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.