February 27, 2013

Hello America (#74)

Hello America by J.G. Ballard

What I said then:

I love J.G. Ballard. I'm determined that before I die I will read everything he ever wrote. This one will be next, I suppose.

What I say now:

Yep, still love him.

Ballard began his career in science-fiction (though writing much more wonky, arty sci-fi than could normally be found in the early sixties), then went through this incredible period in the seventies where he fused his sci-fi themes with everyday (but off-kilter) settings and plots; The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, Concrete Island and High Rise are the books I'm thinking of. Hello America came out in 1981, just after that golden period and just before his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (which, in its way, holds the key to all of his work), and it marked a brief return to the dystopias of his earlier works.

A hundred years in the future, an energy crisis has left North America a barren wasteland, the deserts of the southwest U.S.A. having spread to cover the entire continent. With severe oil rationing over the rest of the globe, most technologies have ground to a stand-still, or even devolved to mimic earlier, pre-Industrial Revolution times. A team of research scientists --- and one stowaway --- who are all descended from American refugees, land their ship at the edge of the dunes of New York City and set out on horseback to explore. Lo and behold, they find that the American Dream isn't quite as dead as they had imagined ...

If I'm being honest with myself, this is a fairly minor entry in Ballard's canon. He is usually at his best when describing one or two obsessive loners, driven characters who dance around each other under the influence of whatever bizarro concept he's dreamed up this time. The size of the cast here feels limiting, rather than the opposite: we're introduced to several scientists, and the stowaway, and the research ship's captain, yet because they all share similar motives, none of them emerges from the pack to become a distinct focal point for the book. It seems Ballard felt this too: there's a chapter in the middle in which he uses one character's diary entries to skip over a period of about three months, and incidentally to kill off a couple of people as well, just to keep things from getting too unwieldy.

Another flaw is the hamminess of a lot of his satire. Sure, I'm writing from thirty years in the future (and having studied postmodernism ad nauseam at university) but giving the 'native Americans' (those who never abandoned the continent, and have become Bedouin-like drifters through the desert) brand names for names? It's just trite, and silly ... and the kind of thing I'd have come up with while I was at university. When Heinz, Xerox, GM and Pepsodent turn up I'll admit, I was a little disappointed in the obviousness on show.

Also, setting an apocalyptic showdown in Las Vegas? Again, kind of obvious. Of course that mirage of a city, the decadent neon heart of America's love affair with everything tacky and shiny and loud, is a perfect setting for a book that's all about the core of American culture, but it just feels ... done. Hello America followed Stephen King's The Stand by just a few years, and surely Ballard was aware of it. I dunno, again, I was just a little disappointed that Ballard, whose imagination is normally off-the-charts original, was reduced to reproducing elements I'd seen before. He did it well, sure, but I come to his novels expecting to have my brain exploded. Didn't happen this time around.

Almost the most interesting aspect of the book for me was in a short interview with Ballard that the publishers have included in the back. In it, Ballard talks about his childhood in 1930's Shanghai as being more influenced by American culture than British, and how his return to Britain after the war had it seeming dismal and dull by comparison. His infatuation with, and critiques of, American culture are ever-present in his work, and that little bit of detail shed a lot of light on novels of his that I'd read previously. Even when they're set in England, they're about aspects of our culture that we'd usually regard as American: cars, and TV, and advertising, and Hollywood mythologising. Having glimpsed an American(ish) culture as a boy, then being forced into exile from it in ration-starved England, Ballard's obsessions become more understandable. In some ways those obsessions reach their apogee (if not their finest expression) in Hello America, and for that alone it's worth a read for a Ballard nut like myself.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Dracula by Bram Stoker
books to go: 71

February 26, 2013

The 2013 Oscars (part two)

Thank fuck for Argo.

When fucking Life of Pi won Best Director for Ang Lee, I got flat out angry. Then I got scared: was it going to carry that momentum into a throoughly undeserved Best Picture win? Luckily, beardy Ben Affleck and crew were on hand to extract Oscar from a bad situation, and get it back safe and sound.

I'm probably being unfair to Life of Pi, and to Mr. Lee, but I found it to be shallow nonsense, which purported to have grand insights and which actually had no fucking insight at all. It deserved to win for VFX, and while I didn't love that it got up for cinematography, I could at least understand the thinking. Score? I don't remember a bar, but okay, I'll take your word for it. But Best Director of the year? In this year of brilliant movies? Nuh-uh, no way, not a hope in hell. Still, the major fuck-up with the director category happened with the nominations, this minor fuck-up was just the exclamation point.

Elsewhere, Jennifer Lawrence managed to be graceless with so much grace that I kind of forgave her for not really deserving to win (and I've always, always been terrified of those stairs on behalf of dazed winners ...). Quentin pulled it out for screenplay, which was awesome, and I loved his speech ... but they do know they've got to give him director someday, don't they? Are they gonna pull a Scorsese and keep him waiting for another twenty years? LincolnLes Mis and Anna Karenina split Production Design, Make-up and Costume between them, which seems more amicable than going to the mattresses, I guess.

In the supporting categories, Christoph Waltz was a bit of a shock, and Anne Hathaway really wasn't ... though to all those bitching about how she acted surprised in her speech: is she supposed to get up there and be all like 'Yeah, we all knew this was coming, right?' What option does she have?

Seth Macfarlane was just kind of ... meh as host. We could've done with less self-referential humour: jokes about yourself as host can work okay once or twice in the opening monologue, but four hours of them and it starts to get pretty god-damn old. As do jokes about how long the show is running: making those jokes makes the show run longer, for fuck's sake. But he wasn't a James Franco-style disaster (Anne Hathaway deserves none of the blame for that debacle, in my opinion), which has to be a plus. Kind of.

Oh, and Daniel Day-Lewis seems to exist on a plane of awesomeness that is beyond all of us mere mortals. In one speech he had probably the three best lines of the night and man, he's just so fucking cool.

Oh, and Russell Crowe, walking out on stage to sing after being bagged mercilessly from every corner for his singing: ballsiest bastard ever.

And that's that for another year (I won my battle with junk food, by the way, in case you were concerned).

Cheers, JC.

February 25, 2013

The 2013 Oscars (part one)

Ordinarily I watch the Oscars while on the couch in my pyjamas eating junk food. Damn this diet, the junk food is out this year, and I get the feeling I'm really gonna miss it (how entertaining is this show when you're not buzzing on a sugar high?). A friend suggested that I should get out of my pyjamas first thing in the morning, to put a nice psychological break between me and my usual Oscars routine ... but it's midday now, and it hasn't happened yet.


Usually you can draw a line through anything which is nominated for Best Picture which isn't also nominated for Best Director. This year, though, the Director nominations fucked up big time, so the list of movies with snubbed directors (Argo, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty) is incredibly strong. At the same time, films with no realistic shot did get Director nominations (Amour, which is too arty; Beasts of the Southern Wild, which is too not Hollywood; Life of Pi, which is too shit), so everything's all up for grabs. Argo is cleaning up all the lead-in awards, and Lincoln has the kind of pedigree Oscar loves, so I suspect it will come down to those two.

I liked both of those movies a lot, but there are two films nominated that I consider flat-out fucking masterpieces: Zero Dark Thirty and Amour. I'm assuming Michael Haneke's slow drama about old people dying has no chance (too real, too painful), but Zero Dark Thirty has a genuine shot, I think, so that's what I'm rooting for. I doubt they'll give it to two Kathryn Bigelow war(ish) movies in a row, but you never know.

Honestly, so long as they keep it away from Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi or Les Miserables, the rest are all very good movies, and I'm kind of not fussed who ends up taking it out. They'd all be fairly worthy.

My hope: Amour or Zero Dark Thirty
My prediction: Argo


It's gotta be Spielberg for LincolnMichael Haneke for Amour and Benh Zeitlin for Beasts both deserve it more, I think, but their films are just too odd and unwieldy for Oscar voters (though apparently the demographics of the Academy skews heavily towards 'old as fuck', so maybe Haneke and his paean to approaching death has more of a chance than I'm giving it). I'm dismissing David O. Russell for Silver Linings and Ang Lee for Pi because, frankly, those films weren't good enough for them to deserve jack shit. So Spielberg is left by a process of elimination. Kathryn Bigelow, Ben Affleck and Quentin Tarantino can feel a bit cheesed off that they missed nominations (and their presence would have made for a more interesting field), but Spielberg did good work this year, so I'm happy for him to collect another win. At least Lincoln wasn't no fucking War Horse.

My hope: Michael Haneke
My prediction: Steven Spielberg


Daniel Day-Lewis will win. That's a given, surely? The most respected actor in the world, playing the most respected man in American history ... hell, he'd won this Oscar before they even started shooting. If there's any chance of a shock, it's probably our Hugh for Les Mis, which in a way is fair enough. You could count the movie stars who can do what he did in that movie on one finger (evidence: Russell Crowe's spectacular failure in the same film). The performance I really loved, though, was Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. Bizarre, hypnotic, transcendent, whatever you want to call it, he was frickin' amazing. In the absence of nominations for a pair of brilliant French performances (Denis Lavant in Holy Motors, Jean-Louis Trintignant in Amour), Phoenix is a clear stand-out in this field. Shame that doesn't seem to be what matters. Bradley Cooper and Denzel Washington, on the other hand, are simply making up the numbers.

My hope: Joaquin Phoenix
My prediction: Daniel Day-Lewis


Jennifer Lawrence seems to be the front-runner for this one, for Silver Linings Playbook, and if she wins, I'll admit it, this would be the award that would piss me off a bit. She was charismatic as hell, sure, but her character was pretty one-note, a classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl who hinted at having greater depths but never actually revealed them. Quvenzhane Wallis is a gag nomination, and Naomi Watts (who did nothing but suffer) surely has been completely shown up by Emmanuelle Riva (who did nothing but suffer, but made it into something beautiful and sublime). Riva, for Amour, or Jessica Chastain, for Zero Dark Thirty, were both dead-set brilliant in their respective movies, but I fear they were both too subtle for the academy. There's acting, and then there's ACTING!!1!, and I fear they're gonna be seduced by the latter, and by Lawrence.

My hope: Jessica Chastain or Emmanuelle Riva
My prediction: Jennifer Lawrence


Supporting Actress is all about Anne Hathaway this year. She sung a couple of songs, she made us all cry, she's paid her dues, she's the shortest of short priced favourites (seriously, sportsbet has her paying $1.01; in a five horse race, that's ridiculous). And honestly, in this field, I won't mind (too much): Sally Field, Helen Hunt and Jacki Weaver were all fine, but none of them knocked my socks off either. The only worthy adversary for 'Crusher' Hathaway is Amy Adams for The Master, but again, obviousness is gonna beat subtlety, I fear.

Best Supporting Bloke is a bit more wide open. Using the process of elimination, Tommy Lee Jones is probably the favourite, and his performance in Lincoln was a hell of a lot of fun (and very nearly the best thing about the movie). Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alan Arkin and Christoph Waltz all won Oscars pretty recently, and I doubt the academy will love any of their performances enough to feel they deserve a second so soon. Which leaves Robert De Niro as the main contender, but surely they can't give a guy an Oscar just for (finally) deciding to start acting again? Can they?

My hopes: Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman
My predictions: Anne Hathaway and Tommy Lee Jones


In the Original Screenplay list, I'm pretty comfortable dismissing the chances of John Gatins, for Flight, and Wes Anderson, for Moonrise Kingdom, simply because they're barely up for anything else, and that's just not the way this shit works (though a massive part of me wants to see Wes Anderson give an acceptance speech). After that, it gets interesting: Tarantino is up for Django, Haneke is up for Amour, and Mark Boal is up for Zero Dark Thirty. Everybody wants to see Quentin on that stage, but I suspect Django is a bit wild and dangerous for the academy to  give it a tick. Haneke's not a realistic shot at the Director gong, but they do sometimes use the screenplay awards as 'encouragement Oscars', basically saying "Look, we're not gonna give you one of the really big ones, but keep doing what you're doing, it's good stuff!" I wouldn't be surprised if Haneke actually pulls this one out. Mark Boal, on the other hand, won for Hurt Locker just a few years ago, which might count against him. So the academy has to choose: the uber-violent wise-cracker; the haughty European master; or a not particularly well known recent winner? I honestly don't know which way it'll go.

Adapted Screenplay is a little simpler. Chris Terrio is gonna win for Argo. You could make a case for Tony Kushner for breathing life into Lincoln, and I'm a little worried about David Magee (for Pi) and David O. Russell (for Silver Linings) winning 'encouragement Oscars' on behalf of their strangely well-liked films. But Argo is gonna win it. Terrio has won every lead-in award of note, and it's not possible that the film wins Best Picture without snagging either Director or Screenplay ... and Affleck's not nominated, so it has to win here.

My hopes: Mark Boal or Michael Haneke, and Chris Terrio
My predictions: Quentin Tarantino and Chris Terrio


I suspect Life of Pi is gonna take out Visual Effects, which is probably fair. The CG tiger was pretty amazing. Anna Karenina, Lincoln and Les Mis are gonna go to the mattresses over Costume, and probably over Production Design as well, unless Pi can nip in and grab it by being stylised, rather than ye-olde-looking. If Hitchcock wins for Make-Up I will get genuinely angry, because Hopkins' prosthetic jowls were absolutely fucking terrible. Skyfall (from, um, Skyfall) is the only nominated song that anybody remembers, so it's a shoo-in (and will apparently be the first ever Bond theme to win the Oscar ... incredible!), and Amour surely wins Foreign Language Film given it's the only one nominated for other shit too. Zero Dark Thirty ought to win Editing, but Argo will probably take this one out too.

Cinematography is interesting. Roger Deakins (Skyfall) deserves it: despite my reservations about that movie, it was undeniably beautiful to look at in a way that Bond has just never been. But cinematography is a big award, and I'm not sure you can win it without also being up for the other biggies. If Deakins doesn't pull it out, it'll probably fall to Claudio Miranda for Life of Pi, because again, obviousness beats subtlety.

So there you go, I'm now one more lonely blogger pissing his Oscar predictions into the wind. I'll be back later for a debrief, but for now you'll have to excuse me, the couch is calling.

(Don't think about popcorn. Don't think about popcorn. Don't think about popcorn. Aagh, I thought about it.)

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse
books to go: 72

February 22, 2013

Rabbit, Run (#75)

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

What I said then:

I bought this years ago, and really only because I knew Updike’s name and at the time that seemed like reason enough.

What I say now:

Though slim, this book was a slog to get through. There's something about Updike's writing style that just doesn't chime with me: it felt too studied, like it was trying too hard or something. His tale is one of small suburban decay, and often he'd be caught reaching too far in his attempts to give the details of his mundane setting the metaphorical weight he so desperately wanted them to have. Does that make sense? It was like, the main character could never just walk home beneath a row of streetlights, the streetlights always had to be symbolising something profound about the way the character's life was in constant flux between darkness and light, or some bullshit like that. Everything was freighted with meaning, but the meanings were spelled out and too obviously artificial. If you make everything poetic, then nothing is, you know?

So the plot basically runs thus: Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom is a massive selfish jerk who can't face the responsibilities of adulthood, and he proves this fact again and again. Rabbit was a star basketball player in high school, but those days are gone. Approaching his mid-twenties and stuck in a loveless marriage to a pregnant girl that drinks to escape her own boredom (and she is still a girl, as Rabbit is still just a boy), one night he snaps or something and just drives off and leaves her. He only makes it as far as the next town over, where he shacks up with a sorta-kinda prostitute for a few months. Having knocked the new girl up, he promptly ditches her and heads back to his wife when she has the baby ... only to argue with her and run out again (twice, somehow).

Seriously, Rabbit is a fucking arsehole.

You can write about arseholes, there's nothing wrong with that, but they've got to be interesting. I don't have to like your characters, but I do have to find them captivating. Rabbit was just an oaf, an uncomplicated oaf, and I found his company pretty much unbearable. Not because he was an arsehole, just because he was boring. It wouldn't have been so bad if Updike had seemed to have any insight into the guy, or was able to shed any light on his psychology, but he really didn't. At the moments of highest drama, the moments when Rabbit decided to turn one way or the other, it never illuminated anything. Those moments always sprang from moments of random impulse, and we never got a chance to properly understand them.

There were other things that bugged me. Updike has his (not particularly intelligent) characters participate in that silly literary convention where, in conversation with one another, they'll speak in 'meaningful' non sequiturs, giving poetic summations of something or other which have nothing to do with the conversation they're actually having. Also, when the sex scenes come, Updike switches modes completely, getting both deliberately vague and kind of breathlessly excited. That obvious excitement, coupled with his horribly old-fashioned gender politics, had me leaving those scenes feeling pretty scuzzy.

All in all, there just wasn't much to like about this book. At all. There are another three books about Rabbit Angstrom, but I've had my fill of him, and of Updike too.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse
books to go: 72

February 20, 2013

Persuasion (#76)

Persuasion by Jane Austen

What I said then:

[One of] the last two unread books from my much-loved Folio Society boxset.

What I say now:

(Please note, that is NOT the cover on the edition I've got. I couldn't find an image of my version online, and this one was just too silly not to use.)

Persuasion was Jane Austen's final novel, and was written as her health went into its final, terminal decline. Lacking the energy to properly revise and edit her work, Austen left us a novel that is somewhat lacking in her usual masterful control (in terms of both plot and prose). In her finest works (massive Pride and Prejudice fan here), Austen's prose has that knack of being concise, witty, and true. But there are --- shock horror! --- inelegant sentences in Persuasion. There are plenty of elegant ones as well, but it was a bit of a shock to find myself having to read a sentence twice or thrice in order to grasp its meaning. That just doesn't happen with Austen, who ordinarily writes with perfect clarity.

In short: several years before the novel begins, Anne, the plain and oft-ignored (but supremely sensible and virtuous) third Elliot sister, was persuaded by her snobbish father to break off an engagement with Mr Wentworth, an impoverished naval officer. Since then the Elliot's fortunes have been frittered away, while Anne's sometime lover is about to return from the recently concluded wars a successful (and wealthy) man. Can their love survive her rejection of him, and the intervening years? Will she fall for her (way too obviously 'charming') cousin, William? There's also a plethora of subplots involving the romantic entanglements of Anne's silly, shallow cousins and sisters, and the machinations of their on/off flirtations with various gentlemen.

Though the scene in which Anne and Wentworth finally reconcile is quite wonderful and moving, and is the equal of anything in Austen's oeuvre, we've never really learned why we should hope for their reconciliation in the first place. Their love was formed and dashed before the novel ever begins, and we're never given much of an account of it. Then, for the vast majority of the book they act towards each other with cold formality, each wishing to bury the pain of the past. Austen relates this cold formality with considerable skill, but neglects to ever really delve into its inherent falseness, or to give us a glimpse of either characters' continuing love for the other. When the damn bursts, it feels less like a satisfying resolution to an ongoing story, than it feels like a bewildering bolt from the blue.

Several of the other, more minor subplots are resolved in similarly haphazard fashion. One of Anne's cousins, in the space of a couple of weeks in which we don't see her, falls out of love with one man and becomes engaged to another. This second suitor, given every single thing we've learnt about either character, should never have come to her notice at all (he's bookish and shy, she's wild and wilful). It's all a bit convenient.

Some of the subplots lead nowhere (and get resolved ridiculously easily), and there are dramatic events that are undeniably silly, and characters' interior lives seem to change in the blink of an eye to suit whatever purpose Austen requires. It's all a bit of a confused muddle. Don't get me wrong, there's still genius at play here, but it's only occasional, and you've got to look a little harder for it.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse
books to go: 72

February 13, 2013

The Lost Dog (#77)

The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser

What I said then:

I saw her in a session at the Writer's Festival and she was impressive enough that I bought her book ... but not so impressive that I read it.

What I say now:

The Lost Dog is a strange old book, and I must admit I found it a bit of a muddle. It gestured towards being a lot of things: a romance, a mystery, a Garner-esque dissection of Melbourne's contemporary art scene. But it never really committed to being any of these things, leaving important story elements dangling all over the place, and ultimately ending up an underwhelming reading experience (despite de Kretser's obvious skill).

Tom Loxley, half-Indian academic, is staying alone in the mountain shack of a friend while trying to finish his thesis on Henry James. When his dog runs off while they're out on a walk, he assumes it'll be back soon. When it doesn't return, he spends the next ten days searching for it in increasingly frantic fashion. While the search gives the book its through-line, the narrative keeps jumping backwards in time to fill out Tom's family history, and to detail his unrequited love for Nelly Zhang, friend, shack-owner, and artist, as well as Nelly's mysterious (possibly murderous) past.

If that last sentence was confusing, good. The way the novel skips about in time makes it difficult initially to track who everybody is, where they are, who they know, and when this scene I'm reading is actually happening. De Kretser doesn't help us out, leaping from Melbourne in the present, to India in the past, to Melbourne in the slightly-more-recent past without doing anything much to make sure we know where we are at any given moment. Early on in particular, while all the characters were being introduced, I found it pretty difficult to keep track of who was who.

And then there's the mystery element. Nelly Zhang's husband went missing from the mountain cabin in strange circumstances years ago (suicide? murder? secret flight to a new life?) and during Tom's wanderings after his dog, he starts to delve into what exactly happened. Which made me think that, by the end of the book, I'd get to find out what exactly happened. But the investigation goes nowhere. Tom does come up with a theory, and in the penultimate chapter he explains it to Nelly ... and she explains it's not possible. And that's it. There was no revelation, no catharsis, no nothing. Look, I don't mind when writers get playful with genre conventions, but this just seemed perverse the way de Kretser set me up to expect an ending, then refused to give me one. It really stuck in my craw.

Prose-wise, she's a super talented writer (if occasionally a little verbose, using five complicated words when two simple ones would do) but it was the structural looseness that kept getting in the way of my enjoyment. Ultimately it was kind of a missed opportunity: there was lots of interesting stuff in it, but it didn't come together in a satisfying way at all.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Hello America by J.G. Ballard
books to go: 74

February 11, 2013

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (#78)

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

What I said then:

Won the Pulitzer a few years back, and is about a Dominican kid who's obsessed with comics.

What I say now:

Maybe I ought to steer clear of prize winners from now on, because I've gotta be honest, I was a bit underwhelmed by this one. Don't get me wrong, it was really entertaining: it's written in a casual, conversational kind of style that kept me turning the pages. I just found it pretty emotionally hollow.

Oscar, a second-generation Dominican living in the New Jersey suburbs, is an unsuccessful romantic. A true nerd's nerd (fat, ugly, loves comic books and Tolkien novels, plays Dungeons & Dragons ... it'd all add up to a a dumb cliche, except Díaz's own love for geeky stuff shines through), Oscar falls in intense, instantaneous love with every beautiful woman he meets. This love, which the novel kindly characterises as generous and genuine, rather than creepy and weird, is basically never reciprocated. As he suffers rebuff after rebuff, Oscar retreats into worlds of fantasy, either in the literature he loves, or in the novels he's writing.

Hey, I dig nerdy stuff (I'd estimate I understood around 75% of the references to geek culture), and I could definitely dig a novel that takes a character who's a cliched nerd and then, by giving him an interior life, busts him out of the cliche. Unfortunately, by the end of the novel, we really don't learn anything about Oscar that I haven't included in that second paragraph. His entire life he just repetitively does the same things, and encounters the same problems, and deals with them the same way. I never felt like I gained a deeper understanding of him, or really any understanding at all. It's like writing a novel about Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons, without ever delving deeper than "Worst ... [whatever] ... ever!"

Because Oscar's story is so thin, Díaz veers off on tangents about his mother and sister and, while he's doing so, delves into twentieth century Dominican history. As somebody entirely ignorant of twentieth century Dominican history (before reading this novel I'd never even heard of Trujillo, the Dominican Republic's murderous mid-century dictator) I found that stuff pretty fascinating, with its secret police and purges and distinctively Latin-flavoured fascism. Unfortunately even those aspects of the book begin to get repetitive, each subplot beginning with love (or at least sex) and ending in secret murder in the countryside. When the two halves of the story do meet up, it's not in a way that's thrilling or unexpected, it's in exactly the way I could have predicted two hundred pages ago.

The tone of the writing was really light and fun (and I'll always give bonus points to a book that throws in a reference to the Witch-king of Angmar), but even that wasn't without its issues: most of the book is narrated by an unknown person who knew Oscar and is relating the events of his life. Just who this person is is kept secret from us for more than half the book, for no apparent reason: when it's revealed to be an old college roommate of Oscar's, it doesn't mean anything (other than for us readers to go "Oh, him ... okay"). Why play coy, when it doesn't matter? I found it a little frustrating, I'll admit. It just seemed like a strange bit of mis-direction.

And then, to add to the issues with the narrative voice, some chapters aren't narrated by the old roommate. They seem to be narrated by the member of Oscar's family directly involved: the sister, for example. But the narrative voice doesn't change as the narrator changes, it's still written in exactly the same style. So, is the roommate pretending to be the sister? Do all New Jersey Dominicans speak exactly the same? Or is Díaz just unwilling (I'm not gonna say 'unable') to break out of this one tone of voice? I dunno, it just felt a bit lazy to me.

As I said up top, I found Oscar Wao to be a fun read. But it didn't touch me emotionally at all, and that's a problem.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Hello America by J.G. Ballard
books to go: 74

February 5, 2013

Itty-Bitty Film Review Archive 2013

31/12/13 - Drinking Buddies, directed by Joe Swanberg, starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston.

This lovely little relationship drama was kicking along nicely, being a lot of fun (charming performances from the four leads, well put together, lovely dialogue), but it was the ending that elevated it into something kind of special. Essentially, Swanberg did the opposite with the denouement than I was expecting, and in the process found something truer, smarter and more meaningful than the vast majority of romantic dramedies could touch. A real find. 4 stars.

29/12/13 - The Railway Man, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, starring Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Stellan Skarsgård, Jeremy Irvine, Tanroh Ishida and Sam Reid.

Though buttressed by fine performances all round, this film felt slight, or obvious, or well-meaning, or … something. I can't quite put my finger on why, but I thought it was lacking a spark, that frisson of danger that could have made it truly memorable. Maybe it was because the main character's key decision in the film's finale was spoiled by the trailer, so I couldn't for a second believe he'd go the other way? Maybe. Anyway, it's handsomely-enough made, it just never truly came alive for me. 3 stars.

29/12/13 - Frozen, starring Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad and Santino Fontana.

This really rather lovely Disney animation found what I thought was a very clever middle ground between being a traditional princess-based fairytale story, and a modern update of the same. In particular, a couple of the more surprising moments turned the quaint old 'Disney' ideals right on their heads, and the film was much the better for it. Also, one of the songs was amazing, the best I've seen in a Disney movie since that early 90's golden period. 4 stars.

27/12/13 - The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by Ben Stiller, starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Shirley MacLaine, Adrian Martinez, Sean Penn and Patton Oswalt.

This is an oddball film, and I can easily imagine people out there loving the shit out of it, even considering it profound and beautiful … but it left me cold. I thought there were major problems with how it played out: for one, Walter overcomes his (interior) problem about a third of the way in, meaning that most of the movie is only about the machinations of the plot, and not at all about the character; and for two, the dream sequence stuff is replaced by a 'reality' so studied, so composed, so like his dreams, that I just couldn't invest in it. Oh, and the incessant product placement was among the worst I've seen. 2 stars.

27/12/13 - Short Term 12, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, starring Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Keith Stanfield and Rami Malek.

Anchored by the subtle, nuanced performances of Larson and Gallagher Jr. (who will both, if there's any justice in this world, go on to be huge stars), this intimate drama about a young woman who runs a short term dormitory for at-risk and foster kids, while refusing to deal with the psychological wreckage of her own past, is a delicate wonder. It's not just the leads: Cretton gets incredible performances from everyone, including a suite of wonderful child actors, and he's not afraid to put the camera in very close to let us right inside his characters' heads. My only (minor) complaint would be that the machinations of the plot felt a bit neat: every story thread comes to a head, one after the other, on a single very dramatic day. That's a tiny flaw, however, in what is otherwise pretty much perfect. 4 and 1/2 stars.

26/12/13 - The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, directed by Peter Jackson, starring Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Aidan Turner, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Ken Stott, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Lee Pace and Benedict Cumberbatch.

God, it's just a slog at this point. There are some nice moments scattered throughout this film's two and a half hour running time (a few funny gags, one pretty cool scene with a dragon), but they're not worth putting up with all the plot-irrelevant BS that they've come up with in order to spin the story out into three movies. So much of what happens has no meaning whatsoever and no effect on the larger narrative, and by God, the absolutely appalling tacked-on romance they've jammed in belongs in bad fan-fiction, not up on the big screen. It's better than the first one, but that's not saying much: these Hobbit movies are a disaster on almost every conceivable level. 1 and 1/2 stars.

23/12/13 - Kill Your Darlings, directed by John Krokidas, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Ben Foster, Jack Huston, David Cross, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Elizabeth Olsen.

Though it takes the best possible approach to a biopic (don't do the whole life, just focus on a particular moment in time) this film -- about Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs before they were the Beats, and their dangerous friend Lucien Carr -- never coalesced into a great story. There's a lot here that's of historical interest, particularly if you're interested in these writers, but the film never managed to break out of 'relating an anecdote about these famous dudes' and become its own thing. 3 stars.

19/12/13 - Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, directed by Adam McKay, starring Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner, Christina Applegate, Dylan Baker, Meagan Good, Judah Nelson, Greg Kinnear and Kristen Wiig.

And sometimes you've just got to throw your hands up in the air and say 'I don't get it.' While of course watching every movie is a subjective exercise, I find that comedy and horror are more polarising than other genres, and it all comes down to your own personal taste. Did I find it funny? Did you find it scary? Some stuff just won't work for some people. Which is all a roundabout way of saying … I'm not sure I laughed once in this film (though to be fair, the cameo melee at the end probably got me). That doesn't mean it's bad, just that it didn't work for me, so take my rating with a grain of salt. That said, 1 star.

14/12/13 - American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell, starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K. and Jack Huston.

This film is entertaining as hell: it's made with verve and panache, the performances range from great to remarkable (Amy Adams knocks it way the fuck out of the park), the period costuming is note perfect, and it's hilarious from go to whoa. But, if I'm being honest, it felt like a whole hell of a lot of razzle dazzle built around a hollow core: when it aimed for drama, it failed to move me in any way. Still, when the razzle dazzle is this good, it feels churlish to ask for more. 4 stars.

5/12/13 - Ender's Game, directed by Gavin Hood, starring Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley and Abigail Breslin.

This film wasn't bad, per se, it was just very mediocre. None of the performances popped, none of the effects or action sequences were particularly memorable, and the story's big reveal landed with a thud. Honestly? I left off writing this review for a couple of weeks, and now I'm struggling to remember much about this film at all. Which I guess is pretty telling. 2 and 1/2 stars.

5/12/13 - The Delivery Man, directed by Ken Scott, starring Vince Vaughn, Chris Pratt, Cobie Smulders and Andrzej Blumenfeld.

This was a weird movie experience: the set-up is so off-the-charts silly that it's nearly impossible for something that feels emotionally true to punch through … yet, at odd moments, the movie actually manages it. It only happens a handful of times (and the tonal mismatch of heartfelt drama and utter farce doesn't help), but those few brief moments elevate this above anything I was expecting. I couldn't say it was good, but I will say I thought it was interesting. 3 stars.

29/11/13 - How I Live Now, directed by Kevin Macdonald, starring Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay, Tom Holland, Harley Bird, Danny McEvoy and Anna Chancellor.

Devoid of the advantage that the novel gains by being written in the first person, this story felt a little too slight. Ronan and MacKay are both very good, but they're being asked to do a lot of heavy lifting and they're not given much support from the script, which means I never invested in their relationship, which means the whole finale fell completely flat. I'm honestly not sure what I'd have done differently, but it just felt like it needed more somehow. 2 and 1/2 stars.

25/11/13 - Enough Said, directed by Nicole Holofcener, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Tracey Fairaway, Tavi Gevinson, Toni Collette and Ben Falcone.

Nicole Holofcener's usual smart, observational dramedy style is here wedded to a classic romcom set-up: Eva (Louis-Dreyfus, who we really need to see more of) starts dating a new guy (Gandolfini, in one of his final roles), before realising her new massage client is his bitter ex, and boy does she enjoy talking shit about him. Populated with warm, fleshed-out characters and filled with oodles of wit, Holofcener and her actors manage to find a whole heap of human truth despite the slight hamminess of the set-up. 3 and 1/2 stars.

21/11/13 - The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, directed by Francis Lawrence, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Lynn Cohen, Liam Hemsworth, Lenny Kravitz, Paula Malcomson and Willow Shields.

Man oh man, I was so impressed by this film. It had by far the most emotional nuance of any recent Hollywood blockbuster: whatever Katniss is feeling at any given moment, it's complicated, yet we always understand the tangled pull of her interior life perfectly. It's a really fine balance to manage, but the two Lawrences (star and director), together with a cracking script, manage it beautifully. And it's deeper than just Katniss: every character has their own conflicting motivations, their own game that they're playing, yet the audience never gets lost for a moment. Directed with clarity, filled with supporting performances that knock it out of the park (Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci deserve special recognition here, though nearly everybody is brilliant), this is what I wish all big budget blockbusters had the balls to try and be: thrilling and complex and dangerous. 4 and 1/2 stars.

15/11/13 - Carrie, directed by Kimberly Peirce, starring Chloe Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Judy Greer, Gabriella Wilde and Portia Doubleday.

This leaden, unimaginative remake/reboot/rewhatever didn't work for me, and judging by the sniggers that punctuated the session I was at, it didn't work for the rest of the audience either. With no possibility of surprising us (even if you haven't seen the original, you know how it ends … and even if you didn't know how it ends, the trailers and posters for this one made sure to tell you), all that is left is the pyrotechnics, but the film's so half-arsed that by the time we get there, there's nothing remotely scary about Carrie's transformation, it's just goofy. 1 and 1/2 stars.

14/11/13 - The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott, starring Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt and Penelope Cruz.

This is a fascinating film, but (to my mind anyway) it's a fascinating failure. Scott and his screenwriter, the novelist Cormac McCarthy, have thrown the old film-making maxim 'show don't tell' right out the window, and come up with a film in which (nearly) every major plot point is accompanied by a looooooong speech. Everyone wants to pontificate about the true meaning of their awful, tawdry little crimes, and everyone wants to painstakingly articulate the metaphor of their lives. The problem is that it stops the film fucking dead. The other problem is I'm never given any reason why I should give a damn about any of these characters. On those occasions when the plot actually rumbles to life, you can see the bones of the beautiful thriller it might have been, if it hadn't been buried under an avalanche of so many god damn words. 2 stars.

11/11/13 - The Butler, directed by Lee Daniels, starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Yaya Alafia, Colman Domingo and Terrence Howard.

As hard as it tries, The Butler can never get past the feeling that it's a greatest hits compilation from the civil rights movement, rather than a story of its own. Every key moment in twentieth century African-American politics is here, either witnessed by Cecil Gaines, White House butler, or Louis, his increasingly radical son. The father-son dynamic is potentially interesting, but it gets subsumed by the film's almost histrionic need to have at least one character be everywhere, or hear everything. As a history lesson it was interesting enough; as a film, not so much. 2 and 1/2 stars.

07/11/13 - Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, directed by Declan Lowney, starring Steve Coogan, Colm Meaney, Tim Key, Felicity Montagu, Anna Maxwell Martin and Darren Boyd.

This was my first experience with Alan Partridge, and it's weird watching the 'comeback' of a fictional character who clearly has a lot of history to him, all of which I'm completely unaware of. Didn't detract from the film though, which was a very funny farce combined (to bizarre and delightful effect) with a siege movie. Coogan as Partridge was snarky and motor-mouthed, but it was Colm Meaney, as the depressed, hopeless hostage taker who really stole the show. 3 and 1/2 stars.

31/10/13 - Thor: The Dark World, directed by Alan Taylor, starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Susan Sarandon, Christopher Ecclestone, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård and Jonathan Howard.

Though nowhere near as dire as the first one, the improvements had this film edging into the territory of mediocre. For all the good (the charisma of Hemsworth and Portman, a slew of nice gags, clear and simple direction), there was just as much bad (a personality-free villain, a meaningless Macguffin, and the simple fact that they've taught us to disbelieve anything that happens while Loki's on screen). Ultimately it's all a bit blah, really. 2 and 1/2 stars.

23/10/13 - About Time, directed by Richard Curtis, starring Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lydia Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Tom Hollander, Will Merrick, Joshua McGuire, Richard Cordery and Margot Robbie.

I'm not sure how to write about this one: though deeply flawed in several ways, it also really touched me quite deeply. I don't know if I've ever swung between being infuriated and being heartbroken in quite the same way. Still, the damn thing made me cry, which is an emotional reaction I really can't deny. It was the relationship between Tim (Gleeson) and his dad (the absolute perfect role for Bill Nighy) that got me: their final couple of interactions were absolutely beautiful. And it was the romance plot that annoyed me, McAdams' character denied any kind of say in her own fate. So look, I'll give it 3 and 1/2 stars for now, but I suspect it'll be a film I'll watch a lot when I get it on DVD.

17/10/13 - Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve, starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo, Wayne Duvall and David Dastmalchian.

Half police procedural and half psychological horror, this was a tense, horrible, dangerous film, which wasn't afraid to ask big questions of its characters, and wasn't afraid to show us their horrible answers, either. The cast is great and are all on fine form, and Villeneuve has a remarkable talent for finding startling imagery hidden in everyday places. Though it takes maybe one or two twists and turns to many for my liking, it's all made with such poise and purpose that it works like gangbusters. 4 stars.

10/10/13 - Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass, starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali.

Well, if Paul Greengrass wasn't already the King of Claustrophobic Thrillers Involving Hijacked Modes of Transportation after United 93, then he damn well is now. It starts out tense from the word go, and keeps ratcheting the suspense up until you're not chewing on your fingernails, you've worked your way down to your elbow. As a chilling procedural, it's a marvel (and I swear, Greengrass knows how to make more of a handheld camera than anybody else alive), but it's Hanks' unnervingly raw, undeniably powerful performance of PTSD in the final five minutes that carries this film from 'very very good' to 'one of the year's best.' 4 and 1/2 stars.

08/10/13 - What Maisie Knew, directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, starring Onata Aprile, Alexander Skarsgård, Julianne Moore, Joanna Vanderham and Steve Coogan.

An intimate drama with a very young child in the lead (Onata Aprile was just six when the film was shot) is always a dangerous proposition, but it works beautifully here. The adult actors around Aprile are brilliant (Skarsgård in particular projects a lovely, slightly goofy charm), and the story, about the unwanted daughter of two selfish divorcing parents, is a heartbreaker. Some aspects of how it played out were a little too obvious too early, but in a small film like this it's less about the destination than the rewards you find on the journey. 4 stars.

06/10/13 - Thanks for Sharingdirected by Stuart Blumberg, starring Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Josh Gad, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alecia Moore, Patrick Fugit and Joely Richardson.

Thanks for Sharing weaves together the stories of three men in different stages of recovery from sex addiction, and is for the most part quite clear-eyed and honest in its treatment of potentially difficult subject matter. Unfortunately it really fell apart for me at key moments in the climax: the film's structure makes choices about a couple of its female characters that are hugely at odds with the film's message. All the cast do good work (nice to see Tim Robbins again, and Josh Gad finally gets a role commensurate with his talent), but there were just a few too many cracks in the way the story was constructed. 3 stars.

04/10/13 - Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

Wow. No, seriously ... WOW. Children of Men proved that Cuarón is one of the most inventive directors around, and Gravity doubles down on that: to tell this story of astronauts stranded floating in space, he basically invents an entirely new cinematic grammar. It's technically extraordinary, but always in the service of making us feel something (usually terror). Bullock is marvellous, Clooney is fantastic too, and the story is simple (almost primal) enough that we are given room to feel the appropriate levels of awe, and wonder, and fear, and tension. This is a masterwork, a film that film-makers will be citing for decades to come. My one teensy complaint would be that some of the dialogue towards the end spells out the themes a bit too obviously, but it's a tiny issue in a film thats accomplishments are so vast. 4 and 1/2 stars.

03/10/13 - Rushdirected by Ron Howard, starring Daniel Brühl, Chris Hemsworth, Alexandra Maria Lara, Olivia Wilde, Pierfrancesco Favino, Christian McKay and Natalie Dormer and Alistair Petrie.

Though he doesn't get a lot of attention, Ron Howard is a really good director, and when he's given great material he can make some pretty darn great movies. Rush is no exception. It tells the story of the intense rivalry that engulfed Formula 1 in the 70's between the free-wheeling, instinctive James Hunt, and the cool technician Niki Lauda. What I loved about this was that the film resolutely refused to side with either man: both of the leads (and their clashing philosophies) have their good and bad points, and Brühl, Hemsworth and the film itself don't shy from the ambiguity inherent in that. My only criticism would be the occasionally on-the-nose dialogue, but even then, the cast sells the shit out of it. 4 stars.

01/10/13 - Turbodirected by David Soren, starring Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Michael Peña, Luis Guzman, Bill Hader and Samuel L. Jackson.

This rote, trite animated kids flick about (you guessed it) following your dream didn't leave much of an impression. There were a few nice laughs, but the whole thing was too neat, like the story had been manicured within an inch of its life by a zealous McKee-loving committee. None of the voice actors made much of an impression, and the animation was good, but not great. 2 and 1/2 stars.

26/09/13 - Runner Runnerdirected by Brad Furman, starring Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton, and Anthony Mackie.

After the pretty entertaining The Lincoln Lawyer, Furman takes a step backwards with this fairly silly, fairly unlikable little thriller. Timberlake tries his darndest, but The Social Network this ain't, and Affleck is miscast as the villain. We're never given strong reasons why Timberlake's character does what he does, and we're never given much incentive to care. As for Arterton, she's pretty obviously just there for decoration. 2 stars.

21/09/13 - Percy Jackson: Sea of Monstersdirected by Thor Freudenthal, starring Logan Lerman, Alexandra Daddario, Brandon T. Jackson, Douglas Smith, Jake Abel, Leven Rambin, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Head.

Like most of the recent spate of teen-aimed fantasy flicks, this suffers from a massive overdose of backstory mythologising and an underdose of characterisation. Seriously, I'm really sick of prophecies and chosen ones, they're basically the death of drama. Lerman was great in The Perks of Being a Wallflower but he's floundering here with no help in sight. Bad CG, flat direction, and a lame story make this pretty much a sitting duck. 2 stars.

17/09/13 - Blue Jasminedirected by Woody Allen, starring Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Peter Sarsgaard, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Louis C.K., Michael Stuhlbarg and Alden Ehrenreich.

Powered by Cate Blanchett's performance---which manages to be manic and mannered and overbearing, while still being mesmerising---Woody Allen's latest is a fascinating tale of a big ego laid low. The supporting cast (Hawkins and Cannavale in particular) do sterling work in Blanchett's shadow, and the story's flashback-ridden structure helps keep us from knowing the details of Jasmine's past too soon. A welcome highlight in Allen's late career. 3 and 1/2 stars.

16/09/13 - Behind the Candelabradirected by Steven Soderbergh, starring Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Dan Ackroyd, Boyd Holbrook and Paul Reiser.

This was (yeah, I'm gonna go there) fabulous. Douglas gives a career best turn (if it was eligible, he'd have ended the conversation about next year's Oscars), Damon matches him, and Soderbergh is as focussed and as tight as he's ever been. But what I liked most was how complicated it was: the relationship between these two men isn't simple, and it doesn't boil down to one simple message, and the film is unafraid to give us complexity, and ambiguity, and difficulty. That's too rare these days. 4 stars.

13/09/13 - R.I.P.D.directed by Robert Schwentke, starring Ryan Reynolds, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Bacon, Mary-Louise Parker, Stephanie Szostak, James Hong and Marissa Miller.

Well this was an ungainly mess. Even though it was clearly expensive to make, everything about it seemed completely half-arsed. The story only ever swung between nonsensical and stupid, the actors tried to breathe life into the little they had to work with (but all failed pretty miserably), the direction was lazy, and the CG was horrible. Not much to recommend. 1 and 1/2 stars.

12/09/13 - Riddickdirected by David Twohy, starring Vin Diesel, Matt Nable, Jordi Mollà and Katee Sackhoff.

Richard B. Riddick, unexpressive killing machine, is a pretty dull character to try and build a franchise around: he worked in the first film precisely because he wasn't the protagonist, but since then we've had two pretty dreadful sequels that have put him front and centre (let's call this the Jack Sparrow effect, shall we?). This was film is nowhere near fun enough to get away with being as dumb as it is. Featuring poor performances all round and a story that has nothing to say about anything, I was just waiting for the credits. 1 and 1/2 stars.

05/09/13 - White House Downdirected by Roland Emmerich, starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Joey King, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Woods, Jason Clarke and Richard Jenkins.

Emmerich unashamedly makes movies that are big, goofy fun ... and I'm okay with that. He wrangles charismatic performances out of his A-grade cast, he shoots his action efficiently and ebulliently, and he never pretends this is anything other than a daft action fantasy. I saw it in the right headspace and had a pretty good time. It's not a good movie, but it is a reasonably fun one. 3 stars.

03/09/13 - Red 2, directed by Dean Parisot, starring Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins, Byung-hun Lee and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

The first of these films was a perfectly fine little time-waster, neither especially good nor especially bad. Why anyone bothered revisiting these characters for a sequel is pretty much lost on me, just as it seems lost on everybody involved in this tired, unimaginative re-tread. Poorly directed, lazily plotted, if the series continues any further I suspect it'll devolve into an Expendables clone, which would be a very bad thing. The charismatic cast make it watchable, but it's not much more than that. 2 and 1/2 stars.

01/09/13 - Jobs, directed by Joshua Michael Stern, starring Ashton Kutcher, Josh Gad, Dermot Mulroney, Lukas Haas, Matthew Modine, J.K. Simmons and Ron Eldard.

This dramatically inert biopic doesn't do nearly enough to shape Jobs' life into a narrative, so we're left with a series of events, rather than a story. Kutcher is actually pretty decent in the role, but he's never given much to do beyond the superficial: at the end of the film, Steve Jobs is as much of a mystery to us as he was at the start, which represents a pretty drastic failure. 2 stars.

27/08/13 - The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, directed by Harald Zwart, starring Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Robert Sheehan, Lena Headey, Jemima West, Kevin Zegers, Aidan Turner, Jared Harris, CCH Pounder and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

Another in the never-ending line of supernatural teen romances that wants to be Twilight, this was actually a little better than most, thanks to the more-interesting-than-usual love triangle and the charismatic, slightly weird performances by the three leads. Where it got bogged down was in the mountain of mythologising backstory it had to wade through, and the completely over-stuffed action sequences that felt interminable. A cleaner, leaner version might have been decent, but it had about three subplots too many and was half an hour too long. 2 and 1/2 stars.

26/08/13 - The Bling Ring, directed by Sofia Coppola, starring Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Taissa Farmiga, Claire Julien and Leslie Mann.

Though entertaining enough, The Bling Ring delves only superficially into the psyches of the protagonists, who robbed the Hollywood homes of a bunch of celebrities. Unlike the superior Starlet, it's unable (or unwilling) to look beneath the characters' vacuousness to find something human and real in them. And Becca, the mastermind and most driven of the gang, remains a complete mystery. 'Why?' is the only question the film has, and it never even attempts an answer. Hella stylish though. 3 stars.

23/08/13 - Kick-Ass 2, directed by Jeff Wadlow, starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jim Carrey, Garrett M. Brown, Claudia Lee, Clark Duke, Lindy Booth, Donald Faison, Robert Emms and John Leguizamo.

Gak. I'm not sure anyone involved in this actually knew (or understood) what made Kick-Ass work. All the first film's problematic elements are dialled up to eleven, and any acknowledgement of the issues the film raises is buried well out of sight. All the charm is gone, and it's replaced by an increasingly tangled storyline that runs around an awful lot without ever actually getting anywhere. 2 stars.

18/08/13 - The Conjuring, directed by James Wan, starring Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston.

A melding of two horror sub-genres, this begins as a (pretty god-damn effective) haunted house movie, then devolves slightly to become a (just okay) exorcism flick. After a tense, stylish, well-acted first half (in which a family gets spooked in their new, isolated, OBVIOUSLY HAUNTED house and calls in a pair of paranormal investigators) there's a bizarre scene in which the investigators sit around and go 'Well, having done some research, we know exactly who the ghost is and why.' The film never quite recovers from that mystery-killer and, even though the hauntings get bigger and bigger, we're never scared in the same way again. A few tweaks and it could have been an all-timer. 3 and 1/2 stars.

17/08/13 - Elysium, directed by Neill Blomkamp, starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Wagner Moura, Diego Luna and William Fichtner.

There's no middle ground with this film: when Elysium is good, it's flat out fucking great; when it's bad, it's simply terrible. The action is tense and fun, the CGI is integrated into the story world incredibly well (seriously, one of the best VFX movies I've ever seen), and Damon is always, always magnetic on screen. Unfortunately, the plot is pretty simplistic and ultimately even silly, there are these god-awful flashbacks that are simply inept in every way, and most of the other actors have little to work with (and do badly with the scraps they're given). I want big, original sci-fi to get made, so I wish I liked this better ... but weighing everything up, I didn't like it much at all. 2 and 1/2 stars.

13/08/13 - Pain and Gain, directed by Michael Bay, starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, Rebel Wilson and Rob Corddry.

This hyper-saturated, hyper-caffeinated heist flick is exactly the kind of film Michael Bay should be making: his particular brand of manic energy meshes perfectly with the sorry tale of a trio of dumb-ass roid-raging gym junkies who decide to become master criminals. It could have been completely objectionable, but by keeping the trio the butt of all the jokes, Bay actually kind of nails the necessary satirical tone. 3 and 1/2 stars.

11/08/13 - Hand in Hand (MIFF), directed by Valerie Donzelli, starring Valerie Lemercier, Jeremie Elkaim, Beatrice De Stael and Valerie Donzelli.

This odd little French (very French!) romantic comedy did an awful lot right (interesting, complicated characters; charming lead performances; a conceit that's high concept without being overbearing), but what it got wrong left too much of a sour taste in the mouth. The multiple endings, in particular, were ill-considered, and the cavalier treatment of some of the characters lost it a lot of my good will. 2 and 1/2 stars.

11/08/13 - Prince Avalanche (MIFF), directed by David Gordon Green, starring Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch, Lance LeGault and Joyce Payne.

Shot in a hurry to utilise the landscape after a real-life Texas bushfire (they call it a 'wildfire' over there, don't they?), this amiable tale of two barely competent losers re-painting the lines on backwoods roads got more mileage from its thin plot than I would have expected. Rudd and Hirsch did fine work playing an odd-couple from the grand old tradition, and Gordon Green managed their deteriorating relationship with a light touch. Won't change your life, but definitely worth a look. 3 and 1/2 stars.

10/08/13 - Manuscripts Don't Burn (MIFF), directed by Mohammad Rasoulof, starring actors who remained anonymous for reasons of safety.

This Iranian drama took a potentially fascinating story, about a group of novelists who persist in writing subversive works despite knowing they're under surveillance, and gave it a treatment that was intolerably muddled and dull. It was slow as a wet week; it flitted around in time so we had no real idea who was doing what to whom, and why; it was filled with characters who were mere mouthpieces for dogma, not real-feeling people; and it spent more than half of its run-time away from the novelists, following a pair of boorish and boring thugs who are on their tale. This was a significant mis-fire. 2 stars.

10/08/13 - Les Apaches (MIFF), directed by Thierry de Peretti, starring Aziz El Hadachi, Francois-Joseph Cullioli, Hamza Mezziani, Joseph-Marie Ebrard and Maryne Cayon.

Set in Corsica, this tale of clashing cultures (the wave of North African and Middle Eastern immigrants and the wealthy French they serve) started strong than gradually slipped off the rails. When a teen invites a couple of friends to hang out at night at the villa he cleans during the day, they invite some of their friends, and things get drastically out of hand. At first it was a calm, studied examination of class, but it devolved into a fairly simplistic crime drama, becoming less interesting as it did so. 3 stars.

10/08/13 - The Rocket (MIFF), directed by Kim Mordaunt, starring Sitthipon Disamoe, Thep Phongam, Sumrit Warin, Loungnam Kaosainam, Bunsri Yindi and Alice Keohavong. 

This Australian-produced drama set in Laos got all the incidental stuff right: it's stuffed with great characters (a James Brown impersonator!) and fascinating details springing from the unique setting (unexploded munitions litter the countryside, a village puts on a contest for homemade rockets). But the larger things didn't click for me: the story was weak and kinda obvious in how it played out, and several of the actors weren't up to snuff, making it hard to connect emotionally. Interesting, but no more. 3 stars.

10/08/13 - The Spectacular Now (MIFF), directed by James Ponsoldt, starring Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler and Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

A sweet, smart movie about young love and the realisation that high school is just the first step on a long journey. Its refreshingly honest take on teens and their emotional lives kept it grounded and shut the door on all the boring cliches that were hovering, waiting to pounce. Teller and Woodley do brilliant, really subtle work as the two mismatched lovers who bring out the best and worst in each other. 4 stars.

09/08/13 - Harmony Lessons, directed by Emir Baigazin, starring Timur Aidarbekov, Aslan Anarbayev and Mukhtar Andassov.

This sombre Kazakhstani story of tortured adolescence and school bullies was fantastic, telling a complex, surprising story against the backdrop of a society I've never seen on screen before. It also managed to pull off that trick of being very slow and filled with long, static shots, yet feeling dense with information. Though there were a couple of slight mis-steps along the way, all in all it was a gloriously strange, unsettling mood piece (and the wet dream was the funniest moment of my MIFF by a long way). 4 stars.

09/08/13 - Blue Ruin (MIFF), directed by Jeremy Saulnier, starring Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves and Kevin Kolack.

This low-key, deadpan revenge flick was solid, but never really ascended to any great heights. Blair was good as the wounded, monosyllabic killer, giving the film a beating heart, but too much of the action felt a bit rote and repetitive, and ultimately unmemorable, to me. 3 stars.

09/08/13 - Jimmy P. (MIFF), directed by Arnaud Desplechin, starring Benicio Del Toro, Mathieu Amalric and Gina McKee.

Based on a true story, this felt like it was constrained by following the facts too closely. Telling the story of one man's psychotherapy in extended, sometimes excruciating detail, what might have worked as an article or a documentary was dead in the water as a narrative feature. Even del Toro and Amalric, normally so good, couldn't breathe life into it. 2 stars.

09/08/13 - The Selfish Giant (MIFF), directed by Clio Bernard, starring Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas and Sean Gilder.

This tale of grim working class childhoods in Northern England appeared at first glance like yet another unimaginative slice of dull grey miserabilism, yet slowly grew in power until by the end it was absolutely devastating. Anchored by a pair of spectacular performances from Chapman and Thomas as irresponsible and effervescent little buggers, and following a deceptively intricate and well-plotted story, this was a tiny, unassuming little gem of a film. 4 and 1/2 stars.

09/08/13 - Foxfire (MIFF), directed by Laurent Cantet, starring Raven Adamson, Katie Coseni, Madeleine Bisson, Claire Mazerolle, Paige Moyles and Rachael Nyhuus.

Somewhere in rural America in the fifties a group of teenage girls, in response to the casual sexism all around them, form a gang to revenge themselves on their town. The gang eventually evolves into a kind of socialist collective, before they are forced to resort to crime to pay for food and the moral decay tears them apart. Smart, measured, and often thrilling, this was a fantastic film, beautifully directed and full of fantastic performances by the young cast. 4 and 1/2 stars.

08/08/13 - The Congress (MIFF), directed by Ari Folman, starring Robin Wright, Danny Huston, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Paul Giamatti and Sami Gayle.

This film was a mess, but at least it was a fascinating mess. Featuring about five films worth of sci-fi ideas, it threw everything at the screen (including a switch from live-action to bonkers animation about halfway through) ... unfortunately nothing stuck. Overlong, muddled, and just plain old confusing, this was an experiment that didn't work. 2 stars.

08/08/13 - Frances Ha (MIFF), directed by Noah Baumbach, starring Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Zegen and Adam Driver.

Following the zig-zag romantic, monetary and real estate travails of Frances, an aimless (but hugely entertaining) New York slacker, this film kind of sneaks up on you, managing to hide most of its narrative in plain sight. Gerwig is delightful as the hapless Frances, which is absolutely necessary to the success of the film, because the character could have come across as entitled and annoying. As is, it was a joy following her around, watching her stumble and screw up and fall down. 4 stars.

08/08/13 - A Hijacking (MIFF), directed by Tobias Lindholm, starring Soren Malling, Pilou Asbaek, Abdihakin Asgar and Gary Skjoldmose Porter.

This moody, tense thriller was a lesson how to slowly build suspense, bit by bit, little by little, until it's almost unbearable. After a merchant ship is hijacked by Somalian pirates, the CEO of the scandinavian shipping company takes charge of the negotiations himself. As weeks go by, and then months, the constant state of unease and doubt works to crack his resolve, while the captured crew suffer unbearable conditions on the boat and the pirates try to stay in charge of the situation. Well-rounded, packed with great detail, and with a whole host of fantastic performances (particularly Malling as the icy CEO, who manages to do basically nothing and make it riveting), this was a cracking film. 4 and 1/2 stars.

08/08/13 - Now You See Me, directed by Louis Leterrier, starring Mark Ruffalo, Melanie Laurent, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco and Michael Caine.

This heist flick, centred around a gang of stage magicians, started out kind of dopey and nonsensical, and just got steadily sillier with every passing moment. By the time they introduce a secret society of magicians that's protected the secrets of magic since ancient Egyptian times, you've just got to shake your head at the chutzpah of what they're asking you to swallow. I could have forgiven a lot if it had been more fun, but Ruffalo (who I normally like a lot) is stuck playing the one stick-in-the-mud in the cast, and he's the guy we spend the most time with. 2 and 1/2 stars.

07/08/13 - The Attack (MIFF), directed by Ziad Doueiri, starring Ali Suliman, Evgenia Dodena, Reymond Amsalem and Dvir Benedek.

This Israeli/Palestinian drama, about a successful Muslim doctor working in Tel Aviv whose wife commits a suicide bombing, started out fascinating, as the doctor searched desperately for answers. Unfortunately it got increasingly silly and generic as he began to find those answers. Having a good set-up is only half the battle: you need to know where you're going as well. 3 stars.

07/08/13 - Fruitvale Station (MIFF), directed by Ryan Coogler, starring Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer and Kevin Durand.

Though handsomely produced and very well acted, this was too po-faced and 'worthy' for its own good. Based on the true story of a police shooting in California, it simply follows the victim on his final day, and, I kind of hate to say this but for most of its run-time it's just not that interesting. It would make a fascinating anecdote, but there's not enough story there for a narrative feature. 3 stars.

07/08/13 - My Sweet Pepper Land (MIFF), directed by Hiner Saleem, starring Korkmaz Arslan and Golshifteh Farahani.

The conceit behind this film was fantastic (it's a contemporary 'western' set in Kurdistan, in a town on the Iraq/Turkey border), and portions of the film were too. A lot of it worked beautifully (performances/cinematography/the little incidental details of the setting), but the plot itself was way too simple and didn't hang together properly. Interesting, but a missed opportunity. 3 stars.

07/08/13 - Capturing Dad (MIFF), directed by Ryota Nakano, starring Ken'ichi Endo, Hiromi Hakoki and Akiko Hoshino.

This Japanese family drama had interesting ambitions, but failed in most respects of its execution. Poor scripting, weak performances and a plot that was, frankly, pretty lame, combined to make this one of the weakest films of my festival. Some nice gags were sprinkled throughout, but they weren't enough to save it. 2 stars.

06/08/13 - Stranger By The Lake (MIFF), directed by Alain Guiraudie, starring Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Henri d'Assumcao and Jerome Chappatte.

Sensuous, dangerous, charged: this was thrilling film-making. Set entirely at a lake that's a gay cruising spot, it made more of its limited locations than I ever could have thought possible. Shimmering light on water, tall grasses rustling in the breeze, men fucking in the bushes, and a killer on the loose; the tension it eked from its parallel romance and thriller storylines was incredible. A masterpiece. 5 stars.

06/08/13 - 2 Autumns, 3 Winters (MIFF), directed by Sebastien Betbeder, starring Vincent Macaigne, Maud Wyler, Bastien Bouillon and Audrey Bastien.

This relationship comedy/drama was incredibly self-conscious and 'quirky' in ways that soon became a bit overbearing. Luckily it was held up by a bunch of charming performances, and a script that gave us enough good laughs to keep us going. Slight, but entertaining enough while it lasted. 3 stars.

06/08/13 - Everybody In Our Family (MIFF), directed by Radu Jude, starring Serban Pavlu, Sofia Nicolaescu, Mihaela Sirbu, Gabriel Spahiu and Tamara Buciuceanu-Botez.

This domestic drama has an intriguing beginning: a divorced dad turns up to take his young daughter for a weekend away, but his ex and her new partner refuse to let the girl leave. Unfortunately the film devolves from that claustrophobic, tense set-up into a pretty silly semi-hostage drama. If it'd stayed at the level of people talking to each other (rather than people fighting and tying each other up) it might have worked; as is, I never really gave a crap because these morons reached for ridiculous solutions way too soon. 2 stars.

06/08/13 - The Way Way Back, directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, starring Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Toni Colette, Steve Carell, AnnaSophia Robb, Maya Rudolph, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, Allison Janney, Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet.

A sweet coming of age tale about a shy teenager who comes under Sam Rockwell's wing and learns what it means to have fun. And really, don't we all need a magical Sam Rockwell in our lives? An incredible ensemble cast (seriously, look at those names) breathe life into even the smallest part, and the writing steers just close enough to real life to get by. Not a laugh out loud movie, more like a 'satisfied grin the whole way' kind of flick. 4 stars.

06/08/13 - Blackbird (MIFF), directed by Jason Buxton, starring Connor Jessup, Alexia Fast, Michael Buie, Alex Ozerov and Craig Arnold.

This one, about a goth kid whose online rantings lead to him being accused of planning a school shooting, took that pretty interesting concept and made a solid, unsurprising film out of it. Well acted and well directed, but it kind of went to exactly the places I thought it would (including an ill-advised romance subplot that didn't really work). It was pretty good, but nothing special. 3 stars.

05/08/13 - Ilo Ilo (MIFF), directed by Anthony Chen, starring Koh Jia Ler, Angeli Bayani, Yann Yann Yeo and Tian Wen Chen.

This small, intimate drama about a Filipino maid arriving into a falling-apart Singaporean household was handsomely made and beautifully acted ... it just felt like it was missing something, some further aspect to the drama which could have taken it from 'good, but predictable' into more interesting territory. I have no real criticisms to offer, other than it felt slight to me, and is slipping out of my brain already. 3 and 1/2 stars.

05/08/13 - Somebody Up There Likes Me (MIFF), directed by Bob Byington, starring Keith Poulson, Nick Offerman, Jess Weixler, Stephanie Hunt and Marshall Bell.

This low-budget indie comedy wanted to be quirky and fun, but instead was nothing but choppy, unfunny, aimless and dull. The script needed about ten more drafts to even resemble an actual movie, and as is it played like a series of barely connected sketches, only one in ten of which were actually amusing. A disaster all round. 1 star.

05/08/13 - The Broken Circle Breakdown (MIFF), directed by Felix Van Groeningen, starring Johan Heldenbergh, Veerle Baetens and Nell Cattrysse.

Look, this film---the story of a banjo player and a tattooist who fall in love, then have fate do everything it can to destroy them---is a shamelessly manipulative heart-tugger ... but fuck, it worked on me. I had to wash my face after I came out because my cheeks were covered in tear-tracks, and I don't know if I can offer a higher compliment than that. The performances were miraculous, the story simple but devastatingly effective, and the incredible bluegrass soundtrack sent chills down my spine and daggers into my soul. 5 stars.

04/08/13 - Starlet (MIFF), directed by Sean Baker, starring Dree Hemingway, Besedka Johnson, Stella Maeve and James Ransone.

This low-fi American indie was absolutely delightful: the story of an odd burgeoning friendship between an elderly widow and a daft, superficial blonde ... who, we learn halfway through, is an up-and-coming porn star. Hemingway and Maeve manage to play stupid and careless without their performances devolving into parody, really managing to find something real at the heart of their competing starlets. Every performance matches them, the script is a corker, and Baker does a lot with a little, directing-wise. A small gem. 4 stars.

04/08/13 - Rhino Season (MIFF), directed by Bahman Ghobadi, starring Behrouz Vossoughi, Monica Belluci and Yilmaz Erdogan.

A potentially interesting story---an Iranian poet is released by the regime after 30 years and goes looking for his family, who were told he died years ago---goes horribly to waste in this torturously slow, dramatically inert snooze-fest. The actors do what they can with what they're given, but they ain't given much. 1 and 1/2 stars.

04/08/13 - Computer Chess (MIFF), directed by Andrew Bujalski, starring Patrick Riester, Myles Paige, Gerald Peary and Robin Schwartz.

This seriously odd, determinedly retro mock-doc about a computer chess tournament in the early 1980s was a puzzle, but also in many ways a joy. Featuring fantastically deadpan performances and shot on low-grade black and white video, it looked and felt fantastic. Unfortunately the script lost focus and went on a couple of strange detours that didn't quite fit, but they were small issues in a great little film. 4 stars.

04/08/13 - Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (MIFF), directed by Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin.

I figured going in that this doco would be fascinating: what Putin's doing to Russia is ripe material, and the Pussy Riot trial offers a great window onto it. What I didn't expect was how moving it would be. Documenting the three arrested Riot-ers' lives in parallel with an account of their trial, it makes a pretty compelling case for getting angry and standing up to destroy the joint. When it was over I had a curious urge to buy a balaclava, an electric guitar and a dress. 4 and 1/2 stars.

03/08/13 - Cheap Thrills (MIFF), directed by E.L. Katz, starring Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, David Koechner, Sara Paxton and Amanda Fuller.

Fast, funny and brutal, this intimate thriller made the most of its clever set-up and its limited resources to be entertaining as hell, and dark dark dark. Two strapped-for-cash old friends get drawn into an increasingly bizarre and dangerous game at the hands of two rich, bored, sociopaths. As the friends get played against one another, things go from light and fun to deadly fucking serious. Well-acted, well-shot, and cleverly conceived, this belied its low-fi makings to be a seriously exceptional little film. 4 stars.

03/08/13 - Bastards (MIFF), directed by Claire Denis, starring Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Julie Bataille, Michel Subor and Lola Creton.

Denis is an incredibly accomplished film-maker, and some of her very specific use of light, sound, and framing is incredible here. Unfortunately the story itself was a bit too heightened, too soapy, and didn't match the ultra-realist style of the design and the performances. Too many coincidences, too many plot holes, too many loose strands left dangling. It's a shame, because a lot of talent and a lot of effort went into shooting a script that was just a little half-baked. 3 stars.

03/08/13 - Magic Magic (MIFF), directed by Sebastian Silva, starring Juno Temple, Emily Browning, Michael Cera, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Agustin Silva.

Magic Magic starts out really promisingly: an out-of-her-depth American teen gets taken deep into the Chilean countryside by a group of 'friends' she doesn't really like, and the isolation and passive-aggressive attitudes of the group slowly build into something horrifying. And during the slow-burn first half I was really digging it. Once the shit hits the fan, though, the film just gets sillier and sillier, never having good reasons for its increasing histrionics and eventually collapsing under their weight. 2 and 1/2 stars.

03/08/13 - The Weight of Elephants (MIFF), directed by Daniel Borgman, starring Demos Murphy, Catherin Wilkin, Matthew Sunderland, Angelina Cottrell and Bree Peters.

Though having some fascinating ideas at its core, this film delivered them in such a turgid, dirge-like fashion that they were leached of effect, and ultimately interest. When you try and load every single thing with metaphorical meaning, pretty soon nothing has meaning. And when nothing has meaning, John gets bored. 2 stars.

03/08/13 - I Declare War (MIFF), directed by Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson, starring Gage Munroe, Michael Friend, Siam Yu, Mackenzie Munro, Spencer Howes, Andy Reid, Aidan Gouveia, Alex Cardillo, Dyson Fyke and Kolton Stewart.

Though the initial conceit is a good one---a bunch of kids are in the woods playing commando, and the film switches between reality (they're holding sticks) and the world of the kids' imaginations (they're holding submachine guns)---the film never really explores it as fully as it might have. The performances are up and down (to be expected in an all-kid cast), and the directing never gives us much clarity when the 'action' scenes start up. A pleasant enough time-waster, but it could have been so much more. 3 stars.

03/08/13 - Twisted Trunk, Big Fat Body (MIFF), directed by Punarvasu, starring Naman Jain, Vijay Maurya and Nachiket Purnapatre.

After a terrorist plants a bomb hidden inside a stuffed Ganpati toy in a Hindu temple, it gets stolen by a street urchin. The toy ends up being passed from hand to hand, impacting on different people's lives in different ways. A script that swung between being a bit on-the-nose and being flat-out horrible, combined with a whole bunch of amateurish performances, made this film pretty god-damn lame. Not much about it worked, to be honest. 1 and 1/2 stars.

02/08/13 - These Final Hours (MIFF), directed by Zak Hilditch, starring Nathan Phillips, Angourie Rice, Sarah Snook, Jessica De Gouw, Daniel Henshall and Lynette Curran.

With twelve hours until the end of the world, all James wants to do is get to his mate's party and get fucking wasted: when he reluctantly saves a young girl from being raped, his priorities are forced to slowly shift. With a fantastic sweaty, grungy vibe, clever design work and a series of committed performances (from the stars right down to the bit players who come in for a single scene), this was a cracking take on the whole apocalypse thing. Smart, soulful and direct, I really dug it. 4 stars.

02/08/13 - The Past (MIFF), directed by Asghar Farhadi, starring Berenice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, Tahar Rahim, Pauline Burlet, Elyes Aguis, Sabrina Ouazani and Babak Karimi.

Farhadi, writer/director of the brilliant A Separation, is up to his old tricks here: smart, engaging drama that's driven by the clash of complicated characters. All the performances are top notch, the directing is note-perfect, and the script keeps delving deeper and deeper into these flawed, recognisable, fully realised people. 4 and 1/2 stars.

02/08/13 - Blancanieves (MIFF), directed by Pablo Berger, starring Macarena Garcia, Maribel Verdu, Daniel Gimenez Cacho and Sergio Dorado.

A silent, black and white re-telling of Snow White set in the world of bullfighting, this was a joy. Witty and inventive, and showcasing a suite of charming performances, it had me smiling from go to woah. Though it didn't plumb any particular emotional depths, it succeeded perfectly at what it set out to do: provide a breezy, entertaining hour and a half at the movies. 3 and 1/2 stars.

02/08/13 - Behind the Camera (MIFF), directed by E J-yong, starring Ha Jung-woo, Kim Min-hee, Park Hee-soon and E J-yong.

This mockumentary set behind the scenes on a bitchy film shoot (which the director is taking charge of via Skype) was a lot of fun, but absolutely featherlight. I suspect it would have worked a lot better if I'd had any knowledge of the actors' public personas, because any self-referential stuff went way over my head. Entertaining but forgettable. 2 and 1/2 stars.

01/08/13 - Upstream Color (MIFF), directed by Shane Carruth, starring Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig and Thiago Martins.

This measured sci-fi romance is one of those films that is going to require a second viewing to completely understand, but even confused as I am, I still kinda loved it. As two damaged souls come together, their relationship is undermined by the fact that they both have psychic connections to a pair of pigs (yes, you read that right, I'm not having an aneurysm). Wonderfully strange and sad and beautiful, this is a film that grows and grows the more I think about it. 4 and 1/2 stars.

01/08/13 - Wadjda (MIFF), directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, starring Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, and Ahd.

This coming-of-age tale is charming, funny and bittersweet, and would be a really good little film no matter where it came from: that it was made in Saudi Arabia, by a female director, and is scathing about that country's treatment of women, makes it a minor miracle, and pretty God-damn revolutionary. The unselfconscious performance of Mohammed in the lead is a thing of beauty, the directing is sharp, and a tonne of wit and warmth shine through. See it if you can. 4 and 1/2 stars.

01/08/13 - The World's End, directed by Edgar Wright, starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike, Pierce Brosnan and Bill Nighy.

God I love these guys. The Wright/Pegg/Frost team delivers another hilarious, tightly constructed, intelligently written, imaginatively directed cracker of a film. This time they're on the cusp of forty and it's all about dealing with regret, and letting go of the dreams (and nightmares) of youth. If you're a fan, you're a fan; if you're not, I feel sorry for you. This might be a little looser than their previous efforts, but it's still a thing of beauty. 4 and 1/2 stars.

31/07/13 - A Touch of Sin (MIFF), directed by Zhangke Jia, starring Wu Jiang, Vivien Li, Lanshan Luo, Baoqiang Wang, Jia-Yi Zhang and Tao Zhao.

Well acted, sharply written, classically directed and structurally fascinating (it contained four tangentially linked stories, told one after another rather than intercut), this was a real find. Each story somehow equated the inhumanity of China's working conditions with real-world violence, and each took the film to a darker place: the first story was quite comic, but by the time we reached the last, it was firmly a tragedy. 4 stars. 

31/07/13 - Workers (MIFF), directed by Jose Luis Valle, starring Jesus Padilla, Susana Salazar and Barbara Perrin Rivemar.

There's always one. Workers was one of those films that would plonk the camera in one place and leave it there for minutes at a time while nothing whatsoever happened in front of it. What was especially frustrating was that, when Valle did condescend to film something actually happening, it turned out it was an interesting story that he was completely fucking up. Occasional hints of very deadpan humour kept me from falling asleep, but it was a close-run thing. 1 and 1/2 stars.

31/07/13 - What Richard Did (MIFF), directed by Lenny Abrahamson, starring Jack Reynor, Roisin Murphy, Lars Mikkelsen, Sam Keeley, Gavin Drea, Patrick Gibson and Fionn Walton.

This was a real film of two halves: at first, as the film set up popular teenage jock Richard, following him on weekends away with mates and tracking his travails with his new girlfriend, it was really well-done. It managed to give the characters really authentically teenage voices, and it planted the seeds nicely for Richard's eventual downfall. Then a big, drastic event happens, and we kick into the less successful second half of the film, as Richard and his friends and family all try and deal with what's happened. Though still containing flashes of greatness, the 'dealing with it' half of the film was much more inconsistent, leaning really heavily on the actors. They were all very good, but they couldn't do it all. 3 and 1/2 stars.

30/07/13 - Ginger and Rosa (MIFF), directed by Sally Potter, starring Elle Fanning, Alice Englert, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks, Timothy Spall, Annette Bening, Oliver Platt and Jodhi May.

Though wonderfully directed and acted (look at that cast!), it was the writing that really made this film stand out to me: it was full of sharp, interesting details that I'd never seen on screen before, and which illuminated character and advanced the plot and the themes. It was a seriously beautifully constructed film. The story of two BFFs growing up and growing apart in Britain in the early 60's, it was a delicate little story told with incredible assurance. 4 and 1/2 stars.

30/07/13 - Juvenile Offender (MIFF), directed by Yi-kwan Kang, starring Young Ju Seo, Jung-hyun Lee and Jun Ye-jin.

A fascinating and defiantly low-key drama was a great little study in character. When a teenage delinquent gets out of juvenile detention and is placed in the care of the carefree, irresponsible mother he's never known, both of them struggle to deal with the new reality of their situation. Both lead actors were terrific, both characters had complicated, interesting emotional lives, and the film itself refused to kowtow to our desire for a happy ending, instead offering up something heartbreaking that felt much more true. 4 stars.

29/07/13 - The Daughter (MIFF), directed by Thanos Anastopoulos, starring Savina Alimani, Angelos Papadimas, Ieronymos Kaletsanos and Giorgos Symeonidos.

A solid little psychological thriller, given a bit of extra resonance by being set during (and making clever use of) Greece's economic collapse. Alimani is fantastic as a teenage girl whose dad goes missing when his timber business fails, and who subsequently kidnaps the child of the dad's business partner to exact vengeance. Though a real slow burn, it was never dull, and made great use of Athens' working class neighbourhoods as locations. 3 and 1/2 stars.

29/07/13 - For Those In Peril (MIFF), directed by Paul Wright, starring George MacKay, Kate Dickie, Nichola Burley and Michael Smiley.

Too many of the most important elements of this just didn't work for me. It tells the story of a teenager who, on his first day working on his brother's fishing boat, is the sole survivor when the boat is wrecked. He becomes a pariah in the town, hounded from dawn to dusk, and I just never bought that anyone would react that way: don't you just feel sorry for the poor kid? Though his subsequent descent into madness was portrayed pretty well, it was a bit one-note, and felt kind of like an easy choice: rather than actually give the character a realistic interior life, he just goes slowly bonkers. 2 stars.

29/07/13 - The East (MIFF), directed by Zal Batmanglij, starring Brit Marling, Alexander Skaarsgard, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell and Patricia Clarkson.

This one is a neat, tight little thriller about an agent for a private security firm infiltrating an eco-terrorist group. Combing a tough, sparse script; solid, unshowy direction; and a great cast all nailing it, this was another feather in the cap of Sound of My Voice director and star (also, co-writers) Batmanglij and Marling. Tense from start to finish and, I'll be honest, lining up nicely with my political views, I liked this a lot. 4 stars.

28/07/13 - Blackfish (MIFF), directed by Gabriella Cowperthwaite.

This documentary about killer whales in captivity was incredible. Using a recent attack against a trainer as a jumping off point, the film reaches back into the past to give an often horrifying history of the whale involved, and to discuss whales in general. The whole thing adds up to, as hard as this might seem to believe, a nuanced psychological portrait of a whale in captivity, and an understanding of what led him to kill. Brilliantly made, and featuring some jaw-dropping home-video footage, this is a must-see. 4 and 1/2 stars.

28/07/13 - The Act of Killing (MIFF), directed by Joshua Oppenheimer.

In Indonesia in the sixties, a massive and largely unknown mass killing took place: communists were mercilessly slaughtered, and anybody that got on the nerves of the wrong people could be accused of communism and butchered without trial. This unforgettable documentary tracks down some of the killers, asks them to make a film about what they did, and films them as they do so. It's a clever conceit, helping us inside these men's heads, and the film includes some extraordinary footage. At nearly three hours though, it's much too long, and not shaped as well as I could wish. It has spectacular stuff in it, but isn't (quite) a spectacular film. Still, 4 stars. 

28/07/13 - Stories We Tell (MIFF), directed by Sarah Polley.

This very personal documentary, all about Polley's family and its secret histories, was wonderful: charming and funny, insightful and multi-faceted. Polley's deceased mother emerges as a vibrant, charismatic woman, and the waves she leaves in her wake still send ripples through her family's lives to this day. Told with formal daring and carrying genuine emotional and intellectual resonance, it was really a lovely film. 4 and 1/2 stars.

27/07/13 - A Field in England (MIFF), directed by Ben Wheatley, starring Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope and Julian Barratt.

Set during the English Civil War, a bunch of no-hopers desert from battle and wander the countryside, where they meet an evil Irish dude who charges them with helping him find some treasure. Or something. Honestly, this film was a disaster. Nothing happened for a reason, nothing made a lick of sense, and though there were occasional funny one-liners, you need more than that to make a film. Avoid. 1 star.

27/07/13 - Stoker (MIFF), directed by Chan-wook Park, starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Jackie Weaver, Alden Ehrenreich and Dermot Mulroney.

I loved this film. A macabre gothic nightmare, it was stylish and creepy and fun. Wasikowska and Goode were remarkable, breathing so much repulsive life into their slow dance of attraction, Wasikowska wonderfully giving a seeming-neophyte an ancient soul, and Goode able to balance being superficially charming and at the same time scary as all hell. Park is a fantastic director, and his use of the camera is incredible here, swooping through space in elegant and revealing ways. The design is odd, but perfectly in keeping with the tone. One of the films of the year, I think. 4 and 1/2 stars.

27/07/13 - Omar (MIFF), directed by Hany Abu-Assad, starring Adam Bakri, Leem Lubany, Iyad Hoorani, Samer Bisharat and Waleed Zuaiter.

Moments in this were brilliant, but it was wildly up and down. To start with, as a group of young friends in occupied Palestine plot their retaliation against the Israelis as casually as they talk about girls and joke around, the collision of the two worlds---the interior life of ordinary teenagers and the violence of the occupation--- is fascinating. As the machinations of the plot take hold, it devolves into a bit of a soap opera, though still with enough moments of inspiration to keep it afloat. 3 stars.

27/07/13 - The Patience Stone (MIFF), directed by Atiq Rahimi, starring Golshifteh Farahani, Hamid Djavadan, Hassina Burgan, Massi Mrowat and Mohamed Al Maghraoui.

This Afghanistan(?)-set film won't be everybody's cup of tea: it's a very slow build, and for most of it's running time its a one-hander, Farahani's character talking to her comatose husband as a form of therapy. That set-up makes for some ham-fisted dialogue of the 'talking to myself' variety, but Farahani is very good, good enough to sell the conceit. As each day passes, more secrets of her past life are revealed, and the cracks widen between what Islam demands of women and what women want for themselves, ending up a thoughtful take on the realities of life in a fundamentalist society. 4 stars.

26/07/13 - You're Next (MIFF), directed by Adam Wingard, starring Sharni Vinson, Nicholas Tucci, Wendy Glenn, Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Rob Moran, Barbara Crampton and Lane Hughes.

What starts out as a home-invasion horror movie---lifted by the smart character work, held back by a reliance on jump scares and some uneven acting---slowly transcended that formula, ending up a kick-arse (sorta) revenge flick. Lots of scares, lots of laughs, and the way it played out had me (and the rest of the audience) cheering in the aisles. The slightly ropy beginning was more than compensated for by the fantastic last half hour. 4 stars.

26/07/13 - Ain't Them Bodies Saints (MIFF), directed by David Lowery, starring Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine and Nate Parker.

This moody, flat-out beautiful 70's-set western was fantastic. Affleck, Mara and Foster are all fantastic in their respective roles, giving depth to a bunch of people who don't really say much, telling it all in their eyes. The cinematography was top-notch, the Texas landscapes rarely more beautiful. And the story, of a ne'er-do-well who busts out of prison to get back to his partner and the daughter he's never seen, was intricate and moving. 4 stars.

26/07/13 - Mood Indigo (MIFF), directed by Michel Gondry, starring Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Omar Sy, Gad Elmaleh, Aissa Maiga and Charlotte Lebon.

Gondry is as crazily inventive as ever, though this time his kookiness is wrapped around a hollow heart. Though I can't deny I was entertained by the superficialities of his bizarro-Paris, the story aimed to move me and didn't. Maybe because the characters never felt real or deep, or perhaps because the whole thing was too removed from reality to take seriously, for whatever reason, it didn't click with me at all. 2 and 1/2 stars.

26/07/13 - Bends (MIFF), directed by Flora Lau, starring Chun Ken and Carina Lau.

Bends takes a potentially fascinating story (a couple in mainland China want to smuggle themselves into Hong Kong to have their second child there, avoiding China's one-kid policy) and drains it of tension, drama, and eventually, interest. Coupled with a second storyline (a rich woman's husband has left her and cut her money off, and she has no idea how to deal with it), the two halves never connect in any way that satisfied me. Achingly slow, and ultimately pretty boring. 2 stars. 

25/07/13 - The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold, starring Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Hal Yamanouchi, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Hiroyuki Sanada, Will Yun Lee, Brian Tee and Famke Janssen.

I wasn't a fan. Though I'll give it points for at least daring to try and marry a character drama to the inevitable action beats, it pretty much failed in my opinion. Apart from Logan himself, none of the other characters felt truly alive (except maybe red-haired Yukio), or had arcs that amounted to anything, or made decisions that made any friggin' sense from moment to moment. The entire plot revolving around the machinations inside a Japanese family business was a black hole of bleurgh. And even Logan's plot amounted to essentially 'to forget Jean Grey I just need to ... meet another beautiful woman! Solved!' Yep, because that's how emotions work. 2 stars.

21/07/13 - The Heat, directed by Paul Feig, starring Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Demian Bichir, Michael Rapaport, Marlon Wayans, Spoken Reasons, Adam Ray, Michael McDonald, Dan Bakkedahl and Taran Killam.

A slight, but nonetheless amusing, buddy cop movie. Apart from having two female leads (it's a shame that's still noteworthy), it doesn't do anything much original with the old formulas. There were some pretty decent gags, some that fell flat, and the storyline never seemed particularly important to anybody. Just a solid film. 3 stars.

18/07/13 - Only God Forgives, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, starring Ryan Gosling, Vithaya Pansringarm, Kristen Scott Thomas and Yayaying Rhatha Phongam.

Woah. I kind of thought Drive struggled to stretch itself to feature length, but Only God Forgives magnifies that problem a thousand-fold. In between the tiny bursts of actual narrative are way too many long, emotionally empty scenes of people doing nothing. I don't mind a leisurely pace, but this film was ridiculous. When events were actually unfolding, they were shot stylishly and with purpose. I just wish the whole film had been the same. 2 stars.

14/07/13 - Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Joss Whedon, starring Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, Fran Kranz, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Jillian Morgese, Nathan Fillion and Sean Maher.

Frothy and fun, this black and white curio was an enjoyable time at the movies, and never really aspired to be more than that. At times it leant a little too heavily on slapstick, afraid we wouldn't get the jokes purely based on Shakespeare's text, and the storyline of Hero's disgrace makes no sense in the modern milieu they've set it in. Other than that, the cast do wonderful work with the rich language, and it's full of laughs. 3 and 1/2 stars.

12/07/13 - To the Wonder, directed by Terence Malick, starring Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem and Tatiana Chiline.

This film was very nearly unbearable. The characters walk about---on beaches, in fields, in backyards, in churches---while a disjointed, essentially meaningless narration gets layered over the top in voice over. And that's basically it. We never come to understand anything about the characters (unlike Malick's brilliant Tree of Life, which cut its characters wide open for us), and we're never given enough information to properly understand why they make the choices they do. He pushed it too far with this one. 1 and 1/2 stars.

11/07/13 - Pacific Rim, directed by Guillermo del Toro, starring Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman, Burn Gorman, Max Martini, Rob Kazinsky and Clifton Collins Jr.

Really enjoyable, though really flawed. Del Toro is a better director than this kind of blockbuster usually gets, and it shows: his creations have real weight and heft, and the action sequences are well-thought out and perfectly understandable. On the character level, it was less sure-footed: basically everybody was a cypher, with one defining characteristic and no depth at all. The biggest sin the film made was under-utilising the 'neural drift' (to pilot the robots, the characters have to mind-meld with one another, delving into all of their memories): when they introduced that concept I was excited, because I thought it meant that all of the action would also involve character development. Instead, they barely mentioned it again. Decent fun, but a missed opportunity. 3 stars.

10/07/13 - This is the End, directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, starring Jay Baruchel, Seth Rogen, James Franco, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Emma Watson and Michael Cera.

I was sceptical about this one, but they managed to cut through the concept's in-built self-indulgence by having each actor play, with apparent glee, a horrible exaggeration of their public personas. It definitely helps to be familiar with these guys' work, but I thought it was frickin' hilarious. And it was well put together too, not over-indulging in too-long improv riffs the way some of their films have in the past. 4 stars.

07/07/13 - Epic, directed by Chris Wedge, starring Amanda Seyfried, Josh Hutcherson, Colin Farrell, Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis and Beyonce Knowles.

Epic takes a potentially interesting fantasy world (there's a tiny world beneath our feet in the forest, but it's inhabitants, like hummingbird wings, move to quickly for our eyes to see) and smothers it in a pretty dull, rote, tick-the-boxes storyline. You can basically predict every single plot point before it happens. I was bored. 2 stars.

04/07/13 - The Lone Ranger, directed by Gore Verbinski, starring Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, James Badge Dale, Rebecca Wilson and Helena Bonham Carter.

This film is a big dumb mess. It's ugly, unfunny, loud, crass, and lame. And even though it's all those things, it's not (quite) the unholy disaster everybody else was saying it was. Perhaps because I had no having any prior knowledge of the character, the things they (apparently) screwed up about him didn't bother me. Anyway, don't ever see it, but it also doesn't deserve to be used as one of those 'Hollywood Gone Mad' cautionary tales. 1 and 1/2 stars.

30/06/13 - In the House, directed by Francois Ozon, starring Ernst Umhauer, Fabrice Luchini, Bastien Ughetto, Kristen Scott Thomas, Emmanuelle Seigner and Denis Menochet.

An intriguing, unsettling drama about a schoolboy who's obsessed with his best friend's family and writes about them in class, and his literature teacher who encourages the obsession because he wants to see how the story ends. Fantastic performances all round (Umhauer is able to be unassuming and creepy as hell, quite a trick to pull off), assured and subtle direction, my only issue is that, as the film is all about the boy and the teacher playing with the 'story' version of what's happening, we never come to actually know how much of what we're seeing is real and how much is made up. Though the ambiguity itself is (in one sense) insightful, I'd have preferred a more definite resolution. That's a small quibble though. 4 stars.

27/06/13 - Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder, starring Henry Cavill, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Amy Adams, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Christopher Meloni, Richard Schiff, Harry Lennix and Antje Traue.

Convoluted, senseless, stupid. I really disliked this film: most of the characters made no sense; the story was a lumpen, leaden mess; the scale of destruction in the finale was so over-the-top that it just became ridiculous; and (oddly for a film in which untold thousands must have died) they never gave me a reason to give a flying fuck about any of it. I thought it was a disaster. 1 and 1/2 stars.

24/06/13 - Mud, directed by Jeff Nichols, starring Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon.

A wonderful, swampy mix of Southern Gothic and coming-of-age tale. Sheridan and Lofland are fantastic as the kids who discover a fugitive living rough in a flood-stranded boat. McConaughey continues his run of kicking arse as the titular fugitive, a sinuous mix of warm and threatening, passionate and distant. In the last few minutes the film devolves into something much simpler and less interesting, but until then it was fantastic. 4 stars.

23/06/13 - Despicable Me 2, directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, starring Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Elsie Fisher, Dana Gaier, Benjamin Bratt and Russell Brand.

The feather-light plot is not really the point here, and the filmmakers know it: instead they take every possible opportunity to go off an tangents and do little mini-movies of hilarious slapstick, most of it involving the little yellow halfwit minions, who are collectively a brilliant comic creation. Their schtick is old-school (some of these gags wouldn't be out of place in the ouvre of Chaplin or Keaton or Lloyd), but it's damn funny. A stronger narrative,and a more distinctive character for Wiig would have been nice, but I laughed a lot, and that's good enough. 3 and 1/2 stars.

22/06/13 - Monsters University, directed by Dan Scanlon, starring Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Joel Murray, Charlie Day, Peter Sohn, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Helen Mirren and Steve Buscemi.

Though a heck of a lot of fun, the film lacked the beating heart that Sully's relationship with Boo gave to the original, and never quite got over my anti-prequel prejudice. (Serious question: WHO THINKS PREQUELS ARE A GOOD IDEA? WE KNOW THE ENDING! THAT'S THE OPPOSITE OF WHAT DRAMA SHOULD DO TO US! Sorry, couldn't help myself.) Most of the laughs come from the minor characters and the incidental detail: this is definitely a world that's fun to explore. But if they couldn't marry that exploration to a story I gave a damn about, I'd rather they didn't go there. Fun as heck, of course, but nothing more than that. 3 and 1/2 stars.

20/06/13 - World War Z, directed by Marc Forster, starring Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz and Fana Mokoena.

First things first: the piles'o'zombies that looked like utter shit in the trailers actually work okay in context. Sure, it's a CGI-fest, but at least it's doing something with CGI that I haven't seen before, so I'll give them points for originality. The film itself is disappointingly simplistic: Pitt's character flies to a new place, zombies wreak havoc, he escapes; repeat. His character has no arc whatsoever, not growing or changing in any way. I did appreciate that they quietened things down for the finale, which was actually pretty tense (though the audience I was with got the giggles at one particular trait these zombies have, ruining the effect). 3 stars.

15/06/13 - The Internship, directed by Shawn Levy, starring Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Josh Brener, Tiya Sircar, Dylan O'Brien, Tobit Raphael, Max Minghella, Aasif Mandvi and Rose Byrne.

Look, the whole film is an advertisement for Google. The product placement is incessant, ugly and kind of disgusting. That said, the film itself (apart from a couple of slips with the female characters) is decently made and so good-natured that it feels kind of old fashioned (in a good way). That probably-Google-mandated warm and fuzzy heart is essentially a false construct, but I got some laughs out of it: Vaughn and Wilson are more engaged than they've been in a while, Minghella gives great villain, and the supporting cast wring the absolute most out of the jokes. 3 stars.

13/06/13 - After Earth, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, starring Jaden Smith, Will Smith and Sophie Okonedo.

In this era of convoluted blockbusters, After Earth felt strangely direct and on-the-nose. Jaden Smith has to overcome his fear ... so we'll give him a fantasy opponent that preys on the pheromones released by fear. It's all like that, very obvious ... but so sue me, it still kinda works. Though too simplistic, and featuring too much CGI blurg, but it was better than most of the mega-budget action crap we're seeing these days. A solid film, no more, no less. 3 stars.

10/06/13 - Tabu, directed by Miguel Gomes, starring Laura Soveral, Ana Moreira, Henrique Esperito Santo, Carloto Cotta, Teresa Madruga and Isabel Carduso.

An interesting, if ultimately a bit limp, film that uses two stories that are decades apart and connected by a single protagonist to examine how the colonial past impacts upon race relations in the present. The stuff set now was quite good, as a racist elderly woman slowly loses her marbles and is looked after by an African nurse. Once we went back in time though, the feather-light supposedly tragic romance just never worked for me. 2 and 1/2 stars.

06/06/13 - Fast & Furious 6, directed by Justin Lin, starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Luke Evans, Tyrese Gibson, Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges, Jordana Brewster, Sung Kang, Gina Carano and Gal Gadot.

Sometimes, if a film knows it's dumb and revels in its dumbness, then its dumbness isn't really a negative. Filled with so-called characters who have precisely one defining feature, with plot points that serve no purpose other than to do the minimum necessary to link up the action scenes, and with car/gun/explosion porn that's absurdly overdone, it's basically a soap opera on steroids. It has a fuckin' amnesia plotline for God's sake! Dumb, but dumb fun. 3 stars.

30/05/13 - The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Luhrmann, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke and Amitabh Bachchan.

There's a heck of a lot to admire in this bombastic adaptation, but its all the superficial things: the cinematography, the set design, the costumes. It's a beautifully designed spectacle, with no beating heart at its core, Tobey Maguire's incessant, insistent voiceover never letting the film itself have room to breathe. I was impressed, but never moved. 2 and 1/2 stars.

28/05/13 - Broken, directed by Rufus Norris, starring Eloise Laurence, Tim Roth, Zana Marjanovic, Cillian Murphy, Rory Kinnear, Denis Lawson, Bill Milner, Robert Emms, Rosalie Kosky and George Sargeant.

Though Norris makes a few odd, distracting directorial choices, the script and the performances are strong enough to carry this low-key British suburban modernisation of To Kill A Mockingbird. Roth is the anchor, but it's Laurence who lifts the film: her open, heartfelt performance has us fall in love with her character, which in turn gives the film a really visceral emotional kick in its final stages. 4 stars.

23/05/13 - The Hangover part III, directed by Todd Phillips, starring Bradley Cooper, Zack Galifianakis, Ed Helms, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong, John Goodman and Melissa McCarthy.

The Hangover was clearly one of those unrepeatable lightning strikes: two efforts to rediscover the first film's success have led to a pair of pretty rancid, ugly, unfunny sequels. There are occasional sequences that almost amuse (mainly thanks to Melissa McCarthy, who elevates the material during her too-brief time on screen) but barely one joke in ten raised a weak smile, and I'm not sure if I ever gave a full laugh. 1 and 1/2 stars.

21/05/13 - Snitch, directed by Ric Roman Waugh, starring Dwayne Johnson, Jon Bernthal, Susan Sarandon, Barry Pepper, Michael K. Williams and Benjamin Bratt.

Oh, Michael K. Williams, how could you? Even though it's "based on a true story", I didn't really buy a single moment of this. An ordinary civilian goes undercover to take down a drug cartel with the full knowledge of the police and a state's attorney? Okay, he's The Rock so he's not that ordinary but still, in a movie that wants me to believe it's realistic, that's just a strange conceit. Once I wasn't on board with that, the stereotypical characters and lame dialogue became really obvious, and the film sank beneath the weight of its mediocrity. 2 stars.

16/05/13 - The Call, directed by Brad Anderson, starring Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Michael Eklund, Morris Chestnut and Michael Imperioli.

This was a very mediocre film in almost every way ... except the fantastic drama that's inherent in its setting (a 911 call centre) made it seem much better than it deserved. It was only once Halle Berry's character left the call centre for the finale that it revealed its true colours as a silly, generic thriller. Ultimately it was a waste of its central conceit, but it kept me entertained for the first three quarters of its running time. 2 and 1/2 stars.

14/05/13 - The Place Beyond the Pines, directed by Derek Cianfrance, starring Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, Bruce Greenwood, Rose Byrne and Ray Liotta.

Structured very strangely (though it tells one story, the film contains three discrete 'chapters', with nearly all new casts in each), I was really enjoying this and loving its ambition ... until the last twenty minutes or so, which are veeeery problematic, and which undid much of the film's previous good work, making me leave the cinema with a sour taste in my mouth. Cianfrance (director of Blue Valentine) has obvious talent, he just hasn't quite made a film commensurate with it yet. 3 and 1/2 stars.

12/05/13 - First Position, directed by Bess Kargman.

An entertaining (if superficial) documentary which follows a few prodigiously talented young ballet students as they prepare for a really important contest, First Position chose its core cast really well: the kids are all charming, and its a pleasure spending 100 minutes in their company. The only problem with the film is its superficiality: it doesn't tell us anything about the world of elite ballet we couldn't already guess. 3 stars.

09/05/13 - Star Trek Into Darkness, directed by J.J. Abrams, starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Peter Weller, Simon Pegg and Alice Eve.

Loud and stupid, Abrams' second crack at Star Trek has much too much in common with the kind of vapid CGI-filled crapola that is big budget Hollywood at its worst. The entirety of the plot and the vast majority of the characterisations make literally no sense, and the film ends up leaning on completely unearned references to previous Star Trek lore, because it has not a single idea of its own. A massive misfire, and a big step backwards from Abrams. Star Wars fans, be very worried. 1 and 1/2 stars.

05/05/13 - Spring Breakers, directed by Harmony Korine, starring Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, Selena Gomez and James Franco.

Korine's elliptical satire of Spring Break culture is bizarre, electrifying, dangerous cinema: it looks and sounds magnificent, and the cast give pitch-perfect frenetic, bugged out performances. At times it seemed a little obvious (please nobody use the line "It's the American Dream!" anymore), but thats an easily forgiven flaw in a film that, for most of its run time, manages to be both utterly mysterious and spell-binding. 4 stars.

30/04/13 - No, directed by Pablo Larraín, starring Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Luis Gnecco, Néstor Cantillana, Antonia Zegers and Pascal Montero.

A fascinating look at the end of Pinochet's rule in Chile, told from the point of view of the advertising exec responsible for the campaign which convinced people to vote 'no' to dictatorship. I wouldn't have minded a little more character development put into Bernal's René (we never really come to understand how or why he transitions from a shallow ad-man to a passionate advocate for freedom): that was probably the one thing that made this film merely very good, and stopped it from being flat-out great. 4 stars.

25/04/13 - Iron Man 3, directed by Shane Black, starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Rebecca Hall, James Badge Dale, Ty Simpkins, Jon Favreau, William Sadler and Paul Bettany.

The highlight of the Iron Man films has always been the patter, the snark, the one-liners that riff on Downey's ability to play charming and egomaniacal at the same time. Writer/director Black brings the goods on that score, delivering a generous helping of laugh lines (and more than a few 'roll on the floor' lines) while also steering the story towards an emotionally satisfying conclusion. Sure, it'd be nice if the villains had a clear objective, but you can't have everything, you know. And Ben Kingsley seriously knocks it clear out of the fucking park. In short, there are cracks aplenty, but more than enough fun is had to paper over them, at least on an initial viewing. 4 stars.

22/04/13 - Promised Land, directed by Gus Van Sant, starring Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook, Titus Welliver and Scoot McNairy.

Though shouting it's anti-fracking eco-message a little too bluntly, Van Sant is clever enough to couch that message in personal terms, charting Damon's character's descent from corporate stool to a man determined to think for himself. Seriously, I'm not sure anybody does quiet desperation like Matt Damon can, and he puts all those skills to good use, backed by a cast of quietly brilliant character actors. It's a small story, but told with exceptional skill and care, and it managed to pull a twist that actually shocked me, something that doesn't happen often these days. 4 stars.

18/04/13 - Olympus Has Fallen, directed by Antoine Fuqua, starring Gerald Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Rick Yune, Finley Jacobsen, Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, Dylan McDermott, Robert Forster and Ashley Judd.

Quite how a movie this stupid attracted a cast that deep is a mystery for the ages, but once they're there, all the actors elevate the material way above what it deserves. Though undeniably dumb dumb dumb, filled with a lot of the worst things about contemporary action (poor staging, poor lighting), and so unbelievable that it practically becomes sci-fi by the end, it was still a pretty enjoyable 'turn off your brain and eat popcorn' time at the movies. I'll never think about it again, but it hit all the right beats and hit most of them in a competent fashion. It's sad that that's enough to make it one of the better recent action movies I've seen, but it does. 3 stars.

17/04/13 - Kon-Tiki, directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, starring Pål Sverre Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Odd Magnus Williamson, Tobias Santelmann, Gustaf Skarsgård, Jakob Oftebro and Agnes Kittelsen.

What might have been a cracking action-adventure tale (six scandinavians drift on a raft across the breadth of the Pacific Ocean) was a massive let-down on two fronts. First, we're never given sufficient motivation for anybody to get on the raft in the first place (the leader just wants to get enough attention to get his articles published; the rest of them are just kind of along for the ride). Second, the six guys are completely devoid of individual personality (once they've been out there for months and their beards grow in, I dare you to tell them apart). Some of the imagery is stunning, but that's nowhere near enough. 2 and 1/2 stars.

16/04/13 - Rust and Bone, directed by Jacques Audiard, starring Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Corinne Masiero, Bouli Lanners and Armand Verdure.

A fascinating portrait of a relationship between two damaged people, Rust and Bone is great precisely because it's so intimate. Cotillard and Schoenaerts are both remarkable, and the slow, tentative push and pull of their burgeoning relationship is wonderfully finely etched. In particular, I don't know if I've ever seen thoughtless, instinctive, meat headed masculinity portrayed as well as Schoenaerts does here: he makes his bouncer/back-street boxer both simple and complex at the same time. After this and A Prophet, Audiard is definitely one to keep an eye on. 4 stars.

13/04/13 - Warm Bodies, directed by Jonathan Levine, starring Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Analeigh Tipton, Rob Corddry, Dave Franco and John Malkovich.

This zombie romance (yep, it's a thing now) was genuinely sweet and funny. Hoult, though severely limited in the range of his performance, manages to give his lovestruck zombie real personality (for once voice-over really really helps) and Palmer is his equal as the terrified human slowly succumbing to his charms. The plot ends up a bit of a mess as it tries to pull together a big action finale, but I had so much fun getting there that a muddled ending couldn't diminish my enjoyment. A real surprise. 3 and 1/2 stars.

11/04/13 - Oblivion, directed by Joseph Kosinski, starring Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Melissa Leo, Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.

Maybe if you'd never seen a sci-fi movie before, Oblivion would blow your mind. I kind of hated it though, because it was merely a hollow agglomeration of ideas I've seen before, ideas that have been executed much better in the past. There is seriously nothing original in this film. It's directed competently enough (I'd love to see Kosinski get his hands on a decent script, because I think he really has potential), the design work is occasionally quite nice, and Riseborough does a hell of a lot with a very very little (Cruise, Freeman and Leo are all on autopilot though), but that's all I could take away from it really. 2 stars.

06/04/13 - The Loneliest Planet, directed by Julia Loktev, starring Hani Furstenberg, Gael García Bernal and Bidzina Gujabidze.

I found The Loneliest Planet an immensely frustrating experience. When it was at it's best, it was kind of extraordinary, an interesting examination of trust in a relationship that worked on micro and macro levels at the same time ... and when it was at it's worst, it was small figures walking across wide shots for minutes at a time. It could have made a great thirty minute film, or even a very good, slow and contemplative sixty minute film. But there was just not enough here (no matter how interesting the landscapes were) to fill a feature. 2 stars.

04/04/13 - Trance, directed by Danny Boyle, starring James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel, Danny Sapani, Wahab Sheikh and Matt Cross.

I've never particularly been a Danny Boyle fan, I kind of find him to be all style, no substance. So Trance, a mostly unambitious attempt at a psychological thriller, actually kind of works for me more than most of his movies, which reach for 'art' and kind of fail. Except for one or two mis-judged moments (mostly involving a bizarre and unnecessary subplot about shaved vaginas) this kind of did what it needed to do: it was twisty and turny enough, and had three leads of sufficient charisma, to keep me interested for most of its running time. It fell to pieces a bit at the end, but when you throw a dozen balls in the air at random, it's no surprise when you can't catch 'em all. 3 stars.

31/03/13 - The Host, directed by Andrew Niccol, starring Saoirse Ronan, Diane Kruger, William Hurt, Max Irons, Jake Abel and Chandler Canterbury.

Oh man, this was appalling. I can sort of see how the basic idea (an alien intelligence takes over a human's body, then the two minds battle for control) might work in a novel, where you can spend pages inside a person's head without it seeming unnatural. Unfortunately, on screen it doesn't work at all: as poor Saoirse Ronan has interminable arguments with her own voice-over, it just looks unbelievably, irredeemably stupid. Following the dreadful In Time with this, Niccol's career is teetering right on the edge. I hope he can turn it around somehow. 1 star.

28/03/13 - G.I. Joe: Retaliation, directed by Jon M. Chu, starring Dwayne Johnson, Jonathan Pryce, Adrianne Palicki, D.J. Cotrona, Bruce Willis, Byung-hun Lee, Ray Park and Ray Stevenson.

Only Jonathan Pryce (camping it up) and Bruce Willis (relaxing enough to give us glimmers of his old smirk) are having as much fun as they should be: it's a mistake to try and play something as fundamentally silly as a G.I. Joe movie as anything other than fundamentally silly: when they try and reach for emotional resonance, they come up well short. Chu has a decent handle on how to shoot action, at least, which raises this above the usual crap coming out of Hollywood these days, but not by much. 2 and 1/2 stars.

27/03/13 - Performance, directed by Yaron Zilberman, starring Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir and Imogen Poots.

This intimate little film, about the disintegrating relationships within a world-famous string quartet, is a gem. Of course all the performances are terrific (just look at that cast!) and though it's stuffed to the brim with dramatic incident, none of it feels forced or unbelievable. The direction is restrained and elegant, and, well, the incredible music helps a lot. 4 stars.

26/03/13 - Jack the Giant Slayer, directed by Bryan Singer, starring Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane, Eddie Marsan and Ewen Bremner.

Huh. Of all the recent spate of 'turn a fairytale into an action-adventure movie' films we've seen recently, Jack the Giant Slayer is by far the best: it's got a (relatively) well-constructed story, it's got a bunch of really good actors all having a ball (Tucci and McGregor, in particular, play it like they're in a panto, and it works perfectly), and it doesn't try and be anything but a kid's film. It's a shame it came out after all those other, crappier, fairytale re-treads had sucked away anybody's interest, because it actually deserved to do okay. 3 stars.

24/03/13 - A Good Day to Die Hard, directed by John Moore, starring Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch and Rasha Bukvic.

They've got to stop at some point, don't they? Unless my memory's playing up this is a slight-step up from the last one, which I fucking haaaated, but that doesn't mean this one is good, or even semi-competent. Willis looks bored shitless, at every stage the plot is mind-bendingly stupid, and none of the characters are interesting enough to even hold your attention, let alone get invested. A complete waste of everybody's time. 1 star.

17/03/13 - The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, directed by Don Scardino, starring Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin and James Gandolfini.

Though fitfully funny, Burt Wonderstone tries to have it both ways when it comes to its main character: at times Burt is an idiotic man-child, completely clueless about real life and about human relationships, and at times he's just an ordinary, decent guy who's made bad decisions in his life. The two sides of his personality never satisfactorily meld, so the film's plot falls into a hole (and please, at least give some reason, even if it's half-arsed, for Olivia Wilde to just fall in love with him out of nowhere). Jim Carrey's great though, letting loose in a few intermittent scenes of pure comic relief. 2 and 1/2 stars.

15/03/13 - The Imposter, directed by Bart Layton.

Though this documentary has a fascinating story at its heart, it's really too slight for a feature film. One more twist would have done it (and given the way the film tries too hard to give credence to completely unfounded speculation, I think that Layton knew it too), but unfortunately there's just not enough going on, and not enough insight into what did go on, to last for a full movie. Though interesting, it's more of an anecdote than a film. 3 stars.

14/03/13 - Broken City, directed by Allen Hughes, starring Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright, Barry Pepper and Kyle Chandler.

Wahlberg (in one of his committed moods) and Crowe (no matter what you think of the guy, he's a hell of an actor) elevate the fairly mediocre material, but even they can't make this script seem like anything but an unoriginal, unsurprising re-tread of familiar tropes. And look, this might not be fair, but in a post-West Wing, post-Wire world, you really can't depict the world of politics in such a superficial way. 2 and 1/2 stars.

13/03/13 - I Give It a Year, directed by Dan Mazer, starring Rose Byrne, Rafe Spall, Anna Faris, Simon Baker, Stephen Merchant, Minnie Driver and Jason Flemying.

A romantic comedy really ought to make me laugh, and really ought to make me feel something when the main couple (or couples in this instance) break up or get together or whatever. This film achieved neither of those aims, and honestly never really got close to either of them. The story was contrived, the humour was painfully obvious, and the poor actor's were left flailing about desperately. Really not good. 1 and 1/2 stars.

12/03/13 - Great Expectations, directed by Mike Newell, starring Jeremy Irvine, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Robbie Coltrane, Jason Flemyng, Olly Alexander, Holliday Grainger and Sophie Rundle.

A handsome, well-acted version of Dickens' classic novel, which never quite soars to heights that match the source material (which, I'll concede, is a pretty impossible task). Because a movie has to telescope events in order to get throug them, the denouement feels more contrived and less believable here than it ever did in the book. Some novels are just supposed to stay novels, you know? 3 stars.

09/03/13 - Side Effects, directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Side Effects starts out pretty interesting, but it's then so overstuffed with bonkers left-turns and disparate switches in tone that it devolves from being a drama to a feature-length soap opera, with a concurrent drop in my interest level. Eventually the characters end up caricatures, and the story just gets ridiculous, and I stopped giving a shit. Which is a shame, because twenty minutes in I really thought I was going to see a good movie. 2 and 1/2 stars.

07/03/13 - Oz: The Great and Powerful, directed by Sam Raimi, starring James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff and Joey King.

Yet another entry into Hollywood's catalogue of CG-stuffed disasters, for most of its running time Raimi's movie veers between being merely dull (literally none of the characters are in any way interesting, and very few of them actually have any character) and being actually kind of offensive (a feminist reading of this film, particularly Kunis' character, would not be kind). Franco is miscast because his sensibility is utterly contemporary, so putting him in a period film just turns out super-weird (think Jack Black in King Kong ... it's just wrong somehow), and the 'imaginative' visuals actually hit exactly the kind of 'Tim Burton Gothic Candyland' buttons we've seen before. 2 stars.

06/03/13 - West of Memphis, directed by Amy Berg.

Despite its length, this documentary about a miscarriage of justice in the American South had a few significant and strange omissions that significantly mar the story it's telling. In particular, before it spends two hours detailing the efforts to get three prisoners released for a crime they didn't commit, it doesn't spend any time at all trying to convince us they didn't commit it. That's a pretty major thing to leave out of the movie, and to ask us to take on faith. Apparently this case is mega-famous in the U.S., so more info wasn't deemed necessary, but it was hard to take a stream of celebrities telling us it's a travesty, when the film never actually shows us it's a travesty. 2 and 1/2 stars.

05/03/13 - The Paperboy, directed by Lee Daniels, starring Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, Macy Grey, David Oyelowo and John Cusack.

This slice of Southern fried gothic was always undeniably fascinating, but it never coalesced into more than the sum of its parts. Too many characters had too little motivation, and too many subplots got crammed in: by the end it was just kind of a mess. All the actors do good work, McConaughey in particular continuing his fantastic run, and if Zac Efron can choose his roles wisely he'll end up a major star. After nearly ruining Precious with bullshit directing, Daniels reins his stylistic tics in a bit here (though they're still annoying when they pop up). 2 and 1/2 stars.

03/03/13 - Cloud Atlas, directed by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski, starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Hugo Weaving, James D'Arcy, Hugh Grant, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon and Keith David.

Sprawling, strange, and incredibly ambitious ... I loved it. Telling six loosely connected stories, pinballing from one plot to another with reckless abandon, knitting together wildly disparate tones into one cohesive whole, Tykwer and the Wachowskis together achieve something pretty incredible with this movie. They manage to make the six stories tell one story, even though the only thing holding them together is the themes and the actors, each of whom take on multiple parts, and each of whom really brings their A game (particularly Sturgess, Bae, Whishaw and D'Arcy). It's a bold experiment: for some in the audience I saw it with it clearly didn't work at all, but for me it all locked into place in sublime fashion. Oh, and the music is friggin' amazing. 4 and 1/2 stars.

27/02/13 - Beautiful Creatures, directed by Richard LaGravenese, starring Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Thomas Mann and Emmy Rossum.

There's going to be a massive wave of post-Twilight supernatural teen romance movies (most of them based, as this one is, on the wave of post-Twilight supernatural teen romance novels), and after seeing Beautiful Creatures it's easy to predict that all of them are going to disappear without a trace. There's nothing too dreadful about this movie: Alice Englert makes an interesting lead, and in their best moments Irons, Thompson and Davis elevate it beyond the source material. The real problem is the clutter: there's a whole complicated mythology of magic, and also voodoo, and also past lives, and also a coming ritual, and also a curse (I'm an attentive movie-watcher and I have no idea what the curse actually was/meant ... they kept talking about it, but I don't think they actually explained it). It was too much, especially as all the elements were pretty unoriginal. They threw a lot of ingredients in, but just ended up with a watery soup. 2 and 1/2 stars.

19/02/13 - Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright, starring Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Matthew Macfadyen and Kelly Macdonald.

Joe Wright has often annoyed me, for throwing moments of heavy-handed stylisation into his films without regard for their meaning or effect. Here, he goes the whole hog, making the entire thing stylised (the entire story is played out within a large, decrepit theatre, with painted backdrops being moved in and out as the scene changes) and it actually worked a lot better. I still wish he had a lighter touch (occasionally the stylisation intrudes on the drama of the moment) but there are some scenes which work spectacularly well (Anna's first dance with Vronsky is a highlight, as is Levin and Kitty's reconciliation and avowal of their love). I do wish Levin's side of the story had been given a little more due, as I think it forms a necessary counterpoint to Anna's tale, and her relationship with her son needed to be given more weight so her decision to abandon him had its full force, but over all I was pretty impressed. 3 and 1/2 stars.

16/02/13 - Samsara, directed by Ron Fricke.

This documentary, which uses imagery and music to try and tell the story of humankind at this particular moment in time, is often a wonder to behold. Some of the shots are strikingly beautiful, some are awe-inspiring in their scale, and some are fascinating for shining a light on an aspect of our world that I was unaware of. I must admit, though, that all together I found myself only engaged intellectually, never emotionally. It was interesting, and often beautiful to look at, but for me that's all it was. 3 stars.

12/02/13 - Amour, directed by Michael Haneke, starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva and Isabelle Huppert.

Oh my god. This film is astonishing, managing to be at once both heartbreaking and beautiful, filled with love and unbearably sad. Georges and Anne, a loving elderly Parisian couple, must each in their own way confront the depths and limits of their love when Anne gets ill, growing increasingly incapable of doing anything for herself. Anne's slow decline, and Georges' efforts to help her however he can, are documented with painful clarity. Trintignant and Riva give two of the great cinematic performances as the couple doomed by time, and Haneke (who I often find too cold) finds moments of warmth and beauty that, because of the context, are just absolutely fucking shattering. This is one of the great films, and I urge everybody to see it. 5 stars.

08/02/13 - Hansel and Gretel: Witch-Hunters, directed by Tommy Wirkola, starring Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Pihla Viitala, Thomas Mann, Peter Stormare and Derek Mears.

I'm not sure if a movie this silly should draw attention to how silly it is. If it doesn't, you end up with Snow White and the Huntsman, which took itself waaaay too seriously; if it does, you end up with this. Unfortunately it's all thrown together without any thought, and it's so damn stupid that the 'jokes' come off as lazy and half-arsed, and my laughter was conspicuous by its absence. Add in that the action was essentially incoherent visual blah, and reasons to watch this film at all dwindle away. 1 and 1/2 stars.

06/02/13 - Flight, directed by Robert Zemeckis, starring Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood and John Goodman.

Flight begins with a bang. There's a terrific opening sequence detailing the final flight of a doomed airliner, and it's riveting stuff. After that, as Washington's alcoholic pilot tries to hide that his heroics occurred while he was drunk as a skunk, the film slowly loses its momentum. It gets repetitive, the music choices are actually embarrassing (they soundtrack a drug overdose with 'Under the Bridge' AND 'Sweet Jane' ... I mean, come on!) and, though it pushes things until almost the last scene, there's never any doubt that Washington's character will clean himself up in the end. 3 stars.

04/02/13 - Searching for Sugar Man, directed by Malik Bendjelloul.

This entertaining, if slight, doco has two great tricks up its sleeve: one is the music of the enigmatic folk singer Rodriguez (who, after his two albums were ignored in the U.S., has never been heard from again but who has become a word of mouth superstar in South Africa), whose stuff is actually really good. The second is a mouthwatering (if pretty obvious) twist, which I won't spoil here. It does what it can to stretch out to feature length, but despite the moments in the film's climax where it had an undeniable emotional punch, it just felt too slight to me. 3 stars.

03/02/13 - Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Costabile, Lee Pace, Hal Holbrook, and basically every male character actor in America.

The stilted, self-important trailers had me worried, but Spielberg handles his examination of Lincoln's attempts to pass the 13th Amendment with a lightness of touch that makes this film refreshingly entertaining. It's kind of like a West Wing episode, circa 1865: it features lots of clever people delivering clever dialogue about important issues, and it's great, then it screeches to a halt every now and again to give us thirty boring, pompous seconds of "America's the bestest country ever!" before switching right back to being fun again. If you can forgive it the moments it gets ham-handed, you'll have a great time with the rest of it. 4 stars.

02/02/13 - The Impossible, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, starring Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast and Ploy Jindachote.

Based on a true story, I couldn't help but wonder, if you want to make a movie about the Boxing Day Tsunami, why make this movie. There's nothing, really, that makes this particular family's experience more interesting than any of the other fifty thousand tsunami stories out there. And, given that they all survive, the main drama for the majority of the film becomes 'are they going to find each other afterwards?' ... to which the only possible answer is 'of course they will, eventually.' So there's actually no real drama, no real tension, keeping us interested. Points get added for depicting the tsunami itself really vividly and urgently (if it wins Special Effects Oscars I won't complain), but points get taken off for having an oppressive, overbearing score that refuses to let us think or feel for ourselves. I hope we get a good tsunami movie one day, but boy, this ain't it. 2 stars.

01/02/13 - Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Fares Fares, Reda Kateb, Harold Perrineau, Edgar Ramirez, James Gandolfini and Mark Duplass.

Haunting, uncompromising, dense, and difficult, this film manages to be tense as all fuck even though we all know the ending. A magisterial depiction of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden in the decade after 9/11, through brutal interrogations, false trails, tip-offs, pay-offs and fatal mistakes, Bigelow applies all the skills she's garnered as a genre director to an art film, and the result is a surprisingly subtle thriller. Mirroring its own plot, the tiniest details in the film can matter, and it demands an alertness from its audience that movies rarely do. The sprawling cast are uniformly good (Reda Kateb and Jason Clarke, as a detainee and his interrogator, deserve to have a new Oscar category minted, for acting duos, just for them and their three remarkable scenes) and the script is incredible: tight and literate and never condescending. It won't be for everybody, but I thought Zero Dark Thirty was beguiling and utterly brilliant. 5 stars.

26/01/13 - Silver Linings Playbook, directed by David O. Russell, starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, John Ortiz, Julia Stiles, Chris Tucker and Anupam Kher.

For most of its running time, this was kicking along as an interesting little romantic drama. I couldn't call it un-sentimental, but it was only semi-sentimental, which for Hollywood is pretty impressive, and though Lawrence's character was the silliest kind of manic pixie dream girl, the charismatic performers had me going with it. And then, with maybe twenty minutes to go, it decided to forget everything interesting it had going on and become a much stupider movie. It was seriously like they shoved in the ending for a Jennifer Aniston movie or something: all nuance, all character, all heart, just disappeared and we got this silly, fluffy ending, where Jennifer Lawrence's magic boobs make everything okay and the real, desperate, difficult problems all these people face get glossed over. I found it really disheartening; it could have been a really good film, but ended up merely an okay one. 3 stars.

25/01/13 - Django Unchained, directed by Quentin Tarantino, starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Laura Cayouette and Walton Goggins.

Woah. I think this might be the greatest triumph of Tarantino's career: it's like once he was done with gangsters, he spent the middle part of his career (The Kill Bills, Death Proof) learning how to be the most fluid, nimble genre director alive ... and now he's applying those skills to making these remarkable semi-genre, semi-art films, films that nobody else could conceive of, let alone make. Where I think Django has it over Basterds is in its genuine emotional punch (which probably comes in part from Tarantino, as an American, having a more direct connection to the subject matter at hand). As well as being bad-arse and entertaining as fuck, this film moved me, in a way QT's films rarely have. It's absolutely brilliant. 4 and 1/2 stars.

22/01/13 - Compliance, directed by Craig Zobel, starring Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Ashlie Atkinson, Bill Camp and Philip Ettinger.

This creepy little psychological horror is about a prank call to a slightly dim middle-aged manager of a (wonderfully rank) fast food joint. The guy on the other end of the phone convinces her he's a cop, then bullies/coerces her into doing increasingly horrible things to one of her staff members. The cast is uniformly fantastic, especially Ann Dowd as the manager, and though the story is simple, Zobel just keeps turning the screws tighter and tighter, and keeps you right on the edge of your seat. Some things irked (after a rigidly realist treatment, he gets all stylistic at key moments, undercutting his drama; the film's viewpoint switches in the last few minutes, releasing the viewer from their claustrophobic experience when he should have kept his foot on our throats), but they were minor issues. Worth seeking out. 3 and 1/2 stars.

18/01/13 - Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi, starring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Danny Huston, Toni Colette, Jessica Biel and James D'Arcy.

Ouch. This film was savagely, horribly constrained by the terrible (and seemingly immobile) make-up job they did on Anthony Hopkins which left him with no tricks except for a bemused, fish-mouthed stare (and which didn't even come close to actually nailing Hitchcock's famous profile anyway). Again and again, they'd cut to Hopkins for a reaction shot and there'd just be nothing whatsoever going on in the man's face. It was ludicrous. And then they also picked one tiny, not-particularly interesting segment of his career, and gave it almost the blandest treatment they could think of. Hitchcock's interior life must have been bizarre, given all the weird sex shit that kept leaking into his movies (watch The Birds again, it's fascinating), so for a biopic to be this meh counts as a gigantic missed opportunity in my mind. 2 stars.

17/01/13 - This is 40, directed by Judd Apatow, starring Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Robert Smigel, Jason Segel, Megan Fox, Charlyne Yi, Chris O'Dowd, Lena Dunham, Graham Parker and Melissa McCarthy.

Oh man, Judd Apatow badly needs to find somebody to edit him. This interminable series of loosely-connected sketches, most of which are neither funny nor dramatic, just doesn't even come close to cohering into a movie. Apatow's stuff has always been shaggy and overlong, but my God, the narcissistic unwillingness to leave anything on the cutting room floor drags this one down, and down, and down. It doesn't help that all the problems the characters face are totally unrelatable (there's a moment where Rudd's character's money troubles lead him to cry in his car ... which is a shiny new BMW!), and are always solved by unconvincing deus ex machinas. 1 and 1/2 stars.

10/01/13 - Gangster Squad, directed by Ruben Fleischer, starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Giovanni Ribisi and Nick Nolte.

With a cast that's this flat-out sexy, this period L.A. gangster movie could have been ravishing ... unfortunately it's sunk by a script that starts out a bit half-baked and then proceeds to get sillier and sillier with every passing moment. By the time five cops with tommy guns are waging an all-out assault on a fifteen storey hotel full of mobsters, it's too goofy to believe. Fleischer's direction is never subtle, and neither are the performances. 2 and 1/2 stars.

03/01/13 - Jack Reacher, directed by Christopher McQuarrie, starring Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, David Oyelowo, Jai Courtney, Richard Jenkins and Werner Herzog.

Jack Reacher had a real 'eighties throwback' kind of a vibe to it, and was way more fun than I was expecting. It should have been made with Kurt Russell back in his action man era. Apart from trying to shoehorn in a bunch of super lame one-liners that just don't work in this day and age, it was really well done. I huuuugely appreciated the way the action was directed: longish takes, understandable geography, and the camera wasn't shaking like crazy. For a contemporary action movie, that's rare as fuck. 3 and 1/2 stars.

01/01/13 - Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee, starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Adil Hussain and Tabu.

This film wanted so badly to appear deep and wise, and to wrestle with the great questions,  but it never actually had the smarts to back it up. Like, the whole story is a metaphor, but the meaning and purpose behind huge chunks of it are completely unclear. I found it a frustratingly shallow exercise. Though gorgeous to look at, the stylised visuals dragged me out of the story (before the clumsy ending really dragged me out for good) and the CG didn't always work ... and when it didn't, it looked awful. 2 stars.

Want to journey back in time? Here are 2012's Itty-Bitty Film reviews, and here are 2011's.