Tuesday 30 September 2014

Zurich Film Festival - Gone Girl

Gone Girl (149 mins)
Director: David Fincher
4 stars

Did Nick Dunne kill his wife? That’s the question at the heart of this slick, stylish, surprisingly funny thriller from one of the modern masters of the genre, David Fincher. Ben Affleck plays Nick, who comes home to find his house in disarray and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing. As the police investigate her disappearance, Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn (on whose novel the film is based) skillfully weave in the details of their relationship, from their romantic first meeting to the cracks that had recently begun to show in their marriage. This is far from a standard thriller, but one coated with a mordant wit that feels entirely authentic, a sort of everyday facetiousness that means it never slips into melodrama but remains consistently relatable even as the mood darkens. As secrets are revealed, Fincher tightens the knot mercilessly, then lets you catch breath again with a devilish wink, as the plot snakes in ways that are both audacious and entirely grounded in the characters. Affleck and Pike are tremendous, the former playing the whole thing behind a sardonic mask, and Pike asked to display many layers as audience empathy for both spouses is tested; she’s been great for years, but this is the role that’s going to turn her into a star. Also catching the eye is Kim Dickens as the lead detective on the case, and her interactions with Nick result in many of the funniest moments of a movie that also works as a satire on media intrusion and manipulation, as well as a microscope into a poisonous relationship. But this is very much Fincher’s film, creating that perfectly pitched tone and a handful of stunning moments and serving it all up with a visual sheen that just reeks of quality. It’s great to see a film aimed entirely at grownups, and anyone with a hankering for a brilliantly constructed slice of mainstream entertainment should find all their needs more than satisfied.

Zurich Film Festival - Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler (117 mins)
Director: Dan Gilroy
4 stars

A gaunt, hollow-eyed and haunted Jake Gyllenhaal stars in this blistering drama as Louis Bloom, who drives around by night through the streets of Los Angeles, stealing scrap to get by. Things change for him when he sees a camera crew filming at the scene of an accident and realises there’s money to be made from this racket. So he teaches himself how to be a cameraman and gets a good enough film of a shooting that he manages to sell it to Rene Russo’s TV news producer, whose channel wallows in sleaze and degradation – and the richer and whiter the victim is, the better for her and the more money Bloom can make. As he graduates into increasingly unsavoury methods in order to get the juiciest footage, Nightcrawler develops as a vicious lampooning of the sensationalism of television news, while working just as well as a gripping thriller. Gyllenhaal is superb as the fast-talking, quick-learning Louis, who’s very smart but most probably a psycho himself and his ambitions make for a hugely compelling character, with Bloom standing toe to toe with De Niro’s great sociopaths, Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin.

Monday 29 September 2014

Zurich Film Festival review - '71

'71 (99 mins)
Director: Yann Demange
4 stars

Gary (Jack O’Connell) is a young British soldier who, on completion of his army training, finds himself on his first tour in Belfast in 1971. As part of a peacekeeping force supporting the RUC, their mission goes badly wrong during a stunningly well-staged street riot sequence, leaving Gary lost and alone in hostile streets. Not a political film but a heart-pounding thriller, ’71 is like a modern updating of the James Mason classic, Odd Man Out, with Gary on the run and trying to survive the night. It’s keen not to take sides, with good and bad in both loyalist and republican camps, though a strong anti-war streak runs through it. Unflinching in its violence, it triumphs through the immediacy of its action and, in what has been a top year for O’Connell, another compelling performance that cuts through sectarianism to focus on a young man fighting for his life.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

The Equalizer review

The Equalizer (15/R, 132 mins)
Director: Antoine Fuqua
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Shave half an hour off this sporadically fun but often flabby thriller and you might well have the lean and mean action machine it ought to be, instead of the overegged, cheese-inflected pudding that it sometimes is. Based loosely on the old Edward Woodward TV show, Denzel Washington is Robert McCall, a seemingly saintly loner who works in a hardware store, never sleeps, and likes to help anyone and everyone. But it’s clear he’s hiding a mysterious past, and the catalyst for stirring this up is when a young girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) is beaten up by her pimp, taking McCall into a world of Russian mobsters who want him dead. A measured, deliberate opening is stretched to the point where we’re itching for the vengeance we know is coming, and when it does it’s certainly visceral and fleetingly satisfying. We’re signing up to see Washington battering everyone in sight, and even if too often all we see is the aftermath, he’s a monumental presence, dead-calm and dangerous as the silent protector. But there’s an awful lot of movie padded around these bones, and The Equalizer lumbers when it should sizzle and the finale, though at times exciting, borders on the interminable.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones review

A Walk Among the Tombstones (15/R, 114 mins)
Director: Scott Frank
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Anyone expecting more of the kind of escapades that have become Liam Neeson’s bread and butter in the last few years may find themselves surprised, though hopefully not disappointed by his latest. Instead of the marauding action man we’ve become accustomed to, he’s a thinker and puzzle solver here. But though it may not be personal, that doesn’t mean he’s not going to get deeply involved.

Neeson is Matt Scudder, a one-time New York cop turned private investigator, and the protagonist of several books by crime writer Lawrence Block. Jeff Bridges played Scudder in 8 Million Ways to Die back in the 80s, but that’s the only time the character has been brought to the screen until now.

We first meet Scudder in a prologue that shows us how, in his cop days, he was a big fan of shooting first and asking questions later. But now it’s the late 90s and Scudder is asked by Dan Stevens to find the men who killed his wife; they're some very nasty types, which takes him into a murky world of serial killers and drug traffickers.

There’s a lot of talking, but it’s all done in the course of actual detective work, which you don’t see a lot of these days. We see Scudder do a lot of walking and observing, and talking rather than punching his way through the film. He’s more likely to take a beating than give one, and even talks his way out of a fight at one point.

It’s not brisk, but it’s lean, able to get to the point with a minimum of fuss thanks to economic writing that does its very best to avoid cliché. So though Scudder is a recovering alcoholic with a dark past, it doesn’t make a big thing of it.

There’s an emptiness and a brooding menace to the way it’s filmed that really makes it feel less like the 90s and more like the 70s, which when it comes to this sort of film can only be a good thing. It’s the sort of thing Robert Mitchum and Sidney Lumet would have gone to town on back then.

But though the likes of Marlowe is referenced frequently by Scudder and the young associate who he takes under his wing, this isn’t Elliot Gould we’re talking about here, it’s Liam Neeson. We learn almost nothing of his personal life and see him do nothing but work the case, which results in a steady build of tension with the possible assurance that he’s going to do something violent and exciting at some point.

But that’s secondary to the rock solid detective plot, and it’s been a while since we’ve seen a good sturdy mystery thriller such as this.

Monday 8 September 2014

The Boxtrolls review

The Boxtrolls (PG, 97 mins)
Directors: Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Possibly the weakest summer on record for animated movies closes out with this likeable but problematic stop-motion effort that can’t quite make up in charm what it lacks in coherence.

Though an American production, The Boxtrolls is adapted from a British book by Alan Snow called Here Be Monsters, and retains a mostly British voice cast led by Ben Kingsley and Jared Harris. The titular creatures live under the streets of a quaint but rather odd town, coming up from the sewers at night to scavenge.

They’re much feared by the townspeople, to the extent an exterminator is hired to rid them of the problem. What they don’t know is that the Boxtrolls are in fact perfectly friendly, if a little disgusting. What’s more, a young boy lives with them, raised as one of them and named Eggs (because of his box) since he disappeared from the town as a baby.

It’s a bit of a shaky start that fills us in on all this, introducing us to a number of characters defined more by their oddness than anything more tangible. Chief among these is Kingsley as the exterminator, Archibald Snatcher, sounding like Michael Gambon doing an impression of Terry Jones’ Mr Creosote from The Meaning of Life. The result much of the time is as incomprehensible as that suggests.

Elsewhere the voices are just a little too clipped in their Englishness, with Isaac Hempstead Wright from Game of Thrones as Eggs and Elle Fanning as Winnie, the young girl helping him as they take on Snatcher. The best stuff comes from Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost, who are on sparkling form as Snatcher’s accomplices.

It’s Pythonesque in other ways too, with a real Gilliam flavour to its bizarre and grotesque look, which kids generally respond to. It’s also incredibly brown and, for all that it’s delightfully rendered, never exactly nice to look at. The animation is lively though, allowing the film to ooze a playful charm to go with its homemade, hand-cranked vibe.

And things do pick up somewhat when, after years of the Boxtrolls being picked off by Snatcher, Eggs goes to the surface to try to save them. It’s a world where the ruling classes are more concerned with cheese (no, really) than the welfare of the people.

This commentary on inequality is the main thematic thrust and, alongside a strong message of the merits of family, the film’s intentions are certainly good. But there’s an inefficiency to the story that holds it back, Snatcher’s scheme is never fully formed, and the climax is interminable. The characters are never appealing enough, the Boxtrolls are largely anonymous, and the overall feeling is that this is more guts and gruel than heart.