"The Da Vinci Code" "Dallas Buyers Club" "The Dancer Upstairs" "Dancing At Lunghasa" "A Dangerous Method" "The Danish Girl" "Danny Collins" "Daredevil" "Dark Blue World" "The Dark Knight" "Darkest Hour" "The Dark Knight Rises" "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes" "The Day After Tomorrow" "Deadpool" "The Death Of Stalin" "Death Race" "The Debt" "Deepwater Horizon" "Defiance" "Delicacy" "Demolition" "Denial" "The Descendants" "Desperado" "Despicable Me 3" "Detroit" "The Devil Wears Prada" "Devil's Advocate" "Die Another Day" "Die Hard 4.0" "Die Hard With A Vengeance" "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" "The Disappearnce Of Alice Creed" "The Dish" "District 9" "Divergent" "The Diving Bell And The Butterfly" "Django Unchained" "Doctor Strange" "Domino" "Donnie Darko" "Doubt" "Downfall" "Dressed To Kill" "Drive" "The Drop" "The Duchess" "Dunkirk" "Duplicity"
"The Da Vinci Code"
"The Da Vinci Code" has been a publishing phenomenon. Even before the film version appeared, the novel had been translated into 44 languages and sold an utterly amazing 40 million copies. Rarely then has a film been so anticipated by millions and then so panned by virtually all the critics. In truth, I had hoped that this would have been one of those very rare occasions when the movie would prove better than the book because the novel contains some interesting plot elements but is appallingly badly written. Sadly I have to record that the critics are right and my hope has been dashed.
Tom Hanks, as the American professor of symbology Robert Langdon, sports a strange haircut and speaks as if he has a cold, while gamine Audrey Tautou, as French cryptologist Sophie Nevue, struggles somewhat with her first English-speaking role and accomplished actor Jean Reno - here playing the policeman in charge of the murder investigation - is underused. Only Ian McKellen, in a rather camp and breathless performance as the Holy Grail expert Leigh Teabing, really impresses.
I had thought that the movie might soften the portrayal in the book of the Catholic Church and more especially the Opus Dei organisation and that it would ease back on the self-punishment inflicted by the albino monk Silas, but there is no sparing of Catholic sensibilities here. Indeed the film is remarkably faithful to both the substance and the style of the book - and this is mainly what dooms it to such tedium. The movie, like the novel, has little characterisation, is excessively wordy, and concludes in a limp and most unsatisfactory manner.
Director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer can do much better than this ("A Beautiful Mind" and "Apollo 13"), so I blame Dan Brown. He wrote the book, he was executive producer on the film, and he even supplied a bit of the music and some extra codes. The film looks quite good - with location shooting in places like The Louvre - and sounds good too - with music from Hans Zimmer - but it is too long (two and half hours), too dense, and poorly written and paced. In spite of these serious flaws, I suspect that the movie will still do well enough to recoup its considerable investment and will push the novel back to the top of the best-seller lists because so many people have a restless urge to see patterns and meanings and conspiracies even when there are none.
"Dallas Buyers Club"
American actor Matthew McConaughey has totally reinvented himself. The jobbing actor who starred in such lightweight work as "How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days" (2003) and "Fool's Gold" (2008), gave an starkly different performance in "Mud" (2012) and is almost unrecognisable in a brilliant piece of work here in "Dallas Buyers Club". McConaughey lost an amazing 47lb to take on the role of real-life Texan electrician Ron Woodroof and deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actor for totally inhabiting the part. Indeed his Texan drawl was so naturalistic that I didn't catch all the dialogue.
In 1985, hardliving Woodruff was diagnosed with AIDS and given three months to life. By a combination of web-based research, hustling for locally available drugs and importing non-approved drugs from Mexico, he kept himself alive and then offered his medicinal cocktail to other HIV/AIDS sufferers for a club fee. In the end, he managed to live for six years.
Canadian Jean-Marc Vallée directed this fine independent movie that was shot for a mere $5.5M over just 25 days. As well as McConaughey, there is another Oscar-winning performances from the superb Jay Leto, who returned to films after five years and himself lost 30lbs for his role as trans-sexual Rayon. Jennifer Gardner is pretty but somewhat weak as Eve, the local hospital doctor who comes to lose faith in big pharma and the medical establishment. In fact both of these characters were created for the movie.
Link: short biography of Ron Woodroof click here
"The Dancer Upstairs"
Acclaimed actor John Malkovich has made his directorial début with an assured political thriller that combines tension and intelligence to make for a gripping two and a quarter hours. The setting is a South American country which is unnamed, but the clear inspiration for the storyline is the early 1990s experience of Peru (which I have recently visited) when the bizarre Abimael Guzmán led the murderous Shining Path movement, while the movie was shot in Spain, Portugal and Ecuador.
Javier Bardem plays Augustin Rejas, a former lawyer turned policeman who manages rare dignity and honesty as he battles with the interventions of a regime teetering on the edge of a military dictatorship and the pursuit of a fanatical revolutionary codenamed Ezekiel, while struggling with the varying emotions associated with a vapid wife, an adoring daughter, and his daughter's dance teacher, the eponymous and allurring woman upstairs (Laura Morante as Yolanda). Bardem - who reminds me of an early Raul Julia - gives a languid yet charismatic performance and hopefully we will see much more of this talented actor.
In some respects the work is reminiscent of Costa-Gavras's "State Of Siege", a clip of which is actually used here. However, the movie is based on a novel by the British writer Nicholas Shakespeare, who wrote the screenplay which features some conversation in Quechua (a native language of Peru and Bolivia), and this is a more personal examination of terrorism than the 1973 French-speaking movie.
"Dancing At Lunghasa"
I've been a big fan of Meryl Streep throughout her distinguished career and I regret that it is so difficult for an actress of her age to find challenging film roles. I confess that I wouldn't have watched this movie - a slight and down-beat tale of 1936 rural Ireland - if she had not been in it and, once again, she gives a fine performance, displaying once more her prodigious skill at accents. Streep plays the eldest of five sisters - Kathy Burke and Catherine McCormack are two of the others - whose lives are changed forever one summer by the arrival of two men, one a brother, the other a lover.
"A Dangerous Method"
"A Dangerous Method" is a film based on a play ("The Talking Cure") which in turn draws on a book ("A Very Dangerous Method") so it is bound to have more dialogue than action sequences and, since the subject matter is the origin of psychoanalysis and the competing schools in this new science, the exchanges are often heavy and sometimes opaque. But a short running time (100 minutes) and four compelling performances make this a fascinating movie that appeals to the intellect in a way that little mainstream fare even attempts. The photography is wonderful and the locations in Germany and Austria quite splendid.
Michael Fassbender is 29 year old Swiss Protestant psychologist Carl Jung, while Viggo Mortensen is 48 year old Austrian and secular Jew Sigmund Freud. At first, it looks as if Jung will be the natural successor to Freud, but their very different approaches - Freud the rationalist who sees sex as the root of all pychological problems and Jung who belives that science should be open to exploring a variety of paranormal activity - lead to a painful rupture in their professional and personal relationships. Two patients bring different insights and issues to Jung. Keira Knightley plays 18 year old Russian Jew Sabina Spielrein in probably her strongest performance since "The Edge Of Love" in a role which requires her to be darker and more physically exposed than we have ever seen her. Then there is Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross, a sexually liberated but ultimately self-destructive individual who is both psychiatrist and patient. Whether all the events portrayed actually happened and whether one believes that Freud and Jung deserve the veneration that they have received in some quarters, this is an intelligent and original movie that will provoke thought after viewing.
"The Danish Girl"
This film tells the remarkable true story of an early attempt to effect a transgender choice from male to female involving pioneering, but dangerous, gender reassignment surgery.
The title is clever. Clearly it refers to Einar Wegener, the early 20th century male landscape painter, who wishes to become Lili Elbe not just through dress and mannerisms but as physically as possible. But the title can also be taken to reference his wife, the portrait artist Gerda Wegener who shows amazing understanding and support. So the headline performance is from British actor Eddie Redmayne as Einar/Lili who, following the Academy Award for his superb acting in "A Theory Of Everything", gives another convincing and nuanced representation of a real character. But this should not be allowed to overshadow the impressive acting of the Swedish Alicia Vikander who continues to shine ever more brightly since her break-out English-speaking role in "Ex Machina".
The British director of the work is Tom Hooper who consolidates his success following "Les Misérables" and "The King's Speech". Another real talent on this movie is Danny Cohen whose photography is admirable, making subtle use of location shooting in Copenhagen and Brussels.
This is one of those films when the title tells you nothing so, unless you see a trailer or have a recommendation, you could miss out on a real pleasure. It must have been tempting to use a title like "How A Lost Letter From John Lennon Enabled Danny Collins to Find Himself" but perhaps that would have said too much. Certainly the storyline is very losely inspired by the true incident of English folk singer Steve Tilston’s discovery that Lennon had written to him in 1971.
On the other hand, maybe knowing that the lead role is taken by Al Pacino would be enough for some people to view the movie, since this is an actor who consistently gives brilliant performances. Except that the character of Danny is much tenderer than most of Pacino's roles (think "The Godfather" movies all the way to "Righteous Kill") and the portrayal is much less histrionic than many of his earlier roles (think "Scarface" or "The Devil's Advocate"). Blow me, Pacino even sings in this film.
One of the many delights of "Danny Collins" though is that Pacino (now in his mid 70s) is not the only star. There are excellent performances from Christopher Plummer (even older in his mid 80s) as his agent, Bobby Cannavale as his son, Jennifer Garner as his daughter-in-law, and Annette Bening as a hotel manager. Writer and director Dan Fogelman has given good lines and meaningful roles to his ensemble cast and it pays off a treat. And we get to hear some Lennon classics."Daredevil"
Does moviedom really need another comic-book superhero? Well, I suppose as long as there is evil to be fought - and there's plenty of that in these unsettled times - we can do with all the help we can get and this is above average entertaining escapism . As so often in this type of film, the sets and the stunts are far superior to the minimal plot and the weak dialogue and the producers would do well to invest more in a decent scriptwriter for the inevitable sequel.
Like all such heroes, Daredevil has a prosaic alter ego, but what is different about pro bono lawyer Matt Murdock is his blindness which gives him an affecting vulnerability. Furthermore, in the title role, good-looking Ben Affleck has the physicality that was so lacking in Tobey Maguire's portrayal of "Spiderman" and the love interest, the excellent Jennifer Garner as Elektra, is an altogether more resourceful heroine than Spiderman's Mary Jane. Irishman Colin Farrell is suitably villainous as Bullseye, but I can't see Michael Clarke Duncan (Kingpin) as terribly threatening when I recall his friendly giant role in "The Green Mile". By the way, watch the credits and you'll see an extra scene.
"Dark Blue World"
This is a Czech-German production with the dialogue half in Czech and half in English made by the Czech father and son, writer and director, team of Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák who brought us the delightful Oscar-winning "Kolya" in 1997 I had to wait for a ttull year after the film was shown in the Czech Republic before it secured a British release, but I was always determined to see it because it concerns a subject close to my family and my heart: the war-time record of the Czechoslovak pilots who flew with the Royal Air Force. My wife's father, Karel Kuttelwascher, was the top-scoring member of this brave group and some of his wartime clothing was worn in the film by the main character.
Like "Pearl Harbor", the war becomes a backdrop to a triangular love story involving two men besotted with the same woman. In this case, the rivals are the Czech airmen Franta (Ondřej Vetchý) and Karel (Krytof Hádek) fighting over a married English girl (Tara Fitzgerald) which rather dilutes the political messages of the movie. Most viewers will not have known that these heroes were imprisoned after the 1948 Communist take-over in Czechoslovakia and that it was not until the 'velvet revolution' of 1989 that many young Czechs knew about their countrymen's contribution to the allied victory.
The film is a well-researched piece, full of authentic detail, with some splendid Spifire flying and beautiful photography, but ultimately it is too slow and too sentimental to make the impact that it should for viewers who are less interested than me.
Footnote: When an event was held at the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum to promote the film, my sister-in-law Mari Rowe was photographed with Tara Fitzgerald for the local newspaper and the actress autographed copies of the offical film brochure which quoted attributively from my book "Night Hawk".
official web site in Czech: click here
unofficial web site in English: click here
Czechoslovaks in the wartime RAF: click here
Karel Kuttelwacher's record: click here
"The Dark Knight"
I'm a sucker for superhero films and a summer without one is like a summer without sunshine, so I happily saw the two Tim Burton offerings ("Batman" & "Batman Returns") and even the pair of inferior Joel Schumacher works ("Batman Forever" & "Batman & Robin") before thoroughly enjoying Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" (2005). Three years later, the British director - who also co-wrote and co-produced - is back with an even darker and even more impressive outing for Bob Kane's caped crusader, the first not to include 'Batman' in the title.
Like any top-notch action movie should, it opens immediately with a fast-paced and violent sequence that is well-shot and well-executed and the excitement and exhileration never let up for a lengthy 152 minutes. It's not always clear what is been said and the plotting is sometimes confusing too, but the sheer fury and verve of the thing carries you through and gives you a real adrenaline rush.
All the usual Batman elements are there: the man himself, played again with cool skill by Christian Bale; his English butler (Michael Caine) and Q-like support (Morgan Freeman); the soon to be Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman); the love interest Rachel Dawes (with Katie Holmes out of the picture, portrayed this time by Maggie Gyllenhaal); an array of ugly bad guys and one who starts off as both good-looking and ultra-good (Aaron Eckhart as Harvey 'Two Face' Dent); the soaring and brooding city of Gotham (actually Chicago); of course, the technology, including a new sleek Batmobile and an amazing bike-like Batpod; plus the insistent soundtrack of Hans Zimmer.
What's different is the performance of the character intending to be Batman's nemesis and the political message permeating this post 9/11 thriller.
The late Heath Ledger gives a chillingly brilliant portrayal of The Joker that is miles apart from the earlier outing by Jack Nicholson. This is a villain who can not be bought and with whom one cannot negotiate because he is not in the game for any material or political objective but simply to cause utter mayhem. A kind of Osama bin Laden character then, except The Joker is even crazier in setting up life and death choices for people that have no purpose but cruelty and chaos.
Time and time again, men in the movie are faced with the dilemmas facing democracies today: should personal liberties be sacrificed to make it more likely that one will prevent an attack on one of our cities with an inevitable loss of innocent lives? should we torture someone evil if we believe that the resulting information will save lives of the good? At times, even Batman behaves like (George) Bush or (Jack) Bauer (of "24") in a morally ambiguous representation of power.
"The Dark Knight Rises"
I just love a good superhero movie, so I happily saw the two Tim Burton offerings ("Batman" & "Batman Returns") and even the pair of inferior Joel Schumacher works ("Batman Forever" & "Batman & Robin") before thoroughly enjoying the British director Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" (2005) and "The Dark Knight" (2008). Four years later, Nolan - who again co-wrote and co-produced - is back with the final and longest part of his acclaimed triology. The expectations were very high and Nolan does not disappoint (and deserves particular thanks for not using 3D).The opening sequence - which I saw in an early trailer - is terrific and almost the best thing in the film and Nolan makes sure that the rest of the story races along with verve and tension, aided by Hans Zimmer's incessant, throbbing score and some sharp cutting.
It's eight years after the last film and Bruce Wayne (once more the talented Christian Bale) is a broken man, physically, psychologically and even financially. Two contrasting characters arrive in Gotham City to draw him out of retirement: a slinky cat thief (well played by Anne Hathaway who has the most humorous lines) and arch villain Bane (a fearsome-looking Tom Hardy whose lines are unfortunately muffled by his face mask). The Bane character may not be in quite the same chilling class as the brilliant Heath Ledger as The Joker, but Catwoman is a splendid addition to the cast list.
I didn't always understand what was going on - a recent viewing of the two previous films might have helped (who remembers the League of Shadows?) - and I saw it with a friend who was enjoying it for the second time and found the plot more intelligible, so that may be encouragement - if any was needed - to catch it again sometime. But the film always looks wonderful and the action is exciting and unrelenting, satisfyingly alternating from brutally visceral fighting between Batman and Bane to the deployment of some heavy hardware including a bat bike and a bat jet.
So, now that Nolan has triumphantly completed his trilogy, does this mean that the crusader is hanging up his cape? No way. The money to be made by continuing the franchise and the setting up of the Robin character (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) means that some other director will soon receive the call from Warner Brothers ...
"Darkest Hour", an account of Winston Churchill's premiership in the few weeks before the evauation from Dunkirk in May 1940, can be seen as complementary to two other recent films: "Dunkirk" by director Christopher Nolan and "Churchill" with Brian Cox in the eponymous role. It may be a coincidence that all three works have appeared since the British people (narrowly) voted to leave the European Union, but each of them seems to intended remind us that historically this country has (sadly) always been insular both geographically and politically.
As cinema, "Darkest Hour", directed by Joe Wright ("Atonement") and scripted by Anthony McCarten ("The Theory Of Everything"), is an absolute treat. There are some very artful visual compositions and techniques but, above all, this film is made by its actors. A barely recognisable Gary Oldman is simply brilliant as Churchill, conveying powerfully all the varied emotions for which this this complex (and controversial) character is known. This tour de force portrayal deserves all the awards which it will undoubtably win. But the support roles are also quality, notably Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, Ronald Pickup and Stephen Dilane as the appeasers Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax respectively, and Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James as the women - wife Clementine and secretary Miss Layton respectively - who calm the volcano that is the new PM.
As history, however, "Darkest Hour" has some serious weaknesses, especially because of something that is not shown and something that is presented as pivotal to the glorious finale. The missing element of the story is the recognition that Churchill was not alone in opposing a peace settlement with Hitler; his Labour ministers - led by Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood (who have tiny roles in this film) - were equally determined to fight on. The scene to which one has to take great exception shows Churchill taking the London Underground and seeking the views of fellow travellers who conveniently are a cross section of the popuation but all back resistance to the Nazis. Not only did this incident never happen; it is quite frankly unthinkable and spoils what is otherwise an informative and gripping account of a huge turning point in British history.
"Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes"
Three years after the considerable success of the latest reboot of "The Planet Of The Apes" in the form of "Rise Of ...", we have the sequel with the confusingly similar title of "Dawn Of ..." In narrative terms, we are ten years on. A pandemic, resulting from the laboratory experiments that created the intelligent apes, has killed most of mankind, while the simian colony has been able to develop in sophistication and language. This movie has a different director (late reserve Matt Reeves who has already been signed up for the next in the franchise) but two of the same writers (Rich Jaffa & Amanda Silver), so there is strong continuity.
Again the action is in San Francisco and the redwoods north of Golden Gate Bridge but now the forces on either side are much more symmetrical. Furthermore we have doves and hawks in each camp: Caesar (wonderful Andy Serkis) and Koba (Toby Kebbell) among the primates and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) among the humans. Clearly the human-like apes can be seen as a metaphor for people who do not look or behave quite like the majority in any community and the message of the movie is that all groups have honourable and evil characters.
As with the original film, the special effects are brilliant, with performance capture conjuring terrifically realistic apes (well done, Weta Workshop) and some convincing post-apocalytic street scenes (mostly put together in Vancouver). I didn't think the story was quite as strong as the previous film and most of the actors playing human characters - Oldman was the exception - were rather weak. But clearly the battle is far from over ...
"The Day After Tomorrow"
Disaster movies used to have a localised focus: "The Towering Inferno", "The Poseidon Adventure", "Twister", "Titanic". More latterly though, the whole world has been in peril: "Armageddon", "Deep Impact", "Independence Day". However, as the budgets have got bigger and the special effects more dramatic, the scripts have remained dire and the acting indifferent.
"TDAT" is no exception - and we would not expect anything else from Roland Emmerich, the director of "Independence Day". Actually Dennis Quaid is not that bad as the climatologist Jack Hall who assures his son "I will come for you!" - a line borrowed from "The Last Of The Mohicans". But the science is very confused and the timescales utterly ridiculous. In so far as there is a plot, it is totally formulaic: a political establishment that is selfish and short-sighted and - as in "Deep Impact" - a father who has neglected his parental responsibilities and a teenage romance to reflect the average age of the typical American cinemagoer.
However, the fundamental message - that the US cannot go it alone on environmental policy (or lack of it) - is well-made and there are some none too subtle, but still telling, political points about the overbearing role of the Vice-President (a Dick Cheney lookalike) and the need for tolerance of migrants.
Above all, though, one judges a movie of this specific genre on the effects and here Emmerich delivers. From the opening sequence with a huge crack in the Antarctic ice, the visuals are stunning and, by the end, the destruction of New York City by Godzilla (another Emmerich production) has been totally outclassed and overawed by the flooding and freezing of Manhattan which are superbly done. In short, the movie is not a disaster but rather cool.
If you like your super-heroes straight and serious as opposed to camp, jokey and totally foul-mouthed; if you prefer a narrative that is linear and third person rather than one with lots of flash-backs and a first-person dialogue which regularly breaks the fourth wall; if you like violence to be quick and clean rather than brutal and disfiguring; then I guess "Deadpool" is not for you. Think more "Kick-Ass" than "X-Men". If, on the other hand you're up for something rather different - a central character with special regenerative powers who is out for revenge for himself rather than justice for society and whose constant witticisms are as often about sex as cultural allusions, then you will find this movie a refreshing change from the usual super-hero fare.
Five years ago, Ryan Reynolds starred as the Green Lantern in a disappointing movie, but here he has created such an original and fun character than we might well have a new franchise. Certainly there would be scope for more bridges to the X-Men franchise, but for now we have only two new X-Men in the varied shapes of metallic giant Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and young Sian O'Connor look-alike Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). Also it would be good to have a more original villain than yet another Londoner (Ed Skrein) and to see more of Wade Wilson/Deadpool's girlfriend Brazilian "Homeland"-star Morena Baccarin.
By the way, be sure to stay till the end of the credits ...
"The Death Of Stalin"
This is not the film I was expecting. Knowing that it was both written and directed by the British Armando Iannucci who gave us the outrageous delights of "In The Loop", "The Thick of It" and Veep", I thought that I was going to encounter a full-blown, satirical comedy (and the trailer had confirmed this impression), but instead - while there are certainly plenty of laughs from a sharp script - this is an altogether darker work, full of foreboding, terror and casual slaughter, than I was anticipating. It is not just the tone that is off-kilter; the brilliant cast makes no attempt to effect a Russian accent but offers everything from a Yorkshire accent to an unashamedly American one. Iannucci has moved from contemporary Whitehall and Washington to take us to Moscow in 1953 but, if we were expecting "Carry On Up The Kremlin", we have something much more gut-renching and all the more effective.
Several of the characters (the dictator himself played by Adrian McLoughlin) and his eventual successor Khruschev (Steve Buscemi) are known to everyone, but others - like war hero Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) and spy chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale) - will be less-known and still others - such as Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and Molotov (Michael Palin) - will be unfamiliar to many viewers, so you need to be something of an enthusiast for Soviet history to pick up on all the allusions. And real historians will rightly challenge some of the detail because there are some major errors (three of the major characters did not at that time hold the posts attributed to them) although these might be excused as deliberate distorions to enhance the plot.
A few weeks before the release of this film, I was in Georgia and visited Gori, the town near where Stalin was born. The year after Khruschev denounced Stalin, a museum was opened in the town to venerate Stalin's leadership and essentially (and astonishingly) the messaging remains unchanged to this day. Oh, how I wish they could show this chilling movie at that museum.
The original movie, directed by the acclaimed Roger Corman, was made in 1975 and set in 2000 for no particular reason than the date seemed futuristic (how times change). Now the remake, both written and directed by the British Paul W S Anderson with Corman as one of seven producers, is released in 2008 but set only four years ahead when the world is facing financial chaos (guys, you're behind the times!). Actually I preferred this hard-edged remake against the more satirical original, although the plot this time owes more to the superior 1975 "Rollerball" (itself remade in 2002).
Shot like a grand video game, this is a testosterone-fuelled film for young men (or, like me, young at heart men who sometimes like a bit of pure escapism), full of guns, girls and gasoline. Beefy British actor Jason Statham - who first came to our attention in "Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels" - is physically fine as the heroic central character Jensen Ames, a former driver who is framed for the murder of his wife and sent to the maximum security prison at Terminal Island. The only real acting comes from the icy Joan Allen as the prison governor looking to maintain the hit ratings for her pay-per-view, three-stage, ultimate reality show. You get to see the whole exercise in driving, destruction and death for the price of one ticket.
Footnote: The original film's star David Carradine reprises his role of Frankenstein for an opening voiceover.
This espionage thriller is an English-language version of a 2007 Israeli film "Ha-Hov" and it is immediately apparent why an adaptation that will inevitably win a much larger audience was made. This is a gripping tale, intelligently told and cleverly constructed. It is much more exiting than the other spy movie of the summer of 2011 "Tinker Tailor Solider Spy" and a much more authentic representation of the Israeli secret service Mossad than "Munich".
Essentially we have two stories here, set in different times (1965 and 1997) and different locations (Berlin and Israel/Ukraine) but involving the same characters; yet director John Madden - whose first success was the contrasting "Shakespeare In Love" - has done a skilful job in interweaving the two narratives in a manner which requires the viewer to re-evaluate regularly both situations and motivations. The early period works better than the later one and fortunately it accounts for the majority of the film, but this is almost two hours of sustained tension.
Unusually there are seven strong roles in one film. The three Mossad agents Stephan, David and Rachel are played by Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain respectively in the Cold War period and portrayed by Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds and Helen Mirren respectively in the modern day setting, while the Danish Jesper Christensen is the surgeon of Birkenau throughout the story and gives this profoundly unsympathetic role a subtle psychological dimension.
Although most of these roles are male, it is the two female performances that are especially memorable. Mirren has had a brilliant career and it is wonderful to see her at the top of her game in her sixties, while Chastain seems to have suddenly burst into movies with "The Tree Of Live" and clearly has a major career ahead of her.
The heyday of the disaster movie was the mid 1970s when we had the likes of "The Poseidon Adventure", "The Towering Inferno" and "Earthquake" - all fiction but convincingly engaging. More latterly the best disaster movies have been based on real-life incidents - think of "Apollo 13", "Titantic" and "The Perfect Storm". So the latest work in this genre, "Deepwater Horizon", portrays a true and high-profile incident that occured on 20 April 2010 on an oil rig 41 miles off the coast of south-east Louisiana.
There are many ways in which this story could have been told, including an indictment of cost-conscious management and weak regulation to the economic and natural impacts of the biggest environmental catastrophe in US history. Director Peter Breg, writer Matthew Michael Carnahan, and instigator, producer and star Mark Wallenberg have chosen a narrative that focuses on the oil rig workers themselves and the heroism shown by them in the face of an utter inferno. Eleven men lost their lives and their names and photographs appear at the end of the film as a silent tribute to their sacrifice.
Almost all of the movie is located on the oil rig and the film-makers spent eight months constructing an 85% scale model of the rig which provides a sense of realism. Much of the dialogue is hard to catch and difficult to understand but I guess this adds to the sense of verisimilitude. When hell breaks lose, we no longer have any sense of where we are and what is happening but I suppose that was the case for the workers themselves.
This is a movie that should be seen at the cinema where the impressive visuals and convincing sounds will sweep around the viewer who will feel the heat and noise personally. "Deepwater Horizon" does what it sets out to do very effectively, showing in an 'entertaining' manner how even, in the face of utter chaos, some can still care about others, but it fails to represent sufficiently the bigger picture: that so often private corporations put profit before people and governments are too weak in regulating them.
This film tells a story of the Second World War so remarkable that it is amazing that most people - me included - previously had no knowledge of it, even though it featured in a 400-plus page book by Holocaust scholar Nechama Tec published in 1993 - the main source material for the movie co-written, produced and directed by Edward Zwick and co-produced by Tec's son Roland. We are so used to Holocaust movies depicting the passivity of the Jews as quintessential victims - Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" on the Warsaw ghetto uprising was a notable exception - but this film narrates the astonishing tale of how a set of four brothers - Tuvia (Daniel Craig), "Zus" (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron Bielski - led a group of partisan who fought the Germans and managed to rescue around 1,200 Jews from certain death.
The real location of the forest that was their home for more than two years was near Nowogródek (Navahrudak), an area that at the beginning of the Second World War belonged to Poland, but in September 1939 was seized by the Soviet Union and today is Belarus. The realistic location shooting for the film was actually in Lithuania, where 90% of the Jews were murdered, and there has been impressive attention to detail in the creation of the underground zemlyankas (dugouts) and the clothing and weaponry of the Bielski otriad (partisan detachment). Also the tough decisions which the leaders of the group had to take and some of the brutal actions that the partisans carried out are not missed out. So, in spite of being a little stilted at times, this is both an honourable ans effective piece of film-making that tells a little-known story in a manner which manages to be both informative and entertaining.
Wikipedia account of the Bielski partisans click here
Polish opposition to the film click here
In 2001, many of us fell in love with gamine actress Audrey Tatou as a result of her wonderful eponymous performance in the French film "Amélie". Ten years later, in this further offering from France, no less than three men fall for the character played by Tatou: office manager Nathalie Kerr. But which one will be with her by the end of this gentle, very Gallic rom-com?
Sometimes I see two new releases on the same day. So it was that I viewed "Captain America: Civil War" before I caught "Demolition", the two films being released on the same weekend in the UK. The joy of being a film fan is that one can enjoy very different works. So, while "Captain America" is big and brash with a large ensemble cast and tons of special effects, "Demolition" is (mostly) a quieter movie with a limited number of central characters and no obvious effects. Whereas the superheroes in "Captain America" are bashing each other and a few villains, in "Demolition" it is machines that are taken apart and a home that is smashed up. While "Captain America" is a civil war, "Demolition" is a very personal inner conflict.
Directed by Canadian Jean-Marc Vallée, this is his third successive response-to-grief film following "Dallas Buyers Club" and "Wild". This time it is an emotionally-stunted investment banker, Davis Mitchell (the excellent Jake Gyllenhaal), trying to come to terms with the sudden death of his wife as he is comforted by his father-in-law (Chris Cooper) and a vending machine company employee (Naomi Watts). "Dallas Buyers Club" and "Wild" were based on real-life stories which might be why they were better than the somewhat implausible "Demolition" that is nevertheless an oddity worth a viewing as a contrast to a blockbuster.
When British history writer David Irving sued for libel the American historian and academic Deborah Lipstadt, because she had accused him of being a Holocaust denier, I assumed that he had no chance of winning and that, having been defeated in a court of law, the cause of Holocaust denial would be irredeemably damaged. I was wrong on both scores which is why, 17 years after the trial, it is so important that this big name film about the case has been made.
As the film makes clear, Irving's defeat was far from certain because, in an English libel case, the defendant has to prove the veracity of the offending material and an important part of the price paid by the defence was that neither Lipstadt nor Holocaust survivors were called to testify so that Irving, who conducted his own case, could not exploit them. The film is released at a time when social media online and Trump in the White House are giving extraordinary prominence to falsehoods in an era which has been dubbed "post-truth".
The Holocaust happened and, if this film helps to remind people of this incontrovertible fact, it will make a valuable contribution to evidence-based discourse. The main problem for such a cinematic work of less than two hours is that the case was so prolonged and complex. It ran for five years (2000-2005) and, when it came to trial, it went on for 32 days and ended with a judgement of 355 pages. A further problem is that the viewer always knows the outcome, which inevitably diminishes the tension of the narrative, although director Mick Jackson and writer David Hare do their best to build up a sense of uncertainty. So, as a film, this is never going to be a crowd-pleaser.
But it tells an important story about an issue of huge historical significance and it does it with a roster of fine British actors. Rachel Weisz (herself Jewish) is the feisty Lipstadt and Timothy Spalling is convincing in the unsympathetic role of Irving, while Tom Wilkinson is formidable barrister Richard Rampton and Andrew Scott is cerebral solicitor Anthony Julius. Some of my Jewish friends feel that the film is unfair to the British Jewish community, but a good deal of research went into this work and every word that Irving utters during the screen version of the trial is taken verbatim from the court records.
Link: Wikipedia page on the trial click here
Writer-producer-director Alexander Payne does not make many movies but, when he does, you know that you are set for a treat of sharp observation and wry humour. His previous film "Sideways" was eight years ago and both "Sideways" and "The Descendants" are so good that we can only hope that he does not wait another eight years before entertaining us again. This time his source material is a debut novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, a family saga set in her native Hawaii - all t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops.
At the centre of the story is Matt King, a successful lawyer who has engaged too little of late with his wife and two daughters, only to find that he has to take on new responsibilities and discoveries when his wife has a serious accident putting her in a coma. George Clooney leaves his assured, action man image behind, to play the confused and vulnerable husband and father who is now - in his words - just trying to keep his head above water. There are many other fine performances, but newcomer Shailene Woodley - whose previous work has been on television - is especially good as the older daughter Alexandra and could find that this proves to be her breakthrough role.
There is much use of local music which I confess is not to my taste, but the geography of Hawaii itself is almost an additional character in this charming, moving and magical work.
Written, produced and directed by Robert Rodriguez, this a is a much more expensive and flashier sequel-cum-remake of his earlier low-budget film "El Mariachi". It is utterly over the top in its balletic violence, but it doesn't take itself too seriously and as a result it is very entertaining. Antonio Banderas is the avenger with a very special guitar case and Salma Hayek is his female accomplice and lover - two stars who rival each other for length of hair and sheer sexual magnetism - while Joaquim de Almeida is a suitably vicious and manic bad guy.
"Despicable Me 3"
I never saw the first two "Despicable Me" movies, but I did go along to the spin-off work "Minions" with my then four and a half year old granddaughter in London just before she went off to live in Nairobi for a time. On my fourth visit to Nairobi, I took her - then six and a half - to see "Despicable Me 3" just before she returned to the UK. This time we have not just Gru (Steve Carell), now combatting villains, but his newly-discovered identical twin Dru (also Carell), who is unquestionably a villain, but for me some of the best scenes are still with those minions (especially a fun singing sequence).
There are far too few female film directors and probably none as commercially and artistically successful as the American Kathryn Bigelow. Her two previous works, "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty", were both outstanding and showed men in uniform under pressure. "Detroit" has the same essential theme but, as the title makes clear, this time we are on Bigelow's home territory of the United States. Indeed we are in the midst of actual events, the race riot which took place in one of the country's major cities over five days in July 1967 when 43 were killed, 1,200 injured, 7,000 arrested, and 2,000 buildings burned down.
As the film unfolds, the focus constantly narrows, starting with a quick animated history of black migration in the USA, moving on to the rioting throughout the 12th Street area of Detroit, then closing in on the Algiers Motel, and finally remaining in real time in an annex to the motel where we find ourselves in a kind of horror show. This is a long film and the final segment jumps forward a couple of years, with glimpses of the court case where all the accused were acquitted, to conclude with short text advising the viewer on what happened to the chief characters in the incident.
If this is a cinematic tour de force by Bigelow, it is a tribute too to writer Mark Boal and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, both of whom she has worked with before. The inter-cutting of contemporary news footage and the use of hand-held cameras mean that the viewer is drawn into a seamless exposition that, from the beginning, induces anxiety and, during the interrogation sequence, is some of the most uncomfortable viewing outside of the horror movie genre. The acting is excellent across the piece, but the stand-out performances come from two British actors: John Boyega ("The Force Awakens") as the black security guard caught up in the events and Will Poulter ("The Revenant") as the white Detroit cop who orchestrates the whole macabre, and ultimately murderous, shake-down
I saw Bigelow interviewed about her latest movie on "The Daily Show" and it is clear that she regards "Detroit" as, not simply a 50th anniversary commemoration of a dark period of American history but, a call to today's America to recognise that race is still a bitterly divisive feature of society that continues all too often to witness young black men being shot down by white policemen who are rarely called to account at a time when the current occupant of the White House is adding by word and deed to the already toxic atmosphere.
Link: the Algiers Motel incident click here
"The Devil Wears Prada"
I've been a huge fan of Meryl Streep ever since her appearance in "The Deer Hunter" in 1978 so, while having no interest in women's fashion, I had to see her portrayal of Miranda Priestly, the ferocious editor of the iconic "Runway" magazine, clearly modelled on "Vogue" editor Anna Wintour. Lauren Weisberger was Wintour's assistant from 1999-2000 and the film is a version of her novel of the same title.
The movie is a 'chick flick' that manages to make harassment at work funny with some really sharp lines and even sharper clothes. Anne Hathaway is cute and capable as Andy Sachs, the assistant who slowly offers her soul to the devil. Does she recover her sense of values in time? What do you think?
I saw the film on the Champs-Elysées during a break in Paris and, although most of it is set in New York, there is a near final sequence in Paris which was a pleasant touch. Overall though this is a fluffy work that wounds but dare not strike an industry that is gross as well as glossy.
Even a massive film fan like me can't see every movie as it is released at the cinema or on DVD and sometimes it is fun to watch a work years after its release and see what has happened to its stars in the intervening period. So almost two decades passed before I caught up with "Devil's Advocate" (1997), a film with plenty of sex and violence that is a savage critique of the American legal profession and a challenge to the Christian conception of the Almighty.
Al Pacino plays the diabolical head of a sprawling corporate empire who gives a splendidly over-the-top performance. Of course, Pacino - one of the finest actors of his generation - was a star at the time and continues to shine in his 70s and any compilation of his greatest moments should include a clip from his diatribe at the end of "Devil's Advocate". Keanu Reeves is the advocate of the title, a hot-shot young lawyer who somehow never loses a case. This role came before Reeves hit the big time with "The Matrix" trilogy and, since then, his career has fluctuated but is currently on an up with his appearance as "John Wick". The real surprise is Charlize Theron who plays the advocate's wife. She was virtually unknown when appeared in this movie - one of her very first - but is now a high-profile celebrity with a central role in the blockbuster "Max Max: Fury Road". She might now regret her full-frontal nude scene in "Devil's Advocate" but she not the only woman on show here and the shot does have a dramatic purpose.
"Die Another Day"
The James Bond franchise is the longest-running and most profitable in the history of the cinema, with each successive movie being seen by around a quarter of the world's population, and the 20th film in the 40th year is a homage to the oeuvre with repeated allusions to earlier films. This is a lot of fun for those of us who have seen all the earlier outings of 007, but it serves to emphasize how difficult it is to come up with new plot lines - this one is basically a repeat of "Diamonds Are Forever" - and how totally derivative is the whole of the latest effort.
The best reminder is Halle Berry's recreation of the famous scene where we first see Ursula Andress appear on the beach in "Dr No". In fact, Oscar-winning Berry as the formidable Jinx is one of the finest features of "DAD" and it's rumoured that she's going to have her own spin-off series.
In Pierce Brosnan's fourth appearance as the agent licensed to thrill, there are as always great locations, exciting chases and endless explosions, but we are shaken rather than stirred. What is really different this time is that New Zealand director Lee Tamahori makes excessive use of computer graphics. These simply do not have the impact of those stunning stunts from earlier works and at times - like the scene of windsurfing through the ice pack - are rather silly. But it is all enormously entertaining and Bond will be back.
Link: official Bond site click here
"Die Hard 4.0"
It may be 12 years since John McClane (now a bald and battered 52 year old Bruce Willis) donned his dirty vest to save his fellow Americans, but a fourth outing for a franchise that kicked off almost two decades ago means that you know exactly what to expect - and, in that sense, this movie doesn't disappoint. It is all pretty senseless and over the top but, if you want some mindless entertainment for two and a half hours, you'll get your money's worth.
In the States, "Die Hard 4.0" - an allusion to the computer hacking plot and an attempt to be cyber hip - goes by the more triumphalist moniker of "Live Free Or Die Hard" and it is a very American work with its emphasis on explosions over exposition, its allusions to Hurricane Katrina and the anthrax plot, and a clever compilation of clips from Presidential utterings. On the other hand, if you didn't understand a word of the dialogue, you could enjoy the set-piece confrontations - especially the downing of a helicopter and the showdown with an F-35 jet.
All the support roles - Justin Long as the expert hacker, Timothy Olyphant as the cyber-terrorist, and Maggie Q as the bad guy's kick-ass companion - are the sort of age Willis was when he first took on this role and this audience demographic will be willing to trade anything like a credible plot or meaningful characterisation for non-stop action, bullets and explosions - even if the end is weak ("Yippee-ki-yay" doesn't do it).
"Die Hard With A Vengeance"
After the success of "Die Hard" (1988) and "Die Hard 2" (1990), it must have been just too tempting to milk the franchise some more with this third outing in 1995 by independent-minded and bloody-vested and seemingly indestructible Bruce Willis as New York cop John McClane, but this offering is so lame that it almost killed the franchise, taking another 12 years before they dared to revive it. The problem is that, while moderately entertaining, it is all so preposterous with Jermey Irons as the villain sporting a terrible German accent and inventing stupid riddles that seem to have no purpose other than to give us some car chases. Samuel L Jackson, who plays a character reluctantly siding with the police, is always watchable but the stunts are simply by the book and the amount of strong language nothing to help.
"Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights"
Although this 2004 movie is a bit of a titular tease, it deserves to be better known and loved. Tease 1: the title suggests that it a sequel to the enormously successful original "Dirty Dancing" in 1987, but the only connection is a cameo role for Patrick Swayze as an unnamed dance instructor. Tease 2: the title refers to the Cuban capital and, while all the action is set there in 1957-58, it is actually filmed in Puerto Rico.
Based on the teenage experience of the film's co-producer and choreographer JoAnn Jansen, this is modern-day Romeo & Juliet-type tale of a clash of both cultures and classes as reflected in both the young leads and the dancing styles they each know best. The American Katey Miller (played by the British Romola Garai) meets the Cuban Javier Suarez (the Mexican Diego Luna) and the good-looking young couple learn to fuse their different forms of dance in the interests of entering a competition while inevitably falling for each other - but do they win the competition and each other?
The music is exciting and the dancing is infectious - and there is even an underlying political theme as the Castro revolution reaches its success. Like the original "Dirty Dancing", this is a movie you can enjoy again and again.
"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"
Muppet man Frank Oz directed this remake of the "Bedtime Story" (1964). This time round, the eponymous rogues are played by the urbane Michael Caine and the manic Steve Martin who strive to out-scam each other with the sweet, innocent Glenne Headly as the object of their nefarious rivalry. It is all very predictable but enormous fun.
"The Disappearance Of Alice Creed"
In 2008, Gemma Arterton came to cinemagoers attention as a Bond girl when she played Srawberry Fields in "Quantum Of Solace". The following year, she took on a much more demanding and disturbing role as the eponymous Alice in this dark thriller filmed on a low budget in the Isle of Man. She acquits herself very well, showing that she is far from being just a pretty face. Her co-stars - Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston who play Alice's kidnappers - are equally convincing in a work that has a mere three roles.
Considerable credit goes to J Blakeson who is both writer and director of this stylish work which is essentially wordless for the first ten minutes and simply gripping as the narrative unfolds with twist after twist. In 2014, the film was remade in Danish with the less clever title "Reckless".
On 20 July 1969, I was one of 600 million people around the globe watching live television pictures of Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon. What I didn't know until I saw this film was that those iconic shots were transmitted from the Parkes observatory, set in the middle of a sheep paddock in New South Wales, Australia, and that the pictures were carried in spite of exceptional winds. The story is told in this movie in a gentle, humorous, life-affirming manner that both pokes fun at rural Australians and celebrates their humanity. For most viewers, Sam Neil as the man in charge will be the only familiar face, but there are many fine cameos in this endearing, if somewhat fictionalised, tale.
History of Parkes click here
Parkes today click here
So many films are formulaic or derivative, if not plain remakes or sequels, that it's a real pleasure to find one with some originality as well as pace and verve. This is a science fiction work that is located entirely on Earth in the present day but the clever twist is that the scene is Johannesburg in post-apartheid South Africa where the ugly alien refugees - known for their lobster-like appearance as "prawns" - act as a metaphor for the blacks in the apartheid era or the Zimbabweans of present-day South Africa. There's plenty of tension and action, with a documentary style, excellent sound and atmospheric music, but this is also an intelligent allegory about how we treat 'the other'.
The success of the movie is down especially to three men. Neill Blomkamp is from Johannesburg but now lives in Canada and, as the co-writer and first-time feature director, he has scored a triumph; New Zealander and "Lord Of The Rings" maestro Peter Jackson was Blomkamp's mentor and producer and his special effects house was responsible for the extraordinary creatures; while Sharlto Copley - a first-time actor improvising most of his lines - is a revelation as corporation operative Wikus Van De Merwe charged with relocating the aliens who grows to be close to them in more than one respect.
The style of the film is somewhat inconsistent and the bad guys - the security company Multi-National United and the Nigerian bootleggers - are presented stereotypically, but this is still a fine premiere by Blomkamp which leaves itself open to a sequel.
The "Divergent" series of novels, which started to appear in 2011, owes a great deal to "The Hunger Games" collection, which began to be published in 2008. Both are three works aimed at young adults and written by female American authors (in the case of "Divergent", Veronica Roth). Both have a principled and plucky 16 year old heroine (in "Divergent", Beatrice 'Tris' Prior). Both are set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian world located in the former United States (in "Divergent", an enclosed Chicago). Both involve societies strictly divided (in the case of "Divergent", into five factions based on different human attributes). Both mix violence and romance in an exploration of coming of age and discovery of identity. And both are being turned into four money-making movies.
I have read the three "HG" novels and seen the two (so far) films and so, while not having read the "Divergent" books, I was happy to give this first spin-off film a go. I don't think it packs the punch of its rival but it's certainly entertaining enough. As with the "HG" movies, an absolutely key ingredient is the casting of the central heroine. Again we don't have quite the talent that is Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, but Shailene Woodley - whom I first spotted in "The Descendents"- is an appealing young actress of genuine potential and 2014, which saw her in "The Faults In Our Stars" as well as "Divergent", is definitely her take-off year.
"The Diving Bell And The Butterfly"
Three years after I read an English translation of the book, I saw this French-language film of the extraordinary story of Jean-Dominique Bauby - known to his friends as Jean-Do - who suffered locked-n syndrome but managed to compose an account of his experience by blinking his left eye, the only part of his body that could move. Again I was deeply moved by the palette of emotions on display.
The cinema version of the story was directed by Julian Schnabel who cleverly captures the sheer fixity of Jean-Do's dilemma by initially 'placing' the viewer behind his eyes. Mathieu Amalric is brilliant as Jean-Do and Anne Consigny is utterly convincing as the aide who painstakingly takes down his 'dictation'.
More than the book, the film shows us the differing reactions of those around Jean-Do: the mother of his children from whom he was estranged, his lover, his aged and immobile father, his black friend, the doctors and therapists. It is a truly haunting work.
Nobody makes movies like Quentin Tarantino. I have seen almost everything he has produced (a deliberate exception was "Death Proof") and my personal favourites are "Kill Bill" Parts 1 & 2. Now he turns his talent to the western but, from the garish red of the opening credits, it's clear that this is more spaghetti western than the traditional territory of say John Wayne. Indeed the lead character is inspired by a 1966 film directed by Sergio Corbucci and part of Tarantino's homage to the earlier work is to provide a cameo role for Franco Nero who was the eponymous protagonist first time round.
Some of the trademarks of Tarantino's distinctive style are to create novel characters while slipping in references to so many other movies (including his own). So here we have a German dentist (Christoph Waltz) and a black slave (Jamie Foxx) as the unlikely pair of gunslingers who ride to the unlikely-named slave plantation Candyland (Leonardo di Caprio as owner) to rescue the even more unlikely-named Broomhilde von Shaft (Kerry Washington). Another of Tarantino's quirks is his fascination with language and his set-piece conversational confrontations. In this movie, Waltz and di Caprio give brilliant performances as they duel linguistically and Samuel L Jackson is outstanding as a supreme version of the Uncle Tom character.
Set in 1858 (a couple of years before the outbreak of the American Civil War), this is a long film of two and three quarter hours, but it is deliciously entertaining, if often disturbingly violent. Tarantino specialises in revenge, retribution and revisionism. In his last film "Inglourious Basterds", he offered us a vision of the Nazi leadership being wiped out in 1944; here he allows a freed slave to be the nemesis of an outrageously racist and sadist slave owner while managing to turn hooded vigilantes into figures of fun. This is not a film that will be everyone's cup of tea (as we say in Britain) - or should we say goblet of gore - but most Tarantino fans will - like me - love it.
It's strange but Marvel Comics seems to be able to provide an endless run of new characters for movie outings and a succession of successful screen adaptations, while DC Comics struggles to move beyond Superman and Batman and does not always score highly with its cinematic adventures. The latest Marvel character to hit the big screen is the lesser-known American Doctor Stephen Strange, played with aplomb by British actor Bendict Cumberbatch, and we are presented with an origin story that explains who he was before he became a super-hero and how he acquired his extraordinary powers. It's clear that Strange will be back on our screens because we have two extra clips, one early on in the credits and another at the very, very end of the credits.
The story-line is pure hokum with characters like The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton at her androgynous best) and an evil one called Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen as a baddie yet again) and much talk of The Astral Dimension, The Dark Dimension and The Mirror Dimension plus copious references to energy. As The Ancient One explains: "Through the mystic arts, we harness energy and shape reality". Yeh, right ...
Yet the whole thing zips along with great gusto and is leavened with some humour both visual (such as a Cloak of Levitation with a mind of its own) and verbal (such as a reference to a WiFi password). Above all, it looks wonderful with shape-shifting buildings and cities that put the beginning of "Inception" in the shade and frequent rides into the edges of our universe and apparently the centres of other universes. The special effects are impressive and, if you like 3D (I don't), you will probably want to take your glasses along.
Very loosely based on the short and colourful life of English model turned bounty hunter Domino Harvey, this was Keira Knightley's attempt to move away from her nice girl image created by such movies as "Pirates Of The Caribbean", "Pride And Prejudice" and "Love Actually". For all the shouting, swearing, and shooting, she doesn't really cut the mustard and the whole work - directed by Tony Scott - is a confusing offering that tries too hard to be hip and happening with continously flashy shooting and sharp editing. Mickey Rourke and Édgar Ramírez play her fellow bounty hunters and several familiar faces appear in the casting.
Link: the life and death of Domino Harvey click here
It took me three years after this movie was first released in 2002 to be persuaded to watch it and it will take me at least another three years to figure out what it means. This is the début of writer-director Richard Kelly who has made a film that defies genre categorisation and contains one of the most surreal characters in movie history (a six foot, demon-masked rabbit who predicts the end of the world in 28 days). At the centre of events and 'worlds' is the eponymous Donnie, a deeply troubled teenager who is sensitively portrayed by newcomer Jake Gyllenhaal, who appears to occupy parallel universes.
I have to admit it was totally engrossing; my problem is that I simply have no idea what it is all about. The final lyrics must be a clue: `I find it kinda funny/I find it kinda sad/the dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had'.
Doubt can be a good thing, since it is often a mistake to be too dogmatic, and "Doubt" is a good movie, since it has an open ending which requires the viewer to think. The complete antithesis to a blockbuster, this is a slow-moving tale with few characters but lots of words, reflecting its original as a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It is written and directed by the author of the play itself, John Patrick Shanley, who clearly draws on his own experience of a Catholic education in the mid 1960s.
There are two outstanding performances: Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius, the stern, strict, unbending, traditional nun, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn, the affable, sensitive, supportive, modernising priest. When the priest is accused of an improper relationship on the basis of circumstantial evidence, we want him to be given a fair hearing but we are aware of the terrible abuse and the unforgivable cover-up that characterised the Catholic Church in America at that time. At the end, we are left in doubt.
This is the first German film in 50 years in which Hitler is a central character and almost five million Germans have seen it at the cinema, so it is clearly an important work which represents a honest attempt to face the nation's history in a manner which would be unthinkable from present-day Japan. Of course, this real life version of Götterdämmerung is familiar material to viewers of a certain age or education, but nevertheless the narrative - the last 10 days of the Führer's infamous life - is utterly compelling.
The work is an immense achievement for Bernd Eichinger who both wrote and produced it. Although based on two detailed accounts of the claustrophobic life in the bunker - "Until The Final Hour" by Hitler's young secretary Traudl Junge (from whose perspective the film is shot) and "Inside Hitler's Bunker" by German historian Joachim Fest - Eichinger has clearly done enormous research and has attempted to root all the significant scenes in a documentary source. He was aided by a fine director Oliver Hirschbiegel and a sizeable (for a European work) budget ($16M).
Above all though, the film works because of the mesmerizing performance of the Swiss German actor Bruno Ganz as the dictator losing all sense of reality as his dream of a thousand-year Reich is blasted away by Soviet artillery and - as he sees it - the lack of will of the German people. Among a uniformly excellent cast, Ulrich Matthes gives a chilling portrayal as Joseph Goebbels and the scene where Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels murders their six children, because she cannot bear them to live without National Socialism, is the most disturbing in a work that could haunt one for a long time through its violent images.
The movie is framed by events involving the secretary Traudl Junge: her job 'interview' in 1942 by a Hitler who seems interested only in that she is from his beloved Munich and an extract from an interview that she recorded just before her death in 2002 when she admits that her youth was no excuse for not thinking about her political seduction. This framing device works well, as does the concluding reminder of the war's toll (six million Jews killed and a total of 60M deaths) and of the post-war experience of the leading characters.
Any work about Hitler and especially one by a German production team is bound to attract controversy. The film has been criticised by reviewers for making Hitler too human, but I think that Eichinger has answered this well by insisting: "If he had been a monster rather than a man, it would take the guilt away from other people". It has also been challenged by historians for not making clear the Nazi background of Junge and the war crimes of some of the characters who are portrayed more sympathetically than others, but even a work of this scope cannot indulge in so much back-filling.
A final danger is that the film might be seen as representing at least elements of the German forces as valiant fighters to the last and the German people themselves as in a sense victims of Hitler's mania, but I feel that a balanced assessment of the work would acquit it of such a charge. My wife and I saw "Downfall" with a Jewish couple who are very close friends and who, between them lost four grand-parents in the Holocaust. They too found it a worthy work which is sufficient validation for me.
"Dressed To Kill"
This dark thriller, written and directed by Brian De Palma, was released in 1980 to divided reactions. It took me 35 years to get round to seeing it, prompted by a reference to it in a film studies course I attended. I have to say that I found it uncomfortable, even unpleasant, viewing. De Palma is a fan of Alfred Hitchcock and "Dressed To Kill" borrows a number of ideas from The Master's "Psycho" and has some genuinely well-constructed scenes of tension, but the film is burdened by an incoherent narrative and contains gratuitously violent attacks on women and a version of gender reassignment that are really offensive. Angie Dickinson (not her body in the opening shower scene) and Karen Allen (at the time married to the director) must look back on this movie with embarrassment if not shame. If you want to see a decent film from De Palma, view "The Untouchables".
I saw "Drive" a week after I viewed the British spy thriller "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and two of the adjectives I used to describe that film - laconic and languid - could apply equally here.
The script is very sparse: the lead character, an utterly brilliant Ryan Gosling as the driver with no name and no history, takes an age to speak and then says very little; the love interest, superb British actress Carey Mulligan, is a superlative example of less is more when it comes to speech; and for long stretches there is simply no dialogue. And it is often slow, even at crucial times slow motion - but then there are explosive instances of brutal violence that remind me of the first time I saw "The Godfather".
It's hard to imagine many Hollywood directors being capable of helming such slow-burning dramas and indeed "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" was directed by the Swedish Tomas Afredson while "Drive" was directed by the Dane Nicolas Wining Refn. Here superb direction is supported by splendid cinematography from Newton Thomas Sigel who offers us contrasting night-time aerial shots and gritty street-level scenes of Los Angeles. Even the original music by Cliff Martinez enhances the tension in a complementary rather than showy manner.
"Drive" is a kind of urban western with the car as the horse and the Gosling character as either Clint Eastwood personality-wise as The Man With No Name in the "Dollar" movies or The Stranger in "High Plains Driver" or as good-looking Alan Ladd narrative-wise as Shane in the eponymous movie where a man goes to the rescue of a threatened woman and her child only to find that a man's gotta do what he's gotta do.
This is one of the most stylish works I've seen in a long time where even a silver bowling jacket - the constant garb of the driver - can look cool in a tale where the anti-hero's nerves are as steelish as some of the weapons utilised by the low life he has to encounter. This is such a terrific movie that I could see it becoming a cult classic.
Sadly this crime thriller will be remembered as the last film made by the talented actor James Gandolfini (he looks awful and clearly it was not altogether an act). He plays Cousin Marv, the owner of a bar in Brooklyn, which he runs with the assistance of his relative Bob (Tom Hardy in his low-key, laconic mode). The title refers to the practice of criminal gangs selecting in random rotation a different bar to deposit the financial results of their nefarious activities. The screenplay by Dennis Lehane derives from his short story "Animal Rescue" which was originally mooted for the title of the film and wisely dropped (if you'll forgive the pun). It is a movie characterised much more by atmosphere than action but, thanks to fine acting, works a treat with the tension gripping you from the start and never letting go.
A British costume drama - now, there's a surprise. And Keira Knightley in period dress - more surprise. So, why make it? The novel angle in director Saul Dibb's work is that this is a true story about the life of Georgiana Spencer who became the Duchess of Devonshire in a loveless marriage so there is much resonance with the experience of Diana Spencer in our own times.
In a sense, this is a movie which cannot fail - after all, there is a steady market for period drama with wonderful English stately homes and repressed English sensibilities. On the other hand, it needs to be rather special to stand out from so many similar outings - and there's nothing unique or outstanding here.
Although there is a good supporting cast - Ralph Fiennes as the Duke, Charlotte Rampling as the mother and Dominic Cooper as the lover - this is very much a starring vehicle for young Knightley (still only 23) who is rarely off the screen. This is not her best performance (that was probably "Atonement" with "Pride And Prejudice another success) but it is perfectly competent, even if - unlike her wig - it doesn't catch fire.
Link: Wikipedia page on Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire click here
The last time we saw Dunkirk in a film was in Joe Wright's "Atonement" which featured a staggering five and a half minute Steadicam shot of a hell on earth beach scene. Now, thanks to the supreme talents of British director Christopher Nolan, we have an entire film devoted to the miracle of May/June 1940 that enabled some 340,000 British and French soldiers to be rescued by the British Navy and a hastily assembled fleet of over 800 small boats.
Nolan is what film studies call an auteur, someone who stamps an individual style on every work that he produces. In fact, Nolan is a most unusual auteur because his films are commercially successful (most notably his "Dark Knight" trilogy). But he often makes his viewers work hard because frequently he likes to use a non-linear narrative (most dramatically in "Memento", "Inception" and "Interstellar").
In this sense, "Dunkirk" - which he wrote, produced and directed - is classic Nolan in that there are three storylines: one largely set on land and covering a week, another located mainly at sea and occupying one day, and the third taking place in the air and filling just one hour. The three narratives intersect and finally converge temporally at the end of the film. It is as well for the viewer to know this before seeing the work for the first time and it means that a complete understanding of the timelines probably requires more than one viewing.
The unusual narrative structure is not the only distinctive feature of "Dunkirk". Visually and aurally it is a striking film and I viewed it in IMAX which was a stunning experience. Whether it is the vast expanse of the beach with thousands of soldiers lined up or the claustrophic bowels of a crammed ship or a close-up of a pilot in his Spitfire fighter aircraft, whether it the whine of bullets or the explosion of bombs or the howl of a Stuka dive-bomber, this is a work which is almost overwhelming. When one factors in the astonishing soundtrack from Hans Zimmer, the movie becomes a heart-pounding experience.
There is a roster of familar talented actors - notably Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy (although we barely see his face) - but Nolan deliberately cast young, newcomers to the screen in many of the soldier roles. In many ways, this is a minimalist movie: a simple plot (if complicated timelines), comparatively little dialogue, very few women characters, no German faces at all - just an unrelenting focus from the opening scene to the closing minutes on that strip of sand and the tens of thousands on it. The end sequences teeter on the edge of jingoism, but overall this is a masterclass in moviemaking.
There's no denying it: Julia Roberts - here playing former CIA agent Claire Stenwick - is a star and we've missed her in recent years. British actor Clive Owen - ex MI6 agent Ray Koval - is watchable enough, so the pairing works quite well, especially when delivering some sharp lines from writer Tony Gilroy who also directs (the same twin talents that he exercised on "Michael Clayton"). Supporting roles are ably filled by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson as rival entrepreneurs locked in a bitter conflict that seemingly only one-time spies can bring to a resolution. Throw in some glitzy locations - New York, Rome, the Bahamas - and slick and stylish cinematography and one has a good-looking movie, but not necessarily one that delivers.
In a film that could be called "Ocean's Two", the strength of the work is also paradoxically its weakness. The constant flashbacks are essential to Gilroy's calculated and entertaining - if utterly implausible - narrative but, after a while, they come to feel somewhat convoluted and contrived and the hair-raising plot has an ending that is thin to the point of baldness.
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.
Last modified on 20 January 2018
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