Sunday 19 December 2010

Gulliver's Travels review (The List, Issue 673)

In the ten years since his breakout performance as John Cusack’s slacker workmate in High Fidelity, Jack Black has become a big name movie star, but his CV is surprisingly short of hits. Only Richard Linklater’s family comedy School of Rock has managed to showcase Black’s wisecracking, music-loving personality in a way that both audiences and critics have warmed to. Gulliver’s Travels is an attempt by Black, who co-produced the film, to create a similarly successful vehicle for his talents, but it is a weak, forgettable comedy, bearing little resemblance to Swift’s classic satire. Black seems uninspired by his own movie, going through the motions, and while the film scrapes by as undemanding family entertainment, there is not much to recommend about it.

Black plays Gulliver, a mail clerk at the Washington Post who accepts a travel writing assignment from the editor he has a crush on (Amanda Peet), and ends up shipwrecked in Lilliput, land of tiny people. After being captured by General Edward Edwardian (Chris O’Dowd) and the Lilliputian army, Gulliver earns the favour of the King and Queen (Billy Connolly and Catherine Tate) by saving Princess Mary (Emily Blunt) from a kidnap attempt. He becomes Lilliput’s official protector, but Edwardian sets out to discover the truth about Gulliver and bring him down.

The script’s endless pop culture references suggest that the film was conceived as a satire on celebrity, but the whole thing is played with such winking self-awareness by all involved that subtlety doesn’t get a look in. Only Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) gives a straight performance as the humble everyman who loves the princess, and he seems to be the only comedian involved who really understood what this film needed to make it funny. Someone who clearly doesn’t understand comedy is the film’s director Rob Letterman, who brings no sense of comic unity to any part of the film: the overall impression is that Letterman left each actor to play their part however they felt best, while he paid more attention to the complex visual effects required to put it all together.


Gulliver's Travels is released on Boxing Day, Sunday 26th December. This review first published in The List magazine.

Friday 17 December 2010

Tron: Legacy and Fred: The Movie reviews (Radio Scotland Movie Cafe)

Listen to my reviews of new cinema releases Tron Legacy and Fred: The Movie

Tron: Legacy is basically the best music video you’ve ever seen. The visuals are stunning, and the revelation of the world is played out to Daft Punk’s atmospheric score. But despite its awesome looks and sounds, the game world and its occupants are not quite the never-before-seen spectacle that may have been hoped for, and the plot is a sub-Matrix rip-off that steals ideas and scenes from Star Wars, Blade Runner and even Lord of the Rings to name a few.

But Tron is infinitely better than Fred: The Movie, which wins my worst movie of 2010 award. Listen to the reviews to find out why!

Tron: Legacy and Fred: The Movie are in cinemas now.
Listen to the reviews here

Thursday 9 December 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader review (

C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books set a particular challenge to filmmakers and audiences who are accustomed to film series that tell a single continuous story (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Twilight etc.). The constant factor in Lewis’s seven books is not the story but the location, and each book tells a story that, as well as being a stand-alone adventure, increases the reader’s understanding of what kind of world Narnia is. Director Andrew Adamson did a pretty good job of transferring the basic stories of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) and Prince Caspian (2008) to the big screen, but both of his films failed to really explore or in any way explain Narnia, beyond the initial revelation of it being a wonderful, magical place.

For this third trip there’s a change of personnel behind the camera as veteran director Michael Apted takes over from Adamson (who now oversees in a producer capacity), but while Apted ensures that Dawn Treader features a lot more exploring of Narnia, there still isn’t much explaining; logical plot progression is decidedly not one of this story’s strengths. To be fair, the point of the magic of Narnia is that it is mysterious and inexplicable, but for much of the time in Dawn Treader there is not even a clear explanation as to why the Pevensie children have been summoned to Narnia once more.

The story begins with the two younger Pevensies, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), being transported to Narnia in spectacular fashion, through a magical picture frame, with their spoiled brat cousin Eustace (Son of Rambow’s Will Poulter) in tow. Once there they find themselves on board the Dawn Treader, the longboat captained by Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) with the able assistance of swashbuckling mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg, replacing Eddie Izzard) and his crew. Caspian is on a quest to find seven lords who were banished during the reign of tyrannical King Miraz, and invites the children to join him. From there the story unfolds as a series of smaller stories, each taking place on a different island in Narnia and involving one of the characters having to overcome a specific personal temptation in order to succeed.

There is fun to be had with this story, and Apted doesn’t try to disguise its freewheeling nature. In fact, the character of Eustace spends much of the first half of the film incredulous at the increasingly far-fetched turns of events, a function that Poulter carries off pretty well (until a particularly crazy twist literally transforms his performance). But more so than the previous two films, Dawn Treader is a film that is best-suited to younger audiences. With its simplistic moral boundaries, episodic story and broad characterisation, it’s not a film that has anything like the thematic weight of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but what it does offer is a fun and exciting (but not too scary) time at the movies for kids.


The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is in UK cinemas now. This review first published on

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Monsters interview feature (The List, Issue 683)

Paul Gallagher talks to the director and stars of brilliant new sci-fi horror Monsters

‘Doing visual effects for a living is like being a gynaecologist’, says Gareth Edwards, ‘when you do it every day at work, it doesn’t turn you on any more.’ So he decided to stop staring at pixels and pick up a camera. The result is Monsters, one of the most unique and surprising films of the year, an ingenious mix of indie romance, sci-fi road movie and CG trickery that positions Edwards as his generation’s answer to James Cameron. All he wanted was to reclaim visual effects from the blockbusters: ‘I really hate watching Hollywood films where you can tell they’ve made lots of effects people break their backs to do these shots, but the final emotional impact is nothing. So it was really important for me to put the record straight: what I did with this film is not technically groundbreaking, but I hope the choices that were made were to be bold and throw away visual effects, not make a big deal of them.’ Monsters takes place in an alternate, alien-invaded earth, but Edwards’ focus remains on two human characters, travelling through the Mexican ‘infected zone’ throughout: ‘My favourite bits in the film are when you have these crazy visual spectacles, and as a cameraman I’m more interested in this couple. I hope that’s infectious for the audience.’

The couple are real-life husband and wife actors Scoot McNairy (In Search of a Midnight Kiss) and Whitney Able, who signed up for Edwards’ improvised Mexico shoot on the strength of one meeting and a 12-page plot treatment. ‘He’s a mad genius’, says McNairy, emphasising the mad: ‘We were down in Mexico City and Gareth needed people in gas masks, and this was just when swine flu came out. Gareth was like “this is amazing, everyone’s wearing masks, it’s perfect!” And Whitney and I were like, “well yes, but we don’t want to get swine flu and die”’. The seat-of-the-pants nature of the shoot was an ideal form of marriage preparation for the then-dating couple though: ‘I’m a huge outdoors guy’, says McNairy, ‘and I thought, if she can make it through this production – cos it’s going to be hell – I could definitely spend the rest of my life with her!’ For her part, Able relished the chance to do something that broke her out of the traditional confines of her stunning movie star looks: ‘Most [directors] want to put me in a box, being blonde and blue-eyed, so I was really excited to get a chance to show another side of myself.’ Edwards was clearly impressed: ‘It’s the Scoot and Whitney show, and I can’t imagine this film with anyone else.’

Monsters is on general release from Fri 3 Dec. This feature first published in The List magazine.

Thursday 18 November 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest review (

When we last saw Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, she was recovering in a beaten and bloodied pile, having barely survived being buried alive and shot in the head by her father and her nine-foot, man-machine half-brother who can feel no pain. Not exactly a typical family reunion, then, but as we know from Lisbeth’s backstory, which has gradually become the focus of the Millennium trilogy over the course of the first two films, such treatment is like a walk in the park compared to the various ways in which men have used and abused her over her relatively short life so far.

So ended The Girl Who Played with Fire, a second instalment that felt very much like a necessarily exposition-heavy middle segment that was paving the way for a killer third part that would tie together the various story strands in a thrilling finale. At least that was the hope. Unfortunately the reality is that returning director Daniel Alfredson’s closing chapter is easily the weakest and least satisfying of the three films, lacking significant thrills and criminally denying one of the best characters in recent cinema the final flourish she deserves.

Alfredson’s first mistake is to begin immediately where the last film left off, meaning Lisbeth spends the first hour of the story lying in a hospital bed while Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist, dour and stony-faced as ever), investigative journalist and Lisbeth’s one-time lover, tries to get to the bottom of the shady political goings-on that Lisbeth seems somehow wrapped up in. As with much of the film’s content, this may have made for riveting reading – certainly, the books’ colossal sales suggest the trilogy’s late author Stieg Larsson was doing something right – but onscreen it makes for lots of talk about… well, it’s quite hard to say what. This is the other major problem with Hornet’s Nest; rather than bringing the themes and plots of the first two films into a coherent and compelling conclusion, Alfredson delivers scene after scene of exposition-heavy conversations, and still he fails to make it clear just how Lisbeth’s life and general mistreatment by men connects to the wider political corruption story of the trilogy.

The film gains focus considerably when Lisbeth is brought to trial, in full gothed-up, Mohican-tastic glory, to answer the various charges against her. But even this section, which should be the high point of the series, lacks excitement, and depends on the replaying of the unforgettable sexual assault footage from the first film for its most powerful moment.

It is particularly disappointing that Alfredson drops the ball so significantly in this trilogy’s conclusion, as Larsson’s overt aims, to call out misogynistic men who presume they can control and subdue women, deserve a more defiant final shout. Similarly, the character of Lisbeth Salander is such a brilliant and compelling creation, and Rapace’s stunning performance so consistently perfect, that she deserves a more glorious cinematic final curtain than the few fleeting moments wielding a nail-gun that this film permits her.


The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is released on 26th November. This review first published on

The American review (The List, Issue 671)

Photographer-turned film director Anton Corbijn follows his haunting debut, the Ian Curtis biopic Control, with a film that moves him onto a bigger cinematic stage (thanks to its leading man George Clooney) while simultaneously allowing him to delve into more personal thematic territory. The American confirms Corbijn as a confident and uniquely gifted filmmaker, but be warned, it is an intentionally slow-moving film, featuring Clooney’s most defiantly subdued performance to date.

The story, adapted from Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, involves Jack (Clooney), an ageing gunsmith forced to go into hiding when an attempt is made on his life. He holes up in Castelvecchio, a beautiful historic Italian village, and there develops tentative connections with a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and a prostitute (Violante Placido), both of whom provoke him to consider the value of his life up to this point. Meanwhile, Jack becomes increasingly aware that his pursuers are closing in and time is running out.

The scenario will be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a western, but the simplicity is intentional; Corbijn is interested in the ways in which simple surfaces, including the beautiful surfaces of this film, relate to deeper realities. He continually draws attention to Jack’s physical routines – from his constant gum-chewing to the literal routine of having sex – to question whether the routine is an end in itself, or if it must find meaning at a deeper level; a human connection that goes beyond physicality or a spiritual one that allows physical routines to come to rest.

The American is released on 26th November. This review first published in The List magazine.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Peeping Tom review (

Universally reviled by critics on its release in 1960, the film that destroyed director Michael Powell’s career has experienced something of a reappraisal in the 50 years that have passed since then; so much so that it’s received the 50th anniversary digital restoration treatment and is getting a nationwide cinema release this week, followed by a debut appearance on blu-ray, featuring all the extras from the 2007 Special Edition dvd.

Watching Peeping Tom in 2010, it’s not difficult to understand why the film caused such uproar on its original release, but it is also clear that the voices of condemnation were wrong. The film is an incredibly perceptive work, exceptionally well-crafted, both technically and thematically, and still shocking and disturbing today. It’s not an easy film to watch, and perhaps not one that many people will want to add to their collection, but it is still essential viewing for anyone interested in the unique power of cinema.

In an opening scene that takes no prisoners and sets out Powell’s intentions very clearly, we see the main character Mark (Carl Boehm) picking up a prostitute in a shady London street, going home with her and then murdering her in cold blood. We know that this is a premeditated act, as Mark is filming the whole thing; we see it all unfold through the viewfinder of his handheld cine-camera. Powell gives us no choice but to identify with the killer, and in so doing forces us to acknowledge our compulsion to watch what we are presented with, even as it repulses us.

We soon learn that by day Mark is a quietly-spoken camera operator in a large film studio, and he makes extra money taking pornographic photos in the evenings, for a local newsagent to sell under the counter. He seems completely alone in the world, but we get an insight into his profoundly disturbed worldview through the attempts of his neighbour Helen (Anna Massey) to get to know him. Mark is taken with Helen, and allows her into his life, inviting her to see the cavernous studio where he spends hours developing and watching his films, but being careful not to give away the extremes of his murderous lifestyle.

Powell’s willingness to look so unflinchingly at the dark side of films and the act of filmmaking (for surely that’s what this is all about) is quite incredible. It is as if he was thinking about the joyous cinematic magic he had previously worked (in The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death, for example), and felt compelled to portray the uncomfortable flipside. Every element in Peeping Tom points to a damaging, dehumanising tendency at the heart of movies, from the foregrounding of pornography to Mark’s distressingly sensual relationship with his camera – the only physical contact he seems comfortable with – to the way in which the camera is involved in Mark’s murders.

The ironic thing about this films vilification in 1960 is that it happened at the same time that another very similarly-themed film – Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – was playing to packed houses on a nightly basis. While Hitchcock’s masterpiece is unquestionably the more mainstream and formally groundbreaking of the two films, it’s arguable that Peeping Tom is the more thematically profound and insightful work. Just don’t expect to feel good after watching it.


Peeping Tom is released in selected cinemas from 19th Nov, and the blu-ray edition is out on 22nd November. This review first published on

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Carlos review (Single-disc movie Blu-Ray edition)

This 165-minute ‘movie’ version of Olivier Assayas’s 5-hour made-for-TV trilogy is impressive in many ways but, perhaps predictably, feels somewhat incomplete. In the interview that accompanies the film on this blu-ray, the director talks about his desire to reconstruct a full picture of the career of notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal, claiming that without the complete context his life doesn’t make sense. It seems strange then, in light of that comment, that this shorter version of the film not only exists but has been given a much higher profile UK release than the full trilogy (it’s the only version I was offered for review). So while Edgar Ramirez’s performance as Carlos is never less than completely convincing, the film doesn’t get under the skin of the character, and in the second half in particular it becomes a blur of locations and conversations that, ironically, suffer from a lack of clear context.

It’s very likely that the full-length version offers more substantial reflections on the questions about revolutionary behaviour that this film only glancingly touches on: what is revolution, and what is it worth? As it stands, the most valuable thing about this cut of Carlos is that it clearly demonstrates Assayas’s brilliant filmmaking ability. He is stylish, confident and hugely ambitious, and the sustained action centrepiece of the film – a hostage-taking raid at the 1975 OPEC conference – is thrillingly realised. But if you want some insight on what causes a man like Carlos to do the things he did, seek out the ‘trilogy’ cut.

Carlos is out on dvd and blu-ray now, in movie and trilogy editions.

Thursday 4 November 2010

Let Me In & Due Date reviews (Radio Scotland Movie Cafe)

I reviewed two new releases on this week's Movie Cafe on Radio Scotland with host Janice Forsyth. First up was Let Me In, the US remake of 2008 Swedish cult hit Let The Right One In, and in my opinion it's much better than any of us had reason to hope for.

A little later in the show I gave my verdict on Due Date, the new road-movie comedy from The Hangover director Todd Philips, starring Robert Downey Jr and The Hangover's Zach Galifianakis (try saying that with a mouthful of Jelly Babies). Is it going to be as big a hit as the aforementioned blockbuster? Have a listen at the link below to hear my take:

Click here to listen to the show or download on BBC iPlayer

Due Date and Let Me In are both released in cinemas tomorrow

Friday 29 October 2010

Burke and Hare review (

There are a lot of things about this Edinburgh-set, comedy-horror period piece that don’t work. It isn’t at all scary, which puts paid to the ‘horror’ tag; it tends to favour humour of the man-falling-down-some-stairs variety as opposed to anything remotely sophisticated, and it contains at least one of the worst ‘Scottish’ accents ever delivered (congratulations to Isla Fisher on that achievement). But despite these and many other flaws, Burke and Hare is a film that’s hard not to like, imbued as it is by American director John Landis with a charm and naivety that belies its rather grotesque subject matter. I’m sure that it bears about as close a resemblance to factual history as Life of Brian, but in its best (admittedly few) scenes Landis captures a comedic tone that’s not a million miles from what the Pythons achieved in their heyday.

Landis was responsible for some of the most memorable American comedies of the 80s, including The Blues Brothers and Trading Places, both of which hinged on a central double-act (Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi and Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy respectively) for their success. In Burke and Hare Landis has Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, both clearly enjoying themselves as the titular Irish entrepreneurs. The pair are penniless hucksters when we first meet them on the beautifully recreated streets of 19th Century Edinburgh, but they end up literally making a killing by stumbling upon a new line of business, providing fresh cadavers for the groundbreaking research of scientist Dr. Knox (Tom Wilkinson), whose previous source of fresh dead has been usurped by his powerful rival, Dr. Monroe (Tim Curry).

Pegg and Serkis easily hold the audience’s attention and sympathies – most impressive, considering the amount of cold-blooded murdering they do – but the film’s script doesn’t offer them much in the way of depth or decent gags to get their teeth into. In fact, most of the film’s weaknesses can be traced back to its script, the work of St. Trinian’s writers Nick Moorcroft and Piers Ashworth. The central romance, between Burke (Pegg) and Ginny (Fisher) is a case in point; the development of their relationship is non-existent, dramatically speaking, and as a character Ginny is largely unappealing and conceited. But Pegg and Fisher (awful accent notwithstanding) are both so charming and likeable that we believe in their romance, in spite of the lame dialogue.

The film is at its best when Landis makes his boldest tonal decisions, foregrounding the absurd comedy of a hanging scene, for example. But he is less confident when handling the script’s attempts at seriousness; an awkward subplot invites unfavourable comparisons to Shakespeare, and a number of scenes failingly attempt to ask questions about the morality of scientific study. There are some interesting ideas floated, but none are followed through with anything like the necessary conviction to make an impact. On the other hand, a scene featuring The Fast Show’s Paul Whitehouse falling down some stairs is hilarious, so I’m not going to complain too much.


Burke and Hare is out now. This review first published on

Thursday 21 October 2010

Festival Focus: Document 8 and Africa In Motion (The List, Issue 669)

The term ‘Human Rights Cinema’, with its implication of heavy political issues and intense subjects, may sound too much like hard work for the average cinemagoer. But for the last seven years Document, the Glasgow-based International Human Rights Film Festival, has been demonstrating that films about human rights simply means films about people like you and me. Begun in 2003 with a focus on the lives of Glasgow asylum-seekers, Document’s reach and scope has widened with each successive year.

This year’s opening film is Aisheen: Still Alive in Gaza, a gently powerful portrait of contemporary life in post-invasion Gaza that offers a very effective introduction to the type of film’s Document showcases. The film focuses on one of the biggest political arguments in our world, but from the perspectives of ordinary people caught in the middle of it, showing how precarious life is amidst the devastation. But Aisheen is no angry polemic; Swiss filmmaker Nicolas Wadimoff observes, mainly through focusing on young people, how life continues in a community where basic human rights have been denied. The film is troubling and uplifting in equal measures: one boy says, “the conditions are not right for learning… we’ve given up dreams”, but just as affectingly, Wadimoff shows us the burgeoning rap group choosing words as their weapons, and attempting to bring some hope and inspiration to Gaza with their music.

Another key film in this year’s programme is Bloody Sunday: A Derry Diary (pictured), a remarkable first-hand account that follows the almost 40-year journey from the Derry massacre in 1972 to the long-delayed conclusion of the Bloody Sunday Enquiry earlier this year. Filmmaker Margo Harkin, who was an eyewitness to the devastating events and gave evidence in the tribunal, has assembled a film of incredible power that, through the measured accounts of each contributor, not only delivers a defiant shout in the face of injustice, but also offers a message of hope to anyone who fights for a human cause to be heard.

Other highlights amongst the festival’s 95 documentaries are The Fear Factory, a clear-eyed appraisal of the UK’s failing Youth Justice System, The Silver Fez, a hugely entertaining account of a penniless African musician aiming for glory and The Shutdown, Alan Bissett and Adam Stafford’s award-winning short about young life in the shadow of Grangemouth. Document 8 Programmer Neill Patton says, “we’re not here to tell people what to do, we just want to let people see what’s going on in the world.”

While Document is happening in Glasgow, the Africa in Motion Film Festival will be celebrating its fifth anniversary in Edinburgh, showing over 70 films drawn from 28 African countries. This year the theme of the festival is ‘celebrations’, and Festival Director Lizelle Bisschoff says “first and foremost it’s an arts festival, celebrating brilliant African films, and that’s more important to us than any issue-based or ‘worthy’ approaches to representing Africa.” That’s a statement that’s borne out in the programme, with highlights including the opening film, Sex, Okra and Salted Butter, from Cannes award-winner Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, a selection of music and dance-themed documentaries from across the continent and a special children’s workshop with Kenyan animator Alfred Muchilwa, lead animator on CBeebies’ Tinga Tinga Tales.

Document 8 Human Rights Film Festival, CCA, Glasgow Tue 26-Sun 31 Oct. Africa in Motion Film Festival, Filmhouse, Edinburgh Thurs 21 Oct-Fri 5 Nov. 
A shorter version of this feature was first published in The List magazine.

Friday 1 October 2010

Buried review (

In which Ryan ‘The Proposal’ Reynolds wakes up to find himself buried alive in a coffin, and we the audience are in there with him. For each and every one of the film’s 94 minutes. After some great Saul Bass-inspired opening credits, debut director Rodrigo Cortés starts as he means to go on, with the screen remaining uncomfortably black for what feels like forever until the flicker of a zippo lighter introduces us to Paul Conroy (Reynolds), bound and gagged and, understandably, a little shaken up on finding himself buried in a box. Quickly discovering that his captors have left him an Arabic-language mobile phone, Conroy starts making some panicked calls to try and figure out who put him there, and how the hell he’s going to get out.

To call this film audacious would be putting it lightly. Cortés and writer Chris Sparling push the concept of one single claustrophobic location to its absolute limit, but this isn’t an attempt at documentary-style reality. Incredibly creative camerawork from cinematographer Eduard Grau (also responsible for photographing last year’s A Single Man) continually breaks the ‘real’ boundaries of the coffin, while intense editing and some huge dramatic music cues keep the tension building as we hang on to discover Conroy’s ultimate fate.

One of the film’s great strengths is that Sparling’s script doesn’t pull any punches with the scenario; there are no last-minute twists or reveals, Conroy really is buried in a box in the middle of the desert. And while Sparling has points to make about the loss of the value of the individual in our corporation/nation-prioritising world, director Cortés ensures that the message comes across in a way that’s hard-hitting but not heavy-handed; the themes are always subordinate to the telling of this specific story.

It all hinges on Reynolds, and the actor better known for his rom-com roles totally delivers what’s needed, his committed performance ensuring that the believability of his predicament remains constant. Buried represents a further sign that Reynolds is interested in more than just playing it safe with his choices – his turn in 2007’s The Nines was an equally interesting diversion from the mainstream. A few more like this and a few less He’s Just Not That Into You’s wouldn’t hurt his standing one bit. Maybe Tarantino could give him a call?


Buried is out now. This review first published on

Thursday 23 September 2010

Mother review

New to dvd this week from Joon-ho Bong, director of The Host and Memories of Murder, Mother defies pigeonholing, beginning as a compelling murder mystery and transforming into a dark and twisting character study, tinged with surreal dream-logic. Hye-ja Kim gives an amazingly intense and unpredictable performance as the unnamed mother of the title, who sets out to see justice done when her son (Bin Won), who has an unspecified learning disability, is arrested for the bizarre murder of a local schoolgirl. What starts out as a simple tale of a loving mother seeking vindication for her wrongfully-accused son becomes something much more complicated, as Bong slowly gets under the surface of the mother-son relationship while gradually revealing the unsettling lengths the mother is willing to go to to defend her cause.

The title brings Hitchcock’s Psycho to mind, and that may be intentional; Bong’s masterful composition and editing creates suspense that Hitch would be proud of. One brilliant pivotal sequence uses a slowly tracking camera to reveal key information in a way that’s simultaneously chilling and delightful, as great suspense cinema should be. Equally effective is Bong’s use of different points of view as the mother pieces together the truth; the combined impact of his stylish storytelling and Kim’s sensational performance make Mother an unforgettable experience.


Mother is available on DVD now.

The Town review (

Ben Affleck’s 2007 directorial debut Gone Baby Gone was both a brilliant thriller and an authentic representation of the Boston neighbourhood that Affleck knows; it was keenly-observed and morally complex - the polar opposite of many of his prior appearances in front of the camera (Surviving Christmas, anyone?) – but it was criminally underseen here in the UK. This was partly due to its delayed release (its ‘missing girl’ plot was similar to the Madeleine McCann case), and partly because its toplining star, Affleck’s little bro Casey, is not as big a box-office draw as his older brother, despite being arguably the better actor.

So Affleck has ensured his second offering will be harder for audiences to ignore, putting himself front and centre and enrolling one of the most recognisable men on TV, Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, as his opposite. It’s worked in the US, where The Town is currently top of the box office, and piling up the positive critical notices. And while this story of Boston bank robbers isn’t quite up to the standard of his debut, it’s still a great crime drama full of superbly-realised characters, and confirms that Ben Affleck, director, is here to stay.

As with Gone Baby Gone, The Town is based on a novel (Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan), and focuses on characters in a particular Boston district. As the film begins, title quotes inform us that Charlestown has produced more bank-robbers than any other city in the world, that robbing banks is a way of life in Charlestown, and that the man who tries to break the mould will have troubles indeed. The story that follows essentially dramatises and fleshes out those statements in the character of Doug MacRay (Affleck), a local who could have had a career as a professional ice hockey player but for a few bad choices, and so instead applies himself, very successfully, to bank robbery.

MacRay’s best friend and partner-in-crime Jim (The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner, on electrifying form) is the chaotic opposite to Doug’s carefully composed calm, and during the exceptionally well-crafted robbery that kicks off the movie Jim spontaneously takes a hostage; bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall). They release her unharmed, but on discovering she lives in their neighbourhood sense the possibility of being caught. Meanwhile FBI agent Adam Frawley (Hamm) is putting the pieces together and closing in on MacRay’s gang. MacRay contrives to meet and befriend Claire, with a view to discovering the likelihood of her identifying them, but a connection immediately sparks between them, and he starts to imagine that she may represent a last chance for him to get out of Charlestown and start afresh.

One of the things that was so surprising and impressive about Gone Baby Gone was Affleck’s clearly-conveyed interest in ordinary people living their lives, and this again comes through in The Town. Affleck demonstrates his filmmaking muscle with an incredibly gripping action sequence in the middle of the film, but for the greater part of the running time he focuses on the subtler dramas, the choices his characters have to make and, as one character puts it, “the price we have to pay”. This is obviously central to the characterisation of MacRay - Affleck’s best performance in years, by the way – but it also underpins Hamm’s excellent portrayal of Frawley, who subtly develops from the straight-up ‘good guy’ agent into a more complicated character with agendas of his own.

The downside is that Affleck doesn’t keep a tight reign on bringing these dramas together in the film as a whole; the plot has a fair amount of ragged edges and unresolved aspects, suggesting that some hefty cutting may have gone on to keep the finished film around the 2-hour mark (Blake Lively’s character feels particularly underdeveloped). The story’s neat conclusion is also disappointing after such a satisfyingly complex character study, and makes one wonder where Affleck and his co-writers Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard might have taken things had they been free from studio restraints.

The cast can’t be faulted though, and judged on performances alone, The Town is one of the best studio films of the year. And just as in Gone Baby Gone, Affleck ices the cake with a pair of dramatic heavyweights in small but vital roles, and Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite make the same kind of impact here that Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris did in his former film. Cooper in particular makes a powerful impression in his single-scene appearance, offering an image of a possible dark future for MacRay that doesn’t fade easily from memory.


The Town is released on 24th September. This review first published on

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Breathless (À bout de soufflé)

It’s re-released this week in a shiny new blu-ray edition as part of Optimum’s Studio Canal Collection (along with Mulholland Drive, The Third Man, Delicatessen, Le Cercle Rouge and more), so I took that as a good enough reason to finally check Jean Luc-Godard’s game-changing 1960 debut Breathless (À bout de soufflé) off of my ‘influential movies I must get round to watching’ list.

Breathless is all about style. In his plot-light pursuit of two free spirits in the hip streets of Paris, Godard pioneered the use of jump-cuts, not only from one scene to the next but throughout the entire film, in the middle of conversations, instantly creating a new approach to film editing. And the film is not just formally stylish; the two main characters, Michel and Patricia, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, became instant icons of cinematic cool, thanks to their chain-smoking, shades-wearing air of complete self-confidence.

Added to this, Michel is an entirely unsympathetic central character (his opening line is, “after all, I’m an arse-hole”, and he’s absolutely right), but somehow, I think mainly by showing us Patricia’s fondness for him, Godard makes us care about him by the time the film reaches its poignant conclusion. In so doing he creates that staple of contemporary cinema, the anti-hero.

All of this is already enough to make the film essential viewing for anyone interested in how movies became what they are today, but it should also be noted that Breathless is a lot of fun. There’s not a great deal going on under the surface, but there’s a vital energy and creativity to Godard’s filmmaking.

For me though, the thing that makes Breathless more than an important historical artefact is Jean Seberg, whose disarming performance provides the film with a necessary emotional centre. At times, Michel’s insensitive, sexist and self-centred comments are frankly repulsive, but the way in which Seberg plays Patricia’s responses – always seeing through the big talk to the man beneath – is natural and affecting, perfectly conveying the mysterious and often contradictory workings of human relationships. There is timeless truth to be found in those interactions, and that’s why Breathless will continue to endure.

Breathless is out on blu-ray and dvd now. More information at the Studio Canal Collection website.

Preview: The Social Network (

It’s make or break time for David Fincher. That might seem like an odd thing to say about a director who has, to all intents and purposes, ‘made it’, but hear me out. In 2008, after 15 years of directing some of the most influential and grown-up films to come out of Hollywood, including Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac, Fincher took his first step into much more family-friendly territory with the lush drama The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. That film became his biggest box-office hit to date, but it also signalled, in my opinion, a distinct compromise of Fincher’s previously established flair, style and ability to fire on all creative cylinders. It looked beautiful, but it was too long, dull and emotionally inert; essentially, Fincher with all his rough edges smoothed off.

So the release of The Social Network (or “the facebook movie”) is a defining moment for Fincher, as it has the potential to be the film in which he successfully unites his proven ability to delve into the darker recesses of humanity with his obvious desire to make films for as wide an audience as possible. This film’s pedigree is impressive: it’s written by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, based on Ben Mezrich’s racy and, by all accounts, not-exactly factual book 'The Accidental Billionaires', and was first picked up for development by Kevin Spacey, who takes an executive producer credit on the finished film. It’s already being pushed for awards glory by über-producer Scott Rudin, but that’s not necessarily a bad omen; Rudin was the driving force behind some of the best Oscar contenders of recent years, including No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. He clearly knows how to enable, rather than dilute, a good filmmaker’s potential.

The film recreates the early days of Facebook by centring on the bitter feuds over who created it; feuds which came to public attention in 2006 through a series of deposition hearings between the site’s founder Mark Zuckerberg and various groups of his former friends and colleagues. Sorkin’s script, which is readily available online, zips back and forth between these hearings and the momentous events of three years previous, when what began as a site for rating the hotness of female Harvard students, set up by a spiteful Zuckerberg, mushroomed into the social networking phenomenon we know today. Several things quickly become clear when reading the script: one is that this is material that perfectly lends itself to Fincher’s detailed, procedural style, most effectively seen in his meticulously assembled 2007 film Zodiac, another is that Sorkin’s trademark quick-witted humour is definitely present, and the third is that this is not going to be a particularly flattering portrayal of Zuckerberg.

As written by Sorkin, Zuckerberg is a socially inept, self-seeking twentysomething with a mean-spirited wit and a massive IQ. It’s a gift of a role for Jesse Eisenberg, who has certainly proven his ability to play the awkward geek in a string of comedies (Adventureland, Zombieland). This is his chance to demonstrate a greater range, and I’m hopeful he’ll pull it off. The film’s huge cast also includes man-of-the-moment Andrew Garfield who, as well as being recently confirmed as the new Spider-Man, is also soon to be seen alongside Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan in Mark Romanek’s London Film Festival opener Never Let Me Go. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the little matter of Rooney Mara, the unknown actress who David Fincher recently cast as Lisbeth Salander in his forthcoming remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Mara has a significant role in this film too, so it will hopefully be a chance for us to see just what it is about her that Fincher’s been so taken by.

So The Social Network offers a lot to get excited about. And if you’re still unconvinced, check out the most recent trailer, featured below. It’s a doozy.

The Social Network is released in the UK on 15th October. This preview first published on

Monday 13 September 2010

Mulholland Drive: Studio Canal Blu-Ray Edition (

At the end of 2009, when it came time for the opinionaters of the world to offer their verdicts on the best movies of the previous 10 years, David Lynch’s 2001 offering Mulholland Drive was one of those titles that kept appearing at or very near the top of those lists. Watching it again for the first time since its cinema release, I didn’t find it hard to see why so many critics were keen to pull it back into the limelight. It’s a stunning film that succeeds on multiple levels, being simultaneously a darkly comic Hollywood satire, a deeply disturbing trip into a woman’s troubled mind and a hugely compelling riddle in film form. It’s ambitious, puzzling and deftly cinematic, and it allowed Lynch to showcase Naomi Watts, arguably one of the best actresses currently working, to amazing effect as Betty/Diane, the two sides of Mulholland Drive’s split personality.

As this lovingly presented blu-ray’s fascinating extras make clear, the fact that Mulholland Drive ended up as such an enduring work is really down to luck, both good and bad. Originally conceived in the early 90s by Lynch and his Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost, the bulk of Mulholland Drive was shot in 1999, without Frost’s involvement, as a US pilot for a doomed ABC TV series. It was never broadcast, but the project stayed alive in Lynch’s mind.

18 months later French producer Alain Sarde’s company made it possible for Lynch to get the cast back together and shoot an entirely new ‘third act’ for what would now be a stand-alone film. It could have been a recipe for disaster, but on one of this disc’s interviews Lynch admits that he now looks at the success of the finished film and wishes he could “trick himself” into such an unexpectedly productive creative process again.

The story of its creation goes a long way to explaining the film’s multiplicity of seemingly unrelated characters and its odd structure, which, on a first viewing, is thoroughly bamboozling. But it also gives one an even greater respect for Lynch’s brilliance: his particular achievement with Mulholland Drive is to gather these sprawling elements together into a thoroughly satisfying film experience, one that – ironically, given its TV roots – seems to capture the very essence of cinematic creativity.

Lynch’s refusal to pin his enigmatic characters to a conventional A to Z narrative leaves the film open to endless interpretation, but it also means that each scene has as much significance on its own as it does as part of the overall story. Lynch’s ability to craft brilliantly memorable scenes has never been more evident than it is here, and he masterfully dovetails every detail of the production, from each individual actor’s performance to Peter Deming’s precise camerawork to Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks-esque score, to give each scene a unique atmosphere of its own that still somehow makes sense in the wider context. It goes without saying that Mulholland Drive is a masterpiece.

As previously mentioned, this blu-ray edition, part of Optimum’s excellent series of reissues from French company Studio Canal, has a better set of extras than any previous edition of the film. The best all-new feature is 'In The Blue Box', in which a handful of French directors and film critics (plus Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly) get into the meat of Lynch’s craft in Mulholland Drive, discussing individual scenes and thematic elements. As one of them puts it, “[Lynch’s] films contribute to the fight against simplification, against a trend of unambiguous films which provide answers the way television news does”. In light of that statement, ‘Back to Mulholland Drive’, another new feature – unauthorized by the director - that seeks to explain what is actually happening from moment to moment in the film, seems to work against the essential mystery at the heart of all Lynch’s work, and is probably best avoided.


Mulholland Drive: Studio Canal Blu-Ray Edition is out now, more information at This review first published on

Thursday 9 September 2010

Cyrus (The List, Issue 666)

Sibling writer/directors Mark and Jay Duplass are figureheads of the Mumblecore movement – ultra-low budget, largely improvised films featuring non-professional actors – and after earning praise on the American indie circuit for their films The Puffy Chair and Baghead they’re bringing their sensibilities into the mainstream. Cyrus is the brothers’ first studio film and the first chance for UK cinema audiences to find out what the fuss is about and, on this evidence, the buzz is justified. Cyrus is (in this writer’s opinion) the best comedy of the year so far: unique, surprising and featuring a brilliant lead performance from eternal support player John C Reilly, it’s fresh and funny in ways that a traditionally-scripted comedy could never be.

The story centres on John (Reilly), an editor whose life has come to a standstill, a fact rubbed in by his ex-wife’s (Catherine Keener) announcement that she is remarrying. Hope arrives in the form of beautiful and inexplicably single Molly (Marisa Tomei), but then John meets Cyrus (Jonah Hill), Molly’s 21-year old son, and discovers a co-dependent mother-son relationship that the word ‘unhealthy’ doesn’t begin to describe.

In the hands of conventional filmmakers, this would be just another high-concept comedy bearing no resemblance to real life, but the Duplasses focus on drawing believable characterisation from their actors in even the broadest comic scenarios, resulting in supremely awkward but breathtakingly truthful comedy. Reilly shines, and Hill’s performance is also brilliant, unsettlingly poised between scheming and vulnerable, so that even the film’s apparently neat conclusion is undercut with ambiguity.


Cyrus is on general release from 10 September. This review first published in The List magazine.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

SoulBoy (The List, Issue 666)

Low budget Irish filmmaker Shimmy Marcus makes a bid for the mainstream with this formulaic but crowd-pleasing teen drama. It’s 1974, and bored teenager Joe’s (Martin Compston) life is transformed when he pursues unattainable ice-queen Jane (Nichola Burley) to a night at Wigan Casino and discovers the exploding Northern Soul dance scene. On the same night he bumps into Mandy (Felicity Jones), a childhood friend who still holds a torch for Joe. Throw in Alan (Craig Parkinson), Jane’s dance-floor king – and prize tool – boyfriend, and the stage is set for a comfortably predictable story of heartbreak and hip-swivelling.

The script by first-time writer Jeff Williams is workmanlike, but Compston, moving confidently away from his usual Glasgow hard-man persona into likeable leading-man territory, gives SoulBoy a warmth and energy that is irresistible. Jones plays the cute girl-next-door with the same charm and appeal she demonstrated in Cemetery Junction, and Burley, last seen strutting her stuff in Streetdance 3D, works wonders with a thankless, one-dimensional role. It all ends with a dance-off that’s as cheesy as it is uplifting, but SoulBoy’s heart is in the right place.


Soulboy is on selected release. Check for details. This review first published in The List magazine.

Tuesday 31 August 2010

Cherry Tree Lane: Vintage Violence? (The List, Issue 665)

When it comes to going to the cinema, how much screen violence is too much? Or is it more to do with the type of violence? Paul Gallagher ducks the punches

Paul Andrew Williams’s Cherry Tree Lane is a real-time enactment of the break-in and torture of a middle class suburban couple by vengeful teenagers. At a mere 77 minutes, it’s still a brutal, unpleasant endurance test, and much of its power comes from Williams’s stylistic choices. From the film’s opening – a portentous ultra-slow zoom onto a front door – he eschews the furious editing of modern American horror, as well as the more traditional camp vagaries of the genre, in favour of something less comfortable, more shocking, and closer to art house in form. Torture scenes unfold in beautifully composed long takes, and most of the gut-wrenching violence takes place just beyond the camera’s line of sight, with sound filling in the blanks in audience members’ pummelled imaginations. It’s an impressive display of technical expertise, but I struggled to understand why Williams would want to put anyone through such an experience. It’s not a question that he convincingly addresses at any point in the film.

I had a similar reaction recently watching another horror of sorts. Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me features two protracted scenes of brutal and humiliating violence against the film’s female characters; powerfully shocking scenes that have no justifiable place in what is an otherwise traditional, even unremarkable, noir.

These examples represent a growing number of British filmmakers employing the extreme tendencies of art house cinema in mainstream horror films, in a universally empty-headed manner. In the wake of what James Quandt referred to in 2004 as the ‘New Extremity’ – European filmmakers including Gaspar Noé, Catherine Breillat and Bruno Dumont who consciously provoked with painstakingly realised sex, violence and debasement – burgeoning British filmmakers have a new reference, more immediate and shocking than stylised Italian Giallo, but are doing nothing constructive or insightful with it. In fact, with their ‘realistic’ aesthetic, James Watkins’ Eden Lake (2008), Thomas Clay’s execrable The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael (2005) and Cherry Tree Lane serve only to reinforce the inaccurate stereotype that the only teenagers this country produces are fearsome amoral troublemakers.

The film that Cherry Tree Lane immediately brings to mind is Michael Haneke’s home-invasion grueller Funny Games, in which the divisive Austrian director dared audiences to withstand the extreme humiliation and pain he put his characters through. Haneke was making a point about screen violence though; you can disagree with him, but his motivation is clear.

Williams claims that his motivation was ‘to see if I could create what it would be like if this really happened’, while Winterbottom, reflecting on negative reactions to his film, simply said ‘I was surprised that people were so shocked by the violence’, suggesting a distinct lack of reasoning behind their provocative presentations of violence. Film is primarily a means of communication; on this evidence, extreme violence is the current easy option for directors with nothing to say.

Cherry Tree Lane, selected release, Fri 3 Sep. The Killer Inside Me is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Mon 27 Feb. This article first published in The List magazine.

Monday 30 August 2010

National School's Film Week 2010

I’m pleased to be taking part in National Schools Film Week again this year, which is happening in cinemas in Glasgow and Edinburgh from 28 October-5 November. The programme offers free cinema screenings for school classes, during school hours, featuring a huge range of films, from this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker to Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel, and everything you can imagine inbetween.

The idea of National Schools Film Week is to inspire pupils by opening them up to films they might not usually choose to watch, as well as equipping teachers by offering them new ways of approaching familiar subjects through film. They get industry professionals and film critics to come and talk before or after screenings; this year I’ll be introducing the Edinburgh screening of Pedro Almodovar’s most recent film, Broken Embraces (pictured).

This year Film Education will be supplementing its usual advice to schools with a special Not Just A Trip To The Movies guide at packed with tips for teachers suggesting the broad range of ways in which they and their students might make the most of a NSFW (an unfortunate abbreviation, but it's the one they're sticking with) screening, before, during and afterwards.

Booking is open now for over 50 screenings in Glasgow and Edinburgh through the week, and you can find out more at

Sunday 29 August 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

In Edgar Wright’s new film, Scott Pilgrim, as played by Michael Cera, initially comes across like a Romeo for the Playstation generation, and not in a good way; he’s whiney, self-pitying, fickle in his shifting affections and overall a rather unsympathetic character. Added to this Hot Fuzz director Wright front-loads the film with visual gimmicks and whizz-bang effects that cleverly set up the video-game reality of Scott’s world but don’t hold much promise of depth. But stick with it, and slowly a human heart emerges from beneath both Scott’s detached exterior and the film’s flashy digital surfaces.

The plot is simple. Scott, bass player in struggling indie band Sex Bob-omb, meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead; cool as a whole crate of cucumbers) at a party, and is immediately consumed with desire for her. He soon learns that if he wants to date her he will have to defeat her seven evil exes in a series of duels. Fighting ensues.

As in Wright’s debut feature Shaun of the Dead, the central conceit of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World – fights between humans presented in video game ‘vs.’ styles - is one that he previously used in one very funny scene of his brilliant TV show Spaced. Unlike Spaced though (or Shaun and Hot Fuzz), which was grounded in recognisably mundane - and very English - real-world contexts, it’s interesting that his first Hollywood feature is presented in a completely fantastical style throughout; perhaps a comment by Wright on the American film industry’s detachment from the real world?

His more probable motivation for the hyper-stylized setting (apart from Pilgrim’s graphic novel origins) is that here Wright is focusing on considerably younger characters than in his previous films; this is a generation that is increasingly distanced from reality, looking at the world through more and more filters. Scott’s world is a video game, and he is completely detached from real humanity – even “getting a life” isn’t as transformative as it sounds – and while Wright loves that world and plays with its aesthetics to tremendously entertaining effect, he ultimately recognises that it needs to be invaded by something real, otherwise it’s not worth living in.

So while the film is difficult to warm to in its earlier stages, it’s understandable why Wright chose to make it so. He should also be commended for taking a Hollywood budget and doing something that visually justifies it. Wright places the emphasis on images here - a bold move, considering his previous films’ strengths were arguably in performance and dialogue - but his visuals are inspired and unique (and often funny) enough to take the weight. Whether Scott Pilgrim will hold up to repeat viewings as well as Shaun and Hot Fuzz remains to be seen, but after one sitting it confirms Wright as a director continuing to challenge himself, and rewarding his audience in the process.

Thursday 26 August 2010

Avatar: Special Edition, The Illusionist and The Girl Who Played With Fire (Radio Scotland Movie Cafe)

 Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl Who Played With Fire
Click here to listen to the show

The Movie Cafe returned to Radio Scotland today after a break for the Edinburgh Fringe, and I was back on to discuss the cinema re-release of Avatar - what's so special about this 'Special Edition' and does anyone actually want to see it?

Myself, host Janice Forsyth and film critic Jon Melville also reviewed Sylvain Chomet's beautiful new animated film The Illusionist, the Edinburgh-set story of an aging magician and the young girl he takes under his wing. The film premiered earlier this year at Edinburgh International Film Festival, where Janice had also interviewed the director, also featured in this programme.

In the third segment of the show I stayed on to throw in my comments on the second part of the Swedish film adaptations of Stieg Larsson's 'Millenium' trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire. We also got on to discussing David Fincher's American remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and the challenge that he will have, in particular to better these films' realisation of lead character Lisbeth Salander.

Listen to the show here

Monday 28 June 2010

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2010 (The List)

EIFF 2010 ran from 18-26 June this year, and I was there watching movies and interviewing actors and filmmakers for a blog on The List magazine's website.

Click here to read my EIFF 2010 blogs

The blogs cover a lot of the films that made big impressions at this years festival, including Skeletons, which won the Michael Powell Best British Film Award, Monsters, the sci-fi debut from Gareth Edwards, winner of the New Director award, and Get Low, the Robert Duvall-Bill Murray drama that picked up the Audience Award. Plus there's interviews with the men behind Toy Story 3, comedian Ben Miller and of course, much more.

Friday 11 June 2010

Brooklyn's Finest (Radio Scotland Movie Cafe)

This week I was on the Movie Cafe with Janice Forsyth, reviewing Antoine Fuqua's new intense cop drama Brooklyn's Finest starring Richard Gere, Ethan Hawke, Don Cheadle and Wesley Snipes.

Listen to the show here (the review is first item on the show)

Although our discussion dwells on the films flaws (and there are many of them), and it's certainly not up to the standard of Fuqua's Training Day, I thought Brookyln's Finest was a pretty good, tense thriller, with particularly fine performances from Cheadle and Snipes.

Brooklyn's Finest is out now

Friday 4 June 2010, Go! Noel Clarke Interview (

Discussing the influences for his new film, writer, co-director and actor Noel Clarke offers some surprising reference points. “Sideways, Garden State, Happiness, Lost in Translation, Sidewalks of New York”, he muses, “films about characters.” If you’ve seen the furiously cut trailer for Clarke’s multi-stranded ‘four girls in action/adventure’ latest you might not immediately see the connection to those films. But Clarke says the heart of the film is who the girls are, not what they do: “Obviously the publicity people have to sell the film, so ‘it’s a diamond heist movie’. Yeah, there’s a little heist in it, but it’s really about the characters, it’s really about the girls’ individual journeys and their friendships. But you know (does ‘trailer’ voice) ‘Friendship!’ doesn’t quite work as a tag-line.”

While Clarke’s admiration for those character-based dramas is clearly genuine, with he is painting with a rather broader brush, and consciously aiming to capture a wider audience. Like his previous film Adulthood, the story centres on young people in London, but here the four main characters are intentionally not a natural grouping. That was the whole point, says Clarke: “I definitely thought of girls that different girls could each relate to. I didn’t want them to be like Spice Girls, but I wanted them to be different enough that when you’re with each girl you’re on her journey and you follow that story. So whenever they’re together they wear clothes that identify them as friends, but as soon as they split up we put them in their character clothes, what each girl would relate to.”

Unlike the average writer/director, Clarke is very upfront about the fact that he shapes his films with a distinct audience in mind. It’s an issue that comes up again when I challenge him on whether really needed the girl-on-girl sex scene that features in one storyline. “There’s a big core following that watch my films that are young male guys. This is a more female-centric film. The scene didn’t offend people enough in test screenings for them to not watch it because of it, but it gives guys who are, let’s say, of the more simpler-minded nature, something to enjoy.” Whether you agree with his perspective or not, it’s refreshing to hear such a plain statement of intent from a filmmaker. He goes on to add, “I also really thought that by having that scene in there we would show something that’s not shown. Whenever I’ve seen stuff on TV or film where it’s girls or guys of the same sex it’s always done in a gritty kind of way. Why can’t it be a bit more sensual? And yes, this is a bit titillating, but they’re in love, they’re not just like ‘let’s just have sex’.”

Clarke is no stranger to controversy - “People always said how Kidulthood ‘glamourised violence’, and my argument was that in real life if someone hits you with a bat you might die. That’s real life, that’s not glamourising” – but he is keen to point out that just because he puts something in a film doesn’t mean he thinks it is acceptable behaviour: “I don’t expect [my son] to behave the way the kids in the film behave. But it’s a piece of film that’s just put out there about the time that we lived in.” Similarly, he has no problems with people taking a different view to his own: “ is just a piece of art, if you like, for people to talk about, and judge, and criticize or not, and it doesn’t affect me in any way. I’m not concerned by it. And that’s not an arrogant ‘I don’t care what you say’; it’s a drawing of a line. No matter what you do in life, your clothes, your jewellery, whatever, people are going to like it or not.”

But like him or not, Clarke is certainly a force to be reckoned with. Having won the BAFTA Rising Star award in 2009, he’s using the resulting clout to further not just his own career but those of other up-and-coming British filmmakers too, like Mark Davis, the technical whiz with a co-director credit on “I’ve been mates with him for a long time, he’s got the directing skills of Spielberg and the VFX skills of Lucas in one guy. And in a few years time, people will know; there’s a sci-fi film that I’ve written that he’s going to direct.” He also has a comedy script finished, and even a prospective epic that may film in Scotland, an idea that stuck with Clarke after he acted in Neil Marshall’s Scottish-set Centurion (“the vistas where we shot – Lord of the Rings a hundred percent!”) Oh, and he’s a jobbing actor too, we’ll see him next in Ben Miller’s stand-up comedy buddy-movie Huge.

Uniquely among British filmmakers, Clarke is a genuine showman; a constant self-promoter who wants to give people a proper movie experience. “I just want to make films that entertain people”, he says. “You hit the cinema these days you’re looking to spend £70 – your travel, your ticket, you’re probably with someone, girlfriend or wife, you’re probably gonna have a meal after, you’re gonna buy a bunch of snacks in there. If I’m paying £70 for something I want to be entertained! You can buy a computer game for £40 that will last you months.” It’s a sensibility that is rooted in his love for American and international movies – as well as the aforementioned US indies, he cites Go, Pulp Fiction and Mexican cult hit Amores Perros as the chief influences on’s multi-stranded narrative – and it is why Clarke is good for the British film industry. His best work is still ahead of him – for all its style is ultimately too confused and insubstantial to be great - but his ambitions are to be applauded, and will hopefully lead to much greater things. “I just want to do something different. I’m not saying that I am ‘the saviour‘, but I know that I can confidently sit here and say nobody makes films like I do right now.” is on general release now. This interview first published on

Read my review of

Thursday 3 June 2010

The Brothers Bloom (The List, Issue 657)

In 2005, writer/director Rian Johnson transplanted ‘40s film noir to the modern high school and came up with Brick, an exhilarating debut that announced his arrival as a filmmaker of singular vision in no uncertain terms. For his follow-up Johnson had access to a bigger budget and some bigger names, but the convention-twisting spirit of his debut remains, and in The Brothers Bloom he offers a light-hearted spin on that favourite of cinematic sons, the con man. As in Brick, much of the film’s success comes from the well-chosen casting, with Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody balancing humour and heart as the titular tricksters, and Rachel Weisz staying just the right side of kooky as the eccentric millionairess they target for the time-honoured ‘last job’. Even a brief appearance from Robbie Coltrane as, of all things, a Belgian art dealer, hits the spot.

The emphasis is on comedy, and Johnson punctuates his shaggy dog of a story with clever visual gags and several laugh-out-loud moments that owe a debt to some (charmingly acknowledged) silent classics. While the near two-hour running time comes close to testing the patience, the story pays off with a final twist of melancholy that’s surprising and touching.


General release from Fri 4 Jun. This review first published in The List magazine.

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Turning Tricks: Con men in the movies (The List, Issue 657)

Con artists, sharks, flimflammers and hustlers have an honourable history on the silver screen. Paul Gallagher goes in search of the best

It was Herman Melville who first used the term ‘confidence man’ in the way we understand it today, in his 1857 novel of the same name. He identified America as the character’s natural home, and Lewis Hyde agrees, noting in his book Trickster Makes This World that ‘the confidence man embodies things that are actually true about America but cannot be openly declared’. Correspondingly, con artist characters can be found in cinema from the earliest of the silents onwards. But when early Hollywood gave a con artist centre stage, he or she was either reformed by love – like Barbara Stanwyck giving up conning for the love of Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges’ 1941 classic The Lady Eve – or secured the audience’s affections by ensuring that the only ones getting ripped off were those who deserved it – as with Jimmy Cagney gamely fleecing the fat-cats in Blonde Crazy (1931). This ‘good’ con man is the one who has had the highest profile throughout cinema’s lifetime, with George Clooney and his Ocean’s chums charming and cheating with impunity just as Robert Redford and Paul Newman did almost four decades ago in The Sting.

But Melville saw a darker kind of hero in the image of the smooth-talking stranger who promises much and takes everything, and this incarnation is the one that provides the greatest fascination for filmmakers and watchers alike. He is Gordon Gecko, the corrupt and heartless Wall Street inside dealer who became a beloved icon of cinema and earned Michael Douglas an Oscar; he is Keyser Soze, the master criminal who convinced the world of his non-existence in The Usual Suspects, and notched up another trickster’s Oscar, this time for Kevin Spacey. The simultaneous attraction and repulsion of the movie con man has never been more concisely investigated than in House Of Games, con-obsessed director David Mamet’s first and best film. Joe Mantegna’s Mike reveals the art of the con to Lindsay Crouse by saying ‘I give my confidence to you …’ and she can’t help but be drawn to the knowledge and power that he offers. But even as he is confiding in her he is still tricking her, just as Mamet is further tricking us. Yet we take delight in being tricked, because the thrill of being thoroughly fooled is actually what cinema is all about.

The Brothers Bloom (pictured), the new film from Brick writer/director Rian Johnson centres on two con men, played by Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody, who perfectly fit the charming cheaters description. But in the film, Ruffalo’s character Stephen claims that, ‘the best con is the one where everyone gets what they want’. This is the heart of the confidence trick; the trickster gets material gain by creating and sustaining an idealised fiction, telling the story so well that his audience happily suspends disbelief. Johnson’s script continually draws attention to the connections between conning and storytelling, signalling his own position as chief con artist in the greatest deception going; movies themselves. After all, what do we hope for from film but to be moved to feel something real by that which we know is not real? The greatest filmmakers are the greatest con men, because they fool us so effectively, and we love them for it.

The Brothers Bloom, general release from Fri 4 Jun. This article first published in The List magazine.