Sunday, 24 June 2012

Men In Black 3

After two months of chasing this film on two continents - I finally made it! Okay, I'll admit upfront that I'm a fan of the franchise and really like the pairing of Will Smith as 'Agent J' and Tommy Lee Jones as 'Agent K' - a kind of alternative Shrek and Donkey if you like!

By the third film of a franchise things normally get pretty stale and I went to see this out of a sense of duty rather than with any high expectations of it being a piece of great cinema. It isn't a piece of great cinema - but it certainly isn't stale either. I was delightfully surprised that not only did the story deliver a series of excellent CGI Alien encounters, but it went deeper and explored the tensions behind the J and K relationship.

The central thrust relies on time travel. It is not handled in a very sophisticated way - but then that fits with the story. What is sophisticated is the introduction of Emma Thompson as the new Boss 'Agent O' in the wake of Agent Z's demise and the appearance of Josh Brolin as the young 'Agent K'.

The story is quick to exploit the racial tensions that existed in the 1960s as 'Agent K' encounters prejudice from law enforcement officers and the general public. I'm not quite sure if it is genuinely trying to say we've come a long way in 50 years or nothing's really changed. Where the story plumbs new depths is in exploring the dynamics of the J and K relationship and why K is as he is and how J got to be recruited by K in the first place. The way in which this is done engenders sympathy for both the characters J and K. The homage to Groundhog Day is subtle and works very well.

The CGI is top drawer and the Aliens embody the right degree of being repulsive whilst also encouraging a degree of curiosity so you want to learn more. The way the story weaves in icons of 1960s America, bowling, cars, baseball Andy Warhol etc is cleverly done. Again the film shows the Manhattan skyline off to good effect with lots of action centring on the iconic Chrysler Building.

I will definitely be adding the disc to my collection when it comes out. If you're after good old-fashioned entertainment go and see it while you still can. I'll give it 7.5/10.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Your Sister's Sister

Caught this at a members' free preview screening at Harbour Lights - well done Picture House!

I didn't quite know what to expect. What I encountered was an intelligent and engaging emotional drama that explores themes of loss, grief, love, betrayal and the fear of losing what you don't already have! Essentially it's a film about relationships. The story is told with irony and occasional humour. At the heart of the story are two sisters, Iris (Emily Blunt) and Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Iris' best friend Jack (Mark Duplass) who is the brother of Iris' ex - Tom. The film opens with a group of Tom's friends - including Iris and Jack meeting to commemorate the first anniversary of Tom's death.

This is a beautifully shot film that presents Seattle and one of Puget Sound's island communities in mist-laden muted technicolour. The film moves between indoor and outdoor scenes as the characters journey through their own inner hidden and then revealed vulnerabilities. It is good to see a low-tech, no special effects character film that is driven by the narrative and the performances of the actors. There are very few scenes with more than the three of them and the way the triangular relationships develop keeps the plot moving - although I felt it did get a little bogged down for five minutes in the middle. The ending is simply superb - I will say no more.

The characters are believable and the situation they confront displays human weakness and vulnerability in cringing detail. It is also a film about hope, forgiveness and reconciliation. The physical isolation of the location reinforces their shared sense of being alone. The ties of family and of siblings in particular forms a strong thread that runs through the story. Dealing with such deep and profound themes it would have been easy for the film to drown in slushy sentimentality or melodrama. Full credit goes to the Director Lynn Shelton and cast for avoiding the traps of cliche that the subject matter could have so easily delivered.

This film sets out a landscape of relationships that feels very contemporary - perhaps the kind of story Douglas Coupland might have written (in a Generation X sense). At times you can almost hear the pain and anguish being processed internally by the characters' emotional machinery as they try to come to terms with developments and attempt to find a way of moving on. This film engenders empathy from viewers as you accompany three people facing their own and each other's demons. It moved me to tears on a couple of occasions!

It is gentle and engaging, a treat. Do go and see it. I'll give it 8/10

Saturday, 16 June 2012


I've been reflecting on this for several days as I'm still not sure how to write it up. I know that ambiguity is a vital component if viewers are to be invited to use their imagination in making meaning of a narrative they engage with. However, for me, this film has too much ambiguity, leaves too much unexplained and contains too many lucky coincidences. Half the time I was thinking 'this is a really intelligent and realistic "prequel" to Alien' and the other half of the time I felt 'I was being suckered in to something that simply wants to keep the franchise running'.

From all the pre-release hype through to the way the title of the film appears on the screen in direct homage to Alien this is a a film that stands within the Alien family of movies. The extensive (and excellent) use of Giger's artwork for the Space Jockey's spacecraft and world tie the film visually into Alien. The fact that the film does not end with John Hurt walking into a field of Alien eggs means that its conclusion takes the narrative into another direction. If by prequel you expect a storyline that tells you how we got to the start of Alien, then this will probably leave you a little disappointed. If you are open to an exploration of the world of the Alien and its possible creator, then you will find this a hit!


In its own right, as much as any story contains flaws and ambiguity, Prometheus is a worthwhile film. The cast is strong and the performances are good - although Michael Fassbender's David is more like a synthesis of every android you've ever seen, wrapped up with the intonation and all the charm of HAL from 2001! Yes, there is a chest-bursting Alien emergence. Yes, it does have molecular acid for blood. However, the film also introduces us to Calamari on steroids and a life-cycle for the Alien that defies rational explanation.

Where the film does score big is in the way it sets out a series of metaphysical questions and then leaves them gently unresolved. I understand that Scott was toying with the idea of calling this film Paradise but that the name has been held-over for the sequel to Prometheus (if there is one). The film explores the origins of humanity and the journey the USS Prometheus makes is understood to be in response to an invitation to a distant planet. When they arrive, they happen to enter the atmosphere right on top of a massive domed structure which they enter and inside which they discover holographic ghost-like images, Space Jockeys in stasis and, unbeknown to them, thousands of Alien eggs which they somehow manage to activate into the next stage of their black gunk-oozing life-cycle.

The biology is certainly beyond my understanding - but that is where Sci-Fi comes into its own - it wouldn't be fiction otherwise! But quite how Dr Shaw (Noomi Rapace) manages to self-perform a Caesarian and then run off down the corridor, only doubling up in agony every 100 yards, eludes me - even with large self-administered doses of anaesthetic. A scene towards the end where she and Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) are trying to out-run catastrophe is more Keystone Cops slapstick that 21st Century Sci-Fi at its best! Yet, Dr Shaw's character has more than an echo of a certain Ellen Ripley about her.

The questions still remain:

  • How did David learn the Space Jockey language? 
  • How did he know they were planning to destroy earth? 
  • Why was the Space Jockey so violent and aggressive - wasn't he meant to be a higher life-form (even though his DNA matches human DNA 100%), or is aggression and violence where evolution is taking us?
  • What's with the Calamari on steroids?
  • Why did Vicker's allow Janek to push her buttons so thoroughly?
It's good to come away with questions - and I'm sure the ones I've raised simply demonstrate my own slow mind. However, this is a film worth seeing - I'll give it 7.5/10.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Adjustment Bureau

I watched this again last night and enjoyed it just as much as the first time. You can catch my initial review here.

It struck me more than ever that this clever adaptation of Philip K Dick's Adjustment Team first published in 1954 plays out the classic Christian theological dispute between freewill and predestination - a kind of up-to-date Arminius versus Calvin debate. (Or to be more accurate the followers of Arminianism versus the followers of Calvinism.) Wikipedia has some useful articles if you feel the need to check out the details - the best way in is perhaps here.

Originally I said that Agent Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie), whose interventions (or lack of,) bring about the situation that confronts David Norris (Matt Damon) was motivated by guilt. While that is still, I believe true in part, I have been persuaded that the feelings compel him to act out of compassion.  For me this is a much more satisfying way of reading the narrative.

It also sets up a dichotomy between believing that prayer might change the Chairman's plan - or that in pursuing freewill we can shape the future the Chairman invites us into. But that would be setting Calvinists against Arminianists again - and I don't want to do that (but it's good fun).

If you've not seen it - please do. It's a feel-good film with very little violence or swearing and only one brief and discreet sex scene - you don't get many films like this these days! Something for the men and the ladies too.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Four Lions

I caught up with this on disc last night. It is a film that for me provokes two clashing reactions which are never entirely able to reconcile themselves. It is a brave and inventive piece of cinema which is well conceived and well executed. I am left with questions about the wisdom of the subject matter.

First and foremost it is a comedy. Set in the Pakistani community of South Yorkshire, the story follows a group of British-born men who live by and use the vocabulary of radicalised jihadis. Apart from their rhetoric, they do not appear to engage with Islam or moslem culture in any serious way. They see their fight as one against oppression in general - it is unfocussed and lacks any specific target.

On a comedic level this film satirises the would-be terrorists more than it satirises their cause. On a social-commentary level it highlights the alienation felt by so many in Britain's immigrant communities. This is done in what feels like a very even-handed way, similar in lots of ways to aspects of the film Yasmin which I reviewed here. The dialogue in the film is razor-sharp and is at times very funny. It works as satire and makes part of British-Pakistani culture accessible to general viewers. (Viewers from outside Britain may struggle with some of the references.)

One of the most alarming aspects for me of the way the story is told, is the openness with which the central character Omar discusses his intentions with his wife and presents them in parable form to his son. The family offer a picture of a home filled with love, harmony and happiness and there is never any consideration of the consequences for his family if Omar 'succeeds'. They are living the dream that so many in their community (and others) seemingly aspire to. Perhaps this is an intended part of the parody of satire and my reading of it is simply too unsophisticated. If that's the case, forgive me.

I am left wondering how appropriate the subject of suicide bombing is for a comedy, in a world that experiences the painful consequences of such activities on a daily basis and in a country which is still raw from its own recent tragic experience. Tragic for the families of perpetrators and victims alike and for the links between our respective communities. As with any extremist, they are by definition never representative of the main-stream and we must remind ourselves of that continually.

Riz Ahmed stars as Omar and leads the disparate group turning in s strong performance. I'm sure we will see more of him. Kayvan Novak also turns in a very good performance as the confused Waj. As the film moves towards its climax the thought of suicide bombers detonating themselves in the midst of the London Marathon produces images that are too awful to dwell on.

For me the actual ending turned the whole film into something other than a comedy - perhaps that was the intention and perhaps that's why I feel deeply uncomfortable about the film as whole. Maybe something has pricked my conscience and if I work with it, a clearer understanding will come. Or maybe it simply remains unsuitable subject-matter for a comedy.

I'll give it 6/10.

Saturday, 2 June 2012


This is a film that viewers either warm to or are happy not to see a second time. This was about the sixth time I've seen it - so you know which camp I'm in! Whether or not you like this film, it is a bold project that paints a picture that contains a huge amount of detail - but on a huge canvas. At just over three hours long it might invite criticism of being too long. I think that is not the case. The story moves at a constant and quick pace and the editing is superb. There is simply no chance for boredom to set in.

The premise of the film is straightforward. Set in the anonymous suburbia of Los Angeles over a single day, the film weaves together the lives and experiences of 10 people. All of the people either have something to hide or something to fear. Some are good people, some mixed up and some not so good, some just starting out in life, others nearing life's end. It presents a series of character studies and whilst this particular set of somewhat extreme circumstances probably wouldn't all coincide in one neighbourhood on one day, the film retains sufficient realsim and the characters have sufficient depth and strength to carry it off.

This film explores a wide range of emotions and the top-drawer ensemble cast deliver a host of strong performances. Julianne Moore's character Linda leaves you breathless as she hurtles towards guilt-ridden breakdown. Tom Cruise's Frank T J Mackey delivers a character to loathe whilst John C Reilly's Jim Kurring and Melora Walters' Claudia deliver characters to love. Phillip Seymour Hoffman's nurse Phil Parma is filled with wise empathy and anchors the chaos that unfolds around him. The four dogs are a master-stroke.

Rather than trying to present a day-in-the-life of an LA suburb, this film presents a series of events that are possible and that includes the regularly updated weather reports. Towards the end the film presents precipitation of Biblical plague proportions when the sky rains massive toads - an amphibian deluge that wreaks havoc. As child prodigy Stanley observes - unlikely but possible.

If you've not seen this please invest 3:08 hours and see it. If you've seen it and liked it, it's time to see it again. This is a masterful film that shows more and more depth with each viewing. The soundtrack by Aimee Mann is also something to cherish (Oscar nominated) as well as the other songs dropped into the film - they all add extra depth to already deep film.

As you might have gathered - I like this film. I'm giving it 8.5/10

J. Edgar

As an ageing Director of the FBI nears the end of his tenure, he dictates his memoires to a young agent. This is a straightforward biopic depicting the life of the creator an long-time Director of the FBI - J Edgar Hoover. In the title role is Leonardo DiCaprio who delivers a convincing and consistent performance of a man who was enslaved to his drivenness. He is ably supported by Naomi Watts who plays his life-long PA Helen Gandy and less ably supported by Arnie Hammer who appears as one of the Winklevi from Social Network - rather than Clyde Tolson, Hoover's assistant (it doesn't help that as Tolson ages his make-up becomes less convincing!).

In the retelling of history - particularly recent history, there will always be a divergence of opinion. That Hoover remained in post and worked under so many Presidents is testimony to his own political skills and also the confidential files he kept on all who held public office. From the threat of Communist revolutionaries in the 1920s through to the Nixon era, the film shows a bewildering passage of history as the infant nation seeks to establish a sense of identity.

Another strong performance comes from Dame Judy Dench who plays Hoover's mother, Annie. Fearing for her son's well-being and wary of his latent homosexuality, she even teaches him to dance so that he can appropriately court young ladies. When Helen Gandy turns up in the secretarial pool of the agency something is kindled in Hoover's heart but she rebuffs him citing dedication to the agency and the need to remain focussed. It is Clyde Tolson who becomes his permanent companion and Deputy and the film gently allows for the possibility of a life-long gay encounter to simmer throughout. There have been many disputes about Hoover's sexual orientation and activities that cover almost the entire possible spectrum. (For a precis look him up in wikipedia.)

Much of the story has to do with the battle between federal and provincial jurisdiction as The USA works out what it is to be nation. The film also highlights the origins of modern forensic science and its development as a tool to fight crime. It is, for me, these aspects rather than the characters we are presented with which are the more interesting!

This is a plodding retelling of someone's life with the emphasis on putting the 'right' interpretation and gloss on events that history will record in a variety of (conflicting) ways. The methods and achievements highlight the best and worst aspects of America's story. At 137 minutes it is too long. Clint Eastwood's direction is as strong as ever, but there is simply too much stuff in the story line which at the end of the day makes it feel like and apology for a national hero the nation loves but has never really understood.

The performances from DiCaprio, Watts and Dench are top drawer - but they cannot redeem what is an over-long, plodding and at times uninteresting film. I'll give 6/10.