"V For Vendetta" "Valentine's Day" "Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets" "Valkyrie" "Vantage Point" "Vanilla Sky" "Venom" "Veronica Guerin" "A Very Long Engagement" "Vice" "Viceroy's House" "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" "Victoria & Abdul" "La Vie En Rose"
"V For Vendetta"
This is the 2005 film adaptation of the comic series published between 1982-1989 that achieved a new notoriety in 2011 when members of the anti-capitalist Occupy movement adopted the stylised Guy Fawkes mask worn by the eponymous libertarian cum terrorist. Although set in London, it was largely shot on sets in the Babelsberg studios outside Berlin (which I have visited) with a crucial final sequence filmed at the long unused Aldwych tube station in London (whose closed entrance I've walked past many times). Also, although many of the support parts are filled by familiar British actors, the two leading roles are taken by non-British thespians who nevertheless affect convincing English accents: English-Australian Hugo Weaving who is V and Israeli-American Natalie Portman as Evey who becomes his companion in arms.
These leading actors have very different experiences on set: we never see Weaving's face and he wears a long wig as well as mask and cloak, whereas Portman is in one sequence stripped down to a hospital-like gown and her face is the subject of unusual focus when she has to lose all of her hair. Characters in this movie - most notably V himself - are more complicated and nuanced than in most such fantasy tales and I was more impressed by the work and it provoked more thought than I was expecting.
Although V has some pretty special physical characteristics and skills, this is no super-hero movie but an altogether more grounded and usually much darker exposition of an avenger with contemporary themes around the need to fight for individual and collective liberty. As a Londoner who has worked in the Houses of Parliament, I had mixed feelings about a plot to blow up the building some four centuries after Fawkes failed and, as a peace-loving democrat, I was troubled by V's propensity to dispense summary justice with some relish, but his character had suffered cruelly and he was on a vendetta.
Oh dear, oh dear. This 2010 effort by the Americans to emulate the formula and the success of the British 2003 "Love Actually" produces a confused and limp offering. It must have looked such a great idea when pitched to the studio: a huge cast of stars, multiple storylines with cross connections, different takes on romance, lots of songs about love, and - even better than the Anglo film they would claim - Los Angeles (instead of London) and Valentine's Day (instead of Christmas).But it just doesn't work and only underlines how subtle and clever was the original version. There are just too many relationships going on with too much confusion in the tales and, above all, a really weak and saccharine script from Katherine Fugate. The best performance comes from Anne Hathaway but, if you just want to spot the stars, there's plenty on show including Ashton Kutcher and Jamie Foxx, Julia Roberts and Jennifer Gardner, Hector Elizondo and Shirley MacLaine. That's right, someone for guys and gals, young and old, white and ethnic, straight and gay. Except for a couple of nice little twists at the end, it is all so formulaic and predictable - and a little moralistic. "Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets"
You have to admire an artist with ambition who is prepared to take risks and French writer/director Luc Besson is an original in the world of cinema. He has given us such wonders as "Leon", "The Fifth Element" and "Lucy" - works of variable success - plus the under-rated and under-known "The Lady" and even co-scripted the three "Taken" movies, so his eclectic work has added to the joys of the big screen. The science fiction tale of "Valerian" is his most ambitious film yet - seven years in the making and, at an estimated $180M, the most expensive independent movie ever made. Was it worth it? Well, the result is part brilliant and part bonkers and sadly these are not even equal parts.
Let's start with the plaudits. Even in the 2D in which I chose to see a work that threatens sensory overload, "Valerian" is quite spectacular. Adapted from a comic strip and set in the 28th century, it conjures up about 200 different alien species (some of them wonderful) and a variety of amazing worlds which include the eponymous city, a race of elongated glitter people, a virtual reality shopping mall, and a red light district with a marvellous shape-shifting character called Bubble (the splendid Rihinna). Apparently, there are almost 3,000 special effect shots in this movie. Whereas so many sci-fi works postulate a dystopian future, Besson has created a positive future with a universe in which thousands of different species happily co-exist and ethnicity and gender are blurred.
So what's wrong with "Valerian"? Above all, the plot is weak and the script is even weaker. And then there's the acting. The main characters - federal agents Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline - are played respectively by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevinge and, while both look pretty, he can probably act but doesn't (and sounds eerily like Keanu Reeves) while she still can't act and doesn't realise it (but has time to learn), while the chemistry between the two (as well as solving a mystery they are conducting a kind of romance) is non-existent. Clive Owen is unconvincing, Ethan Hawke is underused, and lord knows what Herbie Hancock is doing there.
Unfortunately this expensive movie is going to cost Besson dear and not just financially, but I suspect that in time it will acquire a curiosity value and maybe even a cult following.
This is certainly a tale worth telling - the 1944 unsuccessful attempt on the life of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler by a group of dissident army officers centring on the aristocratic Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. Furthermore the director Bryan Singer has an exciting record with work including the first two X-men movies. And visually it looks good, being made at Germany's Babelberg studios (which I have visited) with much of the action centred on the Nazi Army Ministry (which again I have visited - it is now a Museum of the Resistance to the Nazis).
The film opens well and, after a dullish section, finishes strongly but that "Valkyrie" fails is primarily down to the poor casting. There are some fine British actors on show, including Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Terence Stamp (although it's hard to take comedian Eddie Izzard too seriously), but the short scientologist and American Tom Cruise as the tall, cultured German von Stauffenberg does not work at all.
Link: details of the plot of 20 July 1944 click here
This is a film that sounded promising. First, it has a starry cast including Dennis Quaid (a welcome return), Matthew Fox (an escape from "Lost"), Forest Whitaker (always engaging), William Hurt (looking presidential in a Gerald Ford way) and Sigourney Weaver (sadly underused). Then the plotting offered something a little different: the same assassination attempt shown through eight different vantages with the viewer gradually learning more before it is all knitted together in a frenetic concluding section involving a furious car chase.
It certainly moves fast enough and provides some entertaining escapism, but nothing is what it seems, the plot twists are increasingly unlikely, and the whole fandango threatens to collapse under its own sense of fantasy. Set in Salamanca in Spain, in fact only the aerial shots are the real Plaza Mayor with most of the the production located in the Mexican cities of Cuernavaca and Puebla. Salamanca is a common word for "trick" in Filipino which probably borrows from the Spanish colonialists. Like I say: nothing is what it seems.
What do you have if you take two Cruises and two Camerons? Four Cs and a B+, that's what. The first two Cs are Tom Cruise and Penélope Cruz who are playboy publisher David Aames and his newly-discovered love (both on and off-screen). The second two Cs are Cameron Diaz as Aames' "fuck-buddy" Julie and Cameron Crowe as both writer and director of this strange thriller set in New York with an appealing soundtrack.
Is David Aames demented or dreaming? Is he a murderer or a victim of a set up? Who knows? More relevantly, who really cares? If Aames seems thoroughly bewildered by what is happening to him, maybe you'd be confused if you had to choose between making love four times a night to someone like Diaz and having an idyllic relationship with someone like Cruz.
The movie - a remake of the 1997 Spanish work "Open Your Eyes" - tries hard to be clever and original and has some memorable scenes with Cruise often looking like the "Phantom Of The Opera", but it only partly succeeds, leaving me at least more than a little perplexed. In short, no more than B+.
This movie is far from being the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but it is not as bad as many critics have suggested. What makes it a little different is that, in other super-hero films, the same character so often has two persona (think Clark Kent and Superman or Tony Stark and Iron Man)), but this time we have an anti-hero with two characters in the same person as one-time investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is possessed by a 'symbiote" from outer space providing some comedic character clashes.
Sadly the work takes too long to get going and the female characters are poorly rendered (with a terrible under-utilisation of the talented Michelle Williams as the love interest). At least, the evil genius - Riz Ahmed as Dr Carlton Drake - is quite effective and Venom himself - looking like a cousin of "Alien" - is suitably fierce-looking, but the "symbiote" itself looks like a cross between an oil slick and a kitchen mess.
However well or otherwise the film performs at the box office, we know that we've not seen the last of Venom because a clip early in credits introduces us to a forthcomong opponent played by Woody Harrelson. Oddly, at the very end of the interminable credits, there is a long clip from an altogeher different film - an animated version of a Spiderman - that is part of Sony's bit of the MCU.
Guerin was a Dublin journalist who exposed the role of the drug barons in Ireland and was threatened, then shot, and subsequently murdered for her crusading efforts a few days short of her 38th birthday in 1996. Seven years after her assassination, this worthy American film portrays her campaign in a testimonial style which focuses mainly on the ordeals she faced rather than the motivation for or methods of her investigations. As the film reveals, Guerin was not just immensely brave, but also reckless and not beyond criticism by others in the profession. Sadly the attempt to provide an up-beat ending does not sit well with the continued size and pervasiveness of the drug problem in Ireland.
As the eponymous campaigner, the Australian Cate Blanchett gives a very accomplished performance, Ciarán Hinds is convincing as her principal source, and Gerard McSorley is chilling as her assumed nemesis.
Link: Wikipedia page on Veronica Guerin click here
"A Very Long Engagement"
"A Very Long Engagement" is a bit too long, a bit too complicated, and ends a bit too abruptly but, these criticisms aside, this is a wonderful French film that is a refreshing antidote to so much simplistic Hollywood fare. From the director of Amélie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and featuring the same actress in the leading role, Audrey Tatou, this work has much of the feel and form of the earlier work and could be dubbed "Amélie Limps To Love". Here Tatou plays Matilde, a young Breton woman whose childhood polio has left her with a lame leg. Her equally young fiancé Manech, played by Gaspard Ulliel, is forced to serve as an infantryman in the nightmarish trenches of the Great War where he becomes one of five men sentenced to death for self-mutilation. In a convoluted sequence of flash-backs and revelations, Matilde discovers what happened to each of the men at the oddly-named Bingo Crépuscule section of the trenches, last of all to the love of her life.
Characteristic of Jeunet's work, we have a broad collection of colourful characters from a bicycle-skidding postman to a mysterious female assassin to a farting dog. The acting is uniformly spot-on with an unexpected cameo role from French-speaking Jodie Foster. There are some brilliant sets, ranging from the ultra-realistic trench and battlefield locations to recreations of early 20th century Paris, and some splendid sequences, including a scene of children on top of a lighthouse and another inside a makeshift field hospital housing a barrage balloon. The whole work is a richly-detailed, visual treat, with Jeunet using different colours and textures for the different locations and periods, and long after one has seen the movie one's mind revisits scene after memorable scene.
Adam McKay stunned us with the "The Big Short" in which, as co-writer and director, he endeavoured to tell the complicated story of the sub-prime crisis in the USA economy in a virtuoso style. Now, as sole writer and director, he attempts the tell the incredible account of how Dick Cheney somehow became the most powerful Vice-President in American history with devastating consequences for the US and the world.
Again McKay deploys an idiosyncratic style in which he uses a whole panoply of cinematic tricks, including breaking the fourth wall, a false ending, and a narrator whose identity is only slowly revealed and really shouldn't be any part of the movie. Such a scatter-gun approach does not always work, but it hits the target often enough to be both entertaining and informative in a manner which is both comedic and scary. By the time I saw it, the film had attracted 8 Academy Awards nominations.
There is a large cast with some terrific performances. None is better than an almost unrecognisable Christian Bale as the eponymous dark lord. It is not just that he looks utterly convincing, thanks to piling on 40 lb and having loads of prosthetics, but he even sounds like the guy with his gravelly voice and trademark pauses. Other excellent portrayals include Amy Adams (Cheney's wife Lynne), Sam Rockwell (George W Bush), and Steve Carrell (Donald Rumsfeld), while Alfred Molina has a delicious cameo role as a waiter offering Cheney and his chums a whole menu of devices to usurp power.
We even have a discussion of something called unitary executive theory which basically means that a US president can do just about anything he wants. A legal opinion asserting the validity of this principle is still in the records - but please don't tell Donald Trump.
So "Vice" is uneven and not quite up there with "The Big Short" but, more seriously as a criticism, is it simply too polemical in the style of Michael Moore? At the end, McKay anticipates this charge and, in a brief scene visiting a focus group, he has a liberal arguing that it is all true. Don't expect Cheney or anyone else to take McKay to the courts.
British Asian Gurinder Chadha has directed a hugely ambitious and well-intentioned film that has some serious flaws. It attempts to tell the story of the independence of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947 - involving both the unseemly haste and the alleged political duplicity of the British and the intransigence of both the Hindu leader Jawaharlal Nehru and Muslim secessist Muhammad Ali Jinnah - through the device of an "Downton Abbey" upstairs/downstairs model in which the military and political figures upstairs have lines of stilted dialogue announcing information to the viewer, while the Hindu and Muslim young lovers downstairs are underwritten roles before ending up in a clichéd finale.
The film looks grand with colourful sets and costumes and it sounds fine with a score by AR Rahman, while an array of thespian talent is on show from Hugh Bonneville as the ever-reasonable Lord Mountbatten, Gillian Anderson as his plummy-speaking wife Edwina, Michael Gambon as conniving General Hastings Ismay, Simon Callow as the boundary-drawer Cyril Radcliffe, and less well-known but able actors in support roles. The problem is in the script which tries to telegraph too much information in an unnaturalistic manner, presents the local politicians in overly simplistic terms, and makes a serious charge against Winston Churchill with too little evidence.
The partition of India was a tragedy of immense proportions: 14 million people were displaced - the largest migration in human history - and up to a million died as a result of sectarian violence, starvation and disease. For Chadha, it is a very personal story: many of her relatives were directly affected including her father’s youngest sister aged 10 who starved to death. She clearly wanted to bring these huge issues to our attention in a manner that would attract viewers into a cinema and it is a partial success. However, critics have included Fatima Bhutto who has written: "Not once do you witness any violence on behalf of India’s foreign rulers; they are serene and encouraging, weighed down with the heavy burden of soothing these wild, intemperate people."
"Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
I'm not a constant Woody Allen fan - so I loved "Hannah And Her Sisters" and then was disappointed by "Scoop" - but this film, which he both wrote and directed, is something different. Of course, it does no harm that it is full of attractive people - Rebecca Hall as the restrained Vicky and Scarlett Johansson as the impulsive Cristina, two young American friends spending the summer in Catalonia, plus Javier Bardem as Juan Antonio and Penélope Cruz as Maria Elena, Spanish artists who once had the near-perfect marriage - and of gorgeous locations - Gaudí's Barcelona, of course, but also Oviedo and Avilés.
What makes the movie though is the relationships and inter-relationships, mainly between these four colourful and contrasting characters but also between Vicky and her fiancé and an older American couple who seem to foretell where one of the young women is going. The acting is very naturalistic and the script has its fair share of humour in a narrative that presents a shifting kaleidoscope of emotions. When the shaking stops, how different will things be? You might be surprised ...
"Victoria & Abdul"
Queen Victoria has now replaced Sherlock Holmes as the most featured character on British screens. According to a study by the British Film Institute, the monarch is now jointly tied with James Bond on 25 films. This is thanks to "Victoria & Abdul" (2017) which is a kind of companion piece to the earlier "Mrs Brown" (1997): both works star the inestimable Judi Dench as the British Queen in a relationship with a court outsider in an attempt to assuage her loneliness (indeed the new film mentions the friendship of the earlier film).
Like all good football matches, "Victoria & Abdul" is a game of two halves. The first half is played for laughs with Abdul (Bollywood rising star Ali Fazal) and his Indian companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) acting like Laurel & Hardy or R2D2 & C3PO and the various British establishment characters presented in rather sterotypical or satirical manner. But then the second half is much more serious with Victoria making very plain the sorrow of widowhood and the isolation of court life and struggling to make her "Munshi" (Indian Secretary) an intimate part of her life even when all around her - especially son 'Bertie' (Eddie Izzard) - are utterly opposed to the friendship and Abdul himself proves to be something of a charlatan.
It seems that this remarkable true story only became known in any detail through the relatively recent discovery of Abdul's diaries and, at a time of significant Islamophobia in the Western world, the idea that a British monarch and a Muslim clerk could have such a meaningful friendship resonates powerfully. Director Stephen Frears and writer Lee Hall have crafted a work that manages to be both entertaining and topical in a very British movie that will have international appeal.
"La Vie En Rose"
"La Vie En Rose" (literally "Life In Pink") is the 2007 French biographical film about the life of French chanteuse Édith Piaf. It has two great strengths: an outstanding performance in the lead role from Marion Cotillard who won an Academy Award for Best Actress (the first time an Oscar has been given for a French-language role) and the magnificent songs that made Piaf's career. But this is a dark film, both literally, with much of the action in shadows, and metaphorically, since Piaf was both a tragic and irascible character who died when she was only 47. The disjointed narrative do not help either.
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.
Last modified on 1 February 2019
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