"Made In Dagenham" "Mad Max: Fury Road" "The Madness Of King George" "Maggie's Plan" "Magic In The Moonlight" "The Magnificent Seven" "Magnolia" "Mamma Mia!" "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." "Man Of Steel" "Man On Fire" "Man On Wire" "Man Up" "The Manchurian Candidate" "Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom" "Marathon Man" "March Of The Penguins" "Margin Call" "Martha - Meet Frank, Daniel And Laurence" "The Martian" "The Mask Of Zorro" "The Master" "Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World" "The Matrix" "The Matrix Reloaded" "The Matrix Revolutions" "Maybe Baby" "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" "Me And You And Everyone We Know" "Me Before You" "The Meddler" "Meet The Parents" "Memento" "Memoirs Of A Geisha" "Men In Black" "Men In Black II" "Men In Black 3" "Miami Vice" "Michael Clayton" "Midnight In Paris" "Midnight's Children" "Milk" "Million Dollar Arm" "Million Dollar Baby" "Minions" "Minority Report" "Les Misérables" "Miss You Already" "Mission: Impossible" "Mission: Impossible 2" "Mission: Impossible 3" "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation" "Mistress America" "Mona Lisa Smile" "Money Monster" "Moneyball" "Mongol" "Monsieur Lazhar" "Monsoon Wedding" "The Monuments Men" "Moon" "The Motorcycle Diaries" "Moulin Rouge" "Mr and Mrs Smith" "Mr Holmes" "Mr Turner" "Mrs Henderson Presents" "Mud" "The Mummy" "Munich" "Murder By Numbers" "Museum Hours" "Music & Lyrics" "My Beautiful Laundrette" "My Best Friend's Wedding" "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" "My Name Is Khan" "My Summer Of Love" "My Winnipeg" "Mystic River"
"Made In Dagenham" (2010)
Released in Britain in the week that the Equalities Act was largely brought into force, this film tells the true story of a 1968 three-week strike for equal pay which indirectly led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970. The scene of the stoppage was the Ford car works in Dagenham near east London, although the actual shooting of the factory scenes took place in a former Hoover factory in Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. At the time, Ford's Essex factory employed 55,000 men who were always involved in stoppages and strikes but this is the story of the 187 women machinists at the River Plant who were demanding regrading.
There are many fine performances here, notably Sally Hawkins (who was so impressive in "Happy-Go-Lucky") as the feisty strike leader, Geraldine James as her co-worker, Bob Hoskins as the women's shop steward, and Richard Schiff ("The West Wing") as Ford's representative from the United States, but also Miranda Richardson as the Labour Minister Barbara Castle and Rosamund Pike as a senior manager's wife. Sadly though, scriptwriter Billy Ivory and director Nigel Cole ("Calendar Girls") have made too many of the characters one-dimensional or even caricatures, especially all those who opposed the strike, whether managers, trade union officials or civil servants.
There is a lot of attention to period detail in the clothing and the music and the film's theme song, with lyrics by Billy Bragg, is performed by Sandie Shaw, herself a former Dagenham Ford worker. And there's a nice touch at the end of all the credits when an injunction from early in the film is repeated: "Everybody, out!"
"Mad Max: Fury Road"
Following "Mad Max" (1979), "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior" (1981), and "Mad Max Beyond The Thunderdome" (1985), thirty years later the same writer and director, Australian George Miller (now aged 70), offers us not so much a sequel as a re-imaging of the eponymous hero with Britain's Tom Hardy taking over the lead role from Mel Gibson. The result is a triumph. There is a plot - but it is a simple one of escape by, and attempted recapture of, the five beautiful wives/breeders of the chieftain Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne who was in the original movie as a character called Toecutter). There is dialogue - but it is minimal and Max himself is so laconic he does not even announce his name until almost the end. But never mind the story or the words, this is supremely a film with an utterly thrilling vision of non-stop action and excitement.
If the 15th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch were alive today, this might well be the fantastical nighmare that he would conjure. Shot in the glorious deserts of Namibia, this is a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by wonderfully bizarre-looking characters and incredibly-inventive vehicles with war drums and bass guitar supplementing the roar of the gas-guzzling trucks, cars and bikes. The road they race along is properly named and many characters die and many vehicles explode in a fury of conflict and conflagration with barely a pause for breath - and all achieved with the minimum of CGI. Max is aided by two very different warriors: the one-armed, feminist freedom fighter Imperator Furiosa (a shaved-headed Charlize Theron) and a bare-chested, tumour-ridden Nux (white-mouthed Nicholas Hoult) who exhibit more life than the emotionally-wasted (and mad with loss) Max.
Apparently Tom Hardy has signed on for three more "Mad Max" films which is fine by me.
"The Madness Of King George"
Never can a film script have laboured so much over the state of the stools and urine of a monarch, but then the scriptwriter is Alan Bennett - who penned the original stage play - and the king in question is George III who suffered from porphyria which is a serious illness evidenced by blue urine. Nigel Hawthorne is simply magnificent as the monarch who has already lost the American colonies and is now losing his mind, but Helen Mirren (as Queen Charlotte), Rupert Everett (as the Prince of Wales) and Ian Holm (as the king's physician) are leading members of a uniformly excellent cast, blessed with incisive dialogue. Handel's music and classic locations are the finishing touches to a quality production.
Here New York singleton Maggie is played by Greta Gerwig, an actress who can be funny and serious, pretty and plain, switching from one to the other in seconds. Her original plan is to have a baby through a sperm donor, although later in the movie she conceives (sorry for the pun) another plan involving her husband, self-absorbed academic John (Ethan Hawke in a classic verbose role), and his ex-wife, the Danish ambitious academic Georgette (the ever-able Juliette Moore). The moral of the story is that our plans often don't work out as we expect and, even when they do, it might not actually be because of us.
I think this is an under-rated movie with interesting characters and real charm. There are no action sequences or dramatic conflicts, but it is quietly engaging and insightful. Rebecaa Miller wrote and directed it from a story by Karen Rinaldi and the most intriguing relationship is between Maggie and Georgette, so some will be tempted to dismiss it as a woman's film, but I recommend it to anyone who wants something a bit more lifelike and thoughtful compared to the more traditional rom-com.
"Magic In The Moonlight"
A film written and directed by veteran movie-maker Woody Allen is always worth seeing and I had the chance to view this three weeks before it opened in the UK by catching it at a cinema in Antwerp during a short break in Belgium. The downside was that there were subtitles in both French and Dutch and, like any Allen movie, there is plenty of dialogue. But this is not the hard-hitting drama of his previous offering "Blue Jasmine" but more a return to the style of "Midnight In Paris" (both "Magic" and "Midnight" are set in 1920s France).
Here we have a romantic comedy between two entertainers: the British magician Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) and the American psychic Sophie (Emma Stone). Both deal in deception, both professional and personal, but neither it seems can escape the truth of a blossoming romance (in spite of the age difference). It is as a light and sweet as a soufflé but entertaining in an undemanding and old-fashioned way.
"The Magnificent Seven"
Just when you thought that the western was dead, you find that it was only badly wounded but still manages to struggle up from the dust. So, last year, we had Quentin Tarrantino's "The Hateful Eight" and now we have Antoine Fuqua's "The Magnificent Seven". Of course, "Seven" is a remake of the magnificent 1960 John Sturges work and one could ask why one would want to remake a classic, but then the earlier version was itself a remake of a classic, the 1954 Akira Kurosawa film "Seven Samurai". Over a half a century later, there is an audience for a decent return to the story - and this is a creditable re-visioning of the tale even if it lacks the class and style of the original.
The basic narrative is unchanged - a town terrorised by a criminal gang that seeks help from an assorted bunch of strangers - and indeed some scenes are a direct echo of the original - notably a standoff between a a gunslinger and a knife thrower - although a minor change is that the leader of the seven (Denzil Washington) is revealed at the end to have a personal motive for taking on the robber baron (Peter Sarsgaard). But this "Seven" has some new features. First, it is much more ethnically diverse with the bunch including an African-American, a Native American, a Mexican and an Oriental, while there is even a feisty role for a woman (we know she's feisty because she has red hair). Second, everything has been 'upped': the armoury is more extensive, the deaths are more numerous, and the whole thing is louder. Third, the location has moved from Mexico to the mid West and there is some stunning scenery (largely shot in Arizona).
I suspect that this is a film that audiences will enjoy more than critics will like and perhaps it is best viewed as not so much a replacement for, as an homage to, the earlier movie (we even have a snatch of the Elmer Bernstein score at the beginning of the credits).
Months before it reached Britain (why do films take so long to cross the Atlantic?), my American friend Michael Grace recommended "Magnolia" - and it proved to be a sound tip. Rarely will one see such an unusual and such a character-driven movie. Paul Thomas Anderson, who both wrote and directed "Boogie Nights", carries out the same creative tasks here in a veritable tour de force that tells the stories of a complex of individuals all inhabiting the same Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley in a 24 hour period and all connected web-like in ways that are only really clear at the end of this long (3 hours 8 minutes) but, satisfying, work.
The cutting and the camerawork are stunning, while the pacing is unusual since - like Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony - the fastest action comes two-thirds of the way through and the last third is the most thoughtful and melancholic. Anderson has collated a wonderful cast - no less than eight of them from "Boogie Nights" - and there are so many impressive performances, but Tom Cruise deserves to be singled out for an Oscar-nominated display in a most unsympathetic role.
The film is not flawless: I would have preferred quieter music and clearer dialogue at times and a couple of the scenes - involving even dying characters singing and a plague from on high - were a little too surreal. But it is an immensely thought-provoking work of great power and poignancy. So, what's it all about? Michael believes it is about "broken dreams, hopeful dreams, and maybe dreams"; I saw it essentially as about regret and redemption. Judge for yourself. And the origin of the title "Magnolia"? I still haven't a clue. Finally, quiz-time: what other film refers to the same flower in its title? Answer: "Steel Magnolias" in 1989.
I'm not a big fan of musicals, but I enjoyed the stage version of "Mamma Mia!" and, in its own way, the movie version is just as much fun. OK, the plotline is thin and contrived but the music and the dancing are so uplifting. the On the screen, British director Phyllida Lloyd - who directed the original Broadway production - is able to open out the work with soaring shots of Greek island locations. The other major difference between the two versions is the star quality of the movie.
Meryl Streep is excellent as the Bohemian Donna with Julie Walters (particularly funny) and Christine Baranski playing her friends. The male stars - Stellan Skarsgård, Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan as Donna's one-time lovers - do not really have the voices for the songs and it's just so difficult to take on board James Bond singing. In fact, newcomer Amanda Seyfried has the best voice as well as an engaging personality. The repertoire of Abba songs in this film adaptation is not identical to that in the stage show, but all the favourites are here and there are some simply joyous numbers, most notably "Dancing Queen".
This is one film where you shouldn't leave the cinema until all the credits have rolled if you want to see all the performances and hear all the music.
"The Man From U.N.C.L.E."
I'm old enough to remember viewing the four-season television series (1964-1968) and even to have seen a couple of the eight spin-off movies (again 1964-1968) and, after all this time, I never expected the concept - which seemed so much of its time - to be revived. But, with the Bond movies back to top form with "Skyfall" and "Spectre", it seems that we are ready for more spying capers. British director and co-writer Guy Ritchie has brought his trade-mark flashiness (we even have various split-screens) to produce a lively, if rather silly, piece of entertainment with more humour than tension.
Although still firmly rooted in the 1960s, what makes this film different from the television series is that it tells the origin story of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement and gives us a third (female) agent, so we have a Briton (Henry Cavill) playing an American (Napoleon Solo), an American (Armie Hammer) playing a Russian (Illya Kuryakin), and a Swede (Alicia Vikander) playing a German (Gaby Teller). I confess that to my eyes visually the film was too often too dark while tonally it was too often too light. But it might yet spawn a new cinematic franchise.
"Man Of Steel"
I'm a real fan of superhero films, so I loved "Superman" (1978) and "Superman II" (1980) and tolerated "Superman III" (1983) and "Superman IV" (1987). After an interval of 19 years, it was good to have him back and I enjoyed "Superman Returns" (2006). Roll on another seven years and what's that? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's "Man Of Steel" which could be known as "Superman 6" or "Superman Reboot 2". I was fortunate enough to see the movie at its European premiere at the Empire cinema in London's Leicester Square where the director and all the stars appeared and the audience included television personality Jonathan Ross.
After two Americans in the titular role, this time a Brit dons the cape and Henry Cavill does a splendid job, having really buffed up for the part. His costume has been given a new, darker appearance, befitting these austere times, and we are even told that the 'S' on his chest is really the symbol for hope on his home planet of Krypton and the appellation Superman is mentioned only once in this effort to strike in new directions for such an iconic figure. Another (inevitable) difference from the earlier films is that now we have a version in 3D, although I did not feel that the extra dimension added that much. A third difference is that the movie takes itself very seriously and there is none of the humour in the earlier Superman films or (much more recently) the "Iron Man" franchise.
The new version comes with some heavyweight talent behind the camera: the director is Zack Snyder ("300" & "Watchmen") and co-producer and co-writer is Christopher Nolan (three Batman movies). These two have ensured that what we have here is less a traditional super-hero movie and more a piece of science fiction with significant action on Krypton or involving characters from this planet. Plotwise it's a combination of the first two Superman movies - although it is not a straight-line narrative - but stylistically this is typical Synder with a crashing opening, stunning visuals, and a relentless pace that barely pauses for breath. Better pacing would have helped and some 10-15 minutes should have been cut from the last third of the film (just too many buildings being smashed up in the final fight between Superman and General Zod), but the work is immensely entertaining and great fun.
In front of camera, there is a galaxy of stars: Michael Shannon is suitably chilling as the mighty Zod; Russell Crowe is around as the hero's father more than you might expect, thanks to the wonders of sci-fi; Clark Kent's earth parents are played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane; and Laurence Fishburne is the editor of the "Daily Planet" with Amy Adams as his star reporter. Heck, for "The West Wing" fans like me, there's even Richard Schiff. German newcomer Antje Traue is a beautiful, if cruel, side-kick to Zod. And, once again, Hans Zimmer provides an effective soundtrack.
"Man On Fire"
All of director Tony Scott's trademarks are here: above all, his frenetic editing, but also his camera pan across a large tower, his featuring of a dog, and his keenness on casting Denzel Washington and Christopher Walken (in this case, both former CIA operatives now making a kind of living in Mexico). Washington plays Creasy, the eponymous man on fire, who reluctantly takes on a job as bodyguard to Pita, the young daughter of a Mexican City businessman - played by a preciously talented 10 year old Dakota Fanning - and learns to value his shattered life once more, only to suffer her abduction in an operation in which there are a surprising number of players, all of whom Creasy intends to rub out. This is violent, vigilante-style retribution - but it is delivered with passion and style that constantly jolts the viewer.
"Man On Wire"
On the morning of 7 August 1974, Frenchman Philippe Petit did the seemingly impossible: after six years of planning, for 45 minutes, he walked a tight rope slung between the two towers of the still-uncompleted World Trade Center, spanning the 140-foot (43 metres) gap at a height of 1,368 ft (417 metres). On 11 September 2001, terrorists perpetrated the absolutely unthinkable: they flew two aircraft into the towers, bringing them down and killing 2,750. In 2008, British director James Marsh produced the award-winning account of the 1974 feat which has gained a special poignancy in the light of the 9/11 attack.
The documentary is a mix of homemade footage of Petit's early career, some contemporary coverage of the walk, re-enactments of the entry to the towers, and extensive interviews with Petit and his key accomplices, skilfully cut together in a gripping narrative with atmospheric music by Michael Nyman and others. The amazingly colourful characters could not have been invented, most notably Petit himself whose impish facial expressions, heavily-accented English, compulsiveness and humour shine through this literally incredible tale. Neither Petit nor Marsh put a foot wrong.
Link: Wikipedia page on Philippe Petit click here
The romantic comedy is such a well-worn genre that any addition needs some kind of angle. In the this case, the plot device is a blind date which involves a case of mistaken identity. I can't say that I think of British actor Simon Pegg as a romantic lead man but he is quite engaging. On the other hand, American actress Lake Bell - whom I have not come across before - is very appealing: attractive, funny, a smile as wide as the Thames, and sporting a convincing English accent. The action takes place over just one evening and a fair bit of it centres on London's Waterloo station and South Bank which are very familiar indeed to me. So this was a pleasant enough romp which at just 88 minutes is careful not to overstay its welcome.
"The Manchurian Candidate"
The 1962 version of "The Manchurian Candidate" - starring Frank Sinatra and Lawrence Harvey - caught the conspiratorial mood of the time when so many Americans saw a commie round every corner. The current 'war of terror' might have seemed like an apposite time to attempt a remake. I've been a fan of Denzel Washington since he played Steve Biko in "Cry, Freedom" and I regard Meryl Streep as the finest actress of her generation, so the chance to see the two starring together for the first time was an attractive one. Since I'm a political animal, the vehicle of a political thriller appeared to add to the attraction. But Jonathan Demme's remake of John Frankenheimer's classic, although it has a certain style, is overall a real disappointment. Frankly it is lacklustre when it is not simply silly.
Streep gives a bravado performance as the manipulative mother of the Vice-Presidential candidate who is under external control and Washington is always watchable, but Liev Schreiber as the brain-drilled war hero and politician is robotic even when he is not 'activated'. The 'up-dating' of the story to make corporations rather than Communists the enemy is a well-worn theme, ranging from the Peter Sellers' movie "Being There" to the more recent television series "24". What this new version of Richard Condon's 1959 novel tells us is that Americans are no less fearful and paranoid than they were in the Cold War and Hollywood is no better at remakes than it ever was.
"Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom"
This is a film that is difficult to judge simply in cinematic terms since the subject is such a titanic figure in recent history, many older viewers (such as me) will have lived through most of the events depicted, and Nelson Mandela himself - the prisoner who became a president - unknowingly heightened the interest around his life by dying just weeks before the film was released. Yet, allowing for all of this, by any standards "Mandela" is a success, telling a powerful story in a honest and immensely moving manner with some outstanding acting. If it is somewhat reverential, this was to be expected, given the subject and the timing.
Unfashionably for recent bio-pics, "Mandela" chooses not to concetrate on a seminal incident in the subject's life but to paint on a huge canvas, covering many decades and lots of political events in a linear narrative that frequently deploys news clips from the time. It is based on Mandela's long 1994 biography of the same name which I bought on a visit to Robben Island and read with great admiration. British William Nicholson ("Gladiator") has done a skilful job of turning such a huge story into a manageable script and British director Justin Chadwick ("The Other Boleyn Girl") handles a complex of ingredients with genuine talent. It looks good with attention to period clothing and artifacts and use of actual sites and some breathtaking countryside (it was shot entirely on location in South Africa).
Ultimately, however, the success of such an ambitious work rests especialy on the lead actors and the casting here was inspired. Idris Elba as the eponymous hero gives a towering performance, while Naomie Harris is a revelation as the more complex and less sympathetic character of his second wife Winnie. It helps that both are not major stars - although that is now set to change - and notable that both are British actors who affect convincing accents.
This is a balanced portrayal of multi-layered characters. Mandela is represented with great respect but he is not offered to us as a saint. He treats his first wife unkindly and his support for violence is not disguised. The film really impresses with its representation of Winnie, a woman who suffered so much, hated so much, and herself caused so much injustice. Mandela is now dead but his great project - the creation of a peaceful and prosperous multiracial nation - is still a work in progress.
It was 1976 when the British John Schlesinger - himself Jewish - directed this Holocaust-themed film, written both as a novel as a screenplay by William Goldman, but it took me three and half decades to catch up with it. I found that the infamous dental torture scene was not as long as I had imagined and I was surprised at how opaque was both the purpose and the outcome of the incident. Still, it gave me an idea for a short story ...
Following the Watergate relevations, this was a time of great paranoia and the movie captures that mood with a narrative in which no character is quite whom they seem. Even the eponymous runner - the diminutive Dustin Hoffman - is not really an experienced marathon performer but merely training for a race, only to find that his athletic skills come in useful when something totally unexpected happens. In some ways, I saw Hoffman's role here as a reprise of that five years earlier in "Straw Dogs", the quiet man whom circumstances turn into a killer.
The real star of "Marathon Man", however, is Lawrence Olivier who gives a chilling performance as a Nazi war criminal with a penchant for slicing his victims. "Is it safe?" he asks. Not till the very end ...
"March Of The Penguins"
This a brilliant work made by the French director Luc Jacquet and shot in the French-owned part of Antartica. The English language version is narrated by Morgan Freeman. The 1 hour 20 minute documentary shows with wonderful cinematography the utterly amazing feat of how emperor penguins waddle on their little feet and slide on their rotund bellies in single file across the ice for 70 miles to reach their breeding grounds and then how male and female birds take turns to do what needs to be done to hatch the egg and feed the chick in some of the bitterest weather on earth.
Imagine a film with such well-known and accomplished actors as Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore plus Zachary Quinto from the TV series "Heroes". Imagine a subject as momentous as the actions that led to the most serious financial crisis in living memory. Such a work would make waves and attract audiences, right? But most people have never even heard of it, let along seen it. That's a pity, not just because it is an excellent film, but because it provides an insight into the actions and the psychology of an industry that - if inadequately regulated - threatens to destroy jobs, lives, the economy, and even capitalism itself.
The entire narrative is contained in a 36-hour period of growing tension and almost all the action takes place in a New York office block. J C Chandor both wrote and directed the work and deserves great credit for marshalling such thespian talent and using it so effectively to tell a tale which is as gripping as it is important. Cleverly he keeps the financial jargon to a minimum and presents a character-driven plot that reveals all too painfully how the 'masters of the universe' use our money to reward themselves obscene sums and suck in staff who feel compelled to sell their souls.
The publicity for "Margin Call" bills it as "based on a true story" and it is not hard to see this film as a savage critique of the people who gave us the catastrophe was Lehman Brothers. Much of the dialogue is cracking and the best lines go to the top boss played by Irons who delivers a mini-speech that would have Marx rolling in his grave:
"So you think we might have put a few people out of business today. That it's all for naught. You've been doing that everyday for almost forty years, Sam. And, if this is all for naught, then so is everything out there. It's just money; it's made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don't have to kill each other just to get something to eat. It's not wrong. And it's certainly no different today than it's ever been. 1637, 1797, 1819, 37, 57, 84, 1901, 07, 29, 1937, 1974, 1987 - Jesus, didn't that fuck up me up good - 92, 97, 2000 and whatever we want to call this. It's all just the same thing over and over; we can't help ourselves. And you and I can't control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot of money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers. Happy foxes and sad sacks. Fat cats and starving dogs in this world. Yeah, there may be more of us today than there's ever been. But the percentages - they stay exactly the same."
"Martha - Meet Frank, Daniel And Laurence"
Unusual title but predictable, if engaging, romantic comedy from Film Four. American Martha is played by Monica Potter, a cross between Cameron Diaz and Julia Roberts but obviously much cheaper. Trying to win her favours are three Brits portrayed by Rufus Sewell, Tom Hollander and Joseph Fiennes respectively. There is some good location shooting in central London - my city.
If you were an American astronaut accidently stranded alone on Mars an average of 140 million miles away from home, how would you feel? Fear, rage, despair? Except for a few four-letter expletives, Mark Watney sometimes seems as annoyed by the limited choice of music he can access as by the likelihood that he will suffocate or starve. But, listen, this is a guy who has been carefully selected and highly trained - and, what's more. he's a botanist with a huge tolerance of potatoes and a sense of humour.
I enjoyed the novel by Andy Weir and, as I read it, I thought that it would make a good film - and it does. In some respects, the movie is better than the book, thanks in good part to scriptwriter Drew Goddard: a more dramatic opening and a slightly extended ending, less science and fewer calculations, less time on Mars, and even more humour - and, of course, the music and the visuals. Visually, it is not up there with "Gravity" and I didn't feel that the 3D added much, but it does look good whether we are on Mars (actually Jordan) or in space or at mission control. And, of course, we would expect no less from director Ridley Scott who has given us such classics as "Alien" and "Blade Runner".
Some of the casting is excellent: Matt Damon as The Martian, Jessica Chastain as mission commander, Jeff Daniels as head of NASA. But other casting choices are odd: British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (whose parents are Nigerian) playing a character of Asian descent, Sean Bean as the only Brit at NASA - actually the flight director - for no apparent reason, Kristen Wiig wasted in a very minor role.
So this is not a knock-out movie like "Alien" or "Gravity" and it is a bit long, but it has the drama of "Apollo 13" and it is much more credible (and understandable) that the recent "Interstellar".
"The Mask Of Zorro"
Anthony Hopkins plays a 'retired' Zorro, the charming Antonio Banderas is his protegé, and feisty Catherine Zeta Jones discovers - and learns to love - both in this perfect family entertainment, full of swashbuckling action, good stunts and some humour. The sound is superb and, if you can't see it on the big screen (as I did first time), then try to see it on DVD (as I did the second time).
Long, slow, and rather odd. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who gave us the wonderful "There Will Be Blood", this is his film first since that success five years ago and, while some critics raved about it, most viewers will find this heavy going. Anderson has highlighted that the primary influence for the film was John Huston's 1946 documentary "Let There Be Light" and admitted that L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology served as partial basis for the character of "The Master" and his cult "The Cause".
Students of film will note some cinematic novelties in Anderson's shooting, but the stand-out features of the film are two outstanding performances: Philip Seymour Hoffman in the eponymous role as the charismatic and manipulative leader Lancaster Dodd and Joaquin Phoenix as the mumbling, explosively angry and psychologically damaged war veteran Freddie Quell, the first intoxicated with words and ideas and the second too often drunk on homemade concoctions.
"Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World"
Following his magnificent performance as Maximus, Russell Crowe is well-cast as the tough, yet tender, commander of a British warship during the Napoleonic wars - Captain 'Lucky' Jack Aubrey, a man who can have an insubordinate crew member whipped, yet make haunting music with a violin. I don't know if such multi-faceted heroes existed in real life, but this is a creation of the best-selling author Patrick O'Brian from whose first and tenth novels the story and two titles are taken. Crowe is ably supported by his co-star from "A Beautiful Mind", Paul Bettany, as the captain's friend, ship's surgeon and amateur naturalist, Dr Stephen Maturin. Strangely this is a battle movie in which only at the very end does one see the faces of the French enemy, the rest of the time a glimpse of sails and the crash of cannon balls being the only sign of their presence.
This focuses the attention on the British ship and its crew of 197. Indeed it is totally a man's world with a lingering glance being the only feminine element in two and a quarter hours. The attention to detail and the fine sets give a real sense of authenticity that makes one really feel acutely the immense privations of being at sea for so long in 1805. The sound is superb too, making me almost duck as rifle shots and cannon balls seemed to whizz over my shoulder.
Director and co-writer Peter Weir has crafted a gripping movie, but it is marred by poor pacing which contrasts adversely with a classic adventure movie like "Gladiator". After a tense opening 20 minutes, we don't see any further action against the enemy until the end, when the attack on the more formidable French ship is too quick, too confused and made to look too easy - following which there is a limp final ten minutes that ends the work on too low a note.
Written and directed by the Wachowski brothers (Andy and Larry) who made the lesbian heist film Bound [for review click here], it was clear from before release that this was a sci-fi movie that would change the face of cinema. It has perfect pacing - an exciting opening and then a steady build-up to a thrilling climax. But, most memorably, it has immense style (down to the dark glasses, long leather coats and Nokia phones), the shooting and fighting sequences are brutal yet balletic, and the special effects - especially "bullet time" - are simply breathtaking. Certain scenes - such as the shoot-out in the lobby - have become classic.
The film stars Keannu Reeves as Neo (the one - get it?) in a rather wooden performance, Lawrence Fishbourne as Morpheus who leads the resistance, and the sexy Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity for whom love ultimately conquers all. This intrepid trio lead a battle against control of humankind by Artificial Intelligence devices in a world which looks familiar but is certainly not what it seems. And what is the Matrix? Morpheus tells Neo: "The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth".
Footnote: All films have continuity errors, but "The Matrix" holds the all-time record with 151 gaffes [for details click here].
"The Matrix Reloaded"
Lock and load! The Matrix is back. We've waited four years for its return and been subject to the most intense hype since the revival of the "Star Wars" saga in 1999, so can it possibly fulfil expectations? If those expectations are realistic, then essentially it does.
No sequel could be as mindblowingly original as the first offering with the basic concept of all our world as a virtual prison or of the body-twisting, gravity-defying special effects or of the super cool characters in black leather and shades. Yet technically this is another amazingly accomplished work with some sequences - the opening one with Trinity, Neo's fight with 100 versions of Agent Smith, the conflict on the twin staircase, and above all the spectacular freeway chase - being enormous fun, even if the last looks like a video game (which, of course, much of the film's material now is).
The eroticism which was latent in the first movie is now much more explicit, possibly reflecting the complicated sexuality of at least one of the Wachowski brothers. One-time model Carrie-Anne Moss looks more gaunt this time (although more capable than ever as a fighting machine) and we have to look to another former model, the delectable Monica Bellucci who presents Neo with his most original challenge, to admire genuine feminine curves. Meanwhile the rave scene in labyrinthine Zion is an odd sequence for a sci-fi movie and looks more like a slot on MTV.
Neo's powers - already extraordinary by the end of the previous movie - have now become awesome, even God-like. Crew member Link refers to him "doing his Superman thing" and seemingly he can raise a woman from the dead. This makes him appear less heroic and more comic book. However, the main weakness of the sequel is the pretentiousness of its repeated philosophical expositions. There are already patients in American mental institutions who only speak Klingon and no doubt soon there will be some who think that "The Matrix" is a new religion. Finally, it's as well to be forewarned of the abrupt ending, à la "The Empire Strikes Back", which leaves us hanging and gasping for "The Matrix Revolutions".
Footnote : "The Matrix Reloaded" was later released in an IMAX version - which I've seen and it was mega.
"The Matrix Revolutions"
On the day that the final segment of this hugely ambitious trilogy opened simultaneously in 65 countries, I was there, eager with anticipation for a clever and satisfying denouement, but it was as I feared - visually stunning but plot-wise a real disappointment. It's still cool: the sunglasses, the long coats, the balletic fighting, the heavy armoury - but we've seen this twice before. The ferocious sentinel attack on Zion is the best part of the movie, reminiscent of the last-ditch massacre that concluded the 1969 western "The Wild Bunch", while deploying technology that seems to be borrowed (but further enhanced) from "Aliens". The titantic battle between Neo and agent Smith that ends the story is fun, but not a long way from Superman's encounter with General Zod in "Superman II".
Yet the Wachowski brothers have let us down on so many levels. Although we are spared most of that philosophising from "Reloaded", the dialogue is pathetic and The Oracle in particular spouts meaningless nonsense. The twin love stories and the heroics of the 16 year old kid are toe-curlingly trite. Lambert Wilson (Merovingian) and Monica Belluci (Persephone) are appallingly underused. There are so many loose ends (or false trails) - what was the point of capturing The Keymaker and visiting The Architect in the second segment? Above all, what does it all mean? As one character states towards the end: "It doesn't make sense". We wanted more. We deserved more.
Only read these further thoughts if you've seen the three films:
I was hoping that writers and directors Larry and Andy Wachowski would provide a neat, but clever, ending and explanation to their hugely ambitious, but somewhat self-indulgent, three movies. But, it seems to me that it's all little more than a basic, if loose, reworking of the Bible for modern times.
Neo - an anagram of (the) One - is obviously Christ and, from one movie to the next, develops God-like powers, including the ability to bring Trinity back from the dead. We are told that there have been other Ones, but then Christ was the last in a line of prophets such as Moses. When in doubt, Neo goes off on his own, in the same way that Moses went off into the desert to seek guidance. Like Christ, Neo gives his life to save humankind and at the end he is seen stretched out, as if on a crucifix, before he ascends into some kind of heaven.
If Neo is Christ the saviour, that makes Morpheus John the Baptist, the one who discovers the saviour and has the most faith in him. Presumably The Architect is God in the sense that he controls all the programs that govern both the machines and the matrix. Agent Smith must be Lucifer, a rogue program that used to be under God's control but decided to strike out on his own and create others in his own image. The Oracle - bless her - represents all the religions and cults and all the astrologers and faith healers who seem to offer some sort of explanation to concerned souls, while in truth knowing no more than anyone else. I'm not sure about Trinity - perhaps she is the Holy Spirit, the embodiment of love.
The world of the machines is the dark side of human nature, the cold, unfeeling, mechanical, manipulative part of our psyche. In this scenario, Machine City is a kind of hell. Zion is humankind at its best, free thinking and collaborative, spurning comfort and exhibiting bravery - an ascethic kind of Heaven on earth. The matrix is the seductive consumerist society in which we exhibit moral blindness, live the dreams of others, and never ask questions or challenge the system. The empty train station that we saw in the final film must be some kind of purgatory.
"The Matrix Revolutions" ends with a truce between the machines and the people - but we know that this won't last (more sequels?). Perhaps this represents the uneasy and unstable balance between good and evil that is present in every individual and every society.
For many cinema goers, the conjunction of the words 'British' and 'film' is about as promising as that of 'military' and 'intelligence' and the ignominious reception for "Honest" will have done nothing to undermine this image. However, "Maybe Baby" should recoup its £3M investment.
In my capacity as Chair of the Internet Watch Foundation, I was invited by the Post Office to a preview with various e-commerce types at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) in London. It is the directorial debut of British comedian Ben Elton and based on his novel "Inconceivable" which in turn was inspired by the infertility problems suffered by himself and his wife Sophie. Infertility is a serious business which affects a surprising number of couples, but Elton gives it a characteristically slapstick treatment with some good lines and at least a few laughs. The British have a fascination with the comedic potential of private parts and body functions (remember all those "Carry On .." films) and "Maybe Baby" comes on hard ("Oh, behave!") in that department.
Hugh Laurie plays Sam Bell, a commissioning editor at the BBC, in a role that is a little more variegated than his usual performances. Joely Richardson is his wife Lucy who displays a wide selection of sexy lingerie in an undemanding part. Various other British performers - Emma Thompson, Joanna Lumley, Dawn French and Rowan Atkinson - have cameo roles. Most of these people are much better known to British television viewers than American cinema audiences and the film may find its rightful position on the 'box' on a wet (aren't they all?) Bank Holiday weekend.
"Me And Earl And The Dying Girl"
This unusually revealing title makes it clear that we are in the territory of "The Fault In Our Stars". Indeed both films - as well as featuring a young person with a terminal illness - are based on young adult novels and in this case the author of the novel Jesse Andrews is responsible for the screenplay. Me is Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl is his best (OK, only) friend RJ Cyler, a couple of Pittsburg high school social misfits who spend an inordinate amount of time making very short, irreverent versions of famous films. But then Greg is urged by his mother to befriend the dying girl, Rachel (Olivia Cooke, the only British actor in this American production) who has an acute form of leukaemia. This is the first big screen work from Mexican-American director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and it is an odd piece which in the end proves not just quirky but moving.
Link: all the cinematic references in the film click here
"Me And You And Everyone We Know"
From its title (a line of dialogue) to its actors and (above all) to its subject matter and script, this is an independent movie for which the word "quirky" was invented. Like "Crash" - the film I saw before this one - it is set in southern California and involves several interrelated personal stories but, whereas "Crash" is full of familiar stars, "Me And You" has only one recognisable face (John Hawkes) and, whereas the mainstream movie centres on race, the indie work barely mentions it, instead focusing on loneliness and the bizarre relationships that can overcome it.
The heart of "Me And You" is Miranda July. She is the writer and the director and this is her début at both, while she plays a performance and installation artist not unlike her position in real life. One of the (many) unconventional features of the movie is that most of the adults are insecure and even neurotic, while the children generally speak and behave in a manner belying their few years. The real triumph of the film is that it features elements of sexuality that come close to being perverse, yet are dealt with in a gentle, caring, funny and ultimately life-affirming manner. The movie has won an succession of awards from film festivals and rightly so.
"Me Before You"
I have not read the best-selling romantic novel "Me Before You" by English author Jojo Moyes but I have to assume that the film adaptation of the same name is faithful to the original story since the script was written by the author herself. Some might regard it as a female movie since, as well as a woman scriptwriter, we have Thea Sharrock in her debut role as a film director. Certainly there are elements of "Bridget's Jones' Diary" and "Love Actually", but "Me Before You" has a harder edge and a tearful ending.
It is a very British story in that in it is shot in some quintessentially British locations (most notably Pembroke Castle in Wales) and it involves class - Lou Clark (played by "Games Of Thrones" star Emilia Clarke) is a young woman from a distinctly working class home with limited knowledge and experience, while Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) is from an upper middle class background and has had a stellar business career. But unusually it is a story about disability, since Will is a quadriplegic following a traffic accident and Lou is his carer. She is reluctant to take on a role for which she has no relevant experience and he is even more reluctant to have someone hired essentially to bath him in her huge smile.
The film has been criticised by disability campaign groups for what is claimed to be an unfair and unhelpful position on disability, but really Moyes is not presenting a moral stance on severe disability in general, but one possible outcome in one particular fictional story. The stars are very engaging (especially Clarke in Manic Pixie Dream Girl mode) and there is humour as well as sadness in a work that I feel deserves to be seen.
What a delight to see a film in which an older woman is the central character. No coincidence then that the writer and director is a woman, Lorene Scafari who was responsible for "Seeking A Friend At The End Of The World". The title is somewhat unkind to the well-meaning, if somewhat overpowering, Marnie, played wonderfully by Susan Sarandon who continues to shine brightly long after the days of "Thelma And Louise". In support roles, the beautiful Rose Byrne (first spotted by me in "Bridesmaids") as her daughter Lori and the gravel-voiced J K Simmons (fresh from his triumph in "Whiplash") as her knight in black leather are pitch-perfect. This is a movie which is funny, moving and insightful - a rare treat.
"Meet The Parents"
It was the idea of my son's partner that we see this comedy as a family (perhaps she's trying to tell me something?), but it was a real disappointment to us all. It may have done brilliantly in the United States, but I found the plot slight and the humour forced. We know from "Analyze This" that Robert De Niro can do comedy and we know from "There's Something About Mary" that Ben Stiller has a wicked way with domestic animals, but neither De Niro as the anally-retentive potential father-in-law nor Stiller as the earnest but unfortunate suitor of de Niro's daughter can overcome an inadequate script with too few real laughs. The humour around the name of the Stiller character (Greg Focker) is both contrived and repetitive and that concerning his ethnicity (Jewish) almost offensive.
His problem: following the rape and murder of his wife and a savage assault on him, he can no longer retain short-term memories and recalls nothing after the murder - yet he is determined to kill the man responsible. His solution: to have key facts about the case tattooed on his body and to record other information through instant photographs and written notes. Our problem: the whole film is constructed in a series of flash-backs in reverse chronological order. Our solution: concentrate on every scene when the film is rolling and then think like crazy when it's all over.
He is played compellingly by Guy Pearce who was so good in "L.A. Confidential". He might be being assisted by a bartender (Carrie Ann-Moss in a rare foray out of the "The Matrix") and an undercover police man (Joe Pantoliano who was also in that sci-fi classic). In only his second film, British Christopher Nolan - who both wrote and directed - has created a truly original work which forces us to confront the fragility of memory.
"Memoirs Of A Geisha"
Based on the best-selling book by Arthur Golden and directed by Rob Marshall who did such a fine job on "Chicago", this is a really beautiful looking movie, although it is filmed almost entirely in California with only a tiny segment in Kyoto, the real home of the geisha (which I have visited). Also it sounds good with much traditional Japanese music and additional material from the acclaimed John Williams. However, the narrative is jerky and even confusing at times, while the characters are generally small-minded and cold, making the work as a whole disappointing dull.
The memoirs are those of peasant girl Chiyo who becomes the stunning geisha Sayuri (the delightful Ziyi Zhang in her first English-speaking role). Her mentor is portrayed by Michelle Yeoh (Zhang's opponent in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), while Gong Li has a meaty role as Sayuri's rival. These three are ethnically Chinese playing traditional Japanese characters which has caused some controversy in both China and Japan, but one cannot be too purist about these things and there are plenty of Japanese actors on show - notably Ken Watanabe as The Chairman.
Ultimately what dooms the movie to lack engagement is the subject matter: the geisha is more exotic than erotic and it is a terribly unliberated, even enslaving, objectification of woman.
"Men In Black"
This film is lots of fun: a kind of "Ghostbusters" but better. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, Tommy Lee Jones (Agent K) and Will Smith (Agent J) - such a constrasting but well-cast pair - dress alike with stylish white shirts, back suits and sun glasses as the eponymous saviors of the world against all manner of aliens dreamed up by Rick Baker in this fast, slick, funny and action-packed summer blockbuster of 1997. I loved the final scene which reveals that our entire universe is seen to exist in a gaming marble used by extra-terrestrial and extra-universe creatures.
"Men In Black II"
In 1997, I enjoyed the original movie enormously and, five years later, the boys in black are back, but this is a tired and disappointing sequel. On paper, it probably looked like easy money: the same director (Barry Sonnenfeld who has a tiny, non-speaking role), the same stars (Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones with some role reversal), and some of the same creatures (Worm Guys and Frank the Pug have expanded parts). But, if there is a plot, it's as disguised as many of the aliens and, if you go to the cinema as often as I do, you've already seen many of the best bits in the trailers.
"Men In Black 3"
Film franchises normally churn out movies every two or three years, but there was a five year gap between "MIB1" and "MIB2" and then a ten year interval between "MIB2" and "MIB3". Maybe three-time director Barry Sonnenfeld was looking for another cinematic hit after spending most of his time on television work. This time, though, Tommy Lee Jones has clearly lost interest because he only appears at the beginning and the end, passing the role of his younger (1969) self to Josh Bolin in a caper which combines weird creatures with time travel. It's passably entertaining but I would have thought that the franchise has run its course if I didn't know that "MIB4" is in development.
Nobody does crime thrillers like director Michael Mann. "Heat", then "Collateral", and now "Miami Vice" secure his reputation as in a class of his own for brilliantly stylish and immensely atmospheric movies combining the urban with the criminal in a masterclass of composition.
Mann was an executive producer on the 1980s television series "Miami Vice" but, for this large screen work, fortunately he has borrowed very little besides the title itself: essentially just the location (beautiful shots of the city by night and ominous flashes of lightning) and the main characters - police officers Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell sporting a terrible moustache) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx, a little underused). Other location shooting takes place in Uruguay and Paraguay - including the fabulous Iguassu Falls - and the Domican Republic (standing in for Havana).
From the very first moments in a noisy night club to the final ferocious shoot-out in a boatyard, Mann demands and gets our attention. The dialogue is frequently inaudible or unintelligible, while the plotting is often incomprehensible or implausible, but one is carried along by the sustained tension and explosive violence of the whole thing. Not all the criminals are caught and not all the romances are fulfilled, but enough of the conventions are followed to satisfy our sense of revenge and the loose ends of the rest perhaps reflect an element of 'real' life.
Not that much is that real here: the technology and firepower at the command of Crockett, Tubbs and colleagues are not available to many law enforcement officials and the relationship between Crockett and the gang member Isabella (the beautiful Gong Li) is like something out of a James Bond movie. So this falls short of classic, but it is intelligent and satisfying and, for me, Mann's the man.
For me, knowing that George Clooney is in a film is enough to make me want to see it, even if the title gives no indication of the genre or subject. In fact, this is a thriller in which Clooney as the eponymous 'fixer' for a powerful New York legal firm is rarely off the screen and gives a performance both commanding and compelling. I'm a great believer that the opening and closing of a movie are critical and this movie could be a textbook case of how to do it. Our attention and interest are seized from the opening seconds and the conclusion is satisfyingly sharp and redemptive.
This is not an obviously commercial work: the title is utterly prosaic, the dialogue is wordy, the plot is often ambiguous and the whole production concedes little to traditional entertainment values (no car chases or shoot-outs or special effects here). Instead the viewer is treated as intelligent - someone who wants tight direction, clever photography and above all fine acting rather than showy effects.
Although it is unquestionably Clooney's film, the support performances from Britains's Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton plus that from veteran director Sydney Pollack are all excellent and such a character-driven movie would never have happened without Tony Gilroy who both wrote it and - in an immensely able début - directed it.
"Midnight In Paris"A classic film genre is what might be called the 'fish out of water' scenario where the central character is in a different country ("Crocodile Dundee") or culture ("East Is East") or planet ("John Carter") or body ("Big") or time ("The Time Machine"). Writer and director Woody Allen has used the shift in time approach in many of his films and it is central to "Midnight In Paris" where we visit both the 1920s and the 1890s. Now in his seventies, the role he would in the past have filled himself is taken by the engaging Owen Wilson, but essentially it is the same character that Allen has played so often: a writer troubled by his personal and professional lives and musing about alternative choices that he might have made or might still make. The line up of characters - both in the narrative and in the cast list - is amazing. The story features writers like Scott Fitzerald and T S Eliot, musicians like Cole Porter and Josephine Baker, and any number of artists from Picasso to Toulouse-Lautrec. The actors include Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen and Kathy Bates - with even a cameo role by the French President's wife Carla Bruni. So it is very much a film for spotting faces and names as well as listening to Allen's witty script with its constant cultural references. Indeed, in a move away from his beloved New York, the city of Paris itself is a character in the movie from the opening seconds of iconic shots of the sights in both sunshine and rain.
The message of this gentle and entertaining romantic comedy is that, instead of fantasising that a previous age or epoch was so much better, we should make the most of here and now.
"Midnight's Children"Salman Rushdie's epic novel was published in 1981 but it was not until 2003, when I was on a holiday in India, that I read this ambitious and challenging work. It has taken until 2013 - ironically the same year as the film version of another Booker Prize novel with an Indian theme, "Life Of Pi" - to reach the big screen. One can understand why, because the span of Rushie's book is enormous - so many characters and so many events over a period of 60 years - and the style is so special - his own version of magical realism - that it was clearly a huge and complicated task.
But it largely works. Obviously the film has to be more accessible and the material more manageable, but the cinematography (it was shot in Sri Lanka) and the music (the original score is Nitin Sawhney) are wonderfully atmospheric additions to the story. Immense credit must go to Rushdie himself who wrote the screenplay (as well as acting as narrator), since it cannot have been easy to simplify his own long (460 pages) and rich text, but the result is a film that is immensely faithful to both the narrative and the tone of the novel. Director Deepa Mehta - another Indian now living abroad (Canada) - has crafted a grandiose tale that is as far from Bollywood as Hollywood which means that sadly it will not have a huge audience in any continent.
Clearly the film has been made with a lot of reverance for the novel and the nation, but it lacks pace and heart. The children of the title are those born in the first 24 hours of India's independence at midnight on 17 August 1947 and Rushdie's fantastical invention is to give these children different special powers. As a film, so many characters and so much history means that there are no real stand-out performances (indeed some of the acting is weak) and the real star of the movie is India itself - an exotic charmer who promised so much and has disappointed so much.
"Milk"In 1978, San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk - the first openly gay man to hold public office in the United States - and the city's mayor George Moscone were assassinated by a fellow supervisor Dan White. This film - directed by Gus Van Sant ("Good Will Hunting") - tells the story from Milk's 40th birthday in 1970 when he was fearful that his life had accomplished too little. It is a terrific performance by Sean Penn in the eponymous role with the actor capturing the speech and body mannerisms of a gay man in an understated way that avoids caricature or stereotyping. James Brolin is also accomplished as the putative killer, unable to come to terms with a changing world. In a bio-pic of this kind where the ending is already known and so clearly signalled, the power of the film comes in its style. A mixture of actual television footage from the time and a grainy and jerky style of cinematography, the real and the reel merge almost seamlessly to present a work with a distinct documentary feel, obviously intentional and perhaps enhanced by the screenplay coming from documentarist (and former Mormon) Dustin Lance Black. If the movie rather glorifies Milk and presents an uncritical portrait of a necessarily controversial character, this is a work which is about more than one man's struggle to achieve electoral power. It is an insight into gay politics that demonstrates the prejudice that had to be overcome, the hard and repeated campaigns that had to be fought, and the compromises and deals that had to be made. In that sense, it shines a torch on politics of any kind.
Link: Wikipedia page on Harvey Milk click here "Million Dollar Arm"
Since I have little interest in sport, I would not naturally be draw to a movie - based on actual events - about the search in India for cricket bowlers who could be trained to play in the USA as baseball pitchers, following their selection in a reality television show called the "Million Dollar Arm". But it was recommended to me by a good friend and it proved to be a sound tip. No knowledge of baseball (or cricket) is needed and indeed the film is not really about sport at all, but rather an examination of how chance and opportunity can change people's lives, whether it is poor young men in India or a middle-aged man in the States.
Unlike say a sports movie such as "Moneyball" with Brad Pitt, this is not a work fronted by any stars. Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal play real-life Pittsburg Pirates players Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, while Jon Hamm is sports agent J. B. Bernstein. In an able cast, some more familiar faces - Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton, Lake Bell - appear in support roles. In a sense, the pitch for the film must have been similar to events it narrates: something that can appeal equally to audiences in the USA and India, the two most lucrative film markets in the world. It is formulaic and unoriginal but it works because it is so charming and amusing.
"Million Dollar Baby"
Clint Eastwood is a unique icon of American cinema whom I have admired even before he reached the big screen when I enjoyed his performances as Rowdie Yates in television's "Wagon Train". The longevity of his career (the first of his films as an actor was years 50 ago), the commercial success of his 58 films as an actor (whether as cowboy, cop or comedian) but, above all, the critical success of the 27 movies he has directed (especially the later work such as "Unforgiven" and "Mystic River") make him a singular figure in the cinematic firmament. In many cases, he has both starred and directed and so it is with "Million Dollar Baby" which - at the incredible age of 74 - is set to consolidate his already formidable reputation.
I went into the cinema expecting to see "Rockette" - a female version of Stallone's triumphalism in the boxing ring - but came out feeling I'd seen "Who's Fight Is It Anyway?" - a searing examination of the meaning of life and relationships. Eastwood, as the laconic and irascible boxing trainer Frankie Dunn, and Hilary Swank, as a 32 year old trailer trash waitress who wants to find herself in the ring (she put on 19 lb for the role), are individually commanding but, in their subtle interaction, they are most impressive, as she finds the father who died too early and he connects with the daughter who will not receive his letters.
The third character is a friend to each and the one who understands both from the beginning. Morgan Freeman plays Frankie's assistant Scrap in a dual role in which he is also - as he was in "The Shawshank Redemption" - the mellow-voiced and knowing narrator. Unusually for this type of movie, a considerable amount of time is focused on the training gym and the actual fight scenes are very different from "Rocky": fast, furious, and short. Indeed the fighting is essentially a metaphor for feelings and the whole work is simply a knock out.
Minions were introduced to an unsuspecting world by the two highly successful "Displicable Me" animation movies. Now I'd never seen these films before taking my four and a half year old granddaughter (who had seen at least one of them) to see this spin-off, stand-alone prequel which explains that these little yellow creatures have (apparently) been around since before humans, constantly searching for a villain to support, whether it be a T-rex dinosaur, Dracula, Napoleon or Gru (hopefully they gave Hitler, Stalin and Mao a miss). The main part of the film brings us almost up-to-date as we relocate to the swinging sixties (an era when I was a teenager, so I knew all the songs used) in London (a city where I've lived for over 40 years and my charge knows well). So it's markedly plot-lite, but utterly de-lite-ful, and my Catrin loved it."Minority Report"
The first-time pairing of director Steven Spielberg and producer-actor Tom Cruise promises something really special, but their ambitious work only partially delivers. The premise of this sci-fi movie, based on a Philip Dick short story of 1956, is that in a Washington DC of 2054 special humans called "pre-cogs" (the most important played by the androgynous Samantha Morton) can forsee future murders so accurately that a Pre-Crime Unit, with Cruise as top cop, is able to intervene and arrest the potential murderer before he kills his victim. If one can go with this bizarre idea, it's still hard to understand how, at the end of the day, the assailant apparently has a choice. There are other plot incredulties, such as how the Pre-Crime people neglect to withdraw Cruise's corneal security clearance once he himself is identified as a future murderer and goes on the run.
However, if one can overlook these plot weaknesses, a tendency to introduce unnecessary humour, and a couple of sentimental final scenes, the film has much to commend it, above all a roller-coaster action-packed ride with some sharp twists in the tale. The feel of the movie - dark, washed-out colours and hi-tech gadgetry & equipment such as a wall-screen for constructing digital evidence - and the sound of it - music from four classical composers plus John Williams - create a world reminiscent of "Metropolis" or "Blade Runner" and there are some terrific sequences such as the chase by jetpack-enabled police and a reconnaissance operation by robotic spiders. In short, "Minority Report" is going to have majority support, but the aforementioned "Blade Runner" it isn't.
As a massive film fan, my tastes are very wide-ranging, but I do have a problem with musicals. Nevertheless I was happy to take the opportunity of a private viewing of "Les Misérables" at the London office of distributors Universal - the day after the London première and a month before the UK release - because of the outstanding success of the original stage show (a run of 27 years with a total audience of over 60 million) and the surprising and impressive cast list (Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne). The showing was introduced by producer Eric Fellner of Working Title who underlined the commercial challenge of making a film in which all the dialogue is sung and the themes are so political and praised director Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech") for his insistance that every take was sung live.
The two main characters are presented in the opening seconds of a sweeping introductory sequence: the police inspector Javert (Crowe) and the prisoner 24601 Jean Valjean (Jackman) in post-revolutionary France. There follows over two and half hours with barely a spoken word which will not appeal to all cinema-goers, but the production is a triumph with Cameron Mackintosh's musical opened up by dramatic shooting on Pinewood's brand new Richard Attenborough stage and some historic English locations. If Crowe and especially Jackman are excellent, Hathaway - who lost 25 pounds and most of her hair for the role - is outstanding as the destitute Fantine and Cohen and Carter almost steal the show as the comical Thénardier innkeepers.
I'm not sure how long it will take for "Les Misérables" to recoup its investment cash-wise, but it's going to win award after award and rightly so.
"Miss You Already"
This is the archetypal woman's film - but there's nothing wrong with that, with far too few opportunities for women in the key roles in movie-making. So women fill the slots of scriptwriter (the British Morwenna Banks), director (American Catherine Hardwicke) and the two top acting positions (Australian Toni Collette and American Drew Barrymore). And the subject material is femine too: breast cancer, infertility, and female friendship. Like "The Fault In Our Stars", this is a frank exposition of what it is like to suffer cancer - in this case, with chemotherapy and its attentant sickness, tiredness and hair loss followed by headaches, vision loss, and pain. It sounds tough and it is - one the saddest film I've seen in a long while - but there is humour and warmth and superior acting which make it worth viewing this real slice of life. After all, most of us of a certain age have had relatives or friends who have suffered one form of cancer or another, some surviving, some not.
I'm a bit of a sucker for action-adventure movies like this, loosely inspired by the 1960s television series, and I enjoyed the location shooting in Prague (my favourite European city) and London (my home city). The break-in at the CIA's Headquarters to obtain the NOC (non official cover) list is really well done, but the sequence in the Channel Tunnel is rather silly. Tom Cruise and Jon Voight do well enough, but two of my favoutite French actors - Jean Reno and Emmanuelle Béart - are miscast. On first viewing, the plotting is confused and, on repeated viewing, it proves weak. In my view, the sequel was better.
"Mission: Impossible 2"
When I saw the original Brian de Palma "Mission: Impossible" in 1996, I found the plot confusing but the action sequences thrilling - and I especially enjoyed the Prague locations (because I know the city so well). In the case of "M:I 2", there is very little plot, but - thanks to director John Woo ("Broken Arrow" and "Face/Off") - the action scenes are even more explosive and even more visceral with some superb stunts and a pounding soundtrack. I could have done without the repeated use of a particular prosthetics trick, but the thrilling final bike chase sequence is vintage Woo and worth the admission price alone.
This time round, we have a very different Tom Cruise as Impossible Missions Force agent Ethan Hunt: he looks different, with his long hair flaying all over the place; he fights differently, displaying flying drop kicks at every opportunity; and he feels differently, almost immediately falling in love. Cruise can act, as we know from "Magnolia", but here his thespian talents are not really needed. However, the guy did do virtually all his own stunts and he was co-producer, so I suppose he deserves his rumoured 30% share of the profits.
I would like to have seen half British half Zimbabwean Thandie Newton ("Beloved"), as both the agent and the villain's love interest, given a more physically resourceful role and the great Anthony Hopkins is sadly underused - although he does have the best lines - as the head of the IMF. At least the Scottish Dougray Scott is suitably chilling as the renegade with an original use for his cigar cutter.
The critics have been pretty cynical about this movie - "More Tom foolery with Mr Cruise" and "Cruising on empty" were just two of the British headlines - but, when I saw the film on its opening weekend at the largest cinema in London (the Empire Leicester Square), every performance that evening was sold out and, at the end of my showing, the audience actually applauded. Sure, it's a triumph of style over performance - but what style. And, if you've had a tough week at work (as I had), it's a terrific antidote.
"Mission: Impossible 3"
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to suspend credibility and just enjoy the ride. It might help if you had previously had a minor explosion in your brain, perhaps utilising a miniature version of a device twice blown up the noses of Impossible Missions Force agents in "M:I 2". The opening is cracking and totally attention-grabbing and the action jumps from Berlin to Rome to Shanghai & Xitang with plenty of thrills and spills, although the narrative is banal when it is not confusing and the ending is limp.
Directed and partly written by J J Abrams (who has given us such fun and fascination in the television series "Lost"), there's nothing really new here and at times it's rather bewildering (indeed we never find out what the "rabbit's foot" is and why anyone would want to die for it) but, as the first summer blockbuster of 2006, it's going to win a decent return on its investment.
As agent Ethan Hawke, Tom Cruise still looks good in the part, a decade after he first made it his own, and hopefully this movie will remind his fans that there is more to the man than mad protestations of love and weird views inspired by Scientology. If he can learn to keep his mouth shut off-screen and pick more roles like "Magnolia" and "Collateral", he still has a future.
"Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol"
It was 1996 when Tom Cruise first took Ethan Hunt and the Impossible Missions Force from the small screen to the big screen and 15 years later this is his fourth outing, but he still looks good at 49. For this operation, he is accompanied by Jeremy Renner ("The Hurt Locker") as Brandt, Paula Patton as (a fair from plain) Jane, and British actor Simon Pegg as IT specialist Benji. Locations jump from Budapest to Moscow (although the Kremlin scenes were actually shot in Prague Castle) to Dubai and finally Mumbai, so neatly maximising the global appeal of the movie.
The villainy is on an epic scale. I thought that "Sherlock Holmes 2" - which I saw shortly before - posed a big enough danger: a first world war. But "Ghost Protocol" tops that by threatening the last world war. The evil Hendricks - played by Michael Nyqvist (the three Swedish Millennium films) - wants to provoke a nuclear conflagration that will wipe out all of humankind and give evolution a chance to start all over again which would indeed be homicide of a special order and render the inevitable "M:I 5" literally impossible.
The pacing of "Ghost Protocol" is furious and the whole thing is a real adrenalin rush. The scaling of the Burj Klaifa skyscraper is the highlight (sorry for the pun) and I saw the movie - before its general release - in IMAX on the biggest screen in Britain (London's BFI) which made this scene truly awesome. More than the previous three episodes, there is some humour, but the best lines go not to Cruise but to Pegg who delivers them in characteristically wry fashion. As with all the other films in the franchise, what is missing is an intelligible plot and an intelligent script and, as with the last one, the ending is weak. But, heh, Cruise is back in control.
"Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation"
Thomas Cruise Mapother IV has had a remarkable cinematic career which began 34 years ago and, after no less than 38 movies, is as strong as ever. At the very core of his success is the "Mission: Impossible": franchise which has now been running for almost two decades. Except for the sequence where he breaks into the CIA's Headquarters, I was not massively impressively by the first film, but the second and third outings were much better and the fourth was terrific. Last time, we had Cruise - who famously does his own stunts - hanging from the Burj Klaifa, the tallest skyscraper in the world, and I guess nothing was going to top that. So "M:I 5" is (perhaps inevitably) a bit of a disappointment but still cracking good entertainment.
Cruise still has star quality and still looks good at 52 (when he shot the film) and Simon Pegg as Benji has an important support role. Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames, as the other members of the IMF team, do not have much to do. Sean Harris is not a particularly scary villain, while Tom Hollander looks plain silly as the British Prime Minister. The casting revelation of the movie is the half British, half Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson who did her own stunts and is the strongest female character in any "M:I" film. Every film in the franchise has had a different director but this time Christopher McQuarrie is responsible for both direction and screenplay.
As usual, the plotting is somewhat chaotic and utterly implausible. The main problem though is that, fifth time round, we seems to have seen so much of it before and indeed there are deliberate allusions to all the previous four movies. So we are back in London (although there seems to be ubiquitous fog which hasn't been the case for 50 years); we have a another list on a memory stick (although nobody seems to use them any more); we have another impossible break-in (which manages to be possible); and there is even an (unexplained) appearance of the rabbit's foot (where were the white doves?). But, heh, it's still so much fun.
This is the third film I've seen written and directed by Noah Baumbach - the previous ones were "Greenburg" and "While We're Young" - and all his work is nothing if not quirky but refreshingly different. In "Greenburg" and "While We're Young", Ben Stiller took the lead and I felt that the female roles were underwritten. In "Mistress America" though, it is all about the women with only very minor roles for men. The reason is obvious: Baumbach's partner is now Greta Gerwig (who starred in "Greenburg") and she co-wrote the script.
Set in New York City, the story revolves around the chance relationship between free spirit Brooke (Gerwig) and the younger freshman student Tracy (Lola Kirke) who look like they are about to become half-sisters. Brooke is amusingly neurotic in the best Woody Allen style and delivers some great lines, while Tracy is both ridiculously supportive and utterly parasitic. Whether or not they become sisters in law, they are set to become sisters at heart in this rather old-fashioned, screwball comedy.
"Mona Lisa Smile"
For Hollywood, there are only two types of classroom drama: privileged students who are taught the value of independent thinking and the underprivileged who are persuaded of the empowering value of education. "Mona Lisa Smile" is an example of the first category and is very much a female version of "Dead Poet's Society". Set in America's New England in the early 1950s, liberal teacher of art history Catherine Watson (Julia Roberts) struggles to convince her clever students (Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal & Ginnifer Goodwin) that there's more to life than husband, children and home. From a distance of five decades, the targets are easy and, while this is a worthy enough movie, it has little original to say.
George Clooney and Julia Roberts are two of the most watchable stars on the planet, so to have them in the same film is a treat (echoes of "Ocean's Eleven") although, given the way the story was shot, they actually spent very little time on set together. He is Lee Gates, the host of a TV programme dispensing financial advice in the brashest manner imaginable, while she is the show's director Patty Fenn, utterly professional and super cool when the set is invaded by a simple-minded investor who has lost everything and wants murderous revenge (Jack O'Connell).
It's a pleasure to have a woman director (Jodie Foster) helming such a commercial proposition and, while the narrative is pretty predictable and the villain (Dominic West) somewhat cartoonish, this is a movie that hits hard at some serious targets - the financial markets who don't even understand their own algorithms and the media who rarely challenge seriously the casino economy - and does so in a work which manages to be both gripping and entertaining.
I know nothing about English football. I know less than nothing about American baseball. So I approached this movie - the true story of Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's - with some trepidation. A lot of the time, I had no idea what the characters were talking about, but I still enjoyed the work immensely because of a fine performance by Brad Pitt as Beane, a sharp script by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Zorkin, and the unconventional approach to what is still a sports film. The thing is the story is not about the players but about the manager, it is not about individual talent but about maximising what you can buy for limited money, it is not about winning a crucial game but about changing the game itself.
Films don't come much more exotic than this: the early life of the 13th century warlord Genghis Khan portrayed as an adult by a Japanese (Tadanobu Asano), directed by a Russian (Sergei Bodrov), with music from a Finn (Tuomas Kantelinen), spoken in Mongolian, shot in Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan, and financed by Kazak investors. In fact, it is the first part of a biographical trilogy and traces the early life of Temudjin, as he was then called, from 1171, when at the age of nine he finds his bride Börte (Monglian student Khulan Chuluun as the adult), to 1206 when in his mid-40s he defeats his blood brother Jamukhato (the Chinese Honglei Sun) to assume leadership of all the Mongols and the name Genghis which means 'supreme warrior'.
This is a dramatically revisionist work which transposes the cruel and ruthless image of the man who came to lead the largest empire in history into a loving husband who shows extraordinary loyalty to his young bride, a father who finds time to play fight with his youngsters, and a religious individual who puts great faith in 'the God of the Blue Sky' (who does him proud). Although the movie is said to be based on leading scholarly accounts, applying 21st century values to a 13th century leader about whom we know few hard facts is undoubtedly an over-correction but it does make it much easier to identify with him and see this period of history somewhat differently.
The script is rather leaden and the narrative episodic and jerky, but these weaknesses are more than compensated by great faces and costumes, stunning scenery and photography, and exciting battle scenes that deploy computer graphic as good as most Hollywood blockbusters. The blood almost literally splashes in your face and the violence is visceral in this accomplished and visually rich work that is such a refreshing change from so much that dominates the multiplex. It invites high expectations for the next two segments.
This French Canadian film was Canada's submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Academy Awards in 2012 and is a million miles away from most Hollywood fare. It is directed and written by Philippe Falardeau and based on a play by Évelyne de la Chenelière. Most of the story takes place in a sixth grade class in a Montreal school where the eponymous Algerian political refugee is taken on as a teacher in traumatic circumstances for both him and the class who each have to deal with loss and grief. Mohamed Fellag is excellent as the inspiring Bachir Lazhar, but the schoolchildren - notably Émilien Néron as the angry Simon and Sophie Néliss as the mature Alice - are amazing. A haunting work.
British films "East Is East" and "Bend It Like Beckham" have examined the inter-generational culture problems of families originally from the Indian sub-continent bringing up a family in urban England. But "Monsoon Wedding" makes it clear that one does not have to leave India to find clashes of values within the Indian family. Punjabi director Mira Nair uses the device of a large-scale arranged wedding - an event lasting some days and involving much expense, ritual and tradition - to explore a range of inter-personal relationships, skillfully woven together in a screenplay by Sabrina Dhawan.
This is a vibrant and colourful movie full of contrast: between the relative peace and affluence of the Verma family home and the endlessly noisy and teeming streets of Delhi, between the normally dry and dusty weather and the regular monsoon downpours, between the candles, flowers and saris of a joyous wedding and the discovery of awful inter-family abuse. Even the dialogue is a contrast, constantly shifting between English, Hindi and Punjabi. Finally there is something of the music and dancing that one expects of a traditional Bollywood product. In short, this is a rich and rewarding work that deserves a world audience.
"The Monuments Men"
This is a war movie with a difference: instead of being about killing men, it is about saving cultural works. Set in the second half of the Second World War, it is the loosely true story of how the Allies put together a team of art specialists - in what was formally called the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section - to don army uniform and follow hard behind combat troops as they liberated Western Europe from the Nazis. Thhe film has references at the beginning and the end to the magnificent Ghent Altarpiece which I have seen and admired - just one of millions of artefacts rescued by this operation.
There were in fact around 345 such Monuments Men (and women) from up to 17 nations, but inevitably the movie has to focus on a small number - just seven - and almost all of them are played by big name American actors including George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and John Goodman. Britain is represented by Hugh Bonneville, while France has Jean Dujardin, and for good measure we have the ever-wonderful Cate Blanchett.
So such an interesting story and stellar cast would seem to promise a high-class movie, but sadly it is a rather flawed work. The sweep is so extensive that we have a series of episodes involving different characters and locations with a lack of real narrative drive. Also the script is rather weak and the overall approach too comedic for such a serious subject. The responsibilty for both strengths and weaknesses has to be shouldered largely by George Clooney since he is director, co-producer and co-writer as well as the lead actor. I am a huge admirer of Clooney's work but this, while well-intentioned, is not his best.
In Britain, the is a particular reservation about "The Monuments Men" because the character portrayed by Bonneville - one of the two MPAA officers killed on duty - is fictional and there is no reference to the real-life British hero Ronald Balfour who was killed saving church artefacts in Cleves.
Wikipedia page on the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program click here
article on the Cambridge academic Ronald Balfour click here
There is a very early-1970s feel to this 2009 science fiction movie. This is partly because of the subject matter: a lone man in space like "Silent Running" and a psychological drama like "Solaris". It is partly because of the low-budget use of models and absence of special effects. As a slow work with only one character - astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) nearing the end of his three-year lunar stint supervising a mining project - the film will have limited appeal, but it is a commendable first effort by director and co-writer Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie).
"The Motorcycle Diaries"
This is a very different kind of road movie: South America instead of North America, Spanish language instead of English, political consciousness rather than sexual liberation. It is the tale of an eight-month, 7,000-mile trip made in 1952 by Argentinean friends Ernesto Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal), then a 23 year old medical student but destined to become a revolutionary communist in Cuba, the Congo and Bolivia (where he was killed in 1967), and Alberto Granado Rodrigo de la Serna), then a 30 year old postgraduate in biochemistry and now (as the film shows in its final moments) an 83-year old still living in Cuba. The journey starts on a 1939 Norton 500 motorbike (hence the title), which they dubbed "The Mighty One", but the vehicle proved to be something less than almighty, necessitating less personal forms of transport.
The central performances are wholly convincing and the dialogue is crisp, credible and at times quite humorous. The film looks wonderful: shot largely in a documentary style, it features location shooting in Argentina, the Andes, Chile, and Peru and cinematographer Eric Gautier evokes a wonderful sense of time and place, while the use of non-professional bit players with marvellously expressive faces creates a real sense of authenticity. Above all, Brazilian director Walter Salles and writer Jose Rivera have ensured that the political messages are subtly understated. The viewer is left to observe the grinding poverty, yet quiet dignity, of the migrant workers, the itinerant miners, and the leper victims and sense - as young Guevera obviously did - the acute sense of injustice.
This is a movie which had resonances for my wife and me. She identified with the seriously asthmatic young Guevara, since her brother died of asthma when he was 21, and we have visited several of the locations featured in the film, including Cusco, Machu Picchu, and Lima. If this deeply impressive and memorable work has a fault is that that it treats its subject a little too reverentially. Guevara is portrayed somewhat one-dimensionally as uncompromisingly honest and almost saint-like in his concern for others and there is no hint of the ferocious rages and utter ruthlessness which was to mark his revolutionary leadership.
My deep love of the cinema embraces most genres, but the musical is probably my least favourite. Yet Australia director, co-producer, and co-writer Baz Luhrmann has virtually reinvented the genre with this visual extravaganza which has furious pacing, stunning sequences and startlingly fresh versions of recent songs as well as older ones. Nicole Kidman has never looked more striking than as the French courtesan Satine, while Ewan McGregor, the writer, and Richard Roxburgh, the Duke, are fine if theatrical as the two suitors with their rival offerings of love and riches respectively. This is a movie which it's hard not to like, such is its exuberance and charm.
Link: official web site click here
"Mr and Mrs Smith"
We've certainly been here before: assassin who hides occupation from spouse ("Prizzi's Honor" and "True Lies"), spouses who want to kill each other ("The War Of The Roses"), and final shoot-out against superior odds ("Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid"). But all the shooting and explosions - leavened with much humour - make this appealling entertainment when all one wants is some mindless action and fun (it was my birthday). I guess what makes the movie is the coupling - apparently in more senses than one - of the gorgeous Angelina Jolie (in effect reprising her "Lara Croft" role) with good-looking Brad Pitt (although his haircut is somewhat severe). There are a few sharp lines in Simon Kinberg's script. Just don't look for anything subtle or orginal.
This is the world famous English detective Sherlock Holmes as you've not witnessed him in the countless novels, television series, and films that have portrayed him - except in the unlikely event that you (unlike me) have read the 2005 novel by Mitch Cullin on which this work is based. So now we find Holmes in 1947 in his dotage, suffering from serious dementia, trying to recollect the details of his last case, both to recast the original version written by Watson and to recall why it led to his retirement. Ian McKellen is simply wonderful in the eponymous role and the 76 year old actor has been brilliantly made up as the 93 year old beekeeper. The developing relationship with 14 year old Roger (Milo Parker) is nicely rendered too. The trouble is that the film is just too slow and too slight to be a hit at the box office and instead has the feel of a charming television movie to be savoured on a wet afternoon.
In assessing a bio-pic of the last third of the life of English Romantic landscape painter Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), one needs to distinguish between Turner the man, Turner the painter, and Turner the film. The man was not necessarily the most attractive of individuals, short, fat, irascible and unkind to the mother of his children, his daughters and indeed most of the women in his life; the painter was an outstanding talent (I paticularly love "The Fighting Temeraire"), but I confess that I find his later work just too wild and abstract; the film is an absolute gem.
While any movie of this quality involves the creative talent of hundreds, "Mr Turner" is the sublime achievment of a special triumvirate: the writer and director Mike Leigh, now in his 70s, who has created a piece that is much about painting as painters; cinematographer Dick Pope who has composed scenes that look as wonderful as if they were in fact paintings themselves; and Timothy Spall who gives a spell-binding performance in the eponymous role which he inhabits totally, conveying more with a simple grunt than most actors would do in a speech.
This is a meticulously researched film crafted over two years that will appeal to a particular audience: one that is discerning enough to accept its length of two and a half hours, its pace which is languid and unhurried, and its narrative which is about character rather than action and insight rather than drama. In a film with a colourful palette of acting talent, the support cast add marvellous texture to this rich work and particularly worthy of note are Dorothy Atkinson as Turner's submissive housekeeper, Marion Bailey as the love of his later life, and Paul Jesson as his loyal and supportive father.
Link: Wikipedia page on J M W Turner click here
"Mrs Henderson Presents"
This is a charming, ever so British film about the Windmill Theatre in central London that stayed open even during the Luftwaffe bombing raids. There are more than a couple of breasts on show - but it's alright because the girls don't move (by order of the Lord Chamberlain). Judi Dench is wonderful as the eponymous theatre owner, while Bob Hoskins exchanges his trademark London accent for much posher tones and "Pop Idol" winner Will Young is on hand for some jaunty singing.
An unusual title for an unusual but impressive independent film. The eponymous Mud - brilliantly played by Matthew McConaughey - is a fugitive from the law holed up on a small island in the Mississippi who is befriended by two local 14 year old boys: the trusting Ellis (Tye Sheriden) and the more taciturn Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). Writer and director Jeff Nichols offers us a view of his home state of Arkansas - the film was shot in a part of the river called Crocketts Bluff - that one rarely sees in American movies: a corner of the south where many are dirt poor and white women have names like Mary Lee (Ellis's mother), May Pearl (his girlfriend) and Juniper (Reese Witherspoon as Mud's obsession). A particular delight is the appearance of a grizzled Sam Shepard.
This is a slow movie with elements of the surreal that, at one level, is a crime story. What did Mud do and will he escape the police and the bounty hunters? At a deeper level though, it is about love as perceived by pubescent Ellis in a variety of relationships, such as that between his own mother and father, that between Mud and Juniper, and that between himself and May Pearl. He learns that love does not always run smooth. Like the river. Like life.
This movie is very derivative of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but it is still enormous fun with lots of action, plenty of humour, the odd scare, superb sound, and excellent special effects. It was written and directed with great panache by Stephen Sommers, the hero is played by American actor Brendan Fraser with a certain charm, and the feisty heroine is the English Rachel Weisz (I am a librarian!). The success of the film was a surprise to Universal, but a sequel is now in production.
Wonderkid turned Hollywood legend director Steven Spielberg makes three types of film: family entertainment ("ET", "Jurassic Park", "Indiana Jones"), action adventures ("Jaws", "Minority Report", "War Of The Worlds") and serious political works ("The Color Purple", "Amistad", "Schindler's List"). "Munich" is firmly in the last category and, in the sense that it picks up on his Jewishness, the book end to "Schindler's List". There is so much to commend this stunning work, but equally so much to cause reservations.
An examination of the Israeli secret service response to the 1972 massacre of 11 Jewish athletes at Munich, this is one of the best political thrillers in a long time, imbued with sustained tension, with some powerful action sequences, and literally exploding with mayhem and murder. The acting is of a high quality with five key roles: Eric Bana as Avner, Mossad agent and leader of the assassination team, Ciaran Hinds as the pipe-smoking planner, Mathieu Kossovitz as the Belgian explosives expert, Hanns Zischler as the German master forger, and Daniel Craig as the South African getaway driver. Each time, they - and we - doubt the reason for all this killing, Spielberg flashes back to that terrible time in Munich.
Above all, this is an honourable and worthy film that poses huge and topical questions about what leads terrorists to take innocent lives and what measures a democratic state can take to combat such terrorism before it betrays the essential values of that society and in the process corrupts those carrying out such revenge. If there was any doubt as to the contemporary force of these issues, we are reminded of them in the closing seconds as we see New York's World Trade Center standing in the background.
The major concern with Spielberg's narrative is the extent to which he has taken artistic licence with the known facts. Although the work is only said to be "inspired by true events", the constant reference to the memory of the reality of Munich and other touches such as the portrayal of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir give the impression that this is almost a drama-documentary.
Every action in the film is carried out by one group, but in fact Mosaad deployed several. The operation is represented as funded by, but otherwise out of the control of, Mossad, whereas the secret service was totally in charge. Although some things go wrong in the film's account, essentially the killings are cleverly executed and the murder of an innocent Arab in Lillehammer in Norway is never mentioned. Information on the location of the intended targets is shown as coming from an odd French family of anarchists - this is taken from the 1984 book "Vengeance" by George Jonas - but there is simply no evidence that such an unlikely faction exists.
Above all, Avner and his team are shown as increasingly troubled by their actions. However, we know from a new Atlantic Productions television documentary featuring interviews with Mossad agents directly involved in "Operation Wrath of God" that they had no doubts and exhibited no hesitation. Perhaps Spielberg is entitled to refashion the operation somewhat in order that he can raise questions and challenge us to think through the moral issues involved, but some of this is just too contrived, such as when the Jewish team find themselves sharing an Athens safe house with Arab terrorists. Also the incident with a freelance Dutch female assassin seems included simply to provide some colour and sex.
Spielberg has had critics from all quarters. From the Jewish side, he has been branded as guilty of "an incorrect moral equation" and "the sin of equivalence" because he has characters articulating the Palestinian cause. From the Arab cause, a former member of Black September has accused him of focusing on "the Zionist side alone". Even George Jonas has charged him with "humanising demons". However, the families of the athletes slain at Munich have publicly praised the work. When all is said, "Munich" is an important and brave work that really should be seen and thought about. It may be 164 minutes, but there is never a moment of boredom and rarely has a film raises such sharp moral issues in such a considered manner.
"Murder By Numbers"
Cute, doe-eyed and snub-nosed Sandra Bullock came to our attention in action movies like "Speed" and "The Net" but has become best-known and well-liked in a string of romantic comedies such as "While You Were Sleeping" and "Forces Of Nature". "Murder By Numbers" - which she produced - is clearly her attempt to strike out into tougher characterisations, since here she is a homicide investigator, seemingly with a male attitude to sex, seeking to bring to justice two amoral teenagers who think that they have committed the undetectable crime. It doesn't really work and Bullock is either going to have to find better scripts or revert to type.
This film is a strong candidate for the slowest that i have seen in half a century of movie-going. Set around the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna (which I have visited twice), at one level it is an examination of the nature and meaning of art and, at another level, a touching account of a platonic friendship between two elderly souls - a male Austrian museum attendant (played by Bobby Sommer) and a female Canadian visitor to the city in winter (Mary Margaret O'Hara). The characters move slowly and talk slowly and such narrative as there is unfolds very slowly. American writer and director Jem Cohen is trying to do something different here, but he is appealling to a very limited art house audience. And, did I say? It is so slow.
"Music & Lyrics"
I had a couple of hours to kill and this was the only movie I hadn't seen that was showing in the relevant time slot, so I didn't exactly choose to see it and my expectations were not high. Even so, I was disappointed by this limp offering of a romantic comedy. The stars are cute enough: Britain's Hugh Grant, playing a one-time performer with an 80s pop group who supplies the music element, and America's Drew Barrymore who's originally there just to water Grant's plants but turns out to be a budding lyricist. There's even some humour and wit. But the whole thing is so formulaic and predictable and the music is derivative while the lyrics are dire.
"My Beautiful Laundrette"
In 1985, this independent British film was both a critical and commercial success in spite of a minimal budget of just £600,000. It stars Gordon Warnecke and Daniel Day-Lewis as lovers in a political story written by Hanif Kureishi. Although there are some sharp insights into the influence of class, race, gender and sexual orientation, some of the acting is poor and it is not always clear what is going on. In retrospect, it can be seen as the start of Day-Lewis's stellar cinematic career (Warnecke simply went on to play bit parts in television).
"My Best Friend's Wedding"
Dermot Mulroney has a tough (but enviable) choice to make in this romantic comedy set in Chicago: should his bride be his new-found love, the delectable Cameron Diaz, or his former lover and long-time best friend, the ravishing Julia Roberts? In fact, the British Rupert Everett - gay in both 'reel' and real life - almost steals the show with a wonderfully camp, yet sensitive, supporting performance. There are several terrific song sequences before one of the girls goes off on her honeymoon.
"My Big Fat Greek Wedding"
This was the summer sleeper of 2002, a small production ($5M) that surprised everyone by winning over audiences and raking in cash comparable with the blockbusters (over $200M already) to make it the most successful independent movie of all time and (in terms of its rate of return on investment) one of the most profitable movies ever made.
American films have explored Jewish and Italian families endlessly, so it's a pleasure to focus on a different ethnicity, the Greek-American, in a romantic comedy that has much less meat than a moussaka but as much syrup as baklava. That such a work has reached our screens is down to co-producers Tom Hanks and his Greek-American wife Rita Wilson, following her enjoyment of the one-woman stage show of Greek-Canadian Nia Vardalos. There are no big-name stars, just Nia Vardalos herself as ugly duckling Toula, John Corbett as her all-American suitor, and Michael Constantine as Toula's irascible father, who thinks that everything good in life and every word in our language come from the Greeks. This is a movie for a date or a diversion and we all need more of both.
"My Name Is Khan"
My wife and I were a couple of the very few white faces in an overwhelmingly Asian audience in a north-west London cinema for this Bollywood movie which is almost entirely in Hindi with sub-titles and was shown with a traditional Indian intermission. The film is very different in both style and substance to the usual American and British work, although it is clearly aiming to be a 'crossover' between east and west so that there is no dancing or onscreen singing. For western audiences, the acting will seem somewhat exaggerated and the storyline (by Shibani Bathija) rather simplistic and sentimental, but the powerful political messages - that traditional Islam is not a threat and that Muslims are not terrorists - are very effectively communicated and deserve a wide (especially American) audience.
Shah Rukh Khan - himself a Muslim married to a Hindu - is excellent as Rizwan Khan, a Muslim from Mumbai who suffers from Asperger's syndrome, and Kajol is convincing (as well as beautiful) as his Hindu wife Mandira. These two have starred in many Bollywood movies together but this is their first pairing for some years. Shot partly in Los Angeles and San Francisco as well as Mumbai with an atmospheric score, director Karan Johar has given us an Indian film with a global reach.
"My Summer Of Love"
It took me eight years to catch up with this small, independent British film released in 2004. I was attracted to it by the subsequent success in both the UK and the USA of Emily Blunt who plays Tamsin, a free-spirited middle-class girl on summer holiday from boarding school. Her co-star is Natalie Press as working-class Yorkshire girl Mona, an actress who has had none of Blunt's subsequent fame but largely confined her roles to British television. The only other character of consequence in what is very much a two-hander is Mona's brother (Paddy Considine) who has suddenly found God in a big way, making him totally opposed to the unlikely friendship and then love between the two young girls.
The story is reminiscent of the 1994 New Zealand film "Heavenly Creatures" but "My Summer Of Love" is fictional and gentler. This erotic tale of manipulation and deception - losely based on a novel by Helen Cross - was both directed and co-written by Paweł Pawlikowski about whom we have heard surprisingly little since. In retrospect, it can be seen as a minor gem that launched the increasingly stellar career of Emily Blunt.
Many of the critics much admired this documentary but, for me, it is a strong candidate for the worst film that I've ever seen in a cinema. The work was conceived, narrated and directed by Guy Maddin, a lifelong resident of the eponymous Canadian city (which I did visit once long ago) and he has used a mixture of archive footage, re-enactments and animation - all black and white and much discordant - to present a self-indulgent portrait of the city in which one has no idea what is fact and what is fiction (presumably intentional since Maddin calls this a "docu-fantasia") and after which one is left bewildered if not outright despondent.
This is an actors' film - no special effects, no car chases, no set piece speeches, just challenging roles for serious actors with an intelligent script. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the producer and director is Clint Eastwood who has so much experience of acting as well as directing. Eastwood has taken a script based on a novel by Dennis Lehane and crafted it into an intense tale of trauma and retribution. The compelling central performances come from Kevin Bacon, Sean Penn and Tim Robbins - who were childhood friends in working-class Boston before an incident changed their lives forever - but they are ably supported by Lawrence Fishburne, Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden who bear witness to the consequences a generation later of those awful few days.
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.
Last modified on 18 February 2017
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