Mockingjay: Part 1

Turns a political struggle into something thrillingly personal.

The Beat Beneath My Feet

A toe-tapping indie that is, quite simply lovely.

Unbroken

An extraordinary true tale made disappointingly ordinary.

The Battle of the Five Armies

"Why does it hurt so much?" Because the rest of it felt so real.

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Film review: The New Girlfriend Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 22 May 2015 19:05

Director: Francois Ozon
Cast: Romain Duris, Anaïs Demoustier
Certificate: 15

Madness. Grief. Identity. Sex. All of them combine to striking effect in The New Girlfriend. The fact it's written by the late Ruth Rendell, then, may come as some surprise - this involving, daring and disarming drama feels a long way from her familiar Inspector Wexford files. But that source material might also help attract older viewers, who are likely to be taken aback by the style and wit on display.


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Film review: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 22 May 2015 11:31

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi
Certificate: 15

They fly. They bite. Now, they skateboard. It's safe to say that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night introduces vampires as you've never seem them before.


Ana Lily Amirpour's directorial debut is an almost achingly hip affair, one that sinks its teeth into genre trends and mixes them with other strains of cinema to produce something that fizzes with ideas. The film doesn't just unfold on a screen: it pops.


Our story is set in the fictional Bad City, a small town that feels familiar but strange: it's shot in California, but everyone speaks Farsi; the streets are deserted like a Western, but surrounded by the oil derricks of the Middle East; through them stalks the Girl (Sheila Vand), an undead vampire who is also a girl.


That central conflict feels right at home in such an eerie world of juxtaposition. She is lonely as much as the town is isolated, a neverwhere that, like all good Westerns, is a frontier between the old and the new, between vinyl and cassette tape, between the mortal and immortal. And so we see our hero of the piece, gardener Arash (Arash Marandi), struggling, like the teen vamp, to come of age, to find his way through the wild world of adolescence into adulthood.


His gunslinging saviour is the Girl, who rides into his life on a skateboard: Clint Eastwood meets Bart Simpson. Instead of bullets, she has fangs. Instead of spurs, black lipstick and eyeliner, which she ritually applies before going out. And, more importantly, she has hormones.


Sheila Vand is mesmeric as the creature, her eyes sultry, scary and doe-eyed all at once. They narrow, as she spies her victim across the dusty road, then open wide when in her bedroom, dancing and listening to Radio Tehran and White Lies (their song, tellingly called Death, plays during one cute encounter). All the while, her cape-like veil, worn over a striped jumper, gives the impression of Dracula crossed with someone from the Beano.


It's a constant game of subversion: she is alluring and deadly when faced with a cruel drug dealer, who is exposed as amusingly pathetic, but when she meets a young boy, she is scary rather than sympathetic.


Marandi is just as sweet as the hedge-trimming kid who worked 2,192 days to affair his retro car. The sight of one pushing the other along the pavement on wheels manages to be funny and unnerving in equal measure. Their burgeoning romance climaxes later, though, when he draws blood from her - rather than the other way around - while offering a takeaway hamburger. Lionel Ritchie plays in the background. "The sad songs hit the spot, don't they?" he asks.


Together, they make a curiously natural couple. She emerges as an almost feminist protector of abused prostates and bringer down of corrupt authority; like the derricks nearby, she sucks power from the rocks of this society. Arash's enemy, meanwhile, emerges not as the man holding debt over his head, but his drug-addicted father, who is preventing him from growing up.


The result is a fun, and darkly comic, romance that revels in the rush of looming maturity. At times, Amipour's style seems more about surface than substance, but what surface it is. She presents it all through the hard-lined monochrome of a graphic novel, accompanied by twanging guitar. It's the kind of pure pulp fiction you can imagine Quentin Tarantino making in his youth. And if, like Tarantino, this striking flourish of talent occasionally feels like it's trying almost too hard, that only chimes in with its naive protagonists, each putting on an air to achieve what they must.


A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night flies past you with the whoosh of a new voice so cool that you can almost see the "whoosh". "Did you see that film with the vampire on a skateboard?" people will ask in years to come.


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Film review: The Tribe Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Monday, 18 May 2015 17:09

Director: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy
Cast: Grigoriy Fesenko
Certificate: 18

55 per cent of communication is non-verbal. Body language, eye contact, posture. All of it adds up to form a message with meaning. But still, the prospect of a two-hour film entirely in sign language - with no subtitles - is daunting.


Of course, for the kids at a Kiev boarding school for the deaf, non-verbal communication is the norm: they don't need noise to communicate. The result is a bizarre form of silent cinema, which unfolds in a string of hand movements, accompanied by the occasional slap, stroke or pant.


Into the school steps Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), a newcomer to the establishment. Soon, though, he finds himself sucked into a regime of institutionalised crime, a group of boys who steal from unsuspecting train passengers by day - and pimp out their female co-pupils to truck drivers at night. The nasty events are conducted in that same, studied quiet, with no music to disrupt the documentary-like realism.


The unheard elephant in the room, inevitably, is comprehension: with no on-screen text to translate, is it possible to understand what's going on?


The answer is both yes and no. Specific conversations and details occasionally flummox, but the overall gist of the plot is fascinatingly easy to follow. When Sergey falls in love with Anna, one of the two prostituted girls, for example, we know it cannot end well. But the sound of silence has an alienating effect too, putting us firmly outside of the closed criminal clique.


It is impossible not to be affected, though, by what you see. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy films events in long takes, emphasising the chemistry between the members of this harsh tribe. It is telling that the only times we do hear noises are during scenes of extreme pain or the unflinchingly unglamorous sex scenes - moments of universal experience that need no translation.


One sequence halfway through sees someone receive an impromptu abortion, a 10-minute single shot that climaxes in strained cries of agony. In a universe where noise is not required, the unfamiliar yelps of a child's unused vocal chords take on a new, heart-shattering quality that emphasises the shock of their adult actions. By the time the violent final act arrives, each scrape of furniture carries a booming weight.


55 per cent of communication is non-verbal, they say. You may only be able to process half of The Tribe, but you feel 100 per cent of its impact.

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Film review: Mad Max: Fury Road Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Thursday, 14 May 2015 17:45

Director: George Miller
Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron
Certificate: 15

"It was hard to know who's more crazy; me, or everyone else."


So says Tom Hardy's Max at the start of Mad Max: Fury Road, before munching on a lizard. It's a theory that director George Miller relentlessly puts to the test for two hours, filling his screen with cars, carnage and grotesque characters - none of whom question the grammar of that opening sentence.


You soon realise why: there's no time to think about comparative adjectives. In fact, there's no time to think about anything, as the opening shot drives straight into a car chase that sees things blow up, flip over, crash into other things and blow up again.


30 minutes later and we're given what little exposition is needed: the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Earth has turned everyone bananas, with crowds of thirsty souls mindlessly following Immortan Joe (Hugh "Toecutter" Keays-Byrne), a leader who promises water, fuel and the chance of going to Valhalla should they die trying to protect either. While they crawl about on the dusty ground, he stands above them in a skull-carved mountain, with a horde of wives for breeding. Unsurprisingly, they've had enough.


Their escape collides with that of Max, a shared purpose that sees the outsiders unite in one gigantic, armoured truck. Miller throws his humans together like he does his vehicles: with a visceral love of things that go crunch. Machines and men meet head-on again and again, each time in more creative combinations, and all overlaid in a never-ending blend of cyan and tangerine. It's like being dunked in a bath of Fanta while your eyeballs are spray-painted with Listerine.


The CGI proves a surprisingly good match for the practical chaos, mixing the otherworldly imagination with a tangible gore. To say the set pieces are dazzling in their ingenious brutality is an understatement: the entire film is one big set piece, with small chunks of dialogue chucked in between the well-oiled cogs. It's like watching Speed on fast-forward.


Miller's streamlined approach applies to his character development too, letting his star's actions reveal more about them than any clunky speeches. Tom Hardy swaggers through it with a casual intensity, like Mel Gibson's unhinged cousin, but the most surprising thing is that he's not the main character at all: that honour falls to Charlize Theron's Furiosa, who fights her way out of Joe's clutches with bad-ass efficiency. She's nobody's property. And she has a bionic arm. How did she get it? Who cares? It's what she does with it that matters.


The same is true of Joe's younger wives, who become increasingly active agents in their dash for freedom, and Nicholas Hoult's likeably dim Nux, a loser who accidentally falls in with our rebels. Together, they drive one way down a very long road. Then, they drive in the opposite direction. The almost gracefully simple journey hurtles along at a pace that makes Paul Greengrass look like Terrence Malick, while Miller packs the backseat with all kinds of intriguing details, from religious cults and incest to humanoid crows and pole-vaulting warriors.


By the end of the adrenaline rush, it's hard to know who's more crazy: Miller, who also directed Baby: Pig in the City, or the people who allowed him near a movie camera. One thing's for certain: the rules of language have never seemed more irrelevant. Grammar? Who cares about grammar when you can crash a man's head with a steering wheel? A feminist blockbuster with rip-roaring action, Mad Max: Fury Road is so insanely entertaining that it defies words. It's brilliant. It's bonkers. It's bronkers.

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Film review: Spooks: The Greater Good Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 08 May 2015 14:26

Director: Bharat Nalluri
Cast: Kit Harington, Peter Firth, Tuppence Middleton
Certificate: 15

It's hard to believe that it's been 13 years since Spooks first premiered on the BBC. It was a different time then. iPhones hadn't been invented. Netflix didn't exist. There was always talk of a Spooks movie during its TV rein, but now, in an age where superhero blockbusters are the norm, can the small screen franchise work on the big screen?


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Film review: Rosewater Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Thursday, 07 May 2015 18:23

Director: Jon Stewart
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia
Certificate: 15

When Jon Stewart took a break from The Daily Show to make Rosewater, the true story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist jailed in his home country after covering the protests surrounding the 2009 elections, the response was surprise: the comedian was going serious, swapping TV laughs for movie drama. Perhaps, you suspected, he would attempt to pull an Armando Ianucci, combining witty jokes with an edgy subject. But what he does is something even more unexpected.


Gael Garcia Bernal plays the reporter, who goes back to stay with his mum in Tehran. While he and the rest of the cast fall into the trap of people-from-other-countries-speaking-English, though, Stewart immediately establishes a sense of realism by seamlessly inserting handheld footage of events. Maziar (Bernal) interviewing the locals is cut with Bahari's original videos shot from the back of a motorbike, before we see him pretending to be an American spy for a skit on The Daily Show.


This is where Stewart became involved in the story in real life, so it's fitting that it's also where his movie finds its footing: in the intersection between reality and absurdism. The debut director toys with visual flair, as he superimposes exposition onto buildings in the background and floats neon hashtags over the rooftops, but Rosewater's strength lies in the mundane.


After the initial rush of colours and stock types, things are reduced to what is essentially a two-hander between Bernal and his interrogator, Javadi (Kim Bodnia). From the moment that Maziar is blindfolded and locked in a cell, we don't leave the prison's tiny, white walls - a decision that emphasises the claustrophobia of confinement, but also gives the actors maximum opportunity to shine.


Kim Bodnia is terrific - and terrifying - as Maziar's captor, mentally bullying him with repeated questions and a stubborn refusal to listen. Bernal, meanwhile, becomes increasingly desperate, his initial, cool composure breaking out into bursts of sweat and panic. Is he really part of a corrupt regime? Is obeying his new captors the only way to return home? But as he doubts his own sanity, initial accusations of espionage turn into enquiries about Maziar's connection to Anton Chekhov and debates about whether The Sopranos and Empire Magazine count as porn. And suddenly, you find yourself, like Maziar, giggling.


In another filmmaker's hands, this might seem patronising or in poor taste, but Stewart's script (based on Bahari's memoir, Then They Came for Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival) details almost word-for-word the conversations that actually took place: rather than strive to force comedy into the situation, Stewart lets the clearly smart Javadi talk himself into a hole, teasing out the Kafka-esque silliness of the Iranian intelligence service that he's employed to uphold. Like Four Lions, he's a potential villain made even more disturbing by just how human he is. This mature, restrained approach lets the tone shift back and forth between laughs and horror naturally, finding humour in the darkest of places, while still ramping up the tension of Maziar's 118-day sentence.


The final reveal of his freedom is as rewarding a pay-off as you'd expect, but Stewart leaves his biggest punch for last: a conclusion that turns this personal story of emotional survival into a universal message; a tribute to those reporters who are still being locked up for doing their jobs, and an inspiring reminder that, no matter how many regimes try to suppress the global media, someone is always there with a camera, waiting to tweet about it.


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Film review: The Falling Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Wednesday, 22 April 2015 12:45

Director: Carol Morley
Cast: Maisie Williams, Florence Pugh
Certificate: 12A

The Falling is a paranormal mystery, a coming-of-age drama, a black comedy and a school musical all in one. If that makes Carol Morley's film seem difficult to pin down, it's intentional. It's also exceptionally good.


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Film review: John Wick Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Saturday, 11 April 2015 17:38

Directors: Chad Stahelski, David Leitch
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen
Certificate: 15


"People keep asking if I'm back and I haven't really had an answer, but yeah, I'm thinking I'm back."


That's Keanu Reeves in John Wick, a quote that's been front and centre of all posters and trailers for the film. And with good reason: these days, Keanu is more known for his melancholic internet memes than kick-ass action.


He plays John Wick, a retired hit man who gave up the game to go straight with his wife - only for her to die, leaving him with a puppy, which also doesn't stick around long. Aww. Sad Keanu.


And so he does the only thing a retired hit man with a grudge against bad Russian gangster types can do: get revenge. Ooo. Mad Keanu.


It's a sight we haven't seen for a long while: the bloke from Point Break and The Matrix whaling on someone else's body for minutes at a time, breaking bones, shooting legs, twisting necks and punching faces. If there were a university for assassins, Wick would've graduated top of the class - after killing all of the other students. Bad Keanu.


The people being bumped off are far from deep, or even that memorable, but the cast - fronted by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Michael Nyqvist and Game of Thrones' Alfie Allen - are visibly enjoying the heck out of their cheesy dialogue. "John wasn't exactly the boogeyman," says Nyqvist's hammy mafia boss. "He was the guy you send to kill the boogeyman." The bad guys continue talking in a way that makes all too clear the pain this legendary figure will inflict upon them. Rad Keanu.


It's that sheer, relentless onslaught of violence that gives John Wick its pounding rhythm; one that directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch - who are both former stuntmen - shoot with a feel for the physicality of each set piece. Furniture breaks. Bullets fly. But it's always easy to tell what's happening, giving the audience ample time to admire the technicality of the bodily contortions, before wincing at their brutality. (Shoulder pad, Keanu.)


Reeves does it all with a cool passion that suits his simple, black costume - no plaid, Keanu - while supporting actors Willem Defoe and Ian McShane bring a classy note to the dark underworld. Can a man in this kind of environment ever really find redemption? You won't exactly get a grin out of our star - like The Raid, Wick's enjoyment lies in its intense efficiency, rather than its heart-wrenching emotion - but you will get a sense of a job well done. Oh, yeah. He's back. And that makes us glad, Keanu.

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Film review: While We're Young Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Monday, 06 April 2015 12:58

Director: Noah Baumbach Cast: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried Certificate: 15

Growing up isn't easy. That seems to be the message to take home from all of Noah Baumbach's films, no matter what age you are; whether it's kids going through a divorce (The Squid and the Whale), a woman coming to terms with her younger sister's marriage (Margot at the Wedding), or students in a post-graduation haze, everyone is dragged through life kicking and screaming. After the joyous Frances Ha, which was full of the free-spirited optimism of a 20-something finding herself, While We're Young marks a return to Baumbach's more familiar territory of humour laced with a downbeat edge.


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Film review: Hackney's Finest Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Sunday, 05 April 2015 11:05

Director: Chris Bouchard
Cast: Nathaneal Wiseman
Certificate: 15

In 2009, The Hunt for Gollum was released online, a fan-made Lord of the Rings film that far exceeded its budget. Six years later and director Chris Bouchard returns with Hackney's Finest. But for all the innovative creativity behind his Tolkein project, Bouchard's feature-length debut feels sadly lacking in originality.


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Film review: Fast & Furious 7 Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 03 April 2015 13:30

Director: James Wan
Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson
Certificate: 15


A man walks into a hospital. He talks to his sick brother. Then, he orders a doctor to look after him - before blowing up half the hospital. Does it make sense? No. Is it fun? Absolutely.


That's the credo that this most unlikely of franchises has been fuelled by, getting bigger and sillier with every entry. Ever since the realisation that they didn't have to be about cars, but could be a series of action movies with cars in it, the Fast films have exploded - literally - into life. Director James Wan, recruited fresh from the Saw series, seizes the immediate horror of the spectacle with both hands, chucking about his camera like the cast do their vehicles. Cars floor in mid-air, waiting to crash into things; people flip upside down, smacking through tables at umpteen miles per hour.


It's an exhilarating approach, but one that occasionally gets taken too far: some sequences are hard to follow amid the visual chaos, the movie's structure takes all kind of detours to fit in more action, while Wan, determined to stay faithful to Fast's testosterone as well as its tension, spends half the screen time ogling bottoms as much as bonnets.


In other places, though, it all comes together with the precision of a Mission: Impossible heist: the women are given a welcome chance to beat each other to bits like muscly blokes, cars parachute from the sky mid-chase, and Jason Statham relishes the chance to play the villain as Deckard Shaw (brother of last film's villain, Luke), throwing himself off cliffs in pursuit of Vin Diesel's Dom.


The sheer stupidity of the carnage is undoubtedly well-judged, with one Dubai set piece recalling the Tom Cruise flicks in more ways than one. But the joy of Fast & Furious comes from its character's reactions: here, fast-talking Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) and wise-cracking Tej (Ludacris) gawp at their surroundings, while a new hacker (Nathalie Emmanuel) is appalled by the danger of it all. In the modern cinema landscape, this is 007's streetwise cousin; Mission: Impossible's rowdy brother. Even with The Rock sitting half the film out, the addition of Kurt Russell as a government agent boosts The Expendables-like vibe of the ever-growing ensemble, which remains entertainingly self-aware.


At the centre of it all, though, is the relationship between Paul Walker's Brian O'Connor and his adopted brother, Toretto. Even in the series' weaker entries, the pair have always raced alongside each other with a finely-tuned chemistry; the kind of star wattage that makes cars look cool. The passing of Walker during the film's production is a sad loss to the genre, but also a loss to his friends on and off-screen. It gives events an unintentional sense of real peril: when you see him trapped in a bus hanging off a cliff, you realise just how risky the seemingly reckless driving is. Rather than kill O'Connor off, though, Chris Morgan's script takes the other route of celebrating what Walker was good at: the movie accelerates through the blockbusting, allowing our Hollywood heroes to cheat death again and again, right up until a surprisingly moving montage that immortalises Brian (and Paul) on the silver screen.


The word "family" has been mentioned countless times across the past six outings, but Fast & Furious 7 earns that heavy-handed sentiment, using it as the engine for the plot, from Statham's vengeful sibling to Brian's recent, doting father. The result is a absurd but touching piece of cinema, which sees its stars take flight, while remaining emotionally grounded; sometimes, it realises, the most powerful thing you can do in a car is simply take a left turn. It is fun? Absolutely. But, for the first time, it makes sense too.

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