"Hacksaw Ridge" "Hail, Caesar!" "La Haine" "Half Of A Yellow Sun" "Hancock" "Hanna" "Hannibal" "Happy-Go-Lucky" "Harry Brown" "Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets" "Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire" "Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone" "Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban" "The Hate U Give" "The Hateful Eight" "Haywire" "He Named Me Malala" "Heavenly Creatures" "The Help" "Her" "Hercules" "Hero" "Herostratus" "Hidden" "Hidden Figures" "High Fidelity" "The History Boys" "The History Of Mr Polly" "Hitch" "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy" "The Holiday" "Hollywood Homicide" "Hope Springs" (2003) "Hope Springs" (2012) "Hot Fuzz" "Hot Pursuit" "Hotel Transylvania 3: A Monster Vacation" "Hotel Rwanda" "The Hours" "House Of Flying Daggers" "The House I Live In" "How To Lose a Guy In 10 Days" "How To Train Your Dragon 2" "Hulk" "The Hundred-Foot Journey" "The Hunger Games" "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1" "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2" "The Hurt Locker"
Even 70 years after the end of the Second World War, there are amazing stories to be told. Hacksaw Ridge was the nickname for the Maeda Escarpment, a location on Okinawa Island defended ferociously by the Japanese against American attack, and this film depicts the heroic tale of Desmond Doss who saved an incredible number of lives in that assault.
What gives the narrative extra poignancy is that he was a devout Seventh Day Adventist and a conscientious objector who refused to touch, let along fire, a gun but overcame great prejudice to complete his training as a combat medic. He was credited with saving the lives of 75 infantrymen on the escarpment and while on the island he himself was wounded four times. He received the Medal of Honor for his bravery, the only conscientious objector to received the award.
As you would expect from formerly-disgraced Mel Gibson as a director, this work is firmly in the ‘war is hell’ category and immensely patriotic, but it is an astonishing piece of film-making. If you thought that the beginning of “Saving Private Ryan” was hard viewing, the second half of “Hacksaw Ridge” is much tougher with body parts and guts splaying all over the battlefield and many victims still alive with appalling injuries.
In the central role, British actor Andrew Garfield gives a convincing and nuanced performance that firmly enhances his career, taking him much further than the “Spiderman” franchise. Among the supporting cast, Hugo Weaving as Doss’s abusive father stands out in a role a million miles from his appearances in “The Matrix” movies.
The Coen brothers - Joel & Ethan - write and direct very different movies from mainstream cinema and, as we say in Britain, they are not everyone's cup of tea. I have enjoyed works like "No Country For Old Men", "Burn After Reading" and "A Serious Man" - and, of course, the brilliant "Fargo" - but I found "Hail,Caesar!", a satire on Hollywood in the 1950s, only moderately funny and very quirky. However, it is full of performances by a long list of accomplished actors led by George Clooney and Josh Brolin.
Although this French film - the title means "Hate" - was released in 1995, it was just over a decade later before I viewed it, by which time the racial violence in the estates of Paris and then nationwide in the autumn of 2005 had made the work seem particularly prescient in capturing the alienation and anger of young, poor, immigrant youth. The style of director Mathieu Kassovitz - black and white and jerky camerawork - gives this the feel of a documentary, but the involvement is much more intense, as we follow 24 hours in the life of three friends: Jewish Vinz (Vincent Cassel), black Hubert (Hubert Koundé) and Arab Saïd (Saïd Tagmaoui). Their self-destructive behaviour invites and receives pain and punishment in this compelling narrative and the makers of this movie will not have been surprised by the 2005 riots.
"Half Of A Yellow Sun"
It is a shame that this film is not much better known: it is a rarity for a British movie to have an African theme, African location shooting, source material from a black novelist, a black writer and director, and an almost exclusively black cast. But it is a pity that the film is not as successful as it could have been: too much of the work is sluggish and the script is often too leaden.
The title is a reference to the flag of Biafra, the breakaway Igbo-dominated province that provoked the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970, and the action is set in the decade following Nigeria's independence in 1960 and is seen through the eyes of Biafran characters who are struggling with their own relationship difficulties.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by the Igbo Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the writer and first-time director is the Nigerian-born, London-based Biyi Bandele who was born to Yoruba parents but grew up in the northern part of the country in the Hausa cultural tradition. Both novelist and director deserve recognition for focusing on a period of Nigerian history that still shapes the nation but is rarely in the public discourse and Bandele was right to insist on making the movie in Nigeria itself in spite of the difficulties.
The two leading actors - both of whom give excellent performances in spite of a poor script - are Chiwetel Ejiofor ("12 Years A Slave"), who was born in Britain to Nigerian parents, and Thandie Newton ("Mission: Impossible II"), who was born in Britain to a black Zimbabwean mother and a white British father. Both are real talents who alone would make this film worth watching.
This is a super-hero movie with several major differences. First, the guy has some serious psychological problems which result in appalling behaviour and public opprobrium - a clever twist that has great potential. Second, there is no super-villain - a really major weakness. Third, the core of the script - the relationship between the hero and the heroine - is pure piffle. The special effects are over indulgent and, if some of the money spent on them had been reallocated to a hiring a decent scriptwriter, this would have been a much better movie. The eponymous flying crusader is played by the charismatic Will Smith who is the most bankable star in Hollywood these days and the main support role comes the talented and watchable Charlize Theron, so the film is not a wash-out - just a real disappointment.
This is movie-making of a high order, thanks to the pairing of the British director Joe Wright and the Irish supporting actress Saoirse Ronan from the utterly different "Atonement".
Wright is on top of his game here in a work pulsing with energy: atmospheric locations in Finland, Morocco and Germany, flashy camera work, terrific sound, and good music from The Brothers Chemical. As in "Atonement", Ronan plays a girl of her own age, here an ethereally mysterious 16 year old with diminished social connectedness but formidable fighting and shooting skills. It is an impressive performance and, coming on top of that in "The Lovely Bones", this is a young woman with an immensely promising career, the like of that of Natalie Portman after her precocious start in "Leon".
Like the Bourne trilogy, an American secret agency is after one of its missing assets and in effect the movie is one long chase. Like "The Long Kiss Goodnight", the asset is female and only slowly discovers her true identity. Training and protecting Hanna is her father Erik played by the very watchable Eric Bana, while leading the chase is the icily cold Marissa portrayed by the always brilliant Cate Blanchett. The plot could have done with a little more clarity but overall this is the kind of entertainment that we want, but do not always get, on the big screen.
The cannibalistic Dr Hannibal Lecter now makes his third cinematic outing. After the hors d'oeuvre of Michael Mann's "Manhunter" (1986) and the main course of Jonathan Demme's "The Silence Of The Lambs" (1991), Ridley Scott serves up the dessert so to speak. As friends will testify, the dessert is normally my favourite course - but not this time. I didn't see "Manhunter", but Anthony Hopkins' compelling performance in "Silence" so seared itself on the mind that I can hardly believe it was a decade ago and not much more recently.
Ten years later, Lecter is practising his cultural and culinary talents in Florence. This is a city I know well, but I have never seen it so dark and threatening and Scott has a wonderful eye for shapes and shadows. Meanwhile FBI agent Clarice Starling - now played by Julianne Moore rather than Jodie Foster - is an altogether tougher, more confident, less trusting woman who has gained a career and commendations but sacrificed the chance of marriage and parenthood.
"Hannibal" has some gory scenes, but in truth it is not as subtle or as scary as "Silence" and at times the implausibilities strain credulity. The last supper would have been more shocking if it had not reminded me of the monkey brain feast in "Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom" but, at least when it come to making an original escape, one has to hand it to Lecter.
Britain's Mike Leigh here directs and co-writes an atypical English film: an urban slice of life with a smile on its face. Poppy - wonderfully played by Sally Hawkins - is the kind of soul that collectively we need more of but individually we might find exasperating. She is a 30 year old teacher in North London who is irrepressibly cheerful in the face of all she encounters which may be fun for her pupils and boyfriend but can infuriate a sister and a driving instructor and simply mystify others whether a tramp or passers-by. By turns funny and moving, this look at life with Poppy is never dull.
This is a tough tale of vigilantism that is far removed from the world of "Death Wish". The eponymous seeker of revenge is an aged former marine living on a south London housing estate where abuse, violence and drug-taking are commonplace and the murder of an elderly friend sets in train a bloody trail. At the centre of it all and rarely off the screen is Michael Caine, an actor who seems to be better and better as he becomes older. He was brought up in the area depicted in the movie and was in his mid-70s when shooting this film, bringing his total to over 100. Credit too to British film director Daniel Barber for his assured pacing and cinematography.
"Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets"
Harry is now in his second year at Hogwarts in this welcome return to witchcraft and wizardry. As the eponymous hero, Daniel Radcliffe is now a rather taller, but more assured, 13 (by a magical coincidence, he shares a birthday - 31 July - with Harry himself and creator J K Rowling). Most of the characters from the first film are back, but new ones include engaging Kenneth Branagh as the charlatan Gilderoy Lockhart and the voice of Toby Jones as the (computer generated) house elf Dobby (who bears more than a passing resemblance to the Gollum in "Lords Of The Rings 2" issued about the same time).
Again Rowling has been closely involved with the script and again Chris Columbus is the director, so that the film is a faithful reflection of the book (so I am told), and generally speaking this is a darker world than "The Philospher's Stone" with a giant spider, an even huger snake and much scarification and petrification. At 2 hours 41 minutes, it is too long for the young audience at whom it is aimed (at the performance I attended, little ones were constantly running to the toilet), but it is so utterly magical and entertaining that they won't complain.
Footnote: If you wait till the end of the horrendously long credits, you will see a snippet featuring the alleged Professor of The Defence Against The Dark Arts.
"Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire"
On the fourth cinematic outing for Harry and his chums, we have a third director (Mike Newell) and a darker, scarier approach (which attracts the first non-PG certificate). All the familiar characters are back at Hoggwarts, but - with the exception of Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) - rng a ring a decent scriptwriter, this migthe established adults are given only minor roles, surrendering the floor to Alastor 'Mad Eye' Moody (played with verve by Brendan Gleeson). At the heart of this adventure is the Triwizard Tournament involving an airborne dragon chase, an undersea rescue, and a devouring maze which provide plenty of challenges for Harry and excitement for young viewers, although an non-reader of the books (like me) can be confused at times.
As always, there are wonderful characters and creatures and splendid sets and special effects. What really makes this latest movie stand out from the other three is how the Harry, Ron and Hermione have grown up into teenagers with mood swings and a fascination with the strange creatures known as the opposite sex. Harry is more confident flying a broomstick and battling dragons than propositioning the bewitching Cho Chang (Katie Leung), while blossoming Hermione cannot understand why Ron fails to see her as anything other than a schoolfriend. This awakening is well-handled and will engage the legions of young Potter fans, making them enthusiastic for episode five.
"Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone"
As a guy in his fifties who has never read a word of the Potter books, I felt that I needed an excuse to see this childrens film, so - together with five other adults - I accompanied nine year old Yonatan Lee to a Sunday morning showing on the opening weekend. It was a really fun atmosphere with lots of kids dressed up in pointed hats and coloured cloaks and they cheered when the movie started and applauded at the end.
British one-time primary school teacher Joanne Rowling has now sold some 120 million copies of the first four novels in her planned seven-part saga and apparently managed to ensure that the screen version of her first story stays really close to the book. Although the funding and the director - Chris Columbus of Home Alone are inevitably American, it was shot at classic locations in England and the cast is a wonderful roll call of British character actors and youthful newcomers. Twelve year old Daniel Radcliffe is simply perfect as Harry and the casting is consistently clever from 71 year old Richard Harris as the headmaster Dumbledore to Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie's alter ego.
Like Superman, Batman and Luke Skywalker, Harry is an orphan with exceptional powers, but his training ground the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is like no other and given magical form through some brilliant special effects, not least in the furious flying game of Quidditch. The pacing of the movie might have been better but, as a mere muggle (someone without special powers), I guess Im in no position to complain and the kids are going to love all two and a half hours.
Footnote: A couple of days after seeing the film, I caught a train from Platform 9B at Londons Kings Cross station and I was delighted to find the platform decked out with Harry Potter references: signs announcing Hogwarts Express 9 ¾ and warnings such as All owls must be caged.
"Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban"
For the third HP film, previous director Chris Columbus has stepped down to be simply co-producer and handed the directorial reigns to Mexican Alfonso Cuarón, until now best known for his comedy "Y Tu Mamá También". Otherwise the only change of personnel is Michael Gambon, replacing the deceased Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore, which he does exceptionally well. The main difference in this third instalment of the narrative is the tone: except for a humorous opening sequence, this movie is darker than the others and a little more complex in that characters are not always what they seem. Another (smaller but significant) difference is that, unless I'm imagining things, Hogwarts now has more black and Asian pupils.
As usual, Daniel Radcliffe is at the heart of the adventure as Harry himself and he is now well accomplished in the part. It is gratifying to see Emma Watson given a more assertive role as Hermione Granger, although this seems to be at the expense of Rupert Grint who - by comparison - looks rather wet as Ron Weasley. Cuarón has done well to follow Columbus' practice of making full use of a wonderful range of British character actors. All the 'old hands' are there, with Alan Rickman in characteristically fine form, but there are some splendid new performances including Emma Thompson, David Thewlis and an almost unrecognisable Gary Oldman (as the eponymous prisoner).
Harry Potter films are unlikely ever to win Oscars, but this one - like the previous two - is thoroughly entertaining and a visual treat with some new creatures such as the hippogriff Buckbeak. In the years to come, the challenge is going to be balancing the tricky timing of two more books and four more films with a young acting trio who are visibly aging at least as fast as their fictional counterparts. The franchise is now so valuable and so popular that all concerned will do what it takes.
Links for all "Harry Potter" films:
official web site click here
special report on Harry Potter click here
"The Hate U Give"
What a change and what a delight to see an American mainstream movie where virtually all the characters are people of colour: young as well as older, female as well as male, gay as well as straight. And how impressive that a film with a young person's focus addresses so directly and fairly the issue of race relations in today's America.
The central character is 16 year old Starr Carter who lives in a poor black neighbourhood but attends a largely white private school and attempts to staddle these two contrasting worlds until a violent death shakes up her life and beliefs. Amandla Stenberg is excellent in a role that carries the film but her voice-overs remind us that the origin of the script is a young adult novel by first-time author African-American Angie Thomas. The film is the directorial debut of African-American George Tillman Jr so, one way and another, a lot of new black talent is on show here and it is impressive.
Not since "Detroit" have not seen a movie which brings home so vividly what it is like to be a young black person at the mercy of a white police officer. "Detroit" portrayed real events in 1967, whereas this work is fictional, but the storyline reflects the experience of so many prominent and controversial police killings of young blacks in contemporary America that has given rise to the movement Black Lives Matter.
The film does not hide its support for the movement but uses a black cop to explain the viewpoint of the white cop facing a black youth who might be armed and about to kill him. Whites are not the enemy here - Starr's white boyfriend is both understanding and supportive - but the movie highlights dramatically the routine abuse of power by the police and the unresponsiveness of authority to black voices and concerns.
"The Hateful Eight"
Nobody makes movies like Quentin Tarantino and I'm a huge fan of his work. This is the eighth film that he has both written and directed (one of the reasons for the title) and I've seen them all - I think "Kill Bill" (really two works) is my favourite - except "Death Proof" which I decided to miss out. Like his seventh film "Django Unchained", this is a western of sorts but, whereas the previous story was set just before the Civil War, this one is located in the period just after the war. In both cases, race is a major theme.
In some senses, "The Hateful Eight" is like a Shakespearean tragedy: it is largely set in one location (a snow-bound cabin in the depths of Wyoming), there is lots of glorious dialogue delivered in slow, measured tones, the tension is relieved by a running joke (a door that needs nailing shut against the biting wind), and at the end the stage is littered with bodies. Tarantino is always ready to take his time and the narrative is built up and the characters introduced in a slow, even leisurely, style but, when the action comes, there is plenty of duplicity and revelation in a veritable blood-fest.
In a fine cast with some of the director's favourite players, the eight of the title are portrayed by Kurt Russell and Samuel L Jackson as bounty hunters, Bruce Dern as a former civil war general, Walton Goggins as the sheriff of Red Rock, Tim Roth as the one Englishman, Michael Madden and Demián Bichir as mysterious strangers, and the hapless prisoner Jennifer Jason Leigh who gets it in the face in more ways than one. If not Tarantino's finest work, this is an admirable addition to his canon.
Question: how can a movie that stars such acting talent as Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbinder and Antonio Banderas be so disappointing? Answer: because the director Steven Soderbergh - another distinguished talent - has been mesmerised into centering his film entirely on someone with no acting experience and deploying a writer, the British-born Lem Dobbs (actually Anton Kitajlly), who has created an unoriginal narrative and limp lines.
I see why Soderbergh was impressed by Gina Carano who is an attractive martial arts expert, specialising in a form of kick-boxing called Muay Thai. The fight sequences are seriously impressive. But it was a mistake to give her such a major role so soon and not to find a script that made better use of the supporting actors and a stronger storyline. The bleached colours, odd music, and terrible ending don't help either.
"He Named Me Malala"
'Me' is of course Malala Yousafai, the inspirational Pakistani girl who aged 15 was the subject of an assassination attempt by the Taliban. 'He' is her father Ziauddin who, in his own way, is a remarkable individual and who - contrary to what she states in this moving film - gave her much more than the name of a Pashtun heroine from history. This cinematic work was inspired by the biography "I Am Malala" which I have read [for my review click here], but acclaimed American documentary maker Davis Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth") tells the story of Malala's life before and after the shooting through a mixture of hand-drawn animation, archive footage, and filming over a year and a half at her English home in Birmingham and on visits to Nigeria and Jordan. The film demonstrates the passion, bravery, humility, intelligence and fluency of this young woman who at just 17 became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate as production was concluding. Her story has just begun ...
It took me 18 years to catch up with this New Zealand film of 1994 by which time the director Peter Jackson and co-writers Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh had achieved spectacular success through "The Lord Of The Rings" trilogy and one of the two young actresses at the heart of the action, the British Kate Winslet in her début movie role, had starred in "Titantic" and much more.
The heavenly creatures of this true story are the teenage working class New Zealander Pauline, played by Melanie Lynskey, and her precocious British schoolfriend Juliet (Winslet). In the quiet world of Christchurch in 1953 & 1954, they form a bond of extraordinary intensity which leads ultimately to murderous intent. Jackson cleverly portrays the descent into a form of madness and uses text from the diary kept by Pauline in real life, while the two young actresses give astonishing performances that both impress and disturb.
Link: information on the actual case click here
Kathryn Stockett's book on which this film is based (originally turned down by 60 publishers) and co-writer and director Tate Taylor's movie itself have both been outstanding successes in the United States where this tale of prejudice and racism towards house maids in 1960s Mississippi has clearly resonated in a country which has moved on sufficiently to elect a black president but still exhibits discrimination against African-Americans in so many aspects of its society. It is unquestionably a worthy work, championing an underprivileged ethnicity, class and gender and providing a slew of challenging roles for female actors, both black (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) and white (Emma Stone, Allison Janney, Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain).But as a film it lacks a strong narrative drive and pacing, while the characterisations are one-dimensional with only Janney's character having any real nuance or complexity. And the book and film have been criticised for representing a white heroine as liberator of the black helps instead of suggesting that they were capable of self-empowerment. In spite of these weaknesses, this is a distinctive and well-made movie that has something to say and should be seen and taken to heart.
It's called "Her" but actually it's all about him - Theodore, a professional writer of personal letters for those who can't find the words to express their emotions, played by Joaquin Phoenix in a understated performance a million miles from his appearance in "Gladiator". Theodore is rarely off the screen and Phoenix does well to hold the movie for a full two hours.
There are three 'hers' in this original work, both written and directed by Spike Jonze. There is Catherine (Rooney Mara), his estranged wife who wants a divorce, Amy (Amy Adams), a neighbour who is having relationship problems of her own, and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson who is never seen), the voice of the newly-available operating system with whom Theodore falls in love.
At times, amusing, often moving, but ultimately desperately sad, the message of this movie is all too clear: however much we may love our technology (even Eve went for the Apple), it is no substitute for the love of a human being, in spite of the inevitable flaws in all of us.
One of the first films I remember seeing at the cinema was called "Hercules Unchained" and it starred the he-man of the time, Steve Reeves, in the eponymous role. That was in 1960 when I was only 12. For a long time, I had thought that the sword and sandals genre was dead, but then in 2000 "Gladiator" came along and revived it.
So now (2014) we have a fresh interpretation of Hercules with former wrestler Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson wielding a super-sized club and accompanied by a loyal, if mixed, band of five warriours, including the brutish Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) and the sexy archer Atlanta (Ingrid Bols Berdalø). This is a very modern representation of the classical Greek hero - a man post his great labours and traumatised by the death of his family, rather than a god with superhuman powers, but an avenger who is willing to have his nephew embellish his exploits to a mythic scale if only to scare the enemy.
Director Brett Ratner ("X-Men: Last Stand") gives us an old-fashioned action-adventure which does not take itself too seriously but provides plenty of conflict including three set-piece battles that deploy both hordes of stunt men and some effective CGI. So this is an undemanding but entertaining movie that does what it says on the tin.
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was marvellous and I loved it, but "Hero" is even better and I feel it is little short of a masterpiece. What makes it so is the brilliant combination of superlatives: fine acting and sharp dialogue; exciting fighting sequences and stunning scenery; evocative sound and music; and a breathtaking use of colour and composition. This is quite simply a triumph for Chinese director Zhang Yimou - and the budget was a mere $2 million.
The setting is the Qin kingdom in the 3rd century BC when modern-day China consisted of seven warring kingdoms. An astonishingly proficient warrior known only as Nameless (Jet Li) is brought to meet the Qin emperor (Daoming Chen) on the basis that he has managed to kill the emperor's three most formidable enemies: Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Chueng). The story unfolds in a formal structure involving a series of flashbacks, as Nameless explains to the emperor how he dispatched each foe, but we see the same conflicts in different versions as a result of successive plot twists. As each segment of the tale is told, Nameless moves closer to the solitary emperor - to what end, we can only speculate.
The movie looks sumptuous with magnificent natural settings (including Inner Mongolia) and balletic fight scenes in the rain and the trees, among banners and leaves, and even on water, while the different flashbacks are distinguished by the predominant colour of the scene and the characters' costumes: red (passion), blue (love), green (youth), white (truth), and finally black (death). The sound - whether horses thundering across the countryside, massed soldiers marching into position, swords clashing angrily or arrows winging impossible distances - is terrific, while the original music from Tan Dun (who scored "Crouching Tiger .."), with Kodo drummers from Japan, is wonderfully atmospheric. The cast is huge, but the speaking - using classical Chinese grammar but pronunciation in the Mandarin dialect - is confined to less than 10 characters. Besides the actors already named, we have the young and beautiful Zhang Ziyi - another link with "Crouching Tiger.." - as the servant girl Moon.
The plotting may be a little thin, but my only real reservation about the movie is political rather than artistic: the use of tyranny is defended on the grounds of nationalism. That apart, I cannot fault this utterly sensational work which for me is up there with such classics as "Lawrence Of Arabia" and "Gladiator".
Footnote: The second time that I saw this film was at London's National Film Theatre when it was introduced by the Director of Cinematography Christopher Doyle. He described it as "'Rashômon' in colour".
The 1960s was a weird time with lots of cultural experimentation. So, as a 20 year old in 1968, I went along to the Manchester Film Theatre to see this British independent avant-garde film with an open mind. I found it one of the strangest movies I'd seen but described it in my diary as "superb" and commented: "I would certainly like to see it again." Yet, for the next 40 years, the film was inaccessible and only in 2007 did the British Film Institute intervene to make it available once more. It took me another five years to rent it via Lovefilm. But, in all that time, the stunning imagery lived with me and in particular I was haunted by a scene towards the end in which a woman (Gabriella Licudi) sobs in despair.
Written and directed by Don Levy, it was the only full-length film he ever made and it is a long (142 minutes) and slow work distinguished by its innovativeness and opacity. The narrative is pretty minimal and therefore can be briefly stated: a very angry young man called Max (Michael Gothard) decides he has had enough of life and offers an advertising company the opportunity to exploit his public suicide. This explains the erudite title: Herostratus was an Ancient Greek arsonist who destroyed the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and his name has become a metonym for someone who commits a criminal act in order to become famous.
The film looks and sounds amateurish and indeed had a tiny budget (but took six years from conception to completion). However, clearly Levy wanted some of the dialogue to be hard to hear and some of the scenes to be difficult to watch. One of the most startling and memorable sequences inter cuts the dancing of a sexy woman with the butchering of a dead animal and one of the most inexplicable (but again memorable) images is of a parasol-carrying woman clad in black with a white face. This is a work full of odd interjections ranging from the voice of the elderly Malcom Muggeridge to a near-wordless burlesque by a very young Helen Mirren in her first film role. There are extracts from semi-contemporary newsreels scattered about the film which seem to be inviting us to question what kind of world we have created.
Seeing "Herostratus" after such a long interval and at the more mature age of 66, I found that I was less tolerant of the pretentiousness of the whole thing but still captivated by the bewildering images. Also I was disturbed to read after the viewing that both the director and the lead actor subsequently committed suicide.
Link: an analysis of the film click here
Typically a French film will feature a beautiful actress like Juliette Binoche, a well-known actor like Daniel Auteuil, some eating and drinking, a slow narrative and obscure plotting. In all these respects, "Hidden" is a typical Gallic movie. What makes this work - both written and directed by the Austrian Michael Haneke - different is that there are some shocking scenes - but very brief and unexpected - and the meaning is utterly opaque. This suggests that the film is either brilliantly original and thought-provoking or deliberately unintelligible and overly pretentious. I incline to the later interpretation.
In some ways, "Hidden Figures" (2016) is a (belated) companion piece to "THe Right Stuff" (1983). Both tell the story of the herculean effort by the United States - which failed - to beat the Soviet Union to put a man in space. Whereas "The Right Stuff" focused on the first seven America astronauts who had the so-called 'right stuff', "Hidden Figures" concentrates on the huge team of scientists, technologists, mathematicians and managers (mostly white men) 'hidden' behind these astronauts and, most especially, highlights the largely unappreciated contribution of African-American women through the experience of three of them: mathematician Katherine G. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer).
The only stars in this film are white: Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, a character largely based on Robert C. Gilruth, the head of the Space Task Group at Langley Research Center, and Kirsten Dunst as a character who reflects the views and attitudes of some of the white women who served in managerial roles at that time but was not an actual historical person. The movie makes clear the everyday discrimination faced by staff of colour in the NASA of the early 1960s, not least the provision of bathrooms for coloureds. In another interpretation of the title, the film underlines how much complicated mathematics is involved in planning a space launch and return.
Like many other great stories of NASA employees, NASA has been sharing this story for years. In fact, the author of the book on which the film is based, Margot Lee Shetterly, has noted the title is “something of a misnomer.” The women at the centre of the story were not so much hidden as unseen. If this film helps to correct that, it has served its cause since it commemorates the achievments of some remarkable women in a worthy work. However, even though the movie was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, as cinema it is rather pedestrian and by the numbers. For sheer entertainment, "The Right Stuff" is much the better film.
Katherine Johnson biography click here
Mary Jackson biography click here
Dorothy Vaughan biography click here
This might have worked well on the page (it is based on Nick Hornby's London-set novel), but it is rather tiresome on the screen where the location is switched to Chicago. John Cusack - an actor I admire - narrates frequently to camera ("Alfie"- style) as an obsessive record-shop owner, endlessly compiling top five lists and sadly revisiting previous girlfriends. All the female characters - led by Iben Hjejle - are so much more normal, sensitive and likeable than the pathetic men in this irritating movie.
"The History Boys"
The Alan Bennett play was first produced in May 2004 and released as a film in 2007, directed by Nicholas Hytner who did such a fine job with directing the stage version. I saw the play on stage in December 2006 so I came to it rather late and following many rave reviews. This very successful film version is faithful to Bennett's marvellous script but effectively opens up the locations to take us beyond the classroom to shots of Halifax and Fountains Abbey.
While this is a courageous portrayal of the boys' anarchic and ambivalent attitude to homosexuality and teachers' efforts to struggle with their repression, for me essentially this is a work about teaching, especially of history. Now I always loved history at school and, to this day, remember my history teacher: a short, strict man called Mr Mallon who was rumoured to have a black belt in karate. However, I had to give up history at age 15. Nevertheless I continue to read history books and to blog about history, so "The History Boys" was personally fascinating on many levels.
At the core of this marvellous play with its wonderful one-liners, perceptive dialogue, erudite cultural references and sense of loneliness, there are three very different approaches to teaching.
Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour) puts a special emphasis on remembering facts and provides what is frequently refered to as a good foundation in history which virtually guarantees that one will pass the exam with high marks. Mr Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) believes that, if one is to gain a place at Oxford or Cambridge University, one has to have an original angle, such as reversing the established view or explanation and then using the same facts to argue the counter-intuitive version of events - a kind of subjunctive view of history. Then there is Mr Hector (an exceptional performance by Richard Griffiths), an idiosyncratic teacher, who conveys a love of poetry, not for exams but for life, with the simple intention just to "pass it on".
In truth, there is a lot to be said for each of these approaches. One needs a factual structure for a subject like history - it is not an accident that the Second World War followed the First World War. But it is good to challenge the conventional analysis because, even if one returns to it, one will understand it better. Yet ultimately learning is not about memorising facts or playing with interpretations, it is about emotions and values and understanding life. All this is in Bennett's rich work which he has described as "both a confession and an expiation".
"The History Of Mr Polly"
This is a 'golden oldie' for which I have a particular affection because I studied the 1910 novel by H.G. Wells when I was a teenager at school and first saw the film adaptation in 1963. Director Anthony Pelissier also wrote the screenplay and caught well the language of the novel, imbuing it with much light humour. John Mills is ideal as the eponymous shopkeeper, while one of his daughters Juliet plays the young girl called Polly.
The message of the book, reflected in the film, is:
"When a man has once broken through the paper walls of everyday circumstance, those unsubstantial walls that hold so many of us securely prisoned from the cradle to the grave, he has made a discovery. If the world does not please you, you can change it. Determine to alter it at any price, and you can change it altogether. You may change it into something sinister and angry, to something appalling, but it may be you will change it to something brighter, more agreeable, and at the worst something much more interesting."
This is an ideal date movie because, if you're just starting a relationship, you're bound to be able to identify with some features of at least one of the four central characters. First up, there's the date doctor, Alex 'Hitch' Hitchens (the cute Will Smith), who has lots of sound advice on how a man should woo a woman, but manages to strike some wrong notes when he himself attempts to romance cynical newspaper columnist Sara (Eva Mendes). Then there's gauche but kind-hearted accountant Albert (weighty Kevin James) who is advised by Hitch on his seemingly-impossible quest to make it with poor little rich girl Allegra Cole (model Amber Valletta). Does it work out for our two couples? Heh, this is a rom-com from Hollywood, so all bets are safe, but a better than average script from Kevin Bisch provides lots of verbal and visual gags that made even this long-married romantic smile.
"The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy"
I didn't hear it on the radio, I didn't see it on the television, and I've never read the book but, as a lover of most movie genres, I gave it a go at the cinema - and rather wish that I hadn't bothered. Martin Freeman is perfectly cast as the bewildered Arthur Dent, the Vogons are well executed by the Jim Henson Creature Shop, and there are some fun ideas like the Babel Fish, but the whole thing looks and sounds so silly and surreal that it left me unmoved. The narrative is really weak and the purpose utterly obscure - and it's all far too male for me.
Written, produced and directed by Nancy Meyers ("Something's Gotta Give" & "What Women Want"), this is a chic-flic that has had variable reviews, but is really rather engaging if utterly predictable. The premise is that two women who have recently suffered broken relationships exchange homes over Christmas in order to escape men and get over the hurt only to find ... you guessed.
What gives the narrative a bit more bite is that the two women are from opposite sides of the Atlantic, so we see American high-flier and trailer-maker Amanda (Cameron Diaz) struggling with the wilds of rural Surrey in England, while the more self-effacing correspondent on Britain's "Daily Teelgraph" newspaper Iris (Kate Winslet who - get it - played the young Iris Murdoch in an earlier bio-pic) gets to live in a swanky house in warmer but windier Los Angeles. Amanda comes across Iris's brother Graham (Jude Law in a rare comedic outing), while Iris finds herself spending time with film composer Miles (an oddly-cast Jack Black).
What I liked about the parallel stories was their asymmetry: one involves lots of sex (although one bed scene sees the bra staying firmly on), while the other involves none; one includes a friendship with an octogenarian who has lost contact with much of the world, while the other features two (overly) cute little girls. Among these support roles, there is a wonderful performance from 91 year old Eli Wallach ("The Magnificent Seven" and 150 other screen appearances) who portrays a long-retired screenwriter who introduces Iris and Miles to the films of Hollywood's golden age.
In fact, it is clear that Meyers loves watching movies as well as making them because the dialogue is studded with references and allusions to various films whether it is the feisty performances of Barbara Stanwyck or the exotic soundtrack for "The Mission" or Dustin Hoffman's role in "The Graduate". Given this reverence for movie-making, Myers could have thought of a cleverer title for this fetching if somewhat false piece of escapism - something like "Love Internationally".
This is not a film I would have normally bothered watching, but I was staying with friends in the United States over the Thanksgiving period, and they downloaded it one evening. Starring Harrison Ford and Josh Harnett, it is a weak effort at a comedy thriller that is neither particularly comedic nor thrilling.
"Hope Springs" (2003)
No doubt the Touchstone studio executives had great faith in a romantic comedy set in a rural community called Hope, but no amount of charity can avoid the conclusion that this is a disappointing dud. The familiar love triangle involves three engaging enough stars: Colin Firth trying to give an impression of Hugh Grant, a cute but kookie Heather Graham, and a sassy but smoking Minnie Driver. The problem is that, although based on a novel called "New Cardiff" by Charles Webb" (who wrote "The Graduate"), it is trite and predictable and quite simply not that funny. In this case, hope springs infernal.
"Hope Springs" (2012)
It's a clever title, which works both as a place name and a short sentence, but it has been used before (2003) and Great Hope Springs, Maine does not actualy exist (many of the exterior shots were done in Stonington, Connecticut). The movie centres on a middle-class couple who have been married for 31 years, with the partners taking a very different view on how well the relationship is working so far down the line. Arnold, the accountant (played in best irascible style by Tommy Lee Jones), is happy enough - or so he pretends - as long as food is on the table and golf is on the television. But Fay - Meryl Streep in another brilliantly nuanced role - misses the former intimacy and craves for some honest communication.
In what is supposed to be a week of intensive counselling, Dr Bernard Feld - an excellent Steve Carell in an unusually non-comic role - tries to discover what is going on and how it can be put right. As someone who has also been married for 31 years (but thankfully is in a much happier place than Arnold and Fay), I can empathise with the couple and the exposition of their problems is painfully acute if often very funny. What lets the film down is the sudden resolution of the breakdown which (sadly) is simply not credible.
Nevertheless, it's good to see moviemakers realise that older people enjoy love and sex as well and therefore there is a market for films which embrace this, as we've seen with such recent works as "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" and "It's Complicated" (also starring Meryl Streep who is managing the difficult challenge for an older actress of finding decent parts that reflect both her age and talent).
Director Edgar Wright and actor Simon Pegg had a hit with the 2004 rom-zom-com "Shaun Of The Dead" and team up again here in a pastiche of American police action movies that they jointly scripted. It's all terribly self-indulgent: it is shot in Wright's home town of Wells in Somerset, Pegg's long-time friend and "Shaun" co-star Nick Frost is back as support, and even the name of the Pegg character (Nicholas Angel) is borrowed from the film's music supervisor, while there are constant references to everything from "Bad Boys" to Point Break". But it is terrific fun and the incredibly fast editing, sharp dialogue and final explosive action sequences keep you entertained throughout.
It's rare and welcome to have a film directed by a woman (Anne Fletcher) with the two leading roles taken by women: Reese Witherspoon (who was so good in "Wild") and Columbian actress Sofía Vergara (known to American audiences through her TV work but something of a newcomer to the big screen). Witherspoon is the diminutive, up-tight cop trying to offer witness protection to Vergara as the taller, much more exuberant, wife of a drug baron in this female buddy, comedic road movie. Both women are hot and they're being pursued by two sets of assassins (clever title, huh?). The movie tries hard and, if it succeeds to only a rather limited degree, that's primarily because of the script which was written by two men.
Like most ethnic conflicts around the world, the divisions in Rwanda between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis have long antecedents, in this case the invasion of the Rwanda highlands by the Tutsis from Ethiopia in the 15th century. However, it was Belgium - who ruled the country under a UN mandate from 1918 to 1961 - who institutionalised the discrimination by favouring Tutsis and introducing identity cards which specified the holders ethnic group. The spark which lit the tinder was the shooting down of the aircraft carrying the Hutu President on 6 April 1994. In the next 100 days, there was a ferocious outbreak of genocide orchestrated by the Interahamwe militia and sanctioned by the Hutu government in which around 800,000 mostly Tutsis were massacred while the world community failed to intervene. A decade later, a kind of collective guilt sees the release of no less than four films about these events, the most high profile being "Hotel Rwanda" which garnered three Academy Award nominations.
Portraying death on this scale in a work of 'entertainment' almost demands that we observe the savagery through the prism of selected individuals and, in this case, Irish writer and director Terry George has chosen to use the real-life experience of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina and his family. Rwanda is often called 'Le pays des Milles Collines' (the Land of a Thousand Hills) and Paul worked at the Sabena-owned Hotel des Mille Collines, a four-star establishment in the capital of Kigali. A well-educated Hutu, he was married to a Tutsi and had three young children, so he was geographically and ethnically at the heart of the madness. Like a kind of Oskar Schindler, he used a mixture of simple bribery and his sharp wits, together with charm and even obsequiousness, to create a haven in the horror that enabled 1,268 mainly Tutsis to survive.
American actor Don Cheadle, who played a cockney fool in "Ocean's Eleven" & "Ocean's Twelve", gives a powerful and textured performance here which marks him out as someone who is going to become an A-list star, while able British actress Sophie Okonedo is his wife Tatiana (Tutsis are lighter-skinned and finer-featured), and it is such a change to see the leading roles in a movie taken by black actors. The fear and powerlessness of the hotel occupants - over a thousand men, women and children crammed into a 113-room establishment - is well created and sustained. The settings are very realistic, being largely shot in Johannesburg, and most of the technical and support crew were African. The focus of the action is the hotel itself and the violence is deliberately understated and left largely to the imagination.
While one does not wish to see killing portrayed gratuitously, this artistic decision runs the risk that a largely ignorant western audience fails to appreciate the true nature and scale of this machete-fuelled rampage of rape and murder but, this reservation aside, "Hotel Rwanda" is an important and worthy work that should serve as a political warning of the price of international inaction in the face of ethnic conflict. Paul Rusesabagina, now lives in Belgium with his family, and recently told the US "People" magazine: "What happened in Rwanada is now happening in Darfur, in the Congo, in all of these places they are butchering innocent civilians. It is high time we know that a human life in Africa is as important as a human life in the west."
"Hotel Transylvania 3: A Monster Vacation"
Monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein do not come friendlier than in the "Hotel Transylvania" animation franchise and, when I took my seven year old granddaughter to this threequel, she was very happy with all the visual jokes and lively music. In effect, this is a kind of rom-com as the older widower Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler) recaptures his "zing" with ship's captain Ericka (Kathryn Hahn) in a cruise that one critic quipped could have been called "The Best Exotic Transylvania Hotel".
Three women in three times living through just one day are linked by the same novel and the same dilemma in this hugely ambitious, but brilliantly executed, work based on Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize winning novel [for review click here] with a script from David Hare. In 1932, Virginia Woolf is starting to craft a new book in her home on the edge of London; in 1951, housewife and mother Laura Brown is trying to find purpose in the suburbs of Los Angeles; while in 2001 New Yorker Clarissa Vaughan wants to celebrate the success of a poet who was once her lover. The linking novel is "Mrs Dalloway" [for review click here], which Virginia wrote and Laura reads and after whom Clarissa is affectionately named by her one-time lover.
There are so many connections between these seemingly disparate lives. There is literature - Virginia is the author, Laura is the reader, while Clarissa is an editor. There is a party - Mrs Dalloway and Clarissa are both preparing one, while Virginia is readying for lunch with her sister and Laura is baking a birthday cake for her husband. There are Sapphic kisses - at some point, each of the three main characters bestows one on a friend or a sister or a lover. There is suicide - both contemplation and realisation. And the dilemma? Each of the central trio is struggling with her alienation from family and friends and endeavouring to find meaning in life or -failing that - death.
A female friend with whom I saw the movie dubbed it "Three Women In Search Of A Razor Blade" and certainly it is a thoughtful, heavy, even depressing work. But rarely has one seen such a stellar cast give so many superlative performances. With a prosthetic nose and English accent, Nicole Kidman is barely recognisable in her wonderful creation of Virginia Woolf; Julianne Moore goes from strength to strength in her acting career and here portrays the inner torment of Laura Brown; and Meryl Streep confirms her reputation as the finest actress of her generation with a compelling performance as Clarissa Vaughan.
But other actresses seize their opportunities too: Miranda Richardson as Virginia's sister, Toni Colette as Laura's friend, Allison Janney as Clarissa's lover, and Claire Danes as Clarissa's daughter. The men make the most of some challenging roles as well: Stephen Dillane as Virginia's husband, John C Reilly as Laura's husband, and Ed Harris and Jeff Daniels as Clarissa's literary friends.
Even the music - a relentless score from Philip Glass - is something special. But the ultimate triumph is that of British director Stephen Daldry who rises above his earlier success of "Billy Elliot" to present us with a stunning film that understandably garnered no less than nine Academy Award nominations.
Link: official web site click here
"House Of Flying Daggers"
In "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome", Tina Turner sang: "We don't need another hero". But, if the heroic reference is to Chinese cinema, another "Hero" can only be welcomed. The comparison between ".. Daggers" and "Hero" is inevitable - they have the same director (Zhang Yimou), the same genre (wuxia), essentially the same setting (historic China), and even one of the same stars (Zhang Ziyi). Again we have quite brilliant and breathtaking use of colours, composition and costumes, although here the colour-coding is not quite so obvious as in "Hero". Again we have stunning fight sequences in wonderful settings, this time in the Peony Palace brothel (an outstanding sequence), a leafy forest, a shimmering wheat field, a bamboo forest (aerial combat), and an open plain where autumn turns to winter. There is more narrative than in "Hero" and indeed the plotting is quite convoluted, as each of the motivations of the protagonists change and the love triangle swings from one character to another. The only weakness in another triumph from Zhang is the last fight sequence which is surreal, even operatic, in its endlessness and had some of the audience laughing.
The House of Flying Daggers is not a place but a movement, an opposition force to the totalitarian regime in power in China in AD 859. Two colleagues and friends, Leo (Hong Kong mega star Andy Lau) and Jin (relative newcomer Takeshi Kaneshiro), set a plot for the blind daughter of the former leader of the gang, the enchanting Mei (played by Zhang Ziyi who was introduced to Western audiences in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"). Nothing quite goes to plan and no one is quite whom they seem in a movie sometimes reminiscent of the Hong Kong thriller "Infernal Affairs" (which incidentally also starred Andy Lau). The brilliant direction of Zhang Yimou, who started his career as a cinematographer, brings to mind the celebrated British director David Lean. I believe that Lean was better at characterisation, but Zhang's use of colour and composition is superlative. Zhang was a victim of the Cultural Revolution and wants to make a series of films exploring that troubled time. This is not possible in the current political climate of China, but suggests that Zhang's greatest work may yet be to come.
"The House I Live In"
Until recently, the drug problem has been seen by many Americans as a black and brown issue and the strong emphasis on enforcement measures, with a growing use of mandatory minimum sentences, has led to a swollen ethnic prison population that, for many whites, has swept the problem off the streets and out of sight. But the availability of different drugs and the loss of manufacturing jobs has led to more white, working class men being caught up in this destruction of both personalities and communities. So, at its core, this is not an issue of ethnicity but one of poverty.
The film argues that the policies of the last four decades have failed and need to be fundamentally rethought. Drug use should be considered as less an issue of criminal justice and more a matter of public health. Many drug users are not evil or selfish but victims of poverty and deprivation who are trying to find some income where there is little employment and some solace when life is so miserable.
This is a stunning documentary that raises profound issues – and not just for Americans. It will not be an easy film to see at the cinema, so catch it on television (as I did) or buy or rent it.
"How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days"
Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson - both cute enough to look at - star in this utterly predictable, utterly fatuous romantic comedy.
"How To Train Your Dragon 2"
As a man in his sixties, I have no knowledge of the source material - the children's novels of Cressida Cowell - and had no reason see the original movie. When the sequel appeared at cinemas, however, I had charge for a couple of days of two youngsters in the family, a girl of eight and a boy of six who had seen and loved the first film. Before we entered the theatre, they explainned to me about the young viking Hiccup who had lost his left foot and his faithful dragon Toothless who had his own disability, but I was not prepared for the sheer verve and colour of this delightful visit to the land of Berk and beyond.
I have seen most of the films of talented, Taiwan-born director Ang Lee and an eclectic mix of genres they represent: following his Mandarin-language 'father knows best' trilogy, we've had English costume drama "Sense And Sensibility", middle class family angst work "The Ice Storm", American civil war drama "Ride With The Devil" and - my favourite - kung fu movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". Now surprisingly he has turned his hand to comic strip character and the result is a disappointment that one critic dubbed "grouching tiger, grumpy dragon".
Lee is obsessed with the father/son relationship, so this is an attempt to re-interpret the 1962 Marvel Comics strip and the 1970s television series into a psychological drama in which the green monster is a personification of Freud's id, while endeavouring to capture the original comic strip format in a series of split-screen episodes. However, sadly it fails on too many levels. The first hour is simply too slow and dull; much of the dialogue is hackneyed or techno-babble; in many of the scenes of conflict, one cannot actually see what is going on and, when one can, it looks silly; above all, this 15-foot, computer-generated, jumping giant is neither life-like nor that frightening.
Eric Bana ("Black Hawk Down"), as scientist Bruce Banner, and Jennifer Connelly ("A Beautiful Mind"), once again loyal partner to someone brilliant but deranged, are capable of better, while Nick Nolte and Sam Elliot - playing the respective fathers - have the kind of gravelly voices that increasingly irritate. Please don't even think of a sequel.
Link: book and film versions click here
"The Hundred-Foot Journey"
East meets West on the culinary battlefield - actually opposite sides of the road in a rural French town which explains the title. Except for an opening sequence of ethnic violence in India (when neither side is identified as Hindu or Muslim), this is a genteel, leisurely, bucolic movie with no surprises. So, the opposite of the Hollywood blockbuster and an appealing change of pace and scene.
The side of the French is led by the haughty Madame Mallory - Helen Mirren in an odd bit of casting presumably intended to give the film more box office traction - and her aide as sous-chief is Charlotte Le Bon (the pretty French-Canadian actress). They run a classical French restaurant with a Michelin star and Madame dreams of making it 'deux'.
The Indian brigade is commanded by the always impressive Om Puri whose family includes a son (Manish Deyal) with the magic touch in the kitchen assisted by the clever use of spices. They are determined to bring new tastes to this rural outpost which - unlike my habitat of north-west London - has no familiarity with the exotic concoctions of the likes of Mumbai.
So it's war of a kind, but nobody is too seriously hurt and the viewer is treated to mouth-watering visits to the very different kitchens and ingredients with some music from the two nations. An undemanding but uplifting message of cosmopolitanism with some humour and romance.
"The Hunger Games"
Following the "Potter" and "Twilight" transpositions of a series of young adult novels into a sequence of money-spinning movies, the gap in the market has surely been filled by "The Hunger Games", the first of three books from Suzanne Collins and the first of four films planned for the new franchise.
Set in the near future in a land once called North America and now named Panem, the games are an excessively grandiose and violent version of reality television in which 12 impoverished Districts are required annually to select at random one boy and one girl aged 12 to 18 who will fight to the death, leaving only one survivor, simply for the entertainment of the pampered citizens of the Capitol. There are many other films that have deployed a similar theme, the one that comes most to my mind being "Rollerball" in 1975, but this version is created with panache and appeal with a mix of splendid sets, outrageous costumes, sustained tension, and a (barely) sufficient degree of violence.
At the heart of the novel and the movie is the selfless, brave and resourceful 16 year old Katniss Everdeen - the first name comes from a plant and the second from a character in a Thomas Hardy book. She is wonderfully acted by Jennifer Lawrence who was so brilliant in "Winter's Bone" and is clearly set for stardom. Josh Hutcherson is winsome enough as Peeta, the other District 12 "tribute", and there are some colourful adult support roles from the likes of Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci.
For me as an adult viewer, the only real problem was the violence - or lack of it. In order to secure a PG13 rating in the US and a 12A rating in the UK and enable the age group at which the book is aimed to see the movie, the amount of gore had to be contained, but this takes the edge off what should be a horrific set of encounters and certainly "Rollerball" hit much, much harder on this score.
"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"
"The Hunger Games" can be compared to "His Dark Materials' - two novel trilogies that I have read and enjoyed immensely. Both were written for young adults but have crossed over into popularity with a general readership. Both are set in a world related to ours, but profoundly different, and feature a resourceful female protagonist. But, whereas (sadly) the attempt to film "His Dark Materials" started and finished with the opening novel ("The Golden Compass"), it was always clear that the movie adaptation of "The Hunger Games" was - like the "Twilight" series - going to go all the way. In fact, "The Hunger Games" films are making far more money at the box office than "Twilight" because - in my view - the themes are much more realistic and the central actress, Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, is so accomplished.
The author of the novels Suzanne Collins continues to act as an executive producer and is ensuring that the films are faithful to the books and, as long as she and Lawrence stick with the series, it can only grow and grow. In fact, since the first movie Lawrence - like the heroine she portrays - has become bigger than the Games, as she has now won a well-deserved Academy Award for "Silver Linings Playbook". Meanwhile "Catching Fire" had twice the budget of the original film and the result is superior production values.
In this very satisfying sequel, it is a year on from the opening salvo: Katniss and her co-victor (the rather weak Josh Hutcherson as Peeta) have to go on the Victory Tour, where they find rebellion is in the air, before finding themselves sucked back into the arena as a result of a particularly cruel Quarter Quell which requires all this year's Games contestants to be drawn from previous winners. There is a new Games master (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) and new murderous challenges in the gladiatorial battlefield. And, at the end of it all (almost two and a half hours later), the final line of dialogue is identical to that of the book and sets us up brilliantly for Part 3A.
"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1"
The official title of this movie is so long that I prefer to use the abbreviation "HG3A". As seems to be the pattern these days with the last novel in a series transposed onto the screen, "Mockingjay" has been turned into two works and inevitably therefore the film has a sense of being incomplete and the final sequence brings to mind the scene at the conclusion of "The Empire Strikes Back". So "HG3A" would not really work as a stand-alone movie but, if you saw and enjoyed the first two films (as I did), then you will find this third segment more than satisfying and long for the arrivel of the fourth and final episode.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has now been rescued from the Quarter Quell games by the rebels located underground in District 13, while Katniss's own District 12 has been razed to the ground by the totalitarian forces of the Capitol. The leader of the insurgents, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and the former Games master Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) want to turn the young heroine into the black-clad, weapon-wheeling poster girl of the revolution in an act of manipulation that evokes both 20th century Nazis and Communists. Indeed part of the appeal of "HG3A" is that so many characters, including Katniss herself, are complicated and conflicted.
At the heart of the franchise's great success remains the brilliant and appealing Lawrence. Just as her character Katniss has developed in confidence and authority in Panem, so Lawrence herself, over the three years of the franchise so far, has become ever more successful as an actress and, like the Mockingjay, has become a genuine celebrity.
I'm one of the few cinemagoers who sit through all the credits and, in the case of this lengthy exposition, we have a dedication to the late great Hoffman, a reprise of Lawrence's evocative version of "The Hanging Tree", and - at the very, very end - a mockingjay on fire. Meanwhile, off the screeen and in the real world, it is striking that the military coup leaders in Thailand have banned a showing of the film because opponents of the regime are using the film as a rallying focus for their cause. Truly the Mockingjay is a revolutionary character.
"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2"
The official title of this movie is so long that I prefer to use the abbreviation "HG3B". It is the fourth and final film in the transposition to the big screen of Suzanne Collins' trilogy of young adult novels - the last book has been turned into two movies - which I read years before the films started to appear. HG3B" picks up exactly where "HG3A" ended, with the leader of the rebellion by the 13 Districts against the controlling Capitol at the evil heart of Panem, the archer Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), recovering from an attempt to strangle her by a brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). As always, Lawrenece is terrific and, as her character has developed in the films, so in real life her acting career has been "Catching Fire". Hutcherson is better in this final segment as he has a more complicated character to portray. And Donald Sutherland and Julianne Moorre are both icily convincing as the presidents of Panem and the rebellion respectively. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman makes brief appearances, since the two "Mockingjay" films were shot back-to-back while he was still alive. .
This fourth movie is the darkest of them all - both literally (especially when the action goes underground) and metaphorically (when Katniss finds that she had been increasingly manipulated by those whom she ought to have been able to trust). There are no Hunger Games as such in the final novel of the trilogy but, in this last film, effectively Panem itself has become one gigantic Hunger Games as Katniss and her combat unit have to battle all sorts of mortal challenges in the form of pods and mutts. Unlike a superhero blockbuster movie, there is no long-running final battle in which good clearly triumphs over evil; instead Katniss struggles through a whole series of physical and moral challenges that result in a serious blurring of the line between good and evil. Katniss has to make some choices, both on the battlefield and in her love life, and in each case she does what she knows to be right.
This has been a satisfying franchise that has stayed faithful to the original novels throughout. The original source material told a compelling story and Collins ensured that the movies stayed true to that story. Francis Lawrence did an excellent job on the last three of the four films. Above all, the central role was perfectly cast. We may now seen the end of the Mockingjay (although there is talk of both a prequel and a sequel from Collins), but assuredly we have only just seen the beginning of the glittering career of the talented Jennifer Lawrence.
"The Hurt Locker"
This is an unusual film in a number of respects: an action movie directed by a woman, Kathryn Bigelow's first work for five years, a war movie that is non-judgmental, and a story with no real narrative arc but instead a series of more-or-less stand-alone sequences. The location is in and around Bagdad (although it was shot in Jordan) in the early part of the US occupation of Iraq (2004) and the focus is entirely on a three-man bomb disposal team: its thrill-seeking leader Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremey Renner), experienced African-American J T Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and young Specialist Owen Eldridge.
In an interview with the "Guardian" newspaper, a former bomb disposal officer with Britain's Royal Engineers commented: "This film appalled me" and "The fundamental stupidity is just staggering" - so I guess it lacks something in authenticity. But, as a movie, it works incredibly well with from the opening seconds an involved style of cinematography and such sustained tension that at the end one leaves the cinema feeling emotionally drained.
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.
Last modified on 1 November 2018
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