'City of Tiny Lights'

‘City of Tiny Lights’

WEST LONDON ISN’T the place that normally springs to mind when you hear the term ‘film noir’, although if you’ve seen The Third Man or Night and the City you’ll know that femme fatales and moody monologues aren’t unique to American cinema. Either way, there’s something odd about seeing a teenage Londoner walk through the frosted-glass door of a dingy study belonging to a chain-smoking private investigator and then kiss his teeth.

Tommy Akhtar (Riz Ahmed) is the Sam Spade of Pete Travis’s City of Tiny Lights, which was adapted for the screen by the book’s author, Patrick Neate. Local prostitute Melody (Cush Jumbo) asks Tommy for his help finding her missing flatmate, Natasha, and our hero quickly finds himself entangled in a web of intrigue that involves an old friend and property developer, a fundamentalist mullah and the CIA, and to complicate matters further, an old flame, Shelley (Billie Piper), is back in London and looking for closure.


In the first part of City of Tiny Lights the film is maybe a little too proud to show its noir influences. There’s Tommy, first of all, who rarely turns down an opportunity to pour himself another whiskey or light a cigarette; his hardboiled narration and night-time wanderings punctuate the film. 


In the first part of City of Tiny Lights the film is maybe a little too proud to show its noir influences: there’s Tommy, first of all, who rarely turns down an opportunity to pour himself another whiskey or light a cigarette; his hardboiled narration and night-time wanderings punctuate the film. Then there’s the constant rain (although you could put that down to the setting) and the shadowy mise-en-scene. There are the requisite femme fatales, prostitutes, drugs and other underworld staples. In Tommy Akhtar’s study there are even Venetian blinds, and his father has prostate cancer, which will ring a bell for anyone who’s read James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia.

These constant reminders are distracting, and take away from the film’s better qualities. In part thanks to Neate’s lean script. City of Tiny Lights is legitimately funny, for instance: the exchanges between Tommy and Melody, and Tommy and the scowling, streetwise Avi are brilliant; Tommy’s ailing father Farzad (played excellently by Roshan Seth) is a source of comedy all by himself. There’s also an admirable weaving-in to the narrative of contemporary issues facing Londoners such as the buying-up of city housing by property developers, social integration and religious fundamentalism, the result of which is that the film feels both very modern and very homegrown.


There’s something about City of Tiny Lights, however, that leads you to feel as if it’s just a Sunday night and you’re watching a BBC miniseries with a cup of tea in front of you. To put it another way, there’s nothing original about a drink-sodden, streetwise detective haunted by his past, and there’s nothing fresh in neo-noir.


Riz Ahmed, on whose narrow shoulders almost the entire narrative rests, is as watchable in this more understated role as he was when he played sidekick to Jake Gyllenhaal’s gaunt and psychopathic stringer in Nightcrawler and portrayed a college student accused of murder in The Night Of. Without his contribution City of Tiny Lights might be a far less watchable film. The supporting cast, meanwhile, simply don’t have enough to do.

There’s something about City of Tiny Lights, however, that leads you to feel as if it’s just a Sunday night and you’re watching a BBC miniseries with a cup of tea in front of you. To put it another way, there’s nothing original about a drink-sodden, streetwise detective haunted by his past, and there’s nothing inherently fresh about neo-noir, which the Scandinavian countries have appropriated so well that there’s even a “Scandi noir” sub-genre. The central thread of the film, which isn’t particularly interesting in itself, is too often put to one side, so to speak, to make room for scenes which seem to serve little purpose except to add to the ambience. And in the absence of a truly gripping central plot or a truly unusual central character, City of Tiny Lights can’t be said to shine, if you’ll excuse the pun.

'Trespass Against Us'

‘Trespass Against Us’

‘HELL HATH NO fury like a locked-up super-goat,’ says Colby Cutler, the surprisingly sinister and infinitely quotable patriarch of Trespass Against Us. It makes some sense in context, but it’s still vague, and the same might be said of the film.

In the opening sequence, Chad, a chain-smoking Gloucestershire traveller and small-time crook, is driving through a field after a dog and a rabbit. His son Tyson sits on his lap and steers the car. The pair and the others in the overfilled hatchback are coursing, which is when a dog chases a hare. If the hare fails to outrun the dog, well, to quote another film involving a hard-to-understand traveller community, ‘the rabbit gets f***ed’.


Chad and his family are members of a small outlaw community who live on a tumbledown caravan site in Gloucestershire. This band of misfits also includes the rabid Gordon (Sean Harris), Samson (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Norman (Tony Way), thought these characters are barely developed. The group are shambolic, ignorant and ridiculous, but somehow capable of pulling off grand heists. 


This first five minutes of first-time director Adam Smith’s film tell you a good deal about where the film is headed. Chad, an illiterate thief and getaway driver, wants to teach his son how to get by in the world, but is constantly undermined by his father, the small-time crime lord Colby. Like the dog, local police officer P. C. Lovage, played by Rory Kinnear, is in relentless pursuit of Chad, to the extent that the pair are on first-name terms. The animal metaphors in the film really are heavy-handed.

Chad and his family are members of a small outlaw community who live on a tumbledown caravan site in Gloucestershire. This band of misfits also includes the rabid Gordon (Sean Harris), Samson (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Norman (Tony Way), thought these characters are barely developed. The group are shambolic, ignorant and ridiculous, but somehow capable of pulling off grand heists. This is in a large part thanks to Chad, who’s a gifted and icy calm driver in the mould of the central character in Drive, although he will stop mid-chase for a pack of cigarettes. He knows no other life than the criminal one, but he wants something else for wife Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal) and children Tyson (Georgie Smith) and Mini (Kacie Anderson). But his main problem is that he can’t stand up to his father, a flat-earth- and intelligent design-believer who rattles off colourful idioms and sits in a big red leather swivel-chair like a Viking king on his throne. Colby thinks up the criminal schemes that risk Chad’s freedom and threatens him when he hints at wanting a different life, and all the while grows in influence over his grandson.

Trespass Against Us should belong to the same genre as London Boulevard and Layer Cake, though the music probably isn’t as good as that of the former and everything else is definitely less stylish than the latter. Chad wants to leave the criminal world behind but of course it pulls him back in, as the criminal world tends to do, even if, in this case, ‘criminal world’ seems hyperbolic. But Trespass Against Us can’t really decide what it’s about. On some level it is about giving up the criminal life, but on another, it’s about family. Tonally it’s also confused. It seems director Adam Smith couldn’t decide between the small-scale realism of, say, Shane Meadows and a grander crime drama. The score reflects this identity problem. The music which plays during the early scenes at the caravan site evokes rural idyllic bliss, to the degree that you start to half-expect to see a couple of hobbits wandering past, pipe and pint of ale in hand. But during genuinely gripping and inventive chase sequences, thumping electronic tones supply the accompaniment.


The best thing about the film is the two central performances. Gleeson and Fassbender have a genuine on-screen chemistry that loads their verbal jousting and physical intimacy with emotion. That the film doesn’t offer a more satisfactory resolution to their conflict is a crying shame. 


The best thing about the film is the two central performances. Gleeson and Fassbender have a genuine on-screen chemistry that loads their verbal jousting and physical intimacy with emotion. That the film doesn’t offer a more satisfactory resolution to their conflict is a crying shame. Rory Kinnear gives a solid supporting performance as a cop who’s not so much sinister as petty: during his confrontations with Chad, he acts like a schoolteacher, barely containing his glee at having caught a particularly difficult schoolboy red-handed. Trespass Against Us is funny, too, much of that humour coming from Colby’s primitive musings and the result of combining traveller slang with a broad Gloucestershire dialect, yah dinny.

The film has some charm but it’s confused and, ultimately, unsatisfying.

'Certain Women'

‘Certain Women’

THERE ARE LINGERING shots of the vast open expanses of Montana in Certain Women. In some cruel way those expanses and the freedom they seem to promise mock the three under-appreciated and frustrated women whose ordinary tales are told with empathy and intensity by writer and director Kelly Reichardt.

The three stories intersect in passing. Lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Kern) is having trouble with a client, Fuller (Jared Harris), who, after nine months, still refuses to take her advice; humourless Gina (Michelle Williams) is building a house from scratch with her husband Ryan (James le Gros), and feels he constantly undermines her: meanwhile lonely ranch hand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) takes an instant liking to law grad Beth (Kristen Stewart) after stumbling into a class on education law.


What unites these vignettes, which are based on the stories of Maile Maloy, is a sense of alienation and isolation, and the perceived powerlessness of the independent women at their centre to change their circumstances. In the very first scene, the camera lingers on the image of Laura, lying in bed after having sex with her married lover, reflected in a mirror, and throughout the film the motif of glass repeats itself. Over and over again Reichardt films her actors reflected in mirrors or through glass, illustrating an absence of connection.


What unites these vignettes, which are based on the stories of Maile Maloy, is a sense of alienation and isolation, and the perceived powerlessness of the independent women at their centre to change their circumstances. In the very first scene, the camera lingers on the image of Laura, lying in bed after having sex with her married lover, reflected in a mirror, and throughout the film the motif of glass repeats itself. Over and over again Reichardt films her actors reflected in mirrors or through glass, illustrating an absence of connection. Laura’s construction worker client, whose frustrations threaten to mutate into violence, sees her as something approaching a mother, and fails to take her legal advice seriously until he hears the same thing from a male lawyer. Fuller fails to respect Laura’s determination to maintain a professional distance from him, while at the same time exploiting her compassion. For Gina, the sandstone rocks with which she wants to build her home symbolise the stability and reliability she yearns for and fails to get from her barely-there husband and unappreciative teenage daughter. But no better is the sense of isolation and powerlessness that permeates the film depicted than in Jamie’s nervous pursuit of Beth, and newcomer Lily Gladstone, whose strikingly expressive face betrays a thousand thoughts, is the best thing about the film, though her scene-stealing fat corgi comes a close second. This arc, which owes a lot to an exhausted-looking and self-deprecating but nevertheless magnetic Kristen Stewart, is brimming with unspoken tension, and is the film’s best vignette.


For the all the empathy with which Reichardt treats her characters and the skill with which she captures both the stark beauty of the Montanan landscape, the minimalism of Certain Women slips at times into monotony. The film is incredibly slow, noticeably during the second arc, and the three narratives, though united by theme and by location, are lined up gracelessly in a row and dealt with methodically, rather than interwoven in the fluent and forceful way that, say, Crash or Pulp Fiction are.


But for the all the empathy with which Reichardt treats her characters and the skill with which she captures both the stark beauty of the Montanan landscape, the minimalism of Certain Women slips at times into monotony. The film is incredibly slow, noticeably during the second arc, and the three narratives, though united by theme and by location, are lined up gracelessly in a row and dealt with methodically, rather than interwoven in the fluent and forceful way that, say, Crash or Pulp Fiction are. The temptation is to judge the film by its parts rather than as a whole, in which case Certain Women would seem to have few glaring faults other than the narrative slightness of the second act, but taken in its entirety it feels a lot longer than it is. And there’s a deliberate ambiguity that sometimes crosses over into a frustrating vagueness: even the title is open to a wealth of different interpretations. Does the ‘certain’ denote that the story’s central characters are ordinary and random, for example, or does it suggest confidence and assertiveness? Or is it the sort of disparaging sexist ‘certain’ as in ‘there are certain women who . . .’?

In the solemn atmosphere and bleak countryside surroundings of Certain Women, Reichardt–surely one of the quietest directors working today–charges the barest of details with a level of emotion which elevates this from indie flick to film with mainstream appeal. But Certain Women will be too slow, too ambiguous and altogether unsatisfying for any impatient viewers.

'Warcraft'

‘Warcraft’

ALMOST ALL OF my admittedly little knowledge of World of Warcraft comes from the South Park episode “Make Love, Not Warcraft”, in which Cartman and his two-dimensional retinue get fat and disgusting in their attempts to kill an online griefer. I appreciate this unflattering portrayal of a dizzyingly successful gaming franchise is hardly fair, but as much as I tried to shake the image of Cartman shitting in a paper bag from my mind, I approached Duncan Jones’s film adaptation with it swirling around my skull. I suppose it is quite memorable.

The film opens with two loved-up orcs: the braided chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and his pregnant wife Draka (Anna Galvin), the both of them lying on the bed in an orc hut that aimed for shabby chic and ended up merely shabby. Outside, hundreds of their fellow orcs cheer like the Tory backbench as the bearded, hooded, hunch-backed warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) reveals his plan to travel through a magic portal to Earth-expy Azeroth and kill everything in sight. They are, after all, orcs. Durotan, who in orc terms is something like a Greenpeace volunteer, has reservations about all this mindless species annihilation.


On idyllic Azeroth, where the birds sing, the children play and all races live in harmony, a runaway wizard named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) warns the utterly uncharismatic King Llane (Dominic Cooper) and his brother-in-law, the army commander Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), that he’s detected some bad juju in the Azerothian air. He’s right of course, and soon enough the orc ‘war band’ arrive.


Meanwhile, on idyllic Azeroth, where the birds sing, the children play and all races live in harmony, a runaway wizard named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) warns the utterly uncharismatic King Llane (Dominic Cooper) and his brother-in-law, the army commander Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), that he’s detected some bad juju in the Azerothian air. He’s right of course, and soon enough the orc ‘war band’ arrive, all of them looking like powerlifters with severe underbites who have just missed their targets in the bench. Durotan’s wife, who was inexplicably allowed to travel through the depths of magical space despite being in the third trimester, promptly gives birth to a little orclet that looks like a French Bulldog. Fortunately for the humans about to get savaged by these oversized, viridescent lunatics, a ‘mechanical miracle’––the ‘boom-stick’, which is sort of like a medieval Magnum .44––has just been invented. At the same time, nature-lover Durotan, keen for his newborn to grow up somewhere he can kick a ball around outside, is flirting with the idea of helping the humans dispatch Gul’dan, whose dark magic has turned his home-world, Draenor, into a thoroughly depressing place.


Fortunately for the humans about to get savaged by these oversized, viridescent lunatics, a ‘mechanical miracle’––the ‘boom-stick’, which is sort of like a medieval Magnum .44––has just been invented. At the same time, nature-lover Durotan, keen for his newborn to grow up somewhere he can kick a ball around outside, is flirting with the idea of helping the humans dispatch Gul’dan, whose dark magic has turned his home-world, Draenor, into a thoroughly depressing place.


The plot moves along at a clip. Within fifteen minutes director Duncan Jones has introduced all the main characters and their various confused accents and racial backgrounds and outfits which look as if they were bought in the fancy dress shop down the road. There’s a good deal of rushing around on horseback from sprawling city to sprawling city––the cityscapes, by the way, are genuinely gorgeous––and fantasy jargon-filled conversations delivered in grave tones. Sometimes Ramin Djawadi’s grand orchestral score tries to evoke a sense of the epic that is hilariously at odds with the emotion actually conveyed by the actors on screen. The film isn’t remotely interesting until the first orc raid on Azerothian turf, which culminates in a well executed battle sequence in a magical forest and the eventual capture of a plucky half-orc, half-human slave called Garona (Paula Patton), who says things like, ‘You think you’re fearsome? Orc children have pets more fearsome than you’ and who reminds you, every time she appears on screen, of the Mexican lager you could be drinking instead of watching the film. The battle scenes are easily the best thing about Warcraft but then, there isn’t much competition, and as the film goes on even the action scenes get tedious.

What’s most confusing about Warcraft is that a talented minimalist sci-fi director like Duncan Jones accepted a $160 million wannabe epic and game adaptation. The team behind the visual effects, the costumes, the makeup and the production design deserve some credit, but none of them could alleviate the crushing boredom I felt all the way through the film. The best thing I can say about Warcraft is that it could be worse.

'The Promise'

‘The Promise’

TO SAY THAT The Promise is instantly forgettable would be to be too kind to Terry George’s film. It’s perfectly memorable, only for being interminably boring. It could have been the Doctor Zhivago of the 1915 Armenian Genocide; instead, it’s cliché-filled, colour-by-numbers tedium.

In 1914, Michael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) is a young apothecary in a small village in Turkey where, for the time being at least, Christians and Muslims live alongside each other in relative harmony. In order to realise his dream of going to cosmopolitan Constantinople and studying medicine, Michael marries a local girl and uses the dowry to fund his education. He’ll come home, he says, as soon as he’s a qualified doctor. Michael, as you can probably guess, never becomes a doctor because history had other plans.


For most of its running time, The Promise is the cinematic equivalent of scanning a to-do list, ticking off the items one by one. It rushes from event to event and from scene to scene at such haste and with such mechanical, lifeless efficiency that it’s rarely engaging and almost never allows for the development of even an iota of empathy for its central characters. 


When he arrives in Constantinople, his father’s cousin introduces him to dance instructor Ana (Charlotte le Bon) and her bearded beau, Associated Press journalist Chris (Christian Bale). Michael, it turns out, is a brilliant medical student, but the war cuts his studies short, as wars tend to do. And though a wealthy Turkish med-school friend saves him from having to do military service, anti-Armenian violence soon spills out in the streets. Michael and Ana go into hiding in a hotel, and his determination not to break his promise to his betrothed is severely strained. While Michael gets closer to Ana, Chris travels the country documenting the suffering of the Armenians.

For most of its running time, The Promise is the cinematic equivalent of scanning a to-do list, ticking off the items one by one. It rushes from event to event and from scene to scene at such haste and with such mechanical, lifeless efficiency that it’s rarely engaging and almost never allows for the development of even an iota of empathy for its central characters. What you’re led to feel instead is an intellectual, detached sort of sympathy: you know what you’re seeing is tragic, but you don’t feel it. The score’s transparent attempts at emotional manipulation, meanwhile, don’t so much fall flat as come across as vaguely ridiculous; it’s as if all you need to tease a tear or two out of the average audience is an orchestral piece and someone sobbing on a large enough screen.

When The Promise finally slows down, it’s to focus not on the horrors taking place but on the dynamic between Michael and Ana, and Ana and Chris, and Michael and Chris. You do wonder how a slushy love-triangle ended up at this story’s centre, when what’s happening elsewhere is so much more interesting and so much more horrifying. Equally, you wonder why director Terry George feels the need to waste screen time lingering on the lush landscapes of rural Turkey when so little time is allocated to the deep development of the characters in that love triangle.


When The Promise finally slows down, it’s to focus not on the horrors taking place but on the dynamic between Michael and Ana, and Ana and Chris, and Michael and Chris. You do wonder how a slushy love-triangle ended up at this story’s centre, when what’s happening elsewhere is so much more interesting and so much more horrifying. 


The sins of The Promise are many, but there are an obvious two. The first is Terry George and Robin Swicord’s decision to put sugary melodrama above the largely untold story of the Armenian Genocide itself. When Kill Your Darlings was released in 2013, one reviewer pointed out that it was hard to care much about whether the Beat philosophy had any mileage when people were being offed in their millions across The Pond. It’s much harder to care whether a medical student will keep his promise to his betrothed when people are being butchered in the same frame. The second sin is to waste the towering talents of Isaac, le Bon and Bale (not to mention Jean Reno, Shohreh Aghdashlooin and James Cromwell in supporting roles) by having them follow a script that is, at best, underwhelming, and by failing to develop the characters they portray enough to prompt even a twitch of emotion from the audience.

All this is a crying shame, for obvious reasons. The mass-killing of Armenians at the outbreak of the First World War has been referenced in the music of Charles Aznavour and System of a Down and in various novels––Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, for instance, and Edgar Hilsenrath’s The Story of the Last Thought––but it remains largely untold or under-told on-screen: The Cut and 1915 spring to mind, but neither film was particularly good. You’re tempted sometimes to admire a film because of its subject matter, but The Promise only lets down a story that deserves to be told in a far more engaging way.

'The Drop'

‘The Drop’

APPARENTLY, THERE ARE bars in parts of Brooklyn that function as drop points for a given night’s mob money, which is bound to cause all sorts of problems for the poor souls who work there. In Michael R. Roskam’s lean and atmospheric thriller The Drop––based on Boston crime scribbler Dennis Lehane’s short story––those poor souls are owner Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) and quiet bartender Bob (Tom Hardy), who complicates matters further when he decides to adopt a beaten, abandoned puppy previously owned by a drug-addled psychopath.

The story revolves almost exclusively around Bob Saginowski, a shy and soft-spoken man who seems a little on the slow side. Bob is tending bar with Cousin Marv when a couple of masked robbers take them for five grand one night; soon he’s an object of interest not only for the gang of greasy Chechen crooks who own the bar and the faux-affable detective investigating, but the junkie former owner of his scene-stealing pit bull, Rocco. There are early hints, however, that our humble hero might be more competent than he lets on. He gets to work on the disposal of a dismembered forearm like he’s done it ‘a thousand times before’, and Detective Torres (John Ortiz) notes with interest that he never takes communion. There’s one memorable shot in which Bob, his shoulders hunched, stands in a corridor under the red lights of the bar, and it does nothing if not suggest that there might be more to the man than meets the eye.


There’s one memorable shot in which Bob, his shoulders hunched, stands in a corridor under the red lights of the bar, and it does nothing if not suggest that there might be more to the man than meets the eye.


The Drop, despite having a few grisly moments, is more drama than thriller, and it burns away slowly. Roskam, who received an Oscar nod for Belgian crime flick Bullhead, puts character development and mood at the forefront of this film, which makes those infrequent moments of action all the more forceful. His direction is neat and technical, and he owes a lot to Lehane’s lean script, which rarely gives room for an unnecessary sentence. There is depth to The Drop, but the clues are subtle and easy to miss.


Roskam’s restrained direction and Lehane’s taut script are underpinned by excellent acting performances and a natural chemistry between Hardy and Gandolfini and Hardy and Noomi Rapace.


Roskam’s restrained direction and Lehane’s taut script are underpinned by excellent acting performances and a natural chemistry between Hardy and Gandolfini and Hardy and Noomi Rapace, who plays love interest Nadia. There’s a charmingly awkward exchange between Bob and Nadia while the former is out walking Rocco in a local park. ‘Where’s a pen when you need one?!’ he says uneasily, fumbling for something Nadia can use to write down her number. Gandolfini serves up a typically solid performance as a hot-headed bar owner dining out on a degree of local fame, while Matthias Schoenaerts, Roskam’s lead in Bullhead, is suitably swaggering and sinister as the dog-abusing junkie Eric Deeds.

The Drop is in many ways a simple film that rises above similar movies thanks to a taut script and a string of rich and complex performances. Gangsters and drug-addled killers always loom threateningly in the background, and though it feels thematically vague at times, its ending is its redemption. It’s a fitting final film for James Gandolfini, who died shortly after its completion.

'Looper'

‘Looper’

‘THIS TIME TRAVEL shit fries your brain like an egg,’ muses Abe, the cordial crime boss of Rian Johnson’s time-travelling science-fiction thriller Looper, and you get the sense this ever-so eloquently expressed opinion reflects the writer and director’s own. Johnson introduces sci-fi staples like time travel and telekinesis with something approaching disdain in his third film. Time-travel, for instance, is nothing more than a convenient method of body disposal. Telekinesis––now a household word thanks to the endless exploits of the X-Men––is called “T.K.” in the Looper universe, and its use is reduced almost solely to tacky bar tricks. It’s this nonchalance which makes Looper feel less like a sci-fi and more like the hardboiled fiction on which Johnson draws so much. It isn’t quite The Big Sleep, but the elements are all there.

The film opens in rural Kansas, where Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) checks his watch and briefly practices his French before blowing a big bloody hole in the chest of a man who appears on the ground in front of him. Joe is a specialised hitman called a “looper”, who’s hired by gangsters to execute, no questions asked, whichever sorry soul happens to appear, bound and blindfolded, on the sheet in front of him. The film takes place in 2044, which we learn is around thirty years before the invention of time-travel. In that later time, time-travel is highly illegal but available to large criminal organisations on the black market. Due to advancements in tracking technologies, disposing of a body has become a little difficult, so these organisations slip a sack over the head of anyone they wish to get rid of, send them back in time, and have loopers kill them before they were even born. Voila.


Johnson introduces sci-fi staples like time travel and telekinesis with something approaching disdain. Time-travel, for instance, is nothing more than a convenient method of body disposal. Telekinesis––now a household word thanks to the endless exploits of the X-Men––is called “T.K.” in the Looper universe, and its use is reduced almost solely to tacky bar tricks.


This elegant cycle of time-travel and blasé murder is rudely interrupted by Joe’s older self (Bruce Willis), who arrives unbound and unblindfolded, and promptly escapes. A looper is expected to kill their future self when their employers finally decide to terminate their contract by sending them back in time, accept the handsome redundancy package and then sail off into the sunset to enjoy the next thirty years. Old Joe is on a mission to murder a child fated to become a fearsome underworld tyrant. But if Young Joe doesn’t stop his older self, and his employers catch up with him, they’ll chop him up into little pieces to slow his older self down so they can then take him out.

My primary problem with Looper is that it feels like two films stitched together: the first seems to be about Old Joe’s return from the future and Young Joe’s attempts to catch him while himself on the run from his former employers; the second is more about Old Joe’s own agenda, which really only gets underway about halfway through the film. The two plots are closely related but don’t fit together seamlessly. On the topic of two parts of one thing not quite fitting, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, despite capturing Bruce Willis’s manner and facial expressions well, still doesn’t look a thing like the older man, and having the pair in the same frame doesn’t help matters. (The eyebrows, for instance: What were they thinking?) This isn’t so much of a problem, however, and both Gordon-Levitt and Willis serve up solid performances, as does Emily Blunt, who plays shotgun-wielding, foul-mouthed farmer Sara. Her first words are ‘Listen up, fucker! I have shot and buried three vagrants in the past year!’

Looper’s plotting is partly redeemed by its stylistically and thematically noirish elements. The United States of 2044 is a filthy dystopia crippled by hyperinflation and ravaged by rampant drug use and roving bands of violent vagrants. In the corrupt Kansas city in which much of the film takes place, you can be killed out of caprice without consequence: it’s the sort of seedy underworld that would make James Ellroy proud, and one fitting for a cynical junkie antihero like Joe, whose childhood ended early when Abe put a gun in his hand, and who’s desperate to redeem his failure to kill his future self. And then there’s La Belle Aurore, the loopers’ favourite nightclub, which happens to share its name with the Parisian bistro in Casablanca.


The United States of 2044 is a filthy dystopia crippled by hyperinflation and ravaged by rampant drug use and roving bands of violent vagrants. In the corrupt Kansas city in which much of the film takes place, you can be killed out of caprice without consequence: it’s the sort of seedy underworld that would make James Ellroy proud, and one fitting for a cynical junkie antihero like Joe.


For an hour or so, Looper is at once moody and exciting and interesting and then, all of a sudden, it gets dull. The last portion of the film is interminably slow and tedious, ending with a rushed and predictable conclusion that wraps up all the loose ends. It’s partly this quality that creates the impression that Looper is two films trying to be one. It seems as if Johnson, who for most of the film was happy to leave discussions about the philosophical implications of jumping through time to more traditional science-fiction films like Primer, suddenly felt the urge to give over twenty-five minutes to airing questions about free will and utilitarianism.

Looper represents an unlikely marriage of films like The Terminator and the detective films of the late Forties, and at this ambitious undertaking it’s largely successful. Its second act lets it down quite dramatically, which makes Looper something of a frustrating film. It could have been a science-fiction classic. As it is, it’s unsatisfying.

'Mad Max: Fury Road'

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

IN A DIESEL-punk dystopian desert, white-faced ‘war boys’ huff spray paint and drive weaponised coupés, tankers and bikes across the wasteland as if the most savage travelling circus ever conceived is coming to town. It’s a Shangri-La for sociopaths and sadists, and a nightmare for everyone else, and it’s here, after three decades in development limbo, that George Miller sets the adrenaline-fuelled Mad Max: Fury Road.

After a short preamble running through the various events which led to the sorry state in which the world presently finds itself, Max looks over the dusty wasteland of what used to be Australia and then bites the head off a two-headed mutant lizard. Shortly after that he’s on the move with a convoy of weaponised cars and trucks in hot pursuit, and for the rest of the film’s two-hour running time, it hardly ever slows down. Fury Road is as crazy as its haunted, hallucinating hero.


Miller shows and doesn’t tell, and just what he shows is breathtaking. Miller resists the temptation to desaturate the colours of his universe as most dystopian films tend to do. Instead he oversaturates, turning the dusty, desert wasteland vibrant orange; at night it’s a rich mid-blue.


Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a tumour-ridden warlord who holds power over a small community by rationing water and repurposing Norse mythology (‘Ride with me eternal on the highways of Valhalla!’), dispatches his best driver, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to Gas Town to bring back ‘guzzoline’, in this hellish world a rare commodity over which wars have been fought. But Furiosa has other plans, and soon she deviates from the route and heads for hostile territory. Among those in the automobile ‘armada’ Joe sends to bring back Furiosa is sick Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who has Max strapped to his car to supply him with fresh blood.

This insane arrangement is set up with next to no dialogue. Miller shows and doesn’t tell, and just what he shows is breathtaking. Miller resists the temptation to desaturate the colours of his universe as most dystopian films tend to do. Instead he oversaturates, turning the dusty, desert wasteland vibrant orange; at night it’s a rich mid-blue. A toxic sandstorm is an impossibly dazzling mixture of reds and oranges and bright-white lightning, and when Furiosa kills a bike-riding mook with a flare gun, the smoke seems to plume from the screen. All of this adds to an immersing, overwhelming, stimulating cinematic experience. For much of the film Miller and his director of photography John Seale take down the frame rate so that the film runs at a disorientating frenetic pace. Other times they crank it up so we can revel in colourful slow-motion explosions and grisly killings.


Tom Hardy in particular stands out because he spends the first act of the film largely unable to move and masked like he got too deep into the Bane role, but Charlize Theron is exceptional as the fierce, one-handed Furiosa, channelling Alien 3-era Ellen Ripley chic.


This sort of visual storytelling relies a good deal on the physical acting and non-verbal charisma of the main actors. Tom Hardy in particular stands out because he spends the first act of the film largely unable to move and masked like he got too deep into the Bane role, but Charlize Theron is exceptional as the fierce, one-handed Furiosa, channelling Alien 3-era Ellen Ripley chic. (It’s worth mentioning here that despite the film’s title, it’s Furiosa who provides the plot’s inciting incident and Furiosa who drives it afterwards. Max is more of a supporting protagonist). Nicholas Hoult serves up a solid performance as the brainwashed, drug-addled mook Nux (‘If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on the Fury Road!’) in what’s probably his most ambitious role to date and definitely the role that required the most makeup.

Mad Max: Fury Road is high-concept, low-budget, Aussie New Wave B-movie pumped full of ephedrine and steroids. Miller mixes souped-up murder-cars, flame-throwing electric guitars and pole-vaulting junkie mooks in a manic chase sequence set against a spectacular blood-orange backdrop. Add to that heady blend a lean script and a simple, linear plot and the result is deliriously entertaining cinema.

'Particle Fever'

‘Particle Fever’

AT SOME POINT during Particle Fever, one of the CERN scientists involved in the first round of experiments at the Large Hadron Collider describes the finding of the Higgs boson or ‘God’ particle as having equal importance to the first moon landing, which might strike anyone who has stared into the sky at night as something of a bold claim. This scientist suggests the reason why the experiments weren’t seen that way by the public at the time is because they were a lot less glamorous than stepping out onto a foreign celestial body and plunging a flag into the dust and then, there was the small matter of trying to explain to a public largely uninformed on the subject what the hell they were doing. There isn’t much we can do to remedy that now, of course, unless time travel is next on the to-do list at CERN. If you see Particle Fever, it’ll occur you to at some point that if director Mark Levinson and the merry band of physicists he speaks to had got together before those scientists started smashing protons into each other, the public impression might have been a little different. And maybe they would later decide that scientist was right.

There are two main narrative threads that run through the film. The first concerns the team of experimental and theoretical physicists at CERN involved in the experiments at the LHC and their attempts to get it working after the 2007 helium leak complicates things by damaging the electromagnets. In the second, Nima Arkani-Hamed and his mentor, Savas Dimopoulos––both war refugees, both brilliant, both charming, and both claiming to be able to predict the mass of the Higgs boson––offer up and argue the case for two rival theories.


The film’s main success is that it makes complicated concepts relating to physics simple and understandable even to those least interested in and least comfortable with science. Take, by way of an example, the running, rowing, cycling postdoctoral fellow Monica Dunford’s description of the LHC.’It’s what any child would design as an experiment,’ she says, ‘you take two things, and you smash them together.’


Neither of these two threads sound particularly thrilling, and they aren’t; they are, however, absolutely fascinating. Particle Fever is a film in which the subject is so interesting that it simply needs to be revealed and allowed to shine, and any departure from this process––and there are departures in Particle Fever––are largely unwelcome.

The film’s main success is that it makes complicated concepts relating to physics simple and understandable even to those least interested in and least comfortable with science. Take, by way of an example, the runner-rower-cyclist and postdoctoral fellow Monica Dunford’s description of the LHC.’It’s what any child would design as an experiment,’ she says, ‘you take two things, and you smash them together.’ She goes on to explain articulately how this famous seventeen-mile ring allows two beams of protons to gather speed until they almost reach the speed of light; the beams are then smashed together at four different points and voila, out tumbles the Higgs.

Monica emerges as the star of Particle Fever, but there are various scientists worth mentioning. Our guide during our little adventure into the depths of the LHC is Mark Kaplan, the witty, wild-haired film’s producer; other characters include rock-star scientist Nima Arkani-Hamed, who says, memorably, that the hype surrounding the LHC is ‘approximately accurate’, and Renaissance woman Fabiola Gianotti, a trained classical pianist who oversees one of the LHC’s main experiments. All of these figures are hugely likeable and have the sort of enthusiasm for their field that is infectious. They explain concepts like multiverse and supersymmetry theory without so much as a hint of academic snobbery, and when their words fail completely to illuminate an idea, Levinson fills the gaps with colourful visualisations that only rarely cross the line and find themselves in the tacky random-floating-equation territory of films like A Beautiful Mind.


Levinson fills the gaps with colourful visualisations that only rarely cross the line and find themselves in the tacky random-floating-equation territory of films like A Beautiful Mind.


Sometimes Particle Fever drags. Scenes, for instance, in which scientists sit around tables and have discussions could be axed, and though the film owes a lot to the towering talent of Apocalypse Now editor Walter Murch, it never really develops into the dramatic feature that it would like to be. If there is a single glaring weakness it’s director Mark Levinson’s insistent attempts to create tension where there really isn’t much to work with or try to evoke a sense of ecstasy or awe by resorting to overused, uplifting classical staples such as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which frankly hasn’t recovered from its use in the trailer for Die Hard: Why Aren’t You Dead Yet?.

But there’s a lot to like about Particle Fever, importantly, I think, the fact that it shows the world of scientific research to be as reliant on creativity and curiosity as on the hard empirical stuff.

'Sky Ladder'

‘Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang’

THERE’S AN OUTPOURING of emotion at the breathtaking conclusion of Kevin Macdonald’s documentary about the Chinese artist Can Guo-Quiang, whose impossibly ambitious celestial fireshow was finally realised twenty-one years after it was first conceived. It was the defining moment in the remarkable professional life of an artist criticised in the not-so-distant past both for his perceived endorsement of Chinese government propaganda through his involvement in national shows and for blurring the line between art and entertainment, but at the end of Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Quiang you feel that the success of the eponymous project somehow vindicates the artist of any charges that might have been directed his way.

The film begins with gunpowder, a material discovered by the Chinese more than a thousand years ago and the signature material in Cai’s work. Gunpowder, Cai says, was found while the Chinese were searching for the elixir of life. It’s ironic that something which has caused a fair amount of death was discovered during the search for something that prolongs life indefinitely, but the contrast is nevertheless an interesting one and it pervades the film. The ‘violence’ of Cai’s work is set against the sensitivity and gentleness of the man, whose artistic passions were borne out of a love for his father, a calligrapher and intellectual, and a fascination with the heavens.


The ‘violence’ of Cai’s work is set against the sensitivity and gentleness of the man, whose artistic passions were borne out of a love for his father, a calligrapher and intellectual, and a fascination with the heavens.


Throughout the film there are hints as to why Cai marries creation and destruction in his art. For one, he grew up during the Cultural Revolution, when works of art were destroyed and artists oppressed. Cai recalls burning his father’s collection of books as a child. It took three days, he says. Also a recurring motif in Macdonald’s film is Cai’s respect for his family, for his home town and for the history and well-being of his country. He’s described as a man of ‘deep social conscience’ concerned about the Chinese government’s treatment of the environment. Much of his work is a response to China’s environmental crisis. This is most powerfully evoked in The Ninth Wave––named for the last and most dangerous wave of a tsunami––the opening Explosion Event of which is the focus of the best sequence in the film. It’s an oddly moving display: Cai’s fireworks call to mind dreams and a grandness of scale, alternately alternately appearing like thick smog and blossoming flowers.


Throughout the film there are hints as to why Cai marries creation and destruction in his art. For one, he grew up during the Cultural Revolution, when works of art were destroyed and artists oppressed. Cai recalls burning his father’s collection of books as a child. It took three days, he says.


The Sky Ladder of the film’s title is made of two long strands of wire connected by ‘rungs’ which are hung from a hot-air balloon and then set on fire. It’s an enormously complex and expensive undertaking, and this is stressed over and over throughout the film, which has failed in multiple attempts. (I was surprised to learn that one of those attempts was in Bath, and the reason for the project’s failure was the rain). It’s also an intensely personal project: Sky Ladder seems in the mind of Cai to be a project that will restore the sort of creative purity, perceived or otherwise, of his early work, which was driven by passion and the desire to use art ‘as a space-time tunnel’ and wasn’t influenced by money or fame or politics. (Cai explores a collaboration with an untrained sculptor, as if to try and get back in touch with the raw, uncorrupted emotion and inspiration of the struggling artist). You feel, too, that the Sky Ladder project somehow expresses Cai’s affection for his home and for his father and hundred-year-old grandmother, who he is so desperate to have see the show. The location Cai chooses for the Sky Ladder is a fishing village which reminds him of the one in which his grandmother lived; the Sky Ladder itself ‘connects the earth to the universe’, as the pagodas in his hometown of Guangzhou do.

In many ways Sky Ladder is a straightforward documentary: it’s informative but lacks much directorial flair. Of course, it doesn’t need much flair when its subject’s work is so cinematic in its nature: the sequences which punctuate the film are the best thing about the film, which is a stimulating introduction to those unfamiliar with Cai’s work.