Sunday, 31 January 2010

Edge of Darkness (2010)

* *

(Dir. Martin Campbell, 2010)

Campbell's post 9/11, American adapation of the 1985 BBC series is a disappointment. In a formidable return, Mel Gibson stars for the first time since 2003 (
The Singing Detective) as police officer, Tom Craven. His daughter, Emma (the impressive and beautiful Bojana Novakovic), an intern at a Nuclear Facility run by bourgeois crook, Jack Bennett (Danny Huston), is shot dead outside Craven's home in the film's opening phase. As his personal investigation develops, Craven learns that his daughter was a political activist. Her discovery of Bennett's secret Weapons of Mass Destruction project at the Nuclear Facility, to be sold untraceably to an enemy in the Middle East, costs Emma her life. Meanwhile, after the disastrous 44 Inch Chest, here Ray Winstone is more convincing and swank, taking a backseat as cigar-smoking, gnomic Darius Jedburgh, a CIA man deployed to cover up Emma's murder by monitoring Craven' progress.

Unfortunately Gibson's and Winstone's performances are compromised by a far-fetched, awkward finale that can be summarised thus: heroes (Craven and Jedburgh) and villains (Bennett and a Senator, Jedburgh's boss) pitched in two sensationalist confrontations before a cringeworthy catharsis; a peaceful union for innocent murder victims, transformed ludicrously by director Campbell into ghosts. Hence it is perhaps understandable why Robert De Niro, originally casted as Jedburgh, quit due to 'creative differences'. This is despite scraps of truly poignant directing by Campbell (
Casino Royale) that include Craven remembering Emma as a little girl in awe of her father's face, bearded with shaving foam, and their endearing fun as he remembers teaching her to shave using her comb. A more brutal and miserable example of Campbell's ability is when Craven, in the same bathroom, at the same sink, rinses out Emma's blood from his hair and forces himself to watch its thick-red maelstrom ebb and disappear in a cinematographically compelling, free vortex.

Danny Huston's one-dimensional Jack Bennett is written poorly, and gives the film a real problem. Bennett recalls Huston's uncannily similar character in
The Kingdom - a stereotypical white bread, Attorney General. A framed photograph in Bennett's office of himself with George W Bush, his hard-and-sharp-as-flint persona and his uninspiring bad guy, good guy dialogue with Craven ("What's it like, losing a daughter?") purport to an embarrassing frippery of liberal signposting. As soon as the WMD theme comes kicking and screaming into the film, the focus on grief and vengeance - what we are supposed to sympathise with and revere - is undermined. The very word, "classified", is repeated so often it loses all connoted excitement, as Edge of Darkness begins to assume the tone of Michael Moore's moralistic film making, though without the shock-factor of real politicians, real statistics or real lives to be admired, or simply, to stimulate (ironically, Moore has been publicly renounced by Mel Gibson). Nonetheless in a time when marketing campaigns are desperate to come across as fashionably green but are motivated by something completely different, contradictory even, Bennett's environmentalist posing for Craven is not irrelevant.

What is so frustrating about
Edge of Darkness is that it doesn't really know whether it is a cop thriller, a thriller with a serious political agenda, or simply a sentimental story about personal revenge. It is a cold and rubbery offering of scrambled eggs, imbued by the good, the bad, but mostly the ugly of Hollywood melodrama, including an anthropomorphic afterlife in slow motion. Worth a DVD rent, possibly a Box Office purchase, though by no means a must-see-at-the-cinema, especially during Oscar season.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Classic Review: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

* * * * *

(Dir. Billy Wilder, 1950)

Billy Wilder, director and resident in Los Angeles, was inspired to co-write and direct this picture by the bizarre paradox of retired and forgotten Hollywood stars who live in unyielding luxury (like Gloria Swanson herself). In 2003, BBC's Adrian Hennigan wrote of Sunset Boulevard, "it wasn't the first movie to hold a mirror up to Hollywood. But it was the first to show it warts'n'all". The film begins with a shot of a corpse in a swimming pool being photographed by journalists, and a voice over promising to tell a true story apart from tabloid superstition. This introduces an important theme, mused later by Cecil B. DeMille (as himself) at the Paramount Pictures studio: "You know, a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit" - a quotation incontrovertibly applicable to some of the bedraggled figures in our own celebrity culture. The voice over is William Holden as Joe Gillis, a screenwriter who is so desperate to earn the cash to keep up his car that he will write a film for a rich, former silent-film luminary, whose property he has accidentally trespassed while attempting to hide the automobile. This is Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond, almost immediately compared by Gillis's narration to Miss Havisham of Great Expectations. Even her mansion, extravagant but antiquated, is a Hollywood parody of Satis House. Desmond has finally found the man she believes can take her back to the top. However Gillis has met a younger, more appetising floozy in Betty (Nancy Olson), his friend's fiancee, with whom he embarks upon a literary affair, sneaking out to go and write with her behind Desmond's back. The physical tension between Gillis and Betty builds until it is realised with disastrous consequences.

After watching Sunset Boulevard, academic feminists will spin their broken records until the cows come home. Billy Wilder's agenda remains gloriously ambiguous: Joe Gillis can be viewed as perpetrator, victim or both. On the one hand Gillis is a screenwriter who can be viewed as Wilder's misogynistic window, giving leverage to his social politics. On the other, a satirical pin-up. The very decision that sets the plot in motion and takes Holden to Sunset Boulevard is, amusingly, made because of one man's love for his car. Despite Betty's honesty and her initiative on their writing project, it is Gillis who is depicted writing zealously while Betty looks on in awe, having fallen for him. She pursues Gillis throughout the film, unable to write or truly love without him. Meanwhile he, a man, is entirely responsible for both Betty's success and Norma Desmond's rediscovered charisma. Furthermore, Desmond's butler and ex-husband, Max, controls and maintains his madame's delusional lifestyle by hiding from her the truth; that she is an ageing nobody and has been for years. Ultimately who knows, or indeed cares for any fixed interpretation, when this movie and its characters are so much more powerful in isolation?

Desmond's fascination with the real audience behind the lens - not with all those beautiful, monochrome extras on screen, but with ourselves in the twenty first century - still evokes a power akin to the Homeric apostrophe. Narrative perspective in this film is subsequently fluid, unpredictable and exhilarating. In the final scene of Sunset Boulevard, Desmond gazes into the lens, high on self-grandeur, inverting tragedy with triumph. She is crazed but composed, surrounded by flash photography for all the wrong reasons, and is hence ironically convincing as the prancing it-girl (it-woman?): "I'm ready for my close-up". Norma Desmond's egoism is an utterly tragic remastering of that in Orson Welles's
Citizen Kane. Where Welles sought to chronicle Harry Kane's illustrious career, its lofty peak and lonesome trough, Wilder's focus is simply gloaming: we only know Norma Desmond as the melodramatic, constantly made-up, forgotten star in the twilight of her demise. Where it is easy to analogise Welles and Kane biographically, Wilder etched his film's nostalgia and neurosis into a female lead, allowing his male, screenwriter-protagonist to remain the object of affection, the observer, rather than become the hero. Furthermore, Joe Gillis and his narration's ring-composition are the forces of a workable karma in Sunset Boulevard. A once enigmatic and blithe writer, only perturbed by an empty and abandoned swimming pool in Norma Desmond's eerie mansion, will end up lifeless in this same pool which is now filled, metaphorically, by his reinvigoration of Desmond; an unforgettable image to beautify a violent fall, the silver screen frozen but for the gentle rippling of a corpse. By shooting Gillis in the back, Desmond not so much has the last laugh as commits the last infidelity in this astonishing motion picture.

Dazzling at every turn, Desmond is the deluded leftover in these fictional glimpses of Sunset Boulevard and Paramount Pictures. The delusion within the illusion is never quirky, but at once frightening and believable. Wilder's creation is testament to the imagination of cinema. In a 2008 interview by a humbled Mark Kermode, filmmaker Terence Davies talked about his recent autobiographical picture,
Of Time and the City. Davies described moviegoing, in a youth that just missed out on the release of Sunset Boulevard (1950), as a form of religious enlightenment to champion Catholicism. Davies still refers to the cinema itself as his "Church". In Sunset Boulevard, William Holden, Gloria Swanson and Nancy Olson are angels of every stock. They communicate the consequences of real love and broken promises on both sides of the creative process in a surreal industry. As an analogue for reckless romance and unavoidable tragedy, black-and-white Norma Desmond remains a seductively, comically and miserably relevant heroine. Just as Dickens's Miss Havisham still intrigues and repulses literature students, so too does Desmond for lovers of the big screen.

For want of a special moment, I see Desmond raising the masked cragginess of her neck upwards, lifting her eyes to the expensive chandelier in her regal bedchamber, and marvelling as if on some holiday balcony at nighttime:

"The stars are ageless aren't they?"

Friday, 22 January 2010


What looked, from behind, like a young man with shaggy hair, in a white t-shirt, was sat on the seat below, directly in front of me. It must have been gelid for him, the bus-windows were open but grey, and the weather was all oppression, remorselesness and blizzards. At his feet, a transparent sports bag containing novels about fascination; The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, Less than Zero, alarming front covers; and over his bony shoulder, a notebook in his trembling grip I could see, and I could see that he was signing his name beneath a body of words that looked like three stanzas, so I bent in closer, trying not to breathe, and the handwriting was bold and childlike and I could read everything:


Balloons and Boeings

A field is way of saying yes -
A simple yes to oxygen,
To consoling silences,
To a little girl running,
Holding onto the string of her brief balloon
With everything she has:

Her personal globe of helium,
Slow and fat as a fish,
Without continents,
Waves beneath the unwashed sky.
A field of cattle or a field of poppies,
All grass, crops, ears and footprints,
To gorge and never know what guilt is,
To gorge, and for now, to know not of guilt.

Birdseye, the Sun centred you.
You lay on your back and looked up
At a solitary plane braving clouds,
Forgot to pack a lunch,
Ignored the clock hands on your grandmother’s watching face
As if they were blackened matchsticks, rolling.
This was something you’d never before done,
And it made a Saturday stand out, years on,
Looking back through the long grass of your country,
Or upwards, saying yes, at balloons and Boeings,
Miracles in your fast thinking.


The vainglorious signature beneath was illegible: he remained faceless and nameless. I couldn't work out what the hell Balloons and Boeings had to do with one another, why anyone would say yes to them, and I couldn't understand how isolation in a field could become so memorable. Suddenly I thought about the recession, now about winning the lottery, now skydiving, kissing, and after my stomach hurt from the excitement, I lost interest and returned to absent-mindedness, palming away the condensation on the window for a visible world. There, oncoming, the white-capped traffic stretched in agony. Two children roped a sledge up the ice-cream-tarmac, and I couldn't hear their laughter but I could see their mouths, and then breath began to fog my view into a fiction.

The automatic doors at the front of the bus exhaled and opened, and the bus driver in his uniform walks out first, like a president's bodyguard, lights a cigarette with his pink fingers and a black lighter, then leans his tough face back inside to give his bemused passengers a death stare, and mumbles something like "this bus is terminating here due to adverse weather conditions", which starts Chinese whispers, and then it is awful dark but for the few-and-far-between streetlights.

And moments later I am out in the cold again, Sorry: Not In Service fading away, as the wind howled against my cheeks like a cruel rumour, and the soft snow fell harder and harder, and I thought about the shaggy-haired boy and how he espied a girl with a balloon and with a dream that Saturday, the snow now falling, and I thanked my grandfather, who couldn't hear me, for his coat by Burton, and the snow was ankle-deep now, and I was numb and hungry, and I remembered the fireplace in our old house, and somebody reads a book, closes it, takes up a crossword, and my mother is calling from the old kitchen, and dinner is done and it is too hot and I blow a breath over it all.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

44 Inch Chest (2009) / It's Complicated (2009)


The night I braved both
44 Inch Chest and It's Complicated, in one sitting, was like flipping a two-tailed, rusted penny for three and a half hours, desperate to see a shining head:

(2009, Dir. Malcolm Venville)

44 Inch Chest
is a sickening seafood platter of s***ing, f***ing, c***ing, cockney horn-blowing, in which Ray Winstone and company deliver some of the most poorly timed, unintimidating, ensemble dialogue conceivable. A fourteen year old, faux chav at a public school could have written as realistic and engaging a gangster-script. Synopsis: wife tells seasoned gangster she has met someone else; gangster gets together with mates and procrastinates over whether or not to torture/kill male adulterer; gangster and mates capture and taunt male adulterer; we wait to find out whether or not male, 'French' adulterer will be forgiven by Winstone.

As a falling-apart-Winstone becomes more drunk and panicked, the director opts for a hallucinatory narrative, but the film is too light to make its audience really care which scene is really happening and which is a byproduct of Winstone's stupor: are we really supposed to sympathise with a one-dimensional, wife-beating protagonist; a crude, hackneyed synonym of Pacino's Michael Corleone? Graphic references to the infidelity are thrown at the captured, bound and hooded male adulterer, blurted out in alternating jabs by the surrounding halo of gangsters, in a phoney sequence that feels more comical than it does baleful, more absurd than pernicious. This is despite a plot which offers ample scope for sympathising with victims of adultery. Likewise Winstone's film-long epiphany is, by accident, laughable. One can't help but snigger at his relationship:garden analogy, as Winstone stands before his wife as a gangster-turned-poet comparing his marriage to an overgrown garden.

Other funny moments include Winstone (crying?) at the feet of 'French Loverboy', and Wintone huffing and puffing in a sprint through his neighbourhood, bearing close resemblance to Sonic the Hedgehog's arch-nemesis, Dr. Robotnik. We find ourselves asking a question that is never answered or even alluded to: what did she see in him in the first place? Most disappointing is gangmember Tom Wilkinson, a personal favourite (
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, In the Bedroom, Batman Begins), whose character is unconvincing, superflous even. As for the male adulterer, known only as 'Loverboy', he is a handsome, unnecessarily French, stereotype who remains silent the entire movie in a failed attempt by Venville to add suspense or mysticism to a humdrum and simple piece of work.

As Jonathan Ross recently observed on
Film 2010, this movie - like so many others of its all-too-clearly definable genre - gives the impression of having been made by people with a penchant for, but with no experience of, its culture or subject matter. 44 Inch Chest is rescued from straight-to-DVD humiliation by the believably remorseful and fearful, Joanne Whalley, by amusing, gay, wide-boy seer, Ian McShane, and by its deplorably marketable, British gangster badge.

(2009, Dir. Nancy Meyers)

On the otherside of the coin, in another screening room,
It's Complicated proved to be every bit as woeful, with Meryl Streep as the embodiment of the Starbucks-dwelling, Land-Rover-driving, Mail-reading, children-aggrandizing, children-spoiling, middle but upper-class-aspiring, idiot-mother in Western society. A fifty something divorcee seeking surgery, romance and a new mansion to live in, cursed with an irritating and incessant guffaw, and without control over her libido, Streep somehow (perhaps because she is Meryl Streep) managed to graft a Golden Globe nomination out of this role. Ultimately she won this category for her brilliant performance in the chef-biopic, Julie & Julia, and in her victory speech, she remarked modestly that she was only a "vessel" through which extroadinary women are characterised; that she herself is no extroadinary woman. Her acting is reliably competent, her character immediately dislikeable, as It's Complicated tells the story of a distinctly uncomplicated, unextroadinary divorcee.

We soon learn that her husband, played by Alec Baldwin, left Streep years ago for a younger woman. Now the divorced pair have their own problems: Streep is conscious of how alone she is, and wants a face-lift, and on her way to a clinic in a cliched elevator-scene, she bumps into Baldwin who is seeing a fertility expert. Baldwin and Streep have three children, one of whom is graduating, and while staying at a hotel for the graduation, Streep and Baldwin get drunk and sleep together. Baldwin's sleaziness is amusing for a few minutes before his body language and facial expressions become boringly predictable. Before a contrived party-episode where Streep and Baldwin smoke cannabis, the plot takes the form of a love-quadrangle, with the wet architect (Steve Martin) working on Streep's new home expressing a romantic interest in her.

Meanwhile Baldwin and Streep's affair is hidden from their children, and as irresponsible as their behaviour is, it doesn't account for one of this year's most cringeworthy moments in cinema. When they find out their parents have been seeing each other, and although their mother has been happy for the first time in years, the three spoilt, irritatingly perfect American children, actually young adults, are to be found sobbing under a duvet in bed together as if they were small children whose pet rabbit had just died. The culprits include this year's most regretful newcomer, cutesy Zoe Kazan, who, in the autumn, blemished an otherwise brilliant Me and Orson Welles. Just as difficult to watch is a conversation in the architect's car when Martin tells Streep that her age is one of his favourite things about her - the moment that surely brings all these Starbucks-dwelling, Land-Rover-driving, Mail-reading, children-aggrandizing, children-spoiling, middle but upper-class-aspiring, idiot-mothers to one cosmic, proverbial orgasm.

Because the plot comes to a dead end, the film's closure is indeed complicated. Half an hour of grossly sentimental screenplay attempts to resolve each forgettable fragment of storyline, the duration of which I spent on the edge of my seat... waiting for this night to be over.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Up in the Air (2009)

* * * * *

(2009, Dir. Jason Reitman)

Up in the Air is something for our, and all, time. Its message has as much to do with the particularity of the recession as it does with the universality of loneliness and companionship (love is sparingly written into this film). As if a spoof of his own smooth formula, George Clooney delivers a truly career-defining performance, provoking more comedy and sympathy than would seem possible for a middle-aged bachelor who has willfully ostracised family and friends from his life of plush homelessness.

Clooney plays the corporate downsizer, Ryan Bingham, thriving amid the smithereens of capitalism: an all too appropriate and familiar depiction of the world as it is right now for a disappointingly sporadic audience on opening night at my local Odeon. Bingham is always on the move, charming the pants off disposable women and easing the pain for disposed-of workforces. He is a Demosthenes (without the stutter) for the credit-crunch-era, paid to fly around the US and let people down gently; to inspire faint glimmers of hope for the men and women who have lost their jobs and who, in each interview, either deliberately avoid or stare right through the camera lens at us, bereft of everything except despair.

The two supporting actresses could not be better casted. Vera Farminga was nominated for a Golden Globe for her outstanding performance. She plays Alex Goran, another business cog wandering alone, even defining herself over the phone to Bingham thus: "Just think of me as you, but with a vagina". We do not know much more about her than this, with the plot centering around Bingham. When Alex begins sleeping with him, it is an implicitly acknowledged, fun and physical, hotel-affair.

Meanwhile Anna Kendrick is casted brilliantly as the sensitive but determined Natalie Keener, a novice whose business plan is about to alter Bingham's lifestyle; the company will soon make people redundant by web cam in order to cut expenditure on flights. After remonstrating with his boss (Jason Bateman), Bingham is told to take Natalie on his travels and show her the soul-destroying ropes of the industry. While on the road / up in the air, Natalie's long term boyfriend ditches her, causing an outburst of emotion witnessed by both Alex and Bingham. This leads to a very amusing collision of philosophies on romance when the two opportunists try to console her.

Steadily a motif emerges, as Bingham makes various motivational speeches in which he romanticises the prospect of travel and job-flexibility with an emotional-baggage analogy. The repeated distinction between weight and lightness bears resemblance to Milan Kundera's dilemma in his most celebrated novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being: is it better to live life in the perpetual fast lane or to negotiate a perceived destination carefully? By the end of the film, the answer seems to be the latter, but the door is cleverly left open by the plot's most profound irony; that when Bingham falls for Alex having been constantly reminded of the importance of companionship by the hilarious cardboard cut-out of his sister and her fiance, and by Natalie's personal life, the comfort-zone of intimacy he believes he has discovered - that he has begun to believe in anything other than opportunism - may be the becoming of his humanity, yet it proves to be the undoing of any happiness. This is cinematographised with elegance and subtlety, when for instance, at yet another airport terminal, the quiet, rumoring audio and a slow zoom transform a strapping George Clooney and his fashionable suitcase into trivial and desolate figures. And then Bingham speaks futilely, as opposed to calling out, to an already departed Alex, "I'm alone". In these final phases of the film, a wedding, a dejecting Elliot Smith soundtrack and a nostalgic return for Bingham to an empty high school that serenades him in silence with old team photographs and trophies, propel this always relevant narrative and its tragic hero towards their inevitable destination: up in the air.

This has to be one of the finest English-language films of the year, capped by a cameo from the immediately recognisable and venerable Sam Elliott (The Big Lebowski). All have played their part in welding the ingredients for what should be a rom-com into a social commentary that is utterly compelling and serious. This movie demands several sittings and deserves the silverware it will surely reap at next month's Academy Awards. Five indefatigable stars.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Present Only

You said -
Jonesy this, and Jonesy that,
As if an identity could be warm and real.
The expectation fell over me,
A precipitation of bricks and soil.

Shadows, they looked like shadows of bats
Against the blind, afternoon pavement.

When I awoke and realised I was still alive,
A trillion beings respired,
And my respite was wired in.
I cut my pale limbs climbing over,
And when I reached sleep,
I found no lamb, no lion, not even water.

What I remember is a stubborn clock,
Foxes starving,
A past without oxygen or muscle.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

(EP Review) City Reign: Daybreak

* * * *

In northern poet, Simon Armitage’s autobiography,
Gig: The Life and Times of a Rock Star Fantasist, one brilliant, sympathetic block of writing sticks in the throat:

“Standing on top of West Nab, I can look out across a huge circumference of inspiration and influence. Starting westwards it’s Manchester and Lancashire, so it’s Joy Division and The Fall, it’s the Smiths and Elbow, it’s Magazine and the Buzzcocks and the Happy Mondays, it’s the Chameleons, it’s the Stone Roses, it’s Oasis (before they became they’re own tribute band)”.

Now another group is emerging in Britain’s most articulate popular-music-landscape, staking its claim with charmingly eponymous confidence. Comprised of recent graduates from the University of Manchester, City Reign is the cream of the city’s unsigned crop. This debut, five-track EP is loaded with emotionally intelligent lyricism and vivacious riffs in a brand new blend and bid to shake up our flat and squalid indie (independent?) culture.

Songwriters Bull and Grice are blessed with some of the best raw elements from the above rock n roll and post-punk pioneers, undulating their sound with harmony and angst, clear and clumsy vocals, simple and neoclassical verse, resulting in a throng of honest and amounting tensions. The title-track, Daybreak, acts as a mediator between the slow but beautiful Stranded and The Line, and the unforgiving Out In The Cold and Stay Where You Are. In Daybreak, a reference to Plato’s Phaedrus is seemlessly dropped in without pretentiousness. Meanwhile the chorus lyric for Out In The Cold, “So why won’t you let me go? / You’re asking questions and I don’t know”, observes, without the need for extrapolation, the sort of internal dialogue characteristic of any tired romance. Sometimes the poetry strays into sentimentalism, but it is a marketable dose of self-pity and defiance that will appeal to a variety of audiences.

After listening to the band issue their British guitar strains and commentary on urban claustrophobia for five tracks, it begins to feel as if Ian Brown, Noel Gallagher and Idlewild’s Roddy Woomble have morphed into a singular front-man with an updated, possibly new, vision. Albeit rusty and na├»ve, Daybreak achieves a longevity untypical of a debut EP. I am not naturally inclined to review music: people's tastes are so ephemeral, divisive and irresolute that arguments about music are as dull and exhausting as a theological interview. However, if record contracts are finally becoming more scarce, and with so many samey, daft songs on what once were alternative radio stations, this industry is in desperate need of more artists like City Reign before it is too late.

Click here for their myspace page, and to listen to tracks from Daybreak.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

* * *

(2009, Dir. Guy Ritchie)

Lord Henry Blackwood (Mark Strong) is sentenced to death by hanging, after Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law) thwart his human sacrifice ritual. When he is visited by Holmes in prison, Blackwood prophesies three further deaths which will change the world. Despite Dr. Watson pursuing new business and romantic paths, a bored Holmes and his faithful sidekick soon find themselves back in the fray, trying to uncover the mystery behind Blackwood's apparent resurrection, continuous homicide, and plan to take control of the British Empire.

Robert Downey Jr. operates with the charm, sharp wit and physical dynamism we have become accustomed to in his recent performances (Iron Man, Tropic Thunder), fulfilling Guy Ritchie's ideal of a cool and accessible Holmes who is dangerous with sword and fist; "a fresh take (on Holmes)", the director explains. Arguably the best action-sequence in the movie sees Holmes in a boxing ring, in what feels like a scene out of Fight Club. Here he maximises both his fierce intelligence and martial prowess to narrate and demonstrate how to see off your opponent, while the audio provides that stange attribute unique to the silverscreen - the percussion of each hook, jab and injury so drawn out and clear that violence can become a paradoxically sickening and aesthetic thing. Holmes's friendship with Dr. Watson (a typically meritorious Jude Law) is macho and yet borders on the homoerotic - a two-hour metaphorical bloke-hug - providing the audience with patriotic humour and a great deal of anticipation. Meanwhile Mark Strong is tremendous in his role as the criminal mastermind, Blackwood. His malevolence and insanity are so skillfully transported that the acting is undetectable, and even triggers a memory of watching Marlon Brando's cameo in Apocalypse Now for the very first time. Unfortunately these tiptop performances are offset by female leads, Kelly Reilly (Mary Morstan) and Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), who contribute nothing particularly sexy or inciteful to the action.

Joel Silver's production is hyperbolic, if not ridiculous. Beyond the above-mentioned fist fight, Sherlock Holmes is, in a way, a trailer of itself, stockpiled with a racing and incessant, Hollywood cacophony that balloons, as opposed to italicises, some very watchable action-sequences and impressive dialogue. When Blackwood is behind bars, the propensity for over-production shows itself through an irritating echoing of voices and a quirky display of black magic that hearkens more to a Channel 5 documentary on some esoteric cult than to a Conan Doyle adaptation demanding acclaim. In this sense, Sherlock Holmes takes on the reigns of Ritchie and Silver's previous, capitulatory teamwork (RocknRolla: ouch). But even a penchant for exhausted gangland fantasy cannot spoil what is an enjoyable day out at the cinema and an appropriately British yarn for our Boxing Day release.

So bring on Sherlock Holmes 2, which - according to rumours sparked by a Guy Ritchie interview by UGO's Matt Patches - could feature Brad Pitt as Professor Moriarty.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Road (2009)

* * * *

(2009, Dir. John Hillcoat)

Based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel of the same name, some unexplained natural disaster (we later see trees being uprooted in an earthquake) has changed the face of a now barren America. A nameless father (Viggo Mortensen) and a nameless son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are crossing the continent dressed in, and eating, anything left behind by the dead, in hope of reaching the coast. Survivors (Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce) are few and far between and can never be trusted by the protective father. These include cannibalistic militants whose actions help the father to teach his son the difference between the “good guys” and the “bad guys”. We soon learn through the father’s flashbacks that the mother of the family (Charlize Theron) has killed herself in wake of the unimaginable suffering that awaits her in the form of rapists and cannibalists.

In his Guardian review Peter Bradshaw has criticised Hillcoat and Joe Penhall (screenplay) for choosing not to revivify the graphic cannibalism prevalent in the McCarthy novel. However one of the film’s great strengths, what makes it so believable, is its consistency: it never covets brutality. Rather it is the impossibility of destiny and the brooding of suicide that give
The Road its shock factor, and - if you want to find them - there are allusions to cannibalism, environmentalism, socialism and so on, but the film forces no agenda. On leaving the cinema I experienced that rare sensation, that I was a part of the director’s landscape and spell (no doubt, in part, because of another January blizzard), that I had become a vulnerable extra. I had never felt more thankful to have clothes and shoes to wear, or to be walking down my own ‘road’ when I arrived home, such is the power of this movie.

There are two important reasons why this works as a post-apocalyptic film. Another auteur might have opted to bloat this story with spectacular CGI, but Hillcoat’s barren and wintry cinematography is so organic and ironically permanent that it has revitalised end-of-the-world cinema, an often burdensome genre when considering the Blockbuster-likes of the Matrix sequels or more recently, 2012. Secondly, the observational directing, substantiated by the outstandingly talented Kodi Smit-McPhee and seasoned superstar, Viggo Mortensen (
A History of Violence, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Eastern Promises), makes for some unforgettable set pieces. One, in particular, shows the father throwing a photograph of his wife off a bridge before pushing his wedding ring slowly to the edge, but he can not manage to obliterate her completely, as evinced by various, emotionally intelligent flashbacks of their intimacy. Another inspired scene comes in the form of Coca Cola. They discover a can in a vending machine, and the boy, having never drunk coke, let alone from a can, having never seen the world as we know it, darts his tongue out before learning how to drink from this unfamiliar piece of metal. “It’s bubbly”, he smiles, endearingly.

The Road does have a flaw, it is surely closure. The film struggles to synchronise its set pieces of impressive social realism and considerable emotional depth with a directionless storyline: the planned destination, the coast, is hardly an Ithaka for the father and son. In the context of total devastation, anything that surprises us is kindled by the unyielding tension between suicide and the human will, and after two hours in this hell-on-earth, any plot vicissitudes seem insignificant, any deaths (I will not completely ruin the ending) more cathartic than tragic.

The Road is reminiscent in style of three recent, similarly slow-moving, chilling and instantly classic epics, all from 2007: the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and Andrew Dominick’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Indeed Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, who wrote the score for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, team up successfully once more in The Road. Yet again their music has failed to disappoint, contributing validly to the pathos of this profound and serious Oscar-contender.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Dorian Gray (2009)

* *

(2009, Dir. Oliver Parker)

Rolling with the same macabre tonality as Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd, but falling short of its intended horror, and lacking any conceivable depth or believable 'onscreen chemistry', Dorian Gray is a flawed, adolescent flick for indie fanboys and schoolgirls with posters of smooth-faced hunks on their pink bedroom walls. Surprisingly sly, high-handed and never trustworthy, Colin Firth is an excellent Lord Henry Wotton, and Ben Barnes is no match as a sreen presence. There are two memorable shots that frame the movie. Firstly, in the handsomely lit study, when Wotton's alluring eyes seek out the innocent and corruptible Gray, preparing us for his all-too-rapid defamation and debauchment; and later, the melancholy and fatigue in these same eyes, when he has, through his own encouragement and daring, lost control over his daughter and Mr Gray's desires. These are rare glimpses of the fierce attention to the human condition that makes Oscar Wilde's championing, Victorian novella so compelling a read.

The reversal of fortune in The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the most celebrated in English Literature. Yet after a single puff of opium, Oliver Parker's hyperbolic distortioning implies that Dorian Gray spirals out of control in an instant, and immediately forsakes his bourgeouis sophrosyne for personal hedonism: to put it mildly, a far-fetched transformation of our protagonist. Moreover, this is an imprecation of Wilde's masterpiece in character-development. There is a market for pretty, insubstantial actors like Barnes. Consider, for example, his shallow portrayal of Prince Caspian in the financially successful but painful-to-watch Narnia franchise: is it wrong to ask more from directors adapting the works of Oscar Wilde and C.S. Lewis in the twenty first century? After all, it was not so long ago that Peter Jackson and co recreated Tolkien's Middle Earth with boundless imagination.

The blame for our dull and dimensionless eponymous hero lies not with Barnes's forgettable performance, but rather with the film's hapless casting and drab screenplay. This is a disappointing debut from writer, Toby Finlay, and though the film endeavours to hook into the relationship between Dorian Gray and his portrait, this reviewer was irretrievably bored after all but fifteen minutes of its (very slowly) running time.

Hay Fever

This is how it went: a boy and a girl, a little ahead of themselves, lay on Ranmoor field writing poetry in a book. Sometimes they made love, sometimes they fucked, and sometimes it was cold and they settled for holding each other. Sometimes there was nothing to write about, and impulses became dilute. So several poems a day were forced, careless; such as is expected from beginners.

This is how it stopped. One morning, a man came running through the long grass. His appearance was old, ragged and defeated. He yelled at the boy something that might have been verse, and they half-turned, mistaking his hardness for the wind. It was as if their behaviour had been directed by a private metaphor. At eight metres, the girl recognised the intruder as her father, a man named Thomas Burns, and at four metres, Burns withdrew a weapon and shot at the boy, and the bullet made short work of his pulse, and the girl wasn’t surprised but she was mute; frozen; hay fever and two aftershaves doubling up her nostrils.

This is how it never ended. It became a secret, almost entirely erased. He set up home in an inner city flat, and there were noises of busyness and drums that harrowed from the invisible spaces behind every wall. There were no windows. The carpet was tidy, pertaining to its virgin hue. The fat pillows suggested a romance about the double bed. He washed the sheets every five days as if he were playing the housewife, or as if something might have escaped his lonesome body. He was forty-two years old, an IT consultant and a widower. Computers seemed to suck out his being, and translate it into some bullshit company jargon. He convinced himself that the boy had got what was coming to him; that at 16, his daughter was far too sensible for poetry and far too young for some holiday romance. It was father and daughter, daughter and father, and it was only right that any intruders should be killed off or somehow evacuated.

The girl lived on the other side of town (her one demand), and her father didn’t understand what went on in her pink bedroom, or how much her naked body, the folds of her skin or her intentions, had changed since he once washed this small child. All he could remember was a small child in a living mother’s arms. Burns was solitary as the boss of a shield; the boy’s ashes would mask the honorary chiselling in the dusty bronze. Everything good about his life was past tense, on a shelf, in a jar. Oh, the girl. She would cry hysterically and abandon four of her senses; but she would still go to Ranmoor alone, and press her face into the long grass, and she would breathe him in - the living boy - and she would sneeze, wiping her wet nose red and rough against their pages, having turned over the dry ink of his handwriting. Once, what now seemed like an eternity ago, he too had turned over, in the half darkness, reciting the folds of her skin before coming into her hands.

beat #2

Headed for us was the sky:
Its black arch caved furiously,
and fell like a pelican.
The cold of river - beast beat out from some
illustrated book of Greek myths -
Was galloping through the hair on the backs of our necks.

Your eyes were red and pained as lamplight,
We were alone,
And for so long I hadn’t held anybody
. slowly
, I felt the beginning of a cry
Your shoulder caved
And my back arched furiously.

The past appeared for a single moment,
And it was yes and careless as a going wheelbarrow,
Now that the future shook her head
Solemnly as a cello-bow,

The similes of the world were naked and impossible
Like a lost eyelash batting in the wind,

Until the halt, the time for explanation,
For all this language and music, there has to be…
Fuck it -
beat and beat -
and undiminished starlight, and fortune,
and each new heat between our brief breathing,
each furiously, then never more my love.

beat #1

yes i gleamed and a grimace whined
I or me (narrator?)
only in the parchment-sky, and a skipping rope casting each ray
to blind,
so prick up your ears, little boy,
listen hard:

vertigo is a gush of beach stones,
a lyric recalled from years ago

whiskerless smiling boy-faces
us there,
now them,
sony walkman
scabby knees
a perforated minute for a mother's affection
in a holiday car on a ferry
stationary as the bereaved on each precipice

umteenth i pod
inching belly,
furious as a clown when it's all just an act
when the words don't add up to meaning
but look like shredded photographs in half-arsed verse

eden yawped, a deliverance like thirst,
before science swallowed her whole

The lively old, the newly dead

yes and love (mine)

sex and entertainment (confusing)

wine speeds the poems out of me,

worsens the eyes whose innocence
my face grew out to conquer,

a fuck is weightless and miserable
as an acid,

a woman's loveable morning breath,
rare and original as anything,

yes and love (my words)

overlooking a valley of firs and echoes
in january,

the passage of this year so heavy,
the newly dead, warm in the low fog,

argue for the soul's existence in whispering howls -

my deeply drawn, smoky breath is an unanswerable question.

Pages, Receipts

In our time, everyday is a new play on giving up.

I haven't written in so long I'm not sure how I feel,
designed for me I do not know what, if anything, designed for me.

Without loving people like you I don't have any words,
pages and receipts flag in the wind,
and if you let me in I promise to write every day and to ink in a true smile or two.

What am I like that I should write? -
The very verb frightens every invisible bone down to the cold toe that hangs
from the pink covers in your room.
The word, poet, is indignant.

With a door open, I left a house and never came back to it.

In another time, we were filled with love,
Now I search for fullness and feeling like a simile.

Monday, 11 January 2010


We ride trains, but not like they do in old movies.
The world is full of advertisements,
Perfumes only boys can smile about.
When I was six, my mother told me to write a postcard.
My fingers were so small,
My handwriting, neat and eager as a rainbow.
Money meant football stickers
And vending machine treats.
Colonies of toys comprised an empire,
And I sat enthroned on carpet or in a sand pit,
Ritualising a world of plastic,
Executing fate and desperate for allies.
I cried on my first day at school.
I knew that from now on,
Everything would be outdoors or indoors:
Working, running, falling over and concentrating.

There are people who die young,

Are we obliged to feel old age coming?
Without a door to walk home through,
Removing brown shoes too small,
Unpacking a rucksack of invaluable journals,
And lifting off -
The human ear pops into prayer,
Hoping, buying, bracing -
An exhausted hand holds an exhausted hand.