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.