The Guest

Dan Stevens in the Guest

 

 ★★★☆☆ 

Just what state is the thriller genre in when such a derivative film like The Guest is considered exceptional? Because that seems to be the consensus, and it simply isn’t deserved.

From the trailer it appeared to be a modern twist on Shadow Of A Doubt or a nasty cousin of Drive, either of which would have been more interesting. Certainly it shares the aesthetic of the latter, but none of the consistency, and it has little of the powerful suspense found in Hitchcock’s classic. Rather it wants to be thought of alongside the b-movie inspired oeuvre of John Carpenter. This it could easily have done if it hadn’t been so bloody dishonest and that’s what really annoyed me.

The first half of the film is brilliant. Dan Stevens is superb as David, charming and charismatic one minute, steel-eyed menace the next. He easily ingratiates himself into the grieving family of his old army buddy, although the teenage daughter (Maika Monroe) is suspicious and soon starts digging into David’s past. Her brother, played by Brendan Meyer, however latches onto the stranger, especially when David deals with bullies in spectacular crowd-pleasing fashion; a bar brawl channels the brutal violence of movies like The Hitcher.

So far all good, but once the military get wind of David the narrative turns into a boring and predictable cul-de-sac of nonsense action, fun enough if all you wanted was a brain-dead slasher. Meanwhile the weight shifts to the teenagers and they, like the rest of the supporting cast, are uniformly weak and unable to push it forward. Meanwhile Stevens is lumbered with being the Bogeyman instead of the substantial threat he had been.

A weak cast in general is not to blame though, especially when experienced character actors like Leland Orser and Lance Reddick are in the mix. Nor is director Adam Wingard at fault, who wrings all the potential out of the thing and makes it more than watchable. Rather all the problems are squarely on the shoulders of Simon Barrett’s script which was one decent character in a half-arsed plot he didn’t know how to finish. It’s such a shame because David is a fantastic bastard and gloriously entertaining; his wrapping up of loose ends is particularly funny, in a grimly ironic sort of way when one leads to many others. He’s like Jason Bourne off his meds and both Stevens’ and his role deserved a better film.

It is entertaining and with low expectations you’ll likely enjoy it a heck of a lot. I basically did, it’s just that the first half promised so much more.

Last year this film and Two Faces Of January both garnered superb reviews and both feel short. Blue Ruin and especially the incredible Cold In July were both far better. Look those up long before this one.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

 ★★★★☆ 

The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron is fantastic entertainment and, like the first Avengers film, it can’t have the focus of one of Marvel’s solo outings, but Joss Whedon has nevertheless made a comic truly come to exuberant life. For being able to do that while managing such a huge script, he might have just made a milestone in the comic genre, albeit one with all the grace of The Hulk on a rampage! The moment in the opening scenes where the heroes slow-mo leap into battle could have been lifted directly from a page of wonderful, garish Jack Kirby inspired art.

There is no room here to focus on an individual character’s arc, that’s all been done in the last few films. Instead this is about exploiting all the hard work built up and having a ton of fun with it (each Avengers is the end of a phase and we’re moving into the third). The Iron Man, Captain America and Thor films range in quality, but have an identifiable style with an effort to progress the characters. There is little such progression in the Avengers films; shit happens and they deal with it, because from a character perspective this is their sandpit and the only point at which they are properly exploited to just be who they are. It’s a playground for the actors too and they must love being able to cut loose and keep their roles going, even if like Iron Man there are no more individual outings on the cards. The comics are just the same whenever they do a crossover. It’s the equivalent of throwing brightly coloured mud at a wall just to see what sticks. Compared with the likes of the superb Captain America 2, possibly Marvel’s best film, The Avengers 2 is a bit of mess, but then, it’s kind of supposed to be.

Marvel and DC comics in their daftest moments pile more and more super-people into increasingly absurd plots. Any one character on their own is treated with development and moral choices that can be emotional and affecting (take Peter Parker, haunted by an early decision that led to the death of his Uncle Ben), but once all the egos are together it’s balls-to-the-wall action, flinging themselves around, smashing stuff up and somehow claiming to take it all seriously. Welcome to comics. It’s awesome.

In film it’s hard to recreate that unbridled destructive joy and Whedon has done a phenomenal job to balance all those characters and keep it as fast and as fun as he does. Frothy and funny dialogue with narrative sleight of hand to use the least-super-person as the anchor (Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye) while developing a romance between Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) keeps the film from falling into noisy Transformers style nonsense. The set-pieces are jaw-dropping (Iron Man versus The Hulk is a stand-out; “Go to sleep! Go to sleep!”), while repeat viewings will bring out the details that are setting up the next few films, such as the seeds of distrust that will lead to the devastating Civil War storyline rumoured for Captain America 3.

And then we have nostalgic geek moments like bringing Vision to life. Vision is incredible and Marvel are almost vulgar in their confidence to be able to bring him into the mix! Paul Bettany is great in the role and must have loved the upgrade from phoning-in Iron Man’s voice-only PA to a fancy cape and a sunburn. I’m really looking forward to where he appears next, hopefully not far away from The Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).

DC can claim to have the best individual film with Christopher Nolan’s magnificent The Dark Knight, but quite frankly, Zack Snyder cocked up Man of Steel and the trailer for Dawn of Justice doesn’t bode well. The relationship between Superman and Batman in the comics is brilliant and clever, but the new film appears to be as miserable and serious as the last one. They should always be different to Marvel of course, but can they be as much fun?

Cold In July

 ★★★★★ 

I want to talk about Cold In July, mainly because not enough people already are and it’s a cracking thriller, probably my favourite film released in 2014. That’s not to say it was the “best” film of the last year; nor the most action packed, the funniest or scariest, but we spend too long judging films as if it were a competition especially at this time of year. I’m a sucker for the awards season, but when you take a step back many titles are conspicuous by their absence. Despite some initial attention on the festival circuit, Cold In July is one such gem.

The story has a deceptively simple premise, based on one of a series of novels by Joe R. Lansdale and adapted by Nick Damici with director Jim Mickle. Richard Dane (Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall) is woken in the night by a burglar in his home. His first thought is to protect CIJ_STILL-081his wife (Vinessa Shaw) and infant son. Following a brief, tense confrontation with the intruder, Dane shoots him dead. The police arrive and the scene is quickly cleared up as they know this particular villain and assure Dane that he did the right thing. He won’t face prosecution, in fact, he’s a hero.

He doesn’t feel like a hero. Dane is one of life’s normal guys, with a reputation to match. So normal that Hall found playing him cathartic after several seasons of Dexter. Well known in the local town, no-one would ever have expected Dane to have killed another man and the praise he receives makes him feel awkward. Plus he now has to deal with the ominous, simmering threat posed by the intruder’s father Ben Russell (played with considerable style by Sam Shepherd), recently released from prison and a far more substantial opponent than his petty criminal son.

That alone would make for a decent plot of a dozen other films, if somewhat predictable, but an early twist reveals the man Dane shot and killed was not Ben’s son. Why are the police so determined to ensure it was? And why are they relishing any excuse to put Ben down as well? You might think that’s a spoiler, but it’s worth knowing that much more. The real story is a far more gruesome and complicated affair. It’s rather typical of the saturated American crime novel genre, so much so it may explain why so few break out into screenplays.

There’s an ace up the sleeve of this one though in the shape of Don Johnson, playing pig farming private detective Jim Bob Luke. Awesome name! And he’s a heck of a character; Johnson has great fun with him. His arrival gives the film a kick up the backside, even though it didn’t really need it. The seedy screenplay has a good dose of comedy and Jim Bob is just one of the bonuses that help Cold In July stand out.

Some of the dark humour comes from the contrast between Dane’s reaction and, it seems, everyone else’s. He needs to see this through much further than his friends and family, especially his wife. While she is still somewhat affected, a sofa soaked with blood is still a good reason to get a new one that matches the decor a little better! That odd tone isn’t overplayed, it’s just that for her and everyone else, the story ended with the first bullet and they assume it’s the same for Dane. Except he’s sneaking about at night, unable to resist getting stuck into the excitement of the horrific real story that Jim Bob is uncovering.

Cold In July was released at a similar time to Two Faces of January, a glossy thriller that was critically acclaimed and given that over used label, “Hitchcockian”. Actually it was weak, vacuous and bore little resemblance even to To Catch a Thief, one of the Master’s least remarkable films. While still an unashamed genre piece, Cold In July is more deserving of shelf-space next to Hitchcock’s classics, featuring as it does his favourite conceit; the normal guy who finds murder on his doorstep.

What really makes this conceit work as well as it does in this instance is an excellent risk-taking narrative in Mickle and Damici’s screenplay (a similar approach they took with Stake Land). Potentially it is a messy plot with too many angles, but the focus is so tight on Dane that it feels even and measured throughout. So far so it’s worth using as an example of Todorov’s narrative equilibrium theory. Don’t yawn! As with many such theories you can bore people to death by making any film fit it to some extent. It’s only worth mentioning if the example explores it in particular and I’ll stick my neck out; the structure and, in particular the ending of Cold In July is so perfectly done it’s actually one of the best examples of the equilibrium stages since The Ladykillers of all things.

CIJ_300DPI_2048x1152.01030402The well judged fast and loose style of director Mickle disguises such structure. Essentially it’s a modern western cum pulp noir, but an 80s setting and occasional music from the era evoke a mood not unlike the peerless Drive in moments. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This isn’t some minimalist piece, what with the pig farmer called Jim Bob, an irreverent sense of dark humour and sporadic, often brutal violence. One memorable execution sees a thug shot through the head and his blood splatters the only light bulb, bathing the rest of the scene in deep red! The mid-range tones come out well on Blu-Ray, but moments like that look astonishing. Mickle has an old fashioned, but cheeky sensibility that comes throughout the movie, though not always in such spectacular fashion.

Cold In July is a great example of classical filmmaking given a modern twist and a confident identity all of it’s own thanks to Mickle and Damici’s grasp of genre. It’s effortlessly watchable and hopefully we’ll see more of Johnson’s hilarious Jim Bob in the future.

Review originally posted on www.find-dvd.co.uk

 

 

 

 

Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

 ★★★★★ 

BIRDMAN or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is a black comedy that tells the story of an actor (Michael Keaton) – famous for portraying an iconic superhero – as he struggles to mount a Broadway play.  In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career, and himself.

Birdman might feel fresh and exciting, but it’s all been done before. That isn’t a critiscm though when the predecessor is Fellini’s 8½, the 60s pinnacle of Italian Neo-Realism and one of the most important films ever made. This is arguably filmmaking at it’s most pure, and impossible to ape; it either works completely or it feels fake and pretentious. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film goes all in and it’s an utter joy. Actually, it’s much more fun and accessible than Fellini’s intensely personal film.

In fact the script makes it feel more personal for Michael Keaton. It’s a superb performance anyway, but it could really be his ego on show; it’s almost awkward to watch. Birdman? Of course they mean Batman and there’s also his casual jealousy of Robert Downey Jr., superhero movies in general and his inability to use social networking. ‘Meta’ is so cool and modern, isn’t it? Yawn. Don’t let this put you off though because it’s what adds to the realism. The story is now, in our world, and Keaton has never been better, the dialogue-heavy role playing to his strengths, giving him more emotional room than he’s ever had before. This isn’t some (deserved) Oscar-baiting, navel-gazing turn either. Much as he has demons to battle and you empathise with the seriousness of him risking everything on a play while trying to deal with his ego, he’s never allowed to take himself too seriously. For one thing the voice of Birdman (Keaton again) taunts him and for another the brilliant Edward Norton is a complete arsehole, undermining Keaton at every opportunity to hilarious effect.

The film itself contradicts him as well, batting along at a terrific pace. With no discernible editing the camera roams the theatre corridors, closely following the cast and capturing the mood of a play rather than a film. It gives no time to establishing a plot, instead starting with Keaton floating in his dressing room before he goes to a rehearsal scene (which in turn demonstrates a deft script that seamlessly blends roles within roles). It ventures outside rarely (memorably so when Keaton gets locked out in his underpants!) and scenes pass with no regard for time in between. It’s a masterpiece of editing and makes for an exhilarating experience, especially when it plays with your perception too; purposefully predictable in one moment, throwing a curve-ball in the next.

_AF_6405.CR2

Easy as it is to focus on Keaton’s blistering performance, this like any theatre production is a cast effort. As well as Norton, standouts include Emma Stone and Naomi Watts, at her best probably since Mulholland Drive, with Zach Galifianakis in an effective part as Keaton’s long-suffering agent.

Birdman is vibrant and confidently ambitious. It’s classic film nerd Realism with a punchy, modern twist and makes for an interesting companion to Black Swan, another bird themed theatre story! It’s thoroughly entertaining and we’re unlikely to see anything quite like it for some time.

Much as I love cinema there is little real originality these days. Audiences want formula (which Birdman himself demonstrates at one point, teasing Keaton with a fantasy set-piece that surely his audience would prefer) and attempts to deviate from the predictable become just that. There’s nothing wrong with assured, classical filmmaking, in fact I embrace it, but it’s reassuring to see someone like Alejandro pushing the boundaries of what is typically acceptable and succeeding so completely.

What We Do In The Shadows

WWDITS_ONESHEETViago, Deacon, and Vladislav are three vampires living together and trying to cope with modern life; from paying rent, doing housework, and trying to get into nightclubs, they’re perfectly normal – except for their immortality, fangs, and thirst for human blood. When their 8000 year-old housemate, Petyr, turns 20-something Nick into a vampire, the guys must guide him through his newfound eternal life.  In return, they are forced to learn a thing or two about modern life.  

Meeting Nick’s human friend Stu, radically changes the vampires’ lives and attitudes towards the ever-changing world around them.  When Stu’s life is threatened, the vamps show us that maybe humans are worth fighting for, and that even though your heart may be cold and dead, it doesn’t mean you have no feelings.

In short, What We Do In The Shadows, probably the best mockumentary since This Is Spinal Tap, is bloody funny. Groan.

It’s almost the law to use the phrase “bloody funny” in a review of a vampire comedy and, quite frankly, it’s a relief that it deserves it and then some. Normally “not bloody funny” is more appropriate.

This works because of the obvious affection directors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clementhas (Flight of the Conchords) have for the horror genre, in much the same way that Edgar Wright made Shaun of the Dead. There isn’t a hint of irony or sarcasm; instead of trying to find some original twist, the predictability of these characters is embraced, which is exactly what long-time horror fans do anyway. And placing them in a modern, typically mundane setting makes these ‘monsters’ charmingly awkward. It’s all well and good achieving immortality, but someone still has to do the dishes everyday.

1

It lampoons fly-on-the-wall documentaries brilliantly. We almost never see the camera crew, protected by crucifix so their subjects don’t get too hungry, and so the housemates are left to nervously introduce their home before slipping into their regular routines. The very first scene sets up the whole film perfectly as Viago, looking like Lestat’s less successful cousin, shows us why curtains are so scary and then struggles to arrange a meeting to discuss the mess with his lazy housemates. Well Nosferatu styled Petyr isn’t so lazy, being 8000 years old and living in the basement.

It may sound a bit silly and I suppose it is, but if you get the joke from scene one, you’re in for a treat. It helps if you’re an old-school horror fan, because most of the humour comes from good hearted mickey taking of classic rules; just how do vampires dress so impeccably when they haven’t got a mirror?

The fairly low budget is used really well and combined with some superb effects, so it’s always low key, as if it really has been followed by a couple of blokes with a single camera, but this isn’t stretched by the later action sequences. The scene where the vampires tease the local werewolf gang, who are trying to resist getting angry (“We’re werewolves, not swearwolves!”), is hilarious and sets up a petty, but messy battle. Other moments like the aftermath of an attack by a vampire hunter are equally impressive.

Ultimately this is great fun and not to be taken in the least bit serious. Hopefully it will find a cult following and do for vampires what Shaun did for zombies.

Of Time and The City

 ★★★★★ 

Terence Davies’ Of Time And The City might be his finest work; the epitome of his style and method, and also his most accessible and relevant, probably so for years to come.

Just as with his story based films this tribute to Liverpool -the director’s beloved home city- is told through fractured, disparate memories. Normally when someone tells the story of a place, they start at the beginning and then relay chronological facts and, bizarrely, despite all the information, the essence of the place becomes more distant. Davies’ free-wheeling approach threatens to ignore the facts and figures a geography student would need, yet his intensely personal approach brings the place to life and relates it to every one of us. We see the history of the city and the way it has fed into everyday life, yet more, we get a feel for the place, warts and all.

Terence narrates the film himself and he does so with entertaining and sometimes aggressive passion. He is an excellent speaker anyway. He avoids the obvious and reduces his voice-over to minimum, employing quotations and sound-bites. For example, Liverpool’s most famous export is arguably The Beatles and 1960s ‘Merseybeat’ pop, which he summarises in sarcastic disdain with the simple phrase (from She Loves You), “yeah, yeah, YEAH”. I don’t think he likes them! Certainly he resents the way Liverpool has been somewhat reduced by its association with the band. You may disagree with this and other points he makes; I did, but I enjoyed doing so, because everything he says is intelligent and colourful. It all adds to building an accurate vision of a proud city and you may find yourself wishing someone could unlock your own hometown in a similar way.

Davies narration is occasionally in contrast to the film (a mix of archive and new footage). For instance he films a beautiful church with respect, while speaking of his difficult Catholic upbringing. Throughout there’s a varied and stunning soundtrack and the whole package works brilliantly, giving us a piece of work that runs through so many emotions that it is an exhilarating experience. While Liverpool is the focus, Of Time And The City creates a textured and humbling testament to British life. Perhaps I should be bold and just say “to life”, British or otherwise, because I dare say everyone will find something relevant here.

The Long Day Closes

 ★★★★☆ 

The Long Day Closes feels similar to Distant Voices, Still Lives, yet it is still quite different, genuinely moving and makes for an effective companion piece. It’s still a film of moments and no plot to speak of, drawn from the directors own memories, and tied together by feeling and emotion rather than action, but whereas in Distant Voices, Still Lives the father (Pete Postlethwaite) was a constant influence on the family even after death, it’s a telling difference that he isn’t in this one at all. Without Postlethwaite’s rock, The Long Day Closes is even more dreamlike because we focus on a young boy (Bud, played by Leigh McCormack) who is more like a leaf, carried by the story rather than forcing it. Davies didn’t include a character to represent himself in his own family in Distant Voices, Still Lives, yet here he clearly is, and fatherless. That’s a telling difference between the films and one a psychologist could have a field day with. It makes for an interesting point in the first part of Davies’ Trilogy too, which preceded both of his features.

Of course the real constant is his mother, here played by Marjorie Yates. Bud is the youngest of her children and very lonely, but his relationship with her is all the more powerful for both of them and is very touching. It’s small and simple moments that linger in the memory; Bud asking his mum for enough money to go the pictures (he has a penny and just needs eleven more) for instance. Cinema plays a big part in this story. Bullied at school, unable to rely on childhood friendships and excluded from activities that his older brother and sisters do (despite them clearly adoring their kid brother) Bud regularly retreats into films that form an exotic escape.

Two more elements of Terence Davies’ history are tackled here too: religion and homosexuality. The brave writing exposes Bud’s difficulty in following his family’s Catholicism and confusion in his subtle attraction to older boys. Catholic and sexual guilt, as well as the grimness of 1950s Liverpool and canings at school, makes this film sound like a real struggle to watch, but it’s so brilliantly presented from Bud’s perspective that there is a pervading innocence and sense of nostalgia that never feels exploited. Along with the gorgeous photography and the idle camera that maintains a discreet distance it is a rewarding and poetic experience. There is a lot less singing here than in Distant Voices, Still Lives, but Davies also employs a wonderful soundtrack that carries through the film. His knowledge of music is clearly exceptional.

It’s his writing though that really brings the film’s themes together. To be able to tackle such an openly personal story with such humour and a lightness of touch is a gift. The banter between the older children and their friends is especially and frequently very funny (a couple of the friends from Distant Voices, Still Lives clearly continue to have an influence), yet it never once feels contrived. It may well be a case of writing what he knows, but Terence Davies is a master at making it relevant to all of us.

Hugo

 ★★★★☆ 

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a wonderful book by Brian Selznick. It’s an unusual format and so wrapped up in the history of cinema that it is ready made to be adapted. It’s already so good that all that is left to do by a prospective film-maker is to get it wrong.

While I was intrigued by and enthusiastic about Martin Scorcese doing it (a story based on the history of cinema couldn’t be better suited to him), even in dreaded 3D, the trailer was a let-down. In truth, that was a very poor trailer! Hugo, despite the uninspired title change, is a very good film, better in some respects than I could have hoped for, but it does still make fundamental mistakes. I wanted to love it and for the first time, I felt the expectations a book set could have been met, but they weren’t. I’ll just have to settle for ‘bloody good’.

It’s a very easy film to recommend. It’s an uplifting and poetic story and if you love cinema in general, you should respond to it very well. It’s the story of an orphan living in the walls of the Paris train station. Following the death of his father Hugo had been taken in by his alcoholic Uncle, the stations time-keeper. Hugo’s Uncle has since disappeared and so to avoid the orphanage he keeps the clocks running so no-one is the wiser and has cause to check. He steals food as he needs it and parts from a toymaker’s stall. He needs the bits and pieces to repair an “Automaton”, a mechanical man he and his father worked on together and the clockwork man will be able to write a message that Hugo dreams will be a message from his dad. But the Toymaker has a sad history tied up with the Automaton and when he catches Hugo stealing one day he takes the boys notebook to stop him continuing the repair. The Toymaker’s grand-daughter is intrigued and wants to help Hugo…

Martin Scorcese is not known for making mainstream films like this, much less children’s stories, but he has crafted a beautiful film. It has a steady, effortless pace that perfectly matches the books unique melancholy yet optimistic tone. Scorcese doesn’t force any scenes; he just lets the camera mingle with the typical comings and goings of the station, observing rather than chasing and zooming. This is complemented by the photography that, although is in colour contrary to the original black and white, retains the shadowy, warm depth the book had.

The camera glides through the station following Hugo as he spies on people from behind the clocks; sort of a mini Phantom of the Opera, but without the unhinged stalker angle! Here we see additions to Selznick’s story in expanded characters. There’s a lovely relationship between Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths. He keeps trying to talk to her, but her little dog growls and bites him every time! The sequences are all the better for the fact we largely see them from a distance with little dialogue. Same goes for the Station Inspector (Sascha Baron Cohen) and his attempts to chat up a flower seller (Emily Mortimer). They make for nice asides to the main plot, although the Station Inspector does have a larger role as Hugo’s nemesis, a feared orphan catcher.

Sascha Baron Cohen’s performance is one of the films highlights and a great relief. From the trailer, I’d assumed he would be a ridiculous character, but actually he fits in perfectly and so does his hilarious dog. The absolute star of the film is Ben Kingsley as the Toy Maker though. He is a heart-breaking character and Kingsley gives such a delicate and open performance considering who he turns out to be. I’m determined not to spoil that, even though if you pay too close attention to the films promotional press you’ll probably work it out. It won’t ruin the film, but still, I remember the revelation in the book and it should be enjoyed.

The films weaknesses come in with the kids. Asa Butterfield who plays Hugo is very good, but rather reliant on whom he plays opposite, so the scenes with Kingsley, Baron Cohen and Christopher Lee (great extended cameo as a book seller, another nicely judged built up minor character) are superb. Sadly though, his relationship with Isabelle, the Toymaker’s grand-daughter played by Chloe Moretz, lacks the essential innocent chemistry.

Isabelle as a character is the failure and despite Chloe Moretz’s incredible performances in Kick Ass and Let Me In she just doesn’t have the experience to rescue it. I can’t fathom why the ball would be dropped here; the character was perfect on the page. The Isabelle in the original story loves books and cinema and Hugo hasn’t been to the pictures since his dad died, so Isabelle shows him how she sneaks in regularly. They bond over a shared, illicit love of film (her grandfather forbids her from seeing films). In retrospect, she is a vital character because by the end she has not only been instrumental in the relationship between her grandfather and Hugo, but she represents why her grandfather was so haunted in the first place. Around her neck she has a key on a chain which Hugo realises fits the Automaton, but you could also see it as a metaphor for how important she is in the narrative. This is lost in the film and it’s infuriating why such an elegant use of a character would be abandoned.

The book had a dark side especially where the early years of cinema were concerned and that gave it a more solid grounding. The film occasionally feels fluffy and sentimental in comparison because Isabelle’s tragic history is not mentioned and that undermines the impact on her grandfather and his philosophy. She is entirely ignorant of film and it is instead Hugo who sneaks her in to the cinema, but that doesn’t make sense. The fact Hugo hadn’t set foot in a cinema since his father’s death was a perfectly judged emotional hook in the story. Possibly worst of all, Isabelle’s love of books has given the film version of her an infuriating habit of using big words, as if to demonstrate how educated she is. For example, she exclaims at one moment, “Oh! It’s suuu-per-lative!!!”. Makes you want to slap her. Unfortunately it rendered the chemistry with Hugo cold and her character unbelievable. She still has the key on a chain, but once it’s used and they rush to her grandparents –which is the pivotal point in the film- she kind of just drifts into the background. An unforgivable shame because there was no need to alter her at all. I’m not sure Moretz was ever right for the role, but she was handicapped from the beginning.

Still there is no hiding the story altogether and the reveal is magnificent. As the film shifts into the second half it becomes an unashamed love letter to cinema. Scorcese makes enthusiastic use of an opportunity to re-imagine the silent era and it’s gorgeous, full of colour and wonder. There are also two dream sequences that really stand out and reveal an effort to give the film a deeper identity. And, may I be struck down for saying this, the 3D is used brilliantly.

For the first time ever, not only was I not distracted by the 3D, there are moments that actually benefited from it. I’ve always said the Achilles’ Heel of 3D, the reason it will always be a gimmick, is that it is impossible to support it in a narrative. Every other element of a film can be dictated by story. There’s a reason for colour, a reason for sound, a reason for widescreen. It all sums up the theory of Mise en scene and 3D in live action can only be an interruption. Scorcese has demonstrated that the story of Hugo can not only support 3D, but it flourishes with it. His use is very subtle and the smooth style I spoke of earlier, with long takes that rarely need to quickly zoom or pan, really helps. Being mainly set in a train station and especially within the walls where Hugo hides, there is a huge amount of natural obstacles (railings, clock faces, giant cogs, lift shafts) that allow the film to live in a 3D world while rarely needing to wave something at the audience.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. 3D is still invalid until it can be seen without the need of tinted glasses and there are still problems with perspective in some shots. Not only that, serendipity helped Scorcese in this case with such a story. Unless every 3D film from now on is going to be leisurely paced and set in a train station, I’m still cynical about its use overall! Still, hopefully directors will look at his achievement and realise slow and steady is artistically better than lobbing things at the viewer.

I wanted to love this film and I almost do. It looks so beautiful and brings to wonderful life a turbulent period in film, not to mention it’s a huge step forward for 3D, this should be a solid five star children’s classic. But while the steady pace was already going to test attention spans, the treatment of the Isabelle character threatens to derail the entire thing and it was such an unnecessary change taking away some of the warmth and allowing the narrative to drift. It’s odd that a story that features so many clocks lacks a sense of time.

Distant Voices, Still Lives

 ★★★★★ 

Terence Davies’ début Distant Voices, Still Lives is effectively two short films largely set in 1950s Liverpool. It is an intimate depiction of a typical family, encompassing both the mundane daily chores and the big events that act like milestones in life. We see extremes of all emotions against a consistent mood of bittersweet nostalgia, embodied by a fair few good old British sing-a-longs. There are so many songs it could qualify as a musical. That this typical family happens to be based on director Terence Davies’ own background allows him to explore the events in a free-wheeling fashion that eschews a typical plot and the result is a hypnotic, dream-like masterpiece. He has created a unique film by identifying that memory is not about a plot, but about a feeling, a place or a time. Context and order is merely for the convenience of understanding ‘why’, but ‘why’ isn’t always important. Nevertheless there is a story to be found between the moments of this film and if you embrace the technique the result is captivating.

It is seemingly made up of random memories and anecdotes Davies has of his family and his style employs simple setups and graceful long shots, rich with detail and an atmosphere of realism. Yet conversely, characters speak with consistent measured dialogue, so in each scene there is a sense of an unseen narrator; so surely that’s a typical romanticised narrative rather than realism, but interestingly, there is no character that represents a young Terence, so the viewer is never given a base of reference within which you would normally find your plot and a sense of time passing; or that sense of why.

The very fact that it is so fractured raises the question of how valid it actually is as a film. It could so easily appear pointless and indulgent; merely a device the director can hide behind. I don’t mean to tar all impressionism, by the way, just that a regular cause-and-effect plot is easier to judge. If there is no traditional narrative, by what rules can it be considered good, bad, or indifferent? No matter how well performed a sequence is, is it meaningless without a clear conclusion?

The genius of Distant Voices, Still Lives is in what we learn in the small moments about certain characters and the juxtaposition between the scenes. A tearful visit to the cinema blends to an abstract view of two men falling slowly through a glass roof, while the score to Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing plays over both. There is an incredibly moving festive scene with a very different effect for Christmas Eve and then Day, but possibly the most memorable scene is that of the children running to a shelter during a wartime air-raid. It’s astonishing, but sharply focused by a small moment when they reach safety. Davies has successfully mimiced the way we relate memories together. By inviting us into his past so completely and honestly, it reminds us of our own. I might be biased there, because Davies is a similar age to my parents and much of what I see in this film strikes a chord with how they related their upbringing. But in any case, his skill for relating the details of the time is so great I think anyone could find something of value in this film.

Is Davies’ grim depiction of life essentially hopeless? As with Deep Blue Sea take a sidelong glance and you’ll see it isn’t. Life was tough back then, but the spirit was always strong, as embodied by the mother (Freda Dowie), obviously an interpretation of Terence Davies’ own. On one level Distant Voices, Still Lives works as a tribute to her and women like her. There’s a wonderful moment when she’s cleaning a window. It’s so simple but very effective and could represent the tone of the whole film as she takes a risk that makes her daughter gasp, but it’s a risk she probably took every week or so because windows need cleaning! While Dowie is the anchor of the film, Pete Postlethwaite is the terrifying shadow over all of them as the violent father. He demonstrates the generosity of Davies’ writing with moments both good and bad (the Christmas scenes in particular) that can’t possibly be a consistent memory from one emotional person, but a realistic depiction of a very complicated man who would let his temper get the better of him.

It’s certainly not all grim though. There are a lot of easy, lighter scenes between the kids especially (Lorraine Ashbourne, Angela Walsh and Dean Williams) as they go out with friends (including the hilarious Debi Jones), sing a lot and eventually marry. I say eventually, but the back to front nature of the film doesn’t necessarily show the lives in order. It’s interesting to see how the same sorts of characters pop up in The Long Day Closes as Terence Davies continues to refer back to his upbringing.

I could say Terence puts his heart and soul into his films, but that would be wrong; it is his heart and soul. I’m not sure I have ever seen a body of work that so reflects the director, with such open honesty. So as I asked earlier, how do we judge such work? It’s those pesky goosebumps again. Davies, a true cinematic poet, is a director who relies on his own rhythm and when that matches ours as well, it’s a beautiful piece of work to experience. It might require a bit of effort to look past the lack of a plot, but that effort is rewarded in one of the most unique and simply affecting films you will ever see.

The Deep Blue Sea

 ★★★★☆ 

This story is a simple, but powerful drama, aggressively adapted from the play by Terence Rattigan. I say “aggressively” because Rattigan’s play is structured quite differently. It is still clearly the story of three distinct characters, but director Terence Davies approached it exclusively from Hester’s (Rachel Weisz) perspective and rebuilt the narrative around her.

Davies has captured the solid core of the drama, complete with precise dialogue and rounded characters, and delivered it in a visual fashion that only cinema can do. The effect is extraordinary, occasionally sublime and genuinely deserving of being called poetic, which is an overused term. It can feel like a contradiction, but it’s important that it holds such power because on paper the story is not what we would call a barrel of laughs! However it has some tricks up its sleeve to always be thoughtful, engrossing and rewarding. The opening scene is Weisz as Hester trying to commit suicide and being rescued by her landlady and another resident, who probably isn’t a proper doctor, but knows enough to rescue the ailing girl from herself. We’re in the 1950s, it’s bleak and this tale of how destructive love can be is taking no prisoners already.

From there the narrative moves freely through the preceding months to show us how Hester came to be so desperate. She was married to a Judge (Simon Russell Beale) and truly loved him, but his traditional nature, standing in society and strong relationship with his mother was suffocating Hester, so much so she was easily tempted by the promise of adventure and passion with pilot Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) and embarks on an affair, eventually leaving her husband. But Freddie isn’t ready for such strong emotions and can’t fully return Hester’s affection. All three are innocent and act nobly in varying degrees, but they just need something different from each other and it’s heart-breaking. That opening scene turns out to be in the dingy flat that Hester finds herself sharing with Freddie and her suicide attempt is the counter-point of the plot.

There is no escaping the rigidity of the story’s theatrical foundation, but this is to the benefit of the actors who would relish the rhythm of the dialogue and the depth of the characters. Rachel Weisz is simply stunning as the brittle and flawed Hester. She’s a tough character because Davies is acutely aware of how women of that time were expected to behave in society and that shadows all her decisions. Her pride is tangible even as it threatens to destroy her. Simon Russell Beale also had a balancing act as the wounded husband. This mummy’s boy could easily appear pathetic, but his honesty and integrity is inspiring. With those two defined so well it would be easy to consider Tom Hiddleston’s younger pilot character the villain, but to his credit Hiddleston effortlessly shows us a man scared of commitment and responsibility, yet defends that flawed nature and gets as much sympathy from the viewer as the others seem to deserve. A scene towards the end is very moving and powerful as he finally faces up to circumstances that are not his fault.

And what of the mother-in-law, a character who wasn’t in the play at all? Knowing as I do now Davies’ own relationship with his beloved mother and his ability to be sharply self-critical, there is an irony in the scenes between Beale and Barbara Jefford. She delivers what should be unwieldy dialogue with the precision of a dagger! Davies also changed the character of Hester’s landlady to be more realistic and gives her a great scene to shame Hester where she explains what real love is. I won’t spoil it here because it’s a cracking line.

The elegant narrative allows for Davies to interpret the scenes in ways the play could never do. Not only does he bring his considerable personal understanding of the time to frame the story more realistically with a meticulous and tangible set design, the poet in him allows for some gorgeous sequences. A lot of his work is based on the indistinct nature of memory -in this case, Hester’s rather than his own- and two moments in particular are incredible. One, a slow pan through a tube station being used as a shelter during the blitz and a second one that starts with a rowdy pub sing-along to ‘You Belong To me’ and lets the sound meld into the original recording as Hester and Freddie dance slowly. If you’re wondering what constitutes perfect cinema, just check for goosebumps. Honestly, twice in one film is vulgar.

It is a tough story, but the realism of the work frames the story in nostalgia that is bittersweet, yet always with a realistic sense of hope. The Deep Blue Sea treads a fine line and does so with the grace of a musical (Davies’ use of soundtracks in his work is incredible; Distant Voices, Still Lives is virtually a musical). The films absence at both the BAFTA’s and the Oscar’s is to the industry’s continuing shame as it at least deserved nominations for acting, direction, cinematography and adapted screenplay.