January 26, 2012

A Clergyman's Daughter (#92)

A Clergyman's Daughter by George Orwell

What I said then:

Another inherited boxset. I liked Burmese Days, the first in the set that I read, so I think I've dodged a bullet here. 

What I say now:

Though hampered somewhat by an unusual structure and one particular narrative contrivance that requires tolerant forgiveness on the part of the reader, Orwell's novel eventually winds up dealing sensitively with the question of faith and, more directly, with what comes next after faith is lost.

Dorothy, daughter of a cold, aloof Rector in a village in the English countryside during the 1920's, works herself to the bone trying to tend the parish. In the face of her father's obstinate refusal to engage with anything --- not their household debts, not their parishioners --- Dorothy is basically running the show. She accepts her lot unquestioningly, and is sustained by her faith, while trying constantly to believe herself deserving of the comfort that it gives her.

This opening section, while describing a drab life in a drab town, is actually kind of hilarious (albeit in a very low-key kind of way). Orwell's satirical eye sees right through the mean, petty, ignorant inhabitants of the town of Knype Hill and he skewers them with wonderful elegance. Dorothy herself isn't immune either, and Orwell uses her mundane trials (not having the money to pay the butcher; not knowing how best to use brown paper and glue to make costumes for a forthcoming children's recital; wanting desperately to be friends with the town's one interesting inhabitant, Mr Warburton, despite the scandal of his having fathered children out of wedlock) to illustrate the problems and hypocrisies that blind faith can lead to. Dorothy is reduced to praying for money, and it's actually kind of sad.

And then, in the blank space between the end of Chapter One and the beginning of Chapter Two, Dorothy travels to London, loses all her worldly possessions, and loses her memory into the bargain. As Chapter Two begins, she's wakening from a daze, with no idea who she is. It's fair to say that it's a bit of a jolt, and my experience of reading the book never quite recovered.(Orwell gives a half-arsed explanation along the lines of 'It's one of those funny things you read about from time to time ...' but I ain't buying it.)

After that weird Days of Our Lives-ish schism, Dorothy spends the middle part of the book homeless and destitute, and Orwell puts his personal experiences to good use, describing her travails with both verisimilitude and relish. She hikes to the country to go hop-picking for a few pennies a day, she sleeps in Trafalgar Square huddled with other tramps for warmth, and eventually she gets arrested for vagrancy and spends a night in jail.

Slowly the details of her past come back to her and she tries to contact her father, but hears nothing in response. Eventually her family track her down and, because returning home is impossible following such a scandal, they set her up with a teaching job at a horrid little school. Just as she's fired from the school and thrown out on the street, her luck changes yet again and she learns that the local gossip who poisoned Knype Hill's opinion of her has been accused of libel and run out of town. With her reputation (somewhat) restored, she is free once again to go home, so she does.

It's a strange, episodic book and, though the amnesia moment is the silliest transition, every movement of Dorothy from one situation to the next has the same randomness to it. Dorothy never really acts in a way that impacts on her own story, it's always some outside force that pushes her to some new place. The fact that Dorothy is such a passive character lends the book a curiously detached air, and makes it difficult to engage with.

The one change that does occur in Dorothy is that she loses her faith. Even this momentous shift, though, simply ... happens. There is no struggle, no push-and-pull of lofty religious insights. Orwell's thesis basically seems to be that 'If you're on the street, you can't be religious, because trying to stay alive takes up too much of your time.' Dorothy loses her faith and doesn't even miss it.

Until the final chapter. Then, as she returns home and settles quickly back into her old routine, Dorothy finally feels her absence of faith, and finally has the debate with herself about what can replace that faith in her inner life. Mr Warburton, father of scandalous bastards and an incurable lecher, brings her back to Knype Hill on the train. During their journey he gives her a speech, both profound and horrible, about what her pious life will be like now that she doesn't believe in its worth. In that moment, and from that moment to the end of the novel, Orwell wrestles with the idea of faith, and how to deal with its loss, that belies the superficiality of much of what has come before it. It's a striking passage of writing, and very nearly worth reading the book just to reach. It's just a shame that the story that brought us to that point was lazy in so many of its particulars.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (This one is going to kill me.)
books to go: 91

January 20, 2012

Ghostwritten (#93)

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

What I said then: 

Cloud Atlas was a little bit insane, but a lot brilliant. Here’s hoping this matches it.

What I say now:

Ghostwritten, Mitchell's first novel, certainly shares many strangenesses with Cloud Atlas, his best known. Both are hugely, ridiculously ambitious, trying to sum up the very essence of what it means to be a human being alive on this earth. And both are tapestries constructed from the fragments of multiple, disparate, barely-connected storylines.

In the case of Ghostwritten we get nine chapters, taking place in nine different locations, narrated by nine different characters. They are: a Japanese domestic terrorist hiding out after gassing a subway; a moony, indecisive kid working in a record store; a hopelessly corrupt banker; a Chinese tea-house owner; a non-corporeal spirit that can inhabit humans and control them like puppets; a Russian member of a group of art thieves; a womanising Londoner; an Irish physicist on the run from the CIA; and an irascible late-night New York DJ. The chapters are linked, but just barely. A character glimpsed in chapter five might momentarily reappear in chapter seven, then narrate chapter eight. Often the connections feel forced and unnatural, and they didn't seem to add a great deal to the book. He could have hit all his thematic targets just as well with wholly disconnected stories, I think.

Mitchell is a very good writer, and he performs the schtick of writing in nine different styles so well that I nearly forgot it was a schtick ... but I only nearly forgot. Given the eclectic collection of narrators, I felt Mitchell never quite changed his narrative voice enough with each narrative jump. A Chinese peasant and an Irish physicist should sound completely different, but too much of David Mitchell seeped through the writing. Cloud Atlas, which follows a similar pattern, is actually more successful in its literary ventriloquism because the different styles at play in that novel are so wildly disparate, there's no way they can blend into each other. (Briefly: Cloud Atlas doesn't just jump all over the world, it also spans a period of thousands of years, beginning in the 19th Century before leaping to the 1930's, the 1970's, the present, and then into the far-distant future.)

The problem with humanity, according to Mitchell, seems to be that we're a species of ghostwriters. We say things we don't mean, we parrot the words of others, we control other people and tell them what to say and do. We let ourselves be told what to say and do. We deny responsibility for our actions. This idea has its most literal expression during the chapter in which a disembodied spirit, moving from unknowing host to unknowing host, searches for clues to its own nature. The spirit can control its hosts (or rather, victims), forcing them to do anything it wants, and the same dynamic is at play in every other chapter in some form or other. The subway terrorist has given his will to the leader of a cult; the contents of the Irish physicist's brain are so valuable that the CIA is determined to confine her to a lifetime of captivity; the Russian art thief is the pawn of various gangsters; and so on.

Given the episodic nature of the book, obviously some chapters are going to work better than others. I suspect each reader will have different opinions as to which sections are the best. It's also pretty much impossible to judge the book until you've read the whole thing, and have the whole pattern complete in your mind (I loved reading Cloud Atlas, but it didn't really reveal itself until the very last sentence). The final chapter, which drifts into the realm of science-fiction, works beautifully. Not only does it do a good job of summing up the novel's themes, but everything that came before it was made better by knowing where we'd ended up.

Mitchell is an extravagantly talented writer, and (once I'm freed up) I'll continue to read his work (Heck, I've already got a copy of his most recent book sitting in a box under my bed). Ghostwritten is his first novel, though, so there are some cracks here that weren't apparent in Cloud Atlas. Still, better that he's getting better than getting worse, right?

Cheers, JC

about to read: A Clergyman's Daughter by George Orwell
books to go: 92

January 19, 2012

Itty-Bitty Film Review Archive 2012

31/12/12 - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, directed by Peter Jackson, starring Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, and Ian McKellen.

And that's three turkeys in a row for Peter Jackson, who seems to have lost all judgement at this point: there are huge swathes of this movie that are simply dreadful: the appallingly lame Frodo wrap-around; Radagast and his fucking sled; the entirely thrill-free (and tension-free, and looooong) 'action climax' which looks like a cut scene from a shitty video game. And most of the scenes that aren't flat-out crap are usually just barely-half-as-good re-treads of similar moments we already saw in the Lord of the Rings movies. And the slight story is stretched way beyond breaking point in the quest to justify making you pay for it three times. All in all, this was a crushing disappointment. 1 star.

26/12/12 - Les Miserables, directed by Tom Hooper, starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Anne Hathaway, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Samantha Barks and Aaron Tveit.

When Les Mis worked, it was absolutely sublime; when it didn't, I found myself waiting for songs to end, or for an interesting character to get back on screen. I probably did this a disservice by going to see it a mere matter of hours after I finished reading the book (which I loved to bits): it couldn't help feeling small and rushed and trite in comparison. Some of the music is amazing, no doubt, and I was trying really hard to go with the overall hammy, melodramatic atmosphere, but it just was too much for me. Hooper's strangely overt directing didn't help (Swooping cameras! And forty-five degree angles! And shots looking up from street level! And shots from a bird's eye view! And all for no! Real! Reason!) and I'm going to end up giving this a middling rating, even though at every moment it was either a five star or a one star movie, and never anything in between. So 3 stars (kind of).

22/12/12 - Wreck-It Ralph, directed by Rich Moore, starring John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Alan Tudyk and Jane Lynch.

I'm not much of a gamer anymore, but when I do play I tend to play the games I loved when I was a kid ... so the retro feel to so much of this fun, warm-hearted paean to the history of videogames gave me much joy. It's essentially an electronic version of the 'toys waking up when kids aren't around' idea from Toy Story, but hey, the classics never go out of style, right? Ralph is the villain in his game, and he's sick of being sidelined, so he journeys through every game in an arcade trying to better himself. It's got some big laughs, a neatly constructed story, and a hugely entertaining villain. Without checking back over what I've seen, I'd say this is probably my favourite animated film of the year. 4 stars.

19/12/12 - Liberal Arts, directed by Josh Radnor, starring Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, John Magaro and Elizabeth Reaser.

This amiable, intelligent little movie explores the emotional consequences of an (almost) romance between a guy in his mid-thirties and a precocious nineteen year old college student. I kinda liked the smallness of this film, it's just about two people figuring out some shit they need to figure out, and I kinda loved the fact that the two leads never actually slept together. It's almost revolutionary at this point to make a movie that suggests that you can have a huge emotional moment in your life that only happens through inner feelings, and that a mistake you almost make can be just as devastating as one that you actually do. (Also, as a bookseller, all the literary talk warmed my heart in just the right way.) 3 and 1/2 stars.

16/12/12 - Rise of the Guardians, directed by Peter Ramsey, starring Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman, Isla Fisher and Jude Law.

This animated adventure, about the mythical 'Guardians of Childhood' (Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, etc.) is energetic and fun ... and it's main message isn't (quite) that you have to "be yourself", which seems to be the main through-line of every bloody animated kids film these days, so that's a plus. There are a few too many rollercoaster-feeling sequences, no doubt designed to show off their 3D, and neither the villain nor the main have too much in the way of clear motivation, but it was a fun enough way to spend a couple of hours de-stressing from the madness of pre-Christmas retail work. 3 stars.

10/12/12 - All the Way Through Evening, directed by Rohan Spong.

This documentary celebrates the lives and achievements of several gay classical composers who died of AIDS in the eighties and early nineties, by focusing on a series of charity concerts given in their honour by the stoic and indomitable Mimi Stern-Wolfe. Though undeniably slight (there's not much in the way of narrative at all), Spong's film has an ace up it's sleeve: the incredible music these men left behind. Some of the music, captured in either grainy VHS of old concerts, or in rehearsals for the latest event, is breathtaking in its beauty, and sometimes that's enough. 3 and 1/2 stars.

08/12/12 - Pitch Perfect, directed by Jason Moore, starring Anna Kendrick, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow, Rebel Wilson, Skylar Astin, Ben Platt, Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins.

What is it with Hollywood desperately shoe-horning gross-out comedy into movies where it doesn't belong? As with Bridesmaids, there are a small handful of scenes in this that seem to have escaped from an Adam Sandler vehicle, and I just don't understand what they're doing here. It's a shame, because the rest of the movie works pretty well on a simple, undemanding level. It's perky and fun, the romantic subplot is only a little bit creepy (the main lesson being that for men, persistence pays, so just never take no for an answer), and the more wacky the compositions and dance routines get, the better. No earth-shaker, but a pretty good time. Shame about the puke. 3 stars.

03/12/12 - Red Dawn, directed by Dan Bradley, starring Chris Hemsworth, Josh Peck, Josh Hutcherson, Adrianne Palicki, Connor Cruise, Isabel Lucas and Brett Cullen.

So look, (apart from being kinda hilariously overtly racist) there's nothing particularly wrong with Red Dawn ... it's just, there's nothing particularly right with it either. It's a textbook example of 'going through the motions' where story-wise everything's in kind of the right place, but it's all just so cliched and trite and feather-light that it doesn't matter. I've forgotten it already. 2 and 1/2 stars.

30/11/12 - Frankenweenie, directed by Tim Burton, starring Charlie Tahan, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau and Winona Ryder.

Though good fun, I couldn't help feel that Burton's stop-motion expansion of his early live-action short was a bit inconsequential. Nothing particularly vital was added to the story, so if you've seen the original there's not a whole lot of point to the exercise, and padded out to feature length it all felt a bit thin. It contained some good gags, but not much else of note. 2 and 1/2 stars.

29/11/12 - The Perks of Being a Wallflower, directed by Stephen Chbosky, starring Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman, Nina Dobrev, Johnny Simmons, Erin Wilhelmi and Melanie Lynskey.

This heartfelt, brilliantly acted (the whole cast shines, but Logan Lerman in particular is magnificent) portrait of misfit teens working their way through high school and towards real life only falters when it over-reaches. It's stuffed full of so much drama that huge things end up feeling small, because we've been bludgeoned by a dozen huge things already. Cut a subplot or two and it might have been an all-timer, as is it's merely very, very good. 4 stars.

25/11/12 - The Sessions, directed by Ben Lewin, starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks and Adam Arkin.

In their different ways, the performances of Hawkes and Hunt are both kind of incredible. It's just a shame they were given in the service of such a slight story. There's really nothing much actually happening in this film: a guy with polio decides he wants to have sex before he dies, then he does. The film hints at depths it might have plumbed, only to remain resolutely slight and sappy. What might be a fascinating anecdote, is not a fascinating movie. 2 and 1/2 stars.

24/11/12 - Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes, starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Albert Finney.

I've gotta be honest, I've never really understood the appeal of Bond, and Skyfall didn't do anything to win me over. Self-important without ever feeling relevant, and stuffed full of completely unnecessary diversions (seriously, about 50% of the scenes in the film could easily be cut without affecting the story ... and what the fuck is Albert Finney's character there for? I love Albert Finney, but come on ...), the occasional moments of fun weren't nearly enough to fill the 143 minute run time. 2 and 1/2 stars.

20/11/12 - The Intouchables, directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, starring Omar Sy, François Cluzet, Anne Le Ny and Audrey Fleurot.

Though not surprising in any way, shape or form, this feel-good drama about the relationship between a wealthy invalid and his foul-mouthed immigrant carer works a treat. Sy and Cluzet are both absolutely brilliant and charismatic as hell, it's funny as fuck, and when it asks you to care, you can't help it: you do. 4 stars.

19/11/12 - Robot and Frank, directed by Jake Schreier, starring Frank Langella, Peter Sarsgaard, Rachael Ma, Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler, James Marsden and Jeremy Strong.

This sweet little film was actually a lot of fun and really rewarding, thanks mainly to the chemistry between Langella and the titular robot (voice by Sarsgaard, movement by Ma). Their funny, touching relationship kept this from being a twee indie dramedy and gave it the necessary emotional heft (particularly as Langella really nailed the increasing fogginess of a lonely, forgetful old man). 4 stars.

18/11/12 - The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, part two, directed by Bill Condon, starring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Peter Facinelli, Billy Burke and Michael Sheen.

Haha, okay, I got what I deserved for even bothering to see it. This film (and the Twilight series as a whole) was fascinatingly anti-drama. I still can't quite get my head around it. Literally every time there was an opportunity for something to raise some dramatic tension, a character would, through leaden exposition, explain some new aspect of Stephenie Meyer's silly mythology that would completely defuse the situation. Literally. Every time. This film takes that trend to new heights with an awesome (in the sense of 'inspiring awe ... at just how fucking brazen it is') use of the 'it was all a dream' trope. It kind of has to be seen to be believed. 1 and 1/2 stars.

14/11/12 - Alex Cross, directed by Rob Cohen, starring Tyler Perry, Matthew Fox, Ed Burns, Carmen Ejogo, Cicely Tyson, Rachel Nichols, Jean Reno and John C. McGinley.

This film was so egregiously incompetent that it almost turned into its own spoof, and it was actually weirdly entertaining. Everything was just a bit off, particularly in the editing which was choppy, and Perry's hard-to-put-my-finger-on-how-it-was-odd-but-trust-me-it-was performance. Silly, hammy, and dumb dumb dumb. 1 and 1/2 stars.

11/11/12 - Seven Psychopaths, directed by Martin McDonagh, starring Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Tom Waits and Harry Dean Stanton.

This movie wasn't half as clever as it seemed to think it was. Violent and self-referential and ultimately empty, it came across as a throwback to that wave of 'Tarantino-esque' films we got in the mid to late nineties, none of which were made with Tarantino's skill, and none of which have stood the test of time. If you're not gonna even try and engage me emotionally, then you'd better be really funny or really clever. I didn't really think this was either. 2 and 1/2 stars.

08/11/12 - Bernie, directed by Richard Linklater, starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey.

Based on a true story, Linklater mixes  some documentary elements into his narrative (there are snippets of interviews throughout, and several locals play themselves), which helps to break up (and pad out) what is a very simple story. The cast are game (Black is better than he's been in a while, and McConaughey continues his recent resurgence) but there's just not enough going on to keep your attention for a full 100 minutes. 2 and 1/2 stars.

08/11/12 - Your Sister's Sister, directed by Lynn Shelton, starring Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mark Duplass.

Man, put three charming actors in a movie and you're halfway there. Despite a script that swings between being lacklustre and bizarrely melodramatic (and occasionally super contrived) the three awesome leads make it work. Though the film noodles about and goes in some wacko directions, I was totally with it, because I gave a damn about the three characters involved. 3 and 1/2 stars.

04/11/12 - End of Watch, directed by David Ayer, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena and Anna Kendrick.

Okay, this is one of my real bugbears: after carefully establishing a 'found footage' aesthetic (that is, that everything we see is shot by those in the scene), End of Watch cheats their own rules constantly. I mean, what's the point of making that choice at all? The film could have worked just fine as a traditional '3rd person' movie. Anyway, the leads are charismatic as hell (I'd watch Gyllenhaal in just about anything), and they get the film across the line, despite its simplistic story, one-note villains and (pun not intended) cop out ending. 3 stars.

03/11/12 - Argo, directed by Ben Affleck, starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Scoot McNairy and Victor Garber.

After Gone, Baby, Gone and The Town, Ben Affleck continues to prove himself one of the most adept directors working in Hollywood today. This tense-as-fuck thriller about a fake movie being set up to extract American diplomats from Iran is classically styled and shot full of grace and clarity. All the actors are brilliant (Bryan Cranston might be the best 'exposition in offices' guy working today), the 70s stylings are brilliantly done, and the last half hour will have you chewing your nails. A really great film. 4 and 1/2 stars.

28/10/12 - Dredd, directed by Pete Travis, starring Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris and Domhnall Gleeson.

Okay, it's a massive step up from the Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd movie, but let's be honest, that ain't saying much. It's action-packed and pretty brutal, but the big problem is that Dredd himself just isn't a character that can carry a movie. The whole point of the guy is that he's a completely blank, personality-free justice-dispensin' machine who doesn't compromise, and doesn't change. There's nothing about him that you can use to create drama; he might as well be a walking gun. 2 and 1/2 stars.

25/10/12 - The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams.

This unsettling, beguiling film chronicles a bromance of sorts, between Lancaster Dodd, Hoffman's incipient cult leader, and his ultimate project, the damaged, deranged Freddie Quell (Phoenix). Slow, horrifying and surprisingly funny, Anderson's film is an incredibly sharp, detailed portrait of two men who, though outwardly different, have so much in common that they can't live with, or without, each other. Fascinating, but obtuse, it's one of those films I'll need to watch multiple times. I'm looking forward to it. 4 and 1/2 stars.

22/10/12 - Savages, directed by Oliver Stone, starring Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Blake Lively, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek and John Travolta.

While not earth-shattering by any means, Savages was kicking along nicely as a (not particularly ambitious) violent, kinda fun gangster movie. The three pretty leads weren't particularly interesting, and Del Toro was playing the worst kind of silly bad guy, but it was still okay. Then the ending pulled one of those bullshit, rug-pulling, 'all a dream' manoeuvres, and it lost me completely. If you're gonna try that po-mo shit, you've gotta at least build in that that's the kind of movie you're making, it can't just come screaming in out of nowhere. Truly a horrible (and senseless) decision. 2 stars.

14/10/12 - Lawless, directed by John Hillcoat, starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan and Gary Oldman.

Hillcoat is usually an interesting film-maker, so I was disappointed by how ordinary this film was. It takes a potentially fascinating setting (a depression era backwoods county where illegal booze is being manufactured in homemade stills) and uses it to tell an oddly simple (not to mention morally dubious) gangster tale. The cast do what they can, but all the characters remain a little too two-dimensional to ever get me giving a damn. 2 and 1/2 stars.

13/10/12 - Killing Them Softly, directed by Andrew Dominik, starring Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins and Ray Liotta.

After making the genius Chopper, Dominik returns to the gangster genre with this bloody, funny, horrible little film about the cost of doing business. Pitt's weary hitman arrives in town to get an illegal card game up and running again after it's been knocked off by a couple of clueless no-hopers. Great characters, great actors and great dialogue make for a great time at the movies. My only reservations would be that he overdoes the slow-mo on occasion, and hits the political allegory a bit too hard. I get it, Andrew! 4 stars.

30/09/12 - Arbitrage, directed by Nicholas Jarecki, starring Richard Gere, Brit Marling, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Nate Parker and Laetitia Casta.

An interesting, morally complex little thriller, Arbitrage relies on old-fashioned concepts like 'character' and 'dialogue' for its thrills, and mostly pulls it off. The great cast are all on top form, and make talking in offices wearing suits look really interesting. Tim Roth's scuzzy cop is a particular delight (despite his accent being a bit wonky). Won't change your life, but a good way to pass the evening. 3 and 1/2 stars.

27/09/12 - Looper, directed by Rian Johnson, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Pierce Gagnon, Jeff Bridges, Noah Segan and Paul Dano.

A smart, original sci-fi actioner? This should be right up my alley, but it somehow never quite worked for me. The characters interesting and the actors are all at the top of their game, the script's clever and tightly constructed ... but the whole came off as less than the sum of its parts to me. As the many pieces of the plot came together, I found it kind of like watching a guy solve a Rubik's Cube: it was interesting, but not emotional. My head was constantly engaged, but my heart never was. 4 stars.

21/09/12 - Ruby Sparks, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, starring Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Steve Coogan, Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas.

Winsome, fun, and ultimately shallow. I'm describing the movie, but it might as well be a description of Ruby, the 'perfect' girlfriend that blocked novelist Calvin writes into existence for himself. The film can't quite decide whether it's a frothy comedy or aiming for more psychological depth, and ends up neither deep nor funny. There are some hints at a darkness to Calvin's nature, but it's all washed away by a horrible, meaninglessly happy ending. The actors are charismatic as hell, which makes it at least watchable. 2 and 1/2 stars.

13/09/12 - Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin, starring Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry.

This heartfelt low-budget sci-fi is a real gut-punch of a film. It had me on the edge of tears after about five minutes, and never let up. The fearless, curious six-year old Hushpuppy and her ailing father Wink live in a rusty bayou shanty-town that's on the wrong (or, in their thinking, the right) side of a levee as the ocean level rises around them. On a tiny budget, Zeitlin makes their community seem real and alive, he gets amazing performances from his non-professional leads, and the way he combines his imagery with the brilliant score is perfect. 4 and 1/2 stars.

11/09/12 - Holy Motors, directed by Leos Carax, starring Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Elise Lhomeau, Kylie Minogue, Jeanne Disson and Eva Mendes.

Wow. Also, what the fuck. Carax's surreal odyssey is by turns blisteringly beautiful, deeply weird, snort-inducingly hilarious, and surprisingly emotional. A man criss-crosses Paris in the back of a limousine, on his way to nine 'appointments'. The back of the limo is filled with costumes, make-up, even a motion capture suit, and at every stop, the man steps out of the limo as a different person. I can't say too much more without ruining some of the pleasures of this fantastically bizarre cinema experience, but if you can set all ideas of logic aside, you'll find a whole hell of a lot to appreciate. I left the theatre thinking 'Holy shit ... cinema can do anything!' Smart, dazzling, invigorating film-making. 4 and 1/2 stars.

06/09/12 - Total Recall, directed by Len Wiseman, starring Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, Bill Nighy and John Cho.

I waited too long after seeing this to write this itty-bitty review, and now I can barely remember it. Which I guess constitutes a pretty damning (if un-nuanced) condemnation of the thing. To paraphrase myself in my Bourne Legacy review: "If you're just gonna be a cynical re-make cash-grab, you better be really bloody good." Nothing about this film ever convinced me that it needed to exist, or had any worth, or was anything but the desperate money-grubbing of a cluster of imagination-less Hollywood suits. Fuck them, and fuck this. 1 and 1/2 stars.

04/09/12 - Cosmopolis, directed by David Cronenberg, starring Robert Pattinson, Kevin Durand, Sarah Gadon, Paul Giamatti and Juliette Binoche.

Ouch. This one hurt. Turgid, affected and gut-wrenchingly slow, this easily counts as the only Cronenberg film that could ever put you to sleep. The script gestures occasionally towards interesting ideas, but never does anything to dramatise them, instead giving us talking head after talking head, and the whole ennui-laden vibe of the thing takes off any rough edges that occasionally sneak in. A major mis-fire in every way. 1 and 1/2 stars.

31/08/12 - Moonrise Kingdom, directed by Wes Anderson, starring Jared Gilman, Kara Heyward, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Bob Balaban.

It's a Wes Anderson movie, so there should be no surprise as to the tone and style. If you dig Wes Anderson, you'll dig this. If not, not. I dig him, and I thought this was a sweet, funny little coming of age story, a feature length exploration of the kinds of kids we saw in the Tenenbaums flashbacks, or we glimpsed in Mr. Fox's son. 4 and 1/2 stars.

25/08/12 - The Bourne Legacy, directed by Tony Gilroy, starring Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Oscar Isaac and Zeljko Ivanek.

This movie, while competently made in most ways, really angered me. Not only was it obvious that the film-makers had completely misunderstood what made the Damon Bourne movies work, they seemed to be going out of their way to shit all over that trilogy's legacy (pun intended). If you're just gonna be a cynical we-want-to-extend-the-franchise cash-grab, you better be really bloody good. This wasn't. 2 and 1/2 stars.

21/08/12 - Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, starring Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Anthony Mackie, Jimmi Simpson and Marton Csokas.

This movie, not at all to my surprise, was unrelentingly stupid. I was expecting that, and I could deal with it. Unfortunately it was also ugly, boring and predictable, meaning it wasn't one of those 'stupid but fun' movies I can veg out in front of every now and then, it was just one of those 'please let it end soon' stupid movies that are becoming way too common. 2 stars.

02/08/12 to 19/08/12 - MIFF 2012, follow the links to each blog post to read the full reviews.

Ace Attorney, directed by Takashi Miike, starring Hiroki Narimiya, Takumi Saito and Mirei Kiritani. 4 and 1/2 stars.
Carre Blanc, directed by Jean-Baptiste Leonetti, starring Sami Bouajila and Julie Gayet. 4 stars.
Flicker, directed by Patrik Eklund, starring Jacob Nordenson, Allan Svensson and Anki Larsson. 4 stars.
Monsieur Lazhar, directed by Phillipe Falardeau, starring Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nelisse and Emilien Neron. 4 stars.
Modest Reception, directed by Mani Haghighi, starring Taraneh Alidoosti and Mani Haghighi. 3 stars.
Le Grand Soir, directed by Gustave de Kervern and Benoit Delepine, starring Benoit Poelvoorde and Albert Dupontel. 2 and 1/2 stars.
War Witch, directed by Kim Nguyen, starring Rachel Mwanza and Serge Kanyinda. 4 and 1/2 stars.

Bonsai, directed by Cristian Jimenez, starring Diego Noguera and Nathalia Galgani. 2 and 1/2 stars.
Caesar Must Die, directed by Paolo Taviani and Vittorio Taviani, starring Cosimo Rega, Salvatore Striano and Giovanni Arcuri. 3 and 1/2 stars.
Miss Bala, directed by Gerardo Naranjo, starring Stephanie Sigman and Noe Hernandez. 1 and 1/2 stars.
Errors of the Human Body, directed by Eron Sheean, starring Michael Eklund and Karoline Herfurth. 2 and 1/2 stars.
The Ambassador, directed by Mads Brugger. 4 stars.
The Delay, directed by Rodrigo Pia, starring Roxana Blanco and Carlos Vallarino. 2 stars.
Chicken With Plums, directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, starring Mathieu Amalric, Maria de Medeiros and Golshifteh Farahani. 4 stars.

Faust, directed by Aleksandr Sokurov, starring Johannes Zeiler and Anton Adasinsky. 1 star.
Beyond the Hills, directed by Cristian Mungiu, starring Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur and Valeriu Andriuta. 3 stars.
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, directed by Takashi Miike, starring Ebizo Ichikawa, Eita and Koji Yakusho.
Sleepless Night, directed by Frederic Jardin, starring Tomer Sisley, Serge Riaboukine and Julien Boisselier. 4 and 1/2 stars.
Facing Mirrors, directed by Negar Azarbayjani, starring Qazal Shakeri and Shayesteh Irani. 3 and 1/2 stars.
Safety Not Guaranteed, directed by Colin Trevorrow, starring Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass. 4 stars.
Vulgaria, directed by Ho-Cheung Pang, starring Chapman To and Dada Chan. 3 and 1/2 stars.

Metropia, directed by Tarik Saleh, starring Vincent Gallo and Juliette Lewis. 2 and 1/2 stars.
The Pirogue, directed by Moussa Toure, starring Bassirou Diakhate and Moctar Diop. 2 stars.
In the Fog, directed by Sergei Loznitsa, starring Vladimir Svirskiy, Vladislav Abashin and Sergei Kolesov. 1 and 1/2 stars.
The Hunt, directed by Thomas Vinterberg, starring Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen and Lasse Fogelstrom. 5 stars.
Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time, directed by Jong-bin Yun, starring Min-sik Choi and  Jung-woo Ha. 3 stars.
Sound of My Voice, directed by Zal Batmanglij, starring Christopher Denham, Nicole Vicius and Brit Marling. 4 stars.
Dead Europe, directed by Tony Krawitz, starring Ewen Leslie and Kodi Smit-McPhee. 2 and 1/2 stars.

01/08/12 - I Am Eleven, directed by Genevieve Bailey

This charming observational documentary features interviews with eleven year-olds all over the world, forming a tapestry of fun, playful innocence. Not all the kids make great subjects (I found the earnest, trying-too-hard-to-be-wise French kid really annoying), but when it clicks (mainly in the scenes in India) it's fantastic. Also, Gen Bailey was in my course at Uni and it's awesome to know that, not only did someone from that course go on to do something, but that they did it really bloody well. 4 stars.

31/07/12 - The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez, starring Martin Sheen, Yorick van Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt and Emilio Estevez.

This tale about an elderly man walking his dead son's ashes along the pilgrimage of Camino de Santiago is schmaltzy as fuck (and more Catholic than I'd usually be able to stand), but it's really well made and Martin Sheen is friggin' awesome, so it works despite itself. Estevez (playing the son in flashbacks, and occasionally as a ghost) is looking more like his dad with every passing year, but he's also turning into a pretty decent director. 3 and 1/2 stars.

29/07/12 - Magic Mike, directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Cody Horn, Matthew McConaughey and Olivia Munn.

Okay, so Soderbergh can shoot the shit out of all the ridiculously involved stripping/dancing routines that Tatum, Pettyfer and McConaughey perform. Shame the story on which those routines are hung (haha, hung) is so weak and unfocused. The romance subplot is a black hole, and when I was supposed to care about the characters, I really couldn't. Entertaining but empty. 3 stars.

22/07/12 - A Royal Affair, directed by Nikolaj Arcel, starring Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Vikander and Mikkel Følsgaard.

This stately, sumptuous period drama about political and sexual shenanigans in the Danish Court of a mildly insane king was great fun. The three leads are fantastic (particularly Følsgaard, who treads a fine line, making Christian VII a clown, a monster, or a sympathetic figure, depending on the scene) and it's gorgeous to look at. Maybe a bit long, but wonderfully entertaining if you like that kind of thing. (I do.) 4 stars.

19/07/12 - The Dark Knight Rises, directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Modine and Ben Mendelsohn.

There are flaws in this film. Of course there are. But the thing Nolan does brilliantly is build movies that have this incredible surging, pounding, unstoppable momentum that pins you to your seat while his sorta-kinda-almost coherent narratives trample all over you (a lot of the credit has to go to Hans Zimmer for his killer scores). You might come out of this movie and think of some unanswered questions, or find details you can nitpick over, but while you're in there watching it, you're utterly beguiled. Or at least, I was. 4 and 1/2 stars.

15/07/12 - Ted, directed by Seth MacFarlane, starring Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Seth MacFarlane, Joel McHale, Giovanni Ribisi and Jessica Barth.

Okay, I'll admit, I just don't click with Seth MacFarlane's sense of humour. I've never dug Family Guy, and I got not much more than a few giggles out of this. And in a film with as little plot as this one, if there's no laughs there's not much left. 1 and 1/2 stars.

04/07/12 - The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by Marc Webb, starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Irrfan Khan and Sally Field.

This was a weird one: while I was very conscious all the way through that what I was watching was not, in fact, a good movie, it was still pretty enjoyable. Most of that can be put down to the charisma of the two leads, who somehow manage to smooth over the fact that there's hardly any actual drama at all. It was a fun hour and a half, but I barely remember it and I'll never watch it again. 2 and 1/2 stars.

28/06/12 - Polisse, directed by Maïwenn, starring Joeystarr, Frédéric Pierrot, Marina Foïs, Karin Viard and Maïwenn.

This frenzied, hectic drama about the horrific work of the Paris police's Child Protection Unit, and the ways that horror impacts on the private lives of the unit members, is a masterwork. It's not pleasant, indeed I spent half the running time wanting to shut my eyes, but at the same time it's so rivetting, so compelling, that I couldn't tear my eyes away. The verite style is a perfect match for the subject matter, and the large cast are uniformly great. Because it's so filled with brief, elliptical scenes, it's inevitable that some story elements work better than others. But by God, when it works, it's as good as movies get. 4 and 1/2 stars.

26/06/12 - Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, starring Muhammet Uzuner, Taner Birsel, Yilmaz Erdogan and Firat Tanis.

This slow, ponderous Turkish drama just didn't work for me. Having confessed to a murder, two suspects are driven around the countryside as they try and remember where they buried the body. The assorted police, doctors and court officials who accompany them use the frustrating night to talk about ... stuff. Death. History. Yoghurt. While often fascinating (and almost uniformly beautiful to look at), I kept hoping the film would build to something, but any connections it made were just too oblique and understated for me. Having brought up many fascinating ideas, it then didn't seem interested in actually examining them. 1 and 1/2 stars.

25/06/12 - Margaret, directed by Kenneth Lonergan, starring Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Jeannie Berlin, Jean Reno and Mark Ruffalo.

Margaret's heightened, melodramatic tone fits perfectly with its lead character: it's almost like we're watching the movie that Paquin's Lisa is imagining inside her head. After sorta kinda causing a bus crash that kills an innocent bystander, Lisa's response is to lash out in every direction, causing all sorts of emotional ripples through her family, friends, classmates and teachers ... not to mention others involved in the accident. The script is consistently surprising and brilliant, and the acting is magnificent across the board. 4 and 1/2 stars.

25/06/12 - Snow White and the Huntsman, directed by Rupert Sanders, starring Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Sam Spruell and Sam Claflin.

This very odd mash-up of the Brothers Grimm and Return of the King just never quite works. The narrative makes very little sense, and despite the best efforts of the actors (particularly Theron and Hemsworth, who consistently surprises) the characters are cardboard cut-outs. Even the "stunning visuals" feel really familiar, staking out that territory between Tim Burton, Guillermo del Toro and The Lord of the Rings that seems to be the go-to for any fantasy these days. 2 stars.

21/06/12 - Brave, directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell, starring Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly and Julie Walters.

Unfortunately for Brave it's a Pixar film, so it gets graded on an impossible curve. It was sweet, fun and satisfying ... but it wasn't transcendent, which, given the company producting it, ultimately makes it feel a bit disappointing. It all felt a bit nice, a bit safe, and there wasn't as much there for adults as you'd ordinarily expect from Pixar. A pleasant, but relatively forgettable, little film. 3 and 1/2 stars,

17/06/12 - The Cabin in the Woods, directed by Drew Goddard, starring Kristen Connolly, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Chris Hemsworth and Anna Hutchison.

Five friends go to stay in a remote cabin, unaware that they're about to become the targets of a remote, cold malevolence. So far, so what, am I right? But this mind-bogglingly post-modern film inverts the concept, to hilarious effect. The whole thing ends up being a fast, funny riff on the standard old horror tropes. To me, it dragged a bit when it was playing out as pure horror, but the witty critique side of things was absolutely brilliant. 4 stars.

16/06/12 - Take This Waltz, directed by Sarah Polley, starring Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby and Sarah Silverman.

Though starting with a promising concept, and featuring really good performances from the three leads (is Michelle Williams ever not good?), this was let down by its aimless, meandering, repetitive plot. There's only enough story here for one third of a movie, so Polley repeats similar beats over and over, and occasionally shoves a hyper-stylised sequence into her 90% ultra-naturalistic movie. 2 and 1/2 stars.

11/06/12 - Prometheus, directed by Ridley Scott, starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Logan Marshall-Green, Charlize Theron and Idris Elba.

Judged on the difference between my hopes and the reality, Prometheus would have to be one of the most disappointing movies I've ever seen. I was pumped for this film. And it's dreadful. Not once does any character act in a fashion consistent with my understanding of human behaviour; not once does the action follow any meaningful path of cause and effect; the film gestures vaguely towards larger thematic meaning, but never goes further than cryptic (and ultimately meaningless) hints. I don't know if there's ever been a film that thinks it's this smart, but that actually is this dumb. It sure looks pretty, though. 1 and 1/2 stars.

26/05/12 - The Dictator, directed by Larry Charles, starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley and Jason Mantzoukas.

The law of diminishing returns is hitting Sacha Baron Cohen pretty hard now. I'd estimate that one joke in every ten got me mildly amused, and one in twenty made me laugh out loud. There's a hell of a lot of jokes though, so those ratios still mean I laughed quite a lot during the film, but there were looooong stretches when nothing worked at all. At those times, it was simply boring as hell. And if you're gonna move from kamikaze, 'gotcha' based comedy to shooting from a script ... spend more time on your God-damn script! 2 stars.

21/05/12 - Men in Black 3, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, starring Will Smith, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Jemaine Clement, Emma Thompson and Michael Stuhlbarg.

I won't say that this is big budget Hollywood film-making at its worst (I saw Battleship, remember?), but I might say that it's big budget Hollywood film-making at its most half-arsed. This film's just ... there. Will Smith cracks some jokes, we get some ropy CG aliens, and I couldn't be less interested. Josh Brolin's Tommy Lee Jones impersonation is pretty good, and captured my interest for a few minutes, but it gets old quickly. Otherwise ... 'meh' sums up my feelings on this one. 2 stars.

19/05/12 - The King of Devil's Island, directed by Marius Holst, starring Benjamin Helstad, Trond Nilssen, Stellan Skarsgård, Kristoffer Joner and Magnus Langlete.

This slow building, atmospheric Norwegian(?) drama gets so much right, yet somehow never quite clicks. Set in an isolated boy's home in 1915, a wilful, stubborn new kid upsets the established order and inspires a kow-towing lickspittle to speak out about the injustices he's witnessed. As harsh and bleak as the landscape in which it takes place, certain scenes worked wonderfully, as good as any prison movie (that's what it is, really) I've ever seen. Something, maybe the constantly switching protagonists (troublemaker or lickspittle?), kept me from absolutely loving it though. 4 stars.

11/05/12 - Dark Shadows, directed by Tim Burton, starring Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Bella Heathcote, Helena Bonham Carter and Chloë Grace Moretz.

Seriously, Tim Burton, just stop it. Stop right now. Yeah, you too, Depp. This horrifyingly lazy adaptation of a 60's supernatural soap-opera(?) is an unmitigated disaster. The script is all over the place, never knowing what story it's trying to tell, the characters are about as interesting as bricks, and the design feels like autopilot Burton-alia. Eva Green, vamping it up as the villain and sexy as hell, is the only bright spark. 1 and 1/2 star.

04/05/12 - The Five-Year Engagement, directed by Nicholas Stoller, starring Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Chris Pratt, Alison Brie and Rhys Ifans.

This amiable, rambling, semi-sorta-plotless comedy coasted by on the easy charm of its leads, never really extending itself enough to be either particularly good or particularly bad. A film this slight should have been much shorter, though, and it's not like there's no fat in there that could have been trimmed. (Big props go to Brie, an American, for nailing Blunt's accent in order to play her sister. It's perfect.) 3 stars.

02/05/12 - The Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon, starring Robert Downey jnr., Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston and Samuel L. Jackson.

Despite its flaws (a bit long, a bit haphazardly plotted), this superhero team-up is damn fine entertainment. In particular, the final smackdown (often a weakness in films of this ilk) is a hell of a lot of fun because Whedon is able to keep the various characters' personalities shining through. And his version of the Hulk is a brilliant creation; a couple of genius sight-gags add half a star to my rating. 4 stars.

24/04/12 - A Separation, directed by Asghar Farhadi, starring Peyman Moadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhadi, Shahab Hosseini, Kimia Hosseini and Ali-Asghar Shahbazi.

An Iranian couple are refused a divorce, and the repercussions of that decision ripple out and engulf two entwined families, leading to disaster. This tense, brooding, increasingly horrifying chamber drama is riveting cinema. Farhadi puts his wilful, contradictory characters in awkward situations, then continually tightens the screws on them. I had my hand over my mouth for about the last hour. The actors are astonishing, the direction matches them, and the result is an amazing film, a credit to all involved. 5 stars.

21/04/12 - Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, directed by Lasse Hallström, starring Ewen MacGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas, Amr Waked and Tom Mison.

This bizarrely scattershot movie can never quite decide what it wants to be: romantic comedy or relationship drama? Political thriller or political satire? In trying to cover every base, it actually ends up doing nothing at all. The considerable charm of the three leads makes it a pleasant enough experience to sit through, but the ham-fisted plotting, leaden pacing and unnecessary story detours mean it will never be more than that. 2 and 1/2 stars.

17/04/12 - Battleship, directed by Peter Berg, starring Taylor Kitsch, Rihanna, Brooklyn Decker, Alexander Skarsgård and Liam Neeson.

Dumb. Really dumb. There were plot developments towards the end of this film that were so hackneyed that the entire cinema I was with erupted into laughter. And we weren't laughing with Battleship, we were most assuredly laughing at it. The characters are paper thin and the plot is an after-thought. They cynicism of the people who called the shots on this is breath-taking. Peter Berg made Friday Night Lights, one of my favourite sports movies, but he needs to pull out of this nose-dive quick smart. 1/2 a star.

12/04/12 - A Dangerous Method, directed by David Cronenberg, starring Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortenson, Vincent Cassel and Sarah Gadon.

Slow, talky and dry, this won't be everybody's cup of tea. I'm fascinated by the subject matter, so it didn't really bother me that the whole thing felt a bit aimless and a bit stilted. Cronenberg presents a group of fascinating people discussing fascinating concepts, which was enough to hook me in, though I can't deny that it wasn't an emotional journey in any way. 3 and 1/2 stars.

03/04/12 - Mirror Mirror, directed by Tarsem Singh, starring Julia Roberts, Lily Collins, Armie Hammer and Nathan Lane.

All the gorgeous design in the world can't hide that this film is tonally scattered and narratively weak. There are a few laughs here and there, but they're usually at the expense of the film itself. Winking to the audience is all well and good, but it shouldn't be all you've got. 2 stars.

01/04/12 - The Raid: Redemption, directed by Gareth Evans, starring Iko Uwais, Doni Alamsyah, Yayan Ruhian, Pierre Gruno, Ray Sahetapy and Joe Taslim.

This Indonesian martial-arts flick barely bothers to have any plot or characters, and those it has are completely paint-by-numbers boring. Thing is, it barely matters. This film is about the action, and the action is nigh-on unforgettable ... particularly the final confrontation between two brothers and a character named Mad Dog, which is an all-time great set-piece. As much fun as I had watching guys get killed in interesting ways, I do wish we'd been given more reason to care. 3 stars.

25/03/12 - The Hunger Games, directed by Gary Ross, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Amandla Stenberg, Alexander Ludwig, Lenny Kravitz and Stanley Tucci.

Jennifer Lawrence carries this movie, and proves she's an actress more than capable of handling that sort of weight. The huge cast list I've just typed out belies the fact that the whole thing rests on Lawrence's ability to get you into Katniss Everdeen's head and let you know what she's thinking. The plot forces her to act one way, but be thinking something else, and it's essential that you see the cogs turning. Having passed that test, it helps that it's set in an intriguing, solidly thought-out sci-fi world, and that it has a really strong built in narrative drive to it. It's probably a bit overlong, and doesn't do enough to illuminate some of the minor characters, but those are small flaws in an ambitious film. 4 stars.

24/03/12 - 21 Jump Street, directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Rob Riggle and Ice Cube.

This film was actually kinda awesome. It was certainly funny, snort-your-drink-out-your-nose funny at times, but it managed to balance that with a sweet story about the friendship between its two leading men, both misfits in their own way. Hill hasn't been funnier in years, and Tatum stays with him every step of the way. I actually think it's a breakout performance for that guy, and I finally get why he's been getting cast in stuff these last few years. A really pleasant surprise. 4 stars.

18/03/12 - Free Men, directed by Ismaël Ferroukhi, starring Tahar Rahim, Michael Lonsdale, Mahmud Shalaby and Lubna Azabal.

This French film examines a fascinating episode from WWII. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, the elders of a mosque use the fact that they're not yet a target to try to help their Jewish neighbours by forging identity cards for anybody that could pass as a muslim, and by helping run a smuggling ring getting people out of the country. Great idea for a film, right? Unfortunately it gets a fairly dull, fairly obvious treatment, and never evolves beyond simplistic messages. 2 and 1/2 stars.

17/03/12 - Margin Call, directed by J.C. Chandor, starring Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Penn Badgley, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Simon Baker and Stanley Tucci.

This low-key, talky financial drama does a lot right just by sticking really great actors in a room together, and it's at its best in its subtlest moments, when the fantastic cast take the script to another level. Considering the quality of most of the actors, those that aren't up to scratch really stand out. Occasionally the dialogue is over-written, but for the most part it's a horrible, tense, little chamber drama. 3 and 1/2 stars.

13/03/12 - Coriolanus, directed by Ralph Fiennes, starring Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson.

This bloody, brutal, Balkans-set Coriolanus is, despite some minor reservations, fantastic. The modern setting works perfectly and all the major cast are in career-best form. Fiennes in particular is magnetic as the recalcitrant, proud, wilful title character. The (presumably) heavily cut down text leads to some of the reversals feeling sudden and convenient, and occasionally the archaic language threw me, but they're my only real concerns. 4 stars.

12/03/12 - 50/50, directed by Jonathan Levine, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard and Angelica Huston.

This shaggy, amiable little movie doesn't really aspire to any great heights, but it climbs every mountain it sets its sights on. Some plot strands work better than others (Kendrick's nervous young therapist is a highlight), and it never really draws all the strands together, but a charming cast help it skate over the weak spots. And it's really funny, which helps. 3 and 1/2 stars.

10/03/12 - John Carter, directed by Andrew Stanton, starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Dominic West and Mark Strong.

Look, John Carter is a mess. Too much of the plot seemed to happen for no reason (hell, the movie's main villain even admits that he has no motivation!), so I couldn't buy into it emotionally. And as soon as that emotional buy-in goes missing, it's hard not to get bored as the guys in red fight the guys in blue, or whatever. Having said that, I'll give this movie points for effort because (unlike most effects-driven, mega-budget Hollywood adventure extravaganzas) it's really trying to tell an interesting story in an interesting way. Sure, it fails, but give me this kind of courageous attempt over another fucking Transformers movie any day of the week. 2 and 1/2 stars.

09/03/12 - Project X, directed by Nima Nourizadeh, starring Thomas Mann, Oliver Cooper and Jonathan Daniel Brown.

Witless, plotless, and utterly immoral, it's kinda hard to imagine how this could possibly be a worse movie. The (apparently mostly improvised) dialogue is execrable, there's not one character who deserves anything other than a punch to the face, and the film takes a stance on its characters actions that is flat-out horrifying. Avoid like the plague. 1 star.

05/03/12 - Carnage, directed by Roman Polanski, starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly.

Though supremely entertaining, even hilarious in parts, this stagy little film is terminally unambitious. Nothing about it is executed with anything less then perfect grace --- Polanski and all the actors are on top of their game --- but it's done in service of a film that's nothing more than a diverting amusement. It succeeds perfectly on its own terms, I just didn't like the terms: I go to movies to be moved, and Carnage wasn't interested in trying to make me feel anything at all. 3 stars.

28/02/12 - The Grey, directed by Joe Carnahan, starring Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Nonso Anozie and Joe Anderson.

This bleak, stark action flick transcends its 'men against wolves' plot to become an interesting meditation on death, faith, and the way we live in this world. Neeson is great as a helplessly grieving man trying to make sense of the tricks of fate, and the rest of the stubble-y cast get their jobs done too. Some ropy CGI can't dent its impact, and a cracker of a score helps immensely. 4 stars.

25/02/12 - Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, directed by Stephen Daldry, starring Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks and Max Von Sydow.

It might be strange to criticise a film's plot for being 'too contrived' because every film is carefully structured and plotted, but EL&IC just doesn't do anywhere near a good enough job of hiding its own design. It's like somebody's thrown every tear-jerking element they could think of together, with no idea how to turn them into a cohesive whole. Good performances all round (Sandra Bullock really can be good when she's given the chance), but they can't save this patchwork mess. 2 and 1/2 stars.

21/02/12 - Shame, directed by Steve McQueen, starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale and Nicole Beharie.

Fassbender is brilliant in this portrait of Brandon, a self-loathing sex addict. He's matched by Mulligan and Beharie (who I've never seen before, but who was magnificent in her three long scenes), but unfortunately Dale, as Brandon's louche boss, felt all wrong to me, playing way too broad. The direction is elegant, though at times it feels inorganic and overly studied --- and there are shots (and some entire scenes) that we stay with way too long. But still, it's a spiky, daring piece of cinema, and includes a handful of moments of genuine brilliance. 4 stars.

18/02/12 - My Week With Marilyn, directed by Simon Curtis, starring Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Philip Jackson, Dominic Cooper, Judi Dench, Emma Watson and Toby Jones.

Despite looking really nothing like her, Michelle Williams absolutely nails her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe. Unfortunately, the film is hampered by Redmayne's Colin Clark, through whose eyes the entire story is told: he is uninteresting, and the way Monroe touched his life is vapid, and even a bit silly. So, despite very good work from many involved, this adds up to much less than the sum of its parts. 3 stars.

16/02/12 - This Means War, directed by McG, starring Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Chelsea Handler and Til Schweiger.

Loud, brash, often incoherent ... but also, thanks to the charms of the three leads, often pretty funny. There's nothing demanding, or even particularly interesting, about a film like this, but for popcorn pap, it gets the job done. I just wish McG was as fluid and confident when directing action as he is the rest of the time: it feels like a completely different (and much worse) movie once the guns come out. 3 stars.

12/02/12 - Man On A Ledge, directed by Asger Leth, starring Sam Worthington, Elizabeth Banks, Jamie Bell, Genesis Rodriguez and Ed Harris.

A pretty disposable, but well-executed, heist flick. Leth never aims too high, but he hits all the right marks, and he hits them all well enough that I could forgive the film's rote quality. Worthington still needs to fine-tune his American accent and Jamie Bell needs better roles, but the film was stolen by the crazy wrinkles on Ed Harris' face. Seriously, in another five years that guy is going to look amazing. He and John Hurt should have a weathered-face-off, it'd be awesome. Anyway, 3 stars.

11/02/12 - J. Edgar, directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts and Judi Dench.

Holy shit, J. Edgar was a disaster from start to finish. You know that problem biopics often have, where they're unable to fashion a coherent story out of somebody's real life? This film is the king of that kind of failed biopic, because it doesn't even try and create a narrative for us. There is NO story to this film, it's just a bunch of stuff happening in seemingly random order, with no apparent consequences, until (about half an hour too late) Hoover has a heart attack and finally releases us. When it wasn't boring it was ridiculous (some of the aging makeup is incredibly amateurish). First Hereafter, now this. Sorry to say it, but I think Clint needs to retire. 1/2 a star.

08/02/12 - Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen McCrory.

The second half of Scorsese's ode to early cinema is magical, as the world's pre-eminent film buff lovingly recreates the life and work of Georges Méliès, one of the art-form's first geniuses. Unfortunately, getting to that point in the movie isn't as much of a pleasure as it should be. The kids are kind of irritating, and the narrative has a habit of taking odd, over-dramatic detours that don't really mean anything, then undercutting any drama that is present. Beautiful, but ultimately kind of empty. 3 stars.

04/02/12 - The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanivicius, starring Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell and Penelope Ann Miller.

This French silent film about a silent film star is charming and hilarious for the first half of its runtime. It's less successful when it tries to move from comedy to drama, but it's still an achievement to make a silent movie that captivates modern audiences the way this one does. It's emotionally slight, but a fun couple of hours in the cinema. 3 stars.

03/02/12 - Chronicle, directed by Josh Trank, starring Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly and Ashley Hinshaw.

Though its 'found footage' format feels completely useless (and invites unwelcome questions), this relatively small-scale superhero movie is really good fun. Three teens explore a weird hole they find in a field, a glowing crystal pulses at them, and suddenly they find they can move things with their minds. Once they figure out they can move themselves, that means they can fly. The three leads are all great and, even though it's sign-posted too heavily, when one of them turns to evil it's actually pretty tragic. 3 and 1/2 stars.

28/01/12 - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, directed by Tomas Alfredson, starring Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong and John Hurt.

This austere, deliberate spy thriller is a masterpiece of descending paranoia. Shot through with ambiguity and ambivalence, the whole thing is held together by Oldman's truly brilliant performance as George Smiley, the ex-spy brought back to hunt out a mole. For the film to work at all, the audience needs to understand what Smiley is thinking, but for the character to work, he mustn't ever tip what he's thinking to the world at large. It's an unbelievable tightrope for Oldman to walk, but he does it with aplomb. Tense, strange and sad, this could well turn out to be the movie of the year. Go see it. 5 stars.

27/01/12 - The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne, starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard.

Every scene in this film is entertaining, and some of them are flat-out hilarious, but the whole felt somehow less than the sum of its parts. Maybe because all the various subplots were picked up and put down again with gay abandon, maybe because just when I wanted the film to reach for some larger emotional resonance they'd undercut their own film with a gag, but whatever the reason it didn't quite do it for me. 3 and 1/2 stars.

27/01/12 - Albert Nobbs, directed by Rodrigo Garcia, starring Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Janet McTeer and Pauline Collins.

This film felt oddly scattershot. While Close certainly excelled at portraying the cross-dressing Mr Nobbs' awkwardness and fear, we never really understood the 'Why?' behind her/him. That lack of apparent motivation afflicted every single character, making the film a muddle of purposeless events. Things happened, sure, but it all just seemed random and without deeper meaning. 2 stars.

26/01/12 - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, directed by David Fincher, starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Stellan Skarsgård, Robin Wright and Christopher Plummer.

The middle section of the film, detailing the efforts of Craig's journalist and Mara's hacker to piece together a forty year old mystery, is fairly compelling, even though I already knew all the answers (Seriously, how successful does a foreign language film have to be before it isn't remade?). But the opening hour is a bit of a drag, and God, the film ends with a terrible (and way too long) coda. They basically take everything they've told us about Lisbeth Salander's character and cram it into a garbage disposal. Ignore the dodgy bookends and it's an efficient procedural, but never more than that. 3 stars.

19/1/12 - Young Adult, directed by Jason Reitman, starring Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt and Patrick Wilson.

Theron is simply brilliant as the wilful, immature, delusional Mavis Gary, a ghostwriter of schlocky YA, who returns to her hometown to 'save' her high-school boyfriend from his wife and kid. Hilarious and cruel in equal measure, my only complaint is that when the extent of Mavis' mental health problems becomes clear, the film avoids truly dealing with the tough, dark issues it has raised. But that's a minor stumble, and it's right at the finish line. 4 stars.

12/1/12 - The Muppets, directed by James Bobin, starring the Muppets, Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper and Rashida Jones.

The Muppets were a little before my time, but I still have a few hazy nostalgic memories of them floating around my brain (does anybody else remember the animated Muppet Babies?). Though predictable in all sorts of ways, and lightweight in all sorts of others, this film hit all the right notes, told all the right jokes, and had me giggling from beginning to end. If you're not smiling when you come out, I'll be very surprised. 4 stars.

7/1/12 - The Skin I Live In, directed by Pedro Almodóvar, starring Antonia Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet and Bianca Suárez.

This film was a crushing disappointment to me. The storyline, involving a mad scientist, kidnap and gender-swapping, should have made for a fun, crazy little film. Unfortunately, Almodóvar insists on taking the whole ridiculous concept seriously, and the story just can't hold the thematic and emotional weight he tries to give it. Fact is, it just made me bored. Still, it's kind of nice to know that even the titans of world cinema can have major mis-fires. 1 and 1/2 stars.

5/1/12 - Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, directed by Guy Ritchie, starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Jared Harris and Noomi Rapace.

Another example of Hollywood's trend for taking anything you might have heard of and forcing it to become a generic action-adventure movie. The main pleasure I got from the dull first three-quarters of this film came from watching them make the gayest blockbuster since Spartacus. Seriously, they had to have been aware of the homosexual subtext at play between Holmes and Watson (when Holmes throws Watson's wife off a train while wearing a dress then the two men cower in each other's arms, it pretty much loses the 'sub' and just becomes text). Jared Harris gives good villain as Moriarty, and his presence helps the climax gather enough steam to get over the line. 2 and 1/2 stars.

3/1/12 - War Horse, directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston, Niels Andestrup and Celine Buckens.

War Horse is structured in such a stilted, episodic way that I found it impossible to make any emotional connection with the events taking place on screen. Through the main body of the film, we never stay with any human characters for long enough to learn to give a damn about them. And because I didn't care, Spielberg's old-fashioned (almost naive) approach came off as cloying and desperate. 2 stars.

2/1/12 - The Iron Lady, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, starring Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent and Alexandra Roach.

Whatever you might think of her politics, Margaret Thatcher led an undeniably fascinating life. This film, however, seems determined to tell as little of her story as possible, examining her doddering old age in more detail than any of the political achievements and ideological clashes that mark her life. It's a curious choice, and one that made the film feel incredibly slight, compared to what it might have been. Meryl Streep is so amazing she makes it watchable, but it's no better than that. 2 and 1/2 stars.

If you want to delve further back in time, the archive for 2011 is right here.

Cheers, JC.