"Oblivion" "Ocean's Eleven" "Ocean's Twelve" "Ocean's Thirteen" "Of Gods And Men" "Office Christmas Party" "Oldboy" "Oliver Twist" "Olympus Has Fallen" "Once" "One Day" "127 Hours" "One Night At McCool's" "One Night Stand" "Only God Forgives" "Operation: Daybreak" "Orlando" "The Other Boleyn Girl" "Our Kind Of Traitor" "Out Of Africa"
Science fiction is one of my favourite film genres and I usually enjoy a Tom Cruise movie, so I was looking forward to "Oblivion", only to be sadly disappointed. A slow and sluggish first half finally comes alive only to present a series of plot twists that become ever more confusing and unsatisfactory.
Some of the scenery is suitably bleak for an apocalyptic story but the model work is all too evident. Cruise is fine, although his dialogue is pretty leaden. However, in a small cast, the two female support roles - the accomplished British actress Andrea Riseborough and the Ukrainian former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko - are underused and often reduced to whimpering "Jack! Jack!!"
The responsibility for this let-down is all too clear. Joseph Kosinski co-wrote, produced and directed the work which is based on his unpublished graphic novel of the same name. Like his previous directorial effort "Tron: Legacy", "Oblivion" looks good but lacks flesh and blood characters. There was probably a reason why the graphic novel is unpublished.
The cinematic convention is that the remake of a successful film is rarely as good as the original, but here director Steven Soderbergh has inverted that convention by taking a mediocre movie of 1960 and turning it into an enormously entertaining caper. A lot of it is down to Soderbergh's sheer cinematic verve; some of it is explained by the sharp script from Ted Griffin; but ultimately it works because of the stellar casting.
George Clooney oozes charisma and cool as Danny Ocean, a career criminal who is no sooner out of jail than, like Yul Brynner in "The Magnificent Seven", he's recruiting for a mission impossible. Few shots are fired on this escapade, though, because it all comes down to planning, cunning and sheer bravado.
Along for the fun - and it's clear that the crew really enjoyed themselves - are young stars Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, old timers Elliot Gould and Carl Reiner, and sundry others ranging from a non English-speaking Chinese acrobat to a Cockney-speaking black man, although not all the eleven gang members are well delineated. Andy Garcia is the owner of the three casinos whose $150 million is targeted and Julia Roberts is his girlfriend who - at least for Ocean - is as much a target as the money.
The plot is totally fanciful, never more so that in the suggestion that one could take possession and operate a device that would knock out the electricity of Las Vegas without either act attracting the attention of law enforcement let alone special forces. But it is all done with great panache and, as sheer entertainment, this is hard to beat.
Footnote: The movie ends with a beautiful rendition of "Claire de Lune" by Debussy. Question: which other film uses this piece classical music? Answer: the 1991 "Frankie and Johnny".
A director of the calibre of Steven Soderbergh should stay clear of a re-make, but it worked handsomely with "Ocean's Eleven", and he should avoid like the plague a sequel, as proved by the bitter disappointment that is "Ocean's Twelve".
This is all style and no substance. The style comes from Soderbergh's lively camerawork, the location shooting in Amsterdam and Rome, and the re-engagement of all the stars from the original movie plus Catherine Zeta-Jones as the twelfth character. The lack of substance comes from the absence of set-piece action and a convoluted plot that involves too many flash-backs and twists. The dialogue is poor and the music is over-loud but, above all, the whole thing is totally derivative - of the first film, of "The Italian Job" (foreign gang in Italian city), of "The Thomas Crown Affair" (male thief has relationship with female investigator), of "Octopussy" (theft of Fabergé egg), of "Entrapment" (cat burglar evading laser beams) and even "Notting Hill" (Julia Roberts playing herself).
For Soderbergh, twelve is clearly an unlucky number and he would be crazy to even think of "Ocean's 13".
At the heart of this film is a robbery that is just too easy to carry out but nets huge proceeds - and that just about describes the movie itself. "Ocean's 12" was so disappointing that it did not merit a sequel, but clearly the franchise was just so profitable that nobody could resist the temptation to milk the audience one more time.
In fact, "Ocean's 13" is not as bad as "Ocean's 12" with a much simpler - arguably too simple - plot, but it is nowhere near as good as "Ocean's 11". It is such a lazy work: the same director and the same stars back in the orginal location have just spun the wheel one more time with no thought for more characterisation or some originality. The main stars, George Clonney and Brad Pitt, are more than pretty faces, as we saw in "Syriana" and "Babel" respectively, and Al Pacino and Andy Garcia are sadly underused, with even the one female character Ellen Barkin utterly wasted.
Yet, as before, Steven Soderbergh keeps things moving along and gives us plenty of flashy scenery and camerawork, so many viewers will not notice that they've been mugged.
"Of Gods And Men"
This 2010 French-language film has an unusual subject and style. It tells the true story of nine French Trappist monks living in the monastery of Tibhirine in an Algeria torn apart by civil war (it was actually filmed in a restored monastery in Morocco) who were kidnapped and beheaded in 1996 after deciding to remain in the country in spite of the growing threats. The format is slow and reverential with little dialogue and as much chanting, while the cinematography is in muted colours but almost photographic in composition.
Director Xavier Beauvois is well-served by his fine ensemble of actors. Those who play the monks have wonderful faces and Lambert Wilson as the leader Christian and Michael Lonsdale as the doctor Luc are especially captivating in this engrossing and moving film that revives memories of a brutal incident about which there are still many unresolved questions.
"Office Christmas Party"
This is one of those rare films where the title tells you everything you need to know, so expect minimal location (a Chicago office but with a car chase thrown in) and minimal plot (inviting a potential customer to a grand party so that he can be won over to the company). This means that it all rests on the script and the actors. There are enough visual and verbal gags in a fast-moving work that every viewer is bound to find some humour here, but this will never be a festive classic.
This is not a movie which is carried by a star but instead it is an ensemble piece. The main characters are brother and sister Clay & Carol Vanstone (T.J. Miller & Jennifer Aniston) who run the office and own the company respectively and co-workers Josh Parker (affable Jason Bateman) & Tracey Hughes (gorgeous Olivia Munn) who want to seal the deal and save the office while resolving some underlying sexual tension. There are support roles for comedic actors who are best known in the USA, such as Kate McKinnon and Rob Corddry, and Courtney B. Vance brings a little ethnic diversity as the party guest.
I had never heard of this 2013 film until some years later it was recommended to me by someone whom I came across through work. Only after I had seen it did I learn that it is a remake of a 2013 South Korean mystery thriller which in turn is based on a Japanese manga comic of the same name.
The central plot device is an intriguing one: a drunken advertising executive (played by Josh Brolin) is kidnapped and finds himself locked in a hotel-style room which becomes his prison for the next 20 years; when he is eventually released, a stranger offers him his daughter's life plus a small fortune if he can identify the mystery man and his motives for the prolonged incarceration - but this has to be accomplished in two days and two nights.
The working out of this challenge involves many unlikely elements but works up to a shocking conlusion. Along the way, the film is frequently very violent in ways which are not necessary, other than the obvious referencing of the original Korean work, and not as stylish as works such as "The Raid" or "Kill Bill". Indeed it is difficult to know why Spike Lee directed this work, since it is so far removed from the rest of his canon.
I guess it's time for another film version of the Charles Dickens classic, since the David Lean work was as long ago as 1948, but it is a tough act to beat. The still-cobbled streets of Prague make for some excellent sets, although at times London here looks a little too much like an old-fashioned Christmas card.
Of course, the story is utterly familiar, although the narrative selection is different this time from the earlier movie, so the real novelty in any such production is in the performances. Young Barney Clark is adequate in the eponymous role, but it is an unrecognisable Ben Kingsley as Fagan who steals the show for me. Perhaps the Jewishness of Polish director Roman Polanski - himself an orphan as a child fending for himself in a cruel world - has ensured that Kingsley's Fagan is a more sympathetic character than would otherwise have been the case.
In short, entertaining and enjoyable, but unexceptional and not up there with Polanski's other literary adapation "Tess".
"Olympus Has Fallen"
Often Hollywood movies come in pairs, so this year (2013) we have two that, a decade or so after terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, feel able to represent an assault on another iconic American building: the office of the President. Later in the year, we will have "White House Down", but first up here storms "Olympus Has Fallen".The plot for "OHF" has topicality, since the storyline is the seizure of the White House by North Koreans who wish to facilitate the takeover of South Korea by the North and the movie was released at a time of heightened tension with North Korea threatening both the South and the USA with the launch of a nuclear missile. Beyond topicality, however, the plotting is utterly risible with nothing being remotely plausible in either military or political terms. Meanwhile the dialogue - mostly staccato and fortunately quite minimal - is pretty banal ("The United States does not negotiate with terrorists" - but, guess what?). On the other hand, on the simple level of the action movie, "Olympus" delivers with bullets and bodies galore and good pacing with a succession of twists in the tale. The hero of this quintessentially American movie is in fact a Scot who originally studied to be a lawyer (Gerard Butler as agent Mike Banning), while Aaron Eckart plays the square-jawed non-political president and Morgan Freeman - who has been a movie president in his time - gets to be acting president. Rick Yune, who is the leader of the North Korean terrorists, is actually of Korean origin. So don't look for a credible story or a decent script or distinguished acting, but enjoy a rattling action adventure in which truth, justice and the American way prevail once more - as God apparently intended. "Once"
Films do not come much 'smaller' than this 2006 offering, written and directed by the Irish John Carney and shot in Dublin with a skeleton crew in a mere 17 days on a couple of shaky camcorders. It looks dark and fuzzy and amateurish, but it has a soul, thanks largely to the warmth of the two central characters, played by the Irish Glen Hansard and the Czech Markéta Irglová, both chosen for their musical skills and not for any acting ability.
The story is very slight but life-affirming: Hansard's Guy (he is not named) getting round to recording an album one weekend - instead of delaying the project, as so many musicians do, to 'once' something or other has been done - with the support of the much younger Girl (who is also not named), in the process finding a powerful bond. Hansard and Irglová wrote and performed all the new songs.
I did not catch the film until seven years after its release by which time it had become something of a phenomenon, winning an Academy Award for Best Song and forming the basis of an award-winning musical. I'm not sure it's really that special, but it is is always good to see a poorly-funded movie make a breakthrough and it is a heart-warming little treat.
I suppose you could call this a rom-com plus. Certainly it's a romance but a slow-burning one over a couple of decades between an English couple who first hook up on their last day at Edinburgh University: Emma Morley, the working class Northerner who is sensible and sensitive but lacking in self-confidence, and Dexter Mayhew, the middle-class Southerner who is selfish and shallow until life teaches him some hard lessons. And there's comedy, although more in some clever one-liners than in situations or scenes. But there's something a bit extra. If you've read the huge bestseller on which the film is based (as I have), you'll know what's different. If you haven't read the novel, it's best that you don't know.
The movie is a faithful adaptation of the book which is to be expected since author David Nicholls wrote the screenplay, so we retain the device of revisiting the characters on the anniversary of their first meeting over a period of a couple of decades and we have some of the same sharp lines of dialogue. But the transfer to the screen doesn't work as well as I had expected, largely I think because there isn't time in a two-hour film compared to a novel of over 400 pages to develop the sense of period in each year.
Jim Sturges ("The Way Back") does fine as Dexter. It's a good role for an actor because the character changes a lot over the years and at different times he is loathsome and likeable. Sadly Anne Hathaway ("Love And Other Drugs") is totally miscast as Emma. She is too attractive for the character known to the readers of the novel and she is American instead of a Yorkshire girl. She tries with the accent but rarely comes anywhere near it. The role should have gone to someone like Carey Mulligan or Andrea Riseborough, but I suppose the producers wanted a well-known American actress to help the movie in the large and lucrative US market. It was a mistake.
In supporting roles, Rafe Spall as Emma's partner, Romola Garai as Dexter's wife and Patricia Clarkson as Dexter's mother are pleasing and settings in Edinburgh, London and Paris are appealling. So not the film it could and should have been but a bolder rom-com than most that reminds us that we need to seize the day.
In cinematic terms, this story - the true-life account of how in 2003 lone climber Aron Ralston found himself stuck in Utah's Blue John Canyon - is locked between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it is a cracking tale that would not be credible if it had not in fact happened. On the other hand, a narrative focused on only one person in one precise place, when every viewer will know the ending, is very limiting.
That it works so magnificently is down to British director Danny Boyle, whose fine work has ranged "Trainspotting" to "Slumdog Millionaire" and actor James Franco, star of three "Spider-Man" movies which could hardly be further removed from this fable. The story is 'opened up' by the incorporation of an invented encounter with two young women and access to flashbacks and hallucinations in Ralston's mind. Use of split screen, an atmospheric soundtrack, and superb cinematographer all enhance the experience.
When Ralston decides what needs to be done to live, it is tough on the viewer but ultimately this is a project that celebrates the triumph of the human spirit. In terms of sheer courage from a man alone, the only film with which I can compare "127 Hours" is "Touching The Void" (another true story) and, in terms of the static location of most of the narrative, I recall the movie "Phone Booth". But "127 Hours" - which actually runs for only 94 minutes - is a unique production.
Link: Wikipedia page on Aron Ralston click here
"One Night At McCool's"
This genre-bending film deserves to be better known because it is really good fun. Taking the essential features of a femme fatale thriller and turning them into a black comedy, scriptwriter Harald Zwart does a smart job, providing some 'laugh out loud' moments (notably the final sequence). It is cleverly constructed as three sets of confessions about the same woman: barman Randy (Matt Dillon) to a hired hitman (co-producer Michael Douglas), lawyer Carl (Paul Reiser) to a psychiatrist, and detective Dehling (John Goodman) to his parish priest. It works because of the uniformly fine acting and the ideal casting of the luscious Liv Tyler as Jewel who drives them all wild with desire while she manipulates them all to her domestic advantage.
"One Night Stand"
Mike Figgis is a fine film-maker who is never less than interesting. Here he explores sensitively the charged relationship between a Los Angeles commercials director (Wesley Snipes) and a New York 'rocket scientist' (the classy Nastassja Kinski), both married but brought together first by chance and later by sickness (Robert Downey Jnr excellent as an AIDS sufferer). Figgis adopts a very naturalist style which often makes the dialogue hard to catch but renders the lovemaking unusually tender and credible. The revelation is Snipes who gives a performance of so much more depth than his usual action roles.
"Only God Forgives"
This is a film which has utterly divided the critics, those in the "Guardian" newspaper and "Empire" magazine giving it five stars while the audience at the Cannes Film Festival booed its first screening. Most movie fans will give it a miss and many of those who brave a viewing will wonder why they bothered. For me, it was enough that the director and writer is the Danish Nicolas Winding Refn and the central character is played by the American Ryan Gosling. Two years ago, this pairing gave us "Drive" which I thought was brilliant. Sadly the revenge movie "Only God Forgives" is like "Drive" on drugs and I don't do drugs.
While "Drive" was often leisurely in its pacing, "OGF" is so slow that at times it appears to stop, hanging in mid air. While "Drive" was laconic, "OGF" is frequently near wordless with Ryan probably having the fewest lines ever spoken by a leading character in a major film. While "Drive" was at times brutally violent, "OGF" is orgiastic in its aggression, most notably in a revolting torture scene. While "Drive" had a plot and a relationship at its heart, "OGF" appears meaningless and heartless. At times, it it is hard to know if it is all supposed to be real or whether some of it is a tormented dream.
The film does have style: neon lights, dark corners, shadow patterns, long corridors, and an atmospheric soundtrack. Gosling, as the owner of a boxing club in downtown Bangkok, is a charismatic actor who can hold a scene without saying a word; Kristin Scott Thomas, as his mother from hell, looks and sounds as in no other role she has taken; and Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm alternates between sleepwalking, karaoke singing, and mutilating and murdering. Certaintly not everybody's cup of chai.
On 27 May 1942, at a tight street corner in Prague, two resistance parachutists - the Czech Jan Kubiš and the Slovak Jozef Gabčík - stopped an open top car carrying the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich with the intention of carrying out the most high profile assassination of the Second World War. The consequences - both personal and political - were enormous. Kubiš and Gabčík, together with five other parachutists, eventually found refuge in an orthodox church near the city centre, but they were betrayed by one of the other parachutists and all died in the shoot-out with the SS. My strong interest in the assassination is because it took place at the height of the wartime exploits of a Czech night fighter pilot who was my father-in-law, so that I included a couple of paragraphs about it in my biography of him, and the church in which the assassins Kubiš and Gabčík died is literally at the end of the street in which my closest Czech friends live, so that I have visited it several times.
The year after the assassination which made massive world news, Hollywood rushed out two films - "Hangmen Also Die" and "Hitler's Madman" - which gave highly fictionalised accounts of the event and its aftermath. In 1964, there was a Czech film called "Atentát" (released in English as "The Assassination"). "Operation: Daybreak" - released in 1975 - therefore was the fourth project to bring this slice of history to the big screen. Although Czechoslovakia was still under communist control at the time, the largely British movie was shot on location in Prague with the support of Czech actors and technical crew. The main source material was "Seven Men At Daybreak", written by British author Alan Burgess and published in 1966, and the director is Lewis Gilbert who helmed three James Bond films around this time. Kubiš and Gabčík are played respectively by the American Timothy Bottoms and the British Anthony Andrews, while Heydrich - a major architect of the Final Solution - is ably portrayed by the German-born Anton Diffring whose father was in fact Jewish.
Although much of the acting is merely average and most of the dialogue is somewhat stilted, unlike the earlier English-language films on this subject, "Operation: Daybreak" has an essentially accurate narrative, even if some characters are brought together and some events are invented for dramatic effect and, of course, much of the detail of the shoot-out in the church - which is especially well-done - must be speculative. For instance, the Czech who betrayed the asssasins (Karel Čurda played by Martin Shaw) was not part of the jump with Kubiš and Gabčík, while Kubiš and Gabčík did not die at the same time or in the same place in the shoot-out at the church. I have seen the film three times now and still find it evocative and moving. The bravery of the parachutists and those who supported them, the brutality of the German reaction to the assassination, and the echoes of the events through post-war communist Czecholsvakia and the democratic Czech Republic underline the worthiness of this work.
This is a stunningly original film that really benefits from a second viewing. Written and directed by Sally Potter from Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel, it was filmed on wonderful locations in St Petersburg and Uzbekistan, but is largely set in England. It narrates the varied fortunes of an individual who lives for 400 years, first as a man and then as a woman. The well-cast, adrogynous-looking Tilda Swinton is excellent in the eponymous role and rarely off the screen, sometimes making wry comments to camera. Acting, costumes, scenery and music are all impressive in this subtly feminist work.
"The Other Boleyn Girl"
The things that a man will do for love (or at least sex or a male heir) - even if he is one of the most powerful monarchs of medieval Europe. We all know that England's King Henry VIII divorced Katherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn and, in so doing, took his nation out of the Church of Rome and set the scene for the great age of Anne's daughter Queen Elizabeth.
What this movie purports to do - based on the hugely successful novel by Philippa Gregory - is tell us about the rival affections of Anne's younger sister Mary. Although all the leading characters are actual historic figures, the film - like the book - is a work of fiction, so separating the real from the reel is a tricky task.
The three central characters - all quintessential members of the English nobility - are in fact played by non-British actors who nevertheless affect convincing English accents: Eric Bana as the king and Natalie Portman as the famous Boleyn and Scarlett Johansson as the other Boleyn. Some of the support roles are particularly well-played by the likes of Kristin Scott Thomas and Ana Torrent. This stellar cast - plus wonderful costumes and a slew of splendid English locations - makes this an immensely watchable film in which, in spite of the title, Portman has the meatiest role. If only some more effort and skill had gone into the script.
Footnote: I have a lifelong love of the cinema and, throughout the nearly 50 years that I've kept a daily diary, I've recorded all the films that I've seen at the cinema, on television and on VCR or DVD and maintained a card index system to note when I've seen (or re-seen) each film. Quite accidentally, "The Other Boleyn Girl" was my 2,000th film.
"Our Kind Of Traitor"
This is an espionage thriller crafted from John le Carré's 2010 novel. It's good to see a woman director Susanna White in charge and to observe black actress Naomie Harris outside of a Bond movie, but dominating front of camera are the Swedish Stella Skarsgård as a Russian Mafia money launderer who wants out and Ewan McGregor as the holidaying academic who is chosen as the escape route. It's moderately entertaining - although I'm guessing that the novel is richer in characterisation - but both the main players come across as rather unlikely, Skarsgård as too gentle and McGregor as too gullible, and it was tough for me to hear Damian Lewis speaking in an upper class English accent when I've spent so much time watching him in "Homeland".
"Out Of Africa"
The Danish Karen Dinesen married her Swedish cousin Baron Bror Blixen and moved to Kenya in 1914 where she had a life of struggle: trying to make a commercial success of a coffee farm, suffering the humiliation of the baron's promiscuity, and falling in love with the British Denys Finch Hatton who stole her heart while fiercely protecting his own. In 1931, she returned to Denmark much poorer both financially and romantically. In 1937, she wrote the biographical work "Out Of Africa".
Sydney Pollack produced and directed this film adaptation of Blixen's life with the wonderful Meryl Streep as the Danish writer and Klaus Maria Brandauer as her husband and the handsome Robert Redford as her lover. Rather long (2 hours 41 minutes) and slow by today's standards, this is still a wonderful movie, aided by the stunning photography of wild animals in Kenya's Shaba National Game Reserve and the evocative score by John Barry.
As a massive fan of Meryl Streep throughout her long and distinguished career, I first saw the movie in 1986. I was prompted to revisit it in 2015 when my son and his family relocated to Kenya and, when visiting them, I went to Karen Blixen's house in what is now the suburbs of Nairobi. She is still remembered with such affection in Kenya that the area where she lived is now called Karen.
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.
Last modified on 20 January 2017
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