Category Archives: Reviews

Looper | review

Rian Johnson’s Looper is not only a welcome return to form after the quirk overload of 2008’s The Brothers Bloom, but also sees the director achieving the rare feat of crossing over into the mainstream while retaining pretty much all of his stylistic quirks. Johnson is a man of vision, and, luckily for cinemagoers, seems to have producers who are wise to his not-inconsiderable talents.

Of course, it’s the future. Joseph Gordon-Levitt – made up beyond recognition and doing an uncanny take on Bruce Willis’ off-key manner – plays Joe, a mob goon who assassinates people from the future’s future – a ‘looper’. It’s a grubby line of work usually ending with a grim payoff – what’s known as ‘closing the loop’: murdering your future self. Bruce Willis is the older version of Joe who’s determined not to die – and has some ominous information that could change everything.

Looper has at some stage been compared to The Matrix, a comparison stemming from pure laziness on the part of some hack, picked up on by the press team in a move (albeit an understandable one) no doubt designed to get bums on seats. At the risk of sounding pompous, comparing Looper to The Matrix is a bit like comparing a Madlib album to Dr Dre’s Chronic 2001, Grizzly Bear to Mumford and Sons or Fiona Apple to Alanis Morisette. While those comparisons aren’t necessarily formulated to express the relative merit of each film, they do serve to highlight that, despite Looper‘s mass appeal, it’s still pushing for something a little deeper.

If a comparison to a Keanu Reeves science fiction film were to have to be made (oh, go on then!), Looper would probably end up a lot closer to A Scanner Darkly – which took the novel approach of sorting out Reeves’ acting by turning him into a cartoon. A Scanner Darkly was also, it should be remembered, a film that was misunderstood in a lot of quarters – a fate that seems entirely possible for this film if audiences go into it expecting the kind of depressing bangs-whizzes-and-relentless-gun-battle fare that has become the norm since The Matrix ‘changed the game’ (ruined everything), and Christopher Nolan ‘changed the game’ (added a snow level).

This film’s refreshing difference lies in its concern, not in plot information factoid overkill, but the human element of the tale. It’s very much a character-driven story, and the acting and casting are superb. To list the great performances in this film would be pointless, as they’re all pretty flawless, but a special mention should go to young star Pierce Gagnon who is terrifying as Cid, a preternaturally mature child that Joe comes across in the course of his journey.

As in his debut Brick, which cleverly subverted the conventions of film-noir, Johnson simply uses the science-fiction genre as a way of exploring themes that interest him – memory, fate and consequence. The clever move he makes is to have the film breeze over its concept (setting out its sci-fi stall, so to speak) in the opening few minutes. In this way, Johnson dispels the impulse to pick the story to pieces. Either you take it or leave it.

In some senses Looper has the makings of a slick film aiming at a bigger target audience than Johnson’s previous efforts – but as a writer/director he also isn’t afraid to take the leftfield option at the risk of showing a rougher edge. It’s far from perfect, and at times experiences something of a lack of coherent movement between acts, but in taking more risks it rewards the viewer with a richly emotional and thoughtful centre.

Unlike some genre staples, it doesn’t make a song and dance over instances of directorial inventiveness, of which there are many. It’s playful, rather than po-faced. It has no cartoonishly alluring latex-clad sex-token girl-trope cartwheeling about the place – although Emily Blunt’s single mum is a subversive nod to the type and does simultaneously function as a love interest for Gordon-Levitt’s character. The action sequences are muted and interesting rather than bombastic. Its tone is nuanced between light and dark and (like Duncan Jones’ 2011 Source Code) it doesn’t simply rely on a dark, gritty colour palette to make it feel weighty.

In the end Looper’s smartness lies deeper than some smug pseudo-philosophical meditations. It also doesn’t literally end on a shot of the main protagonist flying away like superman to a Rage Against the Machine tub-thumper – all wise moves on balance, when the idea is to get some brainboxes working, rather than a monster truckload of fifteen year-old boys’ throbbers pulsing.

Looper is in cinemas from Fri 28 September. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.

Holy Motors | review

It may have come home empty-handed, but no one would deny Holy Motors was the talk of Cannes a few months ago. The comeback of Leos Carax, French cinema’s favourite “enfant terrible”, after a decade spent in near-obscurity, was the perfect occasion for the industry to do what it always does: celebrate the outcast it formerly ostracized for being such a weirdo. It’s something the filmmaker himself is so aware of that he made it the subject of his film. In the opening images, a sleepy Carax is waking up in his pyjamas and breaking the wall that – literally – separates him from the world. He ends up into the light of a film projector, in a full-house cinema, where all the spectators are transfixed. The “film” hasn’t even properly started yet, and the director’s own hibernation and his return are already staged and set up for endless mise-en-abymes and self-reflexive aphorisms. Above all, Holy Motors is a Leos Carax film about Leos Carax making films again.

Hailed by most critics present as an “ode to cinema”, a “love letter to the big screen”, a “return to form” and all the usual superlatives, the film has retained an element of mystery. Despite reading a dozen reviews beforehand, I still had no clue about what Holy Motors was about when I sat on the first balcony of the Max Linder cinema, one of Paris’ most colourful theatres (you should really catch a film there if you visit the capital by the way). Once seen, it still evades description. Yes, there is a story, or rather, stories, but no real narrative. Each “appointment” of the main character, Mr Oscar, is the pretext for a slice of genre cinema, often pushed to its most absurd corners.

However, Holy Motors avoids being a collection of sketches. Despite going through the tropes of horror, thriller, fantastic, musical (the rather sublime part with Kylie Minogue singing in a deserted department store) or even naturalistic drama, including an incredibly violent father and daughter emotional contretemps and an interminably melodramatic “dying old man” strand (did Carax unconsciously parody Cannes winner Amour?), each sequence belongs to a coherent whole; everything united in its madness, its preposterousness, its own internal logic. Even the silent film inserts or the “entracte” – a music video for a fictional alt-rock accordion band – doesn’t spoil the ensemble.

Style-wise, Carax is also all-embracing. If the cinema du look neon stylings are prominent (he was, after all, with Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beineix, the creator of the aesthetic in the 1980s), the impeccably shot Holy Motors, goes from CGI motion-capture porn to the chic classicism of perfume adverts. Carax is a nostalgic: he longs for the huge machinery of bygone years – the “holy motors” – against the miniature technology that pervades our everyday life, but his vision still looks futuristic.

Carax’s visual mastery would be nothing without Dennis Lavant’s truly extraordinary Lon Chaney-esque lead performance. The face melted by a hard-lived life, his Mr Oscar is a weary clown putting on masks all day when he steps out of his limo, in a world populated by actors, all immortal and polymorph, meeting each other during mysterious appointments. Mere humans, in all their surburban mediocrity and sameness, are monkeys (once again, Carax is not affraid of using literal images for his metaphors).

The “stars”, when they appear, rise up to Denis Lavant’s incredible presence. Minogue, as mentioned earlier, is impeccable, but it’s Eva Mendes that truly impresses. Her meeting with Monsieur Merde (Mr Shit, Mr Oscar’s most revolting incarnation) is a jaw-dropper. Looking something like a cross between a stoned drag-queen and a high-end escort, she’s kidnapped during a photoshoot in the famous Père Lachaise cemetery, and drawn half-naked in the sewers. There, Mr Merde forces a makeshift burka on her, before lying down nude on her knees, with a sizeable erection. Such association between the Hollywood star and the freak, staged in a long take, disturbs as it seems so inconceivable. The erect penis here (fake, as Carax wanted Lavant’s dick to look like a dog’s attributes) in front of one of the industry’s illustrious representants encapsulates Carax appetite – for life, for film, etc – and his will to shock, to say “fuck you” to the studio system. The penis is also flesh and blood, against all the virtual matter surrounding us.

Hence Leos Carax re-asserts himself as the missing link between La Nouvelle Vague and the New French Extreme movement. Holy Motors‘ disregard for reality and narrative and love for mise-en-abyme and surrealism are pure Godard, while the successive transgressive tableaux of sex, dirt and violence set in a nocturnal Paris wouldn’t go amiss in Gaspar Noé’s or Claire Denis’ work.

Holy Motors‘ nihilistic approach to narrative, genre and even taste makes it impossible to review in plain terms of “good” or “bad”. It’s surely not for everyone. But as a filmic object, it’s truly unique. Something you seldom see, an immensely watchable ride into one of cinema’s most creative and deranged cinematic minds. A love letter to cinema indeed, with added stains of piss, blood and sperm.

Holy Motors is in cinemas from Friday, released by Artificial Eye. Contributor Guillaume Gendron can be followed on Twitter @GGendron20.

The Queen of Versailles | review

“Through these hallowed gates…”

These are the words uttered by David Siegel, ‘The Timeshare King’, gazing off into the middle distance as he pictures his dream house: a sprawling bomb-blast of nouveau riche pomp and bombast. It’s a taste abomination that could only have been conceived in the peculiar vacuum of imagination opened in the heads of the Babyboomers by the day-glo visions of that liar Disney and his tepid concept of romance, aspirational living and happy endings. It’s a particular version of an even greater mistruth: the infamous ‘American Dream’ (Happy Endings R’ Us), which stipulates that anyone can be anything they choose to be if they work hard, play hard and consume consume consume.

After a pause it’s clear that nothing else is coming. David Siegel’s head is pleasantly empty. The words hang in the air, a grandiose sentiment that Siegel is able to start but powerless to finish. He’s clearly bamboozled by this sudden reminder of words’ flightiness; he doesn’t wield the same influence over mock-poetic language as he does over people and things. There’s a hint of impotent desperation somewhere behind his eyes as he glances furtively at the camera, as though on some level he’s aware of playing a part – that of himself – and has no desire to be playing it.

Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, a cheekily-edited documentary charting the epic fall from grace (American grace – ie. wealth) of one of America’s richest entrepreneurs, his extravagent wife Jackie (the ‘Queen’ of the title), and their large family of children, maids and pets is a good film that could have been great, but falls victim to that same need for tidy allegory that demands there be such things as happy endings. In this case the ‘happy’ ending is the moral ending – where David is shown the error of his greedy materialist ways by the advent of a crisis beyond his control. From unintentionally hilarious characters having not a care in the world, the impact of ‘The Crash’ both humbles and humanises the Siegels, bringing them to the level of ordinary people like you or I.

Supposedly.

We watch with a certain glee as bumbling David and former beauty queen Jackie are forced to ‘adjust’ to a life within reason – a life without a private jet, without a team of housekeepers, without continuous spending on frivolous items (which Jackie, in a constant rapture of materialist desire, continues to do). Cleverly, Greenfield uses interviews with the Filipino maids, Jackie’s adopted daughter and David’s estranged son, as well as various other interconnected characters to create a rich tapestry of opinion and experience that acts as a commentary on both the positive and negative aspects of the couples’ life as they go from oblivious (with some moments so ludicrous they might have been scripted by Christopher Guest) to humbled, emotionally vulnerable and relatable. The building of their personal palace is put on hold as David struggles to hold things together, a fittingly symbolic state of affairs mirroring the struggle of ordinary Americans.

Except, of course, their lives aren’t the lives of ordinary Americans. What is shown but not explicitly commented upon is that, despite their apparent poverty (see the dog shit on the carpets, the dying pets left to starve in the absence of maids) Jackie continues to spend sums that most people could only dream of. What is not shown (Greenfield deliberately chose to cease filming at a point of financial uncertainty for the family) is that just after the events depicted David managed to turn things around. He’s now happily ripping people off with crappy timeshare apartments in much the same way as he was before. In humanising them, Greenfield defends the Siegels as much as she mocks them. They clearly don’t want or need her validation; the added irony being that David Siegel, in addition to resuming work on Versailles, is now suing for defamation of character– two rampantly egotistical moves that conveniently sum up the total lack of perspective he was supposed to have gained according to the film’s narrative.

Greenfield has said in interviews that she chose not to continue filming to leave the film as ‘a parable’, which, as a natural fan of this film, was incredibly disappointing to hear; I had felt that this was an important piece of work, something that should be shown to the Trumps, Camerons and Osbournes, Romneys, Sugars and Greenes – all the posh boys and self-made men who don’t give two shits about the people they left behind or never knew. I can’t help but feel that consciously leaving something so important out undermines the strength of the argument, rendering a great deal of meaning the film might have had void.

Having said all that, The Queen of Versailles is still very much worth a watch, especially for the unintentional comedy of the opening half hour. Greenfield has been called a sociological photographer for her work in stills – as director she acts very much like the arch sociologist, crowbarring meaning onto situations and events that don’t necessarily have inherent meaning, to portray the world in the light she’s clearly already decided she wants it to be seen. Is it enjoyable? Yes. Is it honest? Not really.

The Queen of Versailles is in cinemas now. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.

FAKE! Orson Welles Tells Art to F-off

“Talent borrows, genius steals.”

That hallowed phrase among artists, with all its implied images of a cat-suited Andy Warhol abseiling down a skyscraper with a massive ruby in his pocket (don’t drop it Andy!), has many incarnations. It has more incarnations than Buddah, Vishnu and Bob all rolled into one. More incarnations than Bowie. So many of the great and good have voiced the sentiment that it might as well be taken as a given that your favourite creative type has had a bash at personalising it at some point. But what is the nature of stealing here, as opposed to borrowing?

Jaunty, dynamic, cacophonic; bustling with movement and filled to the brim with ridiculous, insane life: more caper than documentary, F for Fake, Orson Welles’ final film, about ‘hanky panky men’ in the Art World is a strange and delightful oddity that was itself partly stolen. Directly, that is, from another film-maker François Reichenbach. It incorporates document, fiction and a shred of biography. It’s been called an essay in a film (a Fessay? An Essilm?). It’s uncompromisingly playful, but nonetheless leaves you questioning it on a serious level.

True to form, it indulges in its fair share of trickery, misdirection and mischief. It delights in its style, which seems to be most every style (including some new ones). You can imagine the sphere of its influence stretching from Wes Anderson to Eurotrash television. The question it asks about fraud, the question at the heart of the film (and mirrored by questions about the film’s own authenticity), is a mind-boggling one: fake or real – what does it matter if you can’t tell the difference?

For all intents and purposes, the film’s subjects are three men and two women: the infamous international art forger Elmyr de Hory, his ‘biographer’ Clifford Irving, Irving’s wife Edith Sommer and the actress Oja Kodar. And Welles himself. All come together on the quiet island of Ibiza in a pill-popping Manumission frenzy in a true-life tale of fraud (even involving Welles favourite Howard Hughs) that’s far stranger than most fiction.

Elmyr De Hory was pretty good at copying famous artists. In fact, for ‘pretty good’ substitute ‘totally impeccable’. That is to say no-one, not collectors, nor experts, on occasion not even the artist themselves, could discern the difference. His forgeries appeared (and appear, apparently) in numerous major art collections – making a mockery of the idea that the so-called authorities know anything much at all and, in turn, pulling the rug out from under the idea of an ‘art market’, that is: a market where art is assigned a monetary value (and hence a value in terms of merit) as though it had intrinsic or inherent value. De Hory, as it transpires, isn’t the only faker in this drama, with all of the above-mentioned players getting in on the act.

Strangely, and by pure coincidence, I’d watched ‘The Banksy film’ Exit Through the Gift Shop for the first time the night before the F for Fake screening. These two films serve as different answers to the same question – or, it might be better to say, two questions that hint at even bigger questions. In opposition to this fake documentary (is it?) about a man who produces fakes as a means of undermining the Art World, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a real documentary (is it?) about a man faking his way into the Art World with fake art, whilst seemingly believing what he’s doing wholeheartedly. There is one crucial difference: De Hory produces forgeries. Thierry Guetta, or Mr Brainwash as he came to be known, produces ‘originals’ that are entirely – mind-fuckingly – derivative (and of course Madonna commissioned Guetta to design her last Greatest Hits album cover).

They are each ‘stealing’ without stealing, borrowing for different reasons – and (strange to say, especially about the idiot-savant Guetta) they’re each indisputably a genius in their own right – De Hory at being someone else, Guetta pretending to be himself, through the lens of other people.

If you’re into Orson Welles, good stories, strange facts, Exit Through the Gift Shop or have even a passing interest in art, I’d highly recommend catching this underrated little gem (oh, Andy!) while it’s on at the BFI.

F for Fake is being screened at the BFI Southbank from 24th August 2012, as well as selected venues across the UK. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.

Take This Waltz | review

Two familiar female screen archetypes are the clever-yet-uptight brunette and the flighty-yet-vulnerable blonde – and I bet that your sympathies lean heavily towards one more than the other. Do you favour Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse (or Cher in Clueless if you’d rather)? A more modern pairing would be the neurotic Liz Lemon and diva Jenna Maroney in 30 Rock. Better yet, did you ever watch Dawson’s Creek’s in the late ‘90s? If you were Dawson, would you pick Joey (Katie Holmes) or Jen (Michelle Williams)?

Well, I rooted for Joey. And if you think similarly, you might struggle a bit with this film. Take This Waltz, starring Michelle Williams, and written and directed by Sarah Polley, is very blonde. It’s a bit like watching a spinoff of Dawson’s Creek starring Jen, fast forwarded 10 years, and on HBO.

In Take This Waltz, Margot (Michelle Williams), a married 28-year-old, has a chance encounter with a frustrating-but-attractive man (Luke Kirby) who just happens to live across the street. She’s a bit restless and impetuous, while her unassuming husband (Seth Rogan) is quite comfortable with their sickeningly adorable relationship. Who, we wonder, will she choose in the end?

The camera is sympathetic to Margot, catching her in golden light and framing her with fetish-y close ups. Sadly, it feels more like watching an uber-girly Michelle Williams rather than a new character, because no names are mentioned in the first quarter of the film. I ended up associating the nameless characters with their actors’ past roles, instead of getting engrossed in the film’s world.

Luckily, the film is well-cast. Williams, who usually tends toward playing characters with darker troubles than this, is charmingly naive. Rogan, in a rare dramatic role, is endearing, though his quips pack a much softer punch in this context. The relatively unknown Kirby fits as the mysterious love interest, and his penetrating stares manage to project more longing than creepiness. But the real delight is Sarah Silverman as Margot’s spirited sister-in-law Geri. She plays a recovering alcoholic, which is perfect for her brand of dark humour laced with vulnerability. It’s a relief when she’s onscreen to cut through the cuteness that pervades the film.

Unfortunately, the film’s flighty tone definitely results in some head-askance moments. It’s consciously quirky, tries too hard, and the rhythm is sometimes forced. The tonal shifts in several scenes repeat the same problematic pattern; they start saccharine until you can’t take any more, abruptly turn darkly humorous, then try to end on a genuine note. Hence the Dawson’s Creek comparison – such moments resonate on more of a TV-movie level.

Aside from these issues, Take this Waltz is largely beguiling. It’s smartly structured, giving the characters just the right amount of weight. It also manages to deal satisfyingly and honestly with the moral complications that infidelity arouses. Plus it looks fantastic, showcasing a vibrant Toronto in the summertime – the bright colours and hazy light suit the unabashedly sweet tone of the film. It achieves several striking contrasts between scenes to shift textures; the nighttime pool scene and the fairground rides are particularly atmospheric. And the fitting soundtrack is populated by acoustic guitars, xylophones and flutes to keep the mood wistful.

So should you see it? It may depend on who you’re watching it with. When I saw it, the gender divide in the room was palpable; the lead female’s cutesy nature elicited exasperated sighs and miserable cringing from several men in the audience, who may have expected it to be more along the lines of Blue Valentine. And to be fair, at several points I felt similar – but my instinctive female solidarity, plus memories of chats with girlfriends, kept me circumspect. This kind of girl definitely exists, like her or not – it wouldn’t be fair to be dismissive of the film based on its blonde tone. Ultimately, I think this film has merit, presenting an enjoyable, decidedly feminine perspective of a woman’s insecurities and fantasies. But give it a watch and decide for yourself – with someone of the opposite sex, if you’re feeling bold.

Take This Waltz is in cinemas now. Contributor Cathy Landicho can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur

The Expendables 2 | review

For quite some time now the ambiguous influence of that pernicious force known as postmodernism has been sending popular culture – and with it the previously established ‘normal’ way of regarding and interacting with the world – spiralling down the rabbit hole. As the ‘postmodern’ continues its evolution from purely theoretical ‘ism’ to something more palpably woven into the fabric of daily life, what might once have been considered surreal impossibilities start to be routinely enacted. Only recently, we watched slack jawed as the actual Queen appeared as the Queen alongside the fictional character of James Bond in a video sequence for Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony.

Almost everything in our contemporary existence seems to aspire towards self-reference, ironic nods or a head-fuck. Is this simply a more playful way of interacting with life, or a dangerous disconnection with what makes it real? What’s certain is this: shit is getting weird and we’re all in it together. My greatest fear is that this self-reflexivity will keep pushing things closer, diminishing space – that the world will just become smaller and smaller until it finally disappears with some kind of comedy ‘pop’ sound right up it’s own painfully distended anus.

And so now, in 2012, we come to this: the second instalment of a potentially never-ending Expendables franchise – a film so ludicrous in conception and follow-through it almost makes perfect sense. But doesn’t. At all.

“That was it”, I will tell my kids. “2012. Year of the Mayan Prophesies. I was there.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the event that was, in later years when humanity has pieced itself together from the ashes, recognised as the key to triggering the apocalypse.

“I was there,” I’ll say, “when Arnold Schwarzenegger (wearing an expression one can only describe as mildly beatific, like a glowing child possessed with the will to clarity as they prepare to pour salt on a slug), fired a Gatling gun out of the side of a Smart car being driven by Bruce Willis. I was there”, I will say, “when Chuck Norris cracked a Chuck Norris joke onscreen and everything came apart at the seams.”

However, I’ll get it out of the way right now: I thoroughly enjoyed this film.

This project could, and probably should, have had a massive whiff of cynicism about it – a cash-in by ageing action stars on the ‘meta’ fad. But everyone seems to be having so much fun with it that it draws you in almost despite yourself. Whereas the first in the series suffered from something of an identity crisis, unsure of quite how far into farce it wanted to descend, The Expendables 2 has no such qualms. They’ve taken what worked in the first, got a new director and writers on board and basically remade Expendables 1 but sillier and better.

The result is magnificently deranged. In some senses it actually resembles an episode of a long-running sitcom, where old favourites enter to a cheer and applause from the canned audience (though the audience in the screening I was at did actually applaud every time a new hero appeared) and knowingly steal each other’s catchphrases.

Van Damme as Jean Vilain

This is a world where men (big, oversized men) are capable of transcending the boundaries of space and time, where characters can be shown running through the jungle and seconds later are at the controls of a massive plane flying down to wreak havoc on a faceless army that surely only built that massive dam so it could have the SHIT blown out of it. Surely these men, with their insane control of the space/time continuum, are the real super heroes. They have the power of deities. Being armed with guns seems both completely necessary yet totally redundant.

It’s tantamount to admitting that the action genre, no matter how serious it might take itself at times (I’m looking at you, Señor Nolan) is really just about stuff blowing up, stuntmen falling off things and the hero making a pun at the end of it. For all these perma-sculpted men (what on earth are they going to look like in their 80s?), who at one time or another must also have considered themselves quite seriously, to basically admit as much takes a lot of guts. Guts raining from the sky it is, then.

For anyone who’s ever enjoyed a cheesy action film from the 80s and 90s, pretty much everyone is here. The only notable absentees from this roster of action movie legends to feature across the series so far are Jackie Chan, Mel ‘naughty step’ Gibson and the bloke who played McGuyver. And Steven Seagal, I suppose. Considering none of these men are exactly known for their acting chops, the relaxed atmosphere works wonders. That, and the fact that they’re basically playing themselves. Or an amalgamation of all their various selves, Basically, they know the terrain, and they’re totally comfortable in it.

Stallone these days resembles an uncannily animated totem pole, but at least he can almost crack a smile now (I wouldn’t rule out CGI there). Jean-Claude Van Damme (who’s actually not new to this postmodern game, having starred in 2008’s really very good JCVD) is rather brilliant as Jean Vilain. Dolph Lundgren is much more comfortable in his role this time around and at times has an almost (I shit you not) Klaus Kinski-esque madness to him. Schwarzenegger and Willis, Norris and Li, Crews and Statham, Yu and Couture – all are very watchable. Also watch out for a ‘plot’ line involving young Liam Hemsworth that is simply brilliant for it’s tongue-in-cheek ridiculousness.

So what next? No doubt there will be a third Expendables, but part of me wishes that, having succeeded so brilliantly here they just let it go. What could they possibly do that could top this? The ‘meta’ approach only allows for so much before some serious imagination needs to come into play. Expendables 3? Joined by David Hasselhoff, Shaft and Kevin Costner. Taking on Skeletor and the reanimated zombie corpses of Charles Bronson and John Wayne. With Scott Bakula from Quantum Leap playing Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dennis Quaid in Total Recall (but voiced by Colin Farrell’s penis). Or we could have a remake of Lethal Weapon with Jamie Foxx and Larry David. Or we could do Columbo with Vin Diesel…

(Ed Wall stops writing, turns and looks wistfully out of the window. Apparently trying hard to think of a good way to end the article he’s working on. After a moment’s pause, he turns and looks directly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall. He pulls off his face, revealing a smiling Tom Cruise).

Tom: “The possibilities are endless.”

(Fade out).

The Expendables 2 is in cinemas from Friday. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @Edward1Wall.

360 | review

“In a bad film”, writes The A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin, “something goes awry: The script is convoluted or the third act is a mess or Anthony Hopkins is playing a black man for some reason”. Well, substitute “whole damn thing” for “third act” and give Hopkins some credit for leaving his shoe polish at home, but otherwise, in Fernando Meirelles extraordinarily banal 360, you have the very definition of a bad film. A really bad one, in fact.

Filmed in eight separate countries and loosely based on Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde360 is a cosmopolitan, would-be opus about how people connect with each other in this technology-dominated modern age. The huge cast of one-dimensional characters (including Hopkins, Jude Law and Rachel Weisz) chase, betray, and have (largely miserable) sex with each other. And that’s basically it for two hours.

The whole interconnecting stories thing has been done before to much greater effect by the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia), Robert Altman (Short Cuts), Michael Haneke (Code Unknown) and on a global scale by Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (the overwrought and schematic but far superior Babel); 360 brings nothing new to the table. Peter Morgan’s dialogue clangs with exposition and cliche, and the writer is particularly fond of populating his story with occurrences that would simply never happen in real life.

The inconsistencies and unintentionally funny moments in 360 are simply too legion to itemize, but special mention must be made of the ludicrous storyline concerning a convicted sex offender (Ben Foster) who all but begs his case worker (Secrets & Lies’ Marianne Jean-Baptiste) to keep him locked up because he is palpably still capable of bad deeds. Instead, she positively encourages him to get out there, and before you know it, fate has presented him with a drunk, emotional recent dump-ee for him to test his mettle against. And that’s not all. Before he enters the hotel room with the girl, Meirelles lingers pretentiously on his cross tattoo, and then the door number 316 (in reference to John 3:16, one of the most frequently quoted references from the Bible). Is this guy some kind of latter-day saint? Who cares as long as there’s a portentous religious connection wedged in there. It’s just that kind of film.

Other than the dubious underlying message that says simply “take a chance”, even if this means unleashing a jittery sex offender onto the world, or abandoning your imperilled prostitute sister to jump into a car with the first hunky bloke that claps eyes on you, there is little of substance or meaning on show.

Yes, it’s well shot and competently made, but so are most car adverts. 360 might just have passed muster as a series of one-act ITV dramas, but as cinema, it’s DOA, and a colossal waste of time for all involved.

360 is in cinemas from Friday. A version of this review originally appeared in our coverage of the 55th BFI London Film Festival.

Undefeated | review

Winner of the 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Undefeated tells the story of a long-suffering volunteer coach who shepherds a team of underperforming high-school football players in a depressed North Memphis suburb through a rough, but ultimately rewarding season.

The coach in question is doughy, grizzled and inspirational family man and entrepeneur Bill Courtney. The team are Manassas, comprised entirely of black kids from largely dispossessed backgrounds. Of the kids, Lindsay and Martin pick three contrasting figures upon which to focus; gentle giant OC, hair-trigger thug Chavis, and sensitive Montrail.

While Courtney comes across as a thoroughly decent guy (with a touching familial tale of his own to tell), the film loses perspective in its frantic attempts to paint him as a saviour. The inescapable (and troubling) feeling persists that Courtney is being actively constructed as a hero at the expense of full, thorough characterisation of his students. This is never more keenly felt than in the egregious moment where he grandly pays a distressed Montrail a visit, and seems to be all but winking at the camera. Later he even tweaks Montrail’s nose. Call me a cynical bastard, but I felt my cringe reflex go into overdrive on more than one occasion; the tang of inauthenticity swilled heavy in my nostrils.

Sadly, Undefeated is never especially gripping because, narrative-wise, it’s all so grimly predictable. Despite an ostensibly un-forecastable real-life setting, there’s a curious anti-tension at work which is a corollary of the directors’ own steadfast subscription to time-honoured generic cliches (conflict to resolution, ignorance to learning, earnest aphorisms about being the best you can be etc…). The recent announcement that Sean “Diddy” Combs will serve as a producer on a Hollywood remake begs the question… why? This is Hollywood stuff already.

Furthermore, while the film is competently shot, only rarely is the bone-crunching intensity of the game really captured. Neither do the filmmakers concede to explain the finer points (or, in fact, any of the points) of the sport, which might help it to connect to a wider audience. Wholly unnecessary subtitles for some students exacerbate the already pretty patronizing tone.

It would take a misanthrope of epic proportions to deny that, on a human level, Undefeated is occasionally moving, and that it may prove inspirational to some viewers. OC, Chavis and Montrail are all clearly interesting characters, and their personalities shine through when they’re not being manipulated by the directors (Chavis in particular is hung out to dry to serve the narrative arc). The dedicated Courtney comes to accept that his own responsibilities as a father cannot co-exist with his time-consuming role of self-appointed father figure to his charges.

Thematically speaking, Undefeated touches on the intrinsic nature of sport to people’s lives, and the inextricable financial links between education and sport that are endemic in the States and anathema to UK audiences. But, if you’ve seen Hoop Dreams (and if you haven’t, why not?), there’s nothing new here. What really sticks is this film’s carefully constructed, and altogether tiresome, drift into “white saviour” narrative territory, as seen in the recent likes of The Blind Side and The Help (which makes it all the more surprising that co-director T.J. Martin is African-American). The black kids’ learning journey is externally imposed and constructed, and the filmmakers’ shy away from any real forensic socio-economic analysis. Undefeated is cliched, watchable and inessential.

Undefeated is in cinemas now.

Nostalgia for the Light | review

While Patricio Guzmán’s documentary Nostalgia for the Light juxtaposes fairly niche interests – astronomy and the Pinochet era – the poetic way he draws parallels between scientific and sociopolitical investigations of the past transcends the particulars. Personal traumas resonate on an epic scale in Guzman’s haunting depiction of the scars of modern Chile.

Forty years ago, Chile’s democracy was struggling with a crippled economy and a politically polarised population. Four decades of strong leftist forces were being challenged, especially because of the Cold War. Under these conditions, hard right General Pinochet staged a successful, military coup against the leftist president Salvador Allende. His regime aggressively and brutally silenced any opposition, imprisoning, torturing, ‘disappearing’ and exiling thousands – including Patricio Guzmán.

When Guzmán was 32, he started his second documentary called The Battle of Chile, filming up until the day of the coup that put Pinochet in power. On that day, Guzmán was imprisoned for two weeks. Then, threatened with execution, he fled to Europe with his film stock. Since that time, he has made many documentaries about Chilean concerns, and it is fitting that – now in his 70s – he reflects upon Chile’s history with a pained nostalgia.

The film is dominated by gorgeous, sweeping shots of the Atacama desert and the glittering sky above it. Guzmán shows us how both environments grant us access to evidence of the past, whether through the changing composition of star systems or through preserved artefacts shallowly buried in shifting sands. He also captures how time is pre-modern in these environments, and the present feels like a fallacy. Even the sunlight we see and feel takes eight minutes to travel to us. He makes it clear that the silence of the desert and of space doesn’t necessarily indicate calm – both are pregnant with secrets and history that lead to endless questions.

To try and answer these questions, Guzmán interweaves varied testimonials from Chileans with these images of nature, effectively layered to ruminate upon how we try to find inner peace by remembering and trying to understand our past. He is fascinated by Chile’s paradoxical predisposition to examine the ancient past through the sky and the desert, while seeming to have a collective amnesia about the recent past. His most heartbreaking interviews are with women who have been tirelessly searching the Atacama desert for the remains of their loved ones for nearly three decades. Their struggles embody the film’s title – they, representative of many Chileans, long for a time when they did not feel like they live restlessly in the dark, isolated in their search for answers.

But ultimately, by focusing on this intersection of history and science, Guzmán’s unique documentary tries to reassure us by emphasising the invisible interconnectedness of everything. It serves as a reminder that we’re part of a massive cycle, made of stardust, and generation after generation will continue to pursue an understanding of it all.

Nostalgia for the Light is in cinemas now. Follow contributor Cathy Landicho on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.

A Simple Life (Tao Jie) | review

Think of Hong Kong cinema and your mind might automatically wander to martial arts films or crime thrillers. But, as you can infer from this film’s title, A Simple Life is not one of them. It has had commercial success and critical acclaim that was unexpected by all involved in the film, many of whom are veterans of the Hong Kong film industry. It’s the fifth highest-grossing film in Hong Kong this year so far (The Avengers and Men In Black 3 hold the top spots). Considering that the Hong Kong film industry has been struggling mightily against Hollywood blockbusters since the mid-1990s, the fact that this film has been a surprise hit is heartening for the regional business. A Simple Life is a love letter to a decidedly unglamorous and humble Hong Kong.

Ann Hui’s gentle film is led by Ah Tao (Deanie Ip), an ageing domestic servant (‘amah’ in Chinese) who tends to the needs of bachelor Roger Leung (Andy Lau), the only member of his family left in Hong Kong. Ah Tao was with the Leung family since she was orphaned by WWII and served four generations of the family, so the Leungs are essentially her family. The film focuses on Ah Tao’s relationship to Roger and how it evolves during her last years, rendering a tender portrait of the reality of becoming elderly.

There’s authenticity embedded in the film that helps it resonate – it’s based on real characters and Deanie Ip is actually Andy Tau’s godmother. It also doesn’t hurt that 23 years ago, Ip and Lau co-starred as mother and son in a film called The Truth. There’s a natural ease and familiarity to their understated onscreen interactions that is rare to see.

A Simple Life opens with Ah Tao limping up stairs with heavy groceries and then serving Roger a meal without any thanks or recognition offered. For the majority of us who didn’t grow up with in-house servants, it’s a bit off-putting. Roger hardly looks like a grown-up; he moves and dresses like a university student, despite being a big shot in the film industry. In contrast, Ah Tao acts with a strong sense of purpose and a professional dignity about her responsibilities; she never asks for anything and never complains. Deanie Ip is only 64, but her natural physical mannerisms thoroughly convince you that her body is starting to fail.

Ah Tao has a stroke, and thus retires and asks to be put in a nursing home so she isn’t a burden on Roger. Their familiar routines with each other are put in reverse; Roger goes from being cared for to having to take care of both himself and Ah Tao. Through Ah Tao, we get the nursing home experience without the smells, as she transitions from independent living to what is essentially a waiting game. The nursing home is populated with well-nuanced characters who make it clear that Ah Tao is one of the fortunate ones. It’s lucky for us in the audience, as hers is a best-case scenario of a stage of life most would rather not think about.

It may all sound depressing, but watching it doesn’t feel that way. Each character is cheerful and entertaining, complete with little idiosyncrasies, and the cinematography is crisp and naturalistic. Everything in the film serves character development in a humanist, understated manner, quite like Ah Tao herself. Deanie Ip’s performance (which deservedly won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at Venice, the first for a Hong Kong woman) commands respect and holds your sympathies. The last third does drag slightly, mainly because you know what’s coming; but this reflects reality, since the waiting is quietly agonising. The film gently reminds us of our mortality and our responsibilities to our family, in a non-preachy way. If you feel like a break from grandiose blockbuster films this summer, give this one a try.

A Simple Life opens in selected UK cinemas nationwide on 3 August. Contributor Cathy Landicho can followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.