Thursday 31 December 2009

Best Films of 2009

Bearing in mind that I haven’t seen every movie released in the UK this year, here are the top 20 films that have made such an impression that I can fearlessly call them the best of the year, plus links to my extended thoughts on them where available:

1. The White Ribbon
Simply peerless filmmaking. I have no doubt that the second time I watch this there will be a thousand things I didn’t notice the first time, which will leave me even more amazed at Haneke’s artistic control and accomplishment.

2. Up
Probably the most universally brilliant film of the year. Wonderful storytelling and brilliant characterisation combined in a truly life-affirming tale.

3. Fish Tank
Bruised and beautiful. Read my full review here.

4. Che
Steven Soderbergh’s two part epic is an amazing fimmmaking achievement, with a career-best performance from Benicio Del Toro.

5. Bright Star
Romantic perfection. Read my full review here.

6. Star Trek
The best film of the blockbuster season by a million light years, this confirms JJ Abrams as the popcorn director of the 21st century. Eat that, Spielberg!

7. Moon
Duncan Jones low-budget sci-fi gets everything right, from the classic genre feel to Sam Rockwell’s moving performance(s).

8. The Wrestler
Mickey Rourke should have won the Oscar; his performance gave wonderful depth and reality to Darren Aronofsky’s beautiful broken-down character study.

9. Coraline
The kind of children’s film that I thought they didn’t make any more; properly scary and imaginative and with a fearless heroine, brought to amazing life in painstaking stop-motion.

10. A Serious Man
Life’s biggest questions, confronted as only the Coen Brothers can. Read my full review here.

11. Burma VJ
12. The Hurt Locker
13. Inglourious Basterds

14. Synecdoche, New York

15. Rachel Getting Married

16. Slumdog Millionaire

17. The Class

18. Monsters Vs. Aliens

19. Zombieland

20. Let The Right One In

And the worst? No contest, it’s got to be Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. 160 plus minutes of meaningless rubbish that fails on every level. Michael Bay, please retire now!

Here’s to another great year at the movies in 2010.

Friday 18 December 2009

Radio Scotland Movie Café: Avatar review

I had the pleasure of being asked back on to the Movie Cafe this week, to review arguably the biggest movie of 2009, James Cameron's Avatar. I was discussing the film with fellow film critic Nigel Floyd and the show's host Janice Forsyth. Click the link below to listen:

Paul Gallagher - Avatar (opens in a new window)

We all agreed that the $300 million plus epic was a must-see cinema experience, offering awesome visuals quite unlike anything previously seen on film, particularly in the amazingly believable CG imagery. I was a little more critical than Janice and Nigel on the films flaws, particularly the lack of drive to the story in the film's first half, and the uninteresting characters that Cameron had populated this eye-popping world with, but would still urge anyone with an interest in cinema to check out this significant movie event at the biggest screen possible.

Friday 4 December 2009


Adapted from J.M. Coetzee’s acclaimed novel, this is an admirably complex film, in which director Steve Jacobs successfully presents a scenario with no easy solutions, but fails to tell a really compelling story. John Malkovich plays David, a South African university lecturer who is discovered carrying on an affair with a student and is forced to resign his post. Seemingly unrepentant, but accepting that he cannot stay in Cape Town, he decides to go and live with his estranged daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines) on her remote farm on the opposite side of the country. He begins settling down and trying to rebuild some kind of relationship with his daughter, but this fledgling peace is soon burst open by a brutal act of violence.

David is a puzzle, and difficult to even begin to try and understand; he behaves badly, but we are kept from simply hating him by Malkovich’s excellent performance. He gives very little away about David’s internal life, making him recognisably human, but such an impenetrable central character is tough to stay interested in, and while there are clearly deeper layers to David, Jacobs never lets us find them. Jacobs is interested in exploring some of contemporary South Africa’s biggest social problems though, and particularly through the character of Lucy, he very effectively shows the broken state that this nation is in. As often happens with literary adaptations, Jacobs introduces several themes and characters that are introduced but not fully developed, and the film is often a frustrating experience as a result.

Me and Orson Welles: Richard Linklater interview (

Richard Linklater, Orson Welles and William Shakespeare: not three names that usually come up in conversation together. Linklater is a prolific director who has managed to forge an enviably balanced career of indie hits like Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise with more mainstream successes, notably School of Rock starring Jack Black. But his isn't the first name that springs to mind when considering who might direct a film focusing on Welles's Mercury Theatre production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in 1930s New York. So it's refreshing to report that Me and Orson Welles, Linklater's latest film, does exactly that, and to great success too. It's warm and witty, pitched at just the right level to engage Welles' aficionados and newcomers alike, and it boasts a standout performance from newcomer Christian McKay as the big man with the big cigar. As well as McKay, the film stars High School Musical's Zac Efron, another eyebrow-raising name in such hallowed grounds of film history. We spoke to Linklater about how this unlikely troupe came together and the experience of making the film...

What was the initial appeal of this film for you?
The book by Robert Kaplow is a wonderful historical fiction, a recreation of that moment in Welles’s life, seen through the young guy’s eyes. It was just a very charming book, and as a filmmaker, that depiction of Welles at that moment was a real challenge.

With a title like Me & Orson Welles I’m guessing the film must have hinged on finding the Orson Welles?
I wasn’t gonna do this movie if I didn’t find the right actor, but I didn’t have anyone in mind, as it’s such a hard part to cast. I remember theorising to my colleagues back in the US, “you know who our Welles is? He’s probably on stage in London doing Shakespeare right now, some guy who has a resemblance to him, that’s who we have to really look for”. And about 5 weeks later I get an email – this guy’s doing a little one-man show in New York. And the fact that Christian is unknown was even more magical, because you’re not sitting there judging the actor; it allows you to feel more that you’re hanging out with Orson Welles in 1936. I think that can be wonderful when it happens, and particularly with a personality as big as Welles, it’s only better that Christian is fresh.

How did Zac Efron get involved? Was it difficult to get him in a smallish movie?
Well, he played a supporting role in Hairspray, and I think of he and Christian as the co-stars of the movie; it’s his movie. But anyway, I heard he liked the script a lot, and I wanted to meet him. And I sat down with him, and less than 20 seconds into our conversation I knew I had found my young Richard. I go by my instincts, and he had all that innocence, and yet he’s really smart and knowing - he fit the role perfectly. I didn’t want a neutral character who would just disappear. He had to go toe to toe with Welles, and I think Zac is a worthy opponent, he maybe out-duels him there for a second in the movie. And Zac has that quality. I think he’s a real star.

So from such an American story, how did you end up filming on the Isle of Man?
We’re all nomads as filmmakers; you go where you can make your film. If you go to West 41st Street now in New York City, there’s a huge office building there and you would never know what it used to look like by its modern standard. And it’s too expensive to shoot there anyway, so as a filmmaker you just see where it might work. And in the Isle of Man they had this beautiful old theatre, the Gaiety Theatre, built around the same time as the Mercury Theatre. I visited it, and the stage was the right dimensions, they had that wonderful understage area so we could make that work. And that allowed us to shoot half the movie there, because half of it was inside the theatre. I didn’t need their beautiful scenery, which I think is why most people go to the Isle of Man to film, but us being in the theatre allowed them [Isle of Man Film] to be the main producer on the film. Every film is a bit of a puzzle to piece together, so I felt very lucky to be over there.

Did you organise directing the play within the film separately from the period aspect of the film?
They are two separate elements, you have to approach them differently. In one they’re putting on a play, it’s Julius Caesar, you have the exact text. That’s its own production and then there’s all the rehearsals that are leading up to it. So that was the big challenge for me. There were a lot of notes, which helped, as I was recreating a historical production, so that gave me some grounding, and I worked with a wonderful Shakespeare dramaturge from the Globe Theatre, Giles Block, and he helped me enormously. We shot all the stage elements first and then we came over [to Pinewood] to do the rest. So as they walk up the aisle and out the door, we cut to four weeks later at Pinewood studios and they’re walking through a little façade. It was a puzzle that had to be pre-planned.

Had you ever directed any Shakespeare before?
Not technically. When I was 12 I directed our Junior High production of Julius Caesar, believe it or not. I think I had about a 180-degree different interpretation of the play than Orson had – you shouldn’t kill Caesar! Those are bad guys – but there you go. It’s kind of a joke, but it’s funny looking back in your life and you can connect the dots. Even then as a kid I didn’t want to audition as an actor, but felt that I should be working with the sets, and working with the actors and costumes and staging; I should just be in charge!

Jools Holland and Eddie Reader feature in the film’s live band sequence. How did that come about?
Some of my favourite moments really in this whole process were sitting in Jools Holland’s living room, listening to him play. I’d been introduced to him and we had this live performance section, and he loves this period of music; it was just this wonderful collaboration with him and his band. And he brought Eddie Reader on board, so the music was just a joy to work on.

The industry has changed so much since Welles’s time – can visionaries like him still exist, or are independent filmmakers like yourself always at the whim of number-crunchers as opposed to artists?
Well I think yes, you are in that position in terms of getting your film green-lit. That’s the hard part, but once the film’s financed I’ve always felt this incredible amount of freedom and support, whether from a studio or whoever’s producing the movie. I mean, there’s always limitations; budget, schedule and you’re under a certain deadline, so those are obvious pressures. But I’ve never felt accountants or anyone interfering with a movie. I think people make a bigger deal of that than there really is.

Me and Orson Welles is released on Friday 4th December. This interview first published on

Wednesday 2 December 2009

The Girlfriend Experience

If you count both parts of Che as separate films, this is Steven Soderbergh’s fourth film to hit UK cinemas this year; not bad going for a director who began 2009 being (mis-)quoted saying he was soon to retire. The Girlfriend Experience sits firmly in Soderbergh’s ‘experimental’ pile, as it’s shot in a very immediate handheld digital style, and features porn star Sasha Grey in the lead role. Her character, Chelsea, makes her living from giving wealthy clients the experience of the title: company, conversation, sex and whatever else they want. Soderbergh parallels Chelsea and another character, Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer who is working equally hard to make a name for himself in his industry; we discover the reason for this parallel later.

Grey, fully clothed for most of the film, gives a beguiling performance, showing little emotion and offering only a few hints as to Chelsea’s reasons for doing what she does. Soderbergh is interested in presenting life as a series of transactions, with everyone trying to earn their keep with what they have. Explicitly set in the context of the current financial crisis, it makes for compelling, provocative viewing.


The Descent: Part 2

Neil Marshall’s excellent 2005 horror The Descent wasn’t exactly crying out for a sequel, in fact the ending that we saw in UK cinemas (changed in the US) pretty much put a full stop on the story. But a film producer’s power of selective amnesia knows no limits, so we’re being served this second helping of underground terror whether it makes sense or not. This time it’s helmed by the first film’s editor, Jon Harris, with Marshall overseeing as an executive producer.

Essentially it’s a re-run of the first film, but in a straight comparison this film is weaker in every respect. Where Marshall spent time establishing characters and creating inter-group tensions that gave the mounting horror emotional depth, Harris can’t wait to get his paper-thin characters down into the caves and start killing them off. Similarly, this second part has none of the original’s unknown quantities, as we already know that once the group get into the caves it’s only a matter of time before the monsters from part one appear to kill them in grisly ways. It’s efficiently made, and there are some effectively gruesome deaths, but the film can be accurately summed up as more of the same, only nowhere near as good.


Sunday 29 November 2009

Nativity! (

This is a very likeable film from Confetti director Debbie Isitt; a piece of festive fun that will genuinely keep the whole family entertained. Martin Freeman stars as Mr Maddens, a Scrooge-like primary teacher who is tasked with directing his school’s annual Nativity play, assisted by his childishly hyperactive classroom assistant Mr Poppy.

Finding himself backed into a corner by rival school Nativity director Mr Shakespeare, Maddens makes up a story that his ex-girlfriend (Ashley Jensen), now working in America and no longer in touch, is going to bring ‘Hollywood’ to Coventry to see his school’s show. Unfortunately the lie finds its way to Maddens’s understandably elated head teacher (Pam Ferris), and Maddens is forced to pull together a spectacular show while simultaneously trying to figure out how to break the news that no movie execs are going to be descending on the town any time soon.

While Freeman’s inevitable transition to Christmas-loving school show director is never in doubt, and we know from the start that things will all turn out fine in the end, the real charm of the film lies in the children, who are given plenty of screen-time as the story focuses on auditions and rehearsals for the show. Isitt’s improvisational style yields many funny scenes, as well as a few affectingly emotional moments between Mr Maddens and his pupils. The hilarious interactions between Freeman and the child actors are so effective, in fact, that the film noticeably loses pace whenever Isitt’s focus shifts to the far less exciting romantic subplot.

Fortunately the supporting cast overflows with comedy talent, and each one is given their moment to shine. Mark Wootton’s guileless Mr Poppy is a hilarious and all-too-real creation, while Jason Watkins steals every scene he appears in as private school prima donna Gordon Shakespeare (his school’s ‘daring’ take on the Nativity is one of the film’s funniest moments). Alan Carr as a sandwich-guzzling newspaper critic is less inspired, but still good for a few chuckles.

It is a shame that Isitt pushes the film into overly sentimental territory for the last 20 minutes. Personally I found it too sickly-sweet in comparison to the hilarious and cheese-free earlier scenes, although I suspect it might be just the kind of heart-warming send-off that many audience members will want.

Nativity! is in UK cinemas now. This review published first on

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Martin Freeman: Child's Play (

is a new comedy from the mind of Debbie Isitt, made using a similar improvisational style, and some of the same cast members, as her previous film, the mock documentary Confetti. As the title suggests, this one has a festive theme, specifically focusing on a Christmas-hating primary school teacher played by Martin Freeman, who is tasked with turning around his school’s reputation for poor Christmas shows and putting on a spectacular Nativity. Freeman is no stranger to the world of improv comedy, having made his name in hit BBC series The Office, and worked previously with Isitt as one of Confetti’s ensemble cast. We spoke to him about the challenges of working with children, his thoughts on primary school teachers and the enduring appeal of the Nativity story…

It’s interesting that there’s no screenplay credit for this film. How does it work – does Debbie explain what she wants or is it all completely improvised?

Yeah she does explain. This, probably more so than Confetti, was more explained and locked down. In Confetti, in the course of a scene if characters decided to take it in any direction, that’s where the scene and the story went, within reason. But with this it was more “you have to get from A to Z, saying this, we need to plot that, and at some point someone needs to say that”. Debbie likes the uncertainty, and I think she has enough respect for actors, as good a screenwriter as she is, and she likes to let unexpected things happen that may be, hopefully, better than what she would have had in mind.

So, is Nativity a British answer to the High School Musical phenomenon?

Well, it’s a fair question because there is an obvious comparison to be made there, but I think, with these children, it is a bit more accessible. It is a bit more – for want of a better word, in a film that’s got bloody live camels in a nativity play – real. Okay, it’s not Ken Loach, but you do see kids messing up, you do see kids failing. They haven’t all arrived like mini stars, you see the real experience of it being good or bad or whatever it is. You see the real charm.

How was it trying to hold your own against so many little scene-stealers?

I’m more than happy to have scenes stolen by them, because after all, whatever makes the film right, you know? And Debbie was adamant from the outset that not only did she want a child-friendly film, but she wanted very much a film that all the family could see, including young ones. As far as I’m concerned, the star of the film is the children, that group, and that’s the real overriding thing that you come away with. So fortunately in this case I was very happy to be gazumped.

Did making the film give you a newfound respect for primary teachers?

I’ve always had a great respect for anyone who wants to get in a room with thirty-odd children, and not kill them. It gave me more of an idea of how difficult it would be, certainly, but no, I’ve always had concrete respect for them. I don’t think I have the patience to be a primary school teacher. All the stuff at the start of the film where my character is not in love with the world and he’s grumpy; that wasn’t all acting. That was verité. And I’m a dad in real life, so I also drew a lot on my own experience as a dad to get those high-pitched shouts!

Did you put on an actual nativity play?

Yeah, we had to rehearse a lot more than you see in the finished film. We were there for hours and hours going through the choreography and the songs and everything. It was testing., and I definitely drew on my own abilities, or otherwise, to corral children. But I haven’t got thirty children; I’ve got less than that! So there’d be times when I’d be trying to appeal to the older ones, to sort of set a good example, which worked sometimes. And other times they would do what children are supposed to do, kind of arse about a bit.

As a parent, have you had many painful experiences watching awful school plays?

I do genuinely think there’s something about watching children doing almost anything that is forgivable, no matter how terrible or otherwise it should be. There’s something about the innocence of children trying their best, and not being that knowing, that’s quite charming really. It is one of the things that I really love about this film; it reminds you of watching your own children do stuff. And yes, normally there aren’t real camels at the Christmas play, but I think it still holds true, there is something undeniably emotional about watching children, your own especially, but any children I think. There’ll be a lot of people in bits as soon as this film starts. I was when I saw it, because it’s real; it’s not kids pretending to be kids, they’re really there trying their best, and however that turns out I find it very moving.

Would you encourage your own children into acting?
I wouldn’t actively encourage or discourage them from this life. Both me and my other half are actors and, while of course there are hard bits to it, it’s a good life and I’m thankful to it every day. But I think if you’re the children of actors you don’t need encouragement – you’ve got a bit of it in you. So I’m just gonna see where that goes with mine.

Would you consider following your Nativity co-star Ashley Jensen and moving to the US to work?
It’s interesting, Debbie definitely wanted someone for that role that looked, to a British audience, like they had ‘crossed over’ to America. So she wanted that parallel to be drawn with Ashley, quite clearly. Personally, I would crawl over broken glass to work on something good, wherever, but I never wanted to go over to the States and just wait around for work. As any actor will tell you, you can stay here and do that! I’ve worked in the States a couple of times, but I’ve got a family, and I have a responsibility I think, to not necessarily do that to them. You know, whatever you want out of LA, your family might not want that too.

What do you think is the continual appeal for retelling the Nativity story?

I think it’s a great tradition, and it’s great that it carries on. I really do think it’s the greatest story ever told, and this is just the first bit! I am a sucker for the whole story, and I’ll hear it any which way, because I’m endlessly fascinated by the myth and the truth, and every part of it. It’s a really, really good story, and I think that there are great truths in it: that great things happen to the smallest, tiniest person, and the least likely child or person ends up elevated to the highest status. If that’s not a great parable, or way to think about life, then I don’t know what is.

Nativity! is released in UK cinemas on 27th November. This feature first published on

Law Abiding Citizen (

This slab of big, dumb, glossy pap has an interesting idea at its core. The innocent man wronged is a movie mainstay, and we’ve seen his kind battling against the odds for some kind of personal justice time and again. But what if, unlike Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, or Tom Cruise in Minority Report, the wronged man lost his own sense of right and wrong somewhere along the way, and became an amoral monster, driven to mete out disproportionate measures of wrath to anyone and everyone? If it were done well, that could be a pretty terrifying movie. If it were done badly, it would be Law Abiding Citizen.

The film positively glistens with stupidity from its opening moments. If director F. Gary Gray’s lack of interest in believable characters isn’t obvious from the speed with which Gerard Butler’s motivation is supposedly established, it becomes unmissable after Jamie Foxx’s lawyer appears on the scene, making some ridiculous and irrational choices that conveniently fuel Butler’s growing sense of injustice. Cut to 10 years later and Butler’s had time to set up so many elaborate ways of killing people that even Saw’s Jigsaw would stand up and applaud.

Granted, there is a certain amount of mindless fun to be had with this kind of film. I enjoy seeing Butler get his maniacal grimace on and deliver lines like “I’ll kill everyone… it’s gonna be biblical” as much as the next Spartan. But when Viola Davis, who gave a jaw-dropping, Oscar-nominated single-scene performance in last year’s Doubt, is so inexcusably wasted by a director as she is here, then we are dealing with something much more dangerous than a mere guilty pleasure. This is an all-out assault on decent cinema.

You can actually feel yourself losing intelligence as Law Abiding Citizen moves interminably towards its meaningless conclusion, and my advice, if you have the misfortune to end up in a theatre where it's playing, is get out while you can. Avoid this drivel at all costs.


Law Abiding Citizen is in UK cinemas from 27th November. This review first appeared on

Wednesday 18 November 2009

A Serious Man (

A reference to Rabbinic Judaism may seem an odd place to start a review of the new Coen Brothers movie, but bear with me. The Jewish tradition is one of long discussion, mulling over questions, telling stories and seeking to grow in wisdom through these exchanges. It’s the tradition that Joel and Ethan Coen have clearly grown up in, and if A Serious Man is their genuine response, they don’t seem too happy about it. I’m fully aware that I’m on dangerous ground here, as nothing is straightforward when the Coen Brothers are concerned, and making judgments about their films’ meanings is not advised. This is probably even more true than usual in the case of A Serious Man, a film that’s as difficult as it is brilliant.

Unlike the pure idiot-mockery of Burn After Reading, or the detached precision of No Country For Old Men, this film feels personal, and therefore complicated. Like every Coen Brothers film it is populated with unforgettable characters who are flawlessly performed and, in their beautifully-drawn idiosyncracies, very funny. But if all you do is laugh at them you could miss the fact that they are dealing with some of life’s most serious (there’s that word again) questions.

From its bizarre yet perfectly ominous pre-credits sequence onwards, the film is about uncertainty: how can a person be sure of anything in this world? And further, when there seems to be no guiding principle as to why one person suffers and another’s life is ‘blessed’, what is the right way to live? Is God there and is he interested? Why aren’t there any answers?

The Coens put these questions primarily in the mouth and mind of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish physics professor who has the rug well and truly yanked from under him when his wife tells him she wants a divorce. Not only that, she is already planning to get re-married to Larry’s friend Sy, a patronising bear of a man, so they require a ‘get’. What’s a get? You may well ask, as many do, in one of the script’s recurring comic asides.

These are just the beginnings of Larry’s troubles, and the way the Coens add layer upon layer to this story is masterful indeed. When Larry reaches the point of not knowing if he’s dreaming or awake, we feel the same confusion. Similarly accomplished is the discipline and focus of the filmmakers: every scene centres on the whys and hows of life; every character clearly offers a different way of coping, or not, with the tension that these questions create.

It’s reasonable to ask whether the Coens are really interested in these questions in the world beyond this film. They have created these characters and are the ‘god’ of this world. They see all, and can decide where Larry’s life is going to go, regardless of his actions. The film’s final moments are quite terrifying in what they suggest, but they also could represent the Coens saying “there is one thing we can be sure of – we are in charge of this world, and we can do whatever we want with it”. Perhaps that’s the only sure conclusion A Serious Man can offer.


A Serious Man is released in the UK on 20 November. This review first published on

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Cold Souls (

Is your soul weighing you down? Paul Giamatti finds that he answers ‘yes’ to that question in an early scene of this funny and thoughtful debut from writer/director Sophie Barthes. Giamatti (his character is an actor called Paul Giamatti – not the only Kaufmanesque element to the film) discovers that help is at hand in the form of a ‘soul-extraction’ agency based in his very own New York City. “When you get rid of the soul”, explains Soul Storage guru Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), “everything makes so much more sense, and becomes more functional and purposeful.” Paul decides to give it a go, and initially finds himself relieved: lighter. But he soon discovers that along with his soul he has lost the ability to act, a problem made all the more pertinent when his soul goes missing from its storage locker.

Barthes has set herself a very ambitious, if not impossible goal, in telling a story that takes the essentially indefinable human soul as its central subject. What is most impressive then, is how enjoyable and entertaining Cold Souls is, in that she tackles this subject in a way that is considered and meaningful but, more significantly, very funny. While Barthes offers plenty to chew on for those who enjoy pondering such things, her film works equally well as an absurd comedy; she has obviously learned from Woody Allen’s films that if you want to seriously attack the biggest questions of life, your best ammunition is a ready stash of jokes. And although on a few occasions she seems on the verge of whirling into philosophical irrelevances, each time she throws in a new plot twist that pulls focus back onto the character and his plight.

She’s invaluably aided by Giamatti, who brilliantly handles the demands of the role, investing a perfect balance of sincerity and humour into what could easily have been a ridiculous scenario. Emily Watson is also great in a small role as Giamatti’s wife Claire, the plain normality of her performance serving to keep the fantastical story grounded. When Giamatti finally confesses to her what has happened she responds with believable incredulity, and we find ourselves identifying with her in spite of the inherently absurd situation.

There are clear overlaps with Barthes’s ideas and methods and the kinds of themes that Charlie Kaufman has so uniquely explored from Being John Malkovich onwards, but Barthes’s film is no rip-off. Where Kaufman’s works tend towards pessimism, Barthes is ultimately interested in finding a hopeful conclusion to this soulish exploration. Her story keeps us laughing, but it also subtly digs into more profound areas, concluding with what could be the beginning of a beautiful, soulful, friendship.


Cold Souls is released in the UK on 13 November. This review originally appeared on

Sunday 8 November 2009

Bright Star (

This period drama from Jane Campion, director of The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady, dramatises the short, chaste and intense romance between the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his neighbour, the seamstress Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), in the three years leading up to his death from tuberculosis aged only 25. While Campion’s previous films have had a cold precision about them (not necessarily a bad thing), Bright Star is the complete opposite: warm, achingly romantic and sometimes breathtaking in its visual beauty. It is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year.

The central relationship is set up with a feisty meeting between Fanny and an equally self-confident Keats, in which she gives an outspoken critique of one of his poems. After this confrontational meeting there is a clear attraction between them, but Campion concentrates on getting beneath the characters’ surfaces, spending a lot of time on quieter moments between them, capturing looks and touches that speak much louder than their words.

The love between Fanny and Keats is under attack from the moment it begins, most forcefully from Keats’s fellow poet Brown (Paul Schneider), who seems to harbour a jealous love of his own, fearing that Fanny will destroy his and Keats’s pure creative partnership. Both Whishaw and Schneider play the idealistic Romantics without a hint of irony, sternly telling their neighbours not to disturb them, even if they seem not to be working, because “thinking is our working; we are opening ourselves up to inspiration”. There is great pleasure to be had in watching these ‘men from another time’ so fervently pursuing what they see as their duty to the world.

Campion, as both writer and director, presents the affair itself as a Romantic poem brought to life, moving from one extreme of emotion to the next. From Fanny’s absolute contentment as she sits in a field reading a letter from Keats, to her inconsolable weeping as she hears of his death, each moment is captured and created with affecting immediacy. Credit must also go to the film’s director of photography Greig Fraser and composer Mark Bradshaw, as so much of Bright Star’s power comes from the mood that their combined work so successfully evokes.

All of Campion’s efforts would have been fruitless though, had she lacked a lead actress capable of being the ‘bright star’ that Keats wrote so fondly of. But Abbie Cornish really does shine under the camera’s lingering gaze, conveying Fanny’s clear-eyed love, longing and passion. Her performance is the highlight of this true cinematic pleasure.


Bright Star is out now in UK cinemas. This review originally published on

Thursday 5 November 2009

Jennifer's Body (

When Juno became such a huge hit in 2007, it announced the arrival of several exciting new talents, the most heralded of whom was the film’s writer, Diablo Cody. Cody went on to win that year’s screenwriting Oscar, and wasted no time in getting on with more work: writing a very well-received, Spielberg-produced TV series called United States of Tara, and developing a handful of film scripts while seemingly keeping many more ideas swilling around in her mind. Jennifer’s Body is the first of these scripts to make it to the screen, and while it is unmistakeably from the same witty and culturally aware mind as Juno, it falls short of the high bar that Cody set for herself with that excellent debut.

Jennifer’s Body is, on the surface at least, another high-school horror movie. And with FHM’s favourite lust-object Megan Fox in the role of Jennifer, along with that suggestive title, it would be natural to expect the kind of bog-standard pervy exploitation that contemporary ‘horror’ tends to present as entertainment. But apart from one shamelessly gratuitous girl-on-girl kissing scene, this is not what Jennifer’s Body offers. The problem is that neither Cody nor director Karyn Kusama seem sure of what they want this film to be instead. It’s funny in parts, but not consistently so; it dabbles in Lynchian weirdness, but never fully commits; it’s fairly gory, but lacks any proper scary bits.

Retold to us by Needy (Amanda Seyfried), the plainer best friend of Jennifer, chief cheerleader and object of desire at their small-town high school, the story concerns Jennifer’s transformation from metaphorical to literal man-eater after a tragic fire destroys the town’s only bar during a busy gig night. Needy relates events from the women’s prison we first find her in, beginning with the great line “hell is a teenage girl”. Cody’s idea of paralleling female adolescence with demon-possession shows that she understands how powerful the horror genre can be, but her tendency to defuse situations with annoyingly quirky dialogue undercuts the film’s potential to genuinely disturb an audience.

Similarly, Cody introduces an interesting subtext about the irrational extremes people can go to in the aftermath of tragedies, but keeps it fairly buried and undeveloped. The one element of the film that really works is the slow reveal of just what has caused Jennifer’s transformation, thanks to a very funny joke concerning a no-hoper indie band and a great deadpan performance from Adam Brody as the lead singer. To go into any more detail would spoil the gag, but it certainly made me chuckle. That idea shares the spark of originality that pervaded Juno, and hopefully there will be more of it in evidence in whatever Cody does next.


Jennifer's Body is in UK cinemas from 6 November. This review originally appeared on

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Film Education: The Wave

Today I was at the Cameo cinema in Edinburgh to take part in an event organised by Film Education as part of National Schools Film Week. I introduced a screening of The Wave, the 2008 film from German director Dennis Gansel, for a group of about 40-50 secondary school students, and also led a brief discussion with them after the film. I've been wanting to get involved in doing things like this for a while, so when Film Education got in touch with me I jumped at the chance.

The screening seemed to go very well, and it was evident from their contributions to the post-screening discussion that most of the pupils (all 4th-6th years) had really engaged with the film while they were watching it, and picked up on Gansel's intentions. The Wave is actually a great film with which to introduce mainstream cinema-goers to foreign language films, as it is fast-paced and stylishly shot, but there's real substance beneath its flashy surfaces. It focuses on a schoolteacher who decides to teach his students about autocracy by running the class according to the principles of a fascist regime, and explores the way in which this project affects everyone involved. The story is based on a novel that was itself based on a real event – or experiment – that a teacher called Ron Jones did with his students in a California high school in 1967, and the results that we see in the film are quite disturbing, and apparently very similar to what happened in the real life situation.

I think it's great that Film Education put these screenings on for free for schools, as they very effectively present film as being much more than just a 'switching-off' form of entertainment for the audiences who come along. This is important for the generation that's growing up right now, as they are constantly bombarded with entertainment purely for its own sake. It was evident from my experience today that young people will gladly embrace film for its potential to provoke discussion and allow them to see the world through fresh eyes, and I'm keen to be involved in encouraging that kind of film-watching wherever possible.

Here is a great Guardian article on the real event that The Wave is based on.

Here's my original review of The Wave on
, although I think I have less of a problem with its 'based-on-truth' claims now than I seemed to then!

Sunday 25 October 2009

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant (

Vampires are so hot right now. From Twilight to True Blood to countless cinematic variations on the blood-sucking theme, it seems not a week goes by without another soulful, sexy and oh-so-serious member of the undead appearing to glam up our screens. Even Oscar-winning writer Diablo “Juno” Cody is getting in on the act, with her forthcoming teen-horror Jennifer’s Body, starring the inescapable Megan Fox as a pointy-toothed temptress. And now here’s Cirque du Freak, from American Pie director Paul Weitz, adapted from yet another bestselling teen fiction series, adding yet another vampire to the pile.

But Crepsley, ringmaster of the titular Cirque, is markedly different to the aforementioned hot young things: firstly, he’s played by John C. Reilly, more famous for great character acting than chiselled abs, and secondly, he’s really quite funny. When he deadpans to Darren, the teenager at the centre of this story, that being a vampire is “deeply depressing”, there’s a definite sense of Twilight’s bubble of angst being gleefully burst. “Wanna become a vampire?” he continues, “it’s a lonely life, but there’s lots of it”. Reilly, looking like an undead Bob Dylan with his explosive hairstyle and rock-star wardrobe, has great fun with this character, and Cirque du Freak is very entertaining whenever he’s onscreen.

Unfortunately, as the title suggests, this story is not actually about Crepsley, but rather focuses on Darren, the lethargic teen who, through various interminable plot contrivances, becomes a half-vampire so he can be Crespley’s assistant. Darren is played by Chris Massoglia, who put me in mind of a teenage Zach Braff; he exudes none of Braff’s wit and all of his whiney irritability. This would be fine if Cirque du Freak placed Darren in an exciting adventure, but after initially setting up his transformation and introducing a host of interesting support characters, the film becomes very unclear about where it is going or why we should be interested.

Weitz, who did such a great job of transferring Nick Hornby's About A Boy to the screen, here fails to convey the overarching narrative of the Cirque du Freak books. An early brief appearance from Willem Dafoe as an old friend of Reilly’s allows for some suggestion of a great battle between two warring races of vampires, but it’s not clear what bearing this is supposed to have on the ensuing story, or where Darren fits in this bigger picture.

But despite not offering a clear storyline for an audience to hold on to, Weitz handles his cast well and packs in a lot of funny jokes, so Cirque du Freak just about gets by. As well as the excellent Reilly, Patrick Fugit is funny as the guitar-playing Snake Boy, and Salma Hayek is disturbingly attractive as a bearded lady. Weitz and his co-writer Brian Helgeland also deserve commendation for pushing the dialogue about as far into the realms of black comedy as is possible while still aiming primarily at a young audience.


Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is out now. This review first appeared on

Friday 16 October 2009

Radio Scotland Movie Café: Doctor Parnassus review

I was back on The Movie Café with Janice Forsyth this week to review Terry Gilliam's new one, and it was a great fun discussion. It's a movie that would be easy to talk for a good 20 minutes about, so we only managed to skim the surface in the brief time available, but it's still worth a listen!

Listen to the review here:
Review: The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus by paulcgallagher

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (

The prospect of watching a Terry Gilliam film is often more satisfying than actually sitting down to experience it. He has a singular imagination and is able to come up with breathtaking visual concepts, but his films often demonstrate his weakness when it comes to threading these ideas together to produce coherent and meaningful stories. This same weakness is evident in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: Gilliam gleefully fills the screen with stunning and original images, but struggles to combine them in a way that makes sense.

While much of the attention around Imaginarium has focused on the fact of Heath Ledger’s untimely death halfway through production, the character he plays is not the central focus of the film. The story opens in contemporary London, where the titular Doctor (Christopher Plummer) is putting on a rather shambolic sideshow for the drunken post-clubbing crowd. Run by Parnassus and a handful of misfits, including his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and young dreamer Anton (Andrew Garfield), the travelling show appears to be little more than an eccentric diversion. That is until an inebriated volunteer accidentally steps through the mirror at the back of the stage, and it becomes clear that Parnassus has more powers than appearances suggest. “Don’t worry if you don’t understand it all immediately”, says Parnassus to a policeman who stops to see what the commotion is about, and he could well be talking to the cinema audience too.

The film trundles along, a bit like Parnassus’s rickety Imaginarium, continuously in danger of falling apart and lacking a clear destination, but curiously fascinating to watch. We discover that Parnassus hides a secret; Valentina’s life is indebted to the shady Mr Nick (Tom Waits), due to a wager Dr. P struck with this devilish figure in the past. But the reappearance of Mr Nick, keen to collect his due, is paralleled by the arrival of another mysterious stranger, Tony (Ledger, whose entrance is goulishly macabre). Gilliam brings each of these characters into the frame before ultimately, through various twists of plot, returning to the world (or worlds) behind the mirror.

Gilliam has always been a visual artist first and a storyteller second, and he conjures up some thrilling treats for the eyes here, not just in the Imaginarium sequences but also in the thousand-year-old Parnassus’s various flashbacks. But visual creativity alone does not a movie make, and often these striking and painstakingly realised images are fleetingly glimpsed and lack a narrative context to make them resonate.

So what then, of Heath Ledger’s final appearance on film? In the best performances of his short career, Ledger displayed an ability to effectively make himself disappear, so all we saw was the character. In Imaginarium this isn’t the case: we are always aware of Ledger playing a role, and his portrayal of Tony seems more like a series of sketches, as if he was still at the stage of trying out different approaches for a character that he was gradually bringing into focus. It’s a performance that is slight in comparison to his screen-burning Joker or his heart-wrenching Ennis Del Mar, but in a sense it fits well in the context of Gilliam’s film. The shifting nature of the character and the film’s fantastical tone mean it feels quite appropriate for Tony to take the form of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell in the moments that he passes through the mirror. Those performances vary hugely in quality - Depp is great, Law is forgettable and Farrell disappears under the weight of the swiftly unravelling plot – but the mere fact of their presence in the film stands as a testament to Gilliam’s creative ingenuity in the face of a seemingly insurmountable setback.

It is the director’s ceaseless creativity that stands out in Imaginarium, and makes the film worth watching despite its narrative and logical flaws. The successful completion of this film may be just what Gilliam needed to spur himself on to better things; perhaps the Don Quixote film that has so long eluded him could yet become a reality.


This review originally appeared on

Wednesday 7 October 2009

Zombieland (

Arriving in cinemas this week with little fanfare and no guarantees of quality, Zombieland is a pleasant surprise indeed (that is, if your definition of pleasant allows room for multiple depictions of gruesomely splattered zombies. Mine does). Refreshingly brief at eighty minutes, perfectly cast and funnier than most of the comedies released this year, the only thing keeping Zombieland from classic status is its complete lack of a decent story. Thankfully it’s so consistently funny that it manages to hide its lack of narrative incredibly well.

Debuting director Ruben Fleischer’s first great choice is to begin the film right in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. No build-up, no need to explain how the world got in this state, just one throwaway line referring to a mutated form of mad cow disease. The point is, as far as this film is concerned, how we got here doesn’t matter; this is where we are, so let’s enjoy it. And from Zombieland’s super-slo-mo zombie carnage credits sequence onwards, enjoyment is what is on offer here.

Fleischer has clearly taken a leaf from Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright’s big book of filmmaking, as much of Zombieland’s humour comes from speedy cutting combined with an eye for mundane details amidst the horror; elements that Wright used to perfection in his breakthrough hit. Having said this, Zombieland is its own film, thanks to the very funny and inventive script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. They may not be able to come up with more than two plot points between them, but they produce a load of great ideas within each scene.

For example, main character Columbus (Adventureland’s Jesse Eisenberg) tells us in voiceover that he has survived so far thanks to his strict adherence to a firm set of rules; these rules are then restated and adapted as the film progresses, and it’s a very effective and funny way to explore his character. The writers are also unafraid to let their characters take unexpected detours, allowing for a great sequence in which the four leads smash up an abandoned shop just because they can, and incorporating an extended cameo that is as hilarious as it is unpredictable.

Eisenberg is very good as the contented loner making the best of a bad situation, and he commendably holds his own opposite Woody Harrelson, on top form in his best role in years. His turn here as Tallahassee is essentially a dialled-down version of Natural Born Killers’ Mickey, but it’s undeniably what he does best and he is a joy to watch. On the girls’ side, Abigail Breslin plays convincingly against type as a no-nonsense teen, but it is Superbad’s Emma Stone who impresses most; she’s funny and sexy and she handles a gun with a confidence reminiscent of Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2. The movie world needs more action heroines - perhaps Stone could be a contender.

Towards the end, Zombieland’s weaknesses become more pronounced, and Fleischer’s inability to concoct a concluding set-piece worthy of what has come before is a little disappointing. Still, one of the key lines in the film exhorts us to “enjoy the little things”, and judged purely on enjoyment from moment-to-moment, Zombieland is a must-see.


Zombieland is out now. This review first appeared on

The Love Game

This new short film from writer/director Andrew Hunt (who I recently interviewed here) is confirmation of his growing talent as a filmmaker. Although the film was produced as part of a current competition run by Young Indies and Bloomingdale’s department store, Hunt has worked within these relatively tight confines to make a short that is funny and very inventive. Playing out half in live-action and half in cartoon animation, the film’s set-up is unique and simple: a guy and a girl are flirting while playing a board game (the ‘Love Game’ of the title), while at the same time their playing pieces – little animated guy and girl figures – are going through a romance of their own. It’s a premise that’s ideal for a short, as it is original enough to be immediately compelling, but short enough that we don’t have time to question the inherent silliness of it all.

It is an ambitious decision to tell two stories in live action and animation over such a short space of time, and the live action story is certainly the weaker of the two. But the real heart of the film is in the animated characters, particularly the by-the-book ‘Guy’ playing piece who, thanks to a great vocal delivery and some excellent animation, becomes the most real and entertaining character in the film. Hunt’s flair for visual wit is displayed in the details of the game and the hilarious expressions he gets from his cast, both human and animated. The Love Game can sit alongside Hunt’s previous, excellent short The Accidental Activist as further evidence that he is a filmmaker to expect great things from.

You can watch The Love Game and vote for it in Bloomingdale’s Young Indie competition here.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

The Soloist

Joe Wright takes some large leaps out of the comfort zone with his third film. Following two very successful and very British period pieces - Pride and Prejudice and Atonement – he jumps across the water and into the present day to tell a story based on real events, and in the process reveals a side of Los Angeles seldom seen on the big screen.

The Soloist has taken a while to arrive in British cinemas, after failing to make much of an impact at the American box office in April this year. It’s not hard to see why the film struggled, as while it appears from the marketing to be a predictable drama about friendship overcoming great odds, with all the usual emotional button-pressing you would expect, Wright’s film is anything but that. In telling how LA Times columnist Steve Lopez first encountered homeless musician Nathaniel Ayres, and investigating the unique relationship that developed between the two men, Wright presents a complicated, subtle and realistically open-ended story. Under Wright's direction, these characters take the story on several unexpected detours, and a lot of issues surface that Wright isn’t satisfied in giving simple 'movie solutions' to.

Robert Downey Jr is always very watchable, and here he is restrained and believable as Lopez, convincingly showing the character's delight at discovering Ayres and his simultaneous reticence to take responsibility for him. Jamie Foxx is close to unrecognisable as the mentally unstable Ayres, inhabiting the character in a performance that goes much deeper than outward tics and traits. Good as they are though, it’s the fact that Wright never showcases their performances, and instead brings his themes – homelessness, selflessness, friendship, faith (to name a few) - to the fore, that makes The Soloist great.

The Soloist is released on 25th September.


2009 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwins’s 'On the Origin of Species'. Jon Amiel begins his film Creation with the note that what we are about to see is the story of how that hugely influential work came into existence. But as the film plays out it offers precious few insights into the kinds of thoughts and research that led Darwin to form his theories, and despite suggesting otherwise, fails to engage at all with the debates of faith and science that Darwin’s book continues to provoke today.

Darwin and his wife Emma are introduced as being united despite essential differences in their worldviews – he is a man of science, she a woman of deep faith – and near the beginning of the film we hear a violent assertion from Darwin’s colleague Huxley (a fleeting appearance from the great Toby Jones) that “you have killed God”. But Amiel and screenwriter John Collee consistently shy away from engaging with these ideas, instead focusing on Darwin’s failure to get over the death of his daughter Annie, and how this affected his efforts to publish his seminal work.

Amiel’s decision to tell a story of the heart rather than the mind would be fine, if it weren’t for the fact that his film moves at such a sloth-like pace. For a story whose central character is fascinated by the origins of life, Creation is curiously lifeless, containing no scenes that convey any of the excitement or enthusiasm that Darwin surely felt for his subject. Amiel insists on keeping the mood sombre, determined to make us feel the weight of Darwin’s suffering, but to no discernable end; it is no great revelation to be told that Charles Darwin felt loss as any of us would.

Paul Bettany delivers a characteristically excellent performance as Darwin, but his real-life wife Jennifer Connelly is given little to do except look glum as Emma. File Creation under ‘wasted opportunites’.

Creation is released on 25th September.

Friday 18 September 2009

Away We Go (

There’s a scene towards the end of Away We Go in which a character is given a moment to state his philosophy of life. He’s got a plate of pancakes in front of him, so he builds a little house with the pancakes, saying that this is what life is; the little house you’ve made. Then he pours syrup all over it to stick it all together. The syrup is love, you see? Love is what makes life work, he says, it keeps it all stuck together. It’s a moment that steps right up to the dividing line between meaningful sentiment and unbearable cheese, but thanks to the performance of the actor in question (Chris Messina), it hits just the right note of emotional sincerity.

Away We Go is a film that, from scene to scene, lives or dies on the strengths and weaknesses of its actors’ performances. This is unexpected, as it’s directed by Sam Mendes, an Oscar winner whose previous films have all fairly hummed with an air of precision in every aspect, clearly identifiable as products of the man behind the camera. There’s a definite relaxing of grip from Mendes here, and while this results in a few scenes that would have been better on the cutting room floor, the film has a warmth and vitality that is new for the man who gave us American Beauty and Revolutionary Road. Away We Go is a lighter and more hopeful film than anything else Mendes has made, and this is largely down to its two stars, American TV regulars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph.

They play Burt and Verona, a young couple who are expecting their first child. After receiving the unexpected news that Burt’s parents are moving away from the small town they all live in, the pair decide to look for a new place to start their family. Thus writers Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida have a perfect pretext to send the intrepid pair on a road-trip, dropping them in on various friends and relatives in different parts of the US and Canada. Through these encounters, Burt and Verona are exposed to wildly differing perspectives on parenting and families – including the one detailed above – and ultimately come to a place of peace about the direction that their own family life is taking.

The supporting cast that populate Burt and Verona’s journey vary greatly in quality and effectiveness; Allison Janney is hilarious as the most tactless parent ever, but Maggie Gyllenhaal’s ‘earth mother’ is too broad and obvious – her portrayal is not so much a caricature as a character assassination. But Krasinski and Rudolph are the ones we’re supposed to really care about, and they make it easy for us. Both actors give genuinely loveable performances, and effortlessly convince as a couple who can claim “no-one’s in love like us”.

Krasinski, who was excellent in George Clooney’s underrated comedy Leatherheads, is funny and warm, even managing to make his character’s obsession with breasts seem quirky rather than sleazy, while Rudolph has a beautifully expressive face, allowing her to convey great feeling with the subtlest of glances. They complement each other wonderfully, and they make this journey one that’s both memorable and very enjoyable.


Away We Go is out now. This review first appeared on

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Profile: John Krasinski (The List, Issue 639)

John Krasinski

20 October 1979, Newton, Massachusetts

After a series of bit parts in films and TV shows, Krasinski landed a key role in the American version of The Office alongside Steve Carrell, and has been a US household name since. UK audiences have had to work harder to notice him, as he’s so far failed to have a breakout cinema hit, starring in panned Robin Williams vehicle License To Wed and George Clooney’s underappreciated comedy Leatherheads.

What’s he up to now?
Playing opposite another small-screen star, Saturday Night Live’s Maya Rudolph, in the road trip comedy/drama Away We Go. It would be a typically ‘under-the-radar’ indie but for the fact that it’s directed by British awards magnet Sam Mendes.

On getting the part
‘I had read the script a little earlier and thought it was amazing, and then when Sam came on I thought “this is the perfect project, maybe when 75 other actors pass on it I might have a shot”. Then Sam gave me a call and told me he didn’t have anybody else in mind but me, and I thought it was George Clooney with a terrible British accent. But it was real! So to be a part of a movie like this in my break … it’s still hard to wrap my head around.’

On balancing comedy and drama
‘It’s always exciting to just play the truth of any moment, whether it’s funny or not. I think that’s what makes this movie so funny; you’ve got an actress like Maggie Gyllenhaal committing to these jokes as if they’re incredibly dramatic scenes, and that’s why you believe in these crazy people.’

On growing a beard for the film
‘Sam said “I need you to grow a full beard”, and I thought “you can’t just ask a guy to go and grow a beard!” I was terrified that it would come out patchy, and I’d have to wear a wig on one side of my face. But luckily, I hit puberty and it all turned out okay.’

Interesting fact
Krasinski has written and directed an adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, due to be released later this year.

Away We Go is released on Friday 18 Sep. This article originally appeared in The List.

Friday 11 September 2009

Fish Tank (

Mia is a 15-year old council estate-dwelling girl with a short temper, a fractured relationship with her mother and a cider-drinking younger sister who knows far too many swear-words for her own good. Her only escape from this thankless existence is to retreat to an abandoned flat whenever possible and lose herself in hip-hop dancing. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t naturally go out of my way to spend two hours with a girl like Mia, but thankfully, Andrea Arnold decided she wanted to. In doing so she’s made not only a brilliant and beautifully bruised character study, but also arguably one of the best films of the year.

The plot is a slight thing – it is more a film about being than doing – but the central event is the arrival of Connor (Michael Fassbender), the new man in Mia’s mother’s life, and the impact that he has on the impressionable and insecure Mia. From the moment that she encounters Connor half-naked in the kitchen, the film becomes electrified by an escalating sexual tension. Connor does nothing to defuse it, Mia doesn’t quite know what to do with it, and we know that it must lead somewhere, and it won’t be good.

Mia is played by newcomer Katie Jarvis in her first ever performance, and she demonstrates a natural ability in front of the camera. Her unselfconscious openness to Arnold’s camera draws us in to Mia’s confused life and worldview, so rather than watching from a distance and judging her, we live these moments alongside her. Fassbender, recently so brilliant in Inglourious Basterds, is also fantastic here in a totally different role. Initially he’s all effortless charm and knowing, but that is undercut by hints of insecurity that only become more pronounced as his character’s secrets are revealed.

Arnold excels at creating tension using little more than naturalistic performances and precise camera movements, and in Fish Tank, just as in her Oscar-winning short film Wasp, it is the sense that some terrible event is always just around the corner that most strongly pervades the atmosphere. The effect here is to believably convey the fragility of any peace that the characters may find, and it lends an almost tangible intensity to much of the film.

But while Fish Tank is certainly dark, it is not all-pervadingly so. Arnold is as interested in life’s beauty as its struggles, and captures some truly transcendent moments – an impromptu dance to James Brown on a sunny afternoon; the oddly beautiful sight of a horse in an abandoned wasteland - with the assistance of her cinematographer Robbie Ryan. In fact, the beauty of the film’s composition is almost overwhelming at points; unlike so many British directors, Arnold has a large cinematic vision that sets her apart as a real artist.

If the film has one flaw, it’s the occasional weak plotting, which is only noticeable because the characterisation is so strong. When your lead character is so brilliantly realised it’s harder to get away with lapses in story logic, and this becomes apparent in a certain course of action Mia takes towards the end of the film. This is no slight on Andrea Arnold’s excellent achievement here though, and emphasises how strongly Fish Tank succeeds on every other level.


Fish Tank is out now. This review originally appeared on Future Movies.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Profile: Katie Jarvis (The List, Issue 639)

Katie Jarvis

22 June 1991, Dagenham, Essex

You won’t recognise the star of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, but you won’t soon forget her. Cast with no acting experience after being spotted arguing with her boyfriend at Tilbury station, Jarvis gives a performance of subtlety and strength as Mia, a teenager who uses hip hop dancing to escape her lonely council estate existence.

On preparing for the film
‘I didn’t realise it was going to be this big, so I don’t think I really prepared myself. I did dancing for five weeks, but that was really the only preparing we did. I was given the script either the week before, the day before or on the day, so I didn’t actually know what was coming. I couldn’t prepare myself even if I wanted to! I just took as it came, and got on with whatever Andrea wanted me to do.’

On her character in Fish Tank
‘I’m definitely not like Mia, but in some ways I felt like I could relate to her. It’s sad that there are quite a lot of girls like her, because at the same time as being quite a horrible person, she’s got quite a bad background, which is blatantly obvious when you watch the film. The film proves to you that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, because obviously Mia can be horrible, but she can also be nice. And when you’ve watched the whole film you can understand why she does what she does.’

On British films
‘I like a lot of British films, because I think they seem more real. Sometimes films from different countries are more like dreams or something. In terms of acting, I would obviously like to go round the world and do loads of different characters, but with Andrea’s film, it looks so real life – there are a lot of teenagers out there that are like Mia, and like the girls that Mia knows. So I think that sort of thing is what I’d like to carry on with.’

Interesting fact
Jarvis was cast on her 17th birthday, and the film premiered in Edinburgh on her 18th.

Fish Tank is on selected release from Fri 11 Sep. This article originally appeared in The List magazine.

Thursday 3 September 2009

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Days of wonder (The List, Issue 638)

He may be a long way from 3rd Rock from the Sun, but as Paul Gallagher finds, actor-director Joseph Gordon-Levitt thrives as a moviemaking anarchist.

‘You have to make it for yourself. You have to figure it out for yourself, and if it’s real love it’s going to be unlike anyone else has ever felt before’. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, star of the new romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, is getting philosophical about matters of the heart. The former teen star could equally be discussing his career so far, which in the last ten years has seen him take a similarly ‘figure it out for yourself’ approach, resulting in his transformation from TV comedy star to one of the more interesting young American actors currently working.

The latest evidence of this can be found in his performance opposite fellow indie hipster Zooey Deschanel in (500 Days) of Summer, a refreshingly honest take on relationships, in which Gordon-Levitt’s Tom attempts to piece together what went wrong in a relationship, and begins to realise that his memories aren’t telling the whole truth.

The film allows Gordon-Levitt to combine the comedic gifts that made his name with his more recently earned actorly cred, a dovetailing he is not unaware of: ‘I think that is a big part of why this movie is so funny because it’s genuine. And it’s not shallow surface level gags, but the humour is emotional, and I wanted to bring the same emotional truth to this movie as I brought to some of the more ‘dramatic’ movies that I’ve made.’

Having begun working in TV as a child, it was Gordon-Levitt’s role in aliens-on-earth comedy 3rd Rock from the Sun that brought him recognition. After he starred in 1999’s Shakespeare update 10 Things I Hate About You it appeared the young Gordon-Levitt would be following the tried-and-tested TV star route to likeable (and bankable) big screen success, but he happily confounded expectations. Opting instead to star in a series of low-budget, critically-acclaimed films, Gordon Levitt’s subtle and affecting performances in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin and Rian Johnson’s genre-bending cult hit Brick particularly confirmed him as a talent to watch.

As well as increasing in standing as an actor, Gordon-Levitt has become a significant figure in enabling and encouraging new approaches to filmmaking, having founded the online community, a ‘mass collaborative arts project’ that flies in the face of piracy laws and encourages creatives to re-cut each others’ work to produce new ‘hitRECords’. He has no truck with the current paranoia amongst studios about copyright protection, exclaiming, ‘what is a greater honour than someone wanting to record your movie? There’s no higher honour!’ It’s an attitude that almost got him ejected from the premises when he pulled out a digital video camera at the Sundance premiere of his own short film Sparks, an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard story that Gordon-Levitt directed, produced, wrote and scored.

It turns out that the star is no stranger to being thrown out of venues. Discussing (500) Days of Summer’s karaoke scene, in which he gives an impressively passionate rendition of The Pixies’ ‘Here Comes Your Man’, Gordon-Levitt admits his real life karaoke experiences haven’t always ended well, ‘[I] got kicked out because I rocked too hard! They forbade me to unleash the rock.’ Well, that’s the way he remembers it.

(500) Days of Summer is on general release now. This article originally appeared in The List magazine.

Monday 31 August 2009

The Hurt Locker (

In a recent interview, Kathryn Bigelow admitted to being “drawn to individuals who find themselves in dangerous situations”. This is something of an understatement in relation to her new film The Hurt Locker, which follows a tour of duty for a team of bomb-disposal experts in Iraq; these situations are dangerous in the same way that boiling water is hot. For these men, death is an ever-present possibility, and Bigelow doesn’t let us forget it for one second of the film’s two intense hours. The characters are fictional, but writer Mark Boal spent time in Iraq following soldiers who really do this, and the film never feels anything less than authentic.

Bigelow throws conventions - and audience expectations - aside in the first immediately tense minutes of the film, as the biggest star on-screen fails to survive beyond the opening scene. With a heightened awareness that no-one in this movie is going to be safe, we meet Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a ‘wild man’ bomb defuser who will serve as our constant companion through what follows.

It takes a while to get a handle on where Bigelow is taking us, as for the first half of the film we get one intense life-threatening situation after another, and not much else. It’s gripping and engaging, but there is no sense of it going anywhere in particular. Of course, this is the point, as this is the exact experience of the soldiers on the ground, but an audience could be forgiven for asking “is this all there is to it?” as it hits the halfway point. Slowly, though, the interactions between the men, particularly James and Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), begin to come to the fore, allowing Bigelow to analyse their different approaches to soldiering, and question what is driving them.

The Hurt Locker has earned an ‘action movie’ tag, but while the action in the film is expertly choreographed and recreated, it’s as a character study that it makes a lasting impression. In one of the film’s final scenes James is with his infant son, ostensibly imparting a few life lessons to the baby, but talking just as much to himself. He realises that he only loves one thing – the thrill of the moment, staring death in the face - and we can confirm that to be true from what we’ve seen. The Hurt Locker opens with an onscreen quote telling us, “War is a drug”, and while we may not understand that sentiment, Bigelow shows us through this powerful film just how true it is.


This review originally appeared on here.