Friday, 30 December 2011

No Strings Attached - Ivan Reitman - 2011

After the manic intensity of Black Swan it feels both surprising and refreshing to find Natalie Portman in a lightweight rom-com and happily she sparks enough chemistry with genre favourite Ashton Kutcher to keep this bobbing along nicely enough. Taking as its premise the 'no strings attached' relationship between a pair of sex buddies the film at least sets itself up with enough originality to engage and crucially takes a step to the left of the cutesy romance that makes so many of these films sickeningly dull. The laughs are meagre but when they do come the sex brings enough earthy humour to make them more knowing than usual, whilst Reitman at least retains enough skill to keep the gags from sinking to the gross depths of the Farrelly Brothers. For a little while it even feels that the film might avoid convention altogether and aim for something a little more melancholy but infinitely more believable, but then Lake Bell appears again playing less of a character and more of a walking klutz and its immediately obvious that the film is returning to the sweet but highly predictable conventions from which it momentarily was raised. On a related note it’s all very well to reference other films but the danger especially in comedy is that this just makes you look bad by comparison. For example Sideways is a great film. No Strings Attached by comparison is not.

Never Say Never Again Irvin Kershner 1983

Before the first James Bond film Dr. No went into production, writer Ian Fleming collaborated on a story for a potential movie that was eventually turned into the book Thunderball. Unfortunately for the producers of the subsequent film series, this left Fleming’s partner Kevin McClory with certain rights to the property that he seemingly spent his entire career trying to extend in legal battles. Eventually he managed to get enough leeway to remake Thunderball and thus the world was treated to Never Say Never Again, the second and happily last unofficial Bond film of 1967’s spoof Casino Royale. Hot off the back of The Empire Strikes Back, Irvin Kershner was hired to direct and in a surprise casting coup Sean Connery was lured back to the role of Bond over ten years since he had last played it in Diamonds are Forever, making the film a serious challenge to Roger Moore’s Octopussy released the same year. Happily for all concerned in the official camp however, Moore’s film is by far the better one, leaving Connery and Kershner with a film that is at best pedestrian and at worst frankly ridiculous – a climactic scene sees Bond riding a horse off the wall of a castle into the sea with no harm done to all concerned. The story is full of plot holes which given that this is a remake just seems absurd – Bond seems to go investigate the villain for no logical reason other than the plot needs him to do so – and with the exception of Barbara Carrera who is a strikingly sexy villainess, all the cast give muted performances. Connery seems even more bored than he was playing Bond in the late sixties, Alec McCowen bizarrely plays Q as some sort of cockney geezer and Rowan Atkinson turns up looking like he’s wandered onto the wrong set to play a bumbling British official. Klaus Maria Branduer is a distinctly lifeless and uncharismatic villain, only coming to life when literally slobbering over poor Kim Basinger who as an unwitting pawn in the villain’s/director’s game probably escapes with the most credibility. The lesser films in the official series survived moments of flat villainy, dodgy gadgets and unimaginative action with a breezy charm and panache that continues to make them popular with audiences; Never Say Never Again proves incapable of achieving this which mercifully means that it has so far remained a one off, at best a curiosity, at worst an embarrassment.

Napoleon Dynamite - Jared Hess - 2004

Quite possibly the most eccentric high school comedy that's been seen in quite a while, Napoleon Dynamite takes many of the genre cliques - the bullies, the bitchy girls etc - and puts them up against the titular hero who takes the traditional dweeb character into whole new dimension. With his petulantly elongated sighs, absurdly childish obsessions and delusional attitudes towards everybody else, Napoleon takes a little getting used to, but once the audience has adjusted to his rather unique outlook he rapidly becomes one of cinemas sweetest and most quotable nerd heroes. In what will probably amount to his defining role (he's had approximately two major films since), Jon Heder is a delight, never going out of his way to win the audience over but resolutely stomping his way through a disastrous school dance and various clashes with his family – a creepy uncle and a brother who’s even more nerdy – with such delusional self-assurance that by the time he walks on stage for the now legendary dance sequence, only the most stony hearted can fail to cheer him on. Unlike most comedies of this ilk Napoleon Dynamite doesn't try to force on some maudlin message of reconciliation but if we, like Tina Majorino's loner who latches onto him, can appreciate Napoleon's blissful unselfconsciousness in the face of mockery, abuse and extreme stupidity then perhaps there is something worthwhile here to be taken away after all.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Good Night, and Good Luck - George Clooney - 2005

A fascinating if slight political film that is elegantly directed by George Clooney (showing how much he’s learned since Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), Good Night, and Good Luck, examines the battle that took place between veteran news broadcaster Ed Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy at the height of the latter’s Communist witch hunt. Shooting the whole thing in black and white and using period songs at key moments Clooney takes us straight into the 1950’s vibe, quickly and economically creating the atmosphere of a bustling news room to serve as the backdrop for what would make broadcasting history. Murrow as played by the beautifully understated David Strathairn (perfect casting) cuts a dignified and respectable figure who decides to challenge McCarthy’s methods because he genuinely believes that the purpose of broadcast journalism is to highlight injustice wherever it may be found. McCarthy in a key directorial decision is not played by an actor but simply his own archive footage which shows with savage irony how unjustified and ridiculous McCarthy’s dirt digging rants really were, especially in the face of Murrow’s calm and incisive commentary. With such juicy drama playing out between the pair it seems surprising that Clooney chooses to skip through the narrative in a mere ninety minutes and simply focus in on key moments in the ongoing debate, a fact that also never gives us the chance to grasp many of the supporting characters; for example why exactly is the marriage of Patricia Clarkson and Robert Downey Jr. not allowed in the newsroom? Interestingly this means we never really get inside Murrow’s head (probably why the Oscar nominated Strathairn didn’t win) and he remains for the large part a figurehead, inspiring the loyalty of his co-workers and the respect of us in the audience; one has to turn to the epilogue to find Clooney’s reasoning. A long time after the main events, Murrow makes a speech decrying lazy populist television and championing the sort of challenging journalism that he made famous in the McCarthy debate and it is clear that this is what Clooney wants us to take away. If the history feels confusing and rushed its because he isn’t interested in that in itself but rather what drives the characters in this particular situation, an ideal all too rarely seen in the modern world: integrity.

Cedar Rapids - Miguel Arteta - 2011

The Hangover was a sleeper hit that made all three of its leading men into bankable faces so after Bradley Cooper has become a bona fide leading man in Limitless and Zach Galifiankis has taken his hairy/stupid act elsewhere, it’s a pleasure to find Ed Helms a.k.a Stu with his own vehicle. Cedar Rapids takes the naive innocent that Helms does so well and shoves him into the sordid world of a hotel insurance convention (no really) and throws enough drink, drugs, casual sex, bribery, corruption and hypocrisy at him to make him grow up. This sounds hilarious but actually takes a long time to get going as director Miguel Arteta avoids going straight for the gags and instead takes the time to develop the characters of Helms and the other eccentrics he's reluctantly introduced to. This means that at times the pacing is almost too slow for what would appear to be a light comedy but it pays off in the final forty-five minutes with a stream of jokes that feel all the more richer coming from heartfelt characters rather than just being stuck in for the sake of it. Helms has yet to demonstrate any real range as an actor but with this line of sweet and naive innocents he has a niche that he could easily make a career out of.

Cassandra’s Dream - Woody Allen - 2007

Cassandra’s Dream is Woody Allen’s third film since his arrival in London following on from the unreleased Scoop and 2005’s intriguing Match Point, a film that saw the writer/director moving into thriller based territory with some success. Sadly it seems that this may have been a once off since Cassandra’s Dream leaves us with an equally tragic story that is only occasionally gripping and is sadly let down by an unevenly paced script and some distinctly dodgy casting. In Match Point Allen told the story of a man drawn into a double life of deceit and murder by his own greed and he attempts to do something similar here, following two brothers who in attempting to solve their money troubles only make matters worse for themselves, but strangely he moves away from the upper classes he looked at last time and sets this piece among the lower middle classes of East London. Sadly Allen has even less of an ear for East End vernacular than he did for RP English but tragically he carries on regardless leaving his cast to flounder as best they can. Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell are both talented leading men in their own way but neither one is from East London and crucially neither is good enough to convince an audience otherwise, which means that however hard they try the film is gasping for credibility from the outset. The supporting characters fare better – Hayley Atwell is a strikingly sexy presence – but they are never enough to make the film more than mildly engaging. Allen still shows some flashes of style – the camera tracking to hide behind a hedge at the crucial moment so we hear but don’t actually see the crucial murder is a nice touch – but his inexperience and lack of connection with his characters means that this never has the impact of his earlier work. A classically beautiful score from Philip Glass seems to imply that this is meant to come across as a moving Shakespearean tragedy. In Allen’s hands it doesn’t.

Ned Kelly - Gregor Jordan - 2003

Purporting to tell the true story of the Nineteenth Century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, the film of the same name takes pleasure in recreating all the period details but ultimately is too earnest in its quest to do Kelly justice for it to have enough of an impact. Debate continues to rage between historians as to whether the outlaw was a vicious killer who terrorised the Victoria territory or simply an ordinary man who was driven to crime by persistent police persecution but director Gregor Jordan makes it clear from the off that he favours the Robin Hood version of the history. As played by Heath Ledger with his usual rugged charisma, Kelly is an honest and hard working son of Irish convicts who refuses to accept the bullying and cheating methods employed by the Australian police and so is eventually driven into living as an outlaw, robbing banks so he can secretly supply his friends and family with money but never killing unless he has to. This is all very well but with the Kelly family and the police painted in such broad shades of white and black, it’s hard not to feel that Jordan is whitewashing history in order to create an idealised portrait of Kelly, which given the many varied points of view involved feels almost like a cop-out. Jordan doesn’t shy away from depicting the violence when Kelly finally shoots down a policeman, but by then we’ve already seen him engage in a clumsy and unnecessary flirtation with Naomi Watts and suffer unwarranted verbal and physical abuse along with his family from the police, so its inevitable that we are going to sympathise with him by then whatever he does. From then on Jordan struggles to encompass Kelly’s growing notoriety into the short running time before the climax, veering tonally between comedic moments as sidekick Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom) seduces a banker’s wife under her husband’s nose and some serious drama as the gang are forced to start eating their horses, but never quite finding a medium to settle on. The final showdown between the four gang members and the small army of police led by Lieutenant Hare (an underused Geoffrey Rush) does achieve the moments of emotional connection that Jordan has been straining for as the police brutally shoot down innocent bystanders and the quartet face their fate with tragic stoicism, but by then this isn’t enough to leave the audience with anything more than the briefest sense of injustice at Kelly’s story. By daring to go more in depth and view Kelly as a complex character rather than just a tragic hero, Jordan might well have created an even more powerful film.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Avatar - James Cameron - 2009

Avatar has been promoted to death as the next stepping stone in the evolution of cinema so now that it is finally here does it live up to the hype? Happily the answer is mostly yes. To get the quibbles out of the way first, the story runs along very familiar and thus highly predictable tracks with the result that all of the plot twists can be seen a mile off and the film's obvious environmental message comes across as rather heavy handed. Narrative problems aside however, Avatar is indeed a revolutionary piece of cinema in that from now on, every other action/fantasy director will most likely have to severely up their game if they want to compete. Put simply the world of Pandora where the story is set is absolutely mind-blowing. The running time maybe long given the meagre amount of story to tell but with a highly detailed and inventive eco-system on show, Cameron can dare to take plenty of time as Jake (Sam Worthington) explores Pandora's wonders with sights like towering monoliths of trees and gorgeously glowing plants that light up on contact making this an astonishing visual experience. However the true wonders are saved for the final battle sequence that brings new meaning to the phrase epic as Cameron's camera flies with his Na'vi heroes into battle against Stephen Lang's heavily armed battleships, zooming around wondrous floating islands in shots of such dazzling complexity that you’re literally left breathless from the ride. Without a doubt this is literally now the biggest fantasy/action film out there. Technically at least, the stakes have well and truly been raised.

Amores Perros - Alejandro González Iñárritu - 2000

Alejandro González Iñárritu's debut is an ambitiously epic interweaving tale of how random people from different walks of life are brought together by one tragic a car crash. Splintering off from this one event forwards and backwards in time, Iñárritu uses each of the three stories to examine love in its different forms and how in all cases it turns out to be as the title suggests, a bitch. Thus we watch Gael Garcia Bernal's Octavio fruitlessly pining after his sister-in-law Susana (Vanessa Bauche), the traumas of Valeria, a model (Goya Toledo) whose new relationship is falling apart thanks to her injuries, and a tramp (Emilio Echevarria) who stalks the daughter who believes that he's dead. The intriguing premise that links them all however is that each story revolves around dogs. In the silliest segment of the film Valeria’s pampered pet disappears beneath the floorboards in a forerunner of her own abandonment by a callous industry, but the stories of Octavio and the tramp take us via the adventures of the same dog into a very different world. Coffy is a champion dog fighter making money for Octavio's plans to escape with Susana, a practice that is shot by Innaritu in all its gritty realism, providing a shocking and eye-opening viewpoint on a vicious sport that is little known in this country. In attempting to bring together such disparate walks of life into one film Iñárritu is occasionally too ambitious, dragging out some stories longer than necessary, but as both an exposé of the darker underside of Mexico City and a wider examination of the nature of love through our relationships with dogs, this is an impressive debut.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn - Steven Spielberg - 2011

It has been over three years last since Steven Spielberg last entertained us with the questionable franchise sequel Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, so his return is good news in itself but when that return is a motion-capture adaptation of the adventures of Tintin, the legendary comic-book reporter from Belgium, there is definite cause for excitement. Motion-capture films which are shot entirely on an empty soundstage with actors in grey pyjamas were pioneered by Spielberg’s good friend Robert Zemeckis with The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol all proving to be fairly successful but Spielberg himself has never stepped beyond the grounds of conventional movie making so this was always going to be an intriguing experiment as well. Happily the veteran director rises to the new challenges and opportunities that the medium affords, creating a delightfully buoyant adventure of the sort he hasn’t really done since Jurassic Park and a film that not only surpasses Zemeckis’ efforts for visual daring but makes the breakthroughs in technical realism that he never managed, creating detailed characters that aren’t so dead behind the eyes. Adapted from three of the graphic novels by Belgian writer Hergé, The Secret of the Unicorn sees the famous reporter (Jamie Bell) set out with his faithful dog Snowy on a treasure hunt, that introduces him to the rambunctious Captain Haddock (mo-cap veteran Andy Serkis) and takes him from Europe to the deserts of North Africa and back, via plenty of antics on the high seas. From the opening scene in a Belgian street market (complete with a perfect introduction to the character via the original drawing), Spielberg never lets up the pace whether he’s sneaking after Tintin in a deserted mansion, catching them in a breakneck motorbike chase through an African city or in the film’s best sequence relating the history of Haddock’s ancestor. Here in a succession of glorious edits and camera moves we are taken from an increasingly rambunctious Haddock into a pirate battle and back again with such elegant style that it’s hard not to feel Spielberg’s excitement in the possibilities this new medium has to offer. Its not perfect – Simon Pegg and Nick Frost fail to register as the Thompson twins, while some fans may be disappointed by the seeming lack of regard for Hergé’s sequel Red Rackham’s Treasure – but in embracing this new technology Spielberg has made a blockbuster that is far more fresh and exciting than a lot of the comic book derived efforts to appear in recent years. And it’s got a really cute dog.

Natural Born Killers - Oliver Stone - 1994

A vicious blast of surreal sounds and images, Natural Born Killers must surely stand as Oliver Stone's most experimental film. Satirising the American media circus that can turn Mickey and Mallory (career defining performances from Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), a pair of serial killers into national celebrities, Stone opts to abandon his usual straightforward storytelling technique to create some visual mayhem that initially appears confusing but culminates in some of the most visceral and disturbing scenes Stone has ever put on camera. The first half of the film gives us some rough snapshots of the pair's killing spree shot with enough spinning cameras, swirling colours and occasional shots of a dragon (played by a feeble looking puppet) to make an unprepared audience feel quite disorientated. These moments are interspersed with flashbacks to Mallory's abusive home life that in a disturbing comment on TV entertainment is shot like a cheap sitcom complete with canned laughter for every grotesque abuse inflicted by the reliably repulsive Rodney Dangerfield playing her father. The film really takes off though in the second half when the killers are locked away and a sleazy media hack played by Robert Downey Jr. in one of his first and best roles comes in to do an interview with Mickey that escalates into a riot. Shot in a cascade of violent imagery, the riot explodes off the screen in a burst of terrifying energy that communicates the shocking insanity of humans out of control more effectively than any riot scene before or since; and with the authorities led by Tom Sizemore and an OTT Tommy Lee Jones (leaning dangerously close to Two-Face excesses) shown to be just as vicious and corrupt as the prisoners, we are left with a scathing view of the violence humans are capable of inflicting on each other for no reason other than entertainment. Despite superficial similarities to Bonnie & Clyde, it’s no longer surprising by this point to realise that Natural Born Killers isn't likely to satisfy any innate feelings of justice in the same way.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Ocean’s Eleven - Steven Soderbergh - 2001

After a series of worthy and artsy but generally dull films both before and since, it is something of a surprise to find Steven Soderbergh directing a crowd-pleasing crime caper in the shape of this remake of the 1960 Rat Pack starring Ocean’s 11. And although Soderbergh's cold approach still affects the film - the colours and some of the performances on show here are often clinical and muted - this is still a much more entertaining watch than most of his canon, largely thanks to a sheen of laidback cool that makes dialogue, acting and even music seem glossy when in other hands it could almost be dull. Danny Ocean leader of the gang is a role that epitomises the Clooney archetype; smooth, charming and always ready with a sly quip, the star oozes enough charisma to drive the whole show while generously allowing time for the other gang members to shine. Most notable among these are Brad Pitt whose chemistry and dry banter with Clooney is a delight and Scott Caan and Casey Affleck as the drivers whose constant bickering provides the films biggest laughs. Julia Roberts (always an overrated actress) makes little impact as the love interest, but Andy Garcia makes a convincingly threatening villain without ever having to raise his voice. The film takes a while to get going but once the heist begins proper the film doesn't stop ticking, moving through the incredibly complex plot with enough pace to cover up the plot holes that might occur later. Now if only Soderbergh could take some of this lightness and pacing into his more personal work then it might have made more of an impact.

Gone with the Wind - George Cukor & Sam Wood - 1939

A grand and beautiful Civil War epic from the golden age of Hollywood, Gone with the Wind might be nearly four hours long, but rather than being long-winded and boring, the film is by turns gripping, charming, funny and tear-jerking. Adapted from the epic tome by one-hit novelist Margaret Mitchell, the film takes several directors to travel from a Georgian cotton plantation to Atlanta and back again whilst putting the characters through the traumas of both the American Civil War and its aftermath. Seen through the eyes of spoilt brat Scarlett O'Hara the film by rights should be a difficult watch with such a mean-hearted protagonist, but English actress Vivien Leigh delivers a miraculous performance, perfectly capturing the contradictory nature of Mitchell’s Scarlett and ensuring that she is always sympathetic and never unwatchable, even at her worst moments as she grossly mistreats the men in her life. Clark Gable and Leslie Philips can’t quite nail the complexities of the two most important of these men, Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes, but Olivia de Haviland does a splendid job in making wet blanket Melanie Hamilton a lovable character when in other hands she would probably come across as boring. The one issue with the film that could hinder its continued acceptance as a cinema classic is its perceived casual racism that roots the film firmly in the past. Mitchell’s book takes a long time to establish the many different attitudes towards race in the South at this time, suggesting that it is a PC generalisation to assume that slaves were mistreated and unhappy when in fact many (but in no means all) slaves were born into this way of life and thus were content with it having known no other, developing a fierce loyalty to their white ‘families’ beyond what some would assume is a natural loyalty to one’s race. The film however loses all this subtext and thus only shows what appears to be an idealised picture of life in the Deep South where the slaves are all happy people, awkwardly showing them as simply content to loyally serve white people come what may. Hattie McDaniel's famous Mammy is therefore a lovable and often funny creation but often comes across on screen as nothing more than a rigidly defined stereotype when actually Mitchell wrote of an old woman who loved and raised Scarlett from a baby and was terrified by the thought of other African Americans being freed to do as they pleased. In the end however these issue simply serve as a constant reminder of how old the film is, a fact that actually makes its achievements in transferring this epic story onto the big screen all the more remarkable.

Fish Tank - Andrea Arnold - 2009

Andrea Arnold's debut film Red Road stormed the festival circuit, while this her second film has premiered with comparatively little fanfare which is a shame since it is very much the stronger of the two. Moving from the tower blocks of Scotland to the housing estates of Essex, Arnold this time focuses on fifteen year old Mia, an ordinary teenager teetering on the brink of adulthood and awash with strange emotions she doesn't understand. Newcomer Katie Jarvis was plucked from the streets where Arnold spotted her to play Mia and it is here that Fish Tank gains its greatest strength as she delivers a performance of astonishing intensity, finding a realism that more technically proficient actors probably couldn't match. Matching her with Kierston Wareing as her mother and the scene-stealing Rebecca Griffiths as her little sister and with strong support from Michael Fassbender as the scary but seductive older man in her life, Arnold effortlessly draws gentle comedy and intense heartbreak from Mia's clashes and relationships with her family. Used to communicating with swear words, expressing emotion is clearly something beyond the three of them, but you only have to watch Griffiths' unique way of saying 'I love you' at the end to know the emotion is always there despite the events that they go through. And this is probably Arnold's greatest success – by finding and showing a rare humanity in people too often dismissed by a middle class industry and audience, Fish Tank has a valuable lesson for us: chavs are people too.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - Terry Gilliam - 1998

Even alongside all of Terry Gilliam's crazy fantasy movies, this drug-fuelled trip through seventies Las Vegas completely takes the biscuit. How much you appreciate the film could depend a lot on how much experience you have with drugs. Adapting the memoir of legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Gilliam shoots Vegas from the perspective of two terminally high drug fiends so we are granted a disorientating riot of insanely random images, sounds and dialogue that might be an excellent approximation of a drug trip but can get a little relentless if you don’t know what to expect. Happily when things get too head splitting, leading men Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro are never far away with some crazy comedy gold to lighten things up: highlights include Depp throwing oranges at Del Toro in the bath, the pair's hysterical attempt to enter a circus high on ether or the marvellously subversive image of the pair sitting in on an anti-drugs conference. However despite the alarming antics on show it’s Gilliam's somewhat vague approach to the drug issue that make this occasionally uncomfortable viewing. As the film swings between comedy mayhem and just mayhem, we're clearly meant to root for the pair but it’s hard to tell whether Gilliam is condoning or condemning their behaviour? It’s not until near the end that we're granted a clue. All the way through, Depp's manic and slightly doleful narration has powered the film and thus the final image of him typing away by candlelight in a hotel suite that looks like a war zone lends the character a melancholy air that suggests he is vaguely aware of the consequences of his actions. Will the audience be though? That is the crucial question and whether it’s because he’s on unfamiliar ground with this subject matter or he just wants to avoid facing it, Gilliam skirts the issue.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Gauntlet - Clint Eastwood - 1977

Clint Eastwood’s sixth film as director, The Gauntlet sees that star at his most uninspired, turning out a predictable tale of police corruption that was seemingly written around the old saying ‘run the gauntlet’. Clint plays Ben Shockley a burnt out policeman who, like many of his other leading men, is nothing more than a sub-par version of his famous Harry Callahan persona that under his own direction seems disturbingly happy to let his leading lady Sondra Locke be abused both physically and verbally before she inevitably falls in love with him. Locke, who was Eastwood’s mistress at the time, is an attractive leading lady but sadly not a good enough actress to convincingly play a hard-bitten prostitute; would be tough-girl lines that sound OK in the mouth of someone more talented, simply sound wooden when delivered by Locke. Together the pair of them travel from Las Vegas to Phoenix while being hunted by corrupt police in action scenes that have flashes of quality – Bill McKinney’s dirty minded cop is entertaining, whilst Clint does look pretty cool riding a huge motorbike – but are never consistently gripping. The finale that sees the pair drive an armoured bus directly into a police ambush (the gauntlet of the title) is not only fatally lacking in pace or tension but brings the film to a close with an anticlimax that throws all logic out of the window and ends on the purely nonsensical. Of course at this stage in his career Clint was still discovering himself as a director but when The Gauntlet is compared with masterpieces like High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales that both came before it, its clear that his burgeoning talents where lost outside of the Wild West.

Source Code - Duncan Jones - 2011

Director Duncan Jones created a landmark piece of science fiction with his debut film Moon and so it is exciting to find that he's stuck with the genre for his first big budget project in Hollywood. Source Code is more commercial in style and approach (It has explosions! It has more than one character!) which takes away some of the edge that made Moon so special but Jones still manages to create a unique sci-fi concept involving multiple timelines and successfully wrap it up in a satisfying and thought provoking way. The source code of the title is a program that repeatedly throws Jake Gyllenhaal back in time onto a train in another man's body during the last eight minutes of his life so he is forced to replay the same events over and over again. Jones impressively marshals these replays for both tension and comic relief (Gyllenhaal remembers each visit but the passengers see him afresh each time), ensuring that each visit is different enough to retain the audience's attention but never losing the through line of the mystery narrative. Apart from an unnecessary subplot involving Gyllenhaal's father, the film zips along at a good pace, (contrasting it with the gentler Moon) and despite veering slightly into existentialism, successfully pulls together all the characters and plot threads to create an intriguing thriller that even has time for a sweetly convincing romance. After such impressive work so far, here’s looking forward to what Jones does next.

Serenity - Joss Whedon - 2005

For his big screen directorial debut Joss Whedon daringly chooses to reboot his cult failed TV show Firefly and produces a refreshingly original sci-fi adventure that refuses to succumb to genre clichés and dares to go in new directions. One enormous benefit is that the cast all return from the TV show, bringing with them a ready made chemistry that neatly serves to make Chiwetel Ejiofor's sinister Operative all the more of an outsider. Like a lot of Joss' work the TV series had a sharp wit coupled with a swashbuckling adventure style that at times made it feel like a better written Star Wars that’s set in a far grittier adult universe and the film keeps this attitude throughout, forging a path apart from the high camp of Star Wars yet well clear of the revered art house of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nathan Fillion in his finest role to date provides the solid centre of the film as Captain Malcolm Reynolds who comes across as a darker more driven Han Solo, Summer Glau as the elegant but potentially dangerous River Tam cuts loose with some astonishing almost ballet like fight scenes and Adam Baldwin and Alan Tudyk provide a welcome mix of dryly ironic humour. The real star though is Joss who in a brave move for an action-adventure proves to be completely willing to explore the darkness always hinted at in the crew's adventures; as a middle-act conspiracy unfolds and the characters are caught between an unstoppable foe and a cannibalistic horde, the showdown comes in the form of a bloody battle that not everyone might survive. And therein lays the ace: by daring to genuinely beat his characters up, Joss has given them a credibility that ensures we care about anything they do and are devastated if and when the worst happens. At the moment it looks unlikely with Joss moving on to other projects, but with a pedigree this good we can only hope that Serenity will one day fly again.

Scream - Wes Craven - 1996

Wes Craven has spawned a whole number of horror movie franchises, spin-offs, retreads and sequels including several genre classics like The Last House on the Left, The Hills have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street so he is perhaps the most qualified to direct this piece of existential mockery. Scream relishes playing up all the genre tropes that Craven himself helped to establish - pretty teenagers bumped off one by one by a masked killer etc - but with the added twist that the characters are fully aware of the clichés to which they can't help but succumb. Using this self-awareness to create surprisingly well drawn characters that an audience might not care for but at least be interested in, Craven populates a taut and scary but exciting thriller that achieves both jumps and laughs by playing scenes completely by the book (every scene with the killer you can anticipate him before he arrives) but stands up as well as an entertaining game of whodunit. Neve Campbell's endearing heroine, David Arquette and Courtenay Cox as the goofy/irritating investigators and Skeet Ulrich, Jamie Kennedy and Matthew Lillard as a trio of alternately creepy and ridiculous classmates round out a film that is certainly scary in parts but succeeds in being entertaining rather than gruelling, disgusting or disturbing and thus winds up being a far more satisfying watch.