"The Eagle" "The East" "East Is East" "Eat Pray Love" "The Edge Of Love" "Edge Of Tomorrow" "An Education" "Effie Gray" "The Eight Hundred" "'89" "Electricity" "Elle" "Elles" "Elizabeth" "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" "Elysium" "Elvis" "Emma" (1996) "Emma" (2020) "The Emoji Movie" "Emperor" "Empire Of Light" "Encanto" "End Of Days" "The End Of The Affair" "End Of Watch" "Ender's Game" "Enemy At The Gates" "The English Patient" "Enigma" "Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room" "Entrapment" "Equilibrium" "The Equalizer" "The Equalizer 2" "Erin Brockovich" "The Escape" "Escape From Planet Earth" "Escape From Sobibor" "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" "Eternals" "Europa Europa" "Evening" "Event Horizon" "Everest" "Everybody Knows" "Everybody Wants Some!!" "Everything Everywhere All At Once" "Ex Machina" "Exodus" "Exodus: Gods And Kings" "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" "Eye In The Sky" "Eyes Wide Shut"
The Romans did have a Ninth Legion and it did serve in Britain, but the suggestion that it was wiped out north of Hadrian's Wall while its standard (the eagle) survived is just fiction, popularised by a successful children's book from Rosemary Sutcliff in 1954. Much later, in 2011, Scottish director Kevin Macdonald has brought the story to the big screen, using excellent location shooting in his native Scotland and (mostly) Hungary (homeland of his grandfather). The son of the lost legion's commander, who is searching for both the standard and his family's honour, is played by American Channing Tatum, while the young British actor Jamie Bell (best known for his very early "Billy Elliot") is his loyal slave in this moderately entertaining action movie.
Brit Marling is obviously a woman to watch. I enjoyed her appearances in "Another Earth" and "Arbitrage" and, as in the first of these, for "The East" Marling is a writer as well as the lead actor. The East is an eco-terrorist group which Sarah (Marling) infiltrates on behalf of a private agency and the work has a strong pro-environment message which it rather spoils with simplistic representations of offending corporations and some implausible plot lines including an unlikely conclusion. Nevertheless it is a commendable and watchable effort to be a little different and raise some important issues.
"East Is East"
I lived in Manchester until 1971 and I now live in the London Borough of Brent which has a large Asian population, so I was quite willing to view this small, but succesful, British film centred on a family headed by a Pakistani living in Salford in the early 1970s. Writer Ayub Khan-Din has produced a sharp script which manages to be full of both humour and pathos, while director Damien O'Donnell has elicited fine performances from a virtually unknown cast (unless you watch television's "Coronation Street"). Om Puri is excellent as George Khan who presides over his English wife and seven children (all but one of them sons). Somehow his arrogant and often brutal character manages to win our sympathy as he tries to instil in his Anglicised off-spring acceptance of his culture, while Linda Bassett is impressive as his partner, torn between respect for her husband and understanding for her children.
"East Pray Love"
Successful American writer Elizabeth Gilbert left an unhappy marriage and an unsatisfying relationship before deciding to spend a year finding herself through travel in Italy (eating), India (praying) and Indonesia (loving). In 2006, she published a chronicle of this year of "spiritual and personal exploration" which has gone on to sell over 12 million copies in over 30 languages. In 2010, this film version came out with Julia Roberts as Gilbert. I didn't get round to watching it until I was desperate for an uplifting film to divert me from the terrible news of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The movie is too long (two and a quarter hours), too light (PG certificate), and - for me at least - too imbued with spirituality, but it is watchable enough. As well as Roberts who gives a sensitive performance, it is full of beautiful people such as Billy Crudup, James Franco and Javier Bardem - who play her lovers - with some fine support from the likes of Viola Davis and Richard Jenkins. And, of course, there is some glorious location shooting in Italy's Rome, India's Pataudi, and Indonesia's Bali. And, finally, there is a happy ending as Elizabeth falls in love.
I can understand Elizabeth's anguish over her divorce, having undergone two myself, but the whole idea of taking a year to find oneself - financed through a $200,000 advance on a book deal - strikes me as massively self-indulgent. And, after all that food, meditation and sex, did she find herself?
Well, after her first marriage of 8 years, she married the guy she met in Bali only to split after 9 years. After that she had a commitment ceremony with a female friend dying of cancer followed by a relationship with a mutual male friend that was short lived. I suspect that this is a woman with commitment issues which no amount of spiritual meandering will resolve. She herself has written an article, entitled "Confessions Of A Seduction Addict", in which she confesses that she has "careened from one intimate entanglement to the next - dozens of them - without so much as a day off between romances".
So see the film as a very particular effort to find romance without any general lessons on how to find it.
"The Edge Of Love"
Set during the Second World War in both London and Wales, this film portrays the complex relationships between four real-life characters: the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (played by Welsh actor Matthew Rhys abandoning his American accent from the US television series "Brothers And Sisters"), his Irish wife Caitlin MacNamara (British actress Sienna Miller), his first love Vera Phillips (another British actress Keira Knightley) and Vera's husband the British soldier Captain William Killick (Irish actor Cillian Murphy). Many of the incidents represented are a matter of record but other occurences are simply speculation on the part of screenwriter Sharman Macdonald (Knightley's mother).
In truth, it is Keira Knightley's film. Her striking physiognomy always makes her a pleasure to watch, but this is the finest performance of her young (still only 23) career, as she affects a decent Welsh accent and even sings in a nuanced act of thespianism of which she can be proud. Director John Maybury does not make the character or the poetry of Dylan Thomas any more accessible but the bonding and bruising between his wife and his lover create a humanistic tale.
"Edge Of Tomorrow"
Taken from the novel "All You Need Is Kill" by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, "Edge Of Tomorrow" is "Groundhog Day" and "Source Code" meets "Saving Private Ryan" and "Starship Troopers" with much of the structure and style of a video game. If that makes the movie sound derivative, it is - but it remixes these old elements in a flashy new style. The basic storyline is that Continental Europe has been taken over by metallic octopus things called 'mimics' that seem remarkably easy to kill one at a time but come in such numbers and farsightedness that the invasion of the French beaches by the UK-based United Defence Force fails and then fails again and then fails again ...
At the heart of the action is Tom Cruise as military PR man William Cage who - in a nice variation on his usual roles - wants nothing of this heroics thing. Whatever people say about Cruise, he is still a genuine star who carries any film in which he appears. This time, he has a strong female companion Rita Vrataski, the pin up soldier of the war, in the delightful shape of Emily Blunt who is rapidly acquiring star quality herself. She is really good and looks great dirty. The director is Doug Liman who gave us "The Bourne Identity" so the cutting is ferociously fast and furious.
It's all pretty ridiculous, with the repeated scenes and the frenetic editing verging on the irritating, but it's carried off with panache and pace and it's certainly so much better than Cruise's last sci-fi outing "Oblivion". From Cruise landing in a helicopter in the middle of London's Trafalgar Square, it looks and sounds terrific and I enjoyed it on a giant screen at the newly refurbished Empire cinema in London' Leicester Square.
Sixteen year old London schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) obtains more than one type of education when she encounters smooth and middle-aged con man David (Peter Sarsgaard) in the early 1960s when learning Latin and reaching Oxford take a back seat to expensive socialising and early sex. Mulligan is utterly convincing as the bright but bored student seduced by a more immediate and exciting lifestyle and clearly has a fine acting career ahead of her. This is a story which could so easily have been told in a stereotypical fashion but writer Nick Hornby and Danish director Lone Scherfig handle the material in an accomplished and nuanced manner that gives credibility to what is in fact a biographical experience taken from the memoirs of journalist Lynn Barber.
In 1848, Euphemia 'Effie' Gray (portrayed here by Dakota Fanning) was 19 when she married the famous critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise), but he was a terrible husband and the marriage was never consummated, a further complication being her attraction to the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge). This famous Victorian love triangle is the stuff of drama, but sadly this version is slow and dull and languid to the point of limpness. This is in spite of it being beautifully shot in English stately homes, Scotland and Venice and having a script from Emma Thompson plus a stellar supporting cast list including Thompson herself, David Suchet, Julie Walters, James Fox, Derek Jacobi and even Claudia Cardinale (now in her mid 70s). What a waste. What a disappointment.
"The Eight Hundred"
For more than seven decades, the American, British and Russian film industries have given us one war movie after another representing the successes of their nations in the Second World War. Now that the Chinese film sector is such a powerhouse, it is understandable that it would want to get in on the act. The problem is that the (second) Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 presented no great victories for the Chinese - but it did involve at least one heroic defeat. At the end of the three-month battle for Shanghai in 1937, Chinese troops made a last stand in the Sihang Warehouse between 26 October - 1 November. The six-storey concrete building was situated just across the Suzhou Creek in full view of the British-controlled International Settlement so, at the time, the conflict was in the world media.
This film of that battle is one of the most expensive to have come out of the Chinese film industry. It is reputed to have cost some $80M (although so far it has earned around $450M) and it is the first Asian movie to be shot entirely in IMAX. The work was co-written and directed by Guan Hu and the large cast is headed by Chun Du as the commander of the Chinese forces Xie Jinyuan. It is a bombastic movie with little characterisation or subtlety, but it is an exciting work with excellent special effects (created by western companies). The event is to the Chinese what the Alamo was to the Americans or Dunkirk was to the British and it deserves a wider Western appreciation.
The "Eight Hundred" has many ironies. For a start, the number of Chinese troops involved was actually 452 (the 800 figure was a deliberate exaggeration to boost morale). Next, the Chinese 88th Division had been trained by the Germans since at this point there was no German/Japanese Axis. Above all, the film has been produced at a time when the Chinese Communist Party is in tighter control of the nation than at any time since Mao, but no communist troops were involved in any part of the battle for Shanghai. Instead all the the Chinese soldiers in the conflict were members of the National Revolutionary Army (NRA) commanded by General Chiang Kai-Shek) who subsequently lost a civil war with Mao's forces and fled to the island of Taiwan. So the flag raised on the top of the warehouse is the pre-communist Chinese flag that is now used by Taiwan.
It will be apparent, therefore, that this is a film that presents political complications for the Chinese Communist Party. Its release was delayed by a year and it was censored including a cut of 13 minutes, so its appearance and popularity are not universally welcomed in this totalitarian nation. Having said that, all regimes like a heroic story and the Sihang Warehouse has long been restored with the inclusion of a museum on the battle (but, on my two visits to Shanghai, I was not even aware of the incident).
Link: the defence of the Sihang Warehouse click here
The most exciting conclusion to a season of English football came on 26 May 1989 when boring Arsenal had to beat the spectacular Liverpool at Anfield by two goals in the final match of the season to win the League Championship for the first time in 18 years and miraculously scored the second goal in then final seconds of the match. This documentary uses archive footage and contemporary interviews to recreate the excitement of the occasion and even I - no fan of football - could not fail be caught up in the agony and the ecstasy of the game. A football manager famously opined that "Some people think that football is a matter of life and death - but it's more important than that". This film is really for them.
I was drawn to this small, little-known British film by its star, since I have always found that model Agyness Deyn has such a fascinating face. In fact, Deyn - in her first major movie - is not just the central character but in every scene and, given her lack of acting experience, her performance is remarkable. She plays Lily O'Connor, a young woman from the north who travels down to London to seek the younger brother she has not seen since childhood. The distinguishing feature of this film, directed by Bryn Higgins, is that from a very early age Lily has suffered frequent and severe epileptic fits. I was once travelling on an inter-city train when the young woman sitting next to me had an epileptic fit and I have never forgotten it. This film is part-funded by the Wellcome Foundation and its representation of such fits is very effective and striking.
The Dutch director Paul Verhoeven created a stir in the decade 1987-1997 with violent Hollywood movies "RoboCop", "Total Recall", Basic Instinct", "Showgirls" and "Starship Troopers" (I saw them all). Then he disappeared from view to return to making foreign films with the French-language work "Elle" coming along in 2016. It is an uncomfortable work with some complex psychology based around a series of violent sexual encounters, but it is worth watching for the superb performance by Isabelle Huppert - as the woman who is raped - who is one of the finest, as well as the most prolific (around 150 television and film roles), actors in France.
Although directed and co-written by a Polish woman (Malgorzata Szumowska), this French-language film has so many of the ingredients that we associate with Gallic art house movies: it is slow and ponderous, the narrative is fractured, there is smoking, drinking, and eating, there is sex but much of it is sordid or sad or sadistic, there are scenes which are simply inexplicable, and the conclusion is utterly unresolved and even senseless.
Juliette Binoche plays Anne, a journalist with "Elle" researching an article on how students fund their education through prostitution. Apparently she only interviews - repeatedly - two students: the French girl Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and the Polish girl Alicja (Joanna Kulig). Neither hooker seems as unsettled by the lifestyle she has chosen as Anne appears unbalanced by the interviews. It is all rather disjointed and unsatisfactory and the only reason for seeing the film is the wonderful work of the ever-impressive Binoche.
This historical drama of 16th century England - directed by the Indian Shekhar Kapur - is a triumph. Script, sets, costumes and music are all well-crafted. With the exceptions of the inappropriate casting of Angus Deayton and Eric Cantona, the acting is uniformly excellent, with particularly fine performances from the Australians Cate Blanchett, as the eponymous 'virgin' queen, and Geoffrey Rush, as the trusted but callous Walsingham. On second viewing especially, I was struck by the superb camerawork: shots from above, rotating shots, framed shots through arches and doors, and obscured shots through curtains or grills.
The story is young Elizabeth's struggle from virtual outcast to secure leader of her nation during the period 1554 to 1572. This is a royal court full of shadows and whispers and the final, bloody consolidation of power is reminiscent of the conclusion of "The Godfather".
"Elizabeth: The Golden Age"
A film with the same subject (England's most successful queen), the same leading actress (Cate Blanchett) and the same director (Shekhar Kapur) as the wonderful 1998 work "Elizabeth" excites great expectations and, while there are many jewels here, sadly all that glitters is not gold. As with the earlier movie, it looks magnificent, with wonderful locations. sets, and costumes, and the camera work is stunning with clever compositions and remarkable fluidity and angles. Again the acting is particularly fine with Blanchett a tour de force.
The focus is narrower in time, beginning in 1585 and climaxing with the defeat of the Spanish Armada three years later in action scenes absent from the first film. The main problem is the script from Michael Hirst & William Nicholson. The narrative is too slow and too confused and some of the lines are somewhat banal, while the attempt to create a romantic storyline between the 'virgin' queen and the adventurer Walter Raleigh (an able Clive Owen) is too contrived and unlikely.
This bio-pic is stunning at so many levels. First and most obviously, there is the life itself: the white boy who sang what was thought of as black music with such exuberance and eroticism and went on to become the best-selling solo performer of all time before dying at the tragically early age of 42. Then the direction of Australian auteur Baz Luhrmann who brings to this story the flair and flamboyance that is so characteristic of his work: vibrant colour, flashy titles, split screens, rapid cuts, startling close-ups, zooming camerawork and all the rest, making the viewer dizzy for the first third of the 159-minute running time.
Next the casting of unknown actor Austin Butler in the titular role was a brave act of genius as even Elvis impersonators acknowledge that he totally captures the persona of the King Of Rock and he actually sings (well) most of the songs. And then there is Tom Hanks as manager Colonel Tom Parker in a role against type, looking and sounding so different most of his nice-guy illustrious career.
The movie takes a good deal of artistic licence with the facts of Elvis's career, but the basic storyline is true enough and the interpretation works well cinematically. The angle of the work is to present the story through the point of view of Dutchman Parker, sly, cunning and an unreliable witness if ever there was one. But then Elvis himself, although a rare talent, was no saint and was ultimately responsible for his own downfall, although the film suggests that somehow if was the fault of us, the fans.
In representing the narrative as a battle between Presley and Parker, the tale is perhaps oversimplified and more of the voices of Elvis's wife and other performers would have given a more nuanced vision. Where the movie really scores is in communicating the sheer excitement of this unique icon. We really feel that we're at those concerts.
In 2009, a new talent burst on the cinematic scene in the form of writer and director Neill Blomkamp, a South African living in Canada, who gave us the startlingly original and political science fiction movie "District 9", a bitingly satirical take on apartheid South Africa. It's taken him four years to come up with his follow-up work, another sci-fi project, but it wipes the floor with the other genre offerings of this summer "After Earth" and "Oblivion".
This time the setting is an over-populated and environmentally ravaged Los Angeles in 2154 (the same year as "Avatar"). In classical mythology, Elysium was the home of the blessed after death; in this film, it is a space station where the ultra-rich escape the crime and ill-health of Earth. The head of security at the station is the icy Delacourt played by Jodie Foster and the person who is trying to break into this Brave New World is ex-con, now radiation worker Max portrayed by Matt Damon with shaven head, exo-skeleton and a brain full of code. Delacourt's special agent and Max's intended nemesis, the ferocious Kruger, sees the return of South African Sharlto Copley from "District 9".
Comparing BlomKamp's two films, both use the genre of sci-fi to make political points, this time the scourge of inequality and the injustice of immigration control. The difference between the works is the budget: an estimated $30M has become an estimated $115M which means bigger stars and bigger special effects, so "Elysium" looks great - especially in IMAX - but the plotting is somewhat simplistic and the conclusion overly sentimental.
Link: discussion of the film's moral message click here
Films often come in pairs and 1996 saw two adaptations of novels by Jane Austin: "Sense And Sensibility" and "Emma" (published in 1816). The later work was distinguished by the American craftmanship of this most English story: both writer-director Douglas McGrath and lead actress Gwyneth Paltrow - who sports a marvellous English accent - are from the USA. Yet there is an ensemble British cast - led by Greta Scacchi, Juliet Stevenson and Jeremy Northam - and superb Dorset settings in this charming tale of a 21 year old well-intentioned, but meddlesome, matchmaker who finally marries her match.
Does the world need another film adaptation of "Emma" after the delightful 1996 version with Gwyneth Paltrow in the eponymous role? I think not having seen this effort with newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy giving a serviceable but unexceptional performance as Jane Austen's interfering heroine. This is the directorial debut of Autumn de Wilde and the screenwriter debut of Eleanor Catton and I fear that they have given us a work which is too often confusing and perennially slow.
"The Emoji Movie"
"The Lego Movie" was such a success that it was obviously tempting to try something similar with the pictograms on our mobiles, but there is no comparison between the two films. This one is colourful but lacks a coherent narrative or any real charm. Having said that, my granddaughter (aged almost seven) gave it the thumbs up.
This film tells a fascinating story in fine style, but it is difficult to see how anyone thought it was big screen material. Its box office takings were predictably low and it was in theatres so briefly that I had to catch it on DVD which was certainly a worthwhile endeavour.
In 1945, General Douglas MacArthur was made Supreme Commander for Allied Powers (SCAP), a role with emperor-like powers, in American-occupied Japan and one of his first and most momentous decisions was whether or not to execute Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal. For most Americans, there was no debate: Hirohito was the man who endorsed the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor. But, whether or not he backed the war, a case could be made that he was crucially instrumental in bringing about the peace by ordering the Japanese to surrender. Furthermore the hanging of the emperor - still revered by most Japanese as a deity - could well lead to an explosion of violence that would make the occupation by the Americans and the revival of the shattered nation immensely more difficult.
MacArthur commissioned Brigadier General Bonner Fellers to make a study of the emperor's complicity and make a recommendation on execution - all in a mere 10 days. Fellers was someone who knew the Japanese well and had considerable respect for their ancient culture. Indeed, before the war, he had fallen in love with a Japanese woman studying in the United States and, even after the war, was anxious to see her again.
This amazing story is told respectfully by British director Peter Webber and writers Brazilian Vera Blasi and American David Klass, drawing on Shiro Okamoto's book "His Majesty's Salvation", in a film that even-handedly represents Japanese perspectives of the time. The acting is first-rate with Matthew Fox (best-known for the TV series "Lost") giving a sensitive performance as Fellers and Tommy Lee Jones perfectly cast as the swaggering MacArthur. Many excellent Japanese actors contribute, notably the lovely Eriko Hatsune as Fellers' girlfriend. Shot on locations in both New Zealand and Japan, high production values make this an admirable viewing experience.
The movie lacks the fast-paced action that many expect from a visit to the cinema and arguably it is overly sympathetic to the Japanese position and somewhat saccharine in its treatment of the romance (which seems to be an invention), but it is a real pleasure to see a work that tells a little-known story of such consequence so well.
"Empire Of Light"
I'm always going to watch something from British director Sam Mendes and recently his output has been so variable: after the Bond movies "Skyfall and "Spectre" and the war film "1917", we have an altogether different offering.
I had originally thought that it would be a homage to cinema, something like a British version of "Cinema Paradiso" but, while the setting is a cinema (located in the Margate of the 1980s) and one character has a true love for the art form (the projectionist played by Toby Jones), this is much more a story of a complicated relationship: inter-generational, inter-racial, and involving mental illness. The unlikely couple are wonderfully played by established star Olivia Colman and promising newcomer Micheal Ward.
Mendes wrote as well as directed this and, like "1917", it is a tribute to a family member - in this case, to Mendes' mother who suffered from mental illness. In fact, the narrative is a bit formulaic and at times contrived, so it does not always seem likely or credible, but it is a worthy work and eminently watchable.
For the third consecutive weekend, I spent part of Saturday taking my two granddaughters (almost 11 and 5) to see a new animated movie. I have to say that, from my adult (73) point of view, this was by far the best. Set in rural Colombia, the colours are wonderfully vibrant and the visuals are quite inventive. The Madrigal family - each of whom, except one, has a special power conferred by an enchanted candle - are delightful. And the soundtrack from Lin-Manual Miranda of "Hamilton" fame is joyous and catchy. The point of view is that of Mirabel, the one without any powers, who of course turns out to be the true star. So another Disney animation heroine (think "Frozen" and "Moana') and another success for the studio.
Note: encanto is Spanish for 'charm'.
"End Of Days"
After a two-year screen absence, Arnold Schwarzenegger returns in this eve of millennium supernatural hokum that could be termed "Terminator" meets "The Exorcist". This time the enemy is Satan himself - played by Gabriel Byrne, who can at least act - and, as usual, the devil has the best lines. The prey is Christine York (Christ in New York - get it?) played by the winsome Robin Tunney. Can Arnie save her from diabolical violation and the world from Satanic domination? Well, what do you think? Along the way, director and cinematographer Peter Hyams ("TimeCop") offers us shocks and gore - hence the '18' certificate - plenty of pyrotechnics and some 450 special effects shots before faith conquers all. This mess of a movie will not do much for Scwarzenegger's flagging film career, but it won't do his political ambitions any harm in a country where fundamentalist Christians hold extraordinary sway.
"The End Of The Affair"
This is a frightfully English film in which the suave Ralph Fiennes ("The English Patient") plays the writer and narrator Maurice Bendix who has a passionate affair with the delectable Julianne Moore as Sarah Miles, the neglected wife of the repressed man from the ministry portrayed by Stephen Rea. Most of the story is set in a war-time London, where it seems to be constantly pouring with rain, and the earth certainly moves for Maurice and Sarah - with a little help from the Germans.
Nevertheless, it's difficult to fathom why the movie attracted an '18' certificate in Britain. It can't have been the occasional glimpses of Moore's breasts, so one has to assume that it had something to do with the equally brief shot of Fiennes' heaving buttocks. Writer and director Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game") has done an excellent job and produced an atmospheric and intelligent work, full of illuminating flash-backs and repeat scenes.
The film is based loosely on the autobiographical novel by the Catholic writer Graham Greene which in turn was inspired by his affair with the married socialite Catherine Walston. In fact, Greene and Walston did not meet until 1946 and, far from being short-lived, the affair lasted 13 years.
"End Of Watch"
Writer and director David Ayer spent his teenage years on the violent streets of the South Central district of Los Angeles where this movie is located and offers here a work that is not easy to view on several levels: the camerawork is deliberately close-up and jerky in the form of a homemade video, the language is naturalistic and sometimes hard to follow, and the subject matter is the tough task facing a couple of LAPD cops who accidentally get in way above their heads.
Ayer portrays the cops in humanistic terms, as essentially decent, unquestionably brave, and at heart family-orientated, whereas his villains are utterly one-dimensional with a distinctly limited vocabulary over-loaded with a single four-letter word. In a sense, "End Of Watch" is the flip-side of "Training Day", which Ayer also penned, where the dividing line between law enforcement and law breaking was totally blurred.
What makes the film is the bromance between the two cops: Anglo Brian Taylor (a shaven-headed Jake Gyllenhaal), wise-cracking but intelligent and always ready to take the initiative, and Hispanic Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), the driver who is a traditional husband and always ready to back up his buddy. Both Gyllenhaal and Peña give excellent performances so that you really care about what's going to happen to them and, as the tension builds, you know it ain't going to be good.
This an adaptation of a very dark and violent science fiction novel by American author Orson Scott Card in which the eponymous hero Andrew "Ender" Wiggin is only six. Even making the battlecrew young teenagers for the film means that the acting is amateurish and the young thespians (the English Asa Butterfield as Ender) are not helped by a stilted script written by the director Gavin Hood. The plot is pretty silly too: somehow humans manage to defeat an alien species called the Formics with something called the Molecular Detachment device. It's all rather formulaic until a couple of twists at the end, but what redeems the movie and makes it quite watchable are some splendid special effects, a rousing score and an irascible performance by veteran Harrison Ford.
"Enemy At The Gates"
They are very few western-made films about the Second World War's Eastern Front. After all, although the casualty toll - around 20M dead overall, including up to a million at Stalingrad alone - far exceeded that on the West, it was not American or British but Soviet lives which were lost. The two such works that I have seen are "Cross Of Iron" (1977) and "Stalingrad" (1992).
Now French director Jean-Jacques Annaud ("The Name Of The Rose") offers us "Enemy At The Gates" which is also about the ferocious 1942 Battle of Stalingrad, but - a novel angle for a war film - this is set around a personal duel between crack snipers. The movie has provoked some controversy since, while the Soviet marksman Vasily Zaitsev (played by Jude Law) did exist, the German shooter Major Konig (a charismatic Ed Harris) was almost certainly an invention of Communist propaganda. However, such minor tampering with history is certainly not on a par with the travesties in "U-571" or "The Patriot".
The sets and special effects - it was filmed in Berlin - are stunning in their verisimilitude and some of the action sequences, especially at the beginning, approach those in "Saving Private Ryan" in the brutality of their impact. Bob Hoskins impresses in a cameo role as the young Nikita Kruschev. Nevertheless the rivalry for the affections of woman soldier Tania (Rachel Weisz) is too sentimental and the script far too weak for this to be as good a film as it could have been.
information on the battle click here
information on Vasily Zaitsev click here
"The English Patient"
This Oscar-garlanded movie has a complex structure of repeated flash-backs and certainly benefits from a second viewing. Based on a novel by Michael Ondaatje, this is a triumph for the British Anthony Minghella who both scripted and directed. Beautifully shot on location in Tunisia and Italy and set before and during the Second World War, this is a heart-wrenchingly tragic love story with unconventional characters at its centre. Strangest of all is the patient himself, the enigmatic, laconic and cold Count played supremely well by Ralph Fiennes. He is loved - in very different ways - by the recently married and classically English Katherine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and a French Canadian nurse (Juliette Binoche). The tale unravels slowly and episodically to an unconventionally down-beat conclusion.
This is a rare pleasure of a film - one that is prepared to treat its viewers intelligently and tell a war-time story without explosives and histrionics and without falsifying history to glorify the Americans. It is based on the best-selling novel by Robert Harris whose previous work 'Fatherland" suffered so badly when translated to the screen. Here he has a decent screenplay from Tom Stoppard, assured direction from Michael Apsted, and three fine performances by British actors.
Dougray Scott, in a very different role from his "Mission Impossible 2" outing, has lost weight to portray brilliant, but tortured, code-breaker Tom Jericho at Britain's war-time Bletchley Park; Kate Winslet put on weight (she was pregnant at the time) for a performance far removed from "Titantic" as the frumpy, but clever, Hester; and Jeremy Northam is excellent as the sardonic secret service agent Wigram who knows far more than he is prepared to reveal.
Link: Enigma machine site click here
"Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room"
Enron was the US energy company that "Fortune" named as "America's Most Innovative Company" for six consecutive years and, at its height, it employed 22,000 people and claimed revenues of around $100 billion. It went bankrupt at the end of 2001 and this documentary was released in 2005, but I did not see it until four years later. By then, we had experienced 'the end of capitalism as we've known it' and the most serious collapse in financial markets since the Wall Street Crash. What Enron and the wider market crash have in common is the murky world of derivatives, an excessive exuberance for risk, and simple avarice and hubris, while the mother and father of both crises are deregulation.
Alex Gibney co-wrote, co-produced and directed this work which, though occasionally complex, is compelling viewing and a lesson to us all on corporate greed and regulatory failure. Interviews with key observers and extracts from Congressional hearings are linked by a narration from Peter Coyote. The heroines of the story are Bethany McLean, the financial journalist who first questioned the valuation of Enron, and Sherron Watkins, the senior manager who blew the whistle on the company. The villains are a long list of men headed by Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay and Chief Executive Jeffrey Skilling. Maybe there is a gender lesson here as well - as many financial and political ones.
Link: Wikipedia page on the Enron scandal click here
I wanted to enjoy this film since the three main locations are well-known to me and individually the two British stars have done some good work - but what a disappointment. It features dramatic robberies set in New York, London and Kuala Lumpur respectively with - in the last case - the architecturally distinct Petronas Towers standing in for a special bank, so it is visually quite glossy. However, the leading actors are simply inadequate to the occasion. Sean Connery as Mac is charismatic but at 68 just too old for these sort of escapades, while Catherine Zeta Jones - just 29 - is attractive enough but too wooden in her performance. The double life of the Jones character is implausible and the age difference makes the chemistry between the actors difficult to accept.
"Logan's Run" (1976) meets "The Matrix" (1999) in this visually stylish sci fi thriller in which one of the enforcers of a strict order of compliance in a future authorianian version of Earth is tempted over to the light side. The character displaying the moral doubts of Logan 5 and the fighting capabilities of Neo is one of the so-called 'clerics' called John Preston who is played by a steely-eyed and black-clan Christian Bale.
The sets are impressive and the fight sequences exciting, while the odd plot twist keeps the attention. If only there had been a better script and more subtlety, this could have become a cult classic. Since Kurt Wimmer was both writer and director, he is responsible for both the film's strengths and weaknesses.
A former secret agent with a special set of skills who has tried to leave all this behind him but is pulled back into the field when a young woman is badly treated by foreign thugs. Sound familiar? This is very much the ground trodden by the "Taken" franchise, although the title of this film and the name of its lead character are borrowed from a television series of the late 1980s. On the small screen, Edward Woodward played a British former spy; in this big screen version, the role is filled by the charismatic Denzel Washington as ex-CIA. It starts slow and remains pedestrian for half-an-hour or so. Then the action starts and rackets up and up to a major shoot-out in the hardware depot where Robert McCall was previously a nondescript worker and now find original use for some of the tools on sale.
"The Equalizer 2"
In his long and distinguished career of almost 50 films, 63 year old Denzel Washington has never made a sequel - until now. Like Liam Neeson with "Taken", he has found a money-spinning action role in later life and he's going to run with it. Between the two "Equalizer" movies, Washington has turned director in "Fences" in which he was also the star, but retired CIA agent Robert McCall is a much more laconic character who speaks more through fists, guns, knives, and his old espionage skills.
In this sequel, we have the same director (Antoine Fuqua) and the same writer (Richard Wenk) but, starting with a pre-title sequence on a train to Istanbul, the action comes earlier than in the first film and then satisfyingly often. This time, McCall is a cab driver in Boston who is pulled back into his old life when a former colleague meets a gruesome end in Brussels. As he performs the role of avenging angel, he manages to touch the lives of smaller folk in various acts of kindness. There's nothing new here, but it's a stylish work that entertains all the way with an atmospheric shootout at the end.
This is a wonderful star vehicle for Julia Roberts in the eponymous role as the brash and brassy unmarried mother of three who foists herself on a small-time law firm and then brings to account an American utility that has knowingly poisoned hundreds of trusting citizens. Roberts is rarely off the screen and gives arguably the finest performance of her career. She is well-served by a hard-hitting script from Susannah Grant and excellent direction by Steven Soderbergh. Brockovich's boss Ed Masry is played by Albert Finney who has had good reviews, but I don't understand why a British character actor was cast in such a role.
The case - closely based on a real one - concerns 600 residents of the small town of Hinckley in the Mojave desert who, it transpires, have suffered decades of poisoning from water contaminated by chromium 6 leaking from the gas transmission plant owned by Pacific Gas & Electric. Most legal dramas conclude with a court-room scene in which victory is secured through some clever verbal exchange. This one is very different and more typical of most legal work: the case never goes to trial but is instead resolved by arbitration and success only comes after four years of research and negotiation. In 1997, Hinckley's residents were awarded $333 million (£ 208 million) in the largest settlement in American legal history.
The film has had a major impact in the United States. On the one hand, it has stimulated many more class actions against utility companies, with Brockovich herself now working on seven new toxic litigation cases. On the other had, many of those involved in the Hinckley case are now arguing that it should have gone to trial and that their settlements were too low. Any film that can stimulate such controversy is a must-see.
How many women are unfulfilled by marriage and motherhood and wish to escape? Many more than we would dare to imagine, I suspect. This British film – actually written and directed by a man (Dominic Savage) – tells the story of one such tormented soul who is such a supporting character to her husband and children that we do not even learn her name until half way through the narrative. Tara is played by Gemma Arterton who, wearing no makeup, gives the performance of her career to date in a gut-wrenching portrayal of a woman lost. This really is her movie: she is rarely off the screen and has an executive producer role.
This is not a film that will appeal to those who only enjoy blockbusters because it is a remarkably minimalist work: very few characters, not much storyline, and sparse (often improvised) dialogue. The power and the pain comes from the acting, principally from wonderful Arterton but also from Dominic Cooper who is her husband Mark: a decent enough man who loves his wife but who simply cannot understand who she is and what she needs. So, does Tara escape? Certainly for a time in a less compelling second segment in Paris, but the ending is left ambiguous.
"Escape From Planet Earth"
Having successfully taken my granddaughter Catrin (then a month short of her third birthday) and her little friend James (just a few months older) to their first film (together with James's mother), we repeated the exercise a couple of months later with this animation feature. But "Escape From Planet Earth" is not in the same category as "Frozen" so, while enjoyable enough, it did not make the same impression with our little charges. It looks good with lots of colourful aliens - notably the wonderfully-named hero Scorch Supernova - and it has some famous voices (including Ricky Gervais and Sarah Jessica Parker), but the storyline is not engaging enough and the dialogue too knowing for small ones.
"Escape From Sobibor"
This is actually a television film but the importance of the subject matter, the quality of the actors, and the high production values merit its inclusion in this curation of reviews. Sobibor was a Nazi concentration camp in German-occupied Poland where, on 14 October 1943, there was a mass break-out of the 600 prisoners, some 300 managing to escape but only around 60 succeeding in avoiding recapture. This remarkable story is told in a 1987 film with a cast including Alan Arkin and Rutger Hauer which was shot in Yugoslavia. At the end, a voice-over reveals that many of the roles were based on real characters and explains what happened to them afterwards.
In this English-language production, the main role is given to the Polish leader of the revolt Leon Feldhendler (Arkin). In 2018, a Russian version of the event headlined the role of the Soviet soldier Alexander Pechersky (Hauer in the first film). Surprisingly, knowledge of the uprising was neglected until the 1970s and even today the revolt is not as well-known as it should be.
Link: Wikipedia page on the camp click here
"Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind"
Moviemakers have often been fascinated by memory - think of "Total Recall" or "Memento" - and the medium lends itself well to the realisation of what are above all visual recollections and reconstructions. Here acclaimed scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman displays more of the inventiveness than was so successfully on show in "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation". This time, though, the director is not Spike Jonze, but Michel Gondry, a maker of music videos and commercials, turning his hand for the first time to a full-length feature. In fact, the film often feels like a video, with a grainy and jerky - almost dreamlike - look.
The essence of Kaufman's story is the attempt by two unlikely and very different characters to erase the memories of their less than idyllic relationship. Jim Carrie plays withdrawn and melancholic Joel in the most restrained, even rather sad, performance that we have ever seen this from this usually manic comic, while Kate Winslet is totally convincing as Clementine, a cheery and colourful, but wild and impulsive, personality who infuses herself into his life and his heart. When each in turn wishes to blank out the memory of the other, a weird company appropriately called Lacuna offers to do the deed.
In an original romantic comedy where one thinks and smiles more than laughs, we are invited to value memories, however uncomfortable or even painful, as part of our experience and identity and possibly capable of being revisited and refashioned. It's all rather indulgent and at times esoteric, but then this is Charlie Kaufman. One wonders how long he can perform these mind tricks before he attempts a more conventional narrative but, in the meanwhile, this a film to be savoured at least once and preferably twice.
The erudite title comes from a poem by Alexander Pope called "Epistle Of Eloïsa To Abelard":
"How happy is the blameless Vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot:
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted and each wish resign'd."
Link: Lacuna web site click here
This is a Marvel movie like no other and it has a director (and co-writer) like no other: Chinese-American Chloé Zhao. This is a work that could hardly be more different than "Nomadland" for which Zhao won the Academy Award for Best Director which shows the scope of her talent and the bravery of her ambition. For this is a hugely ambitious film, covering 7,000 years of humankind, depicting many civilisations and nations, and featuring no less than 10 superheroes of unprecedented diversity.
Really, it is not just hugely ambitious but over ambitious for, while there is much to admire in the movie with some colourful and exciting sequences, ultimately there is simply too much going on and so much that is unclear. I'm from the school that believes that a film, while it might have depth and complexity that require further thought and perhaps even repeated viewing, should be broadly intelligible to the average viewer on a first viewing.
So, what's the movie about? Well, the Celestials created the Eternals to protect humankind from the Deviants but, over (lots of) time, the Eternals have rather fallen out between themselves and now there is a problem with something called the Emergence. Are you following this?
The point of view of the story is that of the Eternals who are not only very old but very diverse. Traditionally superhero movies centred on a white male American character (think "Superman", "Batman", Ironman", "Captain America" ...), although recently we have seen more gender and ethnic diversity (think "Black Widow" and "Black Panther" respectively), but none of the 10 Eternals is a white male American - the nearest is a Scotsman and an Irishman- so we have lots of women and people of colour and even gay and deaf heroes. This is admirable from a cultural point of view, but it means that we don't really get to know any of the team in depth and we are constantly bouncing around different storylines.
No wonder the film runs for over two and a half hours and we still leave the cinema bewildered about much of the narrative.
The odd choice of title for this 1990 film tells you nothing about its subject matter but does suggest something of its provenance. It is a German/French/Polish work, using mainly German but some Russian, Polish and Hebrew, and it has a Polish director (Agnieszka Holland) and Polish locations (mainly Lódz). It tells the story of the teenage German Jewish boy Salomon Perel, played by young Marco Hofschneider, who flees Hitler's Germany to seek safety in Poland and then the Soviet Union, only to find himself back in Germany as a member of the Hitler Youth. The tale would seem to be utterly fanciful, but in fact it is based on the memoirs of Solomon Perel who makes a brief appearance at the end of the film. An incredible story well told.
Link: the experiences of Solomon Perel click here
This film would be a prime candidate for the most star-studded work that most movie fans have never heard of. Sadly this has a lot to do with the fact that the stellar cast of thespian talent is overwhelmingly female and the author of the original novel and co-author of the script is a woman too. I suspect that, if so much male talent had been dissipated, we'd know more about it.
Imagine a movie with Vanessa Redgrave and daughter Natasha Richardson, Meryl Streep and daughter Mamie Gummer, Glenn Close, Toni Colette, and Claire Danes. How could it possibly fail? But it does. Maybe it's the men that one should blame, especially co-writer Michael Cunningham ("The Hours") and Lajos Koltai on only his second directorial outing.
I imagine that "Evening" worked much better as a novel, where the constant time shifts would be easier to follow, and I understand that Susan Minot's book presented a darker picture than even the rather nihilist picture in the film version. This tale of love and loss could have been so much more powerful, but this treatment is too slow and fractured to hit the emotions as it should.
The "Event Horizon" is in fact an experimental space craft that can travel faster than the speed of light through a device that can 'fold' space to create a singularity (I know ..). In 2040, it disappears somewhere near Neptune, only to reappear seven years later with no signs of life aboard. A special crew is sent to investigate led by the intrepid Laurence Fishburne and including the archetypal mad scientist played by Sam Neill. Like most science fiction films, this is derivative of so many others, mainly the seminal "Alien" of 1979 (crew picked off by some unseen evil) and the Russian "Solaris" of 1972 (a craft that can manipulate human memories) with even a scene from the 1973 shocker "Don't Look Now" (image of dead child leads adult to death). The space ship shows more life than the crew who struggle with a leaden script, but there are some excellent sets and splendid special effects to entertain.
On a holiday in Nepal, I made two early morning attempts to fly over Mount Everest but, on each occasion, I reached no further than Kathmandu airport before the flight was cancelled due to averse weather over the mountains. So I need no convincing that climbing Everest is immensely hazardous, not just because of the terrain and height but because of the temperamental climate. In any event, I had already seen the 1998 IMAX film of the same name which depicts the same true events of 10-11 May 1996 when a record eight climbers were killed after a ferocious storm caught them near the summit.
This version of the disaster - which I saw in 3D - was shot by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur with the scenes on the lower slopes of Everest being shot on location and the replication of Camps 1-4 being filmed in the Dolomites in Italy. So the film looks authentic with great cinematography and some effective makeup and prosthetics, so the viewer is absolutely part of the action. The problem is that, with so many characters, so much body and facial clothing, and such appaling conditions, it is not always clear who we are looking at and what is happening.
If there is a central character, it is New Zealander Rob Hall (played by Australian Jason Clarke) who led an adventure group who faced crisis on the South Face, but this is a movie with some big-name actors - notably Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin - effectively in support roles. Perhaps necessarily, since the action is on the mountain, the wives at home have very small roles in spite of being portrayed by fine actresses (Keira Knightley sporting a Kiwi accent and Robin Wright). In the case of both the 1998 IMAX film and this new feature, for me the satellite call between Rob Hall and his pregnant wife Jan was simply heart-breaking.
Note: For 14 years, the events depicted in this film represented a record death toll on Everest. Yet, during the actual shooting of the work in Nepal in April 2014, a worst disaster occurred when an avalanche killed 16 people. Most of them were Nepalese Sherpas though, rather than Western climbers, so it is unlikley that we will ever see a feature film about their loss.
This Spanish-language film is a French-Spanish-Italian co-production written and directed by the Iranian Asghar Farhadi (who has twice won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film). It has a wonderful cast, headed by Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, a couple in real life who here play former lovers. Although the setting and casting are new for Farhadi, in this suspense drama involving the kidnapping of a young girl, he deploys his trademark style and uses this incident as a device to expose all sorts of tensions in the family and the community. As the narrative twists keep coming, some of the plotting may be contrived, but the film is never less than compelling watching.
"Everybody Wants Some!!"
I'm a fan of the work of writer and director Richard Linklater and enjoyed enormously his films "Before Sunrise", "Before Sunset", "Before Midnight" and "Boyhood". I confess, however, that I was not so keen on "Everybody Wants Some!!" (what's with the double exclamation mark?). There is the same dialogue-heavy and naturalistic speaking style of the other works, but the focus this time is not on a couple or a family but - in this at least partially autobiographical offering - on a group of 1980 American male teenagers joining college to be members of the baseball team. I couldn't catch all the dialogue and, when I could, I couldn't always understand it. My life experience is so far removed from a group of pretty shallow individuals - with one exception (presumably the Linklater character) - obsessing in puerile fashion on sex, drink, drugs, loud music and baseball.
"Everything Everywhere All At Once"
I've been viewing films on a regular basis for some six decades and have clocked up almost 3,000 in that time. This particular one must be a strong candidate for the most weird and wonderful work that I've seen. The title itself is marvellous, up there with "Doctor Strange In The Madness Of The Multiverse" and, like that Marvel movie, the storyline is based on the notion that our universe is simply one of a multitude. The dialogue is in English, Mandarin and Cantonese so expect a fair amount of subtitling.
The film begins with this universe which is inhabited by a Chinese-American laundrette owner Evelyn Wang (splendidly portrayed in an endless series of facets by the incomparable Michelle Yeoh from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Crazy Rich Asians") who has problems with her father (James Hong), her husband (Ke Huy Quan whom we first saw in "The Goonies"), her gay daughter (Stephanie Hsu), and her tax auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis as you've never seen her). But, in no time at all, we are "verse jumping" as we bounce from one universe to another. To suggest that the pacing is utterly frenetic is a serious understatement. And the journey introduces us to a kaleidoscope of bizarre imagery from a world where people have hotdogs for fingers to another where rocks talk to one another and, along the way, fights involving weapons as varied as dildos and butt plugs.
So who can we thank for this wild ride? The two writers and directors are Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, known collectively as "Daniels". They began their career as directors of music videos, which has clearly influenced what is only their second feature film. As well as half the writing and directing team being Chinese-American, so are four of the five leading actors and ultimately this is a very Asian story of a oriental family adjusting to a new western world - like "The Farewell" which I loved so much. But what does the dizzying narrative actually mean? I'm really not sure, but I choose to see the message that, if there really are multitudes of universes out there, there's a lot to be said for the one in which we find ourself (double meaning intended).
The female robot has a long cinematic history, stretching from "Metropois" (1927), through "The Stepford Wives" (1975 & 2004) to "Blade Runner" (1982). What has changed is the advance of artificial intelligence technology, which has made it harder and harder to distinguish the metallic from the human, and our sense of ethics, which has led us to query how we should treat such increasingly sensitive creations. For some scientists, the vision is what is called the singularity when AI will exceed human intellectual capacity and control.
"Ex Machina" is a slow, stylish and intelligent sci-fi erotic thriller, both written and directed by the British Alex Garland, that poses some challenging questions about AI including a reference to the singularity. It is so lean in location and characters that it could almost have been a play, except that the robot is represented through some effective special effects.
Virtually all the action takes place in an ultra-modernist home-cum-laboratory built largely underground, while essentailly there are only three players in this techno game: Nathan, the owner of the facility, the rich and reclusive owner of the Bluebook search engine and creator of the robot Eva (a clever, passive-aggressive portrayal by Oscar Isaac); Caleb, a staff member of the company apparently chosen to test whether Eva is truly self-aware (a diffident and increasingly credulous Domhnall Glesson), and Eva herself (the Swedish Alicia Vikander in a mesmerising performance which for most of the time sees only her face located in an exo-skeleton). Inevitably there is a twist in the tale which could be seen as a vindication or a warning.
Note: What does the title "Ex Machina" mean? It is an abbreviated version of the term 'deus ex machina' which literally means 'a god from a machine' and originated from the conventions of Greek tragedy where a machine is used to bring actors playing gods onto the stage. In the context of this film, you can read it two ways: either Nathan is a god who has created what is essentially just a very clever machine or perhaps the 'machine' is the cruel Nathan who has created the ultimately all-powerful 'god' Eva. More generally, the term 'deus ex machina' refers to a dramatic device to resolve the plot in a storyline - so expect a twist.
When this film was first released (1960), I and the state of Israel were just 12 years old; by the time I finally caught up with it (2008), we were both 60 and I had just visited the country for the first time. The creation of Israel - the subject of the movie - was highly problematic and its survival and success over six decades are little short of miraculous, so this film, based on the best-selling novel by Leon Uris, ought to have been thrilling, but it turned out to be an exercise in dullness.
Set and filmed in Cyprus and Israel (Jerusalem and Acre), there is a good deal of historical verisimilitude here, especially in the treatment of the conflict between the Haganah and the Irgun (for my description of these organisations click here), but everything moves so slowly and so deliberatively, while much of the acting - especially from the younger performers - is dire.
The presence of stars Paul Newman and Eve Marie Saint cannot lift the work beyond the well-intentioned but mediocre and the love story between their characters is one of the weaker lines of narrative. At the end, Newman's character, a senior Haganah man, makes a graveside speech looking forward to Jews and Arabs living together in peace. Of course, sadly we are still waiting.
The whole epic runs an incredible three and a half hours. There's a story - possibly apocryphal - that, at a preview with the director Otto Preminger, the Jewish comedian Mort Sahl stood up after three hours and pleaded "Let my people go!" In short, very worthy, very long, very pedestrian.
"Exodus: Gods And Kings"
Throughout the century of cinema, the Bible has been a regular source of stories for film makers from Cecil B DeMille - who made both silent (1923) and talking (1956) versions of "The Ten Commandments" - to Darren Aronofsky - who earlier this year offered us a version of "Noah". And Ridley Scott is a wonderful director with a roll call that includes "Alien", "Blade Runner" and "Gladiator". So there was no way I was going to miss this movie and I even gave up on my usual aversion to 3D and donned the glasses.
Now making a film with a religious narrative is harder these days because, on the one hand, the largest market (the United States) still has a predominantly God-believing citizenry with a significant presence of evangelical adherents while, on the other hand, many of the other major markets (Europe, the Middle East, India, China) are either quite secular or non-Christian. Scott and his (four) writers address this dilemma by making the central character Moses (a convincing Christian Bale) a skeptic for the first half of the film and offering the possibility that the interventions of God could actually be largely natural phenomena. However, to represent God as a child (played by an English boy, 11 year old Isaac Andrews) is an odd interpretation, although not as bizarre as Aronofsky's rock creatures building the ark in "Noah".
Where this "Exodus" - not to be confused with the one in 1960 - really scores is in its sense of the epic: a lot of money and a lot of CGI, plus Scott's directorial brilliance, has ensured that the parting of the sea scene is well done, the portrayal of the plagues is terrific, and the opening battle scenes - for me, the most exciting part of the movie - are simply wonderful. Indeed the successive plagues - ending with mass infanticide - are so dramatic that one cannot help wondering what kind of God would be so cruel and so vicious. It is a wonder that Ramses (a nuanced performance by Joel Edgerton) did not let the Hebrews go much sooner.
A weakness in most epics - most notably my all-time favourite "Lawrence Of Arabia" - and indeed too many other mainstream movies is the lack of good roles for women. Here distinguished actress Sigourney Weaver is massively underused as the mother of Ramses and beautiful Spanish newcomer Maria Valverde has little to do as Moses's wife Zipporah. I don't suppose for a moment that we can look forward to a sequel "Exodus: Goddesses And Queens".
Link: some controversies around the film click here
"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"
For anyone living in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, the collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center was clearly both extremely loud and incredibly close but the echoes still reverberate in so many lives. This movie, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by New Yorker Jonathan Safran Foer, tells the fictional story of one middle-class New York family. There is an unusually strong support cast which includes Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis and John Goodman, but astonishingly the lead role - and he is rarely off the screen - is taken by 14 year old Thomas Horn in his first film role who is amazing as Oskar Schell, a precocious but autistic single child of nine whose father is killed in "the worst day".
A year after 9/11, Oskar is exploring his late father's closet when he finds a key in a packet labelled simply 'Black' and he starts a compulsive quest to discover the person named on the packet and the lock which the key will open. In the process, he meets an odd array of characters with many problems of their own and discovers important things about himself. For much of the movie, Oskar is hardly a likeable person, lashing out at his mother, obsessed with his own search, and lacking normal social mannerisms. Yet, we are always deeply moved by his trials in this intensely emotional journey which has some heart-rending moments, but the epiphanic ending is only just on the right side of mawkish.
"Eye In The Sky"
A British military operation is using an American Hellfire drone to target a suspected al-Shabaab group in Nairobi and we're reminded that this terrorist group was responsible for the mass killing at the Westgate Shopping Mall in that city a few years earlier. OK, you have my attention - my son relocated to Kenyan's capital almost a year ago for his work, I've visited the city twice now, and on each occasion been to Westgate.
The operation is focused on a district of Nairobi called Eastleigh which is predominately inhabited by Somalis and known as 'Little Mogadishu", although the film was actually shot in South Africa, the home country of director Gavin Hood. I'm not sure that Eastleigh is as lawless as it is represented or that we have the micro-surveillance technology depicted but, in both cases, this aspect of the narrative serves to heighten the military and moral choices and the legal and political considerations facing all those in the "kill chain" of command and underlines why so many of the characters in that chain constantly "refer up".
To some extent, we have covered this ground before, as two years ago we had "Good Kill" which showed the pressures on an American drone pilot. But "Eye In The Sky" is different in three main respects.
First, it shows one mission in a straight narrative told in near real time through a variety of technologies which creates a real sense of immediacy and tension. Second, we see the issues from multiple viewpoints including that of the British colonel in charge of the operation (the brilliant Helen Mirren), her point man in Whitehall's COBRA room (the last performance by the late Alan Rickman), the drone pilot (American actor Aaron Paul), the man on the ground in Eastleigh (Somali actor Barkhad Abdi who was so impressive in "Captain Phillips"), and various British and American politicians and advisers (the Brits shown as vacillating and the Yanks as gung-ho). Third, in a dialogue-heavy script, British writer Guy Hibbert offers no easy answers, constantly shifting the viewer's inclinations one way and another, thereby emphasising that there is no straightforward trade-off between the chances of averting a terrorist outrage with the likely multiple loss of life against the algorithmic percentage estimates of collateral damage (that is, loss of innocent lives).
This is not a comfortable film to watch, but it raises serious questions in a manner that manages to be gripping and forces the viewer to think hard.
"Eyes Wide Shut"
This is the film for which we have waited 12 years - the first work from masterful, but idiosyncratic, movie-maker Stanley Kubrick since "Full Metal Jacket" in 1987. It is his 13th production and, since he died aged 70 shortly after completing it, clearly his last. This erotic thriller is loosely based on a novella called "Tramnouvelle", first published in German in 1926, and the English translation "Dream Story" was issued free in paperback by the "Guardian" on the weekend that the film was released in Britain. The film is remarkably faithful to the book, simply transposing the action from beginning of the century Vienna to present day New York.
Typically a movie will take three months to shoot, but the obsessive Kubrick needed 18 months and some $65M. Although the action takes place over just three days - it is set in New York but was actually filmed in London - it takes a ponderous 2 hours 39 minutes to screen.
Remarkably little happens. Professional American couple Dr William Harford and his wife Alice, played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, confront the nature of their seemingly secure marriage when she confesses to a dream fantasy involving a naval officer and he - as a reaction to this revelation - gains entry to a bizarre, masked and sybaritic orgy which may or may not have had murderous consequences. Yet the whole exercise is carried out with superb style, some fine acting, brilliant costumes and photography, and wonderfully atmospheric music (from Dmitri Shostakovitch and Jocelyn Pook).
The verisimilitude of these surreal events is much aided by the use of a high-profile, real-life couple for the lead roles. I saw the film with two women friends and the consensus was that Kidman - while on screen for less time - out-acted her husband. However, there was much less agreement between us about what the film meant. I thought that it posed the questions of what constitutes infidelity and how one can resolve it, but what is certain is that this is a film which has to be seen and will have you thinking and discussing long afterwards.
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.
Last modified on 17 January 2023
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