Thursday 31 March 2011

Source Code and Sucker Punch reviews (BBC Radio Movie Cafe)

Two very different new releases this week; one a highly recommended sci-fi action drama, the other an ill-conceived and entirely unnecessary peek into the juvenile mind of Zack Snyder, the man currently entrusted with reviving the Superman franchise (shudder). Listen to hear my verdicts, and I've also posted my notes on the films here if you'd prefer to read than listen!

Source Code
Army captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up in the body of an unknown man and discovers he's part of a mission to find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train.

Hitchcock influence
North by Northwest-inspired credits sequence – skyscrapers, train running through town, music is basically an update of Bernard Hermann’s score. The way scenario initially plays out – picking up details of characters, camera moving around everyone, sense of something not right – it all evokes Hitch in a very compelling way.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is how well Duncan Jones handles the unfolding of the story. He, and Ben Ripley, writer, keep the audience interested by gradually revealing more about the truth of Stevens’ predicament, while also ensuring that the repeating scenario develops every time you see it again – you’re not looking at your watch. The question of what is real/simulated/imagined is well-maintained, and ultimately answered.

Gyllenhaal has a lot of info to convey through dialogue, but makes it work. When the necessary ‘what is Source Code?’ moment comes it is well-handled.

Like the best sci-fi (including Jones' previous Moon) Source Code uses its far-fetched scenario to focus on very human themes; there is depth, and sadness, to Gyllenhaal’s performance, and by the film’s end some audience members will be reflecting on the value of life – it’s moving stuff, but at the same time, lots of fun.

Gyllenhaal is excellent, holds the film together perfectly and carries the emotional stuff particularly well. He’s funny and likeable, and very easy to care about. Michelle Monaghan does a great job in a very limited character range – she is basically replaying the same 8 minutes over and over, but still convinces us why Stevens would feel so strongly towards her. Vera Farmiga is the other great performance – unravelling of her professional exterior as she connects with Stevens – also adds to the heart of the film. Jeffrey Wright is the odd one out – weird accent and a bit pantomimey.

Comparison with Christopher Nolan
I can definitely see Jones stepping up to the level of Nolan. He has a similar ability to make big ideas really compelling, mixed with exciting storytelling, but he has more heart: this is big-hearted sci-fi, with big concepts, thoughtfully played out.

Not sure I needed very end – tries to tie things up too much and in so doing upsets the balance of ‘levels of reality’ that had been quite well held. Not a big issue though, the strength of emotion carries the story.

Sucker Punch
A young girl (Emily Browning) is institutionalized by her abusive stepfather. Retreating to an alternative reality as a coping strategy, she envisions a plan which will help her escape from the mental facility.

Zack Snyder’s previous live-action films Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen have all been good in part – visually amazing and well-directed action for sure, but lacking subtlety entirely, and based in a comic-book understanding of reality: everything grossly exaggerated and simplified. Sucker Punch basically sees him giving free reign to all his worst tendencies as a director. Whereas he has previously worked from someone else’s story, so in a way he’s been reigned in, this is his own story, and as such he’s let his mind go completely.

The result is like a parody of empty postmodern storytelling at its most ridiculously extreme. Like those Youtube mash-ups where someone cuts bits of Lord of the Rings into The Matrix for example, except feature length, and utterly meaningless. Incorporating LOTR, World War I movies, Chicago, I, Robot, Batman Begins, the list goes on. All populated by girls in sexy underwear, with big guns. And Nazi robots.

Female empowerment??
The depiction of the women is demeaning and close to pornographic in sensibility. Baby Doll is offered as this ‘ultimate male fantasy’ character, basically because she looks, and is dressed, much younger than her 20 years; and the other girls celebrate the fact that she can transfix men with her jaw-dropping erotic dancing. This is as far from empowering as is possible on film. These women are completely subjugated to a male gaze, and they act as if that is unavoidable.

Aside from the offensive sexism (and Snyder’s obvious self-loathing: every male character is a grotesque lech), the other main problem is the film makes no sense. It might have worked as a musical – it has the kind of illogical set-up with jumps in logic that works best as a musical. The ‘quest’ element is clunkily set up and feels like a computer game scenario. Dialogue is laughably awful – Showgirls-type scenes with girls trussed up in lingerie attempting to have serious conversations.

After getting My Chemical Romance to desecrate Dylan’s Desolation Row for Watchmen, here everyone from The Beatles to Queen to The Pixies has their best songs destroyed in asinine soulless airbrushed covers on the ‘slabs-of-meathead-metal’ soundtrack.

Ending has the gall to suggest that this was a story of personal empowerment all along – what a load of rubbish. Avoid, and hope that Snyder has some kind of mental growth spurt before shooting his Superman remake.

Source Code and Sucker Punch are in cinemas from Friday 1st April.

Monday 21 March 2011

Limitless review (

This slick thriller offers a diverting Friday night’s entertainment, but nothing more; that’s a shame given the potential of its concept. The one thing it does very well, though, is showcase the considerable screen talents of leading man Bradley Cooper. The Hangover star is the perfect choice to play Eddie Mora, a scruffy writer who transforms from an unmotivated layabout into a supremely sophisticated businessman with a razor-sharp mind after he takes a mysterious ‘clear pill’. It’s the kind of audience-winning performance that used to be Tom Cruise’s speciality; Cooper exudes effortless confidence in front of the camera, but also possesses a keenly intense dramatic ability that brings an audience immediately into his character’s moment.

But while Cooper shines, the story he’s in the middle of moves from promising beginnings to settle into generic chase thriller territory. The idea of a pill that can open up the untapped reserves of human brainpower is a fascinating one, and director Neil Burger initially seems interested in exploring it: the way the pill throws open Eddie’s mind recalls Tyler Durden’s system-subversion in Fight Club, and Burger’s Fincher-aping camera techniques encourage the comparison. But this central concept is not particularly explored by Leslie Dixon’s script, adapted from Alan Glynn’s 2001 novel The Dark Fields. Instead, once the film establishes how much power and status Eddie can acquire through the pill, it quickly shifts focus to the external threats to his situation – people who want to stop him, the problem of maintaining a supply, how to keep it a secret and so on – meaning that that the pill effectively becomes what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin; an object that the plot hinges on but is not important in itself. Once this happens, anything that was uniquely interesting or compelling about the story is superseded by simple ‘survive-at-all-costs’ thriller logic.

Burger peppers the film with a handful of impressive effects sequences that capture the effect on Eddie when he takes the pills. As he first experiences the drug, the visuals niftily explain what his brain is doing and where his new knowledge is coming from. Similarly, in a scene when Eddie fends off a huge group of attackers, Burger cuts between the sources of his newfound fighting ability – remembered moves from computer games and TV shows – and the practical application of it. It’s a brilliantly edited scene and works very well.

But the success of these sequences ultimately highlights the fact that there is nothing more to this film than flash and disposable thrills, a point further brought home by the negligible impact that Robert De Niro and Abbie Cornish make in their supporting roles. Once this script has laid its tracks for the plot to roll out on, it leaves no room for incidental details like characterisation or believable human interactions. Perhaps a better title would be Limited.

Limitless is released on 23rd March. This review first published on

Richard Ayoade profile interview (The List, Issue 678)

Richard Ayoade

12 June 1977, Whipp’s Cross, London

Best known for playing Moss in Graham Linehan’s hit TV comedy The IT Crowd, Ayoade first came to the notice of cult comedy fans as writer, director and co-star of spoof sci-fi series Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace in 2004. As well as featuring in The Mighty Boosh, he’s also directed music videos for Arctic Monkeys, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Vampire Weekend.

What’s he up to now?
Ayoade has written and directed his first film, Submarine, a darkly funny coming-of-age story adapted from Joe Dunthorne’s novel. It’s a work of sophisticated humour and depth, and a genuinely exciting British debut.

On turning the novel into a film
‘You can’t rely on literary fireworks, so it becomes more about behaviour; watching people and seeing how other people react. There’s no equivalent to a reaction shot in a book, there’s no way of instantaneously juxtaposing two views simultaneously. And films are good at that; they’re basically people just looking at one another! So you have to turn it into that – a series of looks.’

On casting the two young leads
‘Craig [Roberts] and Yasmin [Paige] were great and never felt like they were deliberately playing it like comedians. When you reach my age you just go: “I don’t want to do stuff with people I don’t like.” That’s the main thing: [finding] people you can talk to and enjoy two months of drizzle with. In Wales.’

On film as a key influence in lead character Oliver Tate’s life
‘Film seems to be the one area in the world where no one talks about films. Or, if they do it’s massively postmodern, like Tarantino, or Wes Craven’s Scream. To me it was always weird that film existed as a bizarre ghetto in which no one went to see films, or spoke about films, or behaved in a way that was influenced by films. Because people do, and this character particularly does.’

Interesting fact
Ayoade is developing a film based on Dostoevsky novella The Double.

Submarine, general release, Fri 18 Mar. This interview first published in The List magazine.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Submarine review (The List, Issue 678)

Here is a rare thing: a British comedy debut that’s surprising, witty, hugely accomplished and fully capable of finding an audience worldwide. Richard Ayoade, previously best known for his TV roles in The IT Crowd and The Mighty Boosh, directs his own adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s 2008 novel with confidence and style, suggesting a glowing film career lies ahead. It’s no incidental detail that Submarine is presented in association with Red Hour Films, Ben Stiller’s production company.

In a nameless Welsh village, at an unspecified moment of the late 20th century, we meet Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a 15-year-old schoolboy with a briefcase and a tendency to be ridiculed by his peers. But in his mind – the perspective Ayoade most often presents to us – Oliver is a supremely intelligent outsider, the ultra-cool star in the film of his own life. Oliver has his sights set on two goals; to lose his virginity before he turns 16, hopefully with his gorgeously aloof classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige), and to save his parents’ marriage after he sees his mum (Sally Hawkins) chatting up their neighbour, new-age motivational speaker Graham (Paddy Considine).

There’s a similarity to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore in the precisely crafted way that Ayoade shoots Oliver’s life, as well as his eye for comic details, but the film has a style of its own that keeps it from feeling like an imitation. Tonally, Ayoade treads a fine balance between poignant emotion and detached comedy, and his young leads serve him well in this regard. Paige is particularly good, equally convincing as the cool object of Oliver’s fantasy and the emotionally complicated, real girl he gets to know. The icing on the cake is the soundtrack, a surprisingly tender set of new songs by Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner. 

General release, Fri 18 Mar. This review first published in The List magazine.

Sunday 6 March 2011

Norwegian Wood review (The List, issue 678)

Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has a unique voice in contemporary fiction, both hugely imaginative and intensely intimate. But with this adaptation of one of his most popular books, French-Vietnamese filmmaker Anh Hung Tran fails to find a way to successfully translate that voice into substantial and effective cinema. The story of directionless Japanese student Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama), and the relationships he pursues with Naoko (Babel’s Rinko Kikuchi) and Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) while at university in the late 60s is one of Murakami’s more straightforwardly accessible plots, but as retold by Tran it is ponderous, slight and, when stretched over two hours, painfully dull.

The director’s ability to create striking visuals is undeniable, and the film is graced with many beautiful, sensual moments, made all the more lovely by the fine soundtrack from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. But Tran’s willfully opaque screenplay means that enjoyment of the film remains at this surface level throughout. There are weighty themes to the story – death and love, the possibility of connection – but Tran’s determinedly contemplative approach, complete with sluggish pacing and intensely internalised performances, ironically only serves to keep the audience at arm’s length from the story’s emotional core.

Norwegian Wood is released on 11 March. This review first published in The List magazine.