Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Prophet

This dazzling piece of cinema from French director Jacques Audiard is a powerful work of art, overflowing with iconic characters and oozing confidence from its every frame.

The film focuses on young Malik (powerfully played by Tahar Rahim), serving a six year prison sentence for an unknown crime. Arriving with nothing more than a fifty-euro note stuck in his worn-out trainers, A Prophet follows his career on the inside, as he comes across Corsican mafia (led by Niels Arestrup) and other groups within the crowded prison.

To discuss the way the plot unfolds throughout the near-three hour length of the film would be to ruin one of the chief pleasures of an excellent script, but it is worth noting that the writing quality here is of an exceptional standard. Politics, characterisation, religion and elements of fantasy or super-realism are interwoven with a plot that maintains a relentless and gripping pace from start to finish. Some segments are perhaps slightly superfluous to the main narrative thrust, but these are executed with such panache that few viewers could find sufficient cause for complaint.

Audiard's direction is superlative, his keen eye filling every scene with details and touches, and effectively capturing some magnificent performances by the strong cast. There is a tangible attempt to create a truly iconic crime drama here - with the epic scope of The Godfather, the punchy style of Trainspotting and the thematic ambiguity (but notably none of the ironic overtones) of Pulp Fiction. These are not glib references - the film merits comparison with such definitive work because it is undoubtedly worthy of entry into that pantheon.

Utterly revelatory on a first viewing, A Prophet is a film to be pored over, studied, dissected and above all treasured.


Monday, March 30, 2009


'Romantic comedy' is a phrase likely to bring most cinephiles out in a rash. This 1996 offbeat comedy skirts potential artistic suicide with a strained attempt at effortless cool, and plays out like a comedy of manners for the Tarantino generation.

Jon Favreau gives a magnetic performance in the central role of his own script, as a recently single comedian trying to make it in Hollywood, held back only by coyness, self-reflection and an annoying (and occasionally far-fetched) propensity for self-destruction.

The first third of the film follows Favreau on a road trip to Las Vegas with a before-he-got-irritating Vince Vaughan in support, in a doomed attempt to banish the ghosts of his previous relationship with a one night stand. While providing some good gags and employing a measured pace that intrigues, this section of the film sits uncomfortably with the remainder, which takes place in Los Angeles.

With a mostly forgettable supporting cast (Heather Graham lifts the quality somewhat with her late appearance) the crop of reservoir dogs around which the film is centred not only idolise Tarantino, but highlight an uncomfortable level of fan boy worship in Favreau's script. Indeed the juddering slow-motion walking sequence in the middle of the film, no doubt intended as arch and ironic, comes across as patronisingly derivative.

Engaging and funny, but a little too sharply scripted for its own good, Swingers slaps a dollop of 90s chic onto a well-worn formula and, thanks in most part to some bright performances, manages to entertain more than it irritates.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Radio On

This sparse, poignant 1979 film from critic turned first-time-director Christopher Petit is a rare example of a British road movie. Financed by Wim Wenders' production company, the film centres on a young man who travels from London to Bristol to investigate the mysterious death of his brother.

Plot is not important here. Indeed the lives of the various characters met on the way are relatively unimportant. What is most strongly conveyed, through a precise mix of bleak, monochrome cinematography, languorous tracking shots of industrialised Britain and cold New Wave and electronic music is a meditative exploration of a societal malaise.

The film opens with a long tracking shot through an apparently deserted house, taking in many minor details, and looping through different rooms to the sound of David Bowie's "Heroes" / "Helden" (the German version of the same song), finally setting on a image which transpires to be the final viewpoint of a dying man in the bath.

Oppressively bleak and yet somehow ultimately uplifting, a feat accomplished without being remotely redemptive, Radio On is worth persevering with to the end - just don't expect any answers. As with all good road movies, the lesson learnt is in the journey. In Petit's minor masterpiece we are taught that apathy is universal. Somehow, this is a comforting thought.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


This unremittingly bleak tale of murder and attrition from director David Fincher is an astonishing cinematic statement, that remains as shocking today as when it was first released in 1995. It is a masterpiece of the macabre and modern gothic, and sits in the same category as Psycho - a film that proves pure genre pieces can be as profound and inventive as any cinematic expression.

Se7en follows Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt as two detectives in their respective last and first weeks on the job, following the case of a serial killer who mutilates his victims and labels the crimes with one of the seven deadly sins. The murders, though off screen, are nonetheless gory and graphic, and form the gritty substance of the film.

Murky and dark, the opening segments of the film trap the audience in a purgatorial city of depravity, fear and constant decay. As the investigators meditate on the writings of Milton and Chaucer, we are pulled in to the psychology of a killer who we've yet to meet. Most intriguingly of all, and virtually unique in good crime films, we are forced to focus on the how, rather than the why of the grisly murders.

As Fincher unveils the ace up the film's sleeve, we are pulled with the characters into the blinding light of day, and left with the uncomfortable notion that self-understanding is the worst fruit plucked from the tree of knowledge. Dazzlingly pure and perfectly realised, Se7en is in many ways the epitaph of modernist cinema, and gave Fincher the freedom to move on to tackling post-modernism, a goal he would achieve with Fight Club.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Descent

This terrifying British horror movie is, to turn a cringing phrase, "the mutant offspring of Touching The Void and The Hobbit on steroids". A group of young women meet to go potholing in the Appalachians, one year after a terrible accident threatens to tear them apart. Tensions bubble under the surface as they descend into the mountain, where they are totally unprepared for the horrors that will throw them together and then tear them, limb from limb, apart.

While on paper this premise sounds overblown and more than a little silly, The Descent is actually a refreshing change: a horror movie that is subtle in characterization and sharply acted. Once the subterranean odyssey begins, the dialogue is reeled in, and director Neil Marshall allows his astonishing visuals to command the action. A happy conjunction of realism and textured artistry, the aesthetic is dark, claustrophobic, and unnervingly effective.

Indeed the claustrophobic first half of the film is arguably the stronger, where the tension is maintained by the fracturing emotions and crumbling setting. Horror aficionados especially will appreciate the punch behind the claustrophobic terror shown here, of woman-versus-nature at it's most raw. Inevitably this is lost somewhat in the second act, as Marshall pulls out all the stops to unleash a torrent of gore. Surprisingly, the tension remains.

Important to note here is a conscious effort to avoid clichéd visual terminology, meaning some of the symbolism is surprisingly potent. Where one "dirtied" character lands in a pool of water, another apparent innocent lands in... something rather less appealing.

Ultimately the main point of contention in whether the film succeeds is in the reading of the dénouement. Marshall attempts to append "into Madness" to the title of his film, and whether he successfully achieves this coup de grâce is for the viewer to decide. What is certain is that The Descent stands tall as a terrifying, brutal and witty horror film, that no doubt will age better than many of its contemporaries.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Punch-Drunk Love

This beautiful indie flick from art house maestro Paul Thomas Anderson is a deliberately understated study of neurosis and first love. Light and playful in the most part, but with an undercurrent of ire directed at societal complacency, it is perhaps most notable for an excellent performance from Adam Sandler, certainly a diamond in the turgid rough of his career.

Sandler takes the central role as Barry Egan, a frustrated, possibly mildly autistic businessman whose life is ruined by both his own repressed psyche, and the meddling of his seven ghastly sisters. Indeed, all the women that Egan encounters in the film (including the woman he speaks to on a phone-sex hotline) are a source of nothing but trauma, save for one. As his relationship with the quiet Lena, pointedly underplayed by Emily Watson, blooms, Sandler nuances his performance with a surprising amount of depth.

Combining plot elements of comedy, romance and thriller, the film is pitched as a minimalist and artistic piece. The use of colour is bold but not overpowering, and there is striking use of the late Jeremy Blake's video artwork to break up the narrative. Yet the balance is maintained, as Philip Seymour Hoffman (enjoying himself) and his goons manage to cause a believable amount of mayhem.

Anderson's screenplay and direction are typically unpredictable, and repeat viewings will undoubtedly reveal a complex substructure to the playful narrative. Despite this, Punch-Drunk Love is a pleasure to watch on a first viewing, and proof that Anderson can churn out quirky, clever little indie gems in his sleep.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

El Mariachi

This micro-budget Mexican thriller marked the feature-film debut of Robert Rodriguez, who's taste for superlative action and grungey horror has made him a Hollywood success story over the last decade or so, including two collaborations with Quentin Tarantino. It comes as something of a shock then, to re-visit this early exercise in style and suspense and see the restraint on view.

Carlos Gallardo plays the near-destitute mariachi who arrives in a strange city, guitar in hand, looking for work. Unfortunately for him, a recent breakout at a local prison (which forms the drily amusing opening of the film) has meant that a local crimelord has ordered his men to kill a man carrying a guitar case (in this case loaded with guns). A case of mistaken identity serves as the McGuffin to kick start a reasonably predictable but enjoyably twisted cat and mouse thriller.

Some may dismiss the low production values on offer as limitations, but in many ways they ring more true than the high-budget B-movie worship of later works such as From Dusk Till Dawn. Peter Marquardt makes for an hilariously unconvincing villain, and there are certainly continuity goofs that even the most casual viewer couldn't fail to spot.

Regardless, the film comes across as an effortless fusion of style and charm, and deservedly became something of an international hit.