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FILM REVIEWS: A

Contents

  • "About A Boy"
  • "About Elly"
  • "About Schmidt"
  • "About Time"
  • "Adam"
  • "Adaptation"
  • "The Adjustment Bureau"
  • "Africa United"
  • "After Earth"
  • "The Age Of Adaline"
  • "Agora"
  • "Air Force One"
  • "AI: Artificial Intelligence"
  • "Alexander"
  • "All Is Lost"
  • "Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Road Chip""
  • "Amazing Grace"
  • "The Amazing Spider-Man"
  • "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"
  • "Amelia"
  • "Amélie"
  • "Amen"
  • "The American"
  • "American Beauty"
  • "American Gangster"
  • "American Hustle"
  • "American Sniper"
  • "America's Sweethearts"
  • "Amour"
  • "Amy"
  • "Analyze This"
  • "Angels & Demons"
  • "Anger Management"
  • "Anna Karenina"
  • "Another Earth"
  • "Another Year"
  • "Ant-Man"
  • "Anthropoid"
  • "Apollo 13"
  • "Arbitrage"
  • "Argo"
  • "Armageddon"
  • "Arrival"
  • "The Artist"
  • "The Assassin" (1993)
  • "The Assassin" (2015)
  • "The Assassination Of Jesse James"
  • "Atonement"
  • "August: Osage County"
  • "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me"
  • "Australia"
  • "Avatar"
  • "Avengers Assemble"
  • "Avengers: Age Of Ultron"
  • "The Aviator"
  • "AVP: Alien Vs Predator"
  • "Away From Her"

  • "About A Boy"

    Forget the Hugh Grant of "Four Weddings And A Funeral" or "Notting Hill", all foppy-haired, mumbling and well-intentioned. Here, as thirty-something Will Freeman - a north Londoner living off the earnings of his father's one-hit Christmas wonder - he looks and sounds altogether different: shorter, spikier hair, cynical and selfish manner, and outspoken to the point of cruelty. Who is going to reform such a self-centred character? Why, the boy, of course - 12 year old Marcus played with style by young Nicholas Hoult.

    Such an unlikely pairing comes about when Will hits on the idea of hitting on available and vulnerable women by attending a single-parents self-help group - Single Parents Alone Together or SPAT - as a make-believe single father of a son. Cue relationships of sorts with three of them: Marcus's wacky mother, portrayed by Toni Collette looking a million miles from her break-through role in "Muriel's Wedding", an Irish blonde played by Victoria Smurfit (familiar to British viewers of the television series "Cold Feet"), and a dark-haired sophisticate acted by Rachel Weisz from "The Mummy" series.

    No prizes for guessing who Will's going to finish up with but, along the way, this a thoroughly entertaining movie, involving both pathos and bathos and both funny and feel-good. Credit goes to the Americans Chris and Paul Weitz, responsible for direction and screenplay, who have stayed close to the spirit of the book on which the film is based, written by British novelist Nick Hornby. Indeed this is an unusually wordy film with parallel voice-overs from Will and Marcus that complement effectively the amusing and sharp visuals.

    Footnote: A couple of decades ago, I was a single parent with a real son and went to a north London single parents group called Gingerbread. I can confirm that it's an opportunity for a single man to meet single women and, in my case, she actually had three children. Whatever happened to you, Hazel?

    "About Elly"

    Iranian Asghar Farhadi both wrote and directed "A Separation", an impressive film which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2012. Having viewed "A Separation", I was encouraged to see his previous work "About Elly" which he made a couple of years earlier. Again he is both writer and director, again it is a domestic drama, but this time there is a larger cast of characters and a more serious turn of events.

    A group of middle-class Iranian friends travel to the shores of the Caspian Sea on a three-day break. There are three couples and their children, together with a single man looking for a wife and the eponymous and mysterious Elly. There is much subterfuge and lying before we find out what happens to Elly and the impact on those who thought they knew her. It is a rather slow work and I was looking for a more dramatic conclusion, but it is a refreshing change from much thoughtless Hollywood fare.

    "About Schmidt"

    This is certainly not your standard Hollywood fare. For a start, the central character is not a pubescent teenager or a comic strip super-hero, but a former insurance man become brutally aware of the fragility - and indeed the futility - of his life. Recently retired, even more recently widowed and awaiting his daughter's wedding to a man he believes to be a nincompoop, 66 year old Warren Schmidt of Omaha, Nebraska is - in the words of one woman he meets on the road with his huge trailer home - "a sad, sad man".

    As the eponymous loner, Jack Nicholson gives one of the finest performances of his long and distinguished career, a magnificently understated portrayal in which a look, a grimace or a tear conveys so much about his inner torment and deep melancholy. He is supported by a series of finely-observed vignettes, none better than that from Kathy Bates who bravely reveals her less than svelte-like body. There is no simple resolution to Schmidt's dilemma, but he is ultimately given an insight into how even his selfish life has made a difference.

    Full of pathos and wry humour, great credit then to Louis Begley who authored the original novel and to Alexander Payne who co-wrote the script and directed. We need more character-driven movies like this which reflect life as most of us find it - frequently disappointing but never too late to redeem.

    "About Time"

    Over the years, British writer Richard Curtis has scripted some wonderful romantic comedies: "Four Weddings And A Funeral", "Notting Hill", and "Love Actually". So, by now, we know the features of Curtisworld: locations in London, upper middle-class English types, lots of friendship and love, plenty of wry and sometimes rude humour, a socially inhibited boy, an attractive North American girl, a doddery elderly male relative, a freaky young female relative, probably a wedding, probably a funeral, obviously some heavy rain, well-chosen songs, and finally a clever film title. "About Time, which Curtis has both written and directed, delivers all the familiar ingredients and is a charming addition to the canon but, while I really liked it, it was not love actually.

    This time, we have two love stories and a time travel device that enables both to achieve special fulfilment. There is the father-son relationship between Bill Nighy and Domhnall Gleeson and the sexual relationship between Glesson and (Canadian) Rachel McAdams (coincidentally "The Time Traveler's Wife"). Both the technique of time travel (clenching hands in a darkened space) and the rules (forget the 'Butterfly Effect') are rather ridiculous, but the device serves to pose some almost philosophical questions: If you could travel back in time to change things in your life, how often would you do it and what would you change? In the end, is it a power that you would use to change the facts of the past or your perception of the present?

    "Adam"

    The chances of you seeing this movie on the big screen are close to zilch since it's had such a limited cinematic release, so be sure to catch it on television or DVD because it is a rom-com with a special edge. Although the couple are young Americans in New York City, it is the British Hugh Dancy who gives an excellent performance as the eponymous IT professional and amateur stargazer who suffers badly from Asperger's Syndrome, while it is the Australian actress Rose Byrne who is delightful as the young woman willing to make the effort to understand him. The treatment of AS is handled sensitively, but not without humour, and the ending avoids the temptation to be trite. A real accomplishment then for the American Max Meyer who both wrote and directed and whose previous writing and directing has been almost entirely for the theatre.

    "Adaptation"

    A news item about the arrest of an American orchid thief becomes an article for the "New Yorker" magazine which becomes a successful book which in turn is optioned for a film. The scriptwriter finds it so difficult to turn the book into a screenplay that he finishes up turning the film into an account of his struggle to adapt the book with himself as a central character in the movie. Confused? Well, this is the writer (Charlie Kaufman) and the director (Spike Jonze) that created the critically-acclaimed "Being John Malkovich" [for review click here], so this Russian doll of a movie is perhaps not a total surprise - but does it work?

    It is certainly pretentious and self-indulgent and the ending is a disappointment, but what lifts the film into a must-see category is the superb performances of its actors. I am an enormous fan of Meryl Streep (who plays the author of The Orchid Thief") and "Adaptation plus "The Hours" makes this is a great time for us devotees; I don't always like Nicolas Cage, but he is impressive as both Kaufman and his (fictional) twin brother; however, the revelation is Chris Cooper who shines as a man whose life is defined by his absolute passion for orchids.

    "The Adjustment Bureau"

    The idea - that someone called The Chairman has a plan for us all which, when it goes wrong, needs the intervention of angel-like characters called The Adjustment Bureau - is from a Philip K Dick short story. The execution is pure George Nolfi, since he wrote, produced and directed the movie, so he is to blame for a slight and silly tale involving frequent appearances of hats and doors in downtown New York.

    Yet it is oddly enjoyable, since it is less a piece of science fiction than an old-fashioned romance between an an aspiring politician - Matt Damon as David Norris - and a successful dancer - Emily Blunt as Elise Sellas. Each of the leads is immensely watchable and genuinely talented and together they create real chemistry. The Chairman may have to adjust his plan ...

    "Africa United"

    This is not a blockbuster film with a mega publicity budget, but what attracted me to such an independent work was that the writer Rhidian Brook is the son of a colleague of mine on the Communications Consumer Panel. I'm pleased that I made the effort to see the movie because it is original in subject matter and talent and refreshing in both content and delivery.

    Everything about it is different from the usual Hollywood fare. The British director Debs Gardner-Paterson is fourth- generation Rwandan, all the central roles are taken by African children, and all the wonderful locations are in Africa while there is some smart use of animation. Essentially it is a road movie with a bunch of kids determined to travel from Rwanda to South Africa in order to be at the opening ceremony of the 2010 World Cup. Although there is sharp dialogue and much humour, serious issues are touched upon, ranging from child soldiers to HIV/AIDS.

    "After Earth"

    What on Earth?!? On a blue planet not unlike our own, a long time ago writer and director M Night Shyamalan ("Sixth Sense" & "Unbreakable") used to make interesting movies and charismatic actor Will Smith ("Bad Boys" & "Men In Black") was a reliably bankable star, but here they crash and burn on a future version of that planet. It's sad really because it is clear that the whole project was intended as a family affair to boost the career of Smith's 14 year old son Jayden ("The Karate Kid") who is the central character of the tale, but the boy just does not have the character or experience to carry such an expensive work on his young shoulders. Will Smith conceived the story and he and his wife were co-producers so Jayden knows that it was his well-intentioned parents who messed up.

    Lines of dialogue and particular scenes reappear in a formulaic script, while the minimal storyline is riddled with incredulity and inconsistency. Set a thousand years in the future, some of the technology on show - like a foldable computer screen and intelligent clothing - is being developed now. The Will Smith character has some kind of special power than enables him to detect a asteroid shower, when all the spaceship's technology fails to do so, but then he is surprised to land on Earth. All the animals we see are different from those of today (apparently they have evolved to destroy humans although there haven't been any there for a millennium), but whales remain unevolved in order to link to an odd reference to "Moby Dick".

    It looks as if Will Smith planned "After Earth" as a whole franchise of films, books, comics and games. Please, Will, give up now.

    "The Age Of Adaline"

    There's a whole sub-genre of movies which 'play' with time and this film falls firmly in that category. Most of such movies are science fiction (such as "Twelve Monkeys" or "Edge Of Tomorrow") or thrillers (such as "Source Code" or "Looper") or romances (such as "Groundhog Day" or "The Time Traveler's Wife"). "The Age Of Adaline" is a romance between the eponymous young woman who, thanks to some mysterious science, is 'fixed' at just 29 for almost eight decades (played by Blake Lively) and San Francisco philanthropist Ellis (Dutch actor Michiel Huisman). Like all stories that mess about with time, one has to suspend belief and, in this case, the narrative is rather slow and sentimental but its main attraction is Lively who performs the central role in an understated but charming manner. Do Adeline and Ellis manage to break the time barrier and forge a life together? Let's just say that this is a love story with a time-honoured ending.

    "Agora"

    The title tells us little about this well-intentioned but sadly unsatisfactory film. An agora was a place of congregation and the word comes from Ancient Greek. In this case, the setting is Alexandria during the Roman occupation in the late fourth and early fifth centuries and the agora is the location of some of the conversations of the central character, the real life philosopher Hypatia. She was certainly a remarkable character, a woman in a man's world who was free of religious superstition and brilliantly original in her thinking about the movement of the planets, and she is presented as a rationalist icon for our troubled times.

    Rachel Weisz is fine as Hypatia and could and should have been given a more dominant role. The sets and the CGI - it was shot in Malta - convey well Alexandria at a time when it hosted the most famous library in history. But almost everything else is a disappointment. The dialogue is wooden and the narrative confusing with Christians, Jews and pagans competing for men's minds (Hypatia is the only female character) and various former associates competing for Hypatia's affections.

    The fault has to be down to the Spanish Alejandro Amenábar who both co-wrote and directed the effort. One interpretation of this film is that it shows that early Christianity preceded modern Islam in having a fundamentalist strand which was intolerant of other faiths, hostile to women, and in conflict with rational and scientific enquiry. But the tale could have been so much better told.

    "Air Force One"

    This is an above-average action thriller from Wolfgang Petersen who made "In The Line Of Fire". Harrison Ford is excellent as the U S President held hostage aboard the Boeing 747 with Gary Oldman chilling as the renegade Russian nationalist. It is all very one-dimensional and far-fetched with a weak script and obvious use of models, but nevertheless very well-crafted and entertaining.

    "AI: Artificial Intelligence"

    The late Stanley Kubrick spent a long time developing this project, but it was Steven Spielberg who brought it to the screen as both writer and director. These mixed antecedents probably explain the uneven nature of this over-long and very disappointing work. The first and third segments are sickly sentimental and clearly come straight from the creator of "E.T.", while the middle third represents a much more violent and dystopian world that owes more to the director of "Clockwork Orange".

    Young Haley Joel Osment ("The Sixth Sense") is perfectly cast as David, the latter-day Pinocchio - a super-sophisticated robot who just wants to be a real boy - and Jude Law looks good as a robotic gigolo. There is even an mechanical teddy bear that will delight young viewers, but irritate others who will think that a miniature Ewok has wandered in off the set of "Return Of The Jedi".

    Certainly I would have liked more science and less schmaltz. Also I saw the movie just five days after the destruction of New York's World Trade Center and my enjoyment of the film was not helped by an unsettling shot where the tops of the towers appear above the flood waters caused by melted ice caps.

    "All Is Lost"

    Writer and director J C Chandor has here crafted an astonishingly minimalist film of great power. There is only one character: he has no name, he has no back story, but he is virtually never off the screen. There is hardly any dialogue: a short opening monologue, much later a brief announcement, and later still a single word expletive. There is even very little non-diegetic sound and such music as is used is muted.

    Yet the story is compelling. An aged sailor wakes to find his yacht the 'Virginia Jean' has been holed by a container that has obviously fallen off of one of those huge transport ships in the Indian Ocean. Over the next week, his prospects - always terrible - become more and more terrifying until he decides that all is lost. As gripping as the narrative is the casting: this lone mariner is played by no less a star than Robert Redford, now aged 77. Ever since he portrayed the Sundance Kid in 1969, he has been the golden-haired hero of so many movies and the thought that this man could be brought so low is excruciatingly painful to watch.

    "All Is Lost" bears comparison with "Gravity" - both show an individual in a hostile environment trying everything to stay alive, even as the chances of survival become ever more remote. "Gravity" was stunning technically and offered a clear conclusion, whereas "All Is Lost" is more elemental - none of us have been in space but most of us have sailed far from shore - and the ending could be seen as ambiguous.

    For me, there are two moving messages. One is that life is worth fighting for and we should never give up hope. The other is that the kind of life we lead is important - as the sailor states at the very beginning: "I tried, I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't."

    "Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Road Chip"

    Somehow I managed to miss the the first three films in this furry franchise starring Alvin and his brothers Simon and Theodore, but I caught the fourth when I found myself with my five-year old grandaughter Catrin in her new home of Nairobi with a choice of 30C heat outside or this movie in air-conditioned Westgate Shopping Mall. The minalimist plot involves a journey to Miami and the challenges of a blended family with lots of dance sequences and music along the way. Catrin enjoyed it and, as the credits rolled with more music, she went to the front of the cinema to do a dance routine which so amused the theatre's cleaners that they used their torches to give her a light show.

    "Alexander"

    I had awaited this movie eagerly: the story of a man who conquered most of the known world by the time he was 25 is truly epic; I have recently read one of the many new biographies of the Macedonian warrior [for review click here]; in his time, director Oliver Stone has produced some fine work; and here he has spent no less than $150M, making it Europe's most costly film. One could not fail to be aware of the panning given the work by the critics, but I figured that it really couldn't be that bad. But, believe me, it is. "Gladiator" showed what an epic should look like and "Troy" was a good effort, but Stone - who, at his best, has given us such impressive work as "Salvador", "Platoon" and "Wall Street" - will be fortunate to survive this plodding and pedestrian débâcle. The first hour is utterly tedious and one cries out for the sort of battle seqeunce which opened "Gladiator" while, towards, the sprawling end, we seem to be revisiting the manic ending of "Apocalyse Now" without Brando's style.

    So, when did it go wrong? Well, seemingly at every stage of the production process. First, Stone - and his producer Moritz Borman - rushed the whole thing in order to beat a rival production (now unlikely to reach the screen) planned by Australian director Baz Luhrmann. Then the script - co-authored by Stone himself - overdoes the theme of Alexander's bi-sexuality which is death at the US box office and becomes somewhat histrionic for the rest of the world. Some of the casting is odd - most notably the choice of Angelina Jolie (only one year older than Colin Farrell in the eponymous role) to play Alexander's mother. Next we have the appalling decision to have most of the lead actors deploy incongruous Irish accents just because lead Colin Farrell (who can do other accents) hails from the emerald isle. The whole structure is a disaster with a boring, and largely redundant, narration, confusing flashbacks, and a total bum-numbing, mind-bending length of just under three hours. Finally the editing is all wrong, as Stone made three major cuts to slice away close to an hour, but slashed too little and disjointedly. The essence of cinema is storytelling and this work utterly lacks a compelling narrative which, given the heroic feats and complex character of the man, is a special kind of achievement.

    Surely the film has some redeeming features? Well, the two battle sequences - the defeat of Darius and his superior forces at Gaugamela and the encounter with Indians and elephants at Hydaspes in India - are genuinely large-scale and exciting, although it is difficult to follow Alexander's tactics. The Moroccan and Thailand locations are exotic, the richly-designed sets are grand and the CGI creations, especially of the glory of Babylon, are well done. The attention to historic and military detail is commendable and thanks to Oxford academic Robin Lane Fox who gets to lead the battle charges as a reward. Angelina Jolie has the best accent (not Irish) and gives the best performance. But this is far from enough to justify the price of a theatre ticket. Can the work be rescued for the DVD or is it destined to sink like Stone? Often the DVD offers us a longer version of the movie, but this time we need a shorter, reordered account with a linear narrative, less talk and much more action.

    "Amazing Grace"

    William Wilberforce headed the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for 26 years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807. To mark the 200th anniversary of the Act, this film tells his story and takes its title from the hymn penned by his mentor, John Newton, a slave ship captain turned repentant priest. Ioan Gruffudd plays the MP and Albert Finney is the priest, while other cast members include Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon and Romola Garai. Sadly this is a work where the whole is less than the parts: a worthy cause is portrayed by some fine actors but the overall product is rather awkward and leaden.

    Link: biography of William Wilberforce click here

    "The Amazing Spider-Man"

    It seems that the world can't get enough of super-heroes and it's a genre that I always find fun but, after three "Spider-Man" movies with Sam Raimi as director and Tobey Maguire in the arachnid persona and an interval of five years since the last film, it seems that it's time for a re-boot. So now Marc Webb ("(500) days Of Summer") takes on the directorial duties and British actor Andrew Garfield ("The Social Network") spins Peter Parker's webs and the storyline goes back to the beginning with a reprise of the spider-biting incident and the death of his uncle.

    We have a new baddie in the guise of Rhys Ifans who, after his charming arrival in "Notting Hill" seems to have adopted the frequent role for British actors of being the unpleasant character in an American movie (see also "The Five-Year Engagement"). At least Emma Stone, who was in "Spider-Man 3". has made progress with a larger role as Peter's girlfriend Gwen (who unfortunately has a police chief as a father). Even Spider-Man creator Stan Lee is back with his usual cameo (look out for the music teacher).

    All involved - especially Garfield - acquit themselves well and the special effects are fine (I saw the movie in its intended 3D), but there is really nothing new or special here. A short clip early on in the credits, however, makes it clear that a fifth episode of the money-spinning franchise is on the way.

    "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"

    This really is a golden age for fans of super-heroes movies like me with Batman, Superman, Iron Man, X-Men and more hitting the screens month after month with big budgets and even bigger takings. When a character seems to run out of steam, one just has to leave him alone for a few years and then re-boot the hero. So, after three "Spider-Man" movies from director Sam Raimi, Marc Webb had such a success with "The Amazing Spider-Man" that he's back with another winner.

    I actually prefer Andrew Garfield to Tobey Maguire as the titular arachnid and this outing he's somewhat schizophrenic in mood: astonishingly light-hearted in the face of any villain but really morbid when it comes to family history and current romance. There is genuine chemistry between Garfield and co-star Emma Stone (as Gwen Stacy) which is obviously helped by their real-life coupling.

    The chief protagonist this time is a sparky character called Electro who had an unfortunate swimming accident with some eels and James Foxx clearly had fun in a different type of role for him. The subsidiary opponent is the Green Gobin whose starring role is obviously being kept back for the next movie in the series, ensuring that we will see the creepy Dabe HeHaan again. I enjoyed the more varied use of our hero's web in this movie for a lot more than swinging from one skyscaper to another. Stan Lee has met Tim Berners-Lee, so that the web has now become world wide.

    There are three writing credits for this film which might explain why some characters are underwritten. Certainly I would like to have seen more of the excellent Paul Giamatti as The Rhino and newcomer Felicity Jones as Harry Osborn's assistant. So take that as a request for "TASM3".

    "Amelia"

    Hilary Swank is a fine actress who has done good work since I first saw her a decade ago in "Boys Don't Cry", for which she received a well-deserved Academy Award, and she is rarely off the screen as the eponymous American aviatrix Amelia Earhart in this bio-pic for which she was also an executive producer. She really looks and sounds like her subject and the evocation of the period (late 1920s and early 1930s) is well-done, while the cinematography - the movie was shot mainly in Canada with some scenes in South Africa - is superb.

    All the support roles are male: Richard Gere as Earheart's publicist and husband, Ewan McGregor as her colleague and lover, and Christopher Eccleston as her navigator on the ill-fated round-the-world effort in 1937. Surprisingly though the director is an Indian woman: Mira Nair who gave us the wonderful "Monsoon Wedding". Sadly the film has an undistinguished script and a fragmented structure, giving the whole thing a rather pedestrian feel, but at least there is plenty of flying and beautiful-looking aircraft, notably the Lockheed Electra of the final flight.

    Link: Wikipedia page on Amelia Earheart click here

    "Amélie"

    It's very unusual for a French-speaking film to break into the Anglo-Saxon world, but this quirky Gallic offering has done it. Some American audiences may find the sub-titles and the saccharine-sweet treatment difficult to swallow, but most British viewers should manage to cope. After all, the Paris portrayed here is the kind of innocent charm that so many of us seek on our holidays there; all the characters are eccentric and we are noted for our tolerance of eccentricity; and, after all, the eponymous role was originally written for the British actress Emily Watson (hence the name).

    In fact, following the stunning success of the movie in its home land, it's hard to imagine anyone else in the lead role than the gamine newcomer 23 year old Audrey Tautou who gives a wonderful performance as the Montmartre waitress Amélie Poulain who wants to escape her own withdrawal from so much of life by giving some pleasure to so many other lives (but anonymously). In the process, she discovers love in the odd form of a porn-shop worker who spends his time collecting torn-up photo booth pictures (Matthieu Kassovitz).

    The bizarre story-line and the inventive shooting are the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, previously known for "Delicatessen", "The City Of Lost Children" and "Alien: Resurrection" (only the last of which I have seen). The - possibly unfashionable - message of the movie is that all of us need a little magic in our lives and, if we can be the one to bring some of that magic to some other lives, then our own will be enriched along the way. Escapism par excellence.

    "Amen"

    The Greek-born, French-naturalised film director Costa-Gavras (short for Constantinos Gavras) has made a succession of powerful true-life political thrillers in a distinguished career spanning many decades. I was impressed by such works as "Z" (Greece), "The Confession" (Czechoslovakia), "State Of Siege" (Uruguay), "Missing" (Chile) and "Music Box" (wartime Hungary). He was approaching 70 when he directed and co-wrote "Amen" in 2002 which, like the other pictures, was based on actual characters and incidents.

    This time, Costa-Gavras tackles one of the largest moral issues of the last century: the Nazi Holocaust. We see little of the Jewish victims themselves. Instead unusually the viewpoint is that of a German SS officer and member of the Institute for Hygiene of the Waffen-SS called Kurt Gerstein, a devout member of the Protestant Confessing Church, who astonishingly witnessed mass murders in the Nazi extermination camps of Belzec and Treblinka and made desperate efforts to inform the wider world and specifically to bring amount condemnation by Pope Pius XII.

    Although an English-language film, most of the actors are German - Ulrich Tukur plays Gerstein - and, although set in Germany, Italy and Poland, all of the shooting was in Romania. It is an intensely worthy work, raising profound moral questions about what was known and what could have been done about the Nazi slaughter of the Jews, but the script is somewhat leaden and the characterisations far too mono-dimensional. In particular, most of the Vatican figures are represented as sanctimonious and uncaring which seems simplistic and may be unfair, although we will not be able to make a well-informed assessment of the Catholic establishment's role until the Vatican opens its records which so far it has refused to do.

    Link: Wikipedia page on Kurt Gerstein click here

    "The American"

    This is not a movie that will appeal to everyone, even fans of George Clooney, who is in almost every scene. His famous smile and immense charm are totally absent in a tight, laconic role as the eponymous assassin-cum-gunsmith Jack/Edward/Mr Butterfly. But I really admired this brave departure from the Hollywood dazzle which has a genuinely different pacing plus look and sound.

    So if you're expecting a fast-moving, action-packed thriller, forget it. After a dramatic pre-title sequence, there is more than an hour of a quiet, slow build up to the retributive finale. The assassin is determined to do one last job before giving up his nefarious profession, but two women are complicating his intentions: fellow shootist Mathilde, played icily by the Dutch Thekla Reuten, and a local prostitute Clara, the beautiful Italian actress Violante Placido. Which woman will get her man?

    This is a visually striking work, partly because of the unusual setting in the arid terrain of the Abruzzo region of central Italy and the narrow, cobbled streets of the town of Castel del Monte, partly because of the artistry of Dutch photographer turned director Anton Corbijn and his German cinematographer Martin Ruhe. The sparse script is the work of Rowan Joffe (son of the director Roland Joffe) who has adapted the novel "A Very Private Gentleman" by the British novelist Martin Booth.

    Clooney is a great lover of all things Italian and this film - which he co-produced - is obviously a very personal work which is likely to be more enjoyed in Europe than in the States.

    "American Beauty"

    What a pleasure to see such an intelligently scripted and superbly acted film that grips you with every scene. The originators of this impressive work are surprising – it is the cinematic debut of both British director Sam Mendes and American scriptwriter Alan Ball and the offering of the Dreamworks studio which originally gave us "The Peacemaker".

    I'm a fan of Kevin Spacey and much admired his performances in "The Usual Suspects", "L.A. Confidential" and "The Negotiator". Here he gives an Oscar-worthy showing as 42 year old Lester Burnham, a nondescript suburbanite just waiting to explode. Annette Bening is excellent as his brittle wife Carolyn and there are some fine performances from youngsters Thora Birch, as his damaged daughter Jane, and Mena Suvari, as the flirtatious muse who inspires several fantasy sequences involving large, red rose petals.

    It's not spoiling the movie to reveal that, like the classic "Sunset Boulevard", the narrator is a dead guy - but how and why he is killed has to wait until the closing moments. By turns hilarious, poignant and shocking, "American Beauty" conveys perceptively and powerfully the seething anger that lies just below the surface of so many stale relationships.

    "American Gangster"

    The narrative of this film is so incredible that, if it were not all true, it would seem utterly far-fetched. A black hoodlum from the American South beats the New York Mafia at their own game by setting up a direct line of supply of high grade heroin from sources in the jungles of Thailand using for delivery the resources of the US Army and ultimately even the coffins of dead GIs from Vietnam. He is brought down by a cop who once passed up the opportunity to seize for himself a million dollars in unmarked notes and, when he eventually takes down the gangster, they work together to bring to book two-thirds of the New York Police vice department before the cop becomes his lawyer and even his friend.

    This utterly gripping tale is told by director Ridley Scott (now a venerable 70) in fast-moving and compelling scenes that make the two and three-quarter hours of the movie zip by. The eponymous drug king Frank Lucas is played brilliantly by Denzel Washington who manages to make an explosively violent and totally manipulative crook charismatic and even charming. His nemesis - a characteristically superb Russell Crowe - is Richie Roberts, a relatively lowly cop from New Jersey who has made a mess of his private life and happens to be quietly Jewish. These two seemingly opposite characters only meet towards the end of the film when they clearly form a certain respect and liking for one another. Their actual encounter comes in a climactic scene that echoes the conclusion of "The Godfather Part I" except that this time, while the big man is at church, it is not his opponents but his empire which is taken down.

    This is film-making of the highest order and should not be missed.

    Links:
    Wikipedia page on Frank Lucas click here
    Wikipedia page on Richie Roberts click here
    The magazine article that inspired the film click here

    "American Hustle"

    "Goodfellas" meets "The Sting" in this gloriously fun black comedy co-written and directed by David O Russell with a cast to die for. I confess that I would have gone to see it for Jennifer Lawrence alone and she gives another wonderful performance as the blousy and totally wacky wife of the narrator Irv played by Christian Bale looking a million miles from his lean role as "Batman", all bespectacled, bewigged and paunchy. The revelation though is Amy Adams who is terrific in the best (and sexiest) role of her career as the Irv's partner in hustling and in fornicating Sydney. Then there is Bradley Cooper as the manic FBI agent who wants to use Irv and Sydney to ensnare some bigger fish and Jermey Renner as the first of those larger fish.

    As if this wasn't enough, there is an unexpected and uncredited cameo role by a big name actor. Plus the five lead actors almost have a sixth companion in the form of their hair, three of them appearing in rollers and one of them with a quiff which alone makes it clear - as if the clothes and the music were insufficient - that we are in the late 1970s.

    At the beginning of the movie, we are told that "some of this actually happened" and that is a reference to the "Abscam" operation mounted by the FBI with the aid of a fake sheikh. But nothing and nobody is real here; everything and everyone is obfuscation if not outright deception. At one point, Irv describes his wife as "the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate" and Russell draws from a varicoloured pallette of talent to present us with an animated version of Hieronymus Bosch.

    "American Sniper"

    A two-word title with the first word being 'American' is a common appellation for a Hollywood movie - think "American Graffiti", "American Beauty", "American Gangster" and most recently "American Hustle". In this case, the real-life eponymous military hero is one of epic achievement and reputation. Chris Kyle was a Texan cowboy who became a Navy SEAL and served no less than four tours in Iraq as a sniper credited with 160 confirmed kills out of 255 probable kills. As a result, he has been proclaimed the most lethal sniper in US military history and awarded five Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.

    Kyle's story - based on his autobiography - is in safe hands with 84 year old Clint Eastwood. This is a director who knows how to portray war, having even made two films about the Second World War battle for Iwo Jima, and as cinema this is a stunning work. From a tense opening which involves a split-second life-or-death decision, the movie never lets you go. The repeated tours, with frightening stake-outs and terrifying fire-fights, represent a viseral experience for the viewer. I saw "American Sniper" on an IMAX screen and the huge images and brilliant sound made me feel as if I was there.

    As Chris Kyle, Bradley Cooper, who has beefed up big time and keeps his emotions tight, looks and sounds a world away from his normal-bodied, emotionally-expressive roles such as in "Silver Linings Playbook" or the previously-mentioned "American Hustle". This is truly a powerful performance. As his wife Taya, British actress Sienna Miller, normally seen as a blonde, also looks and sounds very different from the days of "Layer Cake". Other support roles are well-cast, although the naturalistic dialogue is not always intelligible.

    "American Sniper" is "The Hurt Locker" meets "Black Hawk Down" with narrative elements (a conflict between snipers) from "Enemy At The Gates". If it is magnificent as an action movie, it lacks psychological and political subtlety. Director Clint Eastwood and writer Jason Hall present Kyle (known to the marines as "The Legend") in uncritical, almost mythic, terms and there is virtually no context to the war. But, when the credits roll up silently, you will feel that you have seen something special.

    Link: Wikipedia page on Chris Kyle click here

    "America's Sweethearts"

    So much talent in one film; so little to show for it. The sweethearts in question are former partners and fellow movie stars Eddie (talented John Cusack) and Gwen (a weak Catherine Zeta Jones) and those who are trying to get them back together to launch their last (unseen) film are Gwen's sister Kiki (the always captivating Julie Roberts) and PR man Lee (co-writer Billy Crystal who can be very funny). As if that wasn't enough ability around, there's Christopher Walken, Stanley Tucci and Hank Azaria, each of whom can light up a movie.

    So where did director Joe Roth go so wrong that it all turned out so weak? The key failure has to be the script (the other co-writer was Peter Tolan). The work can never make up its mind whether it is a traditional romantic comedy or a cruel satire on the falsehood of Hollywood - so it misses both marks and leaves one just disappointed.

    "Amour"

    Very, very slow. Very, very moving. It's hard to imagine the USA or the UK producing a film of such pain and passion. Although written and directed by the Austrian Michael Haneke, it is set in Paris with a French script and French actors. In fact, for most of the film, there are only two actors on screen: Jean-Louis Trintignant (aged 82) and Emmanuelle Riva (85) as the elderly couple Georges and Anne whose deeply loving relationship is sorely tried by her succession of strokes. These are performances of a masterclass stature and for this role Riva became the oldest ever woman to be nominated for Academy Award Best Actress.

    "Amy"

    In 2010, British director Asif Kapadia gave us a brilliant documentary about the life and death of Brazilian Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna. Five years later, he has produced an equally compelling documentary about the life and death of British jazz singer Amy Whitehouse. He uses the same techniques: amateur and professional film footage from a whole variety of sources stitched together to provide a straight-line narrative with voice-overs from all kinds of people who knew her.

    What makes "Amy" even more poignant than "Senna" is that she died so young (just 27) and her vulnerabilities emerged so soon and were so obvious to those who cared for her and cared to know. Maybe such a self-destructive personality, someone who was depressed and bulimic who drank to massive excess and took lots of hard drugs, was almost bound to hit a brick wall, but one cannot view this documentary without feeling that she was let down terribly by some of the people who apparently loved her the most, including her father Mitch, her mother Janis and her husband Blake Fielder-Civil.

    Kapadia provides us with plenty of Amy's singing (what a stunning voice) and puts on screen the lyrics (Amy's own version of her traumatic life).

    Link: Wikipedia page on Amy Whitehouse click here

    "Analyze This"

    Sometimes you don't want to psychoanalyze a film; you just want a good laugh; and here's a very funny movie that fits the bill. We all know that Robert De Niro is a consummate actor; what we didn't know was that he has real comedic talent, as evidenced by this hilarious performance as a mobster suffering from panic attacks in a brilliant parody of so many of his earlier tough guy roles. Billy Crystal is back on form as a psychiatrist pressed into service as the Mafia man's shrink and some of the best scenes are when De Niro and Crystal adopt elements of the other's character.

    "Angels & Demons"

    Three years after the Dan Brown novel "The Da Vinci Code" appeared as a film which took a staggering $760 million, another of his books receives the large screen treatment. Although Brown wrote "Angels & Demons" first, the film version represents this story, which is sympathetic to the Catholic Church, as following "The Da Vinci Code" which was seen as hostile to the Church. Whatever the difference in stance towards Catholicism, Brown's work is always terribly formulaic: a twisting plot set over a matter of hours, lots of symbols and signs, considerable running, much desecration of the flesh, the counterbalancing of religion and science, minimal characterisation, and changing perception of key characters. This time it's all cardinals, cathedrals, crypts and catacombs plus a camerlengo scattered over central Rome and the Vatican.

    Again Tom Hanks as the Harvard symbologist does his best with a wooden script (but a better haircut) - at least "Angels & Demons" is less wordy than "The Da Vinci Code". Again there is only one female character - this time Italian physicist Vittoria Vetra (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer). Scottish Ewan McGregor (who struggles to affect a Northern Irish accent), German Armin Mueller-Stahl and Swedish Stellan Skarsgård each play Vatican officials who may be an angel or a demon. It's hard to work out which is the greatest threat: the Illuminati, an anti-matter bomb or the implausibilities of the plot. Papal bull or curate's egg? - you decide. It's a miracle that it works at all, but if you have faith, I confess that it's really quite an entertaining piece of hokum.

    "Anger Management"

    Adam Sandler gives an uncharacteristically understated performance as Dave Buznick, a man with his emotions under tight control, even when it comes to committing to his long-term girlfriend (Marisa Tomei). For his part, Jack Nicholson is as manic as ever as Dr Buddy Rydell, an anger management therapist who gives every impression of being certifiably insane. This is not so humourless that one is angry at having paid the price of a cinema ticket, but it is far less funny that reviews from the US had suggested. Ever since I saw her in "My Cousin Vinny", I've thought that Tomei was a real talent and she - and many others - are underused in a movie that makes one smirk more than smile.

    "Another Earth"

    This wonderfully original independent film is a tribute especially to 27 year old Brit Marling. As a graduate in economics from Georgetown University, she was offered a job with Goldman Sachs but decided instead that she wanted a very different career, moving to Los Angeles and teaching herself writing. She co-wrote "Another Earth" and takes the lead role, giving a mesmerisong performance in a work that provokes much thought. Her co-writer and director is Mike Cahill, while her co-star is William Mapother (Tom Cruise's cousin).

    Marling plays a bright student about to start a degree at MIT while Malpother portrays an academic at Yale. Minutes into the film, the two - who have never met - find their lives linked both to each other and to their alter egos on the eponymous planet. The physics of the movie does not bear examination, but the other Earth is essentially a device to pose fundamental questions about causality and identity and the ending is as brilliant as it is sudden. You will be pondering the narrative and the meaning for a long time.

    "Anna Karenina"

    I've never read Tolstoy's towering 1870s masterpiece, although a copy of the novel does sit on my book shelf in a version running to 850 pages of small print. I am familiar with the basic story, however, through viewing the 1935 classic film with Greta Garbo in the eponymous role - one of at least a dozen screen versions of this story.

    Bringing yet another interpretation to the screen is, therefore, an adventurous act, but what makes director Joe Wright's new version especially bold is his decision to locate almost all the movie in a representation of a derelict theatre (actually a Shepperton studio sound stage). We are told that the reason for such a dramatically changed approach, chosen after delivery of Tom Stoppard's screenplay which was not then changed at all, was the difficulty in finding locations in Russia and England that had not been used many times before, although one cannot help feeling that budgetary considerations must have played a part.

    Does it work? It certainly provides a fresh angle to a well-known narrative, but for me it would have worked better if the whole of the film had been shot this way instead of the jarring jumps from theatre to more naturalistic settings from time to time.

    No version of "Anna Karenina" can succeed without sound casting of the principal role and Keira Knightley carries this movie like no other in her career so far. Knightley has had some rough treatment from some critics since she has had to craft her talent very much in the public eye, but she has matured as an actress from her early roles in "Bend It Like Beckham" and the "Pirates Of The Caribbean" franchise with some excellent performances in "The Edge Of Love", "Atonement" and "A Dangerous Method". Knightley may never have the mysterious allure of Garbo but she can be proud of this portrayal of a beautiful young woman caught between a prim husband, accomplished Jude Law as Alexei Karenin, and a dashing lover, struggling Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky.

    "Another Year"

    Pedestrian. Prosaic. Unhappy. Unresolved. Yet compellingly watchable. This is the latest offering from British writer and director Mike Leigh. He is the epitome of the phrase that "Life is just one thing after another", so this a film without a clear beginning and end but given form by four segments in which the seasons are clearly signalled by the state of a London allotment.

    Leigh is noted for the collaborative manner in which he crafts his work and as usual this results in outstanding performances from a cast who portray some eclectic characters. There's Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) who are not cat and mouse but love birds approaching retirement while still in married and respectful bliss. But Tom's overweight friend Ronnie (David Bradley) and widowed brother Ken (Peter Wight) and Gerri's psychotherapy client Janet (Imedla Staunton) and work colleague Mary (Lesley Manville) have the full range of personal problems that make life so hard for so many.

    There is plenty of pain here but also some humour and much subtle observation of the human condition.

    "Ant-Man"

    It seems that the world is so threatened that we can't have enough super-heroes. Certainly the box office takings of the genre remain so healthy that Hollywood keeps turning them out and the Marvel universe seems to have an endless supply of comic book characters ready for transfer to the screen. I'm not complaining - I'm a fan of the genre.

    The style of such movies varies though: fluctuating from dark with brooding, angst-ridden heroes to light with relaxed and comedic heroes. On the whole, I prefer the first category, but "Ant-Man" is decidedly in the second. This might have been inevitable, given the fun potential of a titular character with a suit that enables him to indulge in "organic miniaturisation" and back in a split second. But I'm guessing that the approach also owes something to the success of "Guardians Of The Galaxy" which really laid on the humour.

    With such levity of treatment, we need the right kind of actor and so Paul Rudd - best known for a host of comedy roles - fills the red-trimmed suit. Michael Douglas adds a bit of gravitas as the designer of the outfit, while his daughter is played by Evangeline Lilly (best-known for her role in the TV series "Lost"). Corey Stoll is an adequate, but unspectacular, villain. There is cross-referencing of, and cross-promotion for, other Marvel characters which will please fans of the Marvel universe.

    Marvel Studios always gives us a little extra after the formal end of the movie and this time there are actually two clips in the credits: one fairly soon into them and the other right at the very, very end. It is very clear that Ant-Man - having somehow survived the "quantum realm" - will be back. Should be fun ...

    "Anthropoid"

    On 27 May 1942, at a tight street corner in Prague, two resistance parachutists - the Czech Jan Kubiš and the Slovak Jozef Gabčík - stopped an open top car carrying the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich with the intention of carrying out the most high profile assassination of the Second World War. The consequences - both personal and political - were enormous. Kubiš and Gabčík, together with five other parachutists, eventually found refuge in an orthodox church near the city centre, but they were betrayed by one of the other parachutists and all died in the shoot-out with the SS. My strong interest in the assassination is because it took place at the height of the wartime exploits of my Czech night fighter pilot father-in-law, so that I included a couple of paragraphs about it in my biography of him, and the church in which the assassins Kubiš and Gabčík died is literally at the end of the street in which my closest Czech friends live, so that I have visited it several times.

    The year after the assassination which made massive world news, Hollywood rushed out two films - "Hangmen Also Die" and "Hitler's Madman" - which gave highly fictionalised accounts of the event and its aftermath. In 1964, there was a Czech film called "Atentát" (released under the English title "The Assassination"). "Operation: Daybreak" - released in 1975 - was a British portrayal of events which was shot on location (in what was then communist Czechoslovakia) and gave an essentially accurate narrative with some fictionalised embellishments. So "Anthropoid" (2016) - the code name for the operation - is the fifth work to bring these events to the big screen and again this is a British-inspired work shot on location (in what is now the democratic Czech Republic).

    Britain's Sean Ellis is director and cinematographer as well as co-writer and he has produced an accomplished work which is even more faithful to the facts and makes even more use of original locations than "Operation: Daybreak". Also dialogue and acting are both better than the previous film. Cillian Murphy is particularly good as Jozef Gabčík who is shown as the leading personality (in "Operation: Daybreak", Jan Kubiš - played this time by Jamie Dorman - was represented as leading the team). Another change is that the parachutists are shown as more human, given to bouts of doubt and fear.

    The 1975 and 2016 films follow a very similar narrative arc, beginning with the jump by Kubiš and Gabčík and ending with their death, so that the actual assassination attempt is the hinge for the two very different segments tonally: the tense preparation and the ferocious aftermath. However, one difference is that the target of the assassination Reinhard Heydrich - who was a major character in "Operation"Daybreak" - in this latest film only appears in order to be attacked and has no dialogue at all. Also the new production opens and closes with some explanatory text that usefully underlines why this piece of history deserves to be remembered. Finally this is much more of Czech work with even greater use of Czech actors and technical talent.

    Anna Geislerová - who plays Gabčík's girlfriend Lenka - is a major star in the Czech Republic. I could have done without the imaginary appearance of Lenka in the final moments but, that aside, the conclusion of "Anthropoid" packs a powerfully emotive punch. Indeed this is a film that lingers long in the memory and some of these memories are profoundly disturbing, but the viewer needs to be aware that even the torture scene of the young Ata Moravec actually happened.

    "Apollo 13"

    I was in my teens and early twenties during the Apollo space missions and followed the exploits with considerable interest, so the movies "The Right Stuff" - a more critical account of the early space programme - and "Apollo 13" - a more patriotic account of recovery from seeming disaster - really appealed to me. In the latter case, director Ron Howard does an excellent job of creating a documentary feel for the action and sustains the tension throughout, even through we know the fortunate outcome. Amazingly Howard used no NASA footage and the scenes of weighlessness were achieved through flights in a KC-135 aircrat. Tom Hanks is convincing as the mission's commander Jim Lovell, while Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon give decent support as fellow crew members Fed Haise and John Swigert respectively.

    Link: NASA account of mission click here

    "Arbitrage"

    This may not be the best title for a film, since many cinema-goers will not know what it means and those that do - it refers to the near simultaneous buying and selling of the same securities or commodities in different markets to profit from unequal prices - may well feel that this does not auger a thrilling movie experience. In fact, "Arbitrage" is a fine work that maintains attention and tension throughout.

    In large part, this is a credit to Nicholas Jarecki, a New Yorker whose parents are commodities traders, who both wrote and directed the film, his first. However, he was incredibly fortunate to obtain the services of Richard Gere in the lead role of Robert Miller, owner and manager of a leading hedge fund that is is desperate financial trouble. Gere may now be 63 - only a year younger than me - but he still looks great and has real charisma and his assured performance makes the movie, although the supporting actors - including Susan Sarandon as his wife and Tim Roth as a police detective trying to bring him down - are fine as well.

    A real strength of this character-driven film is that nobody - even Miller - is wholly villainous, while none is completely virtuous either. Almost everyone is deceiving somebody about something. This moral ambiguity, plus regular shifts in the plotting, make this an accomplished piece of movie-making that genuinely entertains.

    "Argo"

    Rarely can a film title have been so unilluminating about its subject matter - in this case, the astonishing true life story of how six Americans stationed in the US Embassy in Teheran when it was stormed in 1979 managed to walk out and take refuge with the Canadian Ambassador before being spirited out of the country by a bizarre CIA operation, the details of which were only declassified in 1997. "Argo" was the title of a science fiction film which was actually scripted but never made and provided the cover for the six who amazingly pretended to be a scouting crew for the planned movie.

    The work opens with a rapid-fire post-Secomd World War history of Iran which makes plain why many Iranians are suspicious of the West (the Americans and British arranged a coup in 1953 against the democratically elected Prime Minister). It then shows the 1979 storming of the embassy by fundamentalist forces in a style that is so real it is almost documentary (the credits show contemporary photographs which underline the verisimilitude of the movie). Most of the film, though, focuses on the planning and execution of the exfiltration (as the CIA termed it) by the Agency's top 'exfil' guy Tony Mendez. The final segment, a bit of post-escape bonhomie, should have been excised.

    in some ways, this cannot have been an easy film to make because we all know the outcome from the beginning and for this incredible tale to be credible on the screen it could not depart too much from the facts (it is unfair to Britain's role), so Ben Affleck as director has done a terrific job in sustaining the tension without adding too much fiction and his portrayal of Mendez is convincingly understated (this is an agent who never fires gun or even wields a fist but relies solely on guile and sheer guts). Among a fine cast of support actors, the stand out is Alan Arkin as a veteran Hollywood producer.

    Link: the details of the "Canadian Caper" click here

    "Armageddon"

    Why do so many Hollywood movie come in pairs? Essentially this is the same story as "Deep Impact" released just a few months earlier: an asteroid is about to hit the earth and destroy all humankind (pretty serious, huh?). This time Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck lead drilling teams who plan to land on the asteroid and blow it apart with a nuclear bomb. Do they succeed? Well, we're still here aren't we? Like all such films, it is all very implausible but, of all the summer 1998 science fiction blockbusters ("Deep Impact" itself, "Lost In Space" & "Godzilla"), this is the best. It has stars, action, humour, music, brilliant pacing and terrific special effects (especially the destruction of New York and Paris). A little-known fact: at the cinema, the climax of "Armageddon" scored a record 110 decibels (compared to a recommended maximum noise level in the US of 87).

    "Arrival"

    I had high hopes for this movie: the premise (however unlikely according to the laws of physics) of aliens visiting Earth is endlessly fascinating and the work has had rave reviews. But I was disappointed - for me, this was "Close Encounters Of The Slow And Boring Kind" with a lack of entertainment value and a plot that was overly cerebral and rather opaque. I'm sorry to reach this conclusion since French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve fashioned a brilliant work in "Sicario" and there is much to admire in his latest film including striking cinematography by Bradford Young, an atmospheric score from Jóhann Jóhannsson, and an excellent performance from Amy Adams as a brilliant linguist who decodes the aliens' complex language. Ultimately the problem is the story-line which simply does not make sense and lacks narrative pace. I was not sorry when "Arrival" departed.

    "The Artist"

    This is an audaciously original movie that succeeds spectacularly but it is hard to see how such success could ever be replicated. In the age of American widescreen blockbusters with glorious colour, crashing sound. sharp dialogue, and computer-generated special effects, who would have expected the creation of, let alone the acclaim for, a Franco-Belgian 1.33:1 aspect ratio, black and white work with (virtually) no sound and only old-fashioned visual effects?

    Above all, this is a triumph for writer and director Michel Hazanavicius. Much of Hazanavicius' television and film work is a pastiche of earlier cinema and "The Artist"is a homage to a past era. It is set in Hollywood at the time that silent movies were being being surpassed by the talkies, a transition that ruins the previously-feted eponymous, handsome George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) but plays to the strengths of the winsome newcomer Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, the director's wife). In France, Dujardin is something of a national treasure but, until now, he has been largely unknown outside his Gallic homeland. The two French leading roles are supplemented by those of two familiar American actors, James Cromwell as chaffeur to Valentin and then Miller and John Goodman as director of both. But the fifth star of this most unusual work is a talented canine who gives us the biggest laughs: a Jack Russell terrier named Uggie.

    Those who know their cinematic history will delight in the many cultural references, perhaps above all to John Gilbert who failed to make the transfer from silents to talkies. Those who have longed for a movie with a plot that one can understand, despaired at trying to catch snatched lines of dialogue, and feared that too much contemporary cinema is callous and cynical will thrill to a simple and humanist work which has its share of pathos but leaves you with a huge smile on your face.

    "The Assassin" (1993)

    For once, Hollywood does a decent job copying a European movie success. This is director John Badham's excellent 1993 remake of the raw French 1990 thriller "La Femme Nikita" starring the capable Bridget Fonda as Nina, a junkie turned state killer, with Gabriel Byrne and Dermot Mulroney in support roles. The remake follows the original almost scene for scene except for the final assignment and a more up-beat ending.

    "The Assassin" (2015)

    Directed by the Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-hsien and adapted from a ninth-century Tang Dynasty tale, this film stars Shu Qi as the eponymous, black-cloaked killer Nie Yinniang. Visually the work is sumptuous and stunning with glorious scenery, atmospheric sets, and lingering shots through mist or gauze. However, the plot is minimal, the narrative opaque, and the action sequences all too brief. In an interview with the "Guardian" newspaper, the director insisted: "I don't make films to communicate with an audience. I am the only person who I am speaking to." This indulgent style has won over most critics but is hard on the average viewer.

    "The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford"

    The lengthy title makes abundantly clear the essence of the narrative but the surprise comes in the sheer style in which the plot unfolds. Long (153 minutes) and often slow, this elegiac tale is set out in a consummate piece of filmmaking with striking geography (it was shot in Canada) and superb technical skill, especially in the framing and lighting of scenes.

    For this archetypal American genre movie, New Zealander Andrew Dominik was both director and writer, while the British Roger Deakin was director of photography. The charismatic Brad Pitt plays the outlaw with a reputation akin to Robin Hood but a complex pyschology, while Casey Affleck is outstanding as the one-time idoliser turned cool killer.

    Link: Wikipedia page on Jesse James click here

    "Atonement"

    It is such a rarity, but such a delight, when an accomplished novel is successfully transcribed to the screen. I was enormously impressed by the exquisite prose of Ian McEwan's work "Atonement" [for my review click here] and anxious about how it would fare as a movie, but the result is a triumph. Director 35 year old Joe Wright - whose only previous direction was the most enjoyable "Pride And Prejudice" - and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (helped by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey) have crafted a fine adaption which is faithful to the novel but makes impressive use of the film medium to give us a new insight into the work.

    At one level, this is an achingly poignant love story centred on the upper class Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley in one of her best performances to date in a role where her thinness is actually appropriate) and the son of the family's cleaning women Robbie Turner (James McAvoy in a richly textured offering with no hint of his natural Scottish brogue). But, at an another (deeper) level, this is a narrative of betrayal and atonement by Cecilia's younger sister Briony - played successively by Saoirse Ronan as the pubescent and overly-dramatic 13 year old, by Romola Garai as the tortured 18 year old, and by screen legend Vanessa Redgrave as the 77 year old author.

    No film can replicate or emulate the prose of a novel but "Atonement" the movie scores in other ways: an incessant and insistent typewriter-laden score, detailed invocation of period clothing and settings, repetition of crucial scenes from different viewpoints, a sharper, clearer and more emotional ending, and - above all - a stunning, five and a half minute Steadicam shot of the hell on earth beach scene at Dunkirk (actually filmed at Redcar with 1,000 extras). This is almost as good as cinema gets.

    "August: Osage County"

    So many mainstream American movies are set on the east or west coast, so it's pleasant change to see a film located in the mid western state of Oklahoma. This is not an accident: Tracy Letts, the writer of the much-garnered play on which the work is based and of the screenplay itself, is from Oklahoma and one of the ways in the which the movie is different from the play is that the landscape itself becomes a character in the story. Ultimately, however, almost all films based on plays have the great strength of strong dialogue (there are some wonderful lines here) but the real weakness of a static location (in this case, a large house and most especially a crowded dinner table that provides an electric set of encounters).

    It is an ensemble piece of distinguished actors, but the male Letts has written the best roles for women: the family matriarch Violet (Meryl Streep), her three daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson & Juliette Lewis), and her sister (Margo Martindale). This is a magnificent role for the ever-accomplished Streep and she utterly devours it, managing to make the pill-popping mother with a lacerating tongue something of a sympathetic character. Roberts is impressive as the oldest and strongest daughter - a kind of rational counterweight to all the madness unfolding in this familial imbroglio.

    One could almost feel sorry for the male actors, except that Sam Shepard (the husband) and Chris Cooper (the brother-in-law) can hold their own in any cast and the British pair Benedict Cumberbatch and Ewan McGregor must have had their reasons for wanting to struggle (in McGregor case very much so) with an Oklahoma accent. Perhaps one should feel sorry for the audience, since this is a miserable tale of damaged and damaging people, but the fine script and superb acting make the viewing more than worthwhile.

    "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me"

    I can't believe that I went to see this movie, but our local multiplex had nothing better on that I hadn't seen before, and anyway I was curious to see how Mike Myers could be rivalling George Lucas at the box office. The film lived down to my worst expectations - it is simply dreadful. I suppose that Canadian Myers has a certain talent: he plays the eponymous secret agent, the villain Dr Evil, and a disgusting character called Fat Bastard as well as co-writing the screenplay. However, I'm not well-disposed towards spoofs of 60s spy films to begin with - I enjoyed the originals too much at the time and the spoofing commenced almost immediately anyway (see "Our Man Flint" as long ago as 1965).

    What I really hate about "Powers" is the juvenile nature of the jokes which seem to focus mainly around the penis and the anus ("Oh, behave!"). This childish type of cinematic humour really got under way with "Dumb And Dumber", took a further leap downwards with "There's Something About Mary", and seems to have reached its nadir (I hope) with the two "Powers" films, but I suppose we should never forget that the core of the audience for a Hollywood movie is pubescent Americans.

    "Australia"

    A couple of weeks before we started a holiday in Australia, my wife and I rented the Baz Luhrmann film to put us even more in the mood. Like all Luhrmann movies - think "Strictly Ballroom" or "Moulin Rouge" - there are surreal elements and stylised special effects but it is fun to watch, part wallaby western and part war film.

    The setting is the Northern Territory in the three years between the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 and the Japanese air attack on Darwin in 1942. At one level, it is an old-fasioned romance between a seemingly unlikely couple, the prime British aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman fashioning a passable English accent) and the rough-hewn "Drover" (a good-looking Hugh Jackman), who encounter a range of characters with faces familar from other Australian films. At another level, it is an examination of the assault on the native Aborigine people and culture with the 'narrator' being a 12 year old mixed-race boy called Nullah (portrayed by the engaging Brandon Walters).

    It is overly long and overly sentimental, but it has heart and it is entertaining.

    "Avatar"

    Is this the greatest movie ever made? Well, no. But it's the most expensive in the history of the cinema (a reported $230M), it's going to be one of the biggest revenue earners in the history of films (already the fastest ever to make $1B), it's technologically groundbreaking, and we've waited 12 years (since "Titantic") for writer and director James Cameron to return to our cinemas. All of which makes it something really special. I saw it in both 3D and IMAX on the largest screen in Britain (BFI in central London) and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is not "Lawrence Of Arabia" but it is immensely entertaining and its glorious imagery lives in the mind long after viewing.

    Set in 2154 entirely on a planet unoriginally called Pandora which uniquely houses a special energy source inanely named Unobtainium, much of the interaction between the humans - disabled ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) - and the 10 foot tall, blue-skinned, flat-nosed locals the Na'vi - most notably Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) - comes through the adoption by the humans of avatars which only operate when they are in induced sleep.

    There was scope here to explore what it means to be human and what treatment we should accord not just 'tribal' people but artificial creations, but subtlety is not Cameron's forte. Instead we have largely stereotypical characters - most especially in the economically-driven company man and the psychotic warrior colonel - with heavy dialogue and no plot surprises. The messages are very New Age spiritual, with lots of talk of energy and deity, and eco-friendly in a form that is almost Gaia-like, while the military treatment of the Na'vi makes this a sci-fi version of "Dances With Wolves" and the talk of fighting "terror with terror" and use of "shock and awe" clearly relates to recent American action in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    But, heh, visually this is a stunning work with a fantastical world of flora and fauna and lots of high-tech gadgetry wonderfully created in three dimensions that should be seen on the biggest screen you can visit. There is enough action and excitement to fill the more than two and a half hours and make this a movie to remember and - like "Titantic" - worth revisiting.

    Link: official web site click here

    "Avengers Assemble"

    For we super-hero fans, this movie has been a long time coming but the end result largely justifies the wait. We've had two Iron Man outings and separate films highlighting Captain America, Thor and the Hulk. Now these four - plus the lesser-known Hawkeye and Black Widow - are assembled by S.H.I.E.L.D to combat Thor's evil brother Loki whom we have seen before. Balancing so many larger than life characters and featuring so many special skills must have presented a mega challenge but director Joss Whedon - who gave us another ensemble piece in the under-rated "Serenity" - has done a skilful job and as writer he has crafted a sharp script with plenty of wry humour.

    No viewer will doubt that British actor Tom Hiddleston makes a wonderful super villain, but opinions might differ on who makes the best super hero. All six candidates - Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson - give fine performances and bounce well off one another in the early, competitive phases but, for me, Downey Jr is still the ace in the pack.

    There is plenty of action and excitement and the special effects are well done, although it might make a change for a city other than New York to be smashed up and, in the 3D version I saw, the extra dimension only really worked in the final titanic battle.

    "Avengers: Age Of Ultron"

    Joss Whedon has done it again. The man who directed and wrote the hugely successful "Avengers Assemble" has performed the same roles with the same achievement with this sequel. The first movie was challenging enough with its deployment of no less than six S.H.I.E.L.D superheroes, but this time - as well as Ironman (Robert Downey Jr), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo}, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) - we have new villains in the shape of the Maximoff twins, Pietro/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) plus the eponymous Ultron (voiced by James Spader), not to mention assorted other characters.

    So, at first viewing, it's not always clear what's going on but the whole thing is a visual treat and I was fortunate enough to experience it on the Sky Superscreen in 3D at London's O2 Arena. The pacing is superb: it opens with a big action sequence and closes with a huge action battle and, in between quieter interludes alternate with lots more action. All the superheroes get to show off their very individual talents but they are seen to blend as a team and two of them are starting to become emotionally involved. Inevitably, a city gets trashed but this time it isn't New York but somewhere called Sokovia.

    "The Aviator"

    Any movie directed by Martin Scorsese has to be worth watching and this ambitious, if flawed, biopic of Howard Hughes is certainly well worth the price of a cinema ticket. As he did in "Gangs Of New York", Scorsese works with Leonard DiCaprio who here has the most challenging role of his career so far as the eponymous businessman, womaniser, flyboy, movie mogul, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder-sufferer. Thirty-year old DiCaprio works hard at the role and captures the manic energy, tortured expression and obsessive mannerisms of Hughes, but ultimately his boyish looks make this less than ideal casting. Except for a brief and unsatisfactory childhood scene, the film covers only the twenty years 1927-1947 of Hughes' 70 years, a period which enables Scorsese to present a remarkably sympathetic portrait of this complex character which underlines his great vision and commitment to competition - twin virtues of modern-day capitalism. The man's tyrannical behaviour is excused as the product of genius, while his anti-semitism and near fascist politics are overlooked entirely.

    Cinema is first and foremost a visual medium and this movie is wonderful to look at. The grand sets and contemporary clothing - enhanced by music of the period - provide a rich evocation of the era, while the appearance in the narrative of so many movie stars of the time enhances the feeling that we have stepped back to a time when Americans were assuming leadership of the world. The realisations of these famous personages is uneven: while Cate Blanchett is brilliant as Katherine Hepburn and a paunchy Alec Baldwin convincing as Juan Trip, Kate Beckinsale is weak as Ava Gardner and Jude Law is disappointing as Errol Flynn.

    The real stars of the movie, in many ways, are the aircraft, most of which are necessarily CGI creations. We feel with Hughes as he films from the sky swirling dog fights for his film "Hell's Angels", takes Hepburn night flying over Los Angeles, sets a new speed record, twice crashes experimental aircraft, and finally lifts the mammoth 'Spruce Goose' a few feet off the water. This film of almost three hours is longer than it should have been, but it is at its most entertaining and exhilerating when it conveys the adrenalin excitement and social transformation of modern aviation.

    "AVP: Alien Vs Predator"

    Sometimes one isn't looking to the cinema for a profound statement on the human condition, but just for sheer entertainment and escapism. If that's all you want, then "AVP" does the trick fine. It takes two successful movie creature franchises with a combined total of six outings and melds them together in a 'clash of the titans' with minimal plotting and weak dialogue but sustained, fast-moving action. Sigourney Weaver and Arnold Schwarzenegger are nowhere in sight and the cast is unknown - except for a neat appearance by a much older Lance Henrikson whom we saw in two of the "Alien" films - so the money can go on sets and special effects. The final scene sets us up for a sequel which I suspect the accountants will find is a temptation too hard to resist.

    "Away From Her"

    This 2006 Canadian film is based an a 2001 short story by Alice Munro entitled "The Bear Came Over The Mountain" and was both written and directed by actress Sarah Polley in her feature-length directorial debut. It shows the final stages of a long - and not always faithful - marriage between now retired couple Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie), as her developing Alzheimer's Disease necessitates her entering a nursing home where she forms a strong attachment to another inmate. The work is slow and episodic with repeated shifts in time but it is an intensely moving tale beautifully told and with fine acting all round, most especially from British actress Christie who in her mid 60s is still as beautiful as when I first saw her in the British television series "A For Andromeda" in 1961.

    All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.

    Last modified on 8 January 2016


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