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FILM REVIEWS: S

Contents

  • "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen"
  • "Salt"
  • "Samsara"
  • "San Andreas"
  • "Sarah's Key"
  • "Save The Last Dance"
  • "Saving Mr. Banks"
  • "Saving Private Ryan"
  • "Schindler's List"
  • "Scoop"
  • "The Score"
  • "Seabiscuit"
  • "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"
  • "The Secret Life Of Pets"
  • "Secretary"
  • "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World"
  • "Senna"
  • "Selma"
  • "Sense And Sensibility"
  • "A Separation"
  • "Serendipity"
  • "Serenity"
  • "A Serious Man"
  • "Sex And The City"
  • "Sex And The City 2"
  • "Shadow Dancer"
  • "Shakespeare In Love"
  • "The Shallows"
  • "Shame"
  • "Sherlock Holmes"
  • "Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows"
  • "Shine"
  • "The Shipping News"
  • "Shooting Dogs"
  • "Shortbus"
  • "Shrek"
  • "Shutter Island"
  • "Sicario"
  • "Sideways"
  • "Silver Linings Playbook"
  • "The Simpsons Movie"
  • "A Single Man"
  • "Sisters"
  • "The 6th Day"
  • "The Sixth Sense"
  • "The Skeleton Twins"
  • "The Skin I Live In"
  • "Skyfall"
  • "Sleeping Beauty"
  • "Sleeping Furiously"
  • "Sliding Doors"
  • "Slow West"
  • "Slumdog Millionaire"
  • "Snakes On A Plane"
  • "The Social Network"
  • "The Soloist"
  • "Something's Gotta Give"
  • "Son Of A Gun"
  • "Son Of Babylon"
  • "Son Of Saul"
  • "Sound Of My Voice"
  • "Source Code"
  • "Southpaw"
  • "Spartan"
  • "Spectre"
  • "Speed"
  • "Spider-Man"
  • "Spider-Man 2"
  • "Spider-Man 3"
  • "Spotlight"
  • "Spy Game"
  • "St Vincent"
  • "Star Trek"
  • "Star Trek Into Darkness"
  • "Star Trek Beyond"
  • "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace"
  • "Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones"
  • "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith"
  • "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope"
  • "Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back"
  • "Star Wars Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi"
  • "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens"
  • "Starter For Ten"
  • "State Of Play"
  • "The Stepford Wives"
  • "Still Alice"
  • "Storks"
  • "The Story Of Us"
  • "Stranger Than Fiction"
  • "Sucker Punch"
  • "Suffragette"
  • "Suicide Squad"
  • "Suite Française"
  • "Sully: Miracle On The Hudson"
  • "The Sum Of All Fears"
  • "Sunshine Cleaning"
  • "Super 8"
  • "Superman Returns"
  • "Suzhou River"
  • "S.W.A.T."
  • "Swimming Pool"
  • "Syriana"

  • "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen"

    British actress Emily Blunt has been busy recently which suits me because I am a fan. This is the third of her films that I've seen this summer (2012). After "The Five-Year Engagement" and "Your Sister's Sister", both of which I really enjoyed, I caught up with "Salmon Fishing ..." which hooked me less. I've read the novel by Paul Torday and I was not overly impressed by this odd tale. This screen version loses some of the satirical bite of the novel (although the casting of Kristin Scott Thomas was inspired) and the ending has been made much lighter, but it is well acted - opposite the delightful Blunt is Ewan McGregor as the slighly autistic fisheries expert - and there is some good location shooting with Morocco standing in for the Yemen. Overall, though, the story is too slight and sentimental - although I suppose one must not carp.

    "Samsara"

    In a half century of serious film viewing, there are only two works that I have seen that compare to "Samsara" (2011): one is "Baraka" (1992) - which has the same director, cinematographer and writer Ron Fricke - and the other is "Koyaanisqatsi" (1982) - on which Fricke was cinematographer amd writer. Like the other movies, "Samara" (a Sanskrit word meaning "cyclic existence") is a special kind of documentary with no plot, no characters, and no dialogue but brilliant photography and mesmerising time lapse techniques. It was filmed over a period of five years in twenty-five countries on five continents, shot entirely on 70mm film, and has an original soundtrack from composer Michael Stearns.

    So this is a stunning work that looks and sounds like no other film for a decade. It forces the viewer to look at the world anew and think about our devastation of the planet, our destruction of cultures, our dehumanisation of work and our exploitation of animals, as we pursue of a life of ever greater consumption coupled with staggering inequality.

    "San Andreas"

    This is an old-fashioned work that harks back four decades which was the peak popularity of disaster movies like "The Poseidon Aventure"(1972) and "The Towering Inferno" (1974). Essentially "San Andreas" is a remake of "Earthquake" (1974) with the same phenomenon on the same faultline but this time the obliteration of San Francisco rather than Los Angeles.

    What we have in 2015 that we did not have in 1974 is CGI and there is very considerable use of this technology for scenes of massive destruction and devastation in which amazingly we see very few actual deaths. Otherwise the story is very familar: in "Earthquake", the hero was played by Charlton Heston as the oddly-named Stuart who was estranged from his wife while, in "San Andreas", the action man is Dwayne 'The Rock" Johnson as the oddly-named Raymond who is about to be divorced by his wife.

    In fact, Ray is a rescue helicopter pilot who, as soon as the earth shakes, forgets all about his professional duties so that he can command vehicles in the air, on the ground and at sea to save not just his wife in LA but his daughter in SF (Alexandra Daddario with amazing eyes). The whole thing works because it does not promise any more than it delivers: forget plot or dialogue and just enjoy the ride.

    "Salt"

    Tony Stark (aka Ironman) may have ultra-efficient aide 'Pepper' Potts but it seems that the CIA has super skilled agent Evelyn Salt (presumably an allusion to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks). The eponymous role in this spy caper is taken by Angelina Jolie who is prettier than James Bond or Jason Bourne but, in spite of being so much smaller and slighter, no less proficient if we are to believe what we see. So we have plenty of running and kicking and shooting in an action-filled movie from Australia director Phillip Noyce who has previously given us a couple of Jack Ryan adventures.

    The problem is that Kurt Wimmer's script is simply sizzle without the sausage and no amount of salt can make up for that. The plot - which ignores the end of the Cold War - is preposterous and full of huge implausibilities and impossibilities while the dialogue is leaden, so that the twist is telegraphed well in advance. There are three versions of this film: the theatrical one (which I saw) plus the director's version and the extended version. They all have different endings but the theatrical version leaves open the possibility of a sequel. Believe me: too much salt is bad for you.

    "Sarah's Key"

    In several respects, I was reminded of "Sophie's Choice" (1982) when viewing "Sarah's Key" (2010). Both films have two-word titles, a woman's name and a common noun, the subject of the noun being the pivot for the whole narrative; both deal with the Holocaust, the first based in France and the second in Poland; both involve the death of a child in particularly harrowing circumstances; both show how the events of the Holocaust cast a long shadow over post-war lives and even challenge the ability to continue living; both stories are seen through the eyes of a writer, the first Stingo who falls in love with Sophie and the second Julia who becomes infatuated with the image of Sarah; both films involve an actress at the height of her art, Meryl Streep and and Kristin Scott Thomas respectively; and both are based on novels, in the first case by William Styron and in the second by Tatiana De Rosnay.

    What is different about the immensely moving French-language "Sarah's Key", ably directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, is that it is rooted in an actual incident: the round-up of 13,000 Jews in Paris on the night of 16-17 July 1942 with their inhuman detention in the indoor cycle track the Vélodrome d'Hiver prior to eventual transport to Auschwitz from where only 25 returned. A further difference, crucial to an appreciation of the film's political impact, is that the exercise was conducted not by the Germans but by the French. As the action goes back and forth in time, more and more is revealed and, as in some of the best of stories (think of "A Tale Of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens), the final lines of dialogue are among the most poignant.

    Link: Wikipedia page on the round-up click here

    "Save The Last Dance"

    Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; well, you know the rest ... What makes this a little different is that Sara (Julia Stiles) is a white teenager from the country who used to love ballet, while Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas) is a black guy from urban Chicago who is into hip-hop, and both of them have absent parents. This enables director Thomas Carter to examine issues of race and discrimination, as well as loss and self-belief, and show different dancing styles in a movie that is utterly predictable but nevertheless engaging and entertaining. It's kind of "Flash Dance" meets "Dirty Dancing" with an element of "West Side Story".

    "Saving Mr. Banks"

    I have not read any of the eight children's novels featuring Mary Popppins and published between 1934-1988 or seen the 1964 movie musical adaptation, but I enjoyed this charming cinematic explanation of how the childhood experiences in Australia of the author P L Travers inspired the original story and how Walt Disney and his creative team struggled so long and so valiantly to bring that story to the screen. Tom Hanks never gives a poor performance and is excellent here in his portrayal of Disney, giving a moving testimony towards the end. However, this is Emma Thompson's movie because she is simply wonderful as Travers, hard yet vulnerable, cutting yet clever. The Mr Banks of the title refers to the fictional version of Travers' father Travers Goff who is played by Colin Farrell.

    Link: Wikipedia page on P L Travers click here

    "Saving Private Ryan"

    Tom Hanks leads a unit of eight soldiers - not all of whom will last the course - on a mission to find Matt Damon (Private Ryan), the last survivor of four brothers in post-invasion Normandy of 1944. Produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, this is a stunning movie - one of the best war films of all time. In the first 25 of the 170 minutes, there is the most realistic depiction of war ever witnessed on screen in a shocking recreation of the D-Day landings on Omaha beach. These scenes were actually shot in Ireland with the Irish army supplying 750 extras. The final conflict - set around a strategic bridge inland - was created on a special film lot north of London.

    These battle scenes are brutal in their realism. Yet the most moving parts of the film - as in the same director's "Schindler's List" - are the present day cemetery scenes. When the modern-day Ryan pleads with his wife: "Tell me I’ve been a good man" - as if that could make the loss of life somehow worthwhile - I was choking with tears. The visual element is powerful enough, but the sound effects are impressive and John Williams' music is terribly poignant as well. At the 1999 Academy Awards, the movie won five Oscars including that for Best Director.

    "Schindler's List"

    I read Thomas Keneally's book - actually called "Schindler's Ark" - in September 1983 and I visited Krakow and Auschwitz – where most of the events occurred - in January 1993, so I was awaiting this film keenly and saw it immediately it opened in London in February 1994. However, this was not so much the viewing of a film as the experiencing of an event. Using black and white only, a lot of hand-held shooting, and a semi-documentary style, Steven Spielberg has produced a brilliant, moving, harrowing record of the saviour of more than a thousand Jews from the Holocaust by an unlikely hero, a Polish businessman who was a bon vivant and womaniser.

    The acting - especially by Liam Neeson (the multifaceted Oscar Schindler), Ralph Fiennes (the camp commandant Amon Goeth), and Ben Kingsley (the Jewish prisoner Itzhak Stern) - is magnificent. I was chilled rather than tearful, until the end when there is a sequence in colour featuring members of Schindler's list at his tomb - then I cried.

    The conclusion reveals the astonishing fact that, while there are only 4,000 Jews in Poland today, there are over 6,000 descendants of the Jews saved by Schindler. At the end of three and a quarter hours, there was applause and in the foyer many people were red-eyed.

    "Scoop"

    I'm not a Woody Allen fan, although I have enjoyed some of his movies, notably "Hannah And Her Sisters". The problem was that I was in Paris and looking for an English-language film that I hadn't already seen and was on at a suitable time. So I tried out the latest in a long line of works written, directed, and starring the little man.

    The location was appealling - my home city of London as a change from Allen's usual obsession with New York. But, except for the Royal Albert Hall in the background, he used no distinctive London features and Allen portrays the British as upper-class caricatures. The stars were appealling too: Scarlett Johansson ("Girl With A Pearl Earring") and Hugh Jackman (the "X-Men" series). But their lines and the overall plot were terribly weak.

    This is a scoop that should have been spiked.

    "The Score"

    Directed by the man who gave us the voice of Miss Piggy (Frank Oz), the plot is entirely unoriginal: an aging professional thief is persuaded to do one last job before he plans to settle down with a younger woman and you just know that things will not go smoothly and someone is going to be double-crossed. But what makes this movie worth seeing is a few differences.

    First the pro (Robert de Niro) owns a jazz club, so we get to hear a little cool music. Next the location is French-speaking Montreal and we usually only have Canadian locations when Toronto is set up to be an American city because Canadian technicians work for lower rates.

    Above all, though, there is the intriguing casting of three terrific actors from three generations. Young Edward Norton is excellent in the most demanding of the roles; the eminently-watchable de Niro gives the kind of performance he can deliver in his sleep; while there is a rare opportunity to see the now physically inflated, but still commanding, Marlon Brando. Not anything like as good as it could have been, but still superior fare.

    "Seabiscuit"

    I don't normally enjoy sports movies and I have no interest in horseracing, but you'd have to be emotionally stunted not to be engaged by this old-fashioned, uplifting tale of a small, ungainly racehorse which galvanised 1930s America at a time of deep Depression. The account has been told before on film in 1949 with "The Story Of Seabiscuit", but it is Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book that has led to this big budget treatment from writer and director Gary Ross.

    What lifts the film above most sports-orientated films is the social and political context that it provides, reminding us of the grinding poverty that followed the Wall Street Crash with one in four Americans out of work. The familiar narrative tones of historian David McCullough, the use of contemporary photographs, and the excellent costuming and sets give the movie something of the feel of a documentary. In a a very real sense, Seabiscuit's unlikely success was a metaphor for the hope that still burned in every little man's heart.

    The seal on the work's success is its uniformly fine acting, especially from those portraying the three men who were as much healed by Seabiscuit as the horse himself was nursed by them. Jeff Bridges, as the millionaire owner Charles Howard, fits the role like a glove; Chris Cooper, fresh from his success on "Adaptation", gives another carefully measured performance as the unconventional trainer Tom Smith; while Tobey Maguire - who worked with the director on "Pleasantville" - is much better cast here than in "Spiderman" as the jockey Red Pollard. If one needed more, then a cameo appearance from William H Macey (another veteran of "Pleasantville") is superb as a manic-mannered radio commentator.

    "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"

    I loved the original film and it helped that I fall squarely in the older demographic at which it was aimed, although it was so joyous it rightly won a wide audience. Sequels rarely have the freshness of the first in a franchise but, if this is indeed 'second best', then it falls only a little short of the delight of the original outing.

    In large part, this is obviously because we have the same director (John Madden) and writer (Oliver Parker), all the same British aged hotel occupants (except the one who died), several of the same Indian characters (led by the British Dev Patel), and the same location (although we see a little more of Jaipur and visit Mumbai). An attempt has clearly been made to broaden the appeal to American viewers by opening the new narrative in the United States and introducing some American characters (played by Richard Gere and David Strathairn). This time, we even have an Indian wedding and a Bollywood-type dance sequence. What's not to like?

    In an ensemble cast, one again has to single out the two Dames: Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (both now 80) who are simply wonderful. Plotwise things do not move that much further forward: as the title suggests, Sonny (Patel) is trying to expand his hotel operations, but most of the storylines concern the efforts of all concerned to find or keep a partner or at least a renewed sense of worth. At one point, the Dench character insists: "I just need time". But then she is asked: "How much time have you have?" As long as this cast is around, I'll always have time for them.

    "The Secret Life Of Pets"

    I took my granddaughter Catrin (almost six) to see this animated movie when I was visiting the family in Nairobi. She loved it and I enjoyed it too because there are so many engaging characters and such a lot of visual and verbal gags.

    "Secretary"

    If you thought that this was a light-hearted, office-based rom-com, look away now. The subject matter is quite dark, covering mental illness, self harm and sado-masochism, although the treatment is quite light and, at times, the whole thing is verging on the surreal. There is a fair amount of sex, but most of it is not intercourse, and the nudity - although very explicit - is brief and at the very end.

    The dominant partner in this odd relationship is a lawyer called simply Mr Grey, played by James Spader who first came to prominence in another off-beat look at sexuality in "Sex, Lies And Videotape". The submissive is Mr Grey's secretary, the younger Lee Holloway, ably and bravely acted by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Both the original source material (a short story written by Mary Gaitskill) and the screenplay (written by Erin Cressida Wilson) come from women, so this is not a male fantasy but quite a subtle look at how some people need something different to achieve sexual satisfaction. Ultimately it is a tale of redemption.

    "Seeking a Friend For The End Of The World"

    If you knew that the world was going to end in three weeks time (say from a collision with a giant asteroid), what would you do? Would you indulge in casual sex, take hard drugs, go on a rioting rampage? Or would you arrange to be assassinated, go into survivalist mode, or simply continue with your job, whether as a domestic cleaner or a small-town cop? Or would you consider family reconciliation, seek out a lost love, or make a new friend of the moment? All these options are referenced by Lorene Scarfaria who both wrote and directed this humanistic movie as her debut film offering.

    The narrative takes the form of a road trip by an unlikely couple: a middle-aged insurance saleman called Dodge, played by Steve Carrel who is known for his comedy roles but here ably portrays a sensitive and serious character, and a 28 year old British girl Penny who is kookie but engaging, played by the ever-watchable Keira Knightley.

    This is a work which is not sure whether it is comedy or drama and suffers from both some unlikely scenarios (most notably that aircraft thing) and some irritating product placement (most obviously those Smart cars), so it would not be the end of the world if you missed it, but it manages to raise interesting questions in an entertaining style and grows on you more and more so that the conclusion is heart-rending.

    "Selma"

    As a result of a trip to Africa, it was a few days after the Academy Awards 2015 ceremony before I was able to see "Selma". It was terribly unfair that David Oyelowo's commanding performance as Dr Martin Luther King Jr did not obtain a nomination for Best Actor but at least "Glory" - the moving piece that accompanies the film's credits - won the Best Song award. This is not a bio-pic but instead an examination of a short but seminal time in King's struggle for civil rights and specifically the right of African-Americans to vote, so the three Selma to Montgomery marches of March 1965 come after the "I have a dream" speech in Washington DC in 1963 and before the assassination in Memphis 1968.

    "Selma" is no Hollywood blockbuster: the budget was a mere $20M, the director Ava DuVernay is a black woman whose previous work was mostly in television, and there are no big name American actors on show. Three key roles went to fine British actors: Oyelowo himself and Tom Wilkinson as President Johnson and Tim Roth as Governor Wallace, while Oprah Winfrey has a small but pivotal appearance. In all the circumstances, therefore, it is a real achievement that the movie was made at all and that it is so good.

    A major problem in representing such an iconic figure as Dr King and such a noble cause as the civil rights movement is how honest to make the narrative. King is revealed as an adulterer and a leader who sometimes made decisions which many followers found hard to comprehend, while the film shows a little of the divisions in the movement, notably between the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Overall, however, this is an inspirational film that uncomfortably holds up a mirror to contemporary America where voting rights are still being circumscribed and blacks are still being beaten and shot by the agents of law enforcement.

    Link: the marches from Selma to Montgomerey click here

    "Senna"

    This brilliant, award-winning documentary by British director Asif Kapadia tells the story of the amazing life and unexplained death of Brazilian racing car driver Ayrton Senna. Driving for four different teams, Senna managed to win the Formula One World Championship three times, along the way having a bitter rivalry with the French driver Alain Prost and a variety of incidents and controversies.

    All this - plus aspects of his personal life including his devout Catholism and support for poor children - is told through a skilful stitching together of clips from interviews, races and commentaries with no narrator so, although it is not always clear exactly what is happening, the tale unfolds like the heroics and then the tragedy of a Greek drama.

    Link: Wikipedia page on Ayrton Senna click here

    "Sense And Sensibiliy"

    Movies frequently come in twos and, in 1996, we had a couple of Jane Austen adaptations: "Emma" and "Sense And Sensibility" (published in 1813). This quintessentially English film is full of wonderful British character actors and beautiful Devonshire countryside, yet it was directed by the Taiwanese Ang Lee. Emma Thompson has done a brilliant job of adapting the story for the screen and she is excellent as the eldest daughter Elinor. Such a charming and enjoyable film from beginning to end.

    "A Separation"

    No special effects, no stunts, no car chases - and the whole thing in Farsi. How could it possibly appeal to an English-speaking audience? But "A Separation" deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

    Asghar Farhadi has both written and directed a compelling domestic drama set in a middle-class home in Tehran. At the centre of all the trouble is Nader (Peyman Moadi). His wife wants to leave the country but he feels that he must remain to look after his father who suffers from Alzheimer's disease and, when she goes to stay with her parents, he is left to engage someone to look after his father and to support their daughter who is caught in the middle of this family crisis.

    What makes this film so special is the way the narrative twists and turns so that the viewer is not sure what is coming next and who to believe. The moral confusion portrayed here is really true to life and we see a very different picture of this theocratic state than is presented in the western media.

    "Serendipity"

    I'm a sucker for romantic comedies, but even I need more substance than this. The leads are fine. I've admired John Cusack since "Grosse Point Blank" and he's cute as American newsman Jonathan. Kate Beckinsale was sweet in "Pearl Harbor" and is charming as English therapist Sara. The main problems are the script which is weak and the narrative which is almost non-existent. Finally it doesn't help that the nature of the plot - if that's not too strong a word in this context - means that the principals spend too little screen time together. Perhaps the best that can be said for this film is that it will make the word 'serendipity' better understood (fortunate, but chance, discovery), but I bet you don't know it's origin (it was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole and is derived from the ancient name for Sri Lanka).

    "Serenity"

    This is a sci-fi movie with a sense of humour, starting with the title which is the name of the spaceship that sees so little peace that, at the end of the escapade, the lettering has to be repainted - and that's the easiest bit to repair. The ship is a rough-looking affair that reminds one of the Millenium Falcon and indeed it is captained by good-looking and witty, seat-of-the-pants type Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) who owes a good deal to Han Solo. Fillion is just one a cast of young, relatively unknown actors from the original television series who acquit themselves well on the big screen in a thoroughly entertaining and fast-moving work that tightly and rightly keeps itself to two hours, so that you're left wanting more (it has sequel written all over it).

    Written and directed by Joss Whedon, this is a re-launch of a short-lived television series called "Firefly", so the film has a back story which is barely alluded to which, at first is a little confusing but, soon becomes irrelevant, such is the pacing and action. Whedon was the creator of "Buffy, The Vampire Slayer" and the teenage telepathic River Tam (former ballerina Summer Glau) owes something of her inspiration to Buffy as a girl with extraordinary powers and a unique talent for looking after herself in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

    "A Serious Man"

    "The Book Of Job" meets "Fiddler On The Roof" in this very Jewish, very funny, very opaque and thought-provoking work from brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. There is never a boring moment in a superb movie which opens with a Yiddish-language tale set in 19th century Poland, works through one personal problem after another after another, three anxiety dreams and three encounters with rabbis with ever-larger reputations for wisdom and ever more gnomic utterances, and concludes with a final joke in the very last screen of credits. The Coen brothers have gone back to their adolescent years with a narrative set in a Jewish community in Minnesota in 1967 which dissects the Semitic lifestyle and belief system while posing challenging questions about duality and uncertainty.

    The eponymous character is played by the previously unheralded Michael Stuhlbarg who is rarely off the screen and who, as the hapless Larry Gopnick, (most of the time) demonstrates remarkable patience and resilience in the face of repeated assaults on his efforts as a husband, father, brother, and teacher while he attempts to be "a serious man". It is a kind of Kafkaresque dreamworld with a cruel sense of humour where nothing works out quite as it should and the end brings both a physical and metaphorical storm. You'll be debating the meaning of it all long after you've enjoyed its richly-layered story, but the Coen brothers themselves offer - with a heavy dose of irony - the advice of the wise 12th century Jewish scholar Rashi: "Receive with simplicity all the things that happen to you".

    "Sex And The City"

    As a 60-year old male, I'm certainly not in the demographic at which this movie is primarily aimed, but my wife gave me permission to see it with a 37-year old female friend who most certainly is - and we both thoroughly enjoyed it. The series ran for six seasons from 1998 to 2004 and cleverly the film picks up the story four years later: Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker who is also co-producer) is back with Big, Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) has beaten cancer, Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) has an adopted Chinese child, and Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) is struggling to balance parenthood and marriage. Over the period of a year, much will change but the core of their friendship will remain undimmed.

    Director Patrick King has written a warm and witty script that offers much humour as well as some pain. Most of the action is of course in New York where the girls are searching for love, labels and lunches, while Samantha is based in Los Angeles and - less successfully - there's a holiday of sorts in Mexico. The acting is engaging and the four leads are joined by some interesting support actresses such as Jennifer Hudson as Carrie's PA and Candice Bergen as her editor. Let's face it: Hollywood so rarely gives lead roles to women over 40 - let alone a quartet in the same movie - or show life after marriage and children, so it's a delight to have such a work and see it connect so strongly with its audience. It may not be feminism but it's fun.

    "Sex And The City 2"

    The six seasons of the television series were ground-breaking and the first film was lots of fun, but this disappointing and over-long sequel suggests that the franchise should perhaps be retired (but don't bet on it). Inevitably there is less sex when three of the principals are married, two of them have children and one is battling against the onset of the menopause. In this instance, there's also much less of the city as the girls are flown out to Abu Dhabi (actually Morocco) for much of the movie.

    Two years on both in the real and the reel world, the quartet is still looking good: Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie (aka Mrs Big), Kim Cattrall as Samanatha (not afraid to be her age at 53), Kristin Davis as Charlotte (my favourite for BF), and Cynthia Nixon as Miranda (aka the other one). And they have some great outfits. Brief cameos come from Liza Minnelli, Penelope Cruz and Miley Cyrus.

    The problem is the script: in spite of some good one-liners, too many of the jokes are simply crude, there is trivialisation of Islamic tradition boarding on the racist, and we suffer the thinnest and silliest of plots that totally fails to engage (if you find yourself kissing an ex, don't tell your current partner). As with the original film, both writing and direction comes from Michael Patrick King so, if there is to be a "SATC3", someone fresh at the helm would be advisable.

    "Shadow Dancer"

    There have been almost 40 films that have centred on or alluded to the 'troubles' in Northern Ireland, but I have deliberately missed most of them, partly because for four years in the early 1970s I was professionally involved in Northern Ireland policy (so the works are too close to home) and partly because most such films are unremittingly miserable. However, close friends invited me to join them in seeing "Shadow Dancer" at the Tricycle cinema in north London's Kilburn which is home to a large Irish community and I went along. The good news is that it is a well-made and well-acted film with sustained tension and clever plot twists. The bad news is that it is unremittingly miserable.

    Any cinematic work is an ensemble piece, but this one owes its success to two people in particular. The first is Tom Bradby who was a television journalist in Northern Ireland during the 1990s (the period in which the film is set), wrote the novel on which the film is based and had to labour to have it published, and finished up writing the screenplay for the film itself. The second is Andrea Riseborough who plays the central character of Colette McVeigh, a young mother who works for the Provisonal IRA but who is forced to become an MI5 informer. I have followed Riseborough through her early television work, such as "Party Animals" and "The Devil's Whore", and her early cinematic roles, such as "Never Let Me Go" and "Made In Dagenham", and i believe that she has a major career ahead of her.

    "Shadow Dancer, directed by James Marsh of "Man On Wire", has a very distinctive look: all bleached out colours (except oddly for Colette's bright red coat) and tight shots on character's faces. The dialogue is quite sparse and the accents not always easy to catch, but the narrative demands constant attention if one is to savour the detail and the deception.

    Link: how Tom Bradby brought "Shadow Dancer" to the screen click here

    "Shakespeare In Love"

    This is directed by John Madden ("Mrs Brown", co-produced by Edward Zwick ("Something") and cleverly written by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. It is an excellent romantic comedy set in 1593 London, as William Shakespeare - played by Joseph Fiennes ("Elizabeth") - struggles with writers' block over what eventually becomes "Romeo And Juliet". His inspiration and love is Viola de Lesseps portrayed by the luminescent Gwyneth Paltrow in her third role calling for an English accent (after "Emma" and "Sliding Doors"). This is Shakespeare as we've never seen him before with a script that fairly crackles with jokes ranging from the modern to the literary.

    "The Shallows"

    This is a classic example of what might be called minimalist cinema - a minimum of locations, characters, dialogue and plot - but it works really well. Virtually all of the film takes place in the shallow waters off an idyllic but isolated beach in Mexico (actualy shot in Australia) as a female American surfer (played by Blake Lively) finds herself terrorised by a huge shark with only a small rock for refuge. Think "All Is Lost" meets "Jaws" with a flavour of "127 Hours" and you'll have the idea. Lively does really well to hold the movie almost single-handedly, while Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra does an excellent job maintaining the tension and serving up the action for an economical 86 minutes.

    "Shame"

    Ireland's Michael Fassbender is a terrific actor and Britain's Carey Mulligan is enormously talented, so I suppose you have to give both them special credit for being willing to exhibit full frontal nudity as American brother and sister in this dark tale of one man's sexual addiction. The British Steve McQueen, who both directed and co-wrote the work, has located his film in New York City and his style is slow and shapeless with not much dialogue and even less narrative - we know nothing about why the brother and sister are so damaged and are offered no suggestion of redemption or resolution. Rarely has a film shown so much sex with so little excitement. Don't watch this movie when you're depressed; it will probably make you suicidal.

    "Sherlock Holmes"

    This is not the 221b Baker Street sleuth as we are used to him, but instead a character who is as muscular as he is cerebral in an action-packed romp that starts as it goes on with lively music (Hans Zimmer) and even livelier direction (Guy Ritchie). Robert Downey Jr would not be an obvious choice to play the London detective but he is a charismatic and very accomplished actor who here affects a very passable English accent. The interplay between Holmes and his assistant Dr Watson (Jude Law) works really well, but the female characters (Rachel McAdams and Kelly Reilly) are sadly underplayed.

    The sets and costumes effectively recreate late 19th century London and the depiction of a half built Tower Bridge is wonderful, although how various characters manage to climb from the depths of Parliament to the top of the bridge - quite some distance down river - utterly escapes me. So I guess it's better not to enquire too closely what is going on (it's often rather confusing), but simply enjoy the entertaining ride which sets us up nicely for a sequel in which Holmes will face off with that dastardly Moriarty.

    “Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows”

    The cinematic reinvention of the English sleuth in 2009 was such a success that it was clear we had a new franchise in the making and so two years later the old team are back for a second outing with the same leading actors – the brilliant Robert Downey Jr as the eponymous detective and engaging Jude Law as his long-suffering companion in a duo with evident chemistry – plus the same director (Guy Ritchie) and the same musician (Hans Zimmer).

    Sequels so often disappoint compared to the original, but “A Game Of Shadows” is even more confident and fun. This may not be high art but, in terms of sheer entertainment, this is almost as good as it gets. The threat could hardly be larger - the instigation of a first world war – and, as Professor Moriaty, Jared Harris supplies a splendid villain, while Stephen Fry is a delight as Holmes' older brother. The first movie was weak on women and here Rachel McAdams and Kelly Reilly have little to do, but at least Noomi Rapace (“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”) looks the part as an exotic if sullen gypsy.

    In truth, except for all the deduction from detail, period settings in 1891, and wry humour, this adventure is so frenetic, with one action sequence after another and Ritchie's trademark rapid cutting alternating with slow-motion shots, that this could almost be a Jason Bourne or Mission Impossible movie. But, heh, who\s complaining? Certainly not me.

    "Shine"

    It is always difficult making a film about a real life, especially if the person or their relatives are still around to offer their own perspective. This account of the mental breakdown and recovery of Australian pianist David Helfgott - thanks to the love of a woman 10 years his senior - owes much to his wife, but has been strongly criticised by his sister for portraying his father as a tyrant who in effect brought about his mental illness. However, as a movie, "Shine" is a wonderful story that is quite inspirational. Director Scott Hicks and actor Geoffrey Rush - who plays Helfgott as an adult - have done magnificent work.

    After viewing the film, I bought the recording of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 3 - which features prominently in the movie - by Helfgott but sadly this is somewhat erratic. Some time later, I saw Helfgott perform live at the Royal Festival Hall in London and, quite frankly, he was terrible - the playing was very uneven and he was constantly muttering.

    "The Shipping News"

    It's not difficult to understand why this film bombed at the box office - the narrative (except for the very end) and the Newfoundland scenery are just too bleak and much of the time it's difficult to catch what people are saying because of the strange accents adopted by the non-native cast. Maybe it worked well on the page (it comes from a novel by E Annie Proulx) but, as cinema directed by the Swedish Lasse Hallström, it fails to engage. This is sad because the cast is impressive: the always watchable Kevin Spacey, the underused Cate Blanchett, the miscast Julianne Moore, and the oddly-accented Judi Dench, Pete Postlethwaite and Rhys Ifans.

    "Shooting Dogs"

    In three months of sheer horror, some 800,000 Rwandans, overwhelmingly Tutsis, were massacred by bands of Hutu Interahamwe militia, aided by the national army, in an orgy of violence that still shames the international community that failed to intervene. "Shooting Dogs" is centred on events at the Ecole Technique Officiele where, on day five of the nightmare, some 2,000 Tutsis (called "cockroaches" by the Hutu) were murdered, and the title comes from the willingness of the UN peacekeepers to shoot at the dogs consuming human corpses while being totally unwilling to take on the killers themselves.

    It's good that a subject as serious as the 1994 genocide in Rwanda can be addressed by filmmakers, but whether the topic suddenly needs no less than four works must be debatable. However, from a cinematic point of view, it is fascinating to see how different filmmakers are addressing what is intrinsically an exceptionally sensitive and uncomfortable subject.

    "Shooting Dogs" simply has to be compared to "Hotel Rwanda". Not only do they address the same issue, but essentially they do so in the same manner, by locating the horrors in a specific location (a hotel in "HR", a school in "SD"), in each case a place where the threatened Tutsis might have expected protection by UN troops (Canadian in "HR", Belgian in "SD"). However, the differences in approach are profound.

    Whereas "HR" was shot in Johannesburg, "SD" was filmed on location in Kigali itself in the actual places where most of the events portrayed took place. Indeed thousands of local extras were used and a good number of the technical support crew were locally recruited. The end credits summarizes the losses of some of these crew members in a very powerful sequence. So, in a sense, "SD" is more authentic than "HR" and furthermore the violence - largely understated in "HR" - is more explicit in "SD" with the brutality of the machete made very clear. Certainly, for many of the local actors and extras, the whole production was deeply traumatic.

    However, for me, "Hotel Rwanda" is the better film. Whereas "SD" gives no background and examines the situation through the eyes of two white characters - an elderly Catholic priest played by John Hurt and an idealist young school teacher portrayed by Hugh Dancy - "HR" provides a little historical context and, at its heart, there is the black (Hutu) hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina. Whereas "SD" is a throughly depressing work - narrating the slaughter of 2,000 Tutsis (many of them children), ""HR" seems to strike a note of hope in the human spirit by showing how a few potential victims were able to survive the barbarity. Above all, "HR" is much the more professional film and conveys the sheer fear involved the more effectively.

    Neverthelss British director Michael Caton-Jones has produced a very worthy work and the BBC is to be commended for part funding it. It was co-written by David Belton, a former BBC Newsnight journalist who worked in Rwanda in 1994 and two of the minor characters are members of a brave BBC television crew.

    "Shortbus"

    I first heard about "Shortbus" over two months before its opening in the UK when the "Guardian" mentioned it in the context of the London Film Festival [for article click here] and then came - sorry about the pun - across it again on the weblog of Girl With a One-Track Mind [for her comment click here]. I caught the film in Paris before its London opening and am glad I did so.

    Written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell and set around an underground New York club (the Shortbus of the strange title), this is like no mainstream movie you have ever seen with more real, graphic sex than you would ever imagine obtaining a public certificate. Yet it is far from pornographic, dealing with problems of sexual relationships in a believeable, sensitive and often very amusing way. Also the sex there is - and there is lots and lots - mainly involves men and their members - with the heterosexual penetration very much and (usually) very literally in the background.

    If you are broadminded and want to see something very different and very honest and very funny, go see it.

    Footnote: What does the title mean? The film's name, which Mitchell used for some of his own regular house parties, refers to the traditional American yellow school bus. Most 'normal' kids rode in a long yellow bus. Children with special needs - the disabled, the emotionally disturbed, the abnormally gifted - rode in a shorter yellow bus, because there were not so many of them. "A lot of people I hang out with feel to me like they are familiar with the short bus in one way or another", he says.

    Link: interview with director click here

    "Shrek"

    For the young and the young at heart (like this 50+ reviewer), cartoon features don't come much more entertaining than this. Dreamworks has produced a wonderfully textured visual treat with a set of characters that gently subvert the norm: an ogre that is loveable, a donkey that's witty, a princess who can kick butt, a lord who's a midget, and even a Robin Hood with a French accent. The script is clever with plenty of jokes for the children and their parents and the voices - Mike Myers in Scottish mode as the eponymous monster, Cameron Diaz as the damsel in the dress, and above all a brilliant Eddie Murphy as the ass - are a treat.

    "Shutter Island"

    When I rented the DVD of this movie, I only really knew two things about it: it had an outstanding director in Martin Scorsese and an exceptional lead actor in Leonard DiCaprio. That was enough for me. I suppose I thought that it was some kind of detective tale, so I was surprised and shaken to find that this is a much darker and more surreal story than I had imagined.

    Set on an American prison island in 1954 and based (apparently faithfully) on a novel by Dennis Lehane, we find federal marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his new colleague (Mark Ruffalo) investigating the mysterious disappearance of a prisoner from the institution led by a seemingly benevolent doctor (Ben Kinglsley) - but little is what it seems in a contrived but clever narrative that never releases its icy grip.

    If you've seen the 1919 German silent film "The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari", you might have some idea of what to expect. But, since you haven't, you won't - and that's how it should be.

    "Sicario"

    If you know nothing at all about this film, then the enigmatic title is hardly going to be a draw (in the opening moments, it is explained as Spanish cartel slang for hitman). But the promotion for the movie puts British actress Emily Blunt - playing FBI agent Kate Macer - as the central attraction and she gives a terrific performance as someone tough and brave, but vulnerable and principled. It's good to see her being used more in action roles, following the success of "Edge Of Tomorrow". However, although Blunt gets top billing, Josh Brolin as an unorthodox CIA agent and Benicio del Toro as a Columbian adviser on the drugs trade both offer superb support roles.

    This immensely stylish thriller is wonderfully crafted by (first time) Texan-born screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, Oscar-nominated, Quebec-born director Denis Villeneuve and (long-time) British cinematographer Roger Deakins. From the very opening, we have tense music and an action sequence that sets the tone for the whole movie. For quite some time, Kate - and the viewer - have little idea what's really going on, but plot-wise things gradually become clearer, while the moral ambiguity of the whole operation is never resolved. As with the 2000 film "Traffic" (which also starred del Toro), this is all about American law enforcement agencies' efforts to contain - if not combat - the smuggling of drugs into the country in the face of widespread corruption and violence.

    In another recent film "Good Kill", a policeman asks a member of the military how the war on terror is going and receives the sardonic response that it's going as well as the war on drugs. At the conclusion of this thoroughly absorbing and hard-hitting film, you won't disagree.

    "Sideways"

    There are essentially only five characters in this film, but a wide range of emotions. The two males are best friends but could hardly be more different: Miles (Paul Giamatti), a literature teacher hoping to have his first book published, divorced but still not over his ex-wife, and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), an actor whose unchallenging roles are becoming fewer, a philanderer who wants one last fling before his marriage in a week's time. The two women friends both work in California's Santa Ynez Valley which the guys are touring as a pre-marriage escape: Maya (Virginia Madsen) who is hesitant to engage with Miles and Stephanie (Sandra Oh, the director's wife) who throws herself into a relationship with Jack. The fifth character is wine - vineyards and bottles are very frequently on screen, much of the liquid is consumed and some spilt, and Miles and Maya in particular find rapture and mystery in its variety and taste. The credits even include a wine consultant.

    All this sounds like a doubtful blend for a succesful road movie, but by turns director Christopher Payne (who made the equally quirky "About Schmidt") elicits poignancy and pathos (but never pity) as well as much wryness and some laugh-out-loud moments (most especially involving Miles' recovery of Jack's wallet). The critics have adored this work and it is real pleasure to watch, but more grapes of froth than grapes of wrath.

    "Silver Linings Playbook"

    Based on a novel by Matthew Quick, David O Russell has both written and directed this variation on the romantic comedy in which both main characters are deeply damaged and variably medicated.

    Patrick used to be a teacher before he beat up a fellow teacher (he deserved it) and was diagnosed as bi-polar and confined to a mental institution for eight months. Tiffany used to be married to a cop who died in circumstances for which she feels blame and she has not been behaving as quietly and demurely as is expected of the newly bereaved. Both lead roles are played by attractive and talented young actors: Bradley Cooper ("The Hangover") and Jennifer Lawrence ("The Hunger Games") and, by the time I caught up with the movie on DVD, Lawrence had been awarded a deserved Academy Award for Best Actress for this quirky performance.

    One of the distinctive features of this wonderful film is that most of the characters are obsessive to one extent and in one form or another, most notably Pat's father who is charmingly portrayed by veteran Robert de Niro. At turns funny and poignant, this is at heart a plea for us to be tolerant of others because - let's face it - we're all a little crazy.

    "The Simpsons Movie"

    Matt Groening's creation of the dysfunctional Simpson family may have been a small screen phenomenon for 20 years, but somehow I've never watched a single episode of the American cartoon series "The Simpsons", so I thought that I'd go along to the big screen début as a bonding exercise with my 31 year son who's a fan. Taking a fashionable ecological theme, the plot concerns Homer managing to get Springfield labelled the most polluted city in the US which results in the government placing the entire populace under a huge glass dome. From the opening second, it's one gag after another: some visual, some verbal, some political, some satirical. Whether anything is added to the series by having it on a cinema screen - other than enabling an 85-minute tale - I'm not so sure. If you really enjoy the series, you'll love the theatre experience; otherwise your life will not be seriously diminished by waiting for it to appear on television.

    "A Single Man"

    This is an odd film that will not appeal to everyone - it did not especially appeal to me - and it probably works better as a book (it is based on a 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood).

    Set in Los Angeles at the time of the Cuba missile crisis of 1962, it tells the story of one day - possibly to be the last - in the life of British professor, discretely gay George Falconer (Colin Firth) but with repeated flashbacks. The narrative is seen through the prism of three relationships with George, all former or would-be lovers: his beloved partner Jim (Matthew Goode effecting a convincing American accent) who is recently deceased in a car accident, fellow British expat Charley (Julianne Moore managing a very effective English accent) who want him to return to her or London or both, and a sensitive student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) who sees his pain and wishes to assuage it in the best way he knows how.

    Firth gives an outstanding performance in the eponymous role and his portrayal of grief is heartrending in this melancholic tale. However, director Tom Ford has given us a self-indulgent work which is visually clever but ultimately unsatisfying with a particularly unconvincing conclusion (which is presumably Isherwood's 'fault').

    "Sisters"

    It is such a pleasure to see a growing number of films with leading roles for women - not just dramas like "the Hunger Games" franchise and recent movies like "Brooklyn" and "Carol", but comedies ("Bridesmaids" was the breakthrough project) like "Sisters". Indeed here Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are not just the eponymous siblings - respectively the wild one and the responsible one - but both had producer roles. These two comediennes know each other very well both professionally and personally and the chemistry flashes from the screen. And the writer too is a woman (Paula Pell) who crafts lines and situations as gross but hilarious as any male scriptwriter.

    The plot is minimalist: middle-aged Kate (Fey) and Maura (Poehler) Ellis are furious to discover that their parents are to sell their childhood home and decide to throw a wild party for old acquaintances and assorted new folk, while taking on a role reversal with Kate supposed to be the sober one and Maura apparently throwing her usual caution to the wind. Naturally nothing works out as intended but a happy ending is guaranteed. It is very crude, very rude and lots of fun. Not all the gags work but so many do and the film must be a competitor for the most joke lines and funny situations of any recent movie.

    "The 6th Day"

    This latest Schwarzenegger offering is not as execrable as his previous film "End Of Days", but neither is it as clever and slick as "Total Recall" with which it bears some plot similarities. The story of illegal human cloning is set - in the not too distant future - and some of the futuristic sets and devices are quite neat, especially the cloning processes and the versatile helicopters. The plot had potential but comes out more silly than sophisticated. The real problem, however, is the Austrian hunk himself - as Conan or the Terminator, his physique and accent had a place and even style but, as an 'ordinary' helicopter pilot, he looks out of place and sounds wooden. The lesson of "End Of Days" and "The 6th Day" is that the 53 year old Arnie should call it a day.

    "The Sixth Sense"

    There was no way I was going to see the over-hyped and under-funded “Blair Witch Project”, but friends eventually persuaded me to view "The Sixth Sense" in spite of my aversion to the paranormal. Bruce Willis plays a Philadelphia child psychologist in an uncharacteristically gentle and under-stated, but very effective, performance, but it is the 11 year old Haley Joel Osment who is simply stunning as a deeply disturbed young boy with a chilling secret. Really the less one knows about this film, the more one is likely to enjoy it. Suffice to say that writer and director M Night Shyamalan (who has a tiny cameo role) has produced a well-paced and intelligently plotted movie that is very well worth seeing.

    "The Skeleton Twins"

    This is such a refreshingly different film - character-driven and somehow managing to be tragic and and painful and funny, all at the same time. Co-written and directed by Craig Johnson, it stars two excellent actors as the eponymous siblings: Kristen Wiig ("Bridesmaids") and Bill Hader ("Trainwreck") as Maggie and Milo, both of whom have been mixed up since children and, following a breach of ten years, resume their relationship following suicide attempts. A particulary memorable scene is when the twins mime together to "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" by Starship.

    "The Skin I Live In"

    I hadn't seen a film by acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar for a long time ("Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown" and "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!") and I really didn't know what to expect with this one, but I accepted the recommendation of a friend who sees more foreign cinema than me. In fact, the less one knows about this work in advance, the more one can savour the plot revelations and twists in this deliciously bizarre, even macabre, tale.

    Almodóvar may be gay but he loves beautiful women and has worked a lot with the likes of Penélope Cruz. Here his muse is the gorgeous Elena Anaya who is playing opposite the good-looking Antonio Banderas (who was in my two previous pieces from the Spanish director). It is a story about loss, revenge and above all identity, full of wonderful visual images, including a cocooned woman the like of which I have not seen since the Ken Russell bio-pic "Mahler" in 1974.

    "Skyfall"

    We've waited four years since the rather disappointing "Quantum Of Solace", but 50 years after "Dr No" started the longest and most successful franchise in movie history comes the 23rd James Bond film and the third starring Daniel Craig as 007. I was 14 years old when I attended the spy's first cinematic outing; over the next couple of years, I read all 14 Ian Fleming novels; and, over the last half a century, I have gone along to the theatre to see each new film as soon as it was released. What was new with "Skyfall" is that I managed to see it a week before its general release at a special viewing for cast and crew when all mobiles were taken off us, all of us were searched, and everyone sat through the credits before applauding a brilliant team effort.

    The sense of excitement was rewarded by a superb movie. A cracking opening in Istanbul (echoes of "From Russia With Love") is followed by a powerful song from Adele which is followed by flashy sequences in Shanghai and Macau with a storyline that is genuinely distinctive from other Bond movies: more intelligible and more intelligent. Instead of the archetypal villain as someone crazed by megalomania, we have an adversary, subtly played by a blond Javier Bardem, who is motivated not just by power and wealth but by a very personal sense of vengeance. Instead of a Bond who easily outwits all foes, we have an agent with some obvious vulnerabilities, both physical and psychological, who does not always get his way. Instead of the usual two Bond girls, effectively we have three: French actress Bérénice Marlohe in her first English-speaking part, British actress Naomie Harris in what will prove to be a break-out role, and the redoubtable 77 year old Judi Dench playing M for the seventh time in 17 years.

    The film is a triumph for British director Sam Mendes, making his first British movie after such more serious successes as "American Beauty", "Road To Perdition" and"Revolutionary Road". I was shaken and stirred.

    "Sleeping Beauty"

    In over half a century of cinema-going, I've seen a (deliberately) wide range of movies, including some really strange and cryptic work, and I have to say that the Australian "Sleeping Beauty" falls firmly in the odd and opaque category. Coincidentally another film in the very unusual bracket is the similarly named "Sleeping Furiously" set in Wales. "Sleeping Beauty" is not quite as slow - although it is very measured indeed - but the obscure meaning of many scenes sets it apart. There is as much nudity as "Eyes Wide Shut" with which it bears (sorry for the pun) some comparison, but a much weaker storyline.

    This is an adventurous selection for a first film from novelist Julia Leigh who both directed and wrote this strange tale of a Sydney student who is prepared to sell her body in a variety of circumstances in order to pay her bills. And it is a bold choice for Emily Browning who moves on from "Sucker Punch" to take the eponymous role, meaning that she is rarely off screen and has to appear totally nude. There is virtually no music and very little dialogue (especially from Browning) so there is an astonishing focus on her face - doll-like with doe eyes, high cheek bones and rosebud lips - and her body - diminutive, pale and slight.

    But this is far from being an erotic work; in fact, it is a depressing one. Browning's character Lucy seems to be sleep-walking and drugged when she is not actually sleeping and drugged, none of the characters elicits our sympathy or warmth, and the ending is particularly abrupt and unsatisfying.

    "Sleeping Furiously"

    The oxymoronic and enigmatically titled "Sleeply Furiously" is the slowest film you will ever see. First-time director, producer and cinematographer Gideon Koppel portrays Trefeurig, the Welsh farming community in Ceredigion where he grew up and where his parents found refuge from Nazi Germany. Over the seasons of a year, we are witness to the remorseless decline of a rural way of life that is serene but sentimentalised. There is no narration and no narrative and the dialogue - much of it in Welsh - is often banal, yet there are some stunning scenes and the whole thing has a certain elegiac charm. During the performance, my young Welsh friend leaned over to my half-Welsh wife and commented: "Now I remember why I left Wales".

    "Sliding Doors"

    This is a cleverly-plotted and well-scripted romantic comedy involving two scenarios triggered by a momentary situation on the London underground where I spend far too much of my life. The central character is a young English woman played by 25 year old American actress Gwyneth Paltrow who manages an excellent London accent. She gives a charming performance opposite John Lynch and John Hannah in this entertaining work both written and directed by Peter Howitt.

    "Slow West"

    Don't be misled by the title: this western may start slowly but sure picks up pace with an explosive finale and, while it is set in 1870 Colorado, it is shot in today's New Zealand. Like the twice-made western "True Grit", the story teams a younger person on a search with a cynical veteran: on this occasion 16 year old aristocratic and Scottish Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), searching for his lost love, and the rough, middle-aged, Irish gunslinger Silas Selleck (a superb Michael Fassbender), seeking something more pecuniary. First-time writer and director British John Maclean has crafted an admirable film with atmospheric music, fine pacing, colourful characters, terrific scenery and a compelling narrative. By turns touching, surreal and shocking, at just 84 minutes, every scene counts and drives the story westwards and onwards to a satisfying conclusion.

    "Slumdog Millionaire"

    I live in a part of north-west London with a large Asian population that was home to Dev Patel, who plays the eponymous Jamal Malik, an 18 year-old Muslim orphan from the slums of Mumbai who demonstrates utterly remarkable knowledge or amazing luck when he appears on the Indian version of "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire". So, if the rave reviews, the enthusiastic word of mouth, and no less than 10 Academy Award nominations were not enough, the movie was a total sell-out. Nobody was disappointed; on the contrary, everyone left with a smile of their face after viewing this wonderful feel-good movie.

    Although containing both humour and romance, this is categorically no standard rom-com. It opens with a torture scene and, along the way way, we see slums, poverty, crime and violence - but ultimately this is a tale of redemption and hope. Who would have thought that British director Danny Boyle - who first came to our attention with hard-hitting films like "Shallow Grave and "Trainspotting" - could give us such a tale of India? But, together with cast and crew, he has produced a triumph. Jamal, his brother Salim and fellow orphan Latika are represented at three stages of their young lives by different actors who bring immense charm to the movie and Freida Pinto as the oldest Latika is simply gorgeous. In a succession of convincing performances, Anil Kapoor is especially good as the show's presenter.

    Of course, colourful, chaotic, charming India itself is a star of the film - notably the vibrancy of Mumbai (the former Bombay) with an appearance by the Taj Mahal in Agra - and, if you've never visited (I have), you'll leave the cinema wanting to do so. The shooting of the film used a prototype digital camera which underlines the kinetic energy of the narrative and puts the viewer right in the action, especially in the crowd and chase sequences. Another key ingredient is the atmospheric music from A R Rahman. Finally, don't leave too soon or you'll miss an exuberant dance sequence set to an Academy Award-wiining song. In short, this is a movie that has all you could want for an uplifting of the human spirit.

    Footnote: After seeing the film (in London), I bought the soundtrack CD, then I read the novel (originally published as "Q&A") by Vikas Swarup, and finally I viewed the movie again (this time with Cech mates in Prague).

    "Snakes On A Plane"

    You'll never guess what this movie's about. OK, perhaps you will. The wonderfully descriptive title is an essential part of the charm of this film. It doesn't take itself seriously and it delivers what it says on the tin. All the familiar characters and cliches are there with a clever blend of horror and humour that will make you squirm and squeal in similar measures.

    We know that somehow the aircraft will get down and that some of the passengers will survive but, since the only well-known face is the ever-enjoyable Samuel L Jackson, we can't be sure who will die and how. It is of course Jackson who has the best line that may well become a classic: "It's time to get these motherfucking snakes off this motherfucking plane" (cue: cheers from the audience).

    I loved "SOAP" which is destined to achieve cult status - and incidentally, no snakes were harmed in the making of this movie.

    "The Social Network"

    This is a film which simply shouldn't work, but it does - magnificently. A story centred on a teenager who becomes the world's youngest billionaire, a web site that reaches a million users in two years, and a cast of real life characters with names like Zuckerberg and Winklevoss just shouldn't be possible. A convoluted tale of raw conflict on the origins of a new type of web site should not lend itself to an expensive movie as opposed to a television documentary. It succeeds because it is not about the technology but about creativity and conflict and about friendship and betrayal. It succeeds because of a magical combination of accomplished direction, scintillating dialogue and superb acting.

    The direction comes from David Fincher who has had variable success, all the way from "Alien 3" to Se7en", but here he is right on form with a flashy, but tightly structured, presentation that never fails to command your attention and interest. The all-important, sparkling script is courtesy of Aaron Sorkin who gave us "The West Wing" - the best television series ever - and yet apparently does not do social networking.

    At the heart of the movie is a brilliant, Oscar-worthy performance from Jesse Eisenberg as the 19 year old Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg, the genius behind "The Facebook" (the social network), the unsympathetic anti-hero of the adventure, a borderline sociopath variously described by women characters as "an asshole" and someone "just trying so hard to be" one. Andrew Garfield is excellent as Zuckerberg's Harvard roommate and co-founder of the site Eduardo Savarin; thanks to the wonders of CGI, Arnie Hammer manages to be terrific as both the twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss; while singer Justin Timberlake is a revelation as the Napster founder Sean Parker. This is a testosterone-charged fable with room for women only in minor support roles - ironic in that getting girls was the impetus for the Facebook project.

    The film opens in 2003 with a breathlessly wordy encounter and closes in 2009 with a poignantly wordless scene. In between, the story zips along at the frenetic pace characterised by the business itself. Adapted from Ben Mezrich's book "The Accidental Millionaires", the framework for the fascinating narrative is not one but two courtroom dramas or, to be more accurate, pre-trial hearings (both resulted in out-of-court settlements which tells you a lot). Clearly you shouldn't judge a book by its cover.

    "The Soloist"

    It's a shame that this movie has been given such a low-key release in both the USA and the UK because it is an intelligent and moving story that is beautifully directed and superbly acted. Direction comes from Britain's Joe Wright, who did such a fine job with "Atonement" (another film based on a book), and he uses some great aerial shots and allows time for the music to work its magic. The lead actors are Robert Downey Jr - who has had his own lifestyle problems - as "Los Angeles Times" columnist Steve Lopez and Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers, a musical prodigy, probably now schizophrenic, reduced to playing a two-string violin as a vagrant on the city's sidewalks.

    In a sense, we've been here before, since music and mania make good cinema - think of mentally ill pianist David Helfgott in "Shine" or even Mozart in "Amadeus" - and Beethoven is a favoured classical composer for the movies (remember everything from "Soylent Green" to "Zardoz" and especially "A Clockwork Orange"). But this is a tale worth telling because it is based on a true story, offers a sensitive narration, and exposes an important social issue, namely the relationship between homelessness and mental illness. Also it avoids a neat, simplistic ending, instead inviting us to consider how we can befriend and support people rather than necessarily 'mend' them.

    "Something's Gotta Give"

    There are some gorgeous women in this film - and one of them is Diane Keaton (now in her late fifties) as middleaged playwright Erica Barry. By the end of the movie, even Jack the lad himself - mid-sixty year old Nicholson as music executive Harry Sanborn who always dates much younger women - comes to realise that love in one's Autumnal years can be rich and rewarding indeed. The chemistry between the two is real and it seems strange that they have not appeared in a movie together since "Reds".

    In many ways this is an unfashionable work from a Hollywood obsessed with youth, violence and special effects - none of which figure here. Its success is down to Nancy Myers (herself in her mid fifties) who both wrote and directed it, as she did with "What Women What". It is a romantic comedy with a difference which shows that age brings its problems (like the incessant need for glasses) but love (and sex) are still there for those who are open to new possibilities. A feel-good movie for those who don't always feel so good - and their younger friends who appreciate a gentle fable.

    "Son Of A Gun"

    This crime thriller is only original in that it is Australian rather than American (or British) and presents a much darker side of the nation than we usually see in the movies. Written and directed by Julius Avery as his first full-length feature, this is an accomplished work centred on the relationship between hardened criminal Brendan Lynch (Scottish Ewan McGregor as the 'Gun') and minor felon 19 year old JR (Australian newcomer Brenton Thwaites as the 'Son').

    It seems very unlikely that these two would be incarcerated in the same high security prison but I guess that, if they hadn't been, we'd have had no plot. I confess that I rented the film to see Swedish actress Alicia Vikander but she has a fairly small role as a gangster's moll from Eastern Europe. Even if unoriginal and sporting too many references to monkeys, there is plenty of violence, action and double-crossing in this entertaining rampage with a hot soundtrack.

    "Son Of Babylon"

    This is the first Iraqi film that I have seen and what a stunningly emotional introduction to the cinema of a country that is presented so differently in Hollywood movies. "Green Zone", "The Hurt Locker", "In The Valley Of Elah", "The Kingdom" ... these are all essentially an American view, the victor's perspective. Here 31 year old writer and director Mohammed Daradh - who studied film making in London - has crafted a totally contrasting work. It looks different: it was actually shot in Iraq and not in Jordan or Spain. It sounds different, deploying a mixture of Kurdish and Arabic. And the subject matter is different: the victims of Saddam Hussein and especially the suffering of the Kurds in the north of the country.

    The two central performances - an old woman (Shazada Hussein) and a young boy (Yasser Talib), respectively the hopeful mother and the bewildered son of a missing Kurd forced to be a soldier in Saddam's army - are so powerful and poignant and their journey highlights the true victims of the dictatorship, all those who went missing and whose bodies may never be identified. The final location of Babylon reminds us that one time this was one of the richest and most civilised locations on earth.

    "Son Of Saul"

    By the time I viewed this Hungarian production, it had won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It is a stunning piece of work. It is not just the dramatic subject matter: the slaughter of Jews at Auschwitz (which I have visited). It is the distinctiveness of the viewpoint - that of a Sonderkommando, one of the Jews forced to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims - and the novelty of the narrow aspect and shallow focus filming with the camera always on his face or over his shoulder so that the horrors are so close and yet quite indistinct. Depicting just two days of this hell on earth, the storyline endeavours to find some humanity in this madness through one man's wish to arrange a proper burial for a dead boy for whom he feels a strange parental bond. Remarkably this is the debut work of both director László Nemes and actor Géza Röhrig.

    "Sound Of My Voice"

    Having seen "Another Earth" and "The East" in which Brit Marling is both the star and a co-author (plus "Arbitrage" where she just has a support part), I wanted to see "Sound Of My Voice" which she co-wrote at the same time as "Another Earth" and again provides her with a leading role. As with "The East", the other co-writer and director is her friend Zal Batmanglij and, as with "Another Earth" and "THe East". she was also a co-producer. Clearly Marling is a bright and ambitious actress who is not going to wait for good roles to be offered to her, but determined to craft them herself.

    "Sound Of My Voice" was always going to have a limited appeal, since it is so incredibly low budget and markedly slow, but I found it original and mesmerising as it tells the story of Maggie who is either a visitor from the future with some important insights and messages or a complete fraud who is creating a dangerous cult. Out to expose her are Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) who want to make a revelatory documentary but find that Maggie is harder to read and to expose than they imagined. It is a pleasure to find a plot that is different and thought-provoking and Marling is definitely a woman to watch.

    Apparently it was intended that "Sound Of My Voice' would be the first part of a trilogy but it is unclear if the other sections will appear.

    "Source Code"

    Inevitably, "Source Code" will be compared with "Groundhog Day" since both deploy the same plot device of repeating the identical time period with slight but important differences. However, whereas "Groundhog Day" obviously replays a 24-hour slot and is a whimsical comedy, "Source Code" revisits an eight-minute slice and is a sci-fi thriller.

    At the heart of "Source Code" and rarely off the screen is the very watchable Jake Gyllenhaal as US Army captain Colter Stevens whose task is to prevent a dirty bomb exploding in Chicago. On either side of the code are two women: mission controller Captain Colleen Goodwin, played by Vera Farmiga (who was so good in "Up In The Air"), and fellow train passenger Christina Warren, portrayed by Michelle Monaghan (whom I last saw in "Mission: Impossible III").

    Writer Ben Ripley has come up with an intelligent and intriguing script, although - like so many sci-fi movies located in our world - it does not pay to analyse it too much, while British director Duncan Jones (who once went by the name Zowie Bowie) has translated this into a taut tale that is both exciting and entertaining.

    "Southpaw"

    I have no interest in boxing, which I think is a brutal sport, but I really admire Jake Gyllenhaal as an actor so I was willing to see this movie in which he takes the eponymous role. In "Nightcrawler", Gyllenhaal was amazing, both for his lean appearance and brilliant portrayal of a man determined to better himself at any cost. This time, he has beefed up his body in another total transformation that took five months and gives another very impressive performance as Billy Hope, a boxer who goes from the heights to the depths and back again.

    Rachel McAdams as Billy's wife and Forrest Whitaker as his trainer give strong supporting turns, while as his young daughter Oona Lawrence is surprisingly convincing for her age. Director Antoine Fuqua provides some opening and closing fight scenes that are genuinely hard-hitting. But there is nothing new or surprising here; it is totally predictable and formulaic and old-fashioned. It is Gyllenhaal that makes it a movie worth watching.

    "Spartan"

    This is a competent political thriller written and directed by the talented David Mamet with a strong central performance from Val Kilmer as an American secret agent with a direct and brutal style of operation. From the opening sequence of a woman running through woods (like "Silence Of The Lambs"), this is a taut tale which never lets up the pace, with strong violence and a number of plot twists along a road with plenty of blood and betrayal, and the music by Mark Isham adds real atmosphere. But there are no great action sequences or memorable lines of dialogue to lift the film to a higher level.

    "Spectre"

    I am of an age which means that I have seen every single James Bond film at the cinema as it was released. ""Spectre" is the 24th movie in the most successful franchise in cinema history and the fourth to star super-cool Daniel Craig as 007 and the second to be directed by the British Sam Mendes (following "Skyfall" which was the biggest money-spinner of them all). This time, I was at the Odeon cinema in London's Leicester Square on a Sunday morning before the film's general release next day for a cast and crew screening. Mendes briefly introduced the film, explaining that five effects houses had been at work until the last moment in a tight post-production schedule. The audience applauded him and applauded again at both the conclusion of the movie and the end of the extensive main credits.

    Like ""Skyfall", the film opens with a terrific pre-credit sequence. Indeed this visit to Mexico City's Day of the Dead festivities is so exciting, nothing that follows quite matches it. But, not to worry, the rest of the movie is classic Bond and immensely enjoyable. All the successful ingredients are there.

    We have exotic locations: Rome, Tangiers, the Austrian Tyrol, and my home city of London including the Thames, City Hall, Westminster Bridge and even a scene in "Rules", the oldest restaurant in the city and somewhere I have eaten several times. We have Bond girls: the age-appropriate Italian actress Monica Bellucci (still gorgeous at 50) and the age-inappropriate French actress Léa Seydoux (wearing more clothes that in "Blue Is The Warmest Colour"). We have Bond villains: Christoph Waltz, who has come so far since he was introduced to English-speaking audiences in "Inglourious Basterds", and the weighty Dave Bautista, who channels Oddjob from "Goldfinger". Of course, we have compelling music - both the opening song from Sam Smith and the throbbing soundtrack from Thomas Newman.

    The plotting is not always clear or credible but, heh, this is a Bond movie. And, for those who know their 007 outings, there are countless references to earlier films in the franchise, whether it is a ceremony commemorating the dead ("Live And Let Die") or a fight sequence on a train ("From Russia With Love") or a clever car with an ejector seat ("Goldfinger") and even mentions of many earlier villains. The script manages to have the requisite amount of humour (including a conversation with a rat) while striking a contemporary political tone (a sympathetic nod to Edward Snowden in its opposition to excessive surveillance). In short, another triumph for Mendes, Craig and the franchise.

    "Speed"

    This is a classic piece of sheer entertainment with sustained action and excitement from the opening elevator plunge to the closing runaway subway train. The centrepiece of the movie is a bus with a bomb that must not lower its speed below 50 mph. While plucky and pulchritudinous Sandra Bullock takes the wheel, resourceful Keanu Reeves tries everything he can think of to thwart the extortionist bomber. Thrills and spills trilled those tills.

    "Spider-Man"

    The four "Superman" movies, "Supergirl", the four "Batman" films, the "X-Men" - saw them all and (to varying degrees) enjoyed then all. So I needed no encouragement to see another fantasy super-hero brought to the big screen and the record-breaking $114M opening weekend in the States just whetted my appetite. The film does not disappoint, providing fun and flying in good measure with some superb computer animation - but it's hard to see just how it took so much money so fast. For me, the first two "Superman" films still take some beating.

    Perhaps it's something to do with the post-September 11 need for protection and it was right - although cinematically a loss - to cut the original sequence involving New York's twin towers. Perhaps it's 'that kiss', unlikely and uncomfortable though such an inverted encounter would be. It must have something to do with Tobey Maguire who was so weird in "The Ice Storm", but brings a kind of nerdy charm to Peter Parker. It may well owe something to Willem Dafoe who looks bizarre even before he dons the Green Goblin mask and gives the most over the top performance of a super-villain since Jack Nicholson was the Joker (I'd love to have his flying device).

    Surely it wasn't Kirtsen Dunst as Mary Jane (MJ) - liked the cute dimples, but hated the red hair, and really she is a rather plain Jane. It certainly wasn't the puerile plot or the dire dialogue. So I guess in the end it was Sam Raimi's assured direction and John Dystra's brilliant special effects that spun such an entertaining yarn.

    "Spider-Man 2"

    Why are superheroes so angst-ridden and reluctant to embrace their persona of power? It might be because they know that, in any sequel, they'll have to face an even stronger villain or that the costume will make a relationship difficult or that there will be pressure for the follow-up movie to be as financially successful as the first. Well, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) needn't have worried. Once he conquers his self-doubt and ejaculation difficulties, he's certainly a match for Doctor Octavius (Alfred Molina); like Clark Kent in "Superman 2", he comes to a new understanding with his girlfriend; and, as far as the box office is concerned, he's proved to be a money spider.

    Although it drags at times, there is plenty of bone-crunching action here, leavened with some neat touches of humour, and the runaway train sequence is especially thrilling. When S-M is swinging through the streets between the towering skyscrapers of New York, it is very obviously CGI-generated imagery, but still exciting. What is so brilliant is the realisation of 'Doc Ock', a really good bad guy that is one of the very best translations from comic strip to celluloid. Kirsten Dunst, as Sarah Jane Watson, still doesn't do anything for me, looking most of the time like the girl next door who's lost her glasses, but Peter is keen to net her and he's pretty doe-eyed himself.

    Director Sam Raimi has come well into the mainstream since making gore fest "The Evil Dead", but there's still enough violence here to push at the boundaries of the PG certificate and the scene is well set up for "Spider-Man 3".

    "Spider-Man 3"

    "Spider-Man 3" not only exceeded the performance of the previous two movies; it set a new world record for an opening weekend, netting an amazing $375M globally. I was one of the many who was there on the first weekend and the opening applause in my central London cinema was a clear indication of the super-hero's enduring popularity. Yet, although Columbia Pictures has spun its web and pulled in many punters, the success is not wholly deserved.

    As always, there are some superb special effects, as there should be with a budget of $250M. I particularly enjoyed the creation if the Sandman character, although it was a pity that the subtlety of his features was lost as he became bigger and uglier. However, the black stuff that turns Spider-Man evil looks pathetic and its arrival on earth through a meteor is so lame.

    Sam Raimi is the director for the third time which provides continuity of style and narrative but, for the first time, he is involved in the storyline and the script and here the movie is sadly lacking. There are too many villians, too much romancing, and not enough genuine drama. The final scene especially is really weak - and the whole thing is about 20 minutes too long.

    Where the third movie does score is with some genuinely funny moments, such as J.K. Simmons performance as newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson, Bruce Campbell as a restaurant's maître d', and Tobey Maguire giving a swaggering show like a John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever", but basically we want our super-heroes to deliver thrills more than humour and I knew this wasn't working when I found that the black-suited Spider-Man was attracting me more than the original incarnation of the arthropod.

    "Spotlight"

    This film tells the astonishing story of the "Boston Globe"'s Pulitzer Prize-winning Spotlight team of investigative journalists who uncovered the Catholic Church's systematic cover-up of widespread child abuse by more than 70 local priests. It took five months of hard investigation before, in January 2002, the newspaper printed its first article. "Spotlight" is a wonderful piece of ensemble acting with Michael Keaton as the team's head Walter 'Robby' Robinson, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo as the reporters Sacha Pfeiffer and Michael Rezendes, Brian d'Archy James as the researcher Matt Carroll, Liev Screiber and John Slattery as the editors Marty Baron and Ben Bradley Jr, and Stanley Tucci as the victims' attorney Mitchell Garabedian. The fact that Baron was Jewish and Garabedian Armenian suggests that often revelation of scandal requires the intervention of an outsider to the system.

    In this quietly stunning film, we see how good investigative reporting requires passionate commitment and fierce independence plus forensic attention to detail and a lot of shoe-leather and door-knocking. There are no action sequences and, except for one scene, no grandstanding in a movie in which the story is everything and really two stories in one: the actual abuse and then the cover-up. There will naturally be comparison with "All The President's Men", another true-life account of brilliant investigation by committed reporters, but that film was 40 years ago and one could also relate "Spotlight" to "The Big Short", released about the same time, since both are appalling examples of the abuse of power and the difficulty in holding power to account.

    For six years, I was Chair of the Internet Watch Foundation in Britain which combats the availability of child abuse material online, so I know that the viewing of such images and the perpetration of such acts cuts across all classes and occupations. But there is something especially vile about child abuse by religious figures and, in the case of the Catholic Church, a vital factor is the mandation of celibacy by its clergy. I went to Catholic schools and an epiphanic moment for me was when we were taught that celibacy was a superior moral state to marriage. At the end of "Spotlight", there is a list of the many other cities besides Boston - in both the USA and around the world - where there have been other cases of such child abuse by Catholic priests. One of them was my home town.

    "Spy Game"

    What do you have if you take Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, charismatic stars from two generations, and combine them with virtuoso director Tony Scott? A clever-crafted, furiously-paced thriller that should appeal to an audience from the teenage to the retired - that's what. Redford - who has directed Pitt but never starred with him - is veteran CIA controller Nathan Muir who is on his last day at the Agency and, in movie land, retirement day always means trouble. In this case, former CIA assassin Tom Bishop (Pitt) has been arrested by the Chinese, is about to be executed in 24 hours, and has been abandoned by his erstwhile employers.

    The action jumps from China and Vietnam to Berlin and Beirut and always back to CIA Headquarters in Virginia, while – even before the opening credits and for the next two hours - there are some compelling action sequences, frenetic camera work and an excellent sound track. This is a film which requires, even demands, constant attention, never letting up the pace and the tension. Much of the story line - especially the finale - is totally implausible, but this is entertainment not documentary and, as such, it delivers on target.

    "St Vincent"

    Writer and director Theodore Melfi has crafted a homily with heart, but it very much wears its heart upon its sleeve in this predictable tale of an unlikely friendship between an old man and a young boy who find themselves as neighbours in Brooklyn, New York City. It is populated by a variety of stock movie characters: the irascible and dissolute guy whose bravery and kindness are hidden, the tart with a heart, the single mother with an adorable son, and even the friendly Catholic brother. What makes the film watchable is that these roles are played by some very good actors: Bill Murray gives one of his finest performances as the curmudgeonly father-figure; Naomi Watts sports a pretty terrible Russian accent as a pregnant stripper; Melissa McCarthy for once has a straight role in which her weight is not a factor; young Jaedon Lieberher shows great promise as the schoolboy looking for a saintly subject for his school project; while Chris O'Dowd has no trouble portraying the religion teacher who comes up with this project.

    "Star Trek"

    I'm a sci-fi fan and I was a teenager during the broadcasting of the original "Star Trek" television series in 1966-1969, so I devotedly attended showings of the six films featuring the orginal cast even though most of these movies took themselves far too seriously and the actors became increasingly geriatric. I missed out on the next generation both on the small and big screens, but the chance to see James T Kirk and the original crew back in action was too tempting to avoid, especially when I knew that J J Abrams - who has entertained and utterly confused me with the television series "Lost" - would be helming this 11th film in the franchise.

    I was not disappointed. From the very beginning, this is a work with pacing and panache (plus humour and in jokes) that makes it stand part from the early movies. The (approximate) timescale of this back story version is from Kirk's birth to his assumption of command of the USS Enterprise, but we're in the hands of Abrams so we are subjected to both time travel and alternative universes. This is both a strength and a weakness - on the one hand, it enables the director and scriptwriters to be faithful to the Star Trek canon and characters while re-imaging the whole franchise but, on the other hand, the plot is confusing and - as Spock himself would surely be the first to point out - completely illogical.

    So suspend logic and enjoy the ride in what is a visual treat with terrific sets and special effects and fine performances from Chris Pine as Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock (good to see him as a good guy after "Heroes") and cameo appearances from Leonard Nimoy (playing the original Spock) and much-missed Winona Ryder (as Spock's mother).

    "Star Trek Into Darkness"

    In 2009, director J J Abrams very successfully rebooted the "Star Trek" franchise. Four years later (not exactly warp speed), he's back with the sequel as he prepares to reboot another sci-fi franchise in the form of "Star Wars". So what's the same and what's new and how does it all work out?

    Of course, the "USS Enterprise" has the same crew with the continuation of the bromance between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Simon Pegg (Scotty) and Anton Yelchin (Chekov) still struggling to affect a Scottish and a Russian accent respectively. Again Abrams makes sure that the movie begins with great pace and that the whole thing zips along with lots of action, some good special effects, and dashes of humour, so again it's excellent entertainment.

    What's new is mainly the villain - British actor Benedict Cumberbatch in a delightfully chilling performance as the mysterious John Harrison - although another British thespian, Alice Eve, pops up as Dr Carol Marcus whom we may see again. And we have a new format with a version of the film - the one I saw - in 3D which is not a technique of which I am a particular fan and which apparently was pressed upon the director by the studio.

    Overall, one has to record that "Into Darkness", like its predecessor, has more style than substance. The plotting is terribly derivative with the main theme borrowed from an earlier "Star Trek" movie which in turn picked up a character from the television series. If the franchise is really going to fly, it needs some more original scripts.

    "Star Trek Beyond"

    This is the 13th "Star Trek" movie and the third in the rebooted version of the franchise, so you'd be wrong to expect much originality but this is a very workmanlike and entertaining addition to the canon. J J Abrams, who directed the first two segments of the reboot, has moved on to the "Star Wars" saga so, although he remains as one of the nine producers, the directorial responsibilities are taken over by the Taiwanese American Justin Lin who has helmed three of the films in the "Fast And Furious" franchise. The cast of the crew are the same (and Simon Pegg is now a co-writer), but original actors come in the form of British black actor Idris Elba as the villain Krall and French former dancer Sofia Boutella as heroine Jaylah, both of whom look great and bring some charisma to their roles.

    Some of the special effects are spectacular, notably the realisation of the world of Yorktown, but some of the sets - especially parts of the alien world - look little better than the original TV series. As so often with "Star Trek" movies though, the major weakness is plotting which is unoriginal and, in this case, hardly credible. I mean: what's the most unlikely thing that could happen to the USS Enterprise? That it is actually destroyed, right? And what could be more unlikely than that? That the crew manage to find another functioning starship, right? So, I don't want to spoil the story for you, but let's just say that the narrative is unlikely in the extreme. But then, who cares? This is "Star Trek" - enjoy the warp speed ride.

    "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace"

    OK, let's start with the confessions. I'm a great movie fan; science fiction is one of my favourite genres; and I loved the original "Star Wars" trilogy. The first film that I took my son Richard to see was the first 'Star Wars" movie and he was only two and a half at the time. Once I went to see all three of the original "Star Wars" films back to back. I entered the cinema at 2.30 pm and left about 10.30 pm, having been fortified with sandwiches and a flask of coffee! So I was really looking forward to "The Phantom Menace" and saw it on the opening weekend with Rich.

    It has been perhaps the most hyped film in the history of the cinema and it has been poorly reviewed by most critics, but I loved it. All the weaknesses of "The Phantom Menace" - corny dialogue, wooden acting, and simple plotting - were there in the earlier three films and we have to make allowances. After all, the series is made for children - and adults with a sense of fun.

    Set thirty years before "A New Hope", in "The Phantom Menace" we meet many familiar characters: Anakin Skywalker (before he falls prey to the dark side of the Force and becomes Darth Vader), a much younger Obi-Wan Kenobi (played in a strange English accent by the Scottish Ewan McGregor), a slightly less wrinkled Yoda, Jabba the Hutt, and of course R2-D2 and C-3PO. However, there are lots of new characters including the devilish Darth Maul with his double-ended light sabre, Queen Amidala (played by young Natalie Portman who was so brilliant in "Leon"), and the rather irritating Jar Jar Binks (who is entirely computer generated). Also there are a host of great robots and machines and some wonderful sets. Above all, the special effects are quite simply brilliant.

    "Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones"

    There's nothing quite like a new "Star Wars" film to excite movie fans and, on the opening weekend at the première cinema in London, the sell-out audience was buzzing with expectation as we awaited the familiar theme tune and introductory sloping text. When it came, the folk applauded and hooted with pleasure. There is a family tradition of two decades whereby I take my son Rich to the new "Star Wars" movie and, although he is now in his mid-twenties and a fully fledged Jedi knight, we still honour that tradition - and it was just as well because, on occasions, this 50-something fan needed a bit of explanation of a convoluted plot.

    I liked "The Phantom Menace", but "AOTC" will appeal more to aficionados, not least because - like the middle film in the second trio, "The Empire Strikes Back" - it is altogether darker, both metaphorically and visually. I'm becoming used to Ewan McGregor's weird accent as Obi-Wan Kenobi and lobeless but lovely Natalie Portman is a delight as Padmé Amidila. However, it is Canadian newcomer Hayden Christensen who has the most challenging role as 19 year old Anakin Skywalker, a personality in transition, constantly torn between the light and dark side of The Force. When he describes the savaging of the Tusken Raiders who killed his mother, one is reminded of the massacre scene towards the end of "Lawrence Of Arabia".

    As always, George Lucas' fifth in the franchise is a technical tour de force. In the course of some 2,200 effects shots, we encounter wonderfully inventive worlds and weapons and a marvellous array of characters and creatures, all enhanced with stunning visuals and superb sound. Again as always, the weakest part of the production is the dialogue which reduced the audience to unintended laughter at several points. As Harrison Ford allegedly told Lucas on one of the earlier films: "George, you can type this shit, but you sure can't say it". On the other hand, Lucas was inspired to create the "Star Wars" saga by the Saturday matinée serials like "Flash Gordon" and their scripts were even worse.nAt the end of the day, "AOTC" is not fine art but simple entertainment and, on that level, it certainly delivers with a roller-coaster ride and a thrilling finale that features - the best bit of the movie - Yoda kicking ass with Count Dooku.

    "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith"

    All cinema fans owe George Lucas thanks for delivering something unique in the history of the cinema: six linked films created over 28 years which have thrilled millions and created many iconic characters and magic moments. "Star Wars III" essentially delivers just what the franchise's supporters wanted: answers to all the questions posed by "Star Wars IV-VI", a neat conjunction of the two trilogies, and some fun along the way. As with all five previous "Star Wars" films, I saw it with my son and the audience's wild cheering at the opening seconds created almost a family atmosphere.

    From the initial scene of a titanic space battle, we are offered plenty of action, well paced throughout the two hours and ten minutes. It might be thought difficult to make so many light sabre encounters fresh and exciting, but I loved it when General Grievous wielded no less than four sabres and the final conflict between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker is raised to a new level both by the lava-strewn terrain and by the previous master/teacher relationship. There is some pleasing symmetry as the Ob-Wan/Anakin fight is paralleled by one between Yoda and Palpatine and as the birth of the babies Luke and Leia is counterpoised by the creation of the metallic Darth Vader.

    The greatest strength of this 'sixth' episode is that cinematic technology has developed so much over the last three decades that the visual effects this time are at their most stunning. The weaknesses of this 'last' segment are those of the whole franchise and most especially the more recent triology: the dialogue is painfully weak and the acting often simply wooden. But we knew what to expect and what we wanted and George delivered for us handsomely.

    "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope"

    In a time long, long ago - actually 28 March 1978 when I was aged 29 - I was first introduced to the film franchise that would change my cinema-going experience for ever and that would become the most successful series in the history of the movies. At that time called simply "Star Wars", I was hooked from the opening seconds: written and directed by George Lucas who is only four years older than me, I immediately loved the slanting text that reminded me of Saturday serials of my youth; the triumphant music of John Williams grabbed the attention and raised the spirits; and then instantly we were into the action - a spaceship being pursued by another that grew larger and larger and even larger. Wow!

    The cast of characters were soon to become iconic: damsel in distress Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), the unlikely hero Luke Skywalher (Mark Hamill), bravado pilot Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his sidekick the Wookiee Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Jedi master Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi (Alec Guinness), the (really) bad guys Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and the black-clad and -cloaked Darth Vader (the body of David Prowse and the voice of James Earl Jones) plus the Laurel & Hardy of the droid world R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). As if these marvellous characters were not enough, we had some wonderful hardware ranging from light sabres to the Death Star and including the Millennium Falcon and those X-wing fighters.

    I loved the film so much that, as soon as I could (he was just two and half years old), I took my son to see it, starting a family tradition of viewing each new "Star Wars" movie as it was released. I have now seen the original movie six times over the years.

    "Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back"

    Set three years after the destruction of the Death Star, this second "Star Wars" movie - which was then rebadged as the fifth in a planned nine-film cycle - was not written or directed by George Lucas (Irvin Kershner was director and Lawrence Kasdan was lead writer) but developed from his story. Originally it was received with some disappointment but has in retrospect grown a lot in popularity. I always enjoyed the movie because it combines so many familiar figures with some new ones, introduces new terrains and technology, and offers a darker storyline.

    The new characters include Han Solo's old friend Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), the bounty hunter Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch), and - my all-time favourite "Star Wars" person - diminutive Jedi Yoda (the voice of Frank Oz). The new landscapes are the ice planet Hoth, where we have a great battle with the Empire's gigantic AT-AT Walkers, the swamp planet Dagobah, and Cloud City. At the city in the sky, there is a ferocipus lightsabre battle between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in which Vader reveals that he is Luke's father. This revalation stunned me and is not consistent with the information offered in the earlier film, but it creates an exciting new dynamic between the two men.

    ".. Empire .." had the problem of a middle segment in a trilogy of lacking the outstanding originality of the first part and the resolution of a final piece, but this gives it a crucial element of credibility. The Empire is a formidable foe and Darth Vader is no pushover, so Luke's loss of an arm and Han's carbonisation demonstrate that the real battle is yet to come.

    "Star Wars Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi"

    By the third "Star Wars" film (actually the sixth in the planned chronicle), we are on to a third director (Richard Marquand), although Lawrence Kasdan is still lead writer. Many of the characters have become like family: Luke and Leia, Han and Chewie, R2-D2 and C-3PO, even Lando. But Han is now a prisoner in carbonite at Jabba'the Hutt's palace on Tatooine and an attempt to rescue him simply puts both Leia and then Luke in the slob's tentacles.

    Once the three are free, the film introduces us - as ".. Empire .." did - to a new world: this time the forest moon of Endor. Now I enjoyed the vehicle chases on Endor, but I was less enamoured of the population of Ewoks, rough-looking teddy bear-type characters who are obviously there to make the movie child-friendly. Also the final attack on a new Death Star by a rebel fleet of starfighters is very remiscent of the conclusion of "A New Hope" and the concluding party on Endor with the 'appearance' of various spirit characters were, for me, not the best parts of this middle trilogy. Instead I found the most satisfying segments of the story were the encounters with the Emperor Palpatine and the growing complexity in the stance of Darth Vader.

    ".. Jedi .." is lighter than ".. Empire .." with a return to the sense of fun that made ".. Hope .." so appealling. As the third and last segment of this middle trilogy concluded in 1977, there was no prospect of the suggested prequel and sequel trilogies appearing on the big screen. Little did we know at that time ...

    "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens"

    In the beginning, we had what we learned was to be a middle trilogy (1977-1983). Then, after a long wait of 16 years, we had the prequel triptych (1999-2005). Now, after a delay of another 10 years which has been particularly painful for fans to endure, we arrive at the beginning of the sequel triplet. George Lucas, who conceived the whole project and directed and wrote four of the six previous films, is no longer on the scene, having sold the rights to Disney, replaced as guiding spirit by J J Abrams who directed, co-produced and co-wrote. The expectations of fans placed on Abrams have been absolutely immense, but this is the man who heroically reinvented the "Star Trek" film franchise. So, has he succeeded? Most assuredly and satisfyingly - but at a certain price.

    Set some three decades after the events in "Return Of The Jedi", half a dozen of the middle trilogy's characters are back. Harrison Ford is still charismatic as free-spirited Han Solo; Carrie Fisher struggles a bit as General Leia Organa, the leader of the resistance; and as for Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker ... well, see the film. Of course, there are lots of new characters.

    On the dark side, we have Supreme Leader Snoke (an unrecognisable Andy Serkis), his nefarious aide Kylo Ren (an admirable Adam Driver), and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). The dark side was manifest as the Sith in the prequel trilogy, then became the Empire in the central tripytch, and is now known as the First Order - clearly these guys have a branding problem. On the light side, Daisy Ridley - a British actress who is new to the big screen and reminds one of a younger Keira Knightley - is wonderful as the plucky Jakku scavenger Rey, while Latin actor Oscar Isaac is the new 'top gun' Poe Dameron, and there is a fresh droid in the rotund shape of BB-8. And then there is another new British actor John Boyega, whom we first see as a surprising black face in a white stormtrooper outfit, whose designation FN-2187 is thankfully soon simplified to Finn.

    From the opening seconds to the dramatic conclusion, this is an immensely entertaining work with lots of action and excitement and plenty of humour. We are back to the tone, elements of plot, and even some actual shots from the original central trilogy. This is perhaps not a surprise, since J J Abrams successfully rebooted the "Star Trek" franchise by making his two films somewhat derivative of earlier movies and Lawrence Kasdan, lead writer on "The Force Awakens", also scripted "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return Of The Jedi". Abrams and Kasdan could have been bolder in presenting a more original storyline, but they have set the scene admirably to do so in the next two movies and have a wonderful new young cast to take matters forward to new heights.

    "Starter For Ten"

    Adapated from a novel by David Nicholls and set in the 1980s at Bristol Uiversity, this British work has the look of a film for television - no stars, no exotic locations, no car chases, no special effects - and indeed it is the movie début of Tom Vaughan whose previous work (such as "Cold Feet") has been for TV and BBC Films was one of the sponsors. So it is a small and unexceptional tale, but not without a certain charm, some humour, and a good training ground for its three young stars: James McAvoy as Brian, a rather gauche new university student who is trying both to win "University Challenge" and the affections of a female fellow student; Alice Eve as Alice, the pretty, hedonistic blonde drama student; and Rebecca Hall as Rebecca, the earnest Jewish politico.

    "State Of Play"

    I thoroughly enjoyed this political thriller as the six hour television series which aired on the BBC in 2003 and this two-hour film version of 2009 with the same title and same-name characters is a skilful transposition to the big screen and an American locale. The plot is both up-dated and up-rated, so now we have lots of contemporary references to Iraq and Afghanistan and the threat - effectively the privatisation of homeland security by the sinister Pointcorps - is more serious. The only British elements now are the director - Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King Of Scotland") - and the newspaper editor - the underused but accomplished Helen Mirren.

    The movie hangs on Russell Crowe, playing old-time journalist Cal McCaffrey, who is sporting more weight than in any role since he was in "The Insider". He never gives a weak performance and here he is backed up well by Ben Affleck as a Congressman in deep trouble and Rachel McAdams as the young blogger working with Cal on a story that becomes bigger by the hour. The tension never lets up and the plot - complicated at times - cracks along, thanks to the script co-written by Tony Gilroy who penned all three Jason Bourne movies. So, if it's entertainment you want, this one delivers.

    Footnote: British cinema goers will probably experience the usual advertisement for the Orange mobile network immediately prior to the showing of the movie and will later be completely thrown when Brennan Brown pops up in the film as a Congressional aide. It's very hard to take him seriously.

    "The Stepford Wives"

    Why do they do it? Can't Hollywood craft some new storylines instead of cloning endless remakes? As if three television sequels was not enough. Of course, if you're going to reshoot a film, you have to have some distinctive angles, but everything different about this new version of the 1975 work by Bryan Forbes is a mistake.

    The advances in cinematic technology could have made for some great visual tricks, but the opportunity was squandered. More seriously, whereas the original movie was a scary thriller with a strong feminist message, this regurgitation is simply played for laughs and - especially in the twist at the end - finishes up betraying the cause of liberation and equality. In 1975, one could well imagine men challenged by the increasing independence of women wishing to return to the halcyon days of the 1950s, but surely the idea that men - even podgy, middle-aged Americans - would want to turn the clock back 50 years to cake-making, crinoline-wearing dumb blondes is just too tired an idea to be credible.

    The men in this movie are truly awful - Matthew Broderick has lost his spark and Christopher Walken sleep walks through yet another evil personna - with only Roger Bart, as the camp end of a gay partnership, relieving the boredom. The actresses - those who aren't playing robots anyway - give strong performances with Nicole Kidman displaying a wonderful variety of facial expressions as she is sacked from the TV network and Glenn Close proving eerily icy (sadly the wonderful Bette Midler is underused). But nothing can prevent this from being a movie to miss.

    "Still Alice"

    As more and more people live longer and longer, dementia in its various forms is becoming more commonplace and it is understandable that the subject should be increasingly portrayed in films and novels and films inspired by novels. "Still Alice" is based on a novel by Lisa Genova and written and directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer. What makes it different from other films about dementia, such as "Iris" (2001) and "Away From Her" (2006), is that, whereas the earlier works looked at the illness in old age, the eponymous Alice Howland is just 50 when she is diagnosed with early onset familial Alzheimer's Disease. The situation is particularly tragic both because Alice is a professor of linguistics and each of her three children has a 50/50 chance of becoming a victim.

    There is no way that such a movie is going to have a happy ending, but it is compelling watching because of an excellent script and a terrific performance by Julianne Moore in the title role. Moore has rightly won a whole bunch of accolades including the Academy Award for Best Actress. The first standout scene comes when Alice is out running and cannot work out where she is. Among many other powerful scenes, two knockout sequences are when Alice's youngest daughter (Kristen Stewart) asks her what her condition feels like and when Alice addresses an Alzheimer's Association event on her condition. The use of smart phones and computers make this a very contemporary examination of dementia and one of the most unsettling pieces of narrative is when Alice accidentally discovers a message from her earlier self.

    Ultimately this is not a film about illness so much as one about identity. Memory is critical to identity and, as we saw in the very different movie "Before I Go To Sleep", we are defined by what we do and do not remember. When Alice loses all her memories, is she still Alice?

    "Storks"

    I took my granddaughter Catrin (almost six) to see this animated movie when I was visiting the family in Nairobi. She rather enjoyed it but I found the narrative confusing.

    "The Story Of Us"

    I saw this in Prague with my Czech mates Tamara, Katka and Martin. It had such promise: a stellar first-time pairing of Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer and direction by Rob Reiner who made such romantic comedies as "When Harry Met Sally" and "The American President". However, the emotional subject matter of the movie - the bitter breakdown of a 15 year old marriage with children - does not lend itself to Reiner's trademark charm. I have been where the film's protagonists find themselves and I found the script often hit the mark, but sadly the whole is something less than the sum of the parts. The title in Czech is 'Druha sance" or "Second Chance" which gives away the all too predictable ending that comes almost as a relief.

    "Stranger Than Fiction"

    If you felt that your life was a story, how would you want it to work out and what would you do to ensure this? That's challenge enough. But suppose someone else was writing your story and plotting your imminent demise, what would you do then? This is the dilemma facing bored and boring tax auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell in a refreshingly nuanced performance).

    The person writing his life is, he discovers, successful English novelist Karen Eiffel (the always excellent Emma Thompson) who is struggling to work out quite how he should die, assisted in her writer's block by a no-nonsense aide called Penny Escher (played by Queen Latifah). Harold is helped to find his way by Ana Pascal (a cute Maggie Gyllenhaal) who runs a cookie cafe and is withholding tax and by Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) who is something of an expert in the "Little did he know" literary genre.

    This is not an easy film to categorise. It is a kind of romantic comedy but more understated and thought-provoking than your usual rom-com. It is a quiet work with some charm that is ultimately made by the succession of fine performances from its leading actors.

    "Sucker Punch"

    Director Zack Snyder is noted for putting his visuals way ahead of any narrative, but I enjoyed both "300" and "Watchmen". Here though, where he is both writer and director, the visuals totally dominate - yet what visuals. From the very opening to the very closing (the credits themselves are stylish), "Sucker Punch" is visually stunning and I saw the film on the biggest screen in Britain (the BFI IMAX in central London). The effects are fabulous and the soundtrack thumping.

    In a sense, all art is derivative (after 3,000 years of civilisation, how could it be otherwise?), but this movie is utterly, utterly derivative. Set in a mental institution with one world within another, involving a group of young, attractive women being sent on various missions by an older man, and with four set-piece battles on various mythical locations, this is "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" via "Inception" and "Charlie's Angels" for the pop video/computer gamer generation.

    The central character - and the only one with any real backstory - is Baby Doll (5' 2" Emily Browning) who is a cross between The Bride in "Kill Bill" and Trinity in "The Matrix". Her four fellow inmates and combatants are sisters Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish - who looks like a young Nicole Kidman) and Rocket (Jena Malone - who looks like a young Meg Ryan) plus Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung). All of them have huge false eyelashes and incredible resources, both physical and hardware. If they are the angels, then the Charlie figure is grizzled Scott Glenn, the only man who is less than revolting. As for the other 'characters', you've got samurai, dragons, cyborgs, robots, the lot - all waiting to be blasted to bits in a fast-moving video world.

    If there had been a half-decent script with some sort of plot, this would have been quite a movie. As it is, you need to give yourself a virtual lobotomy and just enjoy the ride.

    "Suffragette"

    This story of how in 1912 and 1913 British women fought for the right to vote is immensely worthy, technically accomplished and well-acted but, as cinema, it somehow fails to engage. At the conclusion of the movie, we are reminded that it was not until 1928 that full women's suffrage was achieved in the UK and even today women in a country like Saudi Arabia do not have the vote. The very act of creating this film is a contemporary testimony to female equality since, as well as all the lead acting roles, women fill the positions of writer (Abi Morgan) and director (Sarah Gavron) as well as producers (six out of the nine). The female domination of "Suffragette" serves to underline how few films ate directed and written by women and how underpaid female actors are compared to their male counterparts. The struggle for equality is not over.

    Although the leadership of the suffragette movement came from middle-class women, Morgan has chosen to tell the story through the eyes of a working class laundry worker Maud Watts, wonderfully portrayed by Carey Mulligan - whom I have admired since her performance in "An Education" (2009) - who is brought into the movement by fellow worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff). Other suffragettes are played by Helena Bonham-Carter (actually a descendant of a Prime Minister who opposed votes for women), Romola Garai (whose career does not seem to have taken off as much as she deserves), and - in an all too tiny cameo - Meryle Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst.

    "Suicide Squad"

    In the never-ending battle to bring to the big screen characters from the DC and Marvel comic books by Time Warner and Disney respectively, the latest shot is this super-villain version of "The Dirty Dozen" which launches upon us a whole slew of oddballs from the DC stable. If you're not familiar with the comics (like me), you won't know these characters and DC superheroes Batman (brief appearances) and Superman (brief references) are barely present.

    The movie is a mixed success with a flashy style, a rocking soundtrack, a few sharp lines and plenty of crashing action from writer and director David Ayer who carried out the same responsibilities for "End Of Watch' and "Fury". Major weaknesses though are that the number in the squad is too large for all the characters to be developed properly and most of them are more sympathetic than evil (notably Will Smith who is just too nice as Deadshot), while the forces that they battle - model Cara Delevingne as Enchantress, her giant brother and a bunch of faceless zombies - look as if they've wandered in from a "Ghostbusters" movie.

    For me, the best thing about "Suicide Squad" is Margot Robbie who plays Harley Quinn, formerly prison psychiatrist Dr Harleen Quinzel who fell in love with a patient the Joker (another underwritten role). She is sassy and sexy, while brilliantly balletic and devastating with a baseball bat, and she delivers- most of the best lines with charming cheek. You can understand why the Joker wants her out of her maximum security prison and why the squad will be back.

    "Suite Française"

    Despite its title (a reference to a piece of music) and its setting (occupied France early in the Second World War), this is largely an English-language film with a British co-writer and director (Saul Dibb) and an international cast. American actress Michelle Williams plays the French villager Lucile Angellier and Belgium actor Matthias Schoenaerts is the German officer Lieutenant Bruno von Falk who become romantically involved. The first half is rather slow and plodding but then the plot picks up. What makes the characterisations interesting is that Bruno is represented as an essentially good German, while many of the French are shown in a less than flattering light.

    The film is actually an adaptation of the second of two stories that was intended to be a novel of five tales written in French by Irène Némirovsky, a woman of Ukrainian Jewish descent who was deported from France to Auschwitz in 1942 where she died of typhus. Némirovsky's older daughter kept the notebook containing the manuscript for fifty years without reading it but, when she discovered what it contained, she had it published in France in 2004. The film adaptation was released ten years later.

    "Sully: Miracle On The Hudson"

    On 15 January 2009, Captain Chesley B "Sully" Sullenberger III had to take over the controls of US Airways flight 1549 when when a flock of Canada geese hit his Airbus 320 and knocked out both engines. The aircraft had only just taken off from New York's La Guardia airport and he judged that he did not have enough altitude to return to La Guardia or reach nearby Teterboro and decided to land on the freezing waters of the Hudson River. All 155 passengers and crew survived. Between the engines dying and the splashdown on the Hudson, there were just 3 minutes and 32 seconds. How doe one make a film about such a short period of time when the outcome was known to the world at the time?

    Well, master craftsman Clint Eastwood (now in his mid 80s), who produced and directed, has done it - and extremely well - by deploying three techniques. First, he revisits those few minutes again and again, showing different perspectives, including a nightmare and simulation exercises, and each time the tension is almost paralysing. Second, he examines the subsequent investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board which questioned Sully's decision - something I had not appreciated until the publicity for the film. Third, he has the perfect casting of Tom Hanks as Sully who is totally credible as the eponymous and heroic pilot.

    Clever visual effects and superb sound put the viewer right into the action. But, if there is any need to remind you that this actually happened, the credits are enlivened with photographs of the aircraft on the river with passengers stretched out along both wings and a clip of Sully, his wife and some of the passengers having an emotional reunion. Over his long career, Eastwood has had a recurrent theme of the lone hero acting without the full support of authority - all the way from "Dirty Harry" to "American Sniper" - and, in that vein, a criticism that one unfortunately has to make of "Sully" is that it unfairly represents the NTSB officials as hostile to the pilots rather than doing a professional job designed to learn lessons and make recommendations.

    "The Sum Of All Fears"

    I suppose that, if James Bond can be portrayed by five actors, Tom Clancy's CIA agent Jack Ryan can be played by three (but in the space of just four films?). Following Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, we now have the much younger, lantern-jawed Ben Affleck relying more on his command of intelligence than his physical prowess.

    After the horrific events of September 11, the idea of a nuclear device exploding in an American city is not beyond the realm of imagination, but would the Americans really suspect the Russians? In fact, the bad guys are portrayed like cardboard characters from an early Bond movie. However, if one can suspend one's critical faculties over the plot, the film still manages to be an effective thriller, aided by some good performances - especially from the consummate Morgan Freeman as Head of the Agency - a considerable deployment of military hardware and some exciting photography.

    "Sunshine Cleaning"

    This is an independent film that is slight but quirky (aren't they usually?) which scores because of the charm of its leading young actresses: Amy Adams ("Doubt" & "Night At The Museum 2") and Emily Blunt ("The Devil Wears Prada" & "The Young Victoria") who play working-class sisters Rose and Norah trying to make ends meet in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Alan Arkin is their elderly father and Clifton Collins Jr is a one-armed hardware store clerk. There are not so many films with lead roles for women and even fewer that feature the elderly and the disabled and it's probably no surprise that both the writer (Megan Holley) and the director (Christine Jeffs) are women.

    The film's title is both an allusion to the earlier movie "Little Miss Sunshine" from the same producers and an euphemism for the real work of Amy & Norah's operation which is concerned with the messy but lucrative business of cleaning up crime scenes after murders and suicides. Essentially the business is a metaphor for how its characters seek to sort out their own messed-up lives and the tale is told with some humour and is ultimately uplifting.

    "Super 8"

    "The Goonies" (1985) meets both "Close Encounters .." (1977) and "E.T." (1982) in this retro movie set in the summer of 1979, a simpler time for kids when there were no personal computers or Internet but a fun way for five young Americans to pass the time in a quiet mid-western town was to shoot their own Super 8 movie. The three aforementioned films were all created in some way by Steven Spielberg (now 63) who is here executive producer and his ardent fan is the 45 year old J.J. Abrams who is both the writer and director, most men having cut their film-making teeth on the eponymous piece of technical equipment.

    The narrative is soon enlivened by a spectacular train crash and nothing which follows quite compares to this terrific scene but it's all very entertaining if (deliberately) derivative. I don't think it is spoiling things too much to reveal that an alien is involved. Of course, in the world of Spielberg, aliens are basically benevolent; however, this is 2011 so we can't have a cute E.T. but his more aggressive features are explained by abusive treatment from the US military (not unknown around the world). As in "Alien", we gradually we more of the creature as the story unfolds but we never really understand the role of those white cube things.

    A recurrent theme of Spielberg movies is the absent parent and here two of the leading child characters have missing mothers. In fact, this is a very male film with the female of the species being mysterious either by not being around or, in the case of the one girl in the group of moviemakers Alice (Elle Fanning), by being able to drive, to act, and to empathise. It's no wonder that the pre-pubescent rivals for her affection - 'director' Charles (Riley Griffiths) and 'hero' Joe (Joel Courtney) - have their film in a twist over her.

    This movie within a movie ends neatly when, during the credits, we seen the finished Super 8 movie with clever connections with the real/reel movie.

    "Superman Returns"

    Seeing a summer blockbuster movie on the big screen is great fun. Seeing it on an IMAX screen with some scenes in 3D is awesome. But that was my experience with "Superman Returns". I'm a real fan of superhero films, so I loved "Superman" and "Superman II" and tolerated "Superman III" and "Superman IV". After an interval of 19 years, it's good to have him back. After all, he is the coolest of the superheroes because he can fly and, post 9/11, we need someone heroic to help us out.

    This is a somewhat sombre story, set five years after "Superman II" as even Lois Lois has decided that the world does not need Superman. When our hero returns, however, he is subject to almost Christ-like images: 'nailed' with kyptonite shards, 'crucified' with arms outstretched, and above all 'dying' only to rise from the dead.

    Newcomer Brandon Routh is virtually the same age as Christopher Reeve when he first donned the blue cape and the similarities in looks and voice are remarkable. Kate Bosworth is winsome enough as Lois Lane who now has a five year old son. But it's Kevin Spacey as the maniacal Lex Luthor who offers the best performance of the piece.

    Director Bryan Singer - who gave us the first two "X-Men" movies - and scriptwriters Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris have ensured that there are countless visual and verbal allusions to the original "Superman" in 1978, but the special effects have come a long way since the start of the franchise. Metropolis looks like an amalgam of 1930s architecture and present-day technology and there are some splendid sets and scenes, including a new version of the shuttle and the creation of a new continent, with a personal favourite being a huge train set.

    Two things spoil the show. First, as so often with blockbusters, the whole thing is too long (154 minutes). Second, a stronger narrative with more tension is needed to lift this above the pedestrian and make it really fly. But the man of steel is definitely back, the franchise is successfully revived, and I'll be in the stalls next time round too.

    "Suzhou River"

    On the return flight from our tour of China in Autumn 2000, we befriended a Chinese postgraduate student called Hua Ye who was on her way to commence her studies at Oxford University. Two months later, when she came to stay with us in London, we found this Chinese film to entertain her. The titular river runs through the north of Shanghai - one of the cities we visited on our holiday - and the action is set around the dilapidated quarters of this waterfront. Director and writer Ye Lou, himself a native of Shanghai, has crafted a haunting tale of betrayal, love and death told in a jerky, documentary style of photography with a compelling performance by the young actress Xun Zhou. It opens and closes with the same snatch of conversation but, by the time we hear it for the second time, we understand a lot more about the characters and the words themselves have become so much more meaningful and melancholic.

    "Swimming Pool"

    Essentially this is a French film: it was written and directed by a Frenchman François Ozon and it was shot by a French crew almost entirely on location in the south of France. But the lead actress is British and half of the dialogue is in English. Charlotte Rampling plays Sarah Morton (actually the name of Rampling's sister who killed herself at the age of 23), an English crime novelist who wants to craft something different. She is offered the use of her publisher's home in rural France where unexpectedly she comes across his daughter Julie played by Ludivine Sagnier. The two women are utterly different and the film - a slow-burning thriller - explores the developing relationship between them and its mysterious consequences with an ending that is highly ambiguous. We think of French films as often involving nudity and there is plenty on show here. Both actresses are beautiful and sexy although, at the time the film was made (2003), Rampling was in her late 50s and Sagnier in her early 20s.

    "S.W.A.T."

    After a challenging interview, I just wanted to unwind with some mindless violence and this movie scores on both fronts. It's certainly mindless with a barely existent plot and awful dialogue and it's definitely violent with high calibre rifles blasting holes in every vehicle in sight. I like action films that grab you from the start - all the Bond movies do, "Gladiator" did, and so does "S.W.A.T." From then on, the action is almost continuous with thumping music much of the time, so it's escapism pure and (very) simple. Samuel L Jackson can do this kind of thing in his sleep, Colin Farrell confirms his reputation for being in everything just now, and the one female character Michelle Rodriguez is sadly underutilised. As a sign of the times, the bad guy is no longer a Brit but a "frog", as Hollywood reflects American anger at French lack of support in Iraq.

    "Syriana"

    Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan - who wrote the screenplay for "Traffic" - this accomplished political thriller owes a lot to George Clooney who both acts as an executive producer and takes on the key role (for which he put on 35lb in a month but won an Academy Award) of embittered CIA agent Bob Barnes (a reference to Robert Baer who wrote the novel on which the movie is based). There are multiple storylines, characters and locations, so that one frequently struggles to understand what is going on and how each element relates to all the others, but there is fine acting - with familiar faces such as Matt Damon, Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer & William Hurt as well as opportunities for able Arab actors - and the sort of cinematography that draws one irresistibly into the action.

    At times the message is thumped home too bluntly (there is a little speech concluding "Corruption is why we win"), but this indictment of the machinations around the American oil industry and its political backers is compelling and challenging cinema - as well as uncomfortably topical.

    All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.

    Last modified on 8 December 2016


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