly hard-worn, with a cruelly unhappy ending.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

20 from '11

This just gets harder every year. I've reviewed most of these over at Capsule In Space, so head over there if you want more in-depth views. I'll be doing a separate list of genre films over the next week too, hopefully.

My Top 20; based on films released in Cinemas in the UK in 2011:

(Gore Verbinski)
Pop surrealism in a ludicrously beautiful, utterly bizarre cgi- animated Kids Western. Might be the strangest corporate product released this year, and hurrah for that.

(Na Hong-Jin)
The grittiest, most exhilarating thriller of the year in a year of great Korean action thrillers. Amazing set pieces, real emotional grip, brilliantly put together: all action films should aspire to this level of impact & quality.

(Nicolas Winding Refn)
Sheer style and sensual pleasure over the backing of solidly familiar genre beats, with a movie star front and centre. That this was greeted with such reverential reviews shows just how rare that kind of thing is nowadays.

(Aaron Katz)
A lovely little drama-cum-detective comedy, rooted in the real world, beautifully directed.

(John McDonagh)
The funniest film of the year. Also beautifully acted - Brendan Gleeson can seemingly do no wrong - and even quite gripping. Takes a few shots at cliches of rural Ireland along the way.

(Kevin MacDonald)
An old-fashioned adventure film; full of solid storytelling, action, archetypal characters, derring-do, and incredible landscapes. Give me something like this over Transformers 3 any day.

(David Michod)
Nightmarishly intense crime saga, sharply characterised and directed with a real sense of tone and atmosphere.

(Andrea Arnold)
Arnold's film captures the wilds of Yorkshire within a 4:3 aspect ratio only to unleash it within Brontes characters and watches, swooning, while they suffer.

(Ben Wheatley)
A wrenching horror, a glimpse of the pagan England beneath the out of town shopping malls and the motorway services, a genre film that isnt, quite. Unforgettable.

(Pablo Larrain)
The coup in 1970s Chile as personal disaster, the moral decay of a nation mirrored within one sad, lonely individual. Haunting, mesmeric, expertly directed.

(Gavin O'Connor)
Manipulation so well-done it's a pleasure in and of itself. But also a magnificently acted, emotionally brutal study of the recession era, and an astoundingly great formula fight film. Should have been massive.

(Jeff Nichols)
Watch the skies. Michaell Shannon finds a role miraculously suited to his eerie presence, and acts the hell out of it. He's matched by the precision and control of the creeping dread Nichols orchestrates, right unto the awful, Shyamalanesque climax.

(Kelly Reichert)
A fine Western which ignores most all the genres rules and settles for a tensely claustrophobic(!) battle of wills between well-drawn characters in an impossible situation. Hypnotic, beautiful, provocative.

(Mike Mills)
A quirkfest that transcends its own language and assumptions, and approaches profundity with a real gentleness of spirit. Lovely.

(Thomas Alfredson)
Forensic study of deceit and decay, of class and intrigue, of England and the Cold War. Stupendously acted, miraculously adapted from complex material.

(Coen Brothers)
The American creation myth in a rollicking Western, filled with great passages and performances, visually superb and absolutely entertaining.

(Asghar Farhadi)
Intricate, gripping drama/thriller of a dispute between two Tehran families. Sympathetic, tonally exact, and absolutely agonising in its precise evocation of a spiralling argument and its wider resonances and casualties.

3. OSLO, AUGUST 31st
(Joachim Trier)
Poetic, sublime study of Nordic depression (that makes Lars Von Trier's beautiful Melancholia look like the confused oddity that it is) without ever becoming depressing itself. Instead it is exhilarating: rapturous, nostalgic, full of longing.

(Kenneth Lonergan)
A complex, marvellously intimate epic, part character study, part polyphony, compulsive throughout.

(Terrence Malick)
Malick makes cinema a wondrous tool for exploration, and the resulting film, for all its flaws and missteps, is unlike anything made by anybody else. Vauntingly ambitious, ridiculously beautiful, always personal, this is the work of an artist who makes most directors look like mere photographers.

Bubbling Under:
You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger
Blue Valentine
The Fighter
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
La Quatro Volte
Treacle Jnr
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Black Swan
Passenger Side
How I Ended the Summer
Norwegian Wood

You Can't See Everything (and I missed these):
Tyrannosaur, Las Acasias, The Artist, Mysteries of Lisbon, The Turin Horse, Poetry, The Future, Pina, Incendies, The Skin I Live In, Miss Bala, Dreams of a Life

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Friday, December 23, 2011


  Some films due for release in 2012 that I'm quite keen to see. And why.
(Wong Kar Wai)
A Wong Kar Wai biopic of legndary Martial artist Ip Man, you say? With Tony Leung and a trailer that looks frighteningly like the rain-lashed finale from The Matrix Revolutions? Well, yes. But if youre looking for a traditional Kung Fu movie crossed with an Ip Man biopic, then Donnie Yen already did that. Odds on here then, that Wong's version will be heavy on mood and period athmosphere, full of lovely, mysterious scenes of romantic longing, nostalgic for the Hong Kong of old, and thronged with beautiful women surrounding Leung, easily the great Chinese leading man of his era. Sounds pretty good to me..

(Andrew Stanton)
The source material is ridiculous, but a great kind of ridiculous. Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs also created John Carter, Warlord of Mars, a Confederate Soldier from the American Civil War era who is transported to Mars via astral projection where, granted great speed, strength and agility by the gravity of the planet, he becomes involved in the complex wars between the various species of Martian he encounters, falls in love with a beautiful copper-coloured Martian Princess, and generally swashes his buckle. James Cameron's Avatar was a sort of updating on John Carter, mixed with Anne McCaffrey, but this is the real deal. People have been trying and failing to adapt Burroughs' character for decades without success, but Stanton suggested he had a visionary quality to him with the superb Wall-E, and that combined with the smooth, mythic purity of the storytelling evident in the best of Pixar's output makes me confident that he might have got this right. An immense budget, a great cast and that enigmatic first trailer, stuffed with glimpses of beautiful imagery, only increase that confidence. The second trailer is more about the action and the scale, and it makes the film look part Lawrence of Arabia, part Star Wars, and part Run of the Arrow. Sounds good to me. If you've seen Friday Night Lights the tv show then you'll know that lead here Taylor Kitsch is a star, he just needs the right vehicle. This year he's got three, following this with Peter Bergs Battleship and Oliver stones Savages. John Carter is the great unknown in the coming year of cinema; could be awful, could be incredible. It's out in March and I can't wait.

(Jacques Audiard)
Audiard has earned loyalty by never making a bad film. The last two - A Prophet and The Beat That my Heart Skipped - were both brilliant, so I'd watch anything he decided to do. But it definitely helps that I'm a big fan of "Rust & Bone" by Craig Davidson, a short story collection focusing on gamblers, boxers, losers and outsiders on the make. Audiard is adapting some of those stories, which should prove a perfect fit with his own low down, character-based sensibility. Marion Cotillard leads the cast, which is never a bad thing, either..

(Carlos Reygadas)
Mexican visionary Reygadas follows the amazing Silent Light with this mysterious, semi-autobiographical project. He said it will be a film where "reason will intervene as little as possible, like an expressionist painting where you try to express what you're feeling through the painting rather than depict what something looks like." He really knows how to sell a film, no?
His talent sells itself, is the unfunny truth.

(Christopher Nolan)
(Joss Whedon)
(Marc Webb)
Another Summer Blockbuster Season, another Superhero invasion. Nolan's third Batman film will probably be the biggest film of the year, and for all I think that his approach has its flaws - namely excessive seriousness, shoddy action scenes and a slightly cringeworthy inability to prevent his characters from explaining his themes to the audience - he is still an interesting talent, and we are lucky he makes big summer tent poles with some intelligence and fine craftsmanship rather than the likes of Michael Bay or Brett Ratner. His Batman films are set in a clearly defined world, brilliantly cast, impressively epic, and are refreshingly (by superhero standards) cerebral. This one brings in some exciting actors - Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon Levitt - and Nolan's conception of villain Bane sounds far more interesting than The one from the comics. However, the trailer is slightly underwhelming, and crucially, for this Bat-fan; almost entirely lacking in Batman. What gives?
The Avengers looked silly from a distance; all those characters - Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow - thrown together in their silly costumes, when a common problem faced by the super hero genre is overstuffing. But Marvel have been so canny with the lead-up to this film, nicely setting up Thor and Captain America in cleverly pitched films, never being too ambitious, allowing their Universe to work on its own terms, and the trailer is so poppily exciting that I'm cautiously excited about it. Whedon understands the dynamics of the group in genre storytelling, as evinced by Buffy, Firefly and a stint writing X-Men comics, the cast is a fine balance of star power and acting chops, and it promises the biggest, loudest, most outright Superhero thrills of the summer. Plus: the Hulk fighting an alien invasion. Nuff said.
Spider-Man gets a needless reboot courtesy of 500 Days of Summer director Marc Webb, promising a younger, edgier take on the character. Webb brought some style to the romcom in that film, but the Amazing Spider-Man trailer looks dull and generic in a genre best-served by personality and strong storytelling. Nevertheless, Andrew Garfield seems a good choice in the lead, the Lizard is a great villain, and Emma Stone is an upgrade on Kirsten Dunst, for me. But still, the point isn't exactly obvious.

(Paul Thomas Anderson)
The new Paul Thomas Anderson. A period drama about a Scientology-style Cult and its founder. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, score by Jonny Greenwood.
Anderson is quite probably the great American Director of his generation, as There Will Be Blood confirmed. Anything he does is something I have to see.
You need to know anymore?

(David O. Russell)
Having rejuvenated his career with the success of The Fighter, Russell returns to the comedy-drama of Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees with this adaptation of Matthew Quick's novel starring Bradley Cooper as a man newly released after a 4 year stint in a mental hospital, who moves back in with his mother and tries to rekindle his relationship with his estranged wife. Sounds weird and maybe a little uncomfortable. That's good, both those things Russell does well.

(David Cronenberg)
Yes yes, it stars RPatz. But it's Cronenberg does Delillo, which is either a perfect meeting between author and director or too much of a good thing. Should be fascinating, either way.

(Rian Johnson)
A sci-fi time travel action movie from the young talent behind Brick, starring Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon Levitt and Emily Blunt. The reviews of an early cut of Looper have been pretty rapturous. Johnson seems a unique talent - Brick is quite unlike anything else I've ever seen, and quite remarkable, and The Brothers Bloom, while suffering from unmistakeable "difficult second album syndrome" is filled with good things - and this middle ground between mainstream genre thrills and personal indie filmmaking is exactly where he should be at this point in his career.

(Nicholas Winding Refn)
Refn, having finally got some recognition from hipsters with his study in 80s cool, Drive, reunites with Ryan Gosling on a Bangkok-set Noir about Thai boxing. He's long been one of World Cinemas more interesting directors, and this can be nothing less than fascinating.

(John Hillcoat)
Just like The Proposition, a Nick Cave/John Hillcoat collaboration, this prohibition-era Bootlegger drama has a strong cast (Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska) and subject matter seemingly perfectly suited to the director. Hardy and Shia Lebouef play two moonshine-making brothers. Violence, romance, and very probably some hard-bitten poetry ensue.

(Steve McQueen)
McQueen and Michael Fassbinder reunite after the brilliant Hunger on this drama about a youngish marketing executive and his sex addiction in modern Manhattan. It's gotten very mixed reviews, but the Trailer is brilliant and Fassbinder is the real deal; a leading man movie star who can act. He's joined here by Cary Mulligan.

(Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
One of the Worlds great cinematic masters, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien has never made a martial arts film before. The Assassin has been in the works since 2007, stars HHHs frequent leading lady Shu Qi alongside Chang Chen, and concerns a female assassin. How his trademark style will work in the context of this genre is impossible to say, but I cant wait to find out.

(Terrence Malick)
Malick. Not actually called The Burial, either. A youngish cast (Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Olga Kurylenko, Barry Pepper) and - a first for Malick aside from the Sean Penn sequences in Tree of Life - a contemporary setting. Probably won't be out til 2014, but you never know...

(Steven Soderbergh)
Am I alone in loving Soderbergh most when he experiments in the boundaries of commercial cinema? When he uses his post Out of Sight heat to make an LA-set English Gangster movie by way of Alain Resnais? Or turns the second Oceans film into an insane collage of techniques and skits? Anyway, this is written by Lem Dobbs, his collaborator on The Limey, features an astounding cast of actors for real-life Martial artist Gina Carano to beat her way through (Michael Fassbinder, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas), locations in Barcelona, Dublin and the US, and looks a pretty stock double-crossed spy tale, only with fight-scenes shot the way they should be: with brutality and true impact. It's got a David Holmes score too...

(Nacho Vigalondo)
Vigalondo's debut, TimeCrimes, was a clever, stylish, gripping genre piece which suggested he might some day do great things. This unclassifiable sophomore film follows a man who wakes up beside a beautiful girl, in her apartment one evening with no memory of the drunken night before. He is Julio, she is Julia. Soon they discover an alien ship hovering above the city nearby. So then we get a romcom, a drama, and a genre film, wrapped up in a lovely little Spanish package. Looks brilliant.

(Tony Gilroy)
Gilroy returns to the franchise his script began, Jeremy Renner replaces Matt Damon, playing not Bourne but another Treadstone Assassin, and I imagine it'll be more of the same globetrotting-gritty-wetwork stuff, only - given Gilroy's disparaging words about Paul Greengrass' direction of the last two Bourne films - probably more classically directed. Gilroy's Michael Clayton is one of the better American films of the last few years, but his Duplicity was a clever bore, so all bets are off here.

(Andrew Dominik)
Dominik finally follows the sublime The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford with an adaptation of George V Higgins 1974 novel. The book is typical Higgins; told almost entirely in dazzling dialogue which reveals a tightly wound, beautifully simple plot about a card game heist and the vengeance wrought upon the hold-up men by the mob. Brad Pitt plays the mob fixer charged with finding and punishing those responsible, and Dominik has surrounded him with some fabulous character actors including James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins and Sam Shepherd. If Dominik's last film showed anything, it's that he has the talent to take a formidably distinctive novel and turn it into a distinctive film. This could be brilliant.

(Olivier Assayas)
Assayas follows the impressive Carlos, which studied the politics of Europe and the Middle East in the 1970s and 1980s, with this drama about a young man dealing with the social and political upheavals of Europe in the1960s. Assayas is one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers in France, making films which are accessible and involving but always deal in ideas and substantial themes. As a stylist he improves with each film, and this return to a slightly more intimate world after Carlos' epic canvas is a welcome move.

(Sam Mendes)
I've never really liked a Sam Mendes film. He's obviously an intelligent, talented chap, with impeccable taste. But his films, for all that they all contain fantastic elements, great moments, lovely passages, for all that, they all feel a little safe and predictable. That may mean he's the perfect fit for a film in a series which demands some safety, something predictable. He's also the perfect age to understand what a Bond film should be, can be, must be. Daniel Craig is joined by a ridiculously classy cast: Ralph Fiennes (rumours suggest as Blofeld), Ben Whishaw (Q), Javier Bardem, Naomi Harris and Albert Finney. Roger Deakins, master cinematographer, shoots. A Bond film with serious pedigree.

(Lu Chuan)
A big Chinese period drama. A bunch make it over here every year. But this one is directed by the talented Lu Chuan, who made City of Life and Death and Mountain Patrol, and that's reason enough to make me excited about it.

(David Chase)
A semi-autobiographical debut film from an American director set in 60s New Jersey about a group of friends who form a band and try to make it big? Sounds like the kind of thing that goes straight to DVD in the UK with a cast of young prettyboys and generic starlets, a couple of whom might surprise us by making it big a few years later. Only this one is directed by David Chase, creator of the Sopranos, which often played like the longest movie ever made anyway, and suggests that this could be something better and more sophisticated. But then Ricky Gervais had made a couple of sublime tv series, and his first film - a comedy drama about a group of friends in Suburban England in the 70s - was a bit fa misfire, so who knows? Tv and cinema, for all their similarities, are very different.

(Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Ceylan's latest has gotten lots of paise at festivals, and sounds like a Change of pace for him, since it has genre elements. It's a 140 minute drama, methodically following a murder investigation in rural Turkey, and its reportedly brilliant.

(Quentin Tarantino)
Tarantino finally makes that long-promised Western, and it turns out it's not really a Western at all, but a "Southern", a tale set in the South during the Civil War era, following a slave turned Bounty Hunter as he sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Plantation Owner. But the title suggests it'll be full of references to Spaghetti Westerns, it's already got a great cast (Jamie Foxx as the bounty hunter, Leonardo DiCaprio as the Plantation Owner, Kurt Russell, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Kerry Washington, Christoph Waltz, Don Johnson, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Samuel L Jackson in other parts) and it's Tarantino.

(Matteo Garrone)
Garrone burst onto the International scene with the ferocious Gomorrah, and his follow-up is this Drama about the modern obsession with fame and celebrity. Not much else is known, but he's been working on it for three years, and expectations are high..

(Larry Charles)
Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles complete a sort of "idiot trilogy" with this comedy about a Middle Eastern Dictator who may bear resemblance to certain real-life despots. For all the latters evident flaws, both Borat and Bruno made me laugh as much as anything I've seen in a cinema in years. Cohen is a brave comic, and Charles seems to get the best out of him. The trailer is middling but I'm there anyway.

(Ridley Scott)
Scott is famously better at world-building than he is at narrative or characterisation or any of that boring old storytelling crap. That explains why all of his historical dramas - even the ones with massive flaws - are all set in vivid, beautiful worlds. He often feels more interested in the background than foreground action. That is a gift well-suited to sci-fi. But he hasn't made a sci-fi film since the one-two punch combo of Alien and Blade Runner established him as a giant of the genre thirty years ago. Prometheus is his return, and the images that have escaped the set so far and the arresting trailer promise a predictably visually strong production. The early confusion over whether or not it was an Alien prequel suggested a troubling amount of rewriting, but Losts Damon Lindelof seems a safe pair of hands, and Scotts work is rarely without a personality; Prometheus will be the film he wants to make. The cast is promising, too, full of mature class-acts from Michael Fassbinder and Charleze Theron through Idris Elba and Patrick Wilson to Guy Pearce and Rafe Spall.

(Kathryn Bigelow)
That's not the title, only a rumour. Nobody knows the title yet. What is known is that Bigelow's follow-up to The Hurt Locker is this factual account of the Hunt for and Black Ops mission to assassinate Osama Bin Laden. The only confirmed cast members so far are promising character players Chris Pratt and Jason Clarke (better known from great work on tv in Parks And Recreation and Brotherhood, respectively) but you can be sure a director of Bigelow's talent - and expertise with action - will make this an exhilarating, intelligent, hot button thriller.

(Taylor Hackford)
Jason Statham playing Richard Stark's Parker is worth a post all of it's own, but it's not an entirely terrible notion. And the fact that this is a Stark adaptation at all is a very good thing. The rest of the cast is very true to the noirish nastiness of Starks worldview: Nick Nolte, Michael Chiklis and even Jennifer Lopez could all have stepped comfortably from the pages of any of the Parker novels. As it happens this one is an adaptation of Flashfire, one of the recent books - Stark, a pseudonym for Donald Westlake, retired Parker for 23 years between 1973 and 1997 - and the only thing that really gives me pause is journeyman Director Taylor Hackford, who seems to have mediocrity running through his artistic veins.

(Michael Haneke)
Haneke films are an event, even small-scale dramas like this one. It centres on an elderly couple whose relationship is tested when they have to care for their daughter (Isabelle Huppert) after she has a stroke. Haneke is on an incredible run of film's - his entire career, really - and him working with Huppert for the first time since The Piano Teacher is an exciting prospect.

(Martin McDonagh)
McDonagh follows In Bruges with this dark comedy about a screenwriter caught up in a dognapping plot, which sounds very mid-90s post-Tarantino. The cast includes Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and Abbie Cornish. If it's half as good as McDonagh's debut film, that'll be fine with me.

(Pete Travis)
Yeah, another Judge Dredd movie, sixteen years after the fudged Stallone version came and went with so little impact. This one is written by Alex Garland, whose track record as a screenwriter includes 28 Days Later and Sunshine, uncommonly interesting takes on familiar old genres both, and directed by the slightly less inspiring Travis, while the versatile Karl Urban plays the Lawman himself. As a character, Dredd could have been made for cinema: visually strong, suited to insertion into any plot or sort of story, his world is rich, funny and bizarre, and should always be full of visual wonders. Hopefully the film is too..

(Neil Blomkamp)
District 9 had its detractors, but it was an accomplished, ambitious, unusual sci-fi film from a filmmaker with a clearly defined aesthetic sensibility and a storytelling style all his own. His next film - actually due in 2013, I believe - is another sci-fi film, starring Matt Damon, Sharlito Kopley, Jodie Foster and a host of Latin actors (Diego Luna, Alice Braga, Rodrigo Mora). Its set 150 years in the future, concerns aliens and humans, Damon plays a convict; and aside from that, nobody really knows anything. Blomkamp has a big budget and big stars here, so I'm hoping the larger canvas doesn't overwhelm him, because this could possibly be something very special.

(Walter Hill)
I find it inspiring that veteran Walter Hill, who made a fistful of pared down action classics in the late 70s and early 80s (The Warriors, The Driver, Southern Comfort), peaked commercially with the definitive buddy-cop movie (48 Hours) and has consistently made the best Westerns of the last few decades (The Long Riders, Geronimo, Wild Bill) is still directing. Here he's collaborating with another couple of veterans in the form of Sylvester Stallone and producer Joel Silver on an adaptation of a French Graphic Novel about a Hitman and a cop teaming up to solve some murders. I'm hoping for at least one slow motion action scene from Hill, once the master of the form.

(Pablo Larrain)
Larrain has announced himself as a serious talent with his last two studies of the moral corruption of Chile under Pinochet. Both Tony Manero and Post Mortem were beautiful, disturbing, blackly funny and shocking, and here Larrain again takes on his countries past in a story tracing the experiences of aN advertising executive who devises a plan to beat Pinochet in a 1988 referendum. Larrain's rising status is signalled by the fact that Gael Garcia Bernal plays the executive.

(Julia Loktev)
Bernal stars again here, working with young Russian-American director Loktev - whose last film, the extraordinary Day Night Day Night indicated that she might be an enormous talent, with a sensibility more Russian than American - on an adaptation of a brilliant Tom Bissell story about a young couple on a holiday Trek across the mountains of Georgia who run into some complications with the locals. I missed it at the London Film Festival, but all I've seen and read make it look and sound brilliant.

(Leonard Abrahamson)
Abrahamson is the Irish director of Adam & Paul and Garage, minor classics both, and this is an adaptation of Kevin Power's terrific novel " Bad Day in Blackrock", which fictionalised the murder of a young man outside a Dublin Nightclub by a group of affluent Teens and in doing so, skewered the condition of Celtic Tiger Ireland in all it's moral confusion. If anybody can do such a book justice, it's Abrahamson, who has displayed a great feel for tone and place alongside an ear for black comedy in his work so far.

(Alfonso Cuaron)
Cuaron is, I think, the real deal; something of a visionary. This sci-fi drama reportedly follows two astronauts who have been accidentally cut loose in the middle of a space-walk and are floating into the void, alone together. They are played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney and rumours suggest Curaon is attempting to shoot the whole thing in what will looks like one Russian Ark-like single unbroken take. The script had better be good to support such an idea, but I have faith in Cuaron, and that starry cast suggests the material is strong too. Sounds incredible,

(Gareth Evans)
The trailer and festival responses to this Indonesian action thriller - directed by an expatriate Welshman - suggest that it's one of those envelope pushing b-movies, an efficient machine which delivers a succession of pummelling action scenes one after another. The concept finds a SWAT team raiding a building filled with dangerous criminals, then having to fight their way through it, room by room, floor by floor, man by man.

(Bong Joon-Ho)
Koreas most eclectic and interesting mainstream director (he made Memories of Murder, The Host and Mother, all excellent) returns with this Post-Apocalyptic story, adapted from a French comic and following a Disparate group of survivors travelling across the icy waste aboard a train...

(Oliver Stone)
Don Winslow's novel is one of those books that reads like it was written to be adapted; it features strong, bold characters, a simple, compelling plot, and plenty of action. The story depicts two youngish middle class Californian drug producers who suddenly find themselves taking on a murderous Mexican Cartel who want their business. The cartel play dirty, abducting the duo's shared girlfriend and blackmailing them for their product. Only they decide to fight back.. The cast for Stone's version skews young (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson as the duo) and classy (Benicio DelToro and Salma Hayek as Cartel management) and he has some form with Noir and the crime genre in the shape of the entertaining U-Turn. He's also due a hit.

(Hirokazu Koreeda)
Koreeda is a true master, capable of finely-tuned, perfectly weighted, surprisingly moving dramas, and this, like his earlier Nobody Knows, focuses on children. It tells the story of two young brothers, forced to live in different cities by their. Parents separation, and their dreams and attempts to be reunited. Some of the directors films have never made it to the UK, so fingers crossed that this on will.

(Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson directing Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzmann, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and Bruce Willis, set in the 60s, Alexandr Desplat score. Oh yes. 

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Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Vintage Trailer of the Week 54

Whatever happened to Christopher Crowe? Well, I know what happened, he now owns a business constructing racing cars for NASCAR, having apparently been a Racing Driver before he began his career in film. But what I mean is: what happened to that film career?

The answer seems to be that he emerged in television, and after a few cinematic projects of varying quality, he returned to television. Then, he just walked away. But he left a couple of intriguing credits behind him. Most obviously, he shares a writing credit with Michael Mann on The Last of the Mohicans, perhaps Mann's most accessible and downright entertaining film. He also wrote James Foley's Fear, a middling home invasion thriller with a Pre-stardom Reese Witherspoon and Mark Wahlberg. His best known tv work is probably the time travel show Seven Days or the Twilght Zone-aping The Watcher.

He wrote and directed two films which received theatrical distribution. In 1992, the derivative, badly cast erotic thriller Whispers in the Dark may have ended his budding directorial career, so abject was its failure.
His first feature, made in 1988, had marked him out as a director of promise. That film was also a thriller, only it was set in modish 60s Vietnam, in a city crawling with servicemen and the scum who feed off them. It was called Off Limits in the US, but given a better, far more evocative title in International territories; Saigon.

Coming near the end of that second, strangely eclectic cycle of Vietnam movies - which included comedies like Good Morning Vietnam alongside the likes of Platoon and Full Metal Jacket - it pairs Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines - back when both still seemed like possible stars - as M.P. Investigators, hunting a killer who is murdering Vietnamese prostitutes. When they realise the man they're after may be Top Brass, a whole new World of corruption and other words commonly used in trailers for thrillers opens up to them. The plot may be pretty standard for the erotic thriller genre, but the movie is sweatily atmospheric and intense, with a great sense of place and a sure tone throughout. The performances are also strong in the main - Fred Ward is as reliably good value as ever - and in comparison to much of the genre cinema produced in America in 2011, it seems an impressively mature piece of work, for all its melodramatic excesses. It suggests that Crowe may have made an exceptional genre film, sooner or later, and that NASCAR's gain is cinemas loss.

Full trailer:

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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Going Dutch

Kenneth Branagh loves a Dutch Angle. That's when a frame is tilted, or "canted".
Here's an example from Thor, which is full of such shots:

That's not a problem for me. After all, you could argue that the Superhero genre is the home of the Dutch angle, historically at least:

But occasional attempts to pay tribute to the visuals of that series - which remains a fantastic, hilarious watch, fun, satirical, archly camp and knowing but never smug - have not always worked out well:

Brian DePalma may be the saviour of the Dutch angle. He loves them, utilises them in most of his work, and even incorporates them thematically. In Mission Impossible he tilts his frame whenever Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt feels he is being lied to (but also at other times):

A DePalma Superhero movie, now that would be worth watching. And give you a pain in the neck...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

We Are Family

There was an interview with Irish author Roddy Doyle in the Guardian last week which discusses, in some detail, his work as writer on the 1994 BBC mini-series Family, its reception and the effect that had on him.
I thought nobody else remembered Family. It's hard to find mention of it, even on the Internet in these days of finding everything on the Internet. This despite the fact that it was written by Booker-winning bestselling novelist Doyle and directed by subsequent Arthouse Superstar Michael Winterbottom. Also despite the fact that Doyle's novel The Woman Who Walked Into Doors was a spin- off from the series, focusing intently on one character.

Well, Family was a big deal in Ireland at that time. As Doyle describes in the interview, Ireland was finally emerging into the 20th Century in the early 90s, with European Union money going into infrastructure and technology. The Irish National football team had qualified for two consecutive World Cups, and Riverdance, of all things, had been a massive feelgood success on its debut at the Eurovision Song Contest that year. Then came Doyle and Winterbottom's Family, with its poverty, criminality, drug abuse, domestic violence, chronic alcoholism and suggestions of incestuous lust. People - the kind of people who ring radio phone-ins - were appalled. But Family was an incredible piece of television drama; brilliantly written, uniformly well-acted and directed with Winterbottom's considerable feel for place and people.

Doyle's script is somewhat novelistic, attempting a polyphonic portrayal of these people, with each episode focusing on a different character. It begins with John-Paul, the eldest son, who is just beginning Secondary School, then his smalltime criminal father, Charlo, then the eldest daughter, Nicola, who is becoming uncomfortable about the way Charlo is looking a her, before finishing with Charlo's abused wife. Her emancipation and new self-respect gives the series an unexpectedly upbeat ending, but much of the preceding action is the bleakest Doyle ever wrote. Not that it's unrepresentative, on the contrary it captures working class Dublin perfectly, which is partly why it was so controversial. Sometimes looking in a mirror can be uncomfortable.

The performances are perhaps what make Family so memorable. Sean McGinley pops up in every major American or British production shot in or about Ireland or the Irish in a supporting role - there he is in Braveheart, Gangs of New York, The General etc - but as Charlo he is electric, full of rage and self-loathing and confusion but never too sympathetic, never downplaying his characters more monstrous side. Ger Ryan, mostly a jobbing actress on Irish television, more than matches him as Paula, and her transformation from long-suffering victim to independent single mother is the emotional uppercut of the climactic installment.

Family is finally released on DVD in June, which will hopefully restore it's reputation as one of the great tv dramas of the last couple of decades.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Live By the Sword

Why have the folk storytelling traditions of the British Isles never really been reflected in the cinema produced here? These Islands are rich in myth and have an ancient tradition of storytelling, but British cinema has long seemed oblivious to both. Partly the success and influence of American cinema is to blame. In America, the first narrative film set the tone; it was a Western, a uniquely, distinctively American genre, and that genre was instantly embraced as the American genre, somehow embodying the American national myth.
Genres that were not native were rapidly Americanised: the Gangster story made more sense in America during and after the Depression and Prohibition than it ever had anywhere else before, and Hollywood took that area and established iconography and modes for it only slightly less powerful than the ones it had crystallised for the Western before it.

So British genre cinema already had a model in the earliest years of the medium as a commercial concern. And though British studios made thrillers and War films and adventure films and crime dramas, they were all, on some level, imitations of the American films playing in British cinemas. Most European Nations had similar issues: they made Westerns in Germany in the 1920s, and in France and Italy the dominant genres in the early years of Film were crime thrillers. German expressionism elevated the horror film but this was a brief aberrative period and American Cinema absorbed what those German films had done and made it mainstream and normalised. What Europe did well, even at that point, was heritage drama, costume period pieces akin to the traditions of much European theatre and literature. This was as true of Britain as it was of France.

But the big British National myths: the likes of King Arthur, Robin Hood, Dick Turpin and even the lesser-known Spring-Heeled Jack, they were never definitively tackled by British cinema. Director Percy Stow made a silent Robin Hood film in 1908 but in 1922 Robin Hood, an American silent starring Douglas Fairbanks, was released and became a massive hit. The version of the character featured in that film - the swashbuckling, mustachioed hero - entered into the collective cultural consciousness and that iconic figure was solidified by the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn. Here was a British figure as interpreted by American Cinema, British myth repackaged for a Global Market by American tastes. King Arthur suffered a similar, though far less commercially successful, fate, even suffering the indignity of becoming a massively popular musical on stage and screen. Both icons would in time become the subjects of Animated Disney Films, making them culturally fixed as American icons as much as British.

Later British television would repeatedly address these characters, but they had been already co-opted by Hollywood and these portrayals are generally revisionist reimaginings working in the shadows of the American versions. The popular 1980s series Robin of Sherwood, for example, replaced the primary colours and straightforward manichean conflicts of most Robin Hood stories with a dirty realist visual approach - most likely taken from Richard Lester's superb Robin and Marian - and stirred in some Celtic mysticism and a little historical licence (one of Robin's Merry Men was a Moor), but British cinema, by the 1980s, never really waded into such waters.
All of this left Britain - from early on in its history as a film-producing Nation - without a natural action genre of its own. British adventure films had no fixed form; there were Colonial films set in the jungles of the East, the occasional American-style period swashbuckler, the odd Western-aping Highwayman film, War dramas and Spy stories, which could have been Hollywood productions if the accents of the performers were to change.
In contrast a nation like Japan already produced a steady supply of Samurai films and China had a rapidly developing Kung Fu cinema industry. Both these genres had similarities with the Western, but this was not quite a disadvantage, as the happy influence of John Ford, say, on the films of Akira Kurosawa suggests, and they were clearly indigenous genres which could have been developed nowhere else.

In the last few decades, the commercial instability of British cinema, by now a fraction of the industry it was in the 1940s and 50s, much of its creative and technical personnel at the service of American money, has meant that a couple of sub genres have tended to dominate production here. Britain has excelled at realistic drama since the "kitchen sink" movement of the 1960s, and much British output still takes this approach. High-profile directors like Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and even Shane Meadows all fall under this broad umbrella-term. Costume drama, driven by the continued popularity of television productions made by the BBC and ITV, is a consistently successful British form, much of it based on an unparalleled National literature, from Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen and the Brontes to Evelyn Waugh and William Golding. And the British sense of humour means that Comedy is still a thriving genre, with television providing a steady stream of creative comedic talent for Cinema. But action subgenres tend to copy Hollywood forms to a slavish extent; with the post-Tarantino mockney Gangster films of the 1990s ( which altered little about the American gangster genre) an obvious and dispiriting example.

Sword and sandal films, however, for lack of a better term, have recently begun to crop up in a fascinating little mini-Wave. Britain has the history, landscape and creative and technical know-how to thrive in this genre, but these films are really a sub-genre, albeit currently quite a rich and fertile one.
The release this month of Kevin McDonald's The Eagle offers up a fascinating contrast to the films I'm discussing. It is a big prestige Hollywood production, featuring a few rising stars( Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Tahar Rahim), made by a Director becoming a solid, somewhat anonymous craftsman, with strong production values, a massive marketing budget and the intention of being a classy, roundly entertaining epic.
Compare it to Neil Marshall's Centurion from last year, a film with a near-identical settting and somewhat similar premise. Marshall's film is a B-movie, quite proudly a bloodthirsty, action-heavy genre film with a budget roughly half that of McDonald's. The films share some characteristics; these days, dirty realism rules in period portrayals of the Medieval or pre-Medieval World, and so we get to see a world of mud and rust, dirt-streaked skin and tattered clothing, mostly rudimentary buildings, harsh weather and inhospitable landscapes.
But while McDonald's film is somewhat ambitious - it wants to be about Rome and colonialism, it wants to develop it's characters and give them journeys (it's not entirely successful in fulfilling these ambitions) - Centurion only has one ambition: it wants to be a ride. It prizes narrative momentum and exhilarating action scenes above all else, charging along in one long pursuit, interrupting itself only for violent combat and one inevitable romantic interlude.
Both films heavily feature sword battles, and it is perhaps here that Marshall's film reveals it true nature most freely. The violence in The Eagle is serious and visceral, reflecting McDonald's desire for the film to have some impact, and yet it remains strangely tasteful throughout, too sober in intent and careful in execution. The violence in Centurion is almost exploitative, with eye-stabbings and clubbings and limb-choppings featuring prominently amidst a sea of blood.

There is a long tradition of ultra-violence in Sword & Sandal cinema, some of it even originating in the genre's Half-brother, the Historical Drama. Orson Welles' Chimes At Midnight is notable for horrendously visceral battle scenes, and Robert Bresson's Lancelot du Lac juxtaposes its angsty conscience-wrestling and philosophising with Knights beheading one another so graphically it's worthy of Sam Peckinpah (and was soon parodied by Monty Python). Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (in the restored version from the 1990s, at any rate) features a couple of eye-popping action scenes, as does Clive Donner's Alfred the Great, and Mel Gibson's Braveheart, a film heavily influenced by Spartacus, pushes that angle even further, featuring extended Epic battles of stunningly gratuitous brutality: picks stud eye sockets only to erupt out of skulls, maces crush cheekbones, torsos are wrent asunder, limbs casually lopped off.

Marshall is the sort of director who is surely aware of this history. His previous film was the derivative movie geek wet dream Doomsday which mixed Escape from New York, Luc Besson and Mad Max to mediocre effect, but he would surely understand that many fans of Sword and Sandal films love the genre chiefly for its old-fashioned action, for men fighting with swords. Peter Jackson, another movie geek Director, understood this and his adaptations of Tolkein are filled with lavishly detailed and brilliantly executed battle scenes which crib from Kurosawa and Kung Fu movies as they go. These new British Sword and sandal b-movies all appreciate that bloody mayhem is a huge part of the appeal of their genre, and they are made by writers and directors who are extremely aware of the many ways such mayhem has been approached in the past.

So Centurion is really a revisionist 70s chase Western in disguise, with Picts replacing native Americans and Roman Legions instead of U.S. cavalry. But British history is long and interesting enough to have room for this story to be told - it could even have been set in an entirely different era with different sets of combatants; Vikings or Normans, the Civil War era, the Dark Ages - and still have qualified as a Sword and sandal film. Christopher Smith's Black Death, for instance, follows a disillusioned monk and a jaded bunch of Mercenaries during the 14th Century plague outbreak as they journey into eerie marshlands in search of a town reputedly free of infection. Financed and shot in Germany, Smith's film qualifies as British because of its setting and key creative personnel. Some of its most important influences are uniquely British, too. It seems to refer to three cult classics which all investigate the old, weird Britain of isolated rural communities and surviving pagan traditions; The Wicker Man, Blood on Satans Claw and Witchfinder General. In Smith's film, the Mercenaries, led by Sean Bean's iron-willed homicidal zealot, are searching for Witchcraft and they get that and more in this creepily mellow community (a sidelong suggestion of contemporary New Age worship is set with the costume design). The directors three previous films were all horror movies and he does a fine job here of maintaining a sense of dread and foreboding throughout, though the avoidance of the supernatural and ultimately human nature of the evil they encounter adds to this film's pessimistic impact. The coda is devastating, and if Black Death does have some aesthetic ambition, it's heart seems resolutely pulpy. It's battle scenes are filmed with real relish and gory aplomb and Smith has described it as a "men on a mission movie".

There are quieter, almost meditative moments in Black Death, however, and passages of it reminded me fleetingly of Andrei Tarkovsky and most particularly his extraordinary Medieval Epic, Andrei Rublev, which is, amongst other things, a fine example of Dirty realism in this genre. The Continental European approach to treatments of these eras has long differed from that presented by Hollywood. Directors like Frantisec Vlacil, Tarkovsky and Grigori Kontisev each depicted a muddy and brutal world where life was difficult, violence never distant, and death close behind it. Yet each was able to broach big, often awkward themes in his work: Kontisev's Shakespeare adaptations are as close to the complexity of the plays as any of the English-language versions, Vlacil's superb Valley of the Bees and Marketa Lazarova both examine themes of faith, loyalty and morality, and Andrei Rublev is a searching investigation into art, creativity and spirituality. Yet each made spectacular and beautiful films, convincing in their historical detail and authentically atmospheric. Perhaps the finest example of European art cinema treating the Medieval era, however, is Robert Bresson's fabulous Lancelot Du Lac, a mysterious, subtle yet grotesquely violent treatment of the Arthuran legend which Is unique in Bresson's filmography for it's strange Peckinpah-reads-a-courtly-romance effect.

These new English films resemble those European productions only visually; in their production design and photography (although those films were generally in black and White the effect of their muted looks are well-suggested by modern cinematography). The artistic ambition and imagination of those European directors is no longer present in Sword and Sandal films. Even in Mainland Europe, art films no longer command large enough budgets to allow for period recreation on anything but a small scale. So a modern Russian Medieval film is more likely to be a copy of an American production like the Conan-plagiarising fantasy Wolfhound. Even Sergei Bodrov's impressive Genghis Khan biopic Mongol plays more like an American Epic biopic such as Alexander or Braveheart than a uniquely Russian, artistically ambitious piece of work like Andrei Rublev.

Much of this has come about because of the huge success of Ridley Scott's Gladiator. A massive worldwide commercial and critical hit which won Awards and made Russell Crowe a star after many near misses, Scott's film also suggested that the public retained an appetite for sword and sandal movies, done right. Many of the American films which attempted to repeat it's success floundered on one or more elements of the recipe required - in the case of Oliver Stone's Alexander, Wolfgang Pederson's Troy and even Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, they all miscast their leading man after Gladiator had demonstrated the need for an actor capable of suggesting some old-fashioned masculinity without sounding silly speaking the Cod-English accented dialogue the established conventions of the genre demand.
The look of these newer English films is directly influenced by the first sequence in Gladiator, where Maximus' troops battle barbarians in wintry Northern Europe. The cold grey-blue muddy look established by Scott in that sequence - and repeated in the early European scenes in Kingdom of Heaven - has been a feature of all these films, and the majority have also borrowed Scott's approach to the first major battle there: an approach he in turn took from Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan, involving shaky handheld cameras, rapid cutting, shallowness of field and overexposed film. One film obviously indebted to Scott and which has proven surprisingly influential upon the films I'm discussing here is Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur with Clive Owen and Keira Knightly. It plays almost like a stylistic template for this material: it has the dirty visual pallette, the gritty production design, the Orc-like native barbarians, the gratuitous combat violence, the Kurosawa lifts and the Shaky-cam action scenes which have all now become commonplace. Unfortunately, it also has a terrible script, predictable plot and some downright bad acting, all of which make portions of it feel hilariously camp.

The success of Gladiator obviously indirectly led to the creation of HBOs Rome, too, and that show has given this new English wave one of it's leading men. James Purefoy had been a jobbing British actor for years, popping up in lead roles on stage and in tv in all sorts of material but never making the big breakthrough any actor needs. His role as a proud and lusty Mark Antony was one of the most memorable turns in Rome and it demonstrated that he was comfortable with period dialogue and looked good in armour, as did his small but crucial turn in A Knights Tale.

In England, when a film like Jonathan English's Ironclad needs a leading man, it finds Purefoy. He plays a classic archetype; the Warrior who has seen too much War and suffers for it. He plays a Templar who has taken a vow of silence after years of butchery in the Holy Land but is dragged into a new conflict in England. This film appears to have a little ambition, it's story of Nobility in conflict with Royalty fairly quaking with heft and import. And yet, English is plainly most interested in the gritty detail of his protracted battle scenes, and his character arcs make sure to focus on the way these men are changed and effected by the violence they experience. An hour or so in, after a couple of gruesome deaths by blunt instrument and a few disembowelments, the central idea - that these common men are fighting for their right to a voice - has more or less dissipated amidst the clouds of blood. English steals liberally from the usual sources. His early "getting the team together again" scenes especially echo Seven Samurai, and he displays a fine understanding of the dynamics of these sorts of action sequences: the scene where Purefoy first unleashes his immense broadsword is terrifically done and appropriately awesome in it's violence.

Ironclad in fact picks up where Ridley Scott's Robin Hood left off; with the signing of the Magna Carta. This make a comparison between the films inevitable (it doesn't hurt that Jonathan English is obviously a big fan of Scott's historical films). Robin Hood, like The Eagle is a big budget studio tentpole production, with big stars (Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett), massive action sequences, a bloated running time and a script that is a bit of a mess. Scott focuses far more than English upon the issues behind the creation of the Magna Carta, with much debate on rights and motivational speechifying from Crowe's Robin. This makes much of the film stolid, leaden and weighed down by it's determination to be serious. The action scenes are impressive enough - though the massive beach battle at the finale does feature a lazy slo-mo "Noooooo!!" - but English accomplishes more with a quarter of the budget. Crowe, with his brawny old-fashioned masculinity, was born for such meaty Historical roles and he carries the film as few actors could. Purefoy matches him, projecting an intensity that fits well with the sombre, bloody tone of the film. He had similar success in Solomon Kane, another violent semi-British historical pulp epic, where he played Robert E Howard's Puritan Warrior as a lethal, haunted West Country gunslinger, battling demons while praying to God.

Films like Solomon Kane and Nicolas Winding Refn's extraordinary Valhalla Rising don't quite belong to this sub-genre, though they are associated. Refn's film was shot in Scotland and is just as violent as any of the others I've mentioned, possibly moreso in it's unrelentingly savage first act, but it has aesthetic ambitions; a layer of pretension, even, which is beyond them. Comparable recent American productions, the Nicholas Cage-starring Season of the Witch, say, wander directly into camp territory even Centurion avoids, aided by a distinctively British yobbish sensibility. This is tricky material, a difficult period to get right, with a potential for a pantomime quality increased by the costumes and sets and hairstyles, but most of all by the language. Suggesting an archaic brand of speech in modern English is delicate, and having banal conversations about historical figures treads perilously close to Monty Python territory. Or, as one character in Centurion puts it: "A wall? Is that Hadrian's great plan?"

Much as I admire this rich young British sub-genre, I still mourn the absence of any films that really do capture the folksy, rural traditions of storytelling in Ireland and the U.K. instead of applying bastardised American genre principles to British history. But then European Cinema contains little of the kind of film I mean. The only example that springs readily to mind is Nils Gaup's excellent Finnish 1987 Pathfinder (Ofelas in Sami) which adapts a Sami legend into a taut, eerie and exciting adventure film which feels like it could almost have been made at any time over the last fifty years. I can't imagine anything like it ever getting made in a modern Britain so enslaved to mainstream cinematic modes and genres. And that's something of a shame.

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