Tag Archives: review

PPH end of year round-up part 2 | Dogs, disappointments and discoveries

red-tails02

With my year-end Top 10 done and dusted, it’s time to engage in some good old-fashioned negativity, and reveal my least favourite films of the year. Before I continue, I should say that while there were probably plenty worse films out there (in terms of technical quality etc, not to mention all the stinkers I mercifully avoided) this is a completely personal take. What follows is an account of the films that particularly irritated, bored or offended me (or in some frightful cases, all three). Who let the dogs out?!

Cabin In The Woods (dir., Drew Goddard)

In stark contrast to screenwriter Whedon’s sprightly Avengers Assemble, this clever-clever novelty was slathered in a suffocating sheen of smugness; it was almost as though the film kept pausing itself to explain to us – the poor audience – how awesomely intelligent it was. But it fell at every hurdle: not scary enough to work as a horror, not funny enough to work as a comedy, and not smart enough to provoke thought. The film that fell between all these stools was, in its own repellent way, the real stool.

*     *     *

Damsels in Distress (dir., Whit Stillman)

When critics wrote effusively of Whit Stillman’s “light, frothy” campus comedy, I wondered if they’d watched the same film as me. On the contrary, I saw an airless, smug, joke-free mess with precisely as much respect for its characters as its audience: zero. One of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had in a cinema – I couldn’t wait for it to end.

*     *     *

The Darkest Hour (dir., Chris Gorak)

Had the filmmakers been honest, they’d have called it The Darkest 89 Minutes. This desultory sci-fi shambles about hungry electrical monsters (I know, I know) was a thrill-free ordeal.

*     *     *

The Dictator (dir., Larry Charles)

Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest was an ugly, flat, mean-spirited shambles full of lame jokes, pathetic toilet humour and hapless, dated attempts at satire. Another bad sign was the reliance on the celebrity cameo for chuckles; a conceit which underlines the nagging feeling that Baron Cohen – now a major league Hollywood player – is part of the smug, self-congratulatory gang he purports to lambast.

*     *     *

How I Spent My Summer Vacation (dir., Adrian Grunberg)

“Mad” Mel Gibson’s comeback as an action star was a noxious, derivative blast of casual racism (when will we live in a world where filmmakers will refrain from shooting Mexico through sulphurous filters?), gratuitous, nasty violence and beyond-retrograde sexual politics: ‘spicy’, brutalized Latina maidens were so 1985, guys.

*     *     *

The Imposter (dir., Bart Layton)

Was there a more appropriately titled film released this year? Sure, Bart Layton’s film had a great story to work with (it’s explored brilliantly in this New Yorker article), but the director completely failed to trust said material, smothering it with pointlessly slick formal jiggerypokery. Worse still, I got the strong feeling that the filmmakers didn’t really give a toss about any of the characters they were dealing with. Contrast the humane way in which the New Yorker article treats the people involved with the cold calculation of the film. A real missed opportunity.

*     *     *

Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy (dir., Rob Heydon)

This ridiculous low-budget Canadian adaptation of an Irvine Welsh short story fused the production values of Hollyoaks with the clarity of insight and intellectual rigour of Hollyoaks. A spectacularly misconceived fiasco bereft of a single redeeming feature.

*     *     *

A Man’s Story (dir., Varon Bonicos) | full review

Varon Bonicos’ deeply boring and hagiographic effort was less of a documentary than an extended electronic press kit. Its biggest crime was to make its fascinating subject (fashion designer Ozwald Boateng, who became the youngest, and first black man to open a shop on Savile Row) seem like a total dullard.

*     *     *

Red Tails (dir., Anthony Hemingway)

When watching this cheese-sodden, horrendously inept would-be epic about the heroic Tuskegee Airmen, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. There’s a tough dilemma at the heart of the act of responding to the George Lucas-produced Red Tails: should we be simply happy that this important story is being highlighted for a mass audience, or dismayed that it’s been handled so badly? There’s room for both emotions, but it’s little short of a tragedy – and an indictment of Hollywood’s racial mores – that a film this poor had to fight so hard to get made.

*     *     *

The Sweeney (dir., Nick Love)

I maintain that, despite the critical opprobrium he’s always received, there’s a decent filmmaker lurking somewhere within the bowels of Nick Love. His debut Goodbye Charlie Bright was a truly decent effort, and the first half of The Business showed a hitherto undiscovered lightness of touch. Sadly, his witless, crass, pointless remake of the 70’s TV cop standard reminded us of the reasons for his current standing. Further minus points for wasting some great London locations.

*     *     *

Dishonourable mentions go to: Christopher Nolan’s bombastic, self-regarding and stupid The Dark Knight Rises thank God that trilogy is over; Oliver Stone’s laughable Savages (only a man with the hubris of Stone would try and get away with one of those pretend endings in this day and age); Cameron Crowe’s nauseating We Bought a Zoo the moment where the director’s giddy optimism crossed the divide from heartwarming into terrifying; rubbish Canadian comedy Starbuck, which wasted a great premise with slack, cartoonish execution; and Michael, a shallow and repugnant Austrian film which played like a bankrupt man’s Michael Haneke remaking Misery after reading about Josef Fritzl. I found its ending (I won’t spoil) particularly unpalatable.

*     *     * 

A quick round-up of disappointments

the_master_paul_thomas_anderson001

Perhaps 2012 found me in a particularly crotchety mood, but I was largely unimpressed with a vast swathe of the year’s biggest critical darlings. The two films I’d most been looking forward to – Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (feature) – both ended up being my least favourite films to date from their respective directors. I found the former to be a disjointed (no pun intended, Marion) and manipulative – if well-acted and occasionally powerful – affair, replete with weirdly dated sexual politics and hilariously fetishized notions of masculinity.

Anderson’s film, meanwhile, looked and sounded great, but after a superb opening, simply disappeared in a feeble puff of ineffectuality. I was compelled enough to watch it twice (not least so I could further bask in Joaquin Phoenix’s unhinged performance), but was even more bored and confounded the second time round. I think Anderson is a visceral and propulsive filmmaker rather than a cerebral one, and The Master betrayed signs of its creator either lacking ideas or simply failing to communicate them adequately. However, it deserved serious credit for refusing to spoonfeed its audience, and for being such a genuine oddity in the oft-restrictive context of mainstream American cinema. It also inspired some truly outstanding writing, not to mention some lively pub discussion.

Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild was another critical favourite which, despite its undeniable energy and originality, left me cold. I found it hokey, shallow and not a little patronizing. Another film to depend heavily on young actors – Wes Anderson’s ever-so-precious Moonrise Kingdom (full review) – felt like a serious case of diminishing returns even though it looked gorgeous. Early stills and teasers of Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly had me hot under the collar, but the end result – a hectoring, gratuitous and self-satisfied mess –  poured ice down my trousers.

There was plenty of praise for Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, but I found this broken-backed film hard work, and seemed to be alone in preferring the austere first half to the colonial-era second. However, in the interests of full disclosure, I watched it on a laptop on a timecode-inscribed DVD screener – hardly optimal conditions for a film which many described as one of the year’s most visually lush. If it’s playing on a big screen near me any time soon, I’ll make sure I give it another go.

*     *     * 

Discoveries

4174153,j8lRRzimVq0aW57pvmyVDqVmzOSWbpC9rjF0BAr1M6c3yT0CcOGfb6Gf8IFod5N+WaaOen8ziJMaAFgjMT0NlA==

I managed to keep a complete record of everything I watched on every format this year, so I thought I’d whack together a couple of (alphabetical) Top 10s of some great stuff I saw for the first time:

Cinema

2001: A Space Odyssey | dir., Stanley Kubrick, 1968 | BFI Southbank

Faces | dir., John Cassavetes, 1968 | BFI Southbank

Hyenes | dir., Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1992 | IFI Dublin

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie | dir., John Cassavetes, 1976 | Prince Charles Cinema

Ordet | dir. Carl Theodore Dreyer, 1955 | BFI Southbank

Ornette Coleman: Made in America | dir., Shirley Clarke, 1985 | IFC Center, New York

The Passion of Anna | dir., Ingmar Bergman, 1969 | BFI Southbank

The Purple Rose of Cairo | dir., Woody Allen, 1985| Arsenal, Berlin

The Spook Who Sat By The Door | dir., Ivan Dixon, 1973 | BFI Southbank

Yeelen | dir., Souleymane Cissé, 1987 | IFI Dublin

 Home viewing

32 Short Films About Glenn Gould | dir., Francois Girard, 1993

All That Jazz | dir., Bob Fosse, 1979

The Bad and the Beautiful | dir., Vincente Minnelli, 1952

Blue Collar | dir., Paul Schrader, 1980

Chameleon Street | dir., Wendell B. Harris, Jr., 1989

The Hit | dir., Stephen Frears, 1984

Safe | dir., Todd Haynes, 1995

Sisters | dir., Brian de Palma, 1973

Spider | dir., David Cronenberg, 2002

Wonderland | dir., Michael Winterbottom, 1999

*     *     * 

Thanks for reading. Tune in tomorrow for the final part of PPH’s end-of-year round-up.

Sightseers | review

When it was announced that director Ben Wheatley would follow his chilling sophomore feature Kill List with a comedy, it would have been entirely reasonable to breathe a sigh of relief. The savage, explicitly violent Kill List was as disturbing as they come; an unsettlingly realistic film with an interest in the occult that recalled the great British horrors of the 1970s (think Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man).

Yet anyone familiar with Wheatley’s blackly comic debut Down Terrace would be unsurprised to discover that Sightseers is hardly Love Actually. Instead, it shares misanthropic DNA with Kill List, a dark human story this time filtered through Wheatley’s unique comic sensibility. His Britain is one where a quaint caravanning holiday can become a Badlandsstyle massacre. In Sightseers it does just that and it is a glorious cause for laughter.

At the beginning of Sightseers we meet Tina (Alice Lowe), in her thirties and still living at home with her mother. Tina is invited on a caravanning holiday with her new boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram), a Brummie in possession of a luxuriant ginger beard. Tina’s mother is unimpressed by Chris, but the offer of a trip to Crich Tram Museum cements Tina’s defiant decision to fly the nest.

Initially Chris comes across only as odd as you’d expect for a caravanning enthusiast, that is until he displays an unhealthy loathing for litterbugs. After a hostile encounter with a serial litterer at the Tram Museum, things take a turn for the worse, and Tina’s holiday becomes something more than a jolly jaunt around the north of England.

Lowe and Oram’s script is as witty as it is cruel; rude jokes, sight gags, and moments of sheer maliciousness all demand laughs. As the writers and lead performers of Sightseers it is hard to separate the actors from their creations, so rarely does the humour fall flat. As director, Wheatley handles jokes with great effect, proving his dexterousness in the shift from horror to comedy.

As well as laughs, there is a subversive streak to be found in the construction of Sightseers. During one key murder scene Wheatley includes the words to ‘And did those feet in ancient time’, by William Blake, in voice over. Today these words are prominently known as the Lyrics to the hymn Jerusalem, an anthem associated with a sense of British patriotism.

The satire to be found in Sightseers also brings to mind a bygone generation of British directors like Lindsay Anderson, helmer of the extraordinary If…. and O Lucky Man!. In the darker moments Wheatley’s work also brings to mind the films of Nicholas Roeg and Robin Hardy. While Wheatley treats patriotism with irony, he is certainly concerned with the Britishness of his film.

Wheatley contrasts mundane interior locations with extraordinary landscapes to expose much more of England than we are used to in British cinema. The landscape shots in Sightseers, lensed by cinematographer Laurie Rose, are utterly stunning. Wheatley’s choice of locations evokes the mystery of Britain’s prehistoric and pre-Christian past with a Herzogian curiosity; this is particularly evident when, as with the boat in Fitzcarraldo, the pair drag the caravan up a mountain.

At times the overall construction of Sightseers feels a little jumpy, with undesirable cuts to black to break up the scenes. The large amount of improvisation involved in creating Sightseers is probably to blame for the occasional clunks, but this is of little consequence as the overall story arc comes together in a maliciously funny fashion.

Finally, Wheatley’s choice of music deserves praise. The anthems for the odd couple are 80’s staples ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell and ‘The Power of Love’ by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Psychedelic 60’s rock like ‘Season of the Witch’ by Vanilla Fudge pronounces Wheatley’s love of the weird, while German masters Popul Vuh help to further transport us to that elusive Herzogian place.

Ultimately the film, like the soundtrack, is as emotionally rousing as it is amusing. Sightseers is the anorak-clad version of True Romance that you’ve always wished for. It is Bonnie and Clyde for the British Isles. It is Badlands with more rain. Cinema just doesn’t get much better than that.

Sightseers is in cinemas from Friday. Contributor Tom Cottey can be followed on Twitter @tcottey.

Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet | review

Cinema’s power often lies in a very direct form of emotiveness, with the immediacy of the image being the perfect foil for a good story. But the simplicity with which this directness operates requires a fine balance. It’s all too easy to mishandle the power at one’s disposal, to bludgeon an audience’s goodwill into pained submission under a hail of grandstanding sentiment. This is especially true in the ‘Life Story’ genre. Documentaries and acted biopics which bear this scary moniker often come generously ladled with words and phrases like ‘inspiring’ and ‘heart-warming’ as directors amp up every aspect of tragedy and triumph in human life, screaming ‘FEEL!’ at the audience as though we were already cold in our seats, vacant and resigned at this still-early stage in the emotional evolution of the human beast. In most cases, ‘vomit-inducing’ would be more of an accurate description of these films.

Great credit, then, to Jesse Vile, director of Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet who has made a film which impacts in a meaningful way whilst keeping any potential melodrama or sensationalism firmly outside of the frame. Jason Becker isn’t manipulative, it isn’t preachy, and most importantly it isn’t patronising. Jason Becker isn’t dead yet, and he doesn’t want your sympathy.

In 1989, small-town teenager Becker, a ridiculously talented guitarist, was about to make the step up from barely-known prodigy to big time player. David Lee Roth, whose band had launched the careers of first Eddie Van Halen and then Steve Vai – the established Best Guitarists in the World in the ‘shredder’ mould – had heard Becker playing and wanted him to feature on a new album and a tour. This was literally ‘it’ – and nothing more than a culmination of years of obsessive practice combined with a natural talent in a nurturing family environment, although these are the kind of dreams we hardly dare hope for even in our wildest moments. The album was recorded and the band were hitting the studio in preparation for the next stage. Around this time what had begun as a twinge in Jason’s leg was causing him serious discomfort. On the advice of his parents he went to the doctor, who diagnosed him with ALS – a wasting disease – an extremely rare condition for someone of his age, and totally incurable.

As a reviewer you try to be as neutral as possible during screenings, but sometimes you get caught up, and from there it’s almost impossible to imagine blankly critiquing things like form and narrative. In this sense the film must, therefore, be a success – removing this reviewer from the relative ease and safety of his objectiveness. So far as this is a piece of cinema, it has some cute directorial touches, but Vile is both wise and modest enough to keep his presence to a minimum. If there’s a message, it’s one that comes naturally from the material, not from some superficial slants, artificial crescendos of emotion or sensationalism. Becker’s story changed, it deviated from what might have been expected – and many times – but it’s clear from the film that all changes are navigable with good people behind you.

Having made a point of the film’s emotional neutrality, I haven’t tried so hard not to cry in a film since watching Bambi as a child, unsure as I was at the time whether it was allowed in the cinema or not. As with then, the effort gave me a massive headache. But it wasn’t that what I was watching made me sad. The film’s emotional impact sits in that quiet hinterland between sadness and joy – the one where you’re experiencing the sense of being. It’s neither a happy experience nor an unhappy one, but it’s more than both – an experience of fullness and potential. A man who created his opus while paralysed? A great achievement – but here’s the thing – it’s also not. It’s entirely normal when viewed in the context of Becker’s life. What this film highlights –the incredible thing – is that all of life is within anyone’s grasp if they just have the confidence to take it in hand – to commit to it. Life can’t be this simple, so we think. And truly, you don’t know what myriad complexities have been simplified, what disparate threads have been unified for the purposes of effective cinema. But what this film suggests is that there aren’t any, and if there are they’re unimportant. While it’s common practice now to view life ‘realistically’ as a series of inherently meaningless events swinging, by our selfish imposition of our worth upon them, between the twin states of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, one can also approach it from a far simpler outlook: we’re alive right now, and that’s what really matters. Is there not incredible hope in that?

Please don’t be put off if you think this is just going to be a film about a metal guitarist. This is a universal film, an important film, meriting a wider audience than it will probably receive. In his steadfast refusal to patronise his subject, Vile has made the film his subject richly deserves.

Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is in cinemas from Friday, and released by Dogwoof. It’s released on DVD on December 3.

PPH @ LFF: The We and the I | review

When a bunch of teenagers board the bus or train you’re on, what do you feel? Dread? Disgust? I usually try to reassure myself that when I have kids, they won’t be so un-self-aware. But the thing is, when people are in groups – teenagers or not – we tend to have a certain blindness of others outside our group. And when we were teenagers, it was even worse; remember being painfully aware of your peers while egocentrically preoccupied by your own drama-filled thoughts? (I hope that wasn’t just me.) Michel Gondry’s The We and the I brilliantly captures our struggle against groupthink to be individuals in a condensed form by limiting the camera’s gaze to a bus ride home on the last day of school. It’s refreshing and fun to catch a glimpse of Gondry’s view of the world – realistically flawed, humorous and vulnerable moments combined with a bit of visual whimsy.

The film begins by contrasting the relative quiet of the South Bronx neighbourhood with the frenetic chaos that the end of the school day unleashes. Students pile onto the public bus and compete for seats; it quickly becomes clear who is confident and who is not. As a high school teacher myself, parents sometimes ask me for advice about teenagers; one of my first questions to them is where their kid sits on the bus. The kids who think they’re cool, often bullies, sit way in the back. The independent-minded ones don’t mind taking the seats in front. Most end up in between, but still leaning towards one side or the other. The We and the I gets this just right, presenting a good mix of teenage archetypes without it seeming too forced: up front, some snooty clever kids; some couples, both straight and gay; some sensitive musician boys; an artist; an awkward outcast; an aloof outsider who stoically keeps his headphones in; and of course, the cocky bullies in the back. Thinking back, a bit of you probably belonged in each group… but you had to choose an affiliation, unless you were one of the rare ‘floaters’.

The cramped setting of The We and the I mirrors the sometimes suffocating social world of teenagers; it’s a real technical achievement that Gondry manages to be a fly-on-the-wall in such small spaces. The camera seamlessly flits around the bus, dipping in and out of each hormone-fuelled micro-drama while still capturing the dynamics between groups. The kids’ cell phone use is included to admirable effect, from my teacher’s point of view – most teens today feel compelled to be plugged in at all times, which also leaves them more vulnerable to social missteps. As the bus gradually empties, the We does become the I; the teens have to choose their own individual paths.

Having taught just outside NYC, the kids in The We and the I are much more familiar to me than the casts of past teen films – much more recognisable than the characters in Dazed and Confused, which just represents a very different part of America. There’s no guitar rock on this soundtrack – it’s mostly Young MC and old-school hip hop. It’s also such a relief to see teenagers onscreen actually talking like teenagers – swearing left and right, voices emphatic, vocabulary normal (not what an adult wishes they’d say). It’s heartening to see teens represented so honestly by these non-professional actors. When the credits roll, you see that all the character names are the kids’ actual names – Gondry workshopped the film with these kids at The Point, a community youth centre. The result of their collaboration is a uniquely candid document of the lives of urban youth that makes me very glad that someone like Gondry keeps making films.

El Alma de Las Moscas (The Soul of Flies) | review

The promising debut film of independent filmmaker Jonathan Cenzual Burley, El Alma de Las Moscas (The Soul of Flies), is a low-key magical realist meditation in buddy-film form. The two protagonists, Nero (Andrea Calabrese) and Miguel (Javier Sáez), are brothers meeting for the first time after decades, summoned to their absent father’s funeral by posthumous letters. They meet at a train station that happens to be abandoned – presumably by their deceased dad’s design – and are forced to come to terms with each other as they meander through the grain fields in Salamanca (western Spain) towards the funeral. If you appreciate Beckett’s Waiting for Godot but wish it were a bit more accessible and less tragic, this would be right up your alley.

Crucially for the film’s dramatic trajectory, Nero and Miguel provide effective foil for one another; Nero is an ebullient optimist while Miguel is a brooding cynic. Their dynamic drives the film forward and gives the film a sense of purpose. Because there are few close-ups on either – the film is dominated by medium and long shots of the pair against the landscape – their clothing choices are key for convincingly defining their characters. It’s fitting that Nero looks comfortable in the countryside, wearing earth-tones and a humble flat cap, while Miguel looks incongruous in a slick black-and-white suit.

The film has a third protagonist: the countryside. Given voice by a rustic, rhythmic soundtrack, it’s a strong character of the film as well. The expanses of dry grain fields are described by the narrator as containing a “labyrinth of memories”, a silent witness of the life their father lived. The countryside looks great on film; Burley’s minimalist aesthetic utilises striking, saturated colours and naturalistic light so it looks painterly and timeless.

The writer/director said in a recent interview that he shot this film in three weeks with a tiny cast and crew and a very limited budget, so it’s really intended as a calling card. Burley’s message is: ‘This is what I can do with no money; now give me some.’ And the results are encouraging. While El Alma de las Moscas is understated and minimalist, it has a clear vision and thoughtfully uses film language. For example, when the two brothers are wandering around, their journey moves right to left across the screen, enhancing that their journey is not about forward movement. When they finally start traveling the right way towards the funeral, their path is tracked left to right so a conclusion feels inevitable.

El Alma de las Moscas seems to be billed as a comedy, but that’s a bit misleading, as it doesn’t quite fit into that box. Two strangers wander around the countryside, meeting some quirky characters along the way, and ruminate about the nature of family, loneliness, fate and mortality. This film isn’t often laugh-out-loud funny, but it does deal with deep subject matter in a light-hearted way. So if you’re in the mood for that, check it out.

The Soul of Flies is out now on DVD, released by Matchbox Films (RRP.  £15.99) | Buy the film at amazon.co.uk.  

PPH @ LFF: Key of Life (Kagi-Dorobou no Method) | review

Choosing which films to see out of the hundreds at the BFI London Film Festival is never an easy task, but one key bit of information definitely helps me prioritise – whether the film’s already got a UK distributor or not. I always pick at least one foreign film or documentary that I may never get another chance to see, usually from Asia, often from Japan. They’re safe bets to me, considering the country’s rich cinematic history, and they provide refreshing breaks from Eurocentric perspectives. My personal opinion is that many modern Japanese cultural products, from anime to music to cinema, thoughtfully mix Western influences and Eastern values so that the experience is both enticingly unique and broadly accessible.

This year I chose director-screenwriter Kenji Uchida’s entertaining tragicomedy Key of Life, a Japanese-style riff on Trading Places in which Sakurai (Masato Sakai), a down-and-out actor, opportunistically steals an amnesaic’s identity. Sakurai’s life is in shambles – he owes everyone money and the ex-girlfriend he still loves is engaged. Likably pathetic, he even fails at committing suicide. When Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa) slips and hits his head in a bathhouse, a shortcut for restarting Sakurai’s life literally falls at his feet. It’s extra-lucky that Kondo happens to be quite wealthy. Kondo-as-Sakurai chances upon a bit of luck too in befriending Kanae, a nerdy magazine editor, at the hospital. She is on an endearing-yet-vaguely-pitiable mission to get married before her ill father dies, and discovers that it’s convenient to get to know someone while he is trying to rediscover himself. It’s all fun and games until the real Sakurai stumbles across the source of Kondo’s wealth – it turns out that he’s an assassin for the mob, and his last job wasn’t quite finished… thus the fates of these three previously isolated figures are suddenly tied together, and they’re left testing when their collective luck will finally run out.

The world the film portrays is wacky, yet recognisably modern and cynical; apart from the main trio, everyone makes selfish decisions that destroy relationships and are largely driven by pride and materialism. That backdrop is vital, as it facilitates us rooting for these naive principal characters while they earnestly fumble through these unusual circumstances. We trust them enough to go along for the ride, happy to be surprised at the twists and turns.

But most importantly, there’s plenty of laugh-out-loud moments as the two men play with their new identities. Most of the credit goes to Kagawa’s bravura performance as Kondo, deftly switching between the cold, professional assassin to the vulnerable amnesic; Sakai seems outclassed, too much of a ham, but in fairness, his character is supposed to be a failed actor. Key of Life orchestrates its many tonal shifts skilfully, evoking an enjoyable range of emotions. Uchida’s well-crafted, well-executed comedy is well-worth a watch. And next time you’re perusing a film festival programme, keep an eye out for good foreign films without distribution deals.

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.