"Calendar Girls" "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" "Capernaum" "Captain America: Civil War" "Captain America: The First Avenger" "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" "Captain Marvel" "Captain Phillips" "Carla's Song" "Carnage" "Carol" "Casino Royale" "Cast Away" "Catch Me If You Can" "Central Intelligence" "Centurion" "Changeling" "Changing Lanes" "Chappie" "Charlie Wilson's War" "Charlie's Angels" "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" "Charlotte Gray" "Che: Part One" "Che: Part Two" "Chicago" "Child 44" "Children Of Men" "Chocolat" "Churchill" "Circle Of Friends" "Citizenfour" "City Of God" "City Of Life And Death" "Closer" "Cloud Atlas" "Clouds Of Sils Maria" "Cold In July" "Cold Mountain" "Cold War" "Colette" "Collateral" "Collateral Beauty" "The Commuter" "Comrades" "Conan The Barbarian" "The Connection" "The Constant Gardener" "Contagion" "The Contender" "Conviction" "Cool Hand Luke" "The Core" "The Counterfeiters" "The Count Of Monte Cristo" "Cowboys & Aliens" "Crash" (1996) "Crash" (2004) "C.R.A.Z.Y." "Crazy Heart" "Crazy, Stupid, Love" "Creation" "Creed" "Creed II" "Cromwell" "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" "Curse Of The Golden Flower"
In April 1999, 11 middle-aged Yorkshire women members of the Rylstone & District Women's Institute - an organisation previously known only for jam and "Jerusalem" - caused a media blitz by creating a calendar in which they posed nude to raise money for the hospital that treated one of the women's husband before he died of leukaemia. The story cried out to be made into a film, but bringing it to the screen was always going to be a balancing act, on the one hand being sensitive to the original project and its participants, on the other hand producing something sufficiently commercial to justify a £6m investment from American funders.
It was absolutely right to keep the movie - part from the money - a totally British affair with a British director Nigel Cole and a wonderful cast list of British actresses of a certain age, led by the splendid Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, supported by Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Annette Crosbie and Linda Bassett (all very familiar to British viewers). The original scriptwriter Juliette Towhidi won the confidence of the women being portrayed, but perhaps became too close to them, and Tim Firth was brought in to inject more humour. There are some lovely lines in the script, with the best one possibly being "We're going to need much bigger buns" (see the film and you'll see why I laughed so much), but there is also pathos, some drama and a little reflection, before the whole thing loses its way somewhat towards the end.
This is not in the same league as "The Full Monty" - with which it is (inevitably) compared - but it is a a delightful, feel-good movie that provides a rare opportunity for middle-aged women to carry a film plus splendid views of the Yorkshire Dales that will help the local tourist business. The studio has made an up-front payment to the Leukaemia Research Fund and agreed to donate a 1% share of all the profits, so seeing the film will actually benefit the charity.
"Can You Ever Forgive Me?"
On the face of it, this is not a story that would have seemed to have had sufficient appeal to succeed as a movie, since it is centred on two profoundly lonely souls, one of whom is a forger, the other of whom is a serial trickster, both of whom drink far too much and care for others far too little. Set in New York in 1991, it is the true-life account of how author Lee Israel felt compelled to pay her bills by creating some 400 forgeries of letters from famous writers who, when her nefarious activities become too well-known to buyers of such artefacts, makes an unlikley alliance with the dissolute Jack Hock.
That the film works so well is in large measure due to director Marielle Heller (would a male direcctor have handled the material so sensitively?) and outstanding performances from Melissa McCarthy as Israel and Richard E Grant as Hock (in real lfe an American but portrayed here as quintessentially British), both of whom have been nominated for Academy Awards. McCarthy made her name in comedic roles in work such as "Bridemaids" but we knew from "St Vincent" that she could do serious roles and here she manages to make a woman who is both louche and lush as someone to be pitied more than despised. For Grant, this is something of a return to his eponymous role in "Withnail And I", but in this story we cannot help caring for his future while fearing that it is limited.
As well as being a town where Jesus performed miracles, Capernaum is the Arabic word for chaos and it is a kind of miracle that comes out of the chaos of a young boy's life on the streets of Beirut in this remarkable work by Lebanese director Nadine Labaki.
Twelve year old Zain (played by Zain Al Rafeea) dotes on his 11 year old sister but, when she is forced to become a child bride, his outrage against his parents is so great that he leaves home, only to find himself responsible for a one year old infant called Rahil, the son of an undocumented Ethiopean mother who suddenly disappears. At a time when immigrants are so much in the news, this work brings home powerfully how precarious and indeed dangerous is the predicament of so many of them.
Rafeea is a non-professional actor and Syrian refugee who gives an utterly astonishing performance as the lead character in this immensely moving story, while somehow the baby demonstrates a range of emotions. The film was nominated for Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture and, in any other year when it was not up against the magnificent Roma", it might well have won.
"Captain America: Civil War"
It's always fun to see super-heroes ranged against each other - somehow it makes it more of a fair fight than creating some arch-villain who ultimately doesn't really stand a chance. In the X-Men movies, we've always had this conflict with the mutants led by Professor X constantly opposed by those following Magneto. In the DC Comics universe, we have very recently seen Batman versus Superman in "Dawn Of Justice". Now we have the mother of all civil wars with a team led by Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) battling it out with a squad alongside Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) which presents the largest collection of superheroes ever assembled on the screen. The Winter Soldier, Falcon, Hawkeye, War Machine, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Vision - they're all there. Plus newcomer Black Panther.
The great success of this immensely enjoyable movie is that all these superheroes have a decent amount of screen time with good lines and exciting action. When the two tribes go to war, the result is a wonderful piece of cinematic choreography. So what's the argument between them? Well, as in "Dawn Of Justice", it's dawned on politicians that, when superheroes smash up cities, there is collateral damage - innocent people are killed. So 117 nations come together to draft the Sokovia Accord which requires them all to operate under the ultimate control of the United Nations. Both "Dawn Of Justice" and "Civil War" can be seen as metaphors for contemporary debates in our own world: should our security services and our global corporations be subjected to more regulation and restraint?
As with all the superhero franchises, there are many allusions to previous films, so here it helps if you've seen all the earlier movies in the Marvel cinematic universe and can remember exactly what happened (I have and I don't). Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have scripted all three "Captain America" movies and Anthony and Joe Russo have directed the last two and they have set a high bar for the promised "Avengers: Infinity War - Part I" (2018) and "Avengers: Infinity War - Part II" (2019) by which time I'll have forgotten even more but no doubt be just as excited and welcoming.
"Captain America: The First Avenger"
Of all the super-heroes bounding out of Hollywood at an ever-increasing rate, none is more quintessentially stars-and-stripes than Captain America (can you imagine a Captain Britain or a Captain Russia?). Unlike Superman or Thor, his powers do not emanate from another world but from our own scientists. Unlike Superman (Metropolis) or Batman (Gotham City), his locale is not a fictional city at an indeterminate time, but the United States and Europe during the Second World War. So this is a mixture of "Raiders Of the Lost Ark" and "Inglourious Basterds" with lots of allusions to "Star Wars".
Original, it ain't. But it's visually impressive and lots of fun. Like "Thor", it was converted to 3D in post-production but, unlike "Thor", I chose to see it in 2D and, by all accounts, lost little.
Taking the eponymous role is Chris Evans who is no newcomer to super-hero movies, having starred in the two "Fantastic Four" films. Some clever visual effects - there were no less than 1,600 in the movie - make him much smaller and thinner at the beginning and beef him up big time after a huge surge of electricity, the staple ingredient of all transformations since Frankenstein. Poor Hugo Weaving always seems to be the bad guy (remember "The Matrix"?) and here looks suitably devilish as Red Skull, the leader of Hydra. It's always a delight to see Tommy Lee Jones who has some of the best lines and it was welcome to see a competent female character as portrayed by English actress Hayley Atwell (whom British viewers may know from the TV mini-series "The Pillars Of The Earth").
If Captain America was the first avenger, be assured that he will not be alone for much longer. He will be joined by Thor, Iron Man and others in the forthcoming movie "The Avengers" which is the subject of a mini trailer at the conclusion of the credits.
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier"
In the cinematic world of the heroes of Marvel Comics, we had the Second World War origins of Captain America in the 2011 movie, starring the engaging but not exactly charismatic Chris Evans, before seeing him back in action the following year in the team effort that was "The Avengers" in the US and "Avengers Assemble" in the UK plus a cameo role in "Thor: The Dark World".
Now we return to an outing with him front and centre in modern-day Washington DC. The flamed-haired, leather-clad Black Widow (an excellent Scarlett Johansson) - whom we saw in "The Avengers" - is back as his side-kick (and I do mean kick) and later they are joined by the flying Falcon (Andrew Mackie). Their foes prove to be more ubiquitous and nefarious than we could imagine with the titular Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) - flowing hair and metal left arm - especially formidable and (for Captain America himself) unlikely. S.H.E.I.L.D. has never looked more formidable with Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) joined by Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and some amazing weaponry.
Those not immersed in the Marvel Comics world may sometimes wonder what is going on but, as an action movie, "The Winter Soldier" certaintly delivers with a cracking opening sequence and regular vehicle chases, shoot ups and fist fights before the whole thing concludes with an aerial battle reminiscent of "Star Wars". The special effects work well. But the film also taps into the current Zeitgeist of widespread fear that the agents of law enforcement, who are supposed to be protecting us, are hoovering up digital data, subverting any notion of privacy, and eliminating threatening assets - some 20 million, it seems - before those concerned even know that they are supposedly a threat. In the massive list of credits, space should have been made for the addition of whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
A trade-mark of all recent superhero movies is the inclusion of a clip at the end of the credits. In the case of "The Winter Soldier", there is not one but two such bonuses, so stick around to the end and be sure that "Captain America" will be back and with the same sucessful directors (Anthony & Joe Russo).
"Captain Corelli's Mandolin"
Ever since the closing moments of "Notting Hill" when the Hugh Grant character was seen reading the de Bernières novel "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" with its distinctive blue cover, like so many fellow readers of this superb work [for review click here] I have looked forward eagerly to the film from the same British production company of Working Title. Essentially people's reaction to the movie is likely to depend on whether or not they are familiar with the book. My three companions at the cinema had not read the novel and loved the movie. I suspect that most of those who have savoured the written version will - like me - leave with their undoubted pleasure tinged with a sense of disappointment.
Of course, a film always has to be different from the book, not least because of the distinctive media being used and the variable time available - and "Mandolin" is a particularly long and complex work. Therefore I can understand scriptwriter Shawn Slovo abandoning almost all the political references and concentrating on the romance, although I think that the result is a little too sanitised. I can even appreciate the need to change the ending and make it more immediate and emotionally satisfying. But was it really necessary to excise even the homo-erotic relationship between Corelli and his saviour Carlo?
The greatest strength of this work from British director John Madden ("Shakespeare In Love") is the island of Cephallonia itself and, whatever the extra cost, the decision to shoot it entirely on location has resulted in some wonderful photography and a sensuous feel to the whole work. The chief weakness is the casting. The gorgeous Spanish actress Penélope Cruz is perfect as the young object of Corelli's affections Pelagia and John Hurt is rather good as her father, the local physician Dr Iannis. But Nicolas Cage is seriously miscast as Antonio Corelli, with mannerisms and accent that defy credibility, while David Morrissey is even worse as the leading German on the island and Christian Bale little better as the rival for Pelagia's love, the fisherman turned resistance fighter Mandras.
Link: my review of the book click here
Following the great success of the first female titular role for a super-hero movie ("Wonder Woman"), thanks to the owners of of DC Comics franchise, it was inevitable that we would have a female super-hero fronting a work from the Marvel Cinematic Universe - another first - and it's a pity that the two will never appear together. "Captain Marvel" is both directed and co-written by a female/male team - Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck - who come to this blockbuster from an indie background but stick largely to the conventions of the genre although with fewer special effects. It is a double origin movie, both explaining how a one-time occupant of Earth (known here as C53) and the planet Hala of the technically-advanced Kree came to acquire her extraordinary powers and how the special law enforcement agency SHIELD recruited the first of a team that was to become the Avengers.
Brie Larsen - who won an Academy Award for "Room" - is excellent in the eponymous role, having built up her physical strength for the part and being equally capable of martial arts and sharp quips before discovering that she can both fling energy bolts from her hands and fly in the sky and through space. With powers so great, she is set to have a special role in the next Avengers movie. Meanwhile we see Nick Fury as we've not seen him before, with both eyes intact, and the actor who plays him, Samuel L Jackson, digitally de-aged to fit the setting in 1995 (the cue for some nice visual jokes). Something special in this superhero movie - perhaps inspired by characters in "Guardians Of The Galaxy" - is that we even have a cat with special powers. It's called Goose and is played by no fewer than four feline stars. Sadly this is the last movie in which the recently-deceased Stan Lee will have a cameo and the film opens with a quick recap of his earlier appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The plot is rather convoluted but that's nothing new in a super-hero movie and it's best just to go with the flow. Be sure to wait for the mid-credits and end-credits scenes. This is going to be a big success which is good both for the enhancement of women in movie roles and for the forthcoming climax in the Avengers storyline.
It is rare to find a film that manages to combine an intelligent script and treatment with a sustained sense of visceral excitement and tension, but "Captain Phillips" pulls it off in brilliant style in a manner not see since "Zero Dark Thirty". In both cases, the final resolution comes in a non-triumphalist operation by Navy SEALs, but here the mission is not to find and kill a known terrorist but to free a kidnapped ship's captain whose location is perfectly known and whose captors are the very antithesis of a man whose wealthy upbringing led him to a perverse global vision. This is a tale of two very different worlds: two captains, two ships, and local destitution pitted against global consumerism.
All the ingredients are there and mixed to consummate effect.
First, a compelling story: the true experiences of American captain Richard Phillips over a five day nightmare in April 2009 when his ship, the "Maersk Alabama", was boarded by four armed men off the coast of Somalia. Next, a sensitive treatment by scriptwriter Billy Ray ("State Of Play") who does not demonise the Somalians but puts their desperate action in the context of the over-fished coastline, appalling poverty and brutal warlordism of their failed state. Then the director: the brilliant British Paul Greengrass who brings us the urgent camerawork and cutting that so characterised "United 93" and two of the Bourne movies. He is helped by the location shooting at sea and the loan of some heavy-duty US Navy shipping which all adds to the verisimilitude that grabs you by the throat from the very beginning and never lets you go. The score by Henry Jackman seems to match your heart beat as the action unfolds and the tension mounts.
And then there is the acting. Tom Hanks - the source of so many wonderful performances over three decades - is simply splendid as the eponymous sea captain ("Cap" to his crew and "Irish" to his captors) and the final sequences especially are incredibly emotional. The revelation though is newcomer Barkhad Abdi - who was born in Somalia - as Muse, the leader of the khat-chewing pirates, the other captain, the man who dreams of being in America one day. The rest of the casting is spot on and, in the final scene, the US Navy medic is actually playing herself.
In short, "Captain Phillips" is film-making of the highest order and you should not miss it.
Link: Wikipedia page on the man click here
This is another polemical offering from British director Ken Loach (see "Land And Freedom"). This time the focus of attention is Nicaragua in 1987, a time when the CIA-backed Contras are attempting to overthrow the revolutionary government of the Sandinistas. Glasgow bus driver Bobby, played consummately by Robert Carlyle of"Trainspotting", accidentally makes the acquaintance of Nicaraguan refugee Carla, portrayed by dancer Oyanka Cabezas, and, in helping her to confront her wartime traumas, embarks on his own journey of discovery.
Often the Glaswegian accents are almost as hard to decipher as the Latin American Spanish, but at least the later comes with sub-titles. However, Loach is known for the realism of his cinema and this film is uncompromisingly worthy but much too one-dimensional. A better film on the war in Nicaragua is "Under Fire".
I have rarely seen a film that looked so much like a play (perhaps Hitchcock's "Rope"). Of course, it was originally a play written by the French Yasmina Reza but, even as a play, it is a story limited in time and space. Essentially the narrative is in real time (80 minutes) and, except for the opening and closing credits, all the action is set in a New York apartment (although all the shooting was in France under the direction of Polish Roman Polanski). And they are only four characters: two American couples played by John C Reilly & Jodie Foster and (Austrian) Christoph Waltz and (British) Kate Winslet. So, if you only like action movies, this is not for you.
But where the film scores is with the cracking script, the fine acting and the shifting alliances: at first, the two couples trying to be co-operative in discussing a fight between their sons; then the couples taking sides in support of their respective off-spring; next each husband and wife in conflict with one another; eventually the men and women forming gender coalitions. More and more, we are reminded that the veneer of civility is so thin that it can be torn open by an argument, a word, a gesture. As one character puts it: "I believe in the god of carnage. The god whose rule's been unchallenged since time immemorial."
I saw "Carol" in the same week as I viewed "Brooklyn" and the two films can be seen as companion pieces. Both have a single word, proper noun title and are based on novels; both are set in New York City in the early 1950s; both centre on a woman in a new but challenged relationship; both even have a major character working in a department store. A key difference is that, whereas "Brooklyn" has a young woman embarking on her first (heterosexual) relationship, "Carol" involves a middle aged woman, who is already married with a child, having a lesbian affair.
Director Todd Haynes - who helmed "Far From Heaven", another tale of forbidden love - offers us a wonderfully realised work with lots of atmospheric shots through windows obscured by condensation or smeared with rain. What really elevates the movie is the two fine central performances. As the older woman of the title, Cate Blanchett is - as always - simply brilliant, a much, much more restrained role than her previous NYC appearance in "Blue Jasmine". Audrey Hepburn lookalike Rooney Mara plays the younger woman in a much less innocent role than in her last film "Pan". It ends magically with a stare.
Bond is back after a four-year absence ("Die Another Day"). "Casino Royale" was the first James Bond book published in 1953; it was the only one turned into a spoof in the movie of 1967; now it reappears as the latest film in the 44 year old franchise. But boldly, bravely and ultimately brilliantly producers Barbara Broccoli & Michael G Wilson have totally reinvented the brand while returning to Martin Campbell ("GoldenEye") as director.
The core of the reworking is a script by Paul Haggis ("Crash") and others which takes us right back to the beginning before Bond even had his double 'O' licence. There seems to be a current fashion for visiting the origins of heroes who have had previous outings - witness "Batman Begins" and "Superman Returns" (both excellent movies). In this guise, we have a very different, more credible, more post 9/11 Bond: one so serious that he makes very few jokes indeed, one so capable that he uses his muscles more than machines, one so real that he bruises and bleeds, one so arrogant that he makes mistakes, and one so vulnerable that he falls in love.
The triumph of the rebranding though is the choice of 38 year old, blond and steely blue-eyed Daniel Craig ("Layer Cake") as the sixth Bond. Much criticised when his selection was announced, his fresh and assured performance is a total rebuttal of his detractors. This is a very physical Bond and, in total contrast to all the other 007 movies, we see much more of his body than those of the women he meets. The total nakedness and appalling brutality of the torture sequence in the book is faithfully transposed to the screen, so that we literally and metaphorically see Bond as we have never seen him before.
As the Treasury money-keeper Vesper Lynd, Eva Green ("Kingdom Of Heaven") has such a cut-class English accent that you would not know she is the sixth French Bond girl. The word play and psychological sparring between James and Vesper give real edge to the evolving relationship. The Danish Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre may be a less imposing and outlandish villain than is usually the case in Bond movies, but that only underlines the greater sense of realism here.
Indeed the film stays close to the plotting and the spirit of the book, although the chemin-de-fer game in France is transposed to one of poker in Montenegro. The movie even makes use of the final line of the novel when Bond states "The bitch is dead".
In short, this is the best Bond film since "Dr No" and "From Russia With Love". Indeed there are allusions to both these works: Daniel Craig reprises the "DN" scene where Ursula Andress emerges from the water, while the final location of Venice is the same as that for "FRWL". If I have reservations about "Casino Royale", it is the use of the old-fashioned opening credits sequence and a terrible opening song from Chris Cornell and indifferent incidental music (the John Barry theme at the end is too late by far) plus some confusion in the plot, but these are minor quibbles. Craig has been contracted to do two more Bond movies and I say "Bring it on!"
Footnote 1: If you don't blink, you'll see in the airport scene a very brief view of the British entrepreneur Richard Branson.
Footnote 2: In the card game,the Japanese player is given a name which can be pronounced differently from the on-screen version: Fukutu.
official web site click here
official Bond site click here
Tom Hanks is reunited with the director of Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis, and the scriptwriter of Apollo 13, William Broyles Jr, to bring us this gruelling account of a Fed Exs managers four year ordeal on a tiny Pacific island. For much of the time, Hanks has to carry the movie alone, conversing only with a volleyball called Wilson, but he is a fine actor and his deliberate loss of four stones in weight for the later section shows that he is ready to suffer for his art.
The desperate struggle for survival on the island and the acute difficulty of picking up his life once he is rescued are both brought out with power and pathos. However, I was not really comfortable with the Fed Ex product placement. Although the company did not pay the filmmakers, it co-operated fully with them and the work is one long advertisement for the organisation. Also, for my personal taste, the film was a little too long and, at times, somewhat sentimental but, at my multi-plex, it was a sell-out.
"Catch Me If You Can"
Steven Spielberg has an astonishing record as both a director and a producer and, since he burst on the scene with "Duel" in 1971, I have seen most of his work, but somehow I managed to miss the 2002 "Catch Me If You Can" which he both directed and produced and only caught up with it 12 years later following a recommendation. I suppose I saw it as one of Spielberg's smaller and lighter works, but it does have a great cast and a cracking story and, at its heart, it has Spielberg's recurrent sympathy for the confused child ("Empire Of The Sun") often from a broken home ("E.T."). Most surprising of all is that essentially this is a true story about how the teenage Frank Abagnale Jr managed to adopt a series of professional personas in order to hustle his way into people's respect and even affection while cashing more than $2.5 million in fraudulent cheques all around the United States and in a couple of dozen other countries.
Leonardo di Caprio - who has played a number of real-life people in his career ("The Aviator", "J Edgar", "The Wolf Of Wall Street") - is excellent as Frank, bringing both charm and cunning to the role. The breathless narrative of the movie was reflected in the shooting schedule (it was filmed in just 52 days), but Jeff Nathanson's screenplay gives the story an emotional thread by repeatedly focusing on the relationship between Frank and the FBI lawman leading the chase Carl Hanratty who is played by Tom Hanks as both the mirror-image to Frank in style and motivation and increasingly a father figure to the teenager who has lost his real father.
Link: Wikipedia page on Frank Abagnale Jr click here
This is an action comedy which does not aim very high and therefore does not fall very flat. It's a kind of bromance in which the two male characters are not just different from each other (one a short office worker and the other a huge CIA agent) but different from how the were when they were at the same high school 20 years ago (the coolest kid in school failing to achieve his expected future while the fat, bullied kid becomes a turbo-charged fighting machine). No prizes for guessing which of the two lead actors - Kevin Hart and Dawyne Johnson - takes which role (one fast with his mouth, the other fast with everything else), but they are both sufficiently engaging to make a mediocre movie quite entertaining.
If you loved "Gladiator" - and, boy, how I loved "Gladiator" - you'll have mourned ever since that there could be no prospect of a sequel since Maximus well and truly bit the dust. The next best thing then is for actor Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott to get together to portray another heroic fighting figure and so a decade later we have "Robin Hood". While we wait for the man from Sherwood to saddle up, we have the poor man's "Gladiator" in "Centurion", written and directed by Neil Marshall and starring Michael Fassbender in the eponymous role.
"Gladiator" was set at the heart of the Roman Empire in 180 AD; "Centurion" takes place on the edge of the Empire, in northern Britain, in 117 AD. "Gladiator" opened with a stunning battle sequence in which the Romans beat the Germanic barbarians; "Centurion" starts with an even bloodier encounter in which the legendary Roman Ninth Legion is wiped out by the resourceful Picts except for a handful of survivors who then have to fight both warrior and weather to find refuge at Hadrian's Wall. In no respect - script, characterisation, acting, special effects, music - does "Centurion" equal "Gladiator" but there's plenty of action and much blood and then more blood - plus some splendid Scottish scenery and even a Bond girl.
We've long known that Angelina Jolie was more than a (very) pretty face - after all, besides Lara Croft and Mrs Smith, she has given us the Academy Award-award winning performance in "Girl, Interrupted" as well as the more recent "A Mighty Heart". And we've known for many decades that 78 year old Clint Eastwood is an exceptional producer and directer who continues to build up an amazing canon of work including recent and immensely sensitive films such as "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby". Working together for the first time here, Jolie and Eastwood have created an outstanding work that sears into the soul.
'Changeling' is not a word I've come across before this movie, but its definition - a child exchanged for another - tells you all to need to know before seeing the film. It is based on a true story: the disappearance in 1928 of nine-year old Walter Collins in a Los Angeles badly served by a deeply incompetent and corrupt police force.
This abduction became one part of the wider case of the infamous Wineville Chicken Coop Murders and, if the details of the case depicted so graphically in the film were not a matter of public record, one would never believe them. The recreation of the period is brilliantly done and the cast of actors is uniformly excellent, including John Malkovich playing (for once) a force for rationality and justice. Real credit should go too to screenwriter and former journalist J Michael Straczynski for telling an horrific story in a compelling and measured manner.
Link: Wineville Chicken Coop Murders click here
As we know from Michael Douglas's performance in "Falling Down", driving on the roads of American cities can make you crazy. So it's not too surprising when a fender-bender on New York's FDR Drive brings into conflict a hot-shot young lawyer trying to keep his law firm out of serious trouble (surprisingly well portrayed by Ben Affleck) and an alcoholic struggling to keep in touch with his estranged wife and two sons (Samuel L Jackson as a more conventional character than usual). But a mislaid file rapidly leads to a vicious escalation of alternating retribution in scenes reminiscent of "The War Of The Roses".
British director Roger Michell ("Notting Hill") uses some edgy camerawork and rapid cutting to pile on the tension but, just when he should be pushing his characters to breaking point, the whole thing collapses into a most unsatisfactory ending of unconvincing decency. Along the way, Sydney Pollack, who has himself directed a movie exposing the hypocrisy of the legal profession ("The Firm"), is on the mark as the head of the law firm and the father-in-law of Affleck's character, but first-rate actors like William Hurt and Toni Collette are only given bit roles. The whole thing could, and should, have been so much better and the main fault has to lie with the last quarter of the script.
Writer and director Neill Blomkamp is a South African from Johannesburg who has lived in Canada since the age of 18 and is now married to Canadian Terri Tatchell. In 2009, he burst onto the movie scene with the highly original and surprisingly successful "District 9" written by him and Tatchell and directed by him. His follow-up movie "Elysium" (2013) was much bigger in terms of budget and stars but somehow did not have quite the same bite. Now (2015) he is back with his third work which has more of the feel of "District 9" and, like that first work, is written by him and his wife and set entirely in a near-future Johannesburg.
In all three films, Blomkamp uses the genre of science fiction to explore some big contemporary themes, this time how we treat those with weaker mental faculties and what it means to be conscious. Unfortunately the tone is very uneven, flipping from serious to silly. The eponymous robot is played by Sharlto Copley who was in the two previous Blomkamp movies; two South Africa rappers called Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser have important roles but really cannot act; while established actors Dev Patel - and especially Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman - find that their talents are under-utilised.
"Charlie Wilson's War"
The storyline here would be literally incredible if it was not true: the success of a US Congressman with a playboy lifestyle who managed to arrange the covert funding of the armament of the mujahedin resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The eponymous politician is played by Tom Hanks in semi-comic style , while Julia Roberts is the Texan heiress who inspired his interest in the region and (a particularly fine) Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the unorthodox CIA operative who makes it happen.
Based on the book by CBS journalist George Crile, the sharp script is penned by Aaron Sorkin who gave us the television series "The West Wing" as well as movies like "The American President". For me, the humour was a bit too light-hearted for such a serious political theme and could have been blacker. But the film raises challenging contemporary questions about how America fails to understand the implications of its foreign interventions and to follow up its military intiatives with community-building programmes.
Link: article based on George Crile's book click here
I'm old enough to remember the television series (1976-1981) and the movie version manages simultaneously to capture the sense of fun of the original while cleverly up-dating it. It is all terribly post-modern, sending up old-fashioned sexism while at the same time pandering to it. The plot is so slight and silly as not to bear mentioning, but the whole thing is done with such speed and panache as to make it immensely entertaining, borrowing scenes from "Mission Impossible", "The Matrix" and almost every Bond film. The never-seen Charlie is still voiced by John Forsythe (now 81). As the angels, Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore (who co-produced) have a natural comedic sense, but Lucy Liu needs to lighten up and, attractive though they all are, for me support player Kelly Lynch is the real beauty.
"Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle"
The final line of the movie occurs when the character played by Lucy Liu is questioned about her career choice: "It's a no brainer". You could say the same thing about this film. It's not high concept, it won't win any Academy Awards, and it's totally derivative - of the 1970s television series, of "Raiders Of The Lost Ark", of "The Matrix", and much else. Indeed the whole thing looks like an extended music video with thumping rock music and amazing stunts - not so surprising, given that the director is McG who has spent most of his life crafting such vacuuous but flashy material.
Nevertheless, as entertainment and fun, these angels are close to heaven. There is never any need to think, because it's all so simple and signposted - Cameron Diaz in a white bikini is obviously the cute cherub, while Demi Moore - still wonderful at 40 - in the black bikini has to be a fallen angel, while the guy who played the bad terminator and the one who is trying to put on an Irish accent have to be devillish villains. There are not many films with four leading roles for attractive women who kiss ass - so just enjoy.
I've been a great admirer of Cate Blanchett ever since I saw her eponymous performance in "Elizabeth" and she is perfectly cast here as the Special Operations Executive agent on her first mission to Vichy France. Blanchett is the Meryl Streep of her generation - not classically beautiful but simply luminescent, wonderful with different accents in different roles, and a magnificent actress. Ironically Streep herself once played a former SOE agent in the film "Plenty".
As well as - unusually in a war film - a woman in the leading role, the director is a woman, Gillian Armstrong, and indeed this is more a love story than a war movie. Yet, when all is said and done, this is the Second World War and the film does lack action sequences and dramatic pacing. I much enjoyed Sebastian Faulks' First World War novel "Birdsong" and I suspect that - when I do eventually read it - I'll find that "Charlotte Gray" works much better as a book than a film.
"Che: Part One"
A year after I visited Cuba, the country celebrated the 50th anniversary of its revolution and the week of that commemoration marked the release of the first part of this lengthy diptych on the most famous - indeed iconic - participant in that revolution, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. In Cuba even today, Che's image is omnipresent, with a particularly huge portrayal on the side of the Ministry of Interior, and in Santa Clara - the town where Che fought and won the last and decisive battle of the revolution - there is museum marking his life and containing his remains that projects the man as a secular saint. How would this film represent such a complicated and controversial character?
Picking up where "The Motorcycle Diaries" left off, the movie covers the period from Che's meeting with Fidel Castro in 1955 to the successful overthrow of the dictator Fulgencio Batista in January 1959 with interspersed black-and-white scenes of Che's visit to New York in 1964 when he spoke to a journalist and addressed the United Nations. The whole thing has the feel of a documentary, with director Steven Soderbergh also responsible for the cinematography, and the sense of verisimilitude is aided by use of Spanish and actors who pass quite reasonably for the real life Fidel, Raúl, Camilo and the asthmatic Che himself (an excellent performance from Benicio del Toro).
Shot largely in Puerto Rico, this is a serious and worthy work that has obviously been the subject of meticulous research - it is based partly on Che's own "Reminiscences Of The Cuban Revolutionary War" - and many individual scenes are gripping and insightful. The problem is that the sum of the parts is strangely lacking. The narrative lacks form and flow so that the story jerks around rather than sweeps us along and, in the process, we learn little about Che's motivation and character and see nothing of his noted cruelty and arrogance.
"Che: Part Two"
Part One left Che on the road to Havana following the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship; Part Two jumps forward seven years, so that we miss out his time as a minister in Castro's government and his abortive adventures in the Congo. Compared to the earlier film, this second element of the diptych is much tighter than the first in narrative terms, focusing only on Che's year in Bolivia (1966-67) and takes a straightforward chronological approach.
It has some of the strengths of the first film: the cinematography and direction of Steven Soderbergh, which give the whole work a lifelike, almost documentary feel, and the superb acting of Benicio del Toro who - even more than before - is rarely off the screen. However, the narrative is less compelling this time with the guerrillas seemingly going from one place to another with no obvious strategy. The main criticism of both parts though is that we have over four hours of excessively reverential treatment of an immensely controversial figure with little acknowledgement of the egotism that was at the heart of the doomed Bolivian mission.
official web site click here
Wikipedia page on Che Guevara click here
"Chicago" the movie has been a long time coming. The story started life as a comedic play by Maurine Watkins in 1926. Then it was turned into a film called "Roxie Hart" in 1942. Reverting to its original title, it became a Broadway musical in 1975, when John Kander and Fred Ebb - who had worked together on "Cabaret" - produced the music and lyrics respectively. Next, in the nineties, the musical was revived on stage and achieved new popularity.
I don't normally like movie musicals - "Moulin Rouge" was a brilliantly distinguished exception - and, when I saw "Chicago" twice on the London stage, I was not over-impressed, but this film is a distinct improvement on the show. The whole thing is opened up more, with clever cutting between 'reel' life scenes and stage performances and close-ups and varied angles bringing the audience more into the action.
Richard Gere is surprisingly competent as the flamboyant lawyer Billy Flynn and Renée Zellweger is wonderful as the murderess Roxie Hart, but she is in danger of losing the show to Catherine Zeta-Jones who is terrific in what is supposed to be a supporting role of husband-killer Velma Kelly. The Welsh girl has certainly come a long way since we first saw her on British television screens in "Darling Buds Of May".
Based on the acclaimed novel by British writer Tom Rob Smith, this is a thriller about the tracking down of a serial killer of young children, but what gives it a special atmosphere is that it is set in Stalin's Soviet Union (actually just before the dictator dies). Shot largely in Prague, the film certainly manages to convey both the drabness and the terror of living at this Kafkaesque time and the work boasts an impressive cast list, including Tom Hardy as MGB investigator Leo Demidov, Noomi Rapace as his wife Raisa whom he is told to denounce, and Gary Oldman as General Nesterov in the provincial town to which Leo and Raisa are exiled. Unfortunately the treatment is clunky and the accents distracting in what should have been a better transposition of the book.
"Children Of Men"
This British science fiction film is adapted from a 1992 novel by the British thriller writer P D James, but directed by the Mexican Alfonso Cuaron who gave us "Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban". This particular HP movie was the darkest of the series and "Children Of Men" is even darker, in both tone and appearance (indeed the washed-out colours could lead you to remember the movie as a black and white work).
The time is 2027. No child has been born for 18 years because for some reason women have become infertile. Chaos has descended on the world and Britain is a barely functioning state caught between a brutal paramilitary police force, a desperate swarm of immigrants ('fugees'), a rebel army of immigrant resistors ('Fish') and their British sympathisers ('Cods').
Julianne Moore - in a role which is far too small - is a Fish leader who persuades her former partner, played by dishevelled ant-hero Clive Owen, to take charge of a young black woman (Clare-Hope Ashitey) who may offer a way out of this hunman extinction. What follows is then a chase movie with lots of bangs and bodies, with a near concluding scene that reminded me of the end of "The Alamo".
This is an ambitous film that has many political and religous allusions, but it could have done with a stronger narrative and some relief from the unmitigating bleakness.
By the time I caught this film on television, I had long ago read the Joanne Harris novel and bought the soundtrack, so I felt that I already knew the movie. So it proved to be because Swedish director Lasse Hallstõm has stayed close to both the text and (importantly) the spirit of the novel.
The cast deploy a bewildering range of accents for characters who are supposed to be inhabitants of a small town in France but, if one can overlook that, the talent on show is impressive and it's almost a case of 'spot the star'. Juliette Binoche is enchantingly beautiful which is appropriate since effectively she plays an enchantress who uses chocolate as her magic; Johnny Depp always plays roles his own way and, in some senses, here presages his later role in "Pirates Of The Caribbean"; Alfred Molina, here portraying an uptight mayor, can fill roles as varied as a Mexican ("Frida") to a maniac ("Spiderman 2"); Carrie-Anne Moss is a million miles away from her Trinity character in the "Matrix" trilogy; Leni Olin is almost unrecognisable as the bowler-hatted star of "The Unbearable Lightness Of Being"); then we have Leslie Caron of "Gigi" fame; while Judi Dench (spymaster M in the latest Bond films) is superb as an eccentric but loveable woman who wants to choose her own way out of this life. In short, a wonderfully sweet chocolate selection.
Link: my review review of the book click here]
Winston Churchill had a long and complex military and political career but this film - it could just as easily have been a play - concerns a mere few days in that rich life: the last five days of preparation for Operation Overlord, the D-Day landings in June 1944.
As a young minister, Churchill had been involved with the disastrous Gallipoli landings of 1915 and, from the opening scenes (involving a rather lurid imagining of the English Channel turning red), he is seen to be fearing that the Second World War invasion of France could be a repeat of the abortive First World War landing in Turkey. So this is an unconventional portrait of Churchill in that he is seen to be opposing what turned out to be a successful if bloody landing in Normandy and to be overruled when he decides that, if it is going ahead anyway, he wants to be physically present in a British warship. But it is a very conventional representation of Churchill in that we see him constantly smoking a big fat cigar and shouting - almost all his lines are at volume - at everyone from military leaders to secretaries and his wife.
Brian Cox does well in his portrayal of the eponymous great man, although he does not always totally disguise his native Scottish accent and a prayer scene is delivered in over-the-top theatrics (I did say it could have been a play). Miranda Richardson is excellent as the long-suffering Clementine (I liked the endearing "woof woof" between husband and wife). And many of the support roles are well-played, especially John Slattery as General Eisenhower and James Purefoy as King George VI, although one of Churchill's secretaries is given a certain prominence in a sub-plot that I found unconvincing. Every line of dialogue is delivered with great portentousness, either very quietly or - much more usually - at great volume so that there are no normal conversations (did I mention that this might have been a play?).
At first sight, it may seem strange that a film about arguably the most famous British man, whose greatest achievement was to stand against Hitler, should be written by someone called Alex von Tunzelmann, but this historian and author is neither male nor German as one might imagine but female and British which is perhaps why we have a more rounded profile of Churchill than is often the case with acknowledgement of his vulnerabilities and depression. Equally the choice of director is interesting: Jonathan Teplitzky is Australian and there were many Anzac casualties at Gallipoli. So, in short, an honourable attempt to show fresh insight into a very familiar character but a work that would have benefited from a bit more subtlety and less shouting.
"Circle Of Friends"
Based on bestselling Maeve Binchy's 550-page novel, this is the tale of childhood friends Benny (Minnie Driver) and Eve (Geraldine O'Rawe) who, having grown up in the sleepy town of Knockglen in rural Ireland, go to Dublin University where they meet the more worldly-wise Nan (Saffron Burrows). Together they learn more about themselves and their sexuality in the repressed Ireland of the 1950s, experienced by Binchy herself. This is a 'rites of passage' movie that is a million miles away from the usual Hollywood fare - an altogether gentler and more feminine perspective.
Having previously made documentaries on the American occupation of Iraq and the prison at Guantánamo, this is the third work from American director Laura Poitras and centres on the interviews given by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room in June 2013 when he revealed the senational nature of the surveillance carried out by US and UK intelligence agencies.
Snowden comes across as thoughtful and genuine and his actions were courageous and (one hopes) transformative. Poitras makes clear the key role of American journalist Glenn Greenwald but she rather underplays the role of the "Guardian" and its reporter Ewen MacAskill. There is nothing new here, but it is utterly fascinating to see the actual moments of revelation captured on film and truly mindblowing how the interests of national security have trumped any notion of personal privacy.
Poitras resides in Berlin, Greenwald lives in Rio de Janeiro, and Snowden - now joined by his long-term partner - is holed up in Moscow. None of these Americans will be returning Stateside any time soon.
Link: Wikipedia page on Edward Snowden click here
"City Of God"
Cidade de Deus is actually a huge favela or slum on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro and this is a nightmare vision that I had no idea of when I visited Rio itself as the start of a South American tour. Originally this was a best-selling novel by Paulo Lins who lived in the area and spent eight years interviewing and researching for his shocking work. Now it is a stunning film which is the first to be directed solely by Fernando Meirelles who is based in São Paolo.
Shown through the eyes of slum-dweller but would-be photographer Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), it portrays the abject poverty and utter hopelessness of a community on the edge of civilised society which breeds a type of gangster that is so young and so brutal that one is both mesmerised and horrified by the sheer casualness with which life is blown away by the ubiquitous handgun. The subject matter is disturbing enough, but what makes the movie utterly compelling is the attention-grabbing style of the film. The unconventional narrative sequence involves a whole series of flash-backs, detours and jumps, while the harsh lighting, jerky camerawork, and rapid cuts - combined with a young, unknown and largely amateur local cast - gives the whole thing the verisimilitude of a documentary. This is moviemaking of the highest order and purpose.
Link: official web site click here
"City Of Life And Death"
The city is Nanjing, then capital of China. The time is 1937-38 when Japanese forces occupied the place. The story is the horrific consequence of that occupation for Chinese soldiers and civilians alike. The film is dedicated to the 300,000 victims of the atrocity, a figure that is still debated. The executions, the hangings, the beheadings, the burning, the bayoneting, the burying alive, the rapes - all of which happened - are all shown, but not overly dwelt upon. Instead young Lu Chuan, who both wrote and directed, tells a human story, focusing on a limited number of individuals, not all Chinese. This 2009 work was originally shot on colour film and then desaturated into black and white and the cinematography by Yu Cau is very impressive.
We are offered politically correct depictions of the bravery of the Chinese soldiers and the nobility of Chinese civilians, especially the women, but the focus on the international safety zone brings to the fore the role of John Rabe, often called the German Schindler, and other nationals. Surprisingly, however, Lu gives an important role to a (fictional) young Japanese officer called Kadokawa who is shown as compassionate and horrified by what his fellow soldiers are doing - a characterisation that understandably proved controversial in China.
When I was in Japan, where they talk of the 'Nanjing Incident', at the Memorial Museum in Hiroshima of all places I found that the Japanese are still downplaying the scale of this slaughter. When I was in China, where they call it the 'Nanjing Massacre', not least during my time in Nanjing itself the history was still live and feelings remain raw. I wish that this film could have been seen as much in Japan - which has still not faced up to its wartime crimes in the way that Germany has done - as in China and indeed Europeans and Americans should know more, as they would by viewing the film, about the rape of Nanjing.
Two utterly beautiful American women (Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman), two good-looking British guys (Clive Owen and Jude Law), a sharp script from the writer of the original play Patrick Marber, the London where I live, and music by Mozart - there is lots to like about this movie. It begins romantically as each of four inter-related liaisons takes off in charged circumstances, most notably an electrifying kiss between the Roberts and Jude characters. But this is a milieu created by director Mike Nichols in which words are weapons, loving is lacerating, and infidelity is inevitable. As one character puts it: "What's so great about the truth? Try lying for a change - it's the currency of the world".
For once, at a little over one and a half hours, we have a film that doesn't over-run its course. Over four years, relationships start and finish and we are left to imagine what went in between. The language is as sexually explicit as any mainstream movie that you'll see, but there is virtually no flesh and certainly no sexual activity on display. For all practical purposes, there are only four speaking roles in this work and each of the actors gives a powerful and persuasive performance. This is a work which is as compelling as it is cynical and cold.
The 2004 novel by British writer David Mitchell was a hugely ambitious work which I enjoyed and admired. It is six stories with subtle inter-relationships between them: each one written in a different format, each constituting a different genre, each set in a different time. This was always going to be a formidably challenging piece of clever writing to bring to the big screen in a manner accessible to the viewer but true to the spirit of the original work. The film was written, produced and directed by the Americans Lana - formerly Larry - and Andy Wachowski ("The Matrix" trilogy) and the German Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run" telling the same story three times) and, against all the odds, it works very well.The first challenge was finding the money to make a movie which is so demanding of its viewers. During the four years of development, the project met difficulties securing financial support and it was eventually produced with a $102 million budget provided by independent sources, which makes it one of the most expensive independent films of all time. The risk paid off since the takings more than covered the costs, but critical and audience reaction has been variable.
The next challenge was how to structure the work. The novel consists of 11 sections with only the sixth story in unified form and the other five split in two, set symmetrically around the core in Russian doll-style, so that the reader finishes with the second section of the story with which he started. The film adopts a totally different structure; the pre-title sequence immediately introduces the lead characters of the six tales and then the film itself constantly jumps between the different narratives. At first, this is really confusing for the viewer, but gradually one gets a mental grip on the inter-locking stories. One advantage of this approach is that all six tales come to a climax towards the end of the movie.
Another challenge was how to realise the many connections that the author created between the different stories. Some were easy, such as the reoccurring comet-shaped birthmark and the use of the word six as in the character Sixsmith and the musical octet. In fact, the inter-connections are done more obviously in the film than in the book. The main device for achieving this is to have the same actors playing multiple roles, although it is often not easy to pick this out since the make-up is very professional. The eight leading actors play no less than 46 roles between them. Tom Hanks is especially impressive in his six roles, but other stars are Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon. Another device for making cross connections is clever cutting between similar scenes or situations.
The final challenge was how to do all this in a manageable length. The novel is over 500 pages and the film comes in at little under three hours. To require so much concentration for so long is a big ask and not all movie-goers will have the stamina or inclination. But I found it a genuinely bold and orginal work that I enjoyed and will want to revisit before too long to savour the full richness of this unusually complex but thoughtful work.
Link: my review of the book click here
"Clouds Of Sils Maria"
The enigmatic title refers to both a climatic phenomenon called the “Maloja snake”, which occurs in the Engadinean alpine pass in Switzerland, and to a village at one end of a local lake. The village is the home of an elderly playwright who much earlier wrote a work called "The Maloja Snake" about the complicated relationship between a young woman in her late teens (Sigrid) and her middle-aged female employer (Helena). The film is all about the re-staging of this play in which the actress Maria, who originally took the younger role to great acclaim, has now been invited to portray the older woman in the new interpretation.
It is unusual, but a pleasing change, for a film to have all its leading roles taken by women. Superb French actress Juliette Binoche, whom I have admired since her early English-language work ("Damage" and "The English Patient"), is Maria, struggling to come to terms with her different role in the play. American actress Kristen Stewart is excellent in the secondary role as Maria's personal assistant Valentine and so different from her "Twilight" movies. The third role is taken by another young American, Chloë Grace Moretz, who is the actress taking over as Sigrid in the play - again a very different persona from the one we have seen before in the "Kick-Ass" movies.
This is a wordy work but the words matter. At times, we are not sure if the interaction between the two main personages is between Helena and Sigrid or between Maria and Valentine and even between Binoche and Stewart. In truth, there are elements of all three which is how subtle and nuanced is this German-French-Swiss co-production written and directed by the French Olivier Assayas. Ultimately this is a film, like near contemporary "Birdman", about acting but, however much the American Academy may have feted "Birdman", I found "Clouds Of Sils Maria" much more intelligible and engaging.
"Cold In July"
This is the fourth feature of the writer and director team of Nick Damici and Jim Mickle but the first that I have encountered and it was a welcome experience because this independent movie grips the attention from the tense opening to the explosive finale with some gear-grinding sudden shifts in genre.
The story is set in East Texas in 1989, the year that the source material - a novel by Joe R Lonsdale - was published and this pre-digital age is brought home by the briefcase-sized mobile phone and the video cassette rental store. The triple avengers in this gruesome tale are played wonderfully by old-timers Sam Shepard and Don Johnson and younger Michael C Hall, an unlikely teaming in an atmospheric thriller that has you constantly asking 'Where is this going?' Enjoy the ride. I did.
Every really accomplished film starts with a well-crafted script - something too many directors forget, simply plunging into an excess of explosions and special effects. British director and scriptwriter Anthony Minghella, who gave us the excellent "The English Patient", has taken another novel - the 1997 work by Charles Frazier - and turned a compelling narrative into a kind of poor man's "Gone With The Wind", part harrowing portrayal of the brutality of civil war for both combatants (the battle of Petersburg) and those left behind, part aching romance between two souls who barely know one another.
The narrative stretches over five years (1861-1864) and, in the early sections, the switching of chronology is a little confusing, but then it settles into a pattern of two alternating lives that once touched too briefly and must be fused once more in spite of all the geographical and human obstacles.
John Seale's cinematography is superb, with effective use of locations in North Carolina and Romania, and a good deal of effort has gone into the authenticity of costumes and weapons and the use of contemporary music. The acting is of a high order with Jude Law (who filmed with Minghella in "The Talented Mr Ripley") as the taciturn Inman and Nicole Kidman as his much better-educated muse Ada. Kidman is always clever with her accents ("The Hours"), whereas Jude is not so acute, but some others are even worse. The best performance, however, comes from a barely recognisable Renée Zellweger who is simply brilliant as the raw, but capable, Ruby.
Politically the film can be criticised for not making clear what the war was about and black slaves are hardly ever seen and never heard, but "Cold Mountain" is a movie that deserves warm praise and sears into the memory so many powerful images.
This is a most unusual but utterly engaging film. Written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, it is largely in Polish (although the dialogue is quite sparse) and set mainly in Poland (but with sections in Berlin, Paris and Yugoslavia). It was shot in black and white and in an aspect ratio of 1.37 : 1 so it looks like the period in which it is set (1949 and beyond). Loosely inspired by the tumultuous relationship of the director's parents (and dedicated to them), it tells the tragic love story of urbane musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and the younger peasant girl with a special voice Zula (Joanna Kulig) and indeed music of different kinds - Polish folk music, jazz and even some rock - is as frequent and important as the dialogue, while the composition of the scenes is always captivating. It will truly move you.
I've been a fan of Keira Knightley since "Bend It Like Beckham" in 2002. She's had her critics but she's maturely nicely as an actress and, in the eponymous role, this is among her best work, together with films like "Atonement" and "The Duchess".
Here she plays real-life writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in late 19th century/early 20th century France who became a sensation once she broke free of the control of her older husband Henri Gauthier-Villars whose pen name was Willy (Dominic West in fine form). As a strong woman overtaking the lesser talent of her husband, the work echoes themes in recent movies "The Wife" and "A Star Is Born", while this is a good time for lesbian relationships in mainstream films coming - forgive the pun - at about the same time as "Disobedience" and "The Favourite".
Colette may be a French story but the director and co-writer is the British Wash Westmoreland who dedicated the film to his late partner Richard Glatzer who also worked on the script. Also much of what passes for France is in fact location shooting in Britain and Hungary. But then the British are rather good at making costume dramas and all round this is an enjoyable work that captures the modern zeitgeist of female empowerment."Collateral"
This is a superbly stylish thriller from the director who gave us "Heat". Like that earlier movie, this is set in Los Angeles - but this time the action takes place in a single night - and the city itself is a player with brilliantly atmospheric aerial shots of the slumbering metropolis. A professional hit man, identified only as Vincent (Tom Cruise), flies into town to execute five contract killings in rapid order. From the beginning, things go awry, but Vincent seems to almost relish the challenge of the need to improvise and adapt. The driver of the immaculately clean cab that he chooses for his errands - Jamie Foxx as Max - is horrified by the whole nightmare which is a million miles away from his quiet - but never to be fulfilled - plans to establish a luxury limousine company. To survive, he too will have to improvise in a manner which he never thought possible.
Cruise has always been a charismatic star who carries a movie but, especially when he plays an unsympathetic character as in "Born In The Fourth Of July", "Magnolia" and here in "Collateral", the guy really can act and he gives a compelling performance as the sharp-suited, grey-haired jazz aficionado who can kill with fast and furious efficiency. Foxx is excellent in a role which demands major transformation, but I would like to have seen more of Jada Pinkett Smith, a lawyer whose appearances frame the action. The script by Australian Stuart Beattie is sharp and at different times philosophic or amusing. The ending, while neat, could have been stronger, but overall this is superior fare with a sequence in a crowded nightclub proving particularly taut.
I'm really not sure about this movie. What is certain is that it is studded with stars: Will Smith (in an unusually sensitive leading performance), Edward Norton, Michael Peña, and no less than four British actresses, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley and Naomie Harris. It deals with a terribly serious issue - the death of a young child - and it does not minimise the profound pain or offer an easy answer. But I was not wholly convinced by the narrative device of having Smith's character, the father of the dead girl, writing letters to Love, Time And Death, three of his co-workers engaging actors to portray these three ideas, and each of the three friends associating with one of the concepts - just a bit too contrived. A worthy and watchable effort though.
"The Commuter" - a teasingly down-beat title for an action thriller - has the same director (Spanish Jaume Collet-Serra) and the same star (Irish Liam Neeson) as the earlier "Non-Stop" and indeed has essentially the same plot: a troubled hero with law enforcement skills trying to identify a key passenger on a tubular form of transport, last time an airliner and this time a commuter train. There is some flashy camera work, including a long shot seemingly taking us continuously the length of the train, and even an "I'm Spartacus" type scene.
It starts really well with a Hitchcock-type scenario where a mysterious woman (played by Vera Farmiga of whom we see too little) offers a recently sacked insurance saleman who used to be a cop $100,000 if he will just find someone who is not actually commuting before the train reaches the end of the line. The tale becomes increasingly twisted and unlikely but, at the time, it is entertaining enough with plenty of thrills and spills unfolding in near real-time.
In 1843, six English agricultural labourers - George and James Loveless, Thomas and John Standfield, James Brine and James Hammett - were sentenced to transportation to Australia because they had formed a trade union (which was legal) and administered oaths (which was not). This is the compelling story told in "Comrades".
It took writer and director Bill Douglas eight years to make the film and it was finally released in 1987 when Margaret Thatcher was doing her best to neuter the British trade union movement. It was poorly received at the box office and quickly withdrawn from cinemas; it was rarely shown on television and spoiled by advertisements; only in 2009 - to mark the 175th anniversary of the Tolpuddle martyrs - did the British Film Institute reissue the film as a DVD which is how I came to see it.
As someone who spent 24 years as a professional trade union official, I approached the film with enthusiasm but I cannot let my political values diminish my critical faculties as a reviewer. Elements of this film are masterly but it is deeply flawed.
Let's start with the positives. This seminal event in the history of the British labour movement deserved the big screen treatment. It was shot entirely on location in Dorset and Australia. The cinematography - by Gale Tattersall - is wonderful. It is a marvellous evocation of the times with great attention to clothes and buildings and the 'new' technology of the laternists. There are mesmerising close-ups of characterful faces. The acting is impressive with the working class portrayed by relatively unknown actors and some well-known stars - such as James Fox and Vanessa Redgrave - taking on the role of the rich.
But there are such serious weaknesses. It is far too slow. It is far too long - just over three hours. The dialogue is excessively sparse - so too little information is provided and frequently it is unclear what is happening. We do not see the trial of the labourers or anything of the campaign to have them released. It is uneven with more action and dialogue in the Australian scenes and an incident with an Italian photographer that is totally out of place both in subject and tone.
And the characters are far too one-dimensional: the labourers and their families are presented as mythic in their nobleness while the landowners and their allies are shown as unremittingly callous and evil (there is a scene with a dog that has no justification whatsoever). The little speech at the end - reminiscent of the conclusion of "The Grapes Of Wrath" - is unnecessarily polemical.
When all is said and done, "Comrades" should be seen and admired, but this is not the masterpiece that some would pretend.
"The Constant Gardener"
When one considers the contributors to this work, expectations are high and fortunately they are fulfilled in a quality work that is nevertheless somewhat dispiriting because of its sombre political message and doomed love affair.
The story comes from the 2001 novel by reputed thriller writer John le Carré and direction is the work of the Brazilian Fernando Meirelles who gave us the stunning "City Of God"; the main roles are filled by Ralph Fiennes as Justine Quayle, the restrained, quintissentially British civil servant who would rather tend to his beloved plants than become too involved in political intrigue, and Rachel Weisz as Tessa, the passionate and mercurial political activist whom he marries almost without knowing her, both giving naturalistic performances that involve an element of improvisation; and then we have first rate support performances from Danny Huston as Justin's colleague who is also mesmerized by Tessa and Bill Nighy as the reptilian senior mandarin who wants to keep his garden free of weeds.
The plot - part love story, part political thriller - is constructed through a series of extended flashbacks, so one's constant attention is demanded, and Meirelles - transposing his camerawork from the favelas of Rio to the Kibera shanty town outside Nairobi - uses his trademark kineticism to put us right among the squalor and the action. As Justin discovers more about the machinations that led to his wife's death, so he learns more about the nature of her life.
The social issue at the core of the film is the pandemic of AIDS in Africa and the villains of the piece are the pharmaceutical companies who dump outdated drugs on poor Africans and manipulate the impoverished to take part in rigged medical trials. Yet the political betrayal is parallelled by the personal betrayal in a work that is as downbeat (but as impressive) as Fiennes' earlier movie "The English Patient". The ending seems somewhat contrived and melodramatic, but this is still superior fare.
David Souter - formerly director of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Association - adds:
Interested by your review of "The Constant Gardener" which I saw a month ago at the opening of the London Film Festival and where it was received with prolonged applause from a (very, obviously) movie-savvy audience. I thought it was very impressive, too, and mostly overcame three weaknesses (the drug company / activist dichotomy is somewhat caricatured; arrival in Darfur at the exact moment of a Janjaweed attack is too much of a plot device; there are no significant African characters in a story set in Africa - the doctor is Belgian). The most interesting thing for me, though, was that - in spite of the third point in brackets - its African environments were more real than in other Western films (because it used Kibera as a location, because it used hand-held cameras; but particularly because it glimpsed positivea as well as negativea: most Western images of African cities are very one-dimensional).
This is a movie which promises much but, in the end, does not quite deliver the punch that it should.
The subject matter - the threat of a pandemic that spreads around the globe with terrifying speed and potency - is all too real with the recent scares of SARS and H1N1 in our mind and the film's scientific advisers ensure that plot is all too authentic and believable with reminders of the 1918 flu pandemic that killed at least 50 million people. The cast is top-notch with Laurence Fishburne, Elliott Gould, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle and Marion Cotillard all working to combat the virus, Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow as victims, and Jude Law as a blogger with an unorthodox solution. Then we have acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh who also acts as his own director of photography (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews). And it starts so well with scary images and an urgent score.
So, why doesn't it work? The main reason is poor pacing. It should build up to a dramatic finale but there are too many slow bits that interrupt the tension and the discovery of a vaccine is just too easy. Then there are the loose ends. Bits of the narrative just seem to be left hanging without explanation. And there is a serious under-use of the acting talent that has been assembled - even if we do get to be inside the head of one of them. Some of the stars are killed off early on and others have too little to do.
There's a 1970s feel to this movie: a collection of well-known actors put into a disaster setting. But "Outbreak" in 1995 did the 'beat the bug' story better and Soderbergh himself marshalled multiple characters to better effect in his work "Traffic" in 2000. Having said all this, it's still an entertaining film. Just don't see in a cinema when you have a bad cough ...
"Conan The Barbarian"
This is the 1982 original of the sword and sorcery tale - there was a remake in 2011 - that launched Arnold Schwarzenegger as a movie star. In the eponymous role, he has few lines and does not deliver them particularly well, but his sheer physicality - muscles upon muscles - made him well-suited for the part. Statuesque Sandahl Bergman provides a strong female support role that is too often missing from the genre and the location shooting in Spain provides some striking scenery. Although somewhat ponderous, there's enough action and spilt blood to provide an enjoyable viewing.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s drugs were flowing from Marseille to New York in a sophisicated and sustained operation. The Americans made two movies about the racket: "The French Connection" (1971) set in New York and "The French Connection II" (1975) located in Marseiiles, in both cases with Gene Hackman famously playing the police crime-buster. French cinema too has had two cracks at telling the story: first with "The Judge" (1984) and then with "The Connection" ("La French" in French) in 2014.
In the French films, the hero is not a policeman but a magistrate, in "The Connection" played by played by Jean Dujardin, best known outside France for his performance in the silent film "The Artist". The role of the chief criminal is taken by Gilles Lelouche. There is a short scene where the two meet alone which is reminiscent of the cafe scene between Al Pacino and Robert de Niro in "Heat". "The Connection" is not one of the the classics like "The French Connection" and "Heat" but it is a stylish, if clichéd, thriller with hand-held camerawork and atmospheric soundtrack adding to the impact.
As a political animal who cant get enough of the American television series The West Wing, I approached this political thriller with high expectations and, on the whole, I was not disappointed. Former film journalist Rod Lurie provides an accomplished debut as both writer and director of this dramatic account of the Congressional nomination hearings of the first woman to be put forward as Vice-President.
There is a sharp script and authentic sets, but what really makes the movie is a triumvirate of fine performances. Jeff Bridges is excellent as Democratic President Jackson Evans, exhibiting the charisma of a Clinton but without any women even a wife in sight; a barely recognisable Gary Oldman fills yet another bad guy role with distinction as the hard-line Republican Shelly Runyon; and, in a role specifically written for her by Lurie, Joan Allen is superb as the nominee Laine Hanson, facing allegations of sexual misconduct with a coolness only a few degrees above her performance in The Ice Storm.
It all becomes a little trite towards the end with some implausible plot twists and two grand-standing speeches, but one forgives this because of its uncompromising support for political liberalism and gender equality. Indeed a measure of the difference between British and American politics is that positions which are so commonplace in the former support for a womans right to choose an abortion, opposition to the death penalty, abolition of possession of hand guns, and separation of church and state - seem so radical when espoused by Allen's character.
There have been several films with this title but this review concerns a 2010 release that I did not notice at the time and only caught six years later when I was staying with friends in the United States for Thanksgiving. It tells the remarkable and moving true story of how Betty Anne Waters (an impressive Hilary Swank) - a high school dropout who was a working mother - toiled for years, including acquiring a law degree, to free her troublemaker brother Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell) from incarceration as a result of a wrongful conviction for murder. Screenwriter Pamela Gray spent eight years on the low-budget project.
The movie does not reveal, even in the closing captions, that - almost unbelievably and particularly tragically - six months after being released from prison, Kenny fell from a wall while taking a shortcut, suffered a brain injury, and died. Betty said of Kenny's death: "It's sad, but the greatest part is Kenny died free and innocent."
"Cool Hand Luke"
Rarely can a cinematic character have suffered more than Luke Jackson, a one-time war hero spending two years in a tough Southern prison and chain gang, in this 1967 movie that was a starring vehicle for an impressive Paul Newman. Demonstrating more courage than calculation, Luke suggests that "Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand to play..." but shows that one can only play it so often. Down-beat, even depressing, but oddly gripping.
As with "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" (both 1998 - a bad year for rogue asteroids), a natural disaster threatens the end of the world, but science - and more specifically nuclear weapons - can save us. In this case, though, the source of the problem is inner space which requires a journey full of unknown hazards more reminiscent of 1966's "Fantastic Voyage". The physics is, of course, utter fantasy but then, if Jule Verne could get away with it in his novel "Journey to The Centre Of The Earth, maybe we shouldn't be too tough on director Jon Amiel.
As we know from "Boys Don't Cry" and "Insominia", Hilary Swank is not just a (very) pretty face and can do much better than this. Less money has been spent on the cast or the script than on the special effects, some of which - such as the collapse of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge - looks better than others - for instance, the destruction of the Coliseum in Rome. The whole thing is totally formulaic, with the six-person crew including one woman, one black and one European, and it is pretty obvious who is going to survive the predictable mishaps but, if you enjoyed the disaster movies of the 1970s, this is brainless fun.
Link: official web site click here
"The Count Of Monte Cristo"
Since Alexandre Dumas wrote his wonderfully-plotted novel of false imprisonment and cruel revenge in 1844, there have been countless film and television versions, but the success of "The Mask Of Zorro" - which similarly involved the tutoring of an intended avenger in the art of swordmanship - clearly showed audiences' appetite for old-fashioned swashbuckling. This new version comes from director Kevin Reynolds who gave us "Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves" and "Monte Cristo" is more restrained but almost as entertaining.
American Jim Caviezel, as the unfortunate Edmond Dantes, and Australian Guy Pearce, as his erstwhile friend Fernand Mondego, both put on English accents for this romp in Napoleonic France, but acquit themselves well, especially the sneering Pearce (the bad guy had the better role in "Rob Roy" too). Richard Harris - who, as in "Gladiator", has to die to move on the storyline - makes the most of his role, but the Polish/American Dagmara Dominczyk should have brought more than a pretty face to her part as Edmond's lover and Fernand's wife.
There is some magnificent scenery - the film was shot in Ireland and Malta - and some memorable sequences, such as the arrival of the Count in a balloon and the final swordfight in a wheat field, but the movie needed more pace and a better soundtrack if the buckle was really to swash.
Just when you think that there is little new that can be said about the Second World War in a movie, there comes along a film that tells us something not just different but astonishing: a secret German plan to destabilise the British and American economies through the largest counterfeiting operation in history code-named Operation Bernhard. In fact, I didn't catch this Austrian work until a full year after it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and then I saw it at a special showing - at the "Phoenix" in East Finchley, London - in the presence of Adolf Burger, the author of the book on which it is based (the English version is titled "The Devil's Workshop").
Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky had little work to his credit when he brought the story to the screen but he produced the script in close collaboration with Burger who at the showing I attended declared himself pleased with the treatment. In some ways, he might well do so since, although the film is centered on Salomon 'Sally' Sorowitsch (played by Austrian Karl Markovics), a Russsian Jew who was a professional counterfeiter until his arrest in Berlin, the moral core of the plot comes from the Burger character (German actor August Diehl), a Slovak Communist trained as a typographer.
The interplay between these characters - who were close friends in the camp but never saw each other after the war - draws out the moral dilemma facing the 144 Jewish prisoners of 13 different nationalities at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp: forced to produce perfect pound notes and work on counterfeit dollar notes while housed in relatively comfortable conditions or die immediately, knowing that their efforts could undermine the economies of the Allies and that once their work was done they would be killed anyway.
At times the characters are a little cardboard, but generally this is a worthy and accomplished work that tells a remarkable story with real attention to detail and consistent maintainance of tension. I was pleased to have seen it, delighted to have met Adolf Burger, and had no hesitancy in buying his book which he autographed for me. Aged 91, Burger stood up for his speech which he delivered - like his original book - in a mixture of Czech and Slovak.
details of Operation Bernhard click here
biography of Adolf Burger click here
"Cowboys & Aliens"
"Cowboys & Aliens" is a great title for a movie. It reminds me of "Snakes On A Plane". In each case, you get what it says on the tin. With "Snakes", the tension was leavened with lots of laughs. By contrast, "C&A" takes itself very seriously - but it works. It succeeds because of a half-decent plot and some fine acting coupled with great scenery, reasonable special effects, and sustained action. The strongest part of the work is the opening pre-credit sequence, while the weakest is the final (unnecessary) scene but, in between, there's entertainment aplenty. Director Jon Favereau ("Iron Man") had crafted a mash-up which is quite a treat.
Set in Arizona (but filmed in New Mexico), the story is located in 1873 - which suggests that Roswell was not the first time aliens have visited the United States - and the folks of the desert town of Absolution don't seem overly surprised by the ferocious attacks from the sky but I guess that the wild west toughened up its settlers to expect anything from indians to aliens. As with the other summer 2011 alien adventure "Super 8", it seems that the visitors from outer space want our bodies and our metal, although you'd think that such advanced life forms would have cracked the potential of nanotechnology and not need anything.
The revelation in this movie is Daniel Craig. I've never thought of him as a mean gunslinger but he's terrific here. Since his first major film "Layer Cake", his charisma has grown and grown. For once, Harrison Ford acts the grizzled bad guy in an effort to play against type, as Henry Fonda did in "Once Upon A Time In The West", although he turns out to have much more heart that Fonda's character. In almost all westerns ("The Quick And The Dead" was an exception) and virtually all sci-fi movies (the "Alien" series was a wonderful exception), female characters are either absent or bit players. Here Olivia Wilde - who has amazing eyes - has a role which is a little more than love interest but still underwritten.
A pleasant change from all the sequels and prequels - so please: leave it there; the world does not need "Cowboys & Aliens & Cops".
I would never have gone to the cinema to see a film like this, but years later I caught it on satellite television as part of a Film Four Fatal Attractions series to see exactly what the fuss was about. It is not difficult to appreciate the moral outrage that would be occasioned by a movie dealing with the eroticism of cars, crashes, scarification and violent death. What is surprising is why David Cronenberg he was writer, producer and director would want to make such a work, but then again he does have an interest, bordering on the obsessive, with the man-machine interface. Equally strange is why such actors as James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas and Rosanna Arquette would want to depict such bizarre sex, but then Im one of the few men I know who has no interest in cars, so auto crashes certainly dont do it for me. Difficult, disturbing but not dangerous.
This is a movie which has nothing in common with the controversial 1996 Cronenberg work of the same title. Instead it can be compared with "Grand Canyon" and "Magnolia" in that all three films feature a series of interlocking stories in a California setting. Here the Canadian Paul Haggis - who wrote the rightly acclaimed "Million Dollar Baby" - makes his directorial debut with a film which he also conceived and co-wrote by presenting a set of linked lives in his adopted city of Los Angeles over a two-day period. This is a metropolis in which estranged and fearful people crash into one another both physically and metaphorically.
So far, so relatively familiar. What really distinguishes this work, however, is the complex and controversial theme of race as explored in narratives in which most of the characters and situations portrayed are morally ambiguous. The so-called American melting pot is shown to be a boiling cauldron of multiple tensions and prejudices, whether it is the Iranian shopkeeper who despises the Mexican locksmith or it is the girlfriend of the black policeman who objects to him calling her Mexican, when her parents are from Puerto Rica and El Salvador, or the same woman who mocks an aggressive Chinese woman for her poor pronunciation of English. This is a complicated world in which a good cop can find himself committing a terrible act, while his racist colleague can discover himself behaving heroically with the last person who would expect or want that.
Of course, the plotting is contrived, but the whole of cinema is contrived which is what distinguishes storytelling from straight documentary. This is an intelligent and compelling film which constantly demands attention and, once it is all over, provokes much thought. We are shown that the world is not colour-coded and we need to take the time and trouble to understand who people really are. The ensemble acting by a host of capable performers is a delight, whether it is Sandra Bullock appearing against type as an angry and prejudiced housewife, Matt Dillon as a racist but brave policeman, Don Cheadle as a detective trying to balance the conflicting pressures of career and family, or Thandie Newton who wants her husband to be braver in standing against racial injustice, or the many other strong supporting roles.
It is rare for a Canadian film - as opposed to an American film shot in Canada which is commonplace - to have a worldwide distribution, but even rarer for us to see a French Canadian move, but this one is a delight. Set in the Quebec of the 60s and 70s, it is the story - amusing, quirky, poignant, sad - of Zac Beaulieu (the Z of the title) born on one Christmas Day as one of five very different brothers (the initial letters of the names of the others spell out C.R.A.Z.Y. and the song with this title features on the soundtrack).
Zac's doubtful sexuality is a problem for him, his girlfriend and his Catholic parents, especially the macho but loving father played by Michel Côté and the resolution of this situation is not without confusion and pain. The film is a triumph for Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed the film and co-wrote it, and he is well served by a sensitive and nuanced performance from Marc-André Grondin as Zac.
Like the earlier and superior "Walk The Line", this is a tale of an alcohol-fuelled and washed-up country singer, ultimately saved by the love of good woman. Whereas the first movie was a bio-pic of Johnny Cash, this one tells the fictional story of Bad Blake, an unsympathetic role inhabited with total conviction by Jeff Bridges who even sings the songs in possibly the finest performance of his career, with Maggie Gyllenhaal as his (much younger) romantic interest. Well-played support roles are filled by Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall.
While this is a commendable work from first-time director and co-writer Scott Cooper, this is not really my type of film and it's certainly not my kind of music, so it was more a choice for my wife than for me.
"Crazy, Stupid, Love"
This is a rom-com that tries to be a little different: so we have no less than seven relationships going on here; they involve different-aged characters from middle-aged down to juvenile; and most of them do not work out. Dan Fogelman - who has previously concentrated on screenplays for animated movies - has produced a decent script and his words are delivered by an attractive cast: Steve Carell and Julianne Moore playing a married couple who have broken up, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as young people trying to get it together, and Kevin Bacon and Marisa Tomei with smaller parts. It doesn't always work and is sometimes silly or schmaltzy, but it has heart.
Evolution is one of the greatest ideas in science and Charles Darwin, the thinker who first articulated the theory, was a fascinating character, so it was entirely appropriate that "Creation" was issued in 2009, the bicentenary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the first edition of "On The Origin Of Species". The film is less about the man as a scientist and more about him as a husband and father and less about evolution as an idea and more about the 'evolution' of that idea and the willingness to publish it. Darwin struggled not just to be sure that his theory was supported by argument and evidence but to reconcile the revolutionary idea with his collapsing belief in God and his wife's sustained faith in the Almighty.
All these ideas are not exactly mainstream material for the movies and it is to the credit of British director and co-writer Jon Amiel that he has done such a sensitive task in translating to the screen Randal Keynes's book "Annie's Box". The relationship between Charles Darwin and his cousin and wife Emma Wedgwood is all the more credible for the pair being played by real life couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connolly who met on the set of "A Beautiful Mind". Annie was the 10 year old daughter who died seven years before Darwin eventually published his great work and she is wonderfully portrayed by Martha West, a young actress with a real future. Complementing the fine acting is gorgeous English scenery, some of it the actual home where Darwin lived and worked.
For all its commendable attributes, however, "Creation" is rather lugubrious and too rarely engages the viewer while the cutting and flashbacks are sometimes confusing. Of course, this not the reason why the film struggled to find an American distributor.
Sylvester Stallone has had a remarkable cinematic career with at its heart two very personal franchises: "Rocky" (now on his seventh outing in "Creed") and later "Rambo" (who managed four expeditions).
The first and more successful of the series started way back in 1976 when Stallone - who wrote the script and took the leading role - created the character of the Philadelphia low-grade boxer who managed, against all the odds, to go the distance with world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed. In "Rocky II" (1979), after 15 brutal rounds, he defeats Creed and takes the title. In 1982, "Rocky III" sees our hero lose to Mr T before Apollo helps him bounce back. By the time of "Rocky IV" (1985), the franchise had acquired an international dimension as the Cold War is acted out in the ring with Rocky squaring up to the Russian Ivan Drago. Another five years passed before Stallone felt that he had to return to the iconic role when, in "Rocky V" (1990), he adopts a young fighter who turns on him. That really should have been it - but, a full 16 years after the previous film, he was back in "Rocky Balbao" (2006), finding that he has something "lurking in the basement".
Now, after an interval of another nine years, amazingly Rocky is with us yet again in a movie which for the first time is not named after him, for the first time since the original film is not directed by Stallone, and for the first time ever is not written by Stallone. This time Stallone (now 69) is only in a support role, although he gives a fine performance showing real vulnerability. This time, we have an African-American version of the franchise, with director and co-writer 29 year old Ryan Coogler, lead actor Michael B Jordan, and lead actress Tessa Thompson all being people of colour - although race as such does not feature in the plot. Instead this is a story of self-esteem, as Adonis 'Donny' Johnson (Jordan), the illegitimate son of Rocky's great friend Apollo Creed, seeks out Rocky to train him in the skills that made his father so successful.
In a similar way that "The Force Awakens" retreads the narrative path of "A New Hope" with so many allusions to other films in the "Star Wars" franchise, so "Creed" essentially follows the path of the original "Rocky' movie with constant references to the earlier works in the series. So we have many of the same training techniques and demonstrations of physical prowess (including those one-armed press-ups) and some visceral bouts of boxing. Heck, we even finish up on those 72 steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But it is all done with great reverence and flourish with excellent cinematography and a strong soundtrack, so it is a surprisingly satisfying return to the ring.
This film could almost as fairly been titled "Rocky VIII" since once again it stars Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa and Stallone both co-wrote and co-produced. What's more the central plot device is a essentially a re-run of "Rocky IV" as the son of Apollo Creed - Michael B Jordan reprising his role as as Adonis - accepts the challenge of the son of Ivan Drago - real-life professional boxer, Romanian-born Florian Munteanu as Viktor - as the first seeks to avenge the death of his father and the second attempts to restore the honour of his father.
Of course, Rocky is no longer a fighter but a trainer, the Russian characters are very one-dimensional, and the final outcome is never in doubt, but young, black director Steven Caple Jr. does a decent job taking over from Ryan Coogler, another young and black director who did so well with "Creed". We have all the familiar "Rocky" tropes, including fearsome training techniques, and this time multiple father-son relationships in a very satisfying sequel in which the actual boxing matches are genuinely visceral.
Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) is one of the most fascinating figures in British history and the English Civil War is one of the most influential periods in British politics, so it is surprising that there have not been more films of this kind but, other than "Cromwell", there has only been "To Kill A King" in 2003.
The 1970 movie is much the more ambitous with a budget, cast and style that make it something of an epic. Richard Harris is well-cast (if increasingly hoarse) in the eponymous role and Oliver is presented as a quick-tempered but honourable figure, noble and heroic. King Charles I (a fine performance by Alec Guinness) is rightly portrayed as arrogant and deceitful in his dealings with Parliament but noble in the face of execution. Supporting roles are taken by a host of familiar faces in the British thespian world, such as Timothy Dalton (later to play James Bond).
The movie was both written and directed by Ken Hughes and he takes a broad sweep, starting in 1640 before the civil war, showing the Royalist victory of Edge Hill (1642) and the Roundhead success of Naseby (1645), finishing with the regicide and Cromwell's assumption of near dictatorial power. It is all a little melodramatic and somewhat overlong (141 minutes), but worth viewing and an interesting contrast to "TKAK".
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"
Taiwanese-born director Ang Lee has made some fine English-language films, such as "The Ice Storm" and "Sense And Sensibility", but bravely he has returned to the Chinese language and culture for his latest work in a totally different genre - and it is a triumph. The story is taken from the fourth volume of a series set in the early 19th century Qing dynasty and written by Wang Du Lu in a magical style known in Chinese as 'wu xia'.
At heart, this is a double love story. The first relationship - silent and simmering - is between veteran warrior Li Mu Bai (played by Chow Yun Fat of "Anna And The King") and his close friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh from "Tomorrow Never Dies"). The other relationship - a much more combustible and passionate affair - is between the young bandit Lo (Chang Chen) and the beautiful Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi).
Astonishingly, these very different relationships are played out in the context of a martial arts movie which contains some absolutely stunning fight scenes, choreographed by Yeun Wo-Ping who did similarly brilliant work on "The Matrix", and it is Lee's genius that combines personal passion and martial miracles to such dramatic effect. In this mysterious new world, there is even a sword called "Green Destiny", a villainess known as Jade Fox, and a fight scene in the tops of bamboo trees.
Since I've only recently returned from a tour of China, I loved the wonderful sets and rich costumes. Shot in Beijing and the Gobi desert, the scenery is simply breathtaking, the photography glorious, and the cello and drum-beat music stirring (I've bought the soundtrack). In short, this is set to be both a cult and a classic.
"The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button"
There's whole genre of movies whose plot line could be summarised as 'a fish out of water' where the central character is out of place ("Crocodile Dundee") or time ("Back To The Future") or body ("Big"). "Benjamin Button" is firmly of this type with its preposterous idea of a baby born as an old man and then becoming younger and younger. The proposition comes from a 1921 short story by F Scott Fitzgerald that, most unusually for a literary work adapted for the screen, can be read much faster (about 10 minutes) than the film can be viewed (an overlong 165 minutes).
The eponymous curiosity is played by Brad Pitt who gives such a languid performance than one suspects that he was as bored as many viewers will be. Really the star of the movie is the ever-excellent Cate Blanchett who is BB's love interest Daisy (actually he manages an awful lot of sex in spite of his physical challenges) and Tilda Swinton and Julia Ormond are fine as well.
The narrative takes nothing from the short story except the name and the concept and screenwriter Eric Roth is clearly attempting a repeat of his success with "Forrest Gump" - another 'fish out of water' - but "BB" has none of the humour and charm of the earlier work. Amazingly the film has been nominated for no less than 13 Academy Awards, but this is an overhyped affair that only deserves awards for the very clever technical trickery depicting the ageing and reverse ageing processes of its central characters.
"Curse Of The Golden Flower"
Nobody in the world makes movies like the Chinese director Zhang Yimou. For abundant colour, dazzling composition and sheer spectacle, he is in a class of his own. Following "Hero" and "House Of Flying Daggers", both of which I loved, this work is the third piece of his trilogy in the magical style known in Chinese as 'wu xia'.
The golden flower in the title is the chrysanthemum, since the film is set at the time of the Chong Yang Festival in a China of the 10th century when the Tang dynasty rules (although it is based on a modern play). In fact, in contrast to the scenic settings of his two earlier films, Zhang Yimou locates this work almost entirely in the Forbidden City (although it was not completed until 1420), a place of suffocating ritual and intrigue in which everyone is manoeuring for position and fearful of usurpation, not least the Emperor Ping himself (played by Chow Yun Fat), his current wife Empress Phoenix (Gong Li - one-time lover and muse of the director), and the three sons with different loyalties and ambitions.
Visually this is a simply stunning work: the colours -especially red, gold and jade - are breathtaking, the cast is one of thousands, and there is a battle scene with a pitiful body count. One can easily understand how this is the most expensive film ever made in China. However, the narrative is often confusing and all the characters - except possibly Jay Chou as Prince Jai - ultimately unsympathetic. Compared to "Hero" or "House Of Flying Daggers", "Curse Of The Golden Flower" seems to lack a heart and certainly, compared to the selfless heroism of the first movie, here we have a sad and tragic conflict within the royal family in which the fate of the common people is never a factor.
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.
Last modified on 11 March 2019
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