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FILM REVIEWS: U

Contents
  • "U-571"
  • "The Ugly Truth"
  • "The Unbearble Lightness Of Being"
  • "Unbreakable"
  • "Unbroken"
  • "Under Seige"
  • "Under The Skin"
  • "Unfaithful"
  • "Unfriended"
  • "United 93"
  • "The Unknown Known"
  • "Unstoppable"
  • "Untouchable"
  • "The Untouchables"
  • "Up"
  • "Up In The Air"
  • "The Usual Suspects"

  • "U-571"

    In the wartime Battle of the Atlantic, a crucial element in the success of the U-boats was the Germans' Enigma encryption system. This film suggests that the turning point in the Allies' breaking of the code was the assault on U-571 by an American submarine crew led by Lt Andrew Tyler (played with some stoicism by Matthew McConaughey) in the Spring of 1942. In fact, the Enigma machine and code books were first captured from U-110 by a British boarding party from the Royal Navy's ship the "Bulldog" led by Lt David Balme and the incident occurred on 9 May 1941 - when the Americans were not even in the war.

    "U-571" tries to compensate for this historical travesty by including in the final credits a dedication to the 'Allied' effort on Enigma and dates of two British as well as one US capture of vital material. However, I'm one of the few people I know who sit through such credits and, by the end of the war, the British had actually captured 13 Enigmas to the Americans' one. Is it really necessary commercially for Hollywood to portray the Second World War as consisting of heroics exclusively by characters of its own nationality?

    Historical fallacies aside, this is a superior action-adventure movie and director Jonathan Mostow has created a fine addition to the long submarine genre flowing all the way from "Run Silent, Run Deep" (1958) to "Das Boot" (1981). He may have paid more attention to the technical details than the characterisation, but there is sustained tension and continual action, assisted by excellent special effects and superb sound. You can almost feel the sweat.

    "The Ugly Truth"

    Former model Katherine Heigl is a beautiful young woman with real comedic talent as an actress as evidenced by her performance in "Knocked Up", but it's a mystery why she should want to take a role which presents such a one-dimensional, utterly anal character as television producer Abby and a total enigma how such a sexist script could come from three women and Heigl herself could be one of the (eleven) producers. At least the unreconstructed male with whom she stars and spars - Gerard Butler as relationship 'expert' Mike - is given some back story to excuse his Neanderthal behaviour, but Abbey's persona is utterly inexplicable. There are some funny bits - especially the restaurant scene - but too much of the script is coarse and crude. The ugly truth is that this movie is like much dating, offering more than it delivers.

    "The Unbearable Lightness Of Being"

    The odd title of this film comes from the novel on which it is based written by Czech-born, France-based Milan Kundera. It tells the story of a sexually rampant surgeon called Tomáš (British-Irish Daniel Day-Lewis) who marries Tolstoy-reading barmaid turned photographer Tereza (French Juliet Binoche) but still has many lovers, most notably the free-spirited, bowler-hatted artist Sabina (Swedish Lena Olin). Really this rather long enterprise (almost three hours) is an erotic art film that somehow managed to attract a commercial budget, but it is by turns amusing and moving and always intelligent.

    The timing of the tale is politically very signficant since it is set just before and after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia which brutally crushed the 'Prague Spring'. The timing of the production is equally significant - although unappreciated at the time. The film was released when Czechoslovakia was still Communist-controlled and therefore most of the shooting was in France, but the year after its release in 1988 the 'velvet revolution' overthrew Communism in Czechoslovakia which a few years later split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

    "Unbreakable"

    Following his well-deserved success with "The Sixth Sense", the young (29 year old) M Night Shyamalan has come up with another clever and original occult thriller which he wrote, produced and directed. It is often slow and deliberate, but always mesmerizing.

    Again Bruce Willis is the leading character, but this time he has a strange alter ego in the form of the ever-able Samuel L Jackson. The precise relationship between the two characters is not revealed until the final seconds and, as with "The Sixth Sense", any further information will simply spoil the pleasure of the viewer with this accomplished, if not quite so powerful, successor to the earlier movie.

    "Unbroken"

    Like most non-Americans I guess, I'd never heard of Louis "Louie" Zamperini before viewing this bio-pic and it is a truly remarkable story: someone who represented the United States in the 5,000 metres at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and then, during his war service as a bombardier with the USAAF, somehow survived drifting in the Pacific for an amazing 47 days, only to find himself a prisoner of war who was brutalised by his Japanese captors. The prisoner camp scenes in the film are ugly and reminiscent of "Bridge On The River Kwai" and "Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence".

    The director, Angelina Jolie, and the scriptwriters, the Coen brothers, are very well known and treat the material with a respect verging on dullness and as a result this well-made film suffers from a certain lack of characterisation and really weak dialogue. By contrast to director and writers, the actors are virtually unknown: the British star Jack O'Connell as Zamperini, Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson as the other survivor of the time at sea, and Japanese rock musician Takamasa Ishihara (better known by his stage name Miyavi) as the sadistic camp commander Mutsuhiro "The Bird" Watanabe, all of whom acquit themselves well.

    In some ways, the final moments of the movie are the most poignant. We learn that Zamperini became a born again Christian who forgave his wartime captors, managed to carry the Olympic torch for the Winter Games in Japan (when he was almost 81), and sadly died aged 97 just before "Unbroken" was released.

    Link: Wikipedia page on Louie Zamperini click here

    "Under The Skin"

    I'm always ready to try a film that's different, but "Under The Skin" was such a disappointment. It is a dark work - both literally and metaphorically - but, above all, it is so utterly minimalist: minimal dialogue, minimal narrative, minimal comprehensibility. Often one complains that a movie did not explain everything, but this one explains nothing. It is based on a science fiction novel which I understand makes much more sense, but it seems to have departed widely from the book. The only saving grace is that one gets to see a lot of dark-haired Scarlett Jonansson - an alien with an appetite for lonely Scottish men - one way and another (way). But I have no idea why she made this film. It is tosh, pretentious tosh.

    "Under Siege"

    I always like a good adventure film and this one enjoyably fills an evening of television (although I first saw it at the cinema). It is a kind of "Die Hard At Sea" starring laconic martial arts expert Steven Seagal in an intellectually undemanding but action-packed caper. Tommy Lee Jones is wonderful as the villain who combines menace with humour ("Four seconds ahead of time. God, I'm good"), but ex-"Baywatch" babe Erika Eleniak displays little more than her (ample) breasts. Seagal is not noted for his dialogue, but I love the scene where Miss July asks him "So, what are you, some kind of special forces guy?" and he summons up all his thespian talent and responds: "Nah, I'm just a cook". In the next hour or so, cook and kook battle for control of the nuclear weapons aboard the soon to be decommisioned ship and there's no prizes for guessing who brings home the bacon.

    "Unfaithful"

    Director Adrian Lyne - who gave us "Nine And Half Weeks" and "Fatal Attraction" - here provides some of the raw sexuality of the former with some of the chilling tension of the latter but in an altogether more prosaic and therefore more credible setting. Ed and Connie Sumner (Richard Gere and Diane Lane) have been married for 11 years and seem to have it all: a great-looking partner, an amusing young son, and a wonderful home outside New York. But Connie chances upon a younger Gallic male (Olivier Martinez) who lights her fire and incites Ed's ire. You just know it's going to end in tears, but the story is well-executed and stylishly shot, even though the ending is somewhat unsatisfatory.

    "Unfriended"

    As a massive film fan, I enjoy most cinema genres, but the horror movie is not generally one of them. I made an exception in this case because of my intense interest in all aspects of the Internet. I'm glad I did because this is a clever piece of work that has something to say about the need for caution in how we express and expose ourselves online through a medium where content is more-or-less permanent and ubiquitous. The message is especially relevant to young users of the Net who are those most likely to see the film. Directed by Georgian Levan Gabriadze and written and produced by American Nelson Greaves, this is a work of some talent.

    The film is a classic case of how less can be more. Turning the tiny budget (a mere $1M) into an advantage, the entire point of view of the movie is the computer screen of a teenage girl interacting with five friends and a troll. The whole thing (83 minutes) is shot in something approaching real time. So the viewer is pulled into the narrative and has to pay constant attention as text is rapidly typed onto the screen and video links of the teens come and go. So, just after one has leaned forward to read a new piece of text, one is flung back by the sound of violence.

    "United 93"

    Although there have already been a couple of television programmes on the seismic events of 11 September 2001, this is the first feature film. There will, of course, be many more, but it is difficult to imagine a more stunning and impactful one. In a sense, therefore, it is ironic that the writer and director Paul Greengrass is British and that most of the filming was done at the Pinewood studio just outside London, using the inside of a salvaged Boeing 757.

    The style adopted by Greengrass so effectively is an utterly sparse one. The hand-held camera work and rapid cutting give the whole thing the feel of a documentary. There is no preamble or scene-setting, no flash-backs, no explanations, no star actors. Instead the narrative is simply linear and the confusion self-evident. The research as to events and dialogue is meticulous, members of the aircrew are played by actual stewardesses and pilots, and many of the air traffic controllers and military personnel are playing themselves.

    There may be no analysis or commentary but many of the messages are stark. The nearest F-16 was 100 miles away and the military knew nothing of the airliner's fate until four minutes after it struck the ground. Neither the President nor the Vice-President was in contact. They and we were totally unprepared for an event of this nature.

    Since United Airlines flight 93 took off from Newark airport 40 minutes later than scheduled, the passengers were able to learn of the suicide missions carried out by the three other sets of hijackers. Since the time to elapse from the first jet slamming into the World Trade Center to the crashing of United 93 was around an hour, this film is able to adopt a real-time narrative.

    The tension, as the 40 passengers gradually understand more about their dilemma and plan a last-ditch effort to gain control of the plane, is almost unbearable. The mobile calls to relatives and friends makes one's eyes well with tears. The timing and nature of the final shot - the actual crash and a totally black scene - is stunning.

    This impressive and compelling work was produced in full co-operation with the relatives of the passengers and it is a fitting tribute to them, their bravery and their sacrifice.

    "The Unknown Known"

    "There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns - there are things we do not know we don't know." This was the enigmatic quote from American politician Donald Rumsfeld that inspired the title of this interview by acclaimed documentary maker Errol Morris. Rumsfeld had an astonishing career working for no fewer than four US presidents and serving twice as Secretary of State for Defense - once as the youngest holder of the position (1975-1977) and then later as the oldest holder of the post (2001-2006). In his second term as Defense Secretary, he was a principal architect of the so-called 'war on terror', sending troops into Afghanistan and then Iraq.

    The fascinating testimony presented by Morris is both written and oral. Rumsfeld was famous for his blizzard of memos - known as "snowflakes" - and Morris managed to gain access to all the unclassified ones and to pursuade Rumsfeld to read out the most relevant to the documentary. Additionally Morris posed a series of searching questions in an interview shot over 11 days and recorded using the film maker's trademark "Interrotron" device which means that Rumsfeld is seen staring straight into the camera. It has to be said that Rumsfeld is a fluent writer and an articulate speaker and, after eight decades, is as sharp as ever, so there is no revelatory moment like David Frost's interview with Richard Nixon, but it is precisely his evasiveness and the charming manner in which he accomplishes this that is so revealing of a bizarre and (when given power) frightening character.

    I saw "The Known Unknown" at its UK premiere in central London's Curzon Soho cinema in the presence of Errol Morris who made some opening remarks and then, after the screening, took a question & answer session. He compared this documentary with "The Fog Of War", his 2003 interview with another US Defense Secretary when he questioned Robert McNamara on the Vietnam war, and called the two films "bookends". He noted that McNamara was "deeply reflective", but characterised Rumsfeld's performance as "deeply unreflective". He called Rumsfeld "a skilful obscurantist" who was "obsessive with language" and had "a complete lack of irony", highlighting his "infernal grin".

    The banality of much of Rumsfeld's language - "The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence" - reminded me of Peter Sellers' penultimate film "Being There" (1979) in which he played a simple gardener whose bland aphorisms about nature led to him being co-opted by America's political power brokers. Morris has done us a service in capturing all this for history in the hope that we can learn from history. What is totally unclear is why Rumsfeld agreed to the interview. This was Morris's last question to him and he responded: "I'll be darned if I know".

    "Unstoppable"

    This is moviemaking by numbers with standard characters and an utterly predictable narrative - but, in the hands of action director Tony Scott, these are terrific numbers. There is Frank, the cool, old-timer who has been driving trains for decades (charismatic Denzel Washington), and Will, the cocky rookie conductor (good-looking Chris Pine), a difficult pairing who are about to face an even more difficult challenge, a runaway freight train the size of the Chrysler Building with enough explosive power to blow up Will's home town in Pennsylvannia. Apparently this scenario was inspired by real events.

    It is a thoroughly entertaining ride with no scene and no dialogue wasted. From the opening seconds, we are starting to wonder and worry and the pacing is excellent with pauses for breath but no stopping in the rising tension. It's a good ride.

    Link: the incident that inspired the movie click here

    "Untouchable"

    This French film was a massive box office success in its country of origin and nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award but, in the English-speaking world, it will not make the impact that it should. It tells the tale - inspired by a true-life friendship - of a most unlikely couple: a wealthy white man who is a quadraplegic following a paragliding accident (Fran├žois Cluzet) and a black immigrant just out of prison (Omar Sy). Although somewhat simplistic, this uplifting story addresses issues like disability, class, race, and sexuality in a light-hearted, often very amusing, manner that cannot fail to lift the spirits.

    "The Untouchables"

    It opens with a terrific Dolby stereo version of Ennio Morricone's gripping incidental music. From the beginning, the camerawork is inventive: high shots, low shots, revolving shots. We are in Chicago in 1931 for a gangster movie starring newcomer Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness and magnificent Robert de Niro as Al Capone. In fact, all the performances are excellent, with Sean Connery particularly engaging as an Irish cop with a Scottish accent.

    The director is Brian de Palma ("Scarface") and he produces a stylish and exciting film with memorable lines and some dramatic and bloody scenes, including the death of the Connery character as we hear the opera "Pagliacci" and a sequence on the railway station steps that is borrowed from "Battleship Potemkin". As a gangster movie, it does not have the realism and depth of that all-time great "The Godfather" but, in its own way, it is most effective with pace, power, tension and humour. It is a classic of the genre.

    "Up"

    Animation movies have become so much more sophisticated. It's not just that technically they are so good to look at but many now have interesting characters and captivating stories. "Up" is one of those. The opening sequence is as poignant a tale as youll ever see in an animated film, while the relationship between the two principal characters - 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Edward Asner) and Russell, a wilderness explorer 70 years his junior (Jordan Nagai) - is wonderfully portrayed. A floating house and talking dogs - "Up" has it all.

    "Up In The Air"

    This is not an easy film to categorise - which is a good thing. It's a kind of road movie, except that all the travelling is in the air as Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) aims to hit a personal (and meaningless) target of 10 million air miles. It's a sort of rom-com with Bingham meeting Alex (Vera Farmiga), his match as a hard-nosed executive who likes some fun on the side. There's an odd-couple theme as Bingham is teamed up with Natalie (Anna Kendrick), the very young newcomer to the corporate world who tries to outdo her companion in coldness. And the whole thing is a satire on the brutality of capitalist enterprise that sacks hard-working and long-serving staff with a management-speak that makes it sound as if the company is doing them a favour.

    Whichever way you look at it, this is Clooney's film. He is rarely off the screen and gives a marvellously assured and textured performance as the mobile downsizer or "career transition counsellor" who at a personal level does not want to be burdened by anything or anybody (shades of Clooney's own reluctance to commit to a relationship). Credit must also go to young director (and co-writer) Jason Reitman, hot from his success with "Juno". If the film has an episodic narrative, this is clearly because it is based on a novel by Walter Kim with chapters based on Bingham's visit to different airports and different companies in various mid-western towns.

    The economic context to the movie feels very contemporary since the release comes at a time of high unemployment in the United States (as elsewhere) as a result of the worst recession since 1929; yet the novel was published in 2001 and Reitman began work on a screenplay in 2002. An interesting touch is that almost all the people fired in the movie were real-life workers who had recently lost their jobs in St Louis and Detroit and were asked to say what they felt about the experience.

    "The Usual Suspects"

    "Who is Keyser Soze?" If you've never asked yourself this question, you'll be mesmerized by it at this end of this brilliant movie. Borrowing its title from a famous line in "Casablanca", this is a showcase for superior direction from 28 year-old Bryan Singer and fine acting from an ensemble cast including Gabriel Byrne and Kevin Spacey. It is a violent thriller with some strong action, a complicated plot and a clever twist at the end, as everyone struggles to identify the dreaded Hungarian gangster who has set up the whole project.

    All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.

    Last modified on 13 December 2015


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