"Face/Off" "Fahrenheit 9/11" "Fair Game" "The Fall" "Far From Heaven" "Far From The Madding Crowd" "Fast & Furious 7" "Fateless" "The Fault In Our Stars" "Fences" "Fever Pitch" "Fifteen Minutes" "The Fifth Estate" "Fight Club" "50 Shades Of Grey" "55 Days At Peking" "Fight Club" "Film Stars Don't Die In LIverpool" "Finding Dory" "The Five-Year Engagement" "(500) Days Of Summer" "Flags Of Our Fathers" "Flight" "Flightplan" "Florence Foster Jenkins" "The Flowers Of War" "Flyboys" "Force Majeure" "The Fountain" "Four Horsemen" "45 Years" "Fracture" "Frances Ha" "Frank" "Frida" "Friends With Benefits" "Frost/Nixon" "Frozen" "Frozen River" "Fury"
This is an exciting action-thriller from director John Hoo with his trademark balletic violence and fluttering doves that has a more original (if highly improbable) plot than most involving FBI agent John Travolta and arch criminal Nicolas Cage 'trading' faces and places in a narrative that requires each actor to mimic the other's character. Plenty of chases and lots of double-handed shooting. Good fun.
This is a must-see movie whose images live long in the mind. Written, narrated, produced and directed by the maverick Michael Moore - who has, almost single-handedly, reinvented the political documentary - this is a tour-de-force which deconstructs the simple-mindedness, dishonesty and corruption at the heart of the Bush administration. It is not fair or balanced, it is frequently outright satirical, it is sometimes too personalised, and (at one point at least) it is frankly cheap (the effort to persuade Congressmen to send their sons to war). But we know before we go into the cinema that this is not a standard documentary but a personal polemic and it is all the more powerful and impressive for that.
From the opening scenes - where we are reminded of how differently it should all have been (since Al Gore actually won the Presidential election of 2000) - the visuals are captivating. So often, Bush destroys himself by his vacant stare or his banal comment or totally inappropriate behaviour. The testimony from a dead soldier's mother from Moore's home town of Flint is very moving and the footage from Iraq itself, obtained while with US troops, is deeply disturbing. It reveals the class divide in America - poor, often black, men fighting wars that make rich, white men even richer - in a political system that likes to deny the concept of class. Indeed this is a very a rare work: a political film that might actually influence politics.
Michael Moore's site click here
Moore's notes and sources click here
This film deserves to be much better known because it tells an important true story in a compelling style.
In March 2003, the Americans invaded Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein had an active WMD programme but, four months later, former ambassador Joe Wilson wrote an article questioning some of the evidence adduced by President Bush to justify the military action. Eight days after the piece in the "New York Times", Wilson's wife Valerie Plame was outed as a CIA operative. When this appalling abuse of power by the political establishment was exposed, it was revealed that the White House regarded Plame as "fair game" once her husband had challenged the prevailing orthodoxy.
This movie version of events is based on books subsequently written by both Wilson and Plame and concludes with the start of her oral evidence to a Congressional inquiry. Naomi Watts is excellent as Flame, while Sean Penn is brilliant as Wilson, both conveying emotionally the impact on them professionally and personally of the betrayal by a system which they had previously so loyally and capably served. Doug Liman ("The Bourne Identity") was both director and director of photography, turning what could have been a dense and worthy polemic into an accessible and exciting account that fuels righteous anger.
Link: Wikipedia page of the Plame affair click here
I'm really surprised that it took me four years to discover this film and that it is not much better known and appreciated, for it is a real curiosity and a true gem. Although it is based on a screenplay of a Bulgarian work with the unlikely title "Yo Ho Ho". this is very much the creation of Tarsem Singh, the Indian director who co-wrote and co-produced it. Indeed he largely financed the film with his own funds. Visually it is stunning with a fantastic selection of locations and some wonderful cinematography. There is footage from over 20 countries, most notably from the director's home nation of India including the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri (all of which I have visited).
The plot is a tribute to the power of storytelling. It is the 1920s and the dawn of the movies. A stuntman called Roy is hospitalised in Los Angeles and befriends a six year old girl called Alexandria who speaks broken English. For selfish reasons, Roy creates a mythical world in story form in which five colourful characters are seeking revenge on a man so evil he is called Odious. As the story develops, it is increasingly unclear who is controlling the story, how it will work out, and what it will mean for Roy and Alexandria. But it is never less than by turns inventive, fantastic, exciting and moving.Find "The Fall" and fall for its charms.
"Far From Heaven"
From the opening credits (which these days usually don't happen) to the closing credits, this is a movie that looks like it was made in the 1950s rather than simply set in that period. The clothes, the cars, the colours all wonderfully recreate the time. But the subject matter is very contemporary: an examination of homosexuality and race relations that simply could not have been reviewed in these terms at that terribly repressed period.
Writer and director Todd Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman are responsible for conjuring up the Connecticut of 1957 in such credible and convincing terms, but they are wonderfully served by their actors. Julianne Moore (blonde rather than red-haired here) gives an outstanding performance as the liberal-minded but socially naive Cathy Whitaker, while Dennis Quaid is excellent as her sexually tormented husband Frank.
This is a movie which is close to heaven as far as talent and skill are concerned, even if the issues examined are at times somewhat hellish.
"Far From The Madding Crowd"
The problem with viewing a remake of a story that one has seen and enjoyed in an earlier version is that it hard to be totally objective. I saw John Schlesinger's 1967 interpretation twice on its release and again very recently on its re-issue. During almost 50 years, for me Thomas Hardy's Bathsheba Everdene has been Julie Christie. But I am a huge admirer of young actress Cary Mulligan who takes the central role in this 2015 remake by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, so I was willing to revisit the bucolic Dorset of 1870.
As always, Mulligan is excellent and her three co-stars - Matthias Schoenaerts as the grounded Gabriel Oak, Michael Sheen as the wealthy William Boldwood, and Tom Sturridge as the rakish Sergeant Troy - give assured performances. So this new version is a respectful telling of the story but I found the treatment somewhat languid and would have liked a bit more drama and passion. Scriptwriter David Nicholls builds up Bathsheba as a proto-feminist, but ultimately the weakness in the tale may be that of Hardy the novelist, since his characters rather annoy me by their indecisiveness.
"Fast & Furious 7"
Between 2001-2013, the first six movies in this incredibly lucrative franchise totally escaped my attention but, on a wet and gloomy Good Friday in 2015, two young friends organised that we should see three new releases in one day and chose "Fast & Furious 7" to start the project. I found it utterly mindless but totally entertaining. The acting is wooden and the dialogue is dire (such gems as "Let's do it!"), but it is an action-packed, adrenaline-pumping rollercoaster full of car chases, fist fights, and some breathtaking stunts with exotic locations and some scantily clad women for good measure.
The villain is Deckard ('deck' and 'hard' - get it?) Shaw, played by British 'actor' Jason Statham, who is upset that his brother was badly treated in the previous movie. So he is out to get the old crew led by Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) who find that they can turn hunted into hunter by accessing a super surveillance system called "God's Eye" that (somehow) has not yet been revealed to the world by Edward Snowden. The punishment that these adversaries can take and the feats that cars can apparently perform (leaping from one skyscaper to another is an special treat) are ludicrous but fun.
For fans of the franchise, a poignancy about this seventh outing is that, during filming, Walker was killed (by all things through a car accident) and how his loss is dealt with in plot terms will please the devotees.
This 2005 Hungarian Holocaust film had the biggest budget in the country's moviemaking history and was a considerable success in its home nation but sadly it is relatively unknown elsewhere. It is based on a semi-autobiographical novel published in 1975 and written by Hungarian Nobel Prize-winner Imre Kertész who also penned the screenplay. As a teenager, Kertész was sent to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and the central character of the film - 14 year old György (played convincingly by Marcell Nagy) - similarly spends time in these two camps before then going to the labour camp at Zeitz.
Directed by Lajos Koltai, "Fateless" has much to commend it technically. The use of washed-out sepia colours and authentically constructed sets, plus excellent cinematography, make this a compelling work to watch. There are so many haunting scenes, such as the contortions used by the prisoners to enable them to stand in one spot for so long. However, I'm not sure that Ennio Morricone's music is right for this setting and British actor Daniel Craig in a cameo as an American GI seems an oddity.
Of course, there have been many, many films about the Holocaust but this one stands out for a couple of reasons. First, in this long work of 140 minutes, the pacing is slow and episodic and there are no grand set pieces. This was very deliberate on the part of Kertész who wanted to communicate his experience of the camps as moment by moment survival with no past and no future. Second, the camp inmates - and one particular mentor to the boy especially - are shown as exhibiting kindness and humanity as they struggle to retain a sense of self-esteem in spite of all the horror. This is such a contrast to the selfishness and hopelessness that we witness in so many other films on the Shoah.
"The Fault In Our Stars"
This could so easily have gone wrong: a story about two teenagers facing life-threatening cancer risks being overly-sentimental but, while being a real tear-jerker, this treads the fine line with skill and warmth. Hazel has thyroid lesions which have metastasised to her lungs and throughout the film wears a breathing tube and lugs around a portable oxygen tank. Gus has n osteosarcoma condition which has stabilised after the amputation of one leg. They meet at a support group for youngsters experiencing cancer and her favourite novel, "An Imperial Affliction", takes them to Amsterdam where nothing goes as they expect.
Since the movie is based on a best-selling young adult novel by John Green, it will find a ready audience in spite of its serious subject, but those who don't know the novel (like me) will find this an impressive and moving work because of the fine acting by the two leads - Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, both of whom star in the "Divergent" series - and the assured direction by young Josh Boone. Of course, it is easy to be cynical about a film like this, dismissing it as mere manipulation, but ultimately all cinema, indeed all art, is manipulative and this is not a self-pitying, rather a life-affirming, tale.
Footnote: The title of the novel and the film comes from Shakespeare's "Julius Caeser" when Cassius declares: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings". For Hazel and Gus, their cancer is in the stars but their response to such tragedy is ultimately in themselves.
This is the film adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning 1983 stage play written by August Wilson who refused to have the work made for the big screen unless there was an African-American director helming it. It tells the poignant tale of Troy Maxson, a black waste collector in 1950s Pittsburgh who received no love from his own father and cannot find any for his own sons.
The challenge with any film of a play is to avoid the outcome being more of a play than a film. This danger is especially acute when the author of the play is also is the writer of the film's script, when the two leading stars of the film - Denzel Washington as the truculent Troy and Viola Davis as his loyal wife Rose - are reprising their roles in a Broadway revival of the play, and when the main star (Washington) is also the producer and director for whom this was clearly a passion project.
So what we have here is a tour de force performance from Washingron and outstanding support from Davis (both received Academy Award nominations) in a work full of magnificent dialogue and scenes of considerable pathos, but the whole thing is just too reverential to the original play with too little movement and too many words for the different medium of cinema.
This is the film based on the first book written by British author Nick Hornby about his obsession with north London football team Arsenal with Colin Firth in the lead role. It's amusing enough but, if - like me - you are one of the few Englishmen who cares little for the sport, you'll find it inexplicable that someone should find twenty-two men running after a bag of air more appealing that Ruth Gemmell.
I set out for my local multiplex to see "Thirteen Days", only to find that it had been wrongly advertised in the press and so instead I finished up seeing "Fifteen Minutes" - which I guess is shorter. This is a crime thriller set in New York and both written and directed by John Herzfeld. The guy tried hard, so hard - especially with his edgy camera style - but it really doesn't work.
No movie with Robert de Niro - a celebrity cop who is here teamed up with a fire marshall played by Edward Burns - can be totally written off, but this is no "Heat" or "Ronin". Instead there are elements of "Dirty Harry" with the cynical treatment of the American justice system and its cannibalistic media and a final shoot-out with the deranged killer. There's fire and firepower, but insufficient characterisation and subtlety.
"The Fifth Estate"
Australian information campaigner Julian Assange is a complex and fascinating figure and WikiLeaks, the whistle-blower web site that he founded, is a massively controversial project. So there is plenty of challenging material at hand here, but this film does not quite come off as the exciting and provocative narrative that it should have been.
Although Assange - currently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London - pleaded with Benedict Cumberbatch not to take the role, Cumberbatch gives a very convincing and spirited performance as the human rights advocate with an ego the size of the Internet. Many people who challenge the most powerful in our society are branded as self-centred and even delusional, but the truth is that one has to have exceptional self-belief and a passionate commitment to take on the elites of the world. This is not a flattering portrait of Assange by any means because it draws on two books critical of him by people who have worked most closely with him and who feel that they have in a sense been betrayed by him, notably the German WikiLeaks expert Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Brühl) and colleagues of the British "Guardian" investigative journalist Nick Cohen (David Thewlis).
In an age when the ability to obtain and store vast amounts of information on governments, corporations and individuals is ever more possible thanks to incredible development in technology, questions about the legitimacy of holding, using, abusing, and revealing such information are at the core of what privacy and protection mean in the age of all-powerful governments and armed fundamentalist groups. Some of these issues are raised in the movie. By focusing on one US state official (played by Laura Linney) and one informer against his corrupt government, we are asked to appreciate that simply revealing everything that is leaked without careful redaction and the provision of context - arguably best done by conventional media like the "Guardian" newspaper - is literally playing with life and death.
This is heavy stuff and director Bill Condon (previously director of bio-pics "Gods And Monsters" & "Kinsey") seeks to liven it up with some kinetic and flashy camerawork and surreal sets which actually detract from what needs to be a serious examination of an incredibly serious issue. The challenge was to make compelling story-telling and he does not quite pull that off. Part of the problem may be that stories are supposed to have a beginning, a middle and an end - although not necessarily in that order - and, in the case of Assange, the story is far from over and it may well be that Edward Snowden's story in the end will have the more impact and influence.
Wikipedia profile of Julian Assange click here
Wikiperdia page on the WikiLeaks site click here
"Fifty Shades Of Grey"
Nothing would induce me to read one, let alone all three, mega-selling novels by British author E L James but, in the interests of making this collection of film reviews as comprehensive as possible and after waiting for the movie to be available as a DVD, I did view this cinematic version of the first novel. It is one of the most sexually explicit mainstream movies you will see, especially as regards domination, bondage and punishment, reminding me of "Nine And A Half Weeks"and "The Story Of O" but, as a film, it is rather dull: the acting by Jamei Dornan (as billionaire Christian Grey) and Dakota Johnson (as student Anastasia Steele) is lacklustre, the dialogue is pretty dire, it takes a while to get moving, and motivations are hardly examined (perhaps this will come in the next two movies). It seems that, even the director Sam Taylor-Johnson, was disappointed by the experience because she has declined to return for the sequels, apparently having had artistic differences with James.
"50 First Dates"
I normally steer away from Adam Sandler movies - his gauchey manner, whiney accent, and gross-out humour turn me off. But he was tolerable in the recent "Anger Management" and I enjoyed "The Wedding Singer" which he made six years ago with Drew Barrymore. So, the lack of anything more appealing at my multi-plex and the re-uniting of Sandler with Barrymore, persuaded me to give him another chance.
It was not a mistake, but it was a pleasure of distinctly limited proportions. We see a gentler side of Sandler in this romantic comedy when - shades of "Groundhog Day" - the inveterate womaniser falls for a woman who can only retain new memories for 24 hours and therefore does not recognise him each morning and needs charming all over again. There are some silly characters and adolescent humour, although some of the animal scenes are cute. However, far the best feature of the movie is Barrymore who has come such a long way since "E.T." and is by turns utterly winsome, genuinely funny, and quite moving.
"55 Days At Peking"
When Samuel Bronson produced this movie in 1963, it was regarded as something of an epic with impressive sets in Spain and a rich cast including Charlton Heston, David Niven, Ava Gardner and Flora Robson. Today though it is not just the name of China's capital that has changed; it is our whole expectation of films. Now the work appears over-blown and over-long with a weak script and wooden delivery. The time in which the story is located - the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 - deserves to be better understood, especially now that China's global position is so important, and there is something of an effort to put the Chinese case through the words of the Empress, but essentially this is an old-fashioned celebration of imperialism, especially of the Anglo-Saxon variety.
Link: Wikipedia essay on the Boxer Rebellion click here
I thought that this film would be violent (it is), so I stayed away from it when it was on cinematic release, but friends recommended it so, when it had its British television network premiere (at Christmas!), I decided to catch it. The first half-hour is slow and I wondered why I'd bothered, but then it picks up accelerating pace and power. I should have known that anything directed by David Fincher (who gave us "Seven") would be special and, in both subject matter and style, this is something different.
Based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, Edward Norton is both the narrator and central character, an alienated office worker who suffers serious insomnia. He meets Brad Pitt, a soap salesman who has some strange ideas about the components and uses of his product. It starts with the blood-splattered fight club of the title which attracts increasing numbers of disaffected young men who have no purpose in their lives and utter contempt for our consumer society. It ends in explosive and startling fashion, leaving one dizzy but enthralled.
"Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool"
In the late 1970s, Academy Award-winning American actress Gloria Grahame - four times married and deeply troubled - struck up an unusual relationship with an actor from Liverpool called Peter Turner who was some three decades younger than her. This British film is based on Turner's account of their life together and is ably directed by Scottish Paul McGuigan. The director eschews the classic jump flash-back in favour of a series of more subtle slides from one period to another. However, the American scenes are clearly staged in the studio in the interests of a small budget.
The role of GG (Glo to her beau) is terrific for Annette Bening who brings real star quality and a nuanced performance to the part. Jamie Bell - who has come a long way since "Billy Elliot" 17 years ago - does well in the company of such star power and, among the well-cast minor roles, we have the inestimable Julie Walters who guided Billy Elliot all those years ago.
There are some memorable scenes: Grahame and Turner dancing together when they first meet, a recital of "Romeo And Juliet" in an empty theatre (where the real Turner has a tiny role), a clever repeat of the same scene viewed from the different perspectives of the two principals, and of course the farewell departure. Also the attention to period detail is noticeable: that terrible flowered wallpaper, the dial telephone in the hallway, and Elton John's "Song For Guy" (I remember it all).
Link: Wikipedia page on Gloria Grahame click here
Given the success of Pixar's animated feature "Finding Nemo" in 2003, it's surprising really that it's taken 13 years for a sequel to swim along, but the interval of time meant that I had a five year old friend called James to take to "Finding Dory". Again Andrew Stanton is the director and co-writer and again gay icon Ellen DeGeneres voices the the eponymous forgetful fish. There are a host of (literally) colourful support characters, most notably an octopus called Hank, in this utterly delightful and beautifully realised aquatic adventure.
"The Five-Year Engagement"
In the wonderful French film directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, there was "A Very Long Engagement". Here the British psychology major Violet (the totally lovely Emily Blunt) and American aspiring chef Tom (a likeable, if rather flabby, Jason Segel) only spin out the path to nuptials for half a decade, but that's long enough for much romance and humour and not a little sadness and heartache.
Co-scripted by Segel and director Nicholas Stoller and from the same producer as the hit "Bridemaids" (Judd Apatrow), this is a superior kind of rom-com, distinguished by a good script and a wonderfully engaging (no pun intended) performance from Blunt, an actress who goes from strength to strength.
Some of the location shooting is the ever-familar San Francisco but the rest is in the rarely used Michigan (which is part of the humour). Several scenes are laugh out loud, notably one where Violet and her sister have a tense conversation while adopting the voices of Cookie Monster and Elmo respectively (there is a reason).
"(500) Days Of Summer"
Here is a rom-com with a number of differences, starting with the title. This Summer is not a season (even Los Angeles does not have that much sun) but a girl (the cute Zooey Deschanel) amorously pursued by Tom (talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt), both of whom work for a greeting cards company trading on triteness. The structure of the narrative is terribly post-modern in being non-chronological and the genre is subverted in not following the conventional formula. The final major novelty is a series of intersected cinematic flourishes such as - my favourites - an open-air dance sequence of triumph and a split screen depicting expectation and reality.
At the heart of the movie's success is a clever script from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. The film begins with the disclaimer: "Any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental ... Especially you, Jenny Beckman ... Bitch." but Neustadter has admitted that the story was based on a real romance that he experienced while studying at the London School of Economics. The departure from the conventional rom-com resolution and the sense of authenticity imbue this entertaining tale with an element of reality as well as much hilarity.
"Flags Of Our Fathers"
I've been a massive fan of Clint Eastwood's directorial talents ever since "Play Misty For Me" (1971), so the arrival in 2006 of a diptych on the Battle of Iwo Jiwa - the American viewpoint in "Flags Of Our Fathers" and the Japanese perspective in "Letters From Iwo Jiwa" - was genuinely exciting.
The first of these movies is centred on the experience of three of the six men photographed by Joe Rosenthal in his iconic shot of the raising of the stars and stripes on Mount Suribachi: the Marine Rene Gagnon (Jess Bradford), the Navy man Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillipe) and the Pima Indian Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). The source material is a book written by Bradley's son.
This is an unusually downbeat, even cynical, look at what is usually represented as 'the good war', highlighting how this was actually the second flag-raising by a totally different group from the first and how the three did not see themselves as heroes but as tools of a government desperate to raise bonds to fund the war.
There is much to admire in the film, notably the disturbingly realistic depiction of the landing on the island and the battle for the mount, all the more convincing for being shot in muted colours. In these scenes, one literally hardly sees the Japanese defenders and, when one does, they are either dead or about to become so, at either the hands of the GIs or themselves. What lets the work down is the fractured chronology with constant jumping between the actual invasion, the fund-raising back home, and the post-war experiences of the three men which both breaks the narrative and makes it difficult to identify the characters.
Wikipedia page on the battle of Iwo Jima click here
Wikipedia page on the raising of the flag click here
In spite of the title, it would be a brave (or foolish) airline that screened this as an in-flight movie. It's not just the initial nudity, frequent strong language, regular snorting or injection of drugs, and repeated excess consumption of alcohol, it's that eponymous trip at altitude. A drunken lead pilot, a nervous co-pilot, a fierce storm and a suspected mechanical failure are not exactly reassuring motifs to flash in front of even hardened fliers.
Clearly this is the most adult movie of the career of director Robert Zemeckis who started with the "Back To The Future" trilogy and latterly has worked on motion-capture films for children. Equally it marks a new point in the acting trajectory of Denzel Washington, here playing the inebriated and arrogant pilot 'Whip' Whitaker, who first came to prominence in the role of secular saint Steve Biko and has, in recent years, portrayed a succession of less attractive and more morally complex characters as in "Training Day" and "American Gangster". This is one of the finest performances of his illustrious career.The first half hour of the film is terrific and inevitably the remaining near two hours struggle to sustain the same grip and should perhaps have been a bit shorter, while the ending is possibly a little too moralistically neat, but this is a movie well-worth seeing - just not on your holiday flight.
"Flightplan" is a starring vehicle for Jodie Foster who, as in her last film ("Panic Room"), is a young mother coping without a father in looking after a daughter in danger in markedly contained surroundings. It is good to see a strong central role for an actress and Foster gives a fine performance full of resilience and resourcefulness. Sean Bean, as the pilot of the ultra-new Aalto Air E-474 airliner, and Peter Sarsgaard, as the aircraft's sky marshal, are in good form and Greta Scacchi makes surprise appearance as a therapist, all of whom are convinced that propulsion engineer and recently-widowed Kyle Pratt (Foster) is fantasising the disappearance of her daughter. There are some taut Hitchcock-like scenes, but ultimately the movie fails to take off because there are just too many implausibilities and an improbable and unsatisfactory ending.
"Florence Foster Jenkins"
I've been an enormous fan of Meryl Sreep since the very beginning of her long and immensely distinguished career. She is unquestionably the finest actress of her generation and it has been wonderful to see how she has continued to secure decent roles as she has become older. So her performance as the eponymous American singer (1868-1944), with a passion for song but an inability to sing in tune, is characteristically accomplished. Hugh Grant has rarely been better as her devoted English husband and Simon Helberg is fine as her pianist. The work is played for laughs but there are real touches of humanity and pathos. Ultimately though this light-hearted film, directed by the British Stephen Frears, is not much more than the subject it portrays: a charming curiosity.
Link: Wikipedia page on Florence Foster Jenkins click here
"The Flowers Of War"
In the winter of 1936-37, the Japanese occupation of Nanjing, then the capital of China, was so unspeakably brutal that it was dubbed the rape of Nanjing. Most people in the West have never heard of the event but, in China, it is still an intensely raw issue. In recent years, two Chinese films have been made about the occupation. In 2009, there was "City Of Life And Death" directed by Lu Chuan. Then, in 2001, we had "Flowers Of War" directed by Zhang Yimou.
"City Of Life And Death", which is unquestionably the far superior work, made little effort to appeal to a Western audience, although it did have a European character - the real-life John Rabe, known as the German Schindler - as a key character. "The Flowers Of War", however, was deliberately pitched at a Western audience: the chosen director had achieved considerable acclaim (and rightly so) for films like "Hero" and "House Of Flying Daggers"; the central character is a (fictional) American mortician played by Christian Bale (echoes of his much earlier role in "Empire Of The Sun"); almost half its dialogue is in English; and it was accorded a massive budget of some $100M from the Chinese Government and state-backed banks. At the domestic (Chinese) box office, it proved to be the highest-grossing Chinese production of all time but, in the United States, it was a total flop.
The story - drawn from a novel - is actually a powerful one: convent girls and prostitutes, with seemingly nothing in common, thrown together as they take refuge from the marauding Japanese inside a Catholic church where the priest is dead and their only hope is a drunken Westerner. While it is an invented tale, the context in which it is told was all too real and nothing that is shown or hinted at comes near the horror of what actually happened. So "The Flowers Of War" does not have the strengths of the more realistic "City Of Life And Death" but it is well worth viewing and would be instructive to Americans who think the Second World War started with Pearl Harbor.
This is a worthy and entertaining enough film that tells a story little covered in the movie world: how American pilots made up a squadron La Lafayette Escadrille in the French Air Force during World War One before the USA eventually entered the war. It claims to be inspired by actual characters and, surprising as it may seem, there was - as the movie depicts - a black flier in the unit. Also some effort has been made to get the technical details right: the references to aircraft types (the squadron flew the Nieuport 17) are accurate and pilots did wear silk scarves so that they could look around the sky more easily.
The success of the movie is the model work and the CGI. Most of the time, the aircraft do look authentic and the technical wizardry enables a closer up portrayal of the exciting action - and there is a lot of it - than could ever be possible with real aircraft. The problems are with stereotypical characters (lightweight actors led by James Franco) and predictable scenarios (the evil German ace is bound to meet his end).
Link: info on La Lafayette Escadrille click here
If all you knew about this film was its title, you might think that it was French, but it is Swedish, although it is set entirely in the French Alps and the exterior scenes were shot there. Both written and directed by Ruben Östlund, it tells the story of a five day skiing holiday of a Swedish couple and their two children. All seems set for an enjoyable vacation until something happenes that gradually changes everything. At first, it is just a crack in the marital relationship of Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke)and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) but then, like a block of ice that has suffered a blow from a particular angle, the aperture gapes and then fractures. Östlund has a distinctive style utilising long-held, wide-angle shots in which nothing is said and little moves. It is an uncomfortable work with an odd ending that could put you off both marriage and skiing.
Darren Aronofsky is an unconventional film director whose work is always provocative but not invariably successful. By the time I got round to viewing his 2006 offering "The Fountain", I had viewed five of his movies. I was impressed in different ways by "Requiem For A Dream", "The Wrestler" and "Black Swan", less happy with "Noah", and put off by "Pi". "The Fountain" is definitely worth seeing - an innovative work which he wrote as well as directed.
It tells three stories across vastly different time periods: a Spanish conquistador in a Mayan civilisation on a quest for his queen, a contemporary scientific researcher struggling to keep his wife alive: and a future space traveller in a bubble with a tree on the way to a dying star. The three tales are introduced briefly and enigmatically at the very beginning of the film and only as the work unfolds do the meanings and connections become apparent, strengthened by the repeated appearances of the same actors Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz.
This is a philosphical work about love and loss and about mortality and immortality that is beautifully composed and shot with a limited budget eliminating the use of any CGI. It is not totally comprehensible but it is thought-provoking.
"Four Horsemen" is the debut feature from writer and director Ross Ashcroft and the four parts of this documentary address the banking crisis, the terrorism threat, worldwide poverty and ecological collapse respectively. While worthy, well-intentioned and (mostly) well-evidenced, for the non-political, this critique of rampant capitalism is probably heavy going with lots of talking heads - no less than 23 experts, including many senior economists and academics, express their trenchant views.
The film seems to have been popular in film festivals and indeed I saw it at the first London Labour Film Festival where it was applauded at the end, but it has some major deficiencies.
First, it is overly ambitious in scope and should perhaps have concentrated simply on the crisis of the banking sector. The links between the four threats were not always made clear and the section on terrorism was particularly weak and over simplistic. Second, the policies promulgated at the end - while rooted in a pro-capitalist position intended to be 'realistic' - involve some outrageously fanciful notions such as returning to a gold standard and abolishing income tax. I would like to know more about Ross Ashcroft and the funding of this work which might explain the source of these odd notions. Third, at no point in either the analysis or the prescription does the film acknowledge that economic and societal change does not start with institutional reform but with the organisation of workers, consumers and citizens. Real change comes through people working together in political parties, trade unions, pressure groups, and social movements.
For all these weaknesses, "Four Horsemen" does make you think and will engender much-needed debate about the urgent need to reform radically our ideas on how we create, consume and distribute wealth and how we regulate and control the institutions involved.
Geoff (Tom Courteney) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling) have been married for the titular four and half decades and we meet them less than a week before a party to celebrate this special anniversary. That morning, Geoff receives a letter in German which over the next few days provokes a profound re-evaluation of their marriage. Although based on a short story of only 12 pages by David Constantine, the cinematic translation has all sorts of subtle changes, notably adopting the female rather than the male viewpoint.
Technically this is a wonderful film. It is shot entirely in the unusual ambience of Norfolk and writer/director Andrew Haigh offers us many long shots of the flat terrain and even flatter broads. Above all, the acting is superb with both Courtenay and (especially) Rampling at the top of their game. The final scene, focused so long on Rampling's face is as evocative as anything since the camera clung to Geta Garbo's visage at the conclusion of "Queen Christina".
Emotionally, however, this is a tough piece of work. It is so slow, so understated, and ultimately so profoundly melancholic. In the cinema, my wife and I - together for three and a half decades - were surrounded by people of the same vintage, most of them couples. I think that we were all looking for an affirmation that living with the same person decade after decade after decade, in spite of its trials and tribulations and irritations, is richly rewarded by so many shared memories and such deep love. This is not that film.
The opening credits themselves do things that make it clear that, from now on, much will not be as it seems in this tightly-constructed and accomplished thriller set in Los Angeles, essentially a battle of wits between a brilliant - but cuckolded and vengeful - structural engineer Ted Crawford, played with a wandering accent by Anthony Hopkins, and hot-shot young prosecuting lawyer Willy Beachum whose ambition is challenged by his ultimate sense of righteousness, an excellent performance by cool Canadian actor Ryan Gosling. The plot twists are clever and satisfying, although they do not hold up to too much after-viewing analysis or legal validation.
The odd title of this quirky, comedic film, made in black & white, is only explained in the final shot and seems to sum up the loveable eccentricity of the central character, 27 year old Frances who is trying to find her feet (sorry) as a dancer in New York City when she cannot even find a secure place to stay or a loving partner to share her life. The eponymous role is taken by the wonderful Greta Gerwig who gives such a naturalistic performance in a movie in which she is rarely off screen. Director Noah Baumbach and Gerwig co-wrote the script, renewing a partnership of three years earlier for the work "Greenberg".
This strange movie was inspired by the experience of writer Jon Ronson who spent a while as a keyboard player with a band led by the late British Chris Sievey, the creator the comedy character Frank Sidebottom who wore a huge head which he never removed. The cast includes two actors whom I really admire: Michael Fassbender who plays the eponymous mystery figure and Maggie Gyllenhaal who is one of the band players. Both actors are known for being willing to take roles out of the mainstream - think "Shame" for Fassbender and "Secretary" for Gyllenhaal - but I have no idea why they would waste their time on this oddity.
In so far as the film seems to pose any kind of question worth thinking about, it seems that both the group at the heart of the 'story' and the film itself are asking us: should art be simply for the artist or should it aspire to an audience? I guess "Frank" is like an optical illusion: you either get it or you don't - and I didn't. Many critics loved it, but I found it slow, pretentious, self-indulgent and - frankly (pun intended) - boring. I gather it was supposed to be a comedy but I found it simply sad.
There are not many films about painters - "Surviving Picasso" and "Pollock" are two examples released around the same time - and I cannot remember a previous one about a female painter. Indeed the subject of this bio-pic, the Mexican Frida Kahlo (1910-1954), does not even feature in my "Penguin Dictionary Of Art And Artists". But it is always good to see something new and to learn about someone previously unfamiliar.
Above all, we have the Mexican actress Salma Hayek to thank for this, since she laboured for eight years to bring the work to the screen, was one of the film's producers, and takes the eponymous role. The diminutive (5' 2"), but stunningly beautiful, Hayek is splendid as the painter, tortured by the pain from a terrible accident and the resulting 32 operations, who projects her suffering onto canvas, while experiencing a turbulent marriage with fellow artist Diego Rivera ( 6' 2" Alfred Molina), an affair with revolutionary Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), and several lesbian relationships. Cameo performances come from Antonio Banderas and Edward North (then Hayek's boyfriend).
However, considerable credit also goes to the director Julie Traymor, who uses her theatrical background and expertise to mix colourful Mexican locations and costumes with clever transpositions from life into art, and her partner Elliot Goldenthal provides a brilliantly evocative soundtrack.
I first saw "Frida" at the cinema when it was released in 2002 and I have twice revisited it on DVD, during which time I have been to an exhibition in London's Tate Modern of 87 of Kahlo's distinctive and often disturbing paintings. I admire the film even more on each viewing and believe that it deserves much wider appreciation.
Link: Wikipedia page on Kahlo click here
"Friends With Benefits"
Hollywood movies often come in pairs as films with the same premise are released within months of one another. "Friends With Benefits" and "No Strings Attached" were released very close to one another and both pose the question of whether it is possible for a couple simply to have sex and be friends without becoming emotionally or even romantically involved. Many men have never had any problem with this concept and Hollywood is now toying with the issue of whether liberated women can think the same. There are no prizes for guessing the conclusion of both romantic comedies but it's entertaining to see how each film works round to essentially the same ending.
This time round the guy is Dylan (Justin Timberlake) who moves from Los Angeles to New York to take on a new job at the behest of headhunter Jamie (Mila Kunis). Like "No Strings Attached", "Friends With Benefits" has a lot of talk about sex - the script is sharp and often funny - but is remarkably coy when it comes to showing it with nothing more risqué than a bare back. The film makes fun of movies that are overly romantic while coming quite close to being one of the works it parodies. So innocent fun which finishes up being rather old-fashioned. The French would have done it differently.
Michael Sheen is excellent as British television interviewer David Frost while Frank Langella is outstanding as American President Richard Nixon in this recreation of the famous four interviews conducted in the summer of 1977, three years after Nixon was forced from office after the cover-up of Watergate. The strategy, the tactics, the mind games make for compelling viewing and the script - adapted by Peter Morgan from his own play - is razor-sharp. Ron Howard directed this in between "The Da Vinci Code" and "Angels And Demons" and knowing that this particular conspiracy was the real thing and not the invention of Dan Brown makes the movie all the more chilling.
"Frozen" will always have a special place in my heart because it was the first film seen by my granddaughter Catrin (one month short of her third birthday). We saw it with her little friend James (just three months older) who was also making his first visit to the cinema. Both sat through all 102 minutes totally transfixed and then at the end cried because they did not want it to finish.
This offering from Walt Disney Animation Studios tells the tale of two huge-eyed royal sisters from the kingdom of Arendelle: Queen Elsa who has a power to freeze things that grows uncontrollably, leading her to flee the kingdom, and Princess Anna who is determined to find her sister, while coping with two very different suitors, a crazy reindeer and a talking snowman. The visuals are magical even in 2D (we judged that the 3D version would be sensory overload for a first movie on the big screen) and there are plenty of songs - notably the empowering "Let It Go" and the exuberant "For The First Time In Forever" - and humour plus a ice monster that had the kids jumping.
"Frozen" went on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Film. Meanwhile Catrin's parents took her to see the movie again and then bought her the DVD the first day it went on sale. Over succeeding months and years, the film became an absolute phenomenon.
The river in question is the St Lawrence dividing the United States and Canada, more specifically a stretch between New York state and Quebec province where the Mohawk nation lives on both sides. This is not a corner of America that one normally views in film. People here are dirt poor, literally living from pay cheque to pay cheque and searching for a little money down the back of the sofa. Again this is not a vision of the USA that we see much on screen. Two single mothers - the white Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) and the Mohawk Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) - become unlikely allies in a struggle to provide for their kids in this unusual and moving tale both written and directed by Courtney Hunt. This is the kind of different work that perhaps would only come from a female independent film-maker.
Brad Pitt and the Second World War. What's not to like? Even if, now 50, Pitt really is too old to play a front-line soldier. And the movie is rightly proving a huge commercial success. But haven't we seen all this sort of stuff before, most obviously in "Inglourious Basterds"? Well, yes and no - "Fury" does have some distinctive features.
First, it is not often that war films focus on the tank as weapon. The best example was "Lebanon" and, although a good deal of "Fury" is located within the soldiers' vehicle, the Israeli film was shot entirely within the confines of a tank. A major difference between the two films though is that, in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, they faced no heavy weaponry whereas, in "Fury", we see the the US Army's standard armoured weapon, the M4 Sherman medium tank, facing the much better-armoured German Tiger tank and a sequence when four Shermans lock horns with one Tiger is one of the most viscerally thrilling of the movie.
But there are other differences too. The Second World War is usually presented as the nearest we've had to a 'good' war: we know who is the evil invader and who is the noble liberator, who commits war crimes and who acts with unfailing decency. Except that "Fury" does not flinch from showing Americans behaving badly, even murderously. A final difference - which adds a certain poignancy to the film - is that it is set in Germany in the final days of the war when the Germans have no reason to keep fighting and the GIs just want to stop killing and go home.
All these elements of "Fury" are the result of the writer and director being David Ayer for whom this is a very personal movie. Both of his grandfathers fought in the Second World War, he himself is a US Navy veteran who served on a nuclear submarine, and he has made a career out of telling stories about men losing their innocence (think "Training Day and "End Of Watch"). In the case of "Fury", the innocent character is Norman (Logan Lerman), a clerk suddenly forced to be a gunner, who comes under the unconventional guidance of tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Pitt). The other three crew members are a mixed bunch of veterans played by Shia LaBeouf ("Bible'), Michael Peña ("Gordo"), and Jon Bernthal ("Coon-Ass").
At so many levels, this is an outstanding work. The direction, the cinematography and the sound are superb, while the vast crew who made the Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire countryside of rural England look like the war-blasted Germany have done a terrific job. Ultimately, though, this is two films presented as a single adventure. For the first two-thirds of the movie, we have a traditional 'war is hell' approach. Then, when the tank called "Fury" loses its track, we lurch into another kind of film altogether, one in which 'fury' becomes an adjective rather than a noun, one that recalls the final body-fest in the conclusion to "The Wild Bunch", one in which war may be hell, but damn it, it's also incredibly exciting and oh so heroic.
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.
Last modified on 13 July 2018
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