Wednesday 29 August 2007

Venice: Atonement

The Venice International Film Festival has always been, to my mind, the more civilised, more sedate counterpoint to the brash and bawdy “festival du film” that is Cannes. Less frantic and arguably more cultured, La Biennale di Venezia (which also hosts art, architecture and theatre and dance strands) remains an unalloyed joy. The kind of place where filmmakers stroll the Lido virtually unmolested and where the likes of Alfonso Cuaron and Spike Lee happily attend other directors’ screenings without the need of a closed off viewing area.

This year Venice hits 64, and begins tonight with Joe Wright’s Atonement. Adapted by Christopher Hampton from Ian McEwan’s allegedly unfilmable novel, Wright’s follow up to his rather impressive debut, 2005’s Pride & Prejudice, is, for its first half at least, a towering achievement, a compelling, richly detailed, moving examination of morals, lies, and class prejudice, beautifully acted, and strikingly shot by Seamus McGarvey. Set, initially, over a hot summer afternoon and evening in an English country pile in 1935 where 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Roman), a wannabe writer with an overly active imagination, catches her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) in flagrante with the housekeeper’s Cambridge-educated son Robbie (James McAvoy). Later, she (wrongly) accuses him of raping her cousin, a childish indiscretion that instigates a chain of events that has life-altering repercussions for all concerned.

Storytelling, perception, and the appearance of truth are fundamental here, with Hampton’s script hewing to the book’s complex three time period structure and the story occasionally folding back on itself so that certain key events can be seen from differing points of view. Wright even uses the writer’s tool, the typewriter, as a musical accompaniment, the insistent click-clack, click-clack of the keys inducing an ominous, unsettling tone that pervades the rest of the picture. He takes an almost voyeuristic delight in how he shoots this first act, playing much of it wordlessly, relying, instead, on a smoldering look here, a stolen glance there, to generate not just an indelible sexual frisson but a palpable air of menace, the sultry day unleashing hitherto repressed emotions/attractions in not only the fatalistic couple, but others too.

But it’s when the story leaps forward five years to war-ravaged France, that, for me, the film relaxed it vice-like grip, as the Brideshead Revisited/Gosford Park flavourings of the first act surrenders to the horrors of combat, with McAvoy’s soldier stuck behind enemy lines, struggling to make it to Dunkirk and a boat to England. We follow his journey inter-cut with flashbacks of how he and Cecilia, who, as a result Robbie’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment, has shunned her family, eventually reignite their affair in Blitz-torn London as well as a parallel strand with the now 18-year-old Briony (Romola Garai) training as a nurse in a London hospital besieged by bloody troop casualties. There’s such a stiff upper lip quality to much of this, one can only assume that Brief Encounter must be Wright’s favourite film.

It’s not that this second section is any less confident or impeccably crafted — a five-minute Steadicam shot involving a thousand extras on the beach where the British Forces are amassed is truly astonishing — but it feels like a different film, and I wanted to continue with the one I was already watching. By shifting the focus (albeit slightly) from Cecilia and Robbie’s (doomed) fatalistic romance, Wright unwittingly undermines much of the tension (sexual or otherwise) he so masterfully engineered in the opening half hour as Briony, desperate to atone for her adolescent self’s transgression, seeks to assuage her guilt: first through the viscera of the wards, and later through literary reinvention. (The epilogue features Vanessa Redgrave as the elderly Briony, and now a successful author, finally laying to rest the ghosts of the past in a frank television interview conducted by Anthony Minghella — yes that one.)

That said, Knightley, as with Pride & Prejudice, clearly she thrives under Wright’s direction, turning in yet another fine performance that should silence her detractors once and for all, etching subtly, depth and simmering passion into Cecilia’s cut-glass exterior. But even she is outshone by McAvoy. So good in The Last King Of Scotland (and so overlooked, too, because without his counterpoint, Forest Whitaker’s Amin wouldn’t have been half as effective) McAvoy asserts his position as Britain’s brightest male star with a performance of such range, dignity and humanity that it should, if there’s any justice, find recognition come awards season. Wright, meanwhile, confirms that Pride & Prejudice was no fluke. With a painter’s eye for colour and composition — the vivid poison ivy of Cecilia’s dress; her crimson lipstick; a ravishing shot of McAvoy’s silhouette, stark against a poppy field — and an assured grasp of actors, he brings vigour and freshness to what could, in other hands, have been a sterile, stuffy costume drama.

Monday 27 August 2007

Sweeney Todd poster (2)

Saw this on David Poland's Hot Blog. Nice and creepy. Hopefully there'll be a better quality one soon.

Venice: a preamble

I shall be in Venice from Wednesday through to Monday and among the films I'm hoping to catch will be the Jude Law/Michael Caine remake of Sleuth, Brian De Palma's Iraq drama Redacted, Paul Haggis' follow up to Crash, In The Valley Of Elah, Asif Kapadia's Far North, Andrew Dominik's The Assasination of Jess James By The Coward Robert Ford, Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner: The Final Cut, Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited and, hopefully, a few more besides. I've already seen Joe Wright's Atonement which opens the festival though I think I'm going to be arriving too late to make the press screenings of Ang Lee's Lust, Caution.

And because I'm not going to be around for Tim Burton Day on the second Wednesday I won't be seeing a sneak preview of footage from Sweeney Todd which pains me but, hey, them's the breaks. Incidentally, all those reports of Burton being asked to cut back on the blood in the movie, don't believe a word of it.

I'm going to be reporting for while I'm there — look for me guesting on Glenn Kenny's blog — but will also update this site with the same stuff.

Friday 24 August 2007

Thursday 23 August 2007

Wednesday 22 August 2007

Still s*%@

I'm talking about British Film Forever, of course, which I've continued to watch despite myself. Part two was devoted to social realism, while last weekend's third epsiode tackled costume dramas. I assumed, quite wrongly as it turned out, that after the dreadful opener this series couldn't get any worse. So while they don't seem to be giving away so many endings, it's still an embarrassment of crass commentary and inane talking heads. Please people, not eveything needs to be a joke. Or referenced in relation to how much money or, as the commentary likes to call it, "dosh" a film made.

Writer and broadcaster Andrew Collins clearly feels the same way. At he takes the series to task, too, but one thing he doesn't mention and which the makers of this show have failed to grasp is that a) Trainspotting is NOT social realism; and the clip of director Danny Boyle talking about it said as much, and b) not every period film can and should be classed as a "costume drama", something one of the better talking heads, the fine actor Adrian Lester, pointed out in relation to one of the film's they were covering this week.

Monday 20 August 2007

Ok, so there was this too

Every new image from Chris Nolan's Bat sequel gets me more and more jazzed. And those that were leaked onto the net while I was away (see them now at seem to offer up more questions than answers. The two Batmen? Can this be a Frank Miller/Dark Knight Returns reference? As for Ledger's greasy paint look. Well, to me, it makes The Joker even more unhinged that it's not a physical thing. I like it. I like it a lot.

I said I'd be back...

reel world matters has returned from its summer break pleasantly rested thank you very much and it seems we didn't miss too much while we were gone. Except, perhaps, this second shot from Sweeney Todd, courtesy of EW...

Then there's this page as well as an page for my Making Of Sweeney Todd book, complete with cover (although I'm sure this is only the mock up). Titan are publishing it in both soft and hardcovers, just like their Stardust visual companion.

If you want to pre-order one, please feel free. Me, I have to finish the thing before heading off to Venice next week...

Tuesday 7 August 2007


Until August 20. Hope to see you when I return.

Sunday 5 August 2007

British Film Forever

Last night BBC2 showed the second instalment of their summer film show British Film Forever. Last week's topic was the thriller; this week's genre in the spotlight was romance movies. And while the show, which took in everything from Spring In The Park to Brief Encounter to Four Weddings to Gregory's Girl and Notting HIll, was marginally better than last week's weak, badly written, infantile, "frothy", crass, dumber-than-dumb exploration of the thriller, it still made for cringeworthy viewing.

Clearly aimed at people who know nothing about cinema, it's the type of clip-heavy/talking-head filled show that Channel 4 or Five would serve up, and certainly not what one would expect from the Beeb. My, my, how standards have slipped. A case in point: last night's programm featured Powell & Pressburger. Fine. Good. As they should. They had director Kevin Macdonald, Pressburger's grandson, and P&P expert Ian Christie talking about their films. Fine. Well done. Both had smart things to say. HOWEVER. How can one talk about romantic movies and Powell & Pressburger and NOT talk about A Matter Of Life And Death or I Know Where I'm Going?

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

And while I'm ranting, why on these types of shows do they always insist of talking about the end of each film, followed by a clip of said denouement. If anyone watching hasn't seen the film in question, you've just ruined it for them. Last week, they showed the moment from Get Carter when — SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT — Caine is gunned down on the beach. And the end of Brighton Rock where — SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT — Pinky is kiled. And London To Brighton. Which I haven't seen yet — the DVD is on the shelf, waiting — so I had to close my eyes and stuff my fingers in my ears until I hoped they were done. Come on people. Since these programmes are, very obviously, designed for the cine-illiterate, by showing the end aren't you removing any reason for people to watch the films in question.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

A couple of years ago I had an idea for a seven-part series on British cinema. Yeah, yeah, I hear you say. But it's true. And take it from, mine would have been a lot better.

Record breaker

Congrats, it seems, are in order for the Bourne gang. Variety is reporting that The Bourne Ultimatum has nabbed the best August opening on record, outperforming the debut of any James Bond film, as well as the previous two installments of the Jason Bourne spy franchise, raking in $70 million from 3,660 locations. Proving that if you make a decent film, and market the hell out of it, people will.

Thursday 2 August 2007


Venice begins in less than four weeks and today I saw the opening movie, Atonement, director Joe Wright's follow up to Pride & Prejudice, based on the novel by Ian McEwan. I'll write about the film in detail at a later date, but if the rest of this year's selection is as good as James McAvoy's performance is in this, then it should be a vintage year. There's an amazingly length Steadicam shot in it too that will have your jaw hitting the floor. Wright really is one of British cinema's brightest new talents.

Wednesday 1 August 2007

Run Bourne Run

As alternative titles go, Bourne To Run isn't a bad one since Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) spends the vast majority of his time in The Bourne Ultimatum running. And running. And running. And when he isn't running, he's beating the crap out the baddies with his bare hands. And feet. And a book. Yep, it's more of the same from what Damon insists will be the final instalment in this wonderous furious and frenetic saga.

The strength of the Bourne movies has been twofold: firstly Damon who owns this role completely and has done since film one. His hitman with amnesia has strength but also vulnerability. And the contrition he started showing last time out is fully rendered here. As much as he wants to know he was, he wants redemption too.

The second key element in the Bourne series has been realism. In the action, in the stunts, in the approach to espionage. It's was no wonder that the Bond team took note. Doug Liman laid the groundwork, picked up on by director Paul Greengrass for Supremacy who amps up his customary handheld camera without losing focus on plot or action, throwing the viewer into the middle of this frenzied series of chases. Some may not like the sped of his edits but you can't deny the power of his cinematic grasp. The early sequence in London's Waterloo Station is set piece as a work of art, beautifully staged and dazzingly executed, as Bourne tries to steer Paddy Considine's journo out of danger by directing across the busy concourse. Ditto the Tangiers chase. The plot zips along with abandon, Moscow, Italy, Paris, London, Tangiers, before Bourne finally winds up in NYC, taking the fight home.

On the downside, the fact the CIA were ALWAYS after him, did get a little repetitive (both Identity and Supremacy varied the pursuit/chase scenario better) while the uncovering of his "secret" past (the tank etc) smacked a wee bit too much of Wolverine in X-Men. That said, it's a fine and fitting end to a terrific trilogy. Whether it's better than the first two, I'm not sure, but it is certainly as good.