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After the Storm

August 1, 2017

After the Storm (2016)
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Actors: Hiroshi Abe, Kirin Kiki, Yōko Maki

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Synopsis: Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is a washed-up, middle-aged divorcee, struggling to keep up with alimony payments to his ex-wife, failing to write a follow-up to his debut novel, and giving his widowed mother cause to believe he’s just like his late, untrustworthy father.

Review: Even a Hirokazu Koreeda work in minor key (but then aren’t they all?) is a pleasure, and After the Storm is no different in this regard. Seasoned Koreeda connoisseurs won’t find anything especially new to his usual deft narrative canvas of an empathetic family dramedy, but this one is especially adept at cloaking in its slyly soapy scenario a convincing discourse on the faintly melancholic air of disenchantment that comes with the simple fact of growing older (it stands true for all three generations of characters here).

It’s arguably one of Koreeda’s more schematic works, but this feels permissible when he’s offering such an eloquent, almost literary, glance over his characters. The very title, After the Storm, is hugely metaphoric with its pathetic fallacy import of a strong typhoon passing over the apartment which is housing all the main protagonists in the concluding act. This symbolism in mined expertly in the concise and beautiful late scene of the divorced couple and young son, chasing around the neighbourhood in the howling torrent, attempting to find their scattered lottery tickets. There’s a whimsical sensibility in this scene that stands as testament to Koreeda’s overarching sense of humour and humanity that not only infiltrates this film, but his entire body of work. (August 2017)

Kevin and Perry Go Large

August 1, 2017

Kevin and Perry Go Large (2000)
Director: Ed Bye
Actors: Harry Enfield, Kathy Burke, Rhys Ifans

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Synopsis: Horny teenagers, Kevin (Harry Enfield) and Perry (Kathy Burke), make the trip of a lifetime to Ibiza, where they hope to fulfil their ambition of becoming top DJs.

Review: Despite the incredibly short running time – 82 minutes (although maybe that’s a sign of the tenuousness of the whole concept) – Kevin and Perry Go Large still manages to feel too long, and betrays the characters’ origin as a sketch show skit.

It doesn’t take long (only 5 minutes) before the first, surly teenager tantrum rocks in that Harry Enfield and Kathy Burke have mined to such iconic effect in the TV show. Thereafter, the writers pad the material out akin to many TV serials migrating to the big screen – namely, putting the characters through a “high concept” (usually an overseas trip à la Sex and the City 2 and The Inbetweeners). Kevin and Perry are also given an arc familiar to the lads of American Pie and The Inbetweeners where they essentially spend the large chunk of the movie trying to get their end away.

At least there are no pretensions here: it’s all lowest common denominator stuff based around bodily functions (Kevin even eats Perry’s sea poo at one point!) There are also some very funny, non-PC jokes about gays, transvestites and Germans which are a reminder of the age of this film – it was a by-product of Generation Xers rather than the Millennials. In short, the film is instantly forgettable, but perhaps contains a smidgeon of nostalgia value for those who were fans of the TV sketch. (August 2017)

Nolan Films Ranked

July 31, 2017

Right, that’s it. Dunkirk is the tenth feature film released – as director – by Christopher Nolan, so what better opportunity to appraise his work than by putting those movies into a rank order. Without further ado, in reverse order, here goes:

10. Dunkirk (2017)

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A straightforward, generic, moneyed exercise in military recreation. Any emotional resonance extracted by the story’s end is due more to the inherent gravitas of the history itself than through Nolan’s actual craft.

Full Review:

9. Batman Begins (2005)

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It’s ironic that Nolan’s opener to what went on to be heralded as one of the great cinematic trilogies was the weakest entrant to that series (at least the movie’s runaway commercial success ensured Nolan would get to see the trilogy out). Wrapped up in Batman Begins are all Nolan’s aggravating foibles. It’s such an earnest attempt to fashion a realistic genesis for the concept of Batman that it winds up – particularly in its opening act – being a solemn and didactic trudge through its seminal themes of terror, social responsibility and vigilantism. Just count how many times the word “fear” is incanted through the film’s somewhat tiresome exposition. The juxtaposition between this solemnity and the inherent pulpiness of the superhero source material that Nolan the ‘genre nut’ evidently loves (costumes, cars, weapons, explosions) makes for an unwieldy combo.

Full Review:

8. Following (1998)

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Following isn’t ranked low for its relative unfamiliarity per se, but more because it’s so clearly Nolan’s freshman work; full of teething problems and inconsistencies he would go on to perfect with impressive haste by the time of his next film, Memento. On the plus side, Following clearly evidences Nolan’s hallmark ‘brand’ – being a tricky, narratologically inventive work understanding the ethics behind its genre hook (this one’s about a ‘follower’ caught up in a criminal conspiracy). Following‘s clear limitations are its amateur lead actors, and also the sense that Nolan’s visual choice (the black and white photography) feels gimmicky and one-note as a stylistic trope.

Full Review:

7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

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A pulverising, nihilistic film in tone that somehow works (at times, inadvertently) in approximating a world on the precipice of political and social anarchy. It doesn’t look like a Batman film, and Gotham City here appears jarringly different from the visual iterations Nolan found for it in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight…and yet, it’s a concentrically brutal and gripping piece of work. Bruce Wayne’s character arc of going full circle and having to regenerate himself in Bane’s prison is a clever echo of his seminal childhood fall down a bat-infested well, and the film’s spectacular ending is undeniably operatic blockbuster storytelling par excellence.

Full Review:

6. Insomnia (2002)


Nolan’s first foray into big budget, industrial Hollywood storytelling is one of his most generic works, where his signature is fairly unrecognisable – but the film is none the poorer for that. If you scroll through your Netflix algorithms, there are dozens of hokum cop thrillers, and Insomnia is essentially a variant on that – but with its little quirks and tactical touches adding a crucial layer of class (also due in part to the original Norwegian film on which this is based). Alaska during its summer guise of 24-hour sunlight is mined for its surreality, and Al Pacino absolutely revels in the lead role – staggering around the deserted streets of the Alaskan smalltown like a distant version of the “hero”, Leonard Shelby, from Nolan’s previous film, Memento. Robin Williams nicely characterises his part too, and the notion that cop and killer might strike a de facto bargain over one’s ability to frame the other is an ingenious scenario well played out by, what was at the time, two of Hollywood’s most interesting A-listers.

Full Review:

5. Inception (2010)

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It’s easy to mock the instruction manual dialogue, the fetishised designer lifestyle, and the spuriously heavy action quota of Inception, but if viewed from the understanding that Nolan was operating from well inside Hollywood’s commercial machinery, then his attempt to smuggle some superior genre fare into the multiplex commands respect. There is a unity of operatic intent that makes Inception such an entertaining treatise on relativity and temporality: from the compelling dream/reality scenario, and Hans Zimmer’s exemplary score, to the committed performances from an excellent ensemble. The past master of intense roles, Leonardo DiCaprio, was a fitting icon for Inception‘s bludgeoning aesthetic.

Full Review:

4. The Dark Knight (2008)

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Right up there with Nolan’s more consciously tricksy works (think MementoThe Prestige and Inception), the enduring excellence of The Dark Knight is not so much Heath Ledger’s hugely mythologised performance, but for being a rare case in the Nolan oeuvre where his blending of spectacle and thematics to structural complexity wasn’t leaden, but exhilaratingly justified.

Full Review:

3. The Prestige (2006)

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It’s important to acknowledge Nolan’s frequent collaborators before ascribing auteurist absolutism to his work, and The Prestige owes much to the craft of Nolan’s DP of choice right up until Interstellar, Wally Pfister. Pfister turns The Prestige‘s visually unpromising scenario into perhaps Nolan’s most beautiful film. The Prestige is also arguably Nolan’s most fully realised achievement when it comes to his career-long interest in structure (read below review for more thoughts on this). It also features the clearest mandate/justification one can find in his work for the alluring dichotomy of magic and loss at the heart of the illusory (read – cinematic) medium.

Full Review:

2. Interstellar (2014)

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Nolan is obsessed by the emotional resonance of temporality. He even attempted to shoehorn this in to his otherwise straightforward WW2 piece, DunkirkInterstellar is Nolan’s ode to the poignancy to be found in the simple passing of time, and to explore the full potential of this, he (much like other greats of the medium – Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky) had to go to the far reaches of the universe to articulate his most simple, sincere and humane message – the transcendence of love. Interstellar also featured the crowning glory of Zimmer’s musical contributions to the films of Nolan.

Full Review:

1. Memento (2000)

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Mementos “cult” reputation has suffered something of a backlash in more recent years – chief among the jibes are that its reverse chronology method and narrative content are essentially re-spun facets of generic, conventional storytelling. No sh*t Sherlock! I thought that was entirely the point. I never took Memento as a conceit or an exercise in pulling the wool over the audience’s eyes; it’s more an experiment in deconstructing those staple genre conventions. Chief among its stunning successes are the way it so riotously subverts classic character identification structures (just who is the “good guy” in this film?), it refutes the storytelling balm of catharsis, and far from providing audiences with a neatly solvable puzzle at the end, it provides a Faustian abyss of interminability at the narrative possibilities.

Full Review:

(July 2017)

The Virgin Suicides

July 30, 2017

The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Director: Sofia Coppola
Actors: James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst

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Synopsis: A group of men reflect back on their teenage association with the alluring Lisbon sisters who all committed suicide over a short period of time.

Review: 1999 was a truly great year for American cinema. It spawned enduring classics such as Magnolia, Being John MalkovichFight Club and Rushmore to name but a few, and Sofia Coppola’s astoundingly assured debut, The Virgin Suicides, deserves inclusion right at the top of that illustrious list.

In fact, it must be ranked as one of the finest directorial debuts period, and perhaps a high point that Coppola has never quite matched again in her career. Coppola, quite rightly, is known as a master of ambience and depicting interior states, but The Virgin Suicides is such a dexterous dramatic and sociopolitical piece too. What she’s crafted is really rather difficult: a film that is both an external commentary on all things to do with patriarchy, affluence and homogeneity, as well as being an experiential ode to the intangibles and inherent mysteries of the human condition.

The opening sequence of the film is a great exemplar of Coppola’s mastery over form and content. We open on a lovely, low-key portrait of the Detroit suburb of Grosse Point in dreamy dusk light, until a sharp cut frames ornate, adolescent female toiletries in a bathroom window, before an elegiac voiceover informs us abruptly “Cecilia was the first to go”, by which point another cut shows Cecilia, lying seemingly dead, in the bath water. This sequence imprints the subtle, but all-important, link between environment and protagonist, while also introducing a refracted, ironic narration (it’s one of the boys – in thrall to the mystique of the Lisbon girls – recalling their story in later-life).

It’s Coppola’s competency in handling the import of the story that impresses most. Postmodern distanciation is a desperately difficult trick to carry off sincerely, but Coppola does it superbly. One example being the almost Wes Anderson-esque comic interlude of a boy who jumps out of a window for love (he only winds up with a few scratches after falling in a thick bush), but this darkly prefigures the gothic suicide of Cecilia who embarks on a similarly dramatic act after becoming alienated by the banality of a party her parents are hosting for her.

If Coppola hasn’t always nailed this tricky cocktail of style to narrative quite so successfully in her subsequent films, it probably says more about the excellence of The Virgin Suicides than the relative inadequacies of those works. (July 2017)


July 30, 2017

Dunkirk (2017)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Actors: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh

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Synopsis: The British evacuation from Dunkirk during the Second World War as seen from various land, sea and air perspectives.

Review: Comfortably the least interesting film of Christopher Nolan’s career, Dunkirk is essentially one elongated disaster movie, and, even then, it revolves around a series of rapidly diminishing (in excitement terms) scenes of contingency that you will have seen countless times before in any other movie in the war film canon.

Not only that, but Dunkirk doesn’t really add anything new to the story of Dunkirk itself that you won’t have read about in a history book or seen in a stellar war documentary like The World at War. In fact, even Winston Churchill’s famous speech after Dunkirk which augured Britain’s finest and most defiant moment of the Second World War (keeping the Nazis at bay) will tell you as much about Dunkirk as this film, particularly as the film needs the theatre and grandiosity of Churchill’s speech and sentiment to attempt to give its meek narrative some form of operatic finish.

Even Nolan’s gorging on the technicalities of the piece by making warfare seem more visceral (primarily through a pulsating sound design and swarming camerawork) is only moderately impressive. I mean, if you have a budget of $100 million and you’ve recruited some of the best technicians in the industry, plus that’s your prime concern, I wouldn’t expect any less. It’s like being impressed by the fact Manchester City have a decent football team because they’ve been funded to the high heavens by the riches of Abu Dhabi.

What’s surprising is that it’s the least emotionally involving Nolan film too (an incredible fact considering the quasi-fascistic tone of The Dark Knight Rises). A lot of his previous films are guilty of heavy exposition, but at least they have a stronge sense of narrative and thematic ambition. Here, Nolan’s sole conceit seems to be to create an industrial ode to the chaos of warfare – but I’d take Terrence Malick’s anti-war meditation, The Thin Red Line, over this, any day of the week.

Nolan’s problem is that he’s become such a cash cow and prestige emblem for Warner Bros that it will be increasingly difficult to extricate himself from this mode of filmmaking (if he can even conceive of the need to anyway). It would be really great, however, to see him limit himself to a $1m budget next time around, and to try to tap into the ingenuity of his earlier works like Following and Memento. Size isn’t everything, Chris. (July 2017)

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

July 29, 2017

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015)
Director: John Madden
Actors: Dev Patel, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy

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Synopsis: Sunny (Dev Patel) and Sunaina (Tina Desai), proprietors of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in Jaipur, find their wedding preparations under strain from plans to expand the hotel’s franchise.

Review: When a film makes an 800% profit on its initial investment, objection to its merits as a drama are by the by, but still, The Second Best Exotic Hotel‘s troubling ethno-politics and its status as one of the most patronising movies ever made cannot be overlooked.

At its least objectionable, The Second Best Exotic Hotel can be explained as a form of permissible, feelgood soap opera – something akin to the fodder served up to BBC TV audiences on a Sunday evening. Its array of utterly predictable characters and arcs would suit the leisurely format and viewing demographic, but on the more probing, spectatorial microscope of the big screen, the film’s blithe attitude to its Indian characters and canvas, plus the largely bogus “journeys” it forces on its key personnel, give new meaning to the word ‘shallow’.

The opening to the film plays what it perceives to be its trump card when Maggie Smith’s plucky racist and xenophone offers a monologue about the etiquette of tea-drinking to corporate suits in San Diego when the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’s franchise pitch is seemingly going awry (oh – wait a minute – this film seems to have conveniently forgotten her character’s vile arc in the previous film). Sadly, making Smith’s character some sort of sanctimonious, moral chorus around which this film’s action can revolve is a rank bad decision, and matching that faux-pas is the truly horrendous idea of having Celia Imrie’s patronisingly flirty MILF sleep around with a series of august Indian suitors before finding her heart belongs to her humble, ‘earthy’ local taxi-driver (despite the fact he’s been pimping out this rather detestable English love-glutton for the duration of the film – but then again, he’s not meant to exist as an actual person, he’s just a cipher of Indian servility around which the cheapest of character epiphanies can take place).

To be fair to The Second Best Exotic Hotel, it knows no shame; it’s even got more endings than The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King! Tom Wilkinson – the best actor with the best story from the previous film can’t save events this time around as he was killed off at the end of that film. Thus we’re left with a whole host of characters who are either unlikeable or uninteresting – quite the problem for even the more populist, mainstream aspirations of this film. (July 2017)

A Very Murray Christmas

July 22, 2017

A Very Murray Christmas (2015)
Director: Sofia Coppola
Actors: Bill Murray, George Clooney, Miley Cyrus

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Synopsis: A laconic Bill Murray runs the gauntlet of PR types trying to make him do a very commercial Christmas special…

Review: Presenting almost exactly the same conceit as Sofia Coppola’s earlier work, Lost in Translation, yet without that film’s masterly ability to capture that transitory air of epiphany one often encounters on fleeting foreign travels, A Very Murray Christmas‘s success is more or less predicated on the degree to which the viewer finds the persona of Bill Murray innately charming.

The loose set-up of A Very Murray Christmas uncannily echoes Lost in Translation, with a jaded, put-upon Murray being harassed by PR types who need him to conform to the stereotype of the Christmas special format he’s about to do, when Murray would rather idle around with an ideal cast of pals and celebrities (including the likes of George Clooney and Miley Cyrus who do eventually appear in Murray’s drink-inspired reverie).

Outside of that, it’s pretty indulgent, unexceptional fare. The whole idea of Bill Murray is that he’s funny when he’s not trying to be, and that his persona works best when scored against substantial narratives or absurd scenarios. Here, there are one or two inspired moments amid the film’s overall aimlessness and raggedness: Murray and Chris Rock’s duet to “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is amusingly filmed by Coppola (the only time you’re aware that this is a work by her) through a pastiche of the old-school music video fad for cheesy fades, dissolves and split screens. That aside, there’s really nothing else of worth save for the interesting footnote that Maya Rudolph belts out her song amazingly well, which is a reminder that she’s actually the daughter of the late soul singer, Minnie Riperton. (July 2017)