"W." "The Walk" "A Walk Among The Tombstones" "Walk On Water" "Walk The Line" "WALL·E" "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" "Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price" "Waltz With Bashir" "Wanted" "War Horse" "War Of The Worlds" "Watchmen" "The Water Diviner" "Wanted" "War Horse" "War Of The Worlds" "Watchmen" "The Water Diviner" "The Way Back" "We Were Soldiers" "Went The Day Well?" "West Beirut" "West Is West" "Whale Rider" "What Maisie Knew" "What Women Want" "Whatever Works" "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" "While We're Young" "Whiplash" "White Christmas" "White House Down" "Wild" "Win Win" "The Wind That Shakes The Barley" "Winstanley" "Winter's Bone" "Withnail & I" "The Wolf Of Wall Street" "The Wolverine" "Woman In Gold" "Wonder Woman" "The World Is Not Enough" "The World's Fastest Indian" "World War Z" "The Wrestler" "Wuthering Heights" (1992) "Wuthering Heights" (2011)
To see a film on the life of America's 43rd president just four days after the election of the 44th president was a weird experience. Let's face it: George W. Bush and Barack Hussein Obama could hardly be more different - Republican and Democrat, shock and awe, literally white and black. Now radical director Oliver Stone (the same age as his subject and a contemporary at Yale) is not noted for always being subtle, but here he makes a real effort to be respectful and even understanding of Bush; yet the whole work teeters on the edge of parody - much more like "The Jon Stewart Show" than "The West Wing".
Josh Brolin is remarkably good as the eponymous president, looking and sounding as like Bush Jr as any actor could. Indeed several of the support roles involve very passable imitations of the principals, such as James Cromwell as Bush Sr, Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld, and Toby Jones as Karl Rove. The two black characters stand out for different reasons: Colin Powell (played by Jeffrey Wright) is sympathetically represented as warning against the invasion of Iraq while, by contrast, Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton) is portrayed as weak and sycophantic.
The eight-year presidency of Dubya is a rich source of momentous material, yet this movie comes across as surprisngly flat. The constant flash backs to Bush's youthful years do not help and a more chronological treatment would have worked better. The choice of songs and certain fantasy images show an unfortunate heavy-handedness. Above all, the central theme - that Bush Jr was always trying to impress and ultimately out do his unloving and unforgiving father, even to the point of toppling Saddam Hussein where the older man pulled back - is really just so much psychobabble.
The first time we see W. in the Oval Office he is discussing the use in his next speech of the chilling phrase "axis of evil". His Manichaean view of the world, underlined by his born again Christianity, was his fundamental flaw - and Stone's body of work too often suffers from the same fault.
If you knew nothing at all about this film, the low-key title would hardly attract you to it. But this is not a walk along the Appalachian Trail ("A Walk In The Woods") or even the Pacific Crest Trail ("Wild"), but something else entirely. On the morning of 7 August 1974, Frenchman Philippe Petit did the seemingly impossible: after six years of planning, for 45 minutes, he walked a tight rope slung between the two towers of the still-uncompleted World Trade Center, spanning the 140-foot (43 metres) gap at a height of 1,368 ft (417 metres). If we didn't know it had actually happened, it would be literally incredible.
If you've seen the excellent 2008 documentary "Man On Wire" by James Marsh (as I have), you'll be thoroughly familiar with the thrilling operation and with the colourful character of Petit himself. What this movie does, however, is what the documentary could never do: provide a feel for what the walk itself felt like. This vertiginous scenario is created through some clever CGI and scary 3D that alone make this new account worth viewing.
In an odd piece of casting, Petit is played by American actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt who does his best to sport a French accent. Also odd is the narrative framing device which has Petit talking to us from the torch on the Statute of Liberty. These oddities aside, this is a fine movie but, of course since 9/11, nobody can see a representation of the Twin Towers without being chilled by the memory of that awful morning and the last line of the movie makes an oblique reference to that.
Link: Wikipedia page on Philippe Petit click here
"A Walk Among The Tombstones"
Once upon a time, Liam Neeson used to take on challenging acting roles - I'm thinking of films like "Schindler's List" and "Michael Collins". But, in the last five years, he seems to have specialised in less demanding, but probably more lucrative, action roles, notably his three "Taken" outings and now "Tombstones". Here he is not an ex CIA agent but a former New York City cop who is now a private investigator in the city. Based on a novel by Lawreence Block, writer turned writer-director Scott Frank tells a dark and unpleasant story involving two psychos who are so revolting that we almost feel sorry for the drug dealers they are trying to exploit. The sexual threat is more suggested than shown, which is why the film did not receive a tougher certificate, but it is enough to make for uncomfortable viewing.
"Walk On Water"
This is an unusual Israeli film, not least in that it is only partially in Hebrew, partially in German, and mainly in English. The explanation is that the two central characters - a young German man whose grandfather was a Nazi and a little older Israeli who is an accomplished Mossad agent - only have English as a common language and spend much of the film together, first in Israel and then in Germany. The good-looking leads are Knut Berger as Axel and Lior Ashkenazi as Eyal who go on a journey as much emotional and political as geographic.
Director Eytan Fox and writer Gal Uchovsky - a gay couple - have produced a work that raises so many complex issues about relationships - between straight and gay men, between Jews and Arabs, between Israelis and Germans - and so many moral issues - including suicide bombing, state assassination and private justice - that one has to forgive them for a number of implausibilities in the plot (that I could only discuss by spoiling your viewing).
Although I am not Jewish, I have visited Israel (including all the locations featured in the film) and I saw the movie in a synagogue in North London with close Jewish friends. Following the screening, there was a group discussion which revealed a spectrum of views on the extent to which Jews should 'live' in the past as compared to simply remembering it and to which today's Germans can or should be held 'responsible' in any way for the horrors of the Nazi era. The impact of "WOW" was such that it provoked deep thought long after this debate concluded which is a powerful recommendation.
"Walk The Line"
As musical bio-pics go, this is certainly superior fare, but how much you'll enjoy it might well depend on how much you like the genre and how much you appreciate the (country) music. This film was more my wife's choice than mine.
It is the story of the early professional life of the American singer Johnny Cash, "The Man In Black", set mainly in the 1950s and 1960s with a soundtrack of no less than 16 songs. We already knew that Joaquin Phoenix is a superb actor (from movies like "Gladiator") and here he demonstrates a fine singing voice too. The revelation is Reese Witherspoon, as Cash's singing companion and future (second) wife June Carter, who makes it clear both that she is a fine actress (not self evident from films "Legally Blonde") and has a good singing voice.
Considerable credit goes to James Mangold who laboured on the project for many years, working closely with both Cash and Carter (before they died within four months of one another), and then both directed and co-wrote it.
The odd title is actually an acronym: Waste Allocation Lift Loader, Earth-Class. This little robot unit is the last of a series originally intended to clean up a massively polluted Earth while humankind left the planet for a temporary five years which, after the failure of the project, has resulted in an absence of 700 years. The pacing and atmosphere of the movie would be remarkable for any work, let alone one of animation, with a long opening scene with little action and no dialogue. Even when another robot EVE arrives from outer space and a technical romance ensues, the dialogue is minimalist but the action accelerates at a exciting and satisfying pace.
Pixar have here given us outstanding work and Andrew Stanton, who conceived the story and directed the film, deserves special praise. The film is entertaining with action, humour and great visuals, but its is also subtly instructive with clear messages about the damage to the planet and to our bodies from our adoration of consumerism, making it appealing to children and adults alike. Many science fiction classics - from "2001" to "Silent Running" - are referenced, but the treatment is so original that "WALL·E" itself is destined to be a classic.
"Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"
In 1987, Oliver Stone directed and co-wrote "Wall Street" with Michael Douglas as a super-confident corporate raider Gordon Gekko ("Greed is good") and Charlie Sheen as his young acolyte. The real-life financial crash of 2008 was obviously a powerful inducement to Stone to return to the crime scene and 23 years later Stone again directs and co-scripts, Douglas is back as a Gekko who has served his jail term, and even Sheen has a small cameo. The young newcomers are Carey Mulligan as Gekko's estranged daughter and Shia LaBeouf as the daughter's partner. Other talent on show includes Frank Langella and Josh Brolin and even a 95 year old Eli Wallach.
This is a glitzy production that includes another hard-hitting speech by Gordon Gekko ("Money is a bitch that never sleeps!") - this time savaging the irrational exuberance that leads to speculative bubbles in over-complex and opaque financial markets. Sadly, however, the film pulls its punches by putting too much blame on one rogue trader than on the systemic crisis in modern capitalism and offering a trite conclusion to the tensions in the Gekko family.
"Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price"
This year (2006) has seen two hard-hitting documentaries exposing the unacceptable face of American capitalism: one on energy giant Enron and this one on retail hegemoth Wal-Mart. Enron went into bankruptcy and its most senior managers have been convicted, while Wal-Mart is still enjoying massive commercial success, but this film makes clear that this success is at a very high cost to individuals and communities.
Small businesses in small town USA are put out of business; staff are paid low wages and denied representation by a union; shoppers risk rape and robbery in the store's car parks; east Asian suppliers are exploited. Director Robert Greenwald illustrates all this with a succession of personal testimonies and emblazoned statistics that leave no room for sublety or doubt. The company itself only has an indirect voice through archive footage of CEO Lee Scott at a company rally messianically addressing loyal staff and then defensively in a television interview suggesting that any opposition is confined to a small minority.
The final section of the 95-minute film turns this tale of devastation into a call to arms by showing how well-organised local communities can and have resisted the onward march of Wal-Mart. This is not a balanced documentary but a powerful polemic that is a much-needed antidote to so much of the commercial propaganda to which we are all so subject.
Link: Wal-Mart watch site click here
"Waltz With Bashir"
Animation is not just for children - the French Persepolis" (about a girl in Iran) made that clear and the Israeli "Waltz With Bashir" (about the invasion of Lebanon) dramatically underlines the point. The Israeli work was written, produced and directed by Ari Folman and is based on his experiences as a soldier and his video of his exploration of the traumatic events some 20 years later. Like any really powerful film, the opening and closing sequences are stunning - but the intervening one and half hours contain so many moving and disturbing images - some simply surreal - that the animation plays in the mind long after the credits have rolled.
The title is a reference to Bashir Gemayel, the newly appointed President of Lebanon, who was assassinated on 14 September 1982 following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon on 6 June 1982. The assassination led the Israeli command to authorise the entrance of a force of approximately 150 Phalangist fighters into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, resulting in a massacre of at least 800 civilians. It is this horrific incident that is the emotional heart of the movie and the cause of Folman's mental repression.
Link: Sabra and Shatila massacre click here
Ultra violent and ultra silly, but with lots of action and special effects including bullets that bend, it is hard to imagine how this splatter of a movie attracted the likes of James McAvoy (struggling with an American accent), Morgan Freeman, Angelina Jolie and Terence Stamp.
When I was a youngster in the early 1960s, I used to travel down from my home in the north-west of England to spend a few days at my grandmother's house in the Midlands where I would sleep in a bedroom with a striking picture on the wall. It showed an utterly exhausted horse collapsed in thick mud with a soldier in First World War uniform kneeling down by the animal's head with a pistol in his hand. Underneath the harrowing scene were the words of the man to the horse: "Sorry, old friend". That image was in my mind as I entered the cinema to see "War Horse".The 1982 children's novel by Michael Morpurgo and the National Theatre stage version were both huge successes and film director Steven Spielberg has crafted so many wonderful films from "E.T." to "Saving Private Ryan" that I had high expectations for his cinematic adaptation of this story of a beautiful horse called Joey travelling from the peaceful English countryside of Devon to the hellish conflict in the trenches of north-west France, but I have to confess to a real sense of disappointment. Certainly there is much to admire here with wonderful composition and cinematography, some fine young British actors, and certain scenes - notably the two cavalry charges and Joey's run through No Man's Land - as outstanding. But I found the first hour too languorous and much of the film overly sentimental. At times, human characteristics were so obviously imputed to Joey - the same horse that had the eponymous role in "Sea Biscuit" - that I half-expected him to start talking (perhaps I've watched "Babe" too often). When death happens, it is so quick and/or distant that it does not really engage the emotions. The version of the English countryside that is presented to us is that of the chocolate box kind and the sunset at the end a throw-back to "Gone With The Wind", while the dialogue is often stilted. Sorry, Steven, but - in spite of the subject matter - too often the tone of this movie is more "E.T." than "Saving Private Ryan". It will undoubtedly be a great success with family audiences but a discriminating adult will feel let down.
"War Of The Worlds"
The combination of director Steven Spielberg and actor Tom Cruise - last paired in "Minority Report" - promises much and the vehicle of the 1898 H G Wells novel "The War Of The Worlds" seems like an exciting basis for their undoubted talents. The basic elements of the original story are retained, notably an alien tripod invasion of Earth with a Morgan Freeman opening narration quoting the first words of the novel and the ultimate defeat of the invaders through the same mechanism as offered by Wells. The transposition from late 19th century England to early 21st century United States is understandable commercially, but the abandonment of any mention of Mars and the absurd notion of aliens descending down lightning bolts to inhabit huge vehicles buried long, long ago weaken the credibility of the plot. A sequence involving Tim Robbins as a crazy survivalist (especially a cringe-inducing effort to sing a children's song) is also misplaced and unpleasant.
However, Cruise as always is very watchable and here dispenses with any special bravery or skills to portray a confused father desperately trying to save his two children, constantly scared, confused and on the run. Eleven year old Dakota Fanning is so good as his daughter that she is in danger of becoming the star of the movie. Where "WOW" scores big time - and I mean BIG time - is in the 400+ special effects generated by Industrial Light and Magic The opening sequence when the first tripod erupts from the city streets is brilliant and other scenes - notably the crashing of a Boeing 747 - are the exciting visions and sounds that beg to be witnessed on a large screen. This is Spielberg much more in "Jaws" and "Jurassic Park" mode than "ET" and "Close Encounters", but in the end it is more a case of "WOW" than "wow".
I don't do graphic novels so I haven't read the 1986/87 "Watchmen" comics/book by British writer Alan Moore, but I'm a huge fan of superhero films so there was no way I was going to miss the movie adaptation, especially as it is directed by the young American Zack Snyder whose "300" I enjoyed so much. It is certainly well worth viewing since, in many respects, "Watchmen" is a true orginal - a film like no other you've seen before. It is a visual treat, irredeemably dark, morally ambiguous, outrageously violent, frequently bloody, sometimes sexy, and featuring an eclectic soundtrack.
These are superheros who depart big time from the standard. They may have two identities, which is almost compulsory, but - except for superb fighting skills - they actually lack super powers, with the notable exception of Dr Manhattan who is not so much a superhero as a kind of god, and these are deeply flawed 'heroes', vindictive and violent, who - at worst - rape and murder.
Set in a counter-factual 1985 version of America, it is hard to know which is scarier - the idea of Nixon winning a third term, avoiding Watergate and winning the Vietnam war or the threat of nuclear Armageddon from a US/USSR conflict and difficult to know which is more incredible - that exposing one man to radiation can turn him into a demi-god or that humankind can cope so easily with the nuclear obliteration of 15 million (the largest death toll in any movie in history?). In the end, it didn't quite work for me, mainly because the narrative is so disjointed and the finale insufficiently dramatic. The current benchmark of quality for superhero movies is "The Dark Knight" and "Watchmen" simply does not have the pacing, excitement and virtuoso acting of that movie.
information on the original comic click here
information on the film adaptation click here
"The Water Diviner"
Since Russell Crowe came to the attention of cinemagoers worldwide in "L. A. Confidential" (1997), he has starred in some 25 films and given a series of terrific performances - most notably in "Gladiator" - but this is the first film that he has directed. He also takes the lead role as Australian rancher Joshua Connor, who loses three sons in the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915, so this is clearly a very personal movie for Crowe as well as for Australians generally in the centenary year after the conflict (director Peter Weir covered the battle more directly in his 1981 work "Gallipoli").
What makes Crowe's film interesting is that he treats sympathetically the viewpoint of the defending Ottoman Turks underlining their losses as well as those of the ANZAC troops (65,000 Turks dead and 46,000 Allies dead including 7,600 Australians), depicting the rise of Turkish nationalism and resistance against Greek invaders, and providing serious roles for Turkish actors. The battle scenes are well done and the cinematography is excellent.
What weakens the work rather is a degree of sentimentality, partly around the powers of divining but more especially around the relationship between the Ozzie farmer and a local woman played by former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko. Also the main British character has an appalling accent and is unfairly stereotypical. But overall this is a very commendable directorial debut by Crowe and augers well for his future career.
"The Way Back"
In 1955, a Polish army officer who was captured by the Russians in 1939 and sent to a prison camp in Siberia wrote "The Long Walk", an account of how he (Slavomir Rawicz) escaped the gulag with six others and managed to travel by foot across Siberia, Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, Tibet and the Himalayas before the surviving members reached India in 1941 - a staggering journey of some 4,000 miles. Did he personally do it? Almost certainly, no. Did anyone do it? Probably not. Does it matter? For the purposes of this film which tells that story, no. It is a cracking tale and Australian director Peter Weir has chosen to refer to Rawicz's book as a novel.
Weir is a terrific movie-maker who has not directed a film for seven years ("Master And Commander") and here he allies a great adventure with striking visuals and accomplished acting. The photography is by Russell Boyd and the shooting was done in Bulgaria, Morocco and India. The international ensemble of actors includes British Jim Sturgess as the Polish officer Janusz, Romanian Dragos Bucur as Yugoslav accountant Bucur, American Ed Harris as the enigmatic Mr Smith, Irish Colin Farrel as psychopathic Russian convict Valka, and Irish Saoirse Ronan as the Polish teenager Irena.
This may not be Weir's best work (that might be "Witness"), but this road movie without the road is well worth you joining for the stroll.
"We Were Soldiers"
Mel Gibson has now given us a trilogy of 'leadership in war' movies. Putting aside "Gallipoli" (where he was a mere foot soldier), he has led the Scottish against the English in "Braveheart", turned the tide for the Americans against the British in "The Patriot", and now he commands Custer's old unit in Vietnam. This is an account of one of the very few full-scale battles between American troops and North Vietnamese regulars which occurred in November 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley in the Central Highlands (recreated in central California). Some 400 US soldiers took on around 2,000 Vietnamese in a fire fight lasting three days and nights.
I've never been over-impressed by Gibson as an actor. He's fine in roles such as the wacky cop in the "Lethal Weapon" series, but I find him a performer of limited range. Nevertheless, here he has beefed up his body, adopted a gruff Southern accent and put on a smart uniform to enable him to give a more than adequate performance as the real life Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore. For Gibson, this is clearly a very personal endeavour. His company Icon co-funded and distributed the film and the director and screenwriter is his old friend Randall Wallace who wrote "Braveheart" (and "Pearl Harbor"). Gibson - himself a Catholic with a large family - obviously identifies with Moore who is represented as fatherly to both his children and his men. Ironically Gibson's own father moved the family from the USA to Australia partly so that his sons would avoid the draft.
Veteran Sam Elliott is good as the stereotypically tough, loyal and laconic second-in-command ("Sir, Custer was a pussy. You ain't"), but Madeleine Stowe is sadly under-utilised as Moore's stoical wife. By contrast with "The Deerhunter", "Platoon" or "Born On The Fourth Of July", this is very much an officer's view of the Vietnam war with working class characters given very little to say.
War movies will never be the same since "Saving Private Ryan". "We Were Soldiers" - like "Black Hawk Down" - presents a brutally visceral version of war in which we are left in no doubt of the terrible sound and awesome destruction of modern ordnance. Indeed there are so many similarities between these two films issued within weeks of one another. Both are based on books and show the essential role of the helicopter in modern warfare to both deliver and sustain ground troops and the all-decisive nature of air power; both involve US troops being massively outnumbered by local forces, inflicting far more deaths than they suffered, and having to fight by night as well as day; and, above all, both portray ill-conceived and ultimately failed American operations in an heroic light.
What distinguishes "We Were Soldiers" from so many other Vietnam movies is the patriotic and religious tone which is made easier by the timing of the incident in question. This was a period before the cynicism and chaos of the war had taken hold, when the Americans still thought they were right to be in this Asian quagmire. For the British viewer, this tone will not sit so easily, although one cannot fail to be stirred by the action and the music. However, I saw the movie with an American friend, who once wrote a book based on the recollections of 19 Vietnam veterans, and he confirmed my clear impression that American audiences - especially post-9/11 -will love it.
"Went The Day Well?"
This British black and white film of 1942 is an oddity in so many respects. The strange title comes from a short epitaph written about the First World War which appears at the very beginning of the film and the plot was based on a short story by the author Graham Greene entitled "The Lieutenant Died Last".
We see a takeover of an English village called Bramley End (it was actually shot in part in Turville in Buckinghamshire) by German paratroopers pretending to be English soldiers preparing for an imminent large-scale invasion. In fact, the underlying message of the movie - beware of fifth columnists and strangers - was essentially redundant by this stage of the war since a German invasion was no longer anywhere near likely.
Nevertheless, I guess for a wartime audience it provided an interesting and entertaining storyline which presented the plucky British at their communal best. However, the actors playing the Germans have such perfect English accents and their characters lack basic combat skills, while the action sequences are weak when they are not silly. A similar tale was represented much better by the 1976 film "The Eagle Has Landed".
The DVD of this Arabic-language film was given to me by a British friend working in Beirut shortly after my visit to the city. It is set in Muslim side of Beirut at the beginning of the civil war in 1975 and it was written and directed by Lebanese-born 36-year-old Ziad Doueiri who worked as a cameraman on three of Quentin Tarantino's films.
In many ways, it is a very personal work: the central character, the teenage Tarik, is played by the director's young brother Rami and Rami's educated parents are loosely based on his own. In other ways, it has more universal themes, since it is a rite of passage movie that portrays the loss of casual innocence, accentuated by the experience of conflict - much like the British "Hope And Glory" which was one inspiration.
"West Beirut" is both emotional and amusing and it full of wonderful characters, but it probably helps appreciation of the film to know something of Lebanon's factional and fratricidal politics and the ending is rather abrupt and down-beat.
"West Is West"
In 1999, "East Is East" was a pleasurable and incisive look at the clash of different cultures in an Anglo-Pakistani family in a Salford set in 1971. Over a decade later comes a sequel of sorts, this film located mainly in the Punjab part of Pakistan a few years on. Although the director is different (Andy DeEmmony this time), the writer is the same (Ayub Khan-Din) as are some of the lead actors, notably Om Puri (actually from the Indian part of the Punjab), again outstanding as the patriarch struggling to give his youngest son an appreciation of his Pakistani culture, and Linda Bassett as his long-suffering English wife.
It is an uneven work, with some of the characters merely caricatures and some of the humour simply slapstick, but there are plenty of moving scenes - above all one between the English and Pakistani wives when neither can understand the other's language but both manage to convey deep understanding - and the locations and soundtrack are excellent.
The strange title comes from the legend of the Maori Whanghara tribe who trace their arrival on the east coast of New Zealand to the myth of Paikea who rode there on a whale. Centuries later, all the old traditions are dying and elderly Koro (Rawiri Paratene) is resolved to revive them by finding a new male successor to lead the community. However, the person most in tune with the old ways and most determined to lead the village is Koro's eleven year old grand-daughter Pai (brilliantly portrayed by first-time actor Keisha Castle-Hughes).
New Zealander Niki Caro both wrote and directed this rare work, based on the acclaimed novel by Witi Ihimaera. Clearly it was a labour of love with deep reverence for the Maori culture and stunning use of local scenery and archive footage of whales. This makes for the very antithesis of a Hollywood blockbuster, but pleasingly the simple and moving - if somewhat sentimental - tale has garnered many film festival awards.
I first saw this 2002 film in the cinema when it was originally released in the UK but, at that time, I had never visited New Zealand. I rented "Whale Rider" for a second viewing after a trip to New Zealand in 2013, when I learned more about Maori culture, which made the work all the more enjoyable."What Maisie Knew"
The adorable six year old Maisie (a very persuasive performance by Onata Aprile) lives in New York City where she is the subject of a bitter custody battle between her rock star mother Susanna (American Julianne Moore in an unsympathetic role) and her art dealer father Beale (British Steve Coogan in - for him - an unusual non-comic portrayal). Each parent co-opts an aide in the war, Susanna taking up with bar man Lincoln (the Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård) and Beale seducing Maisie's former nanny Margo (Scottish Joanna Vanderham). The twisting narrative is seen through Maisie's eyes as she is treated like a shuttlecock between the four adults who often behave more like children themselves.
It is clear where this story is going pretty early in the tale, but I found this small, independent movie genuinely moving and it had me talking to the television screen on which I viewed it. This is partly because I found it so evocative: I was myself the subject of a contested custody battle when I was eight (my mother won) and my first wife and I handled our custody case so, so differently (I had custody of our five year old son). But any viewer would find "What Maisie Knew" impressive because of the convincing performances and believeable situations.
"What Women Want"
A wonderfully alliterative and attention-grabbing title and a clever idea (macho man suddendly able to hear women's thoughts), but the treatment is less incisive than it could have been and goes for the simple laughs. Female co-scriptwriter and director, Cathy Yuspa and Nancy Myers respectively, work with Mel Gibson (in his first romantic comedy) and the talented Helen Hunt playing rival ad agency ideas people in a predictable, but quite engaging, work with cameo roles from Alan Alda, Marisa Tomei and Bettle Midler. Gibson is surprising good in a role outside his usual repertoire - willing to don tights, able to impersonate Sean Connery, and up to performing an old-fashioned dance routine.
This is not a film that I would venture to the cinema to see but, as an evening of DVD viewing, "Whatever Works" works fine. In many ways, it is traditional Woody Allen - he is writer and director, we are back in New York, and the lead character looks and sounds like a younger version of Allen himself. In fact, the central role of virulently truculent, former professor of physics Boris Yellnikoff was originally written for Zero Mostel in the 1970s, but the project was put aside when Mostel died in 1977 and the script has now been dusted down for Larry David.
An attraction of opposites - reminding us of Allen's own relationship - is presented by the arrival of the wonderfully named Southern belle Melodie St. Ann Celestine played by the delightful Evan Rachel Wood. Threats to the odd pairing come successively from Melodie's mother, father and young admirer, all caricatures rather than characters.
There are sections - especially at the beginning - delivered straight to camera and the lines are theatrical rather than natural, but this is a romantic comedy with touches of philosophical insight which was never going to change the world but might just modify how you look at it for an enjoyable hour and a half.
"What's Eating Gilbert Grape?"
Directed by the Swedish Lasse Hallström, this is a odd, small, but enagaging film with some odd characters not all of whom are small. If fact, one of them - Gilbert's mother Bonnie - is played in her first movie role by 500lb Darlene Cates. Part of the fun in watching this work now is to see some stars whose career has really taken off. Notably there is Johnny Depp, here playing shoulder-length haired Gilbert, a quiet pivot of the strange Grape family and a world away from his subsequent roles as Captain Jack Sparrow in the "Pirates Of The Caribbean" series. Then there is Leonardo DiCaprio (only 19 at the time of this role) who gives an impressive performance as Gilbert's younger brother, the mentally handicapped Arnie. Other stars to enjoy are Mary Steenburgen and Juliette Lewis, both playing women who represent part of what is eating Gilbert.
"While We're Young"
It feels as if we're back in "Greenburg" territory with "While We're Young" made four years later, since we have the same writer and director (Noah Baumbach) and the same lead actor (Ben Stiller) playing a similar central character. This time, Stiller is Josh, married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a middle-aged married couple who find themselves hooking up with Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a couple in their twenties, who remind the older pair of the freshness and spontaneity of youth while he struggles professionally and she laments their inability to become parents.
The female roles are underwritten and, while Driver is good, this is really Stiller's film. The trouble is that he is such an irritating character, unable to complete a long-running project to produce a boring documentary and foolishly trying to recapture his lost youth. There are some funny scenes and situations, but this is an uneven work with a sequence at a hippy retreat proving particularly silly.
This is not a film with mass appeal - there are no super-heroes or car chases or special effects - but the discerning viewer will find it a cinematic treat. The title alludes to a piece of jazz music but it might as well describe the tongue of Mr Fletcher (J K Simmons), teacher and conductor at a top New York music academy, whose lacerating comments on the efforts of his charges literally result in blood and tears. The prime focus of his teaching - or torture - is 19 year old Andrew (Miles Teller), a drummer in Fletcher's elite band. Teller gives a fine performance but Simmons is simply stunning in a career-best showing from a lifetime of (mainly television) acting (it deservedly won him an Academy Award).
The movie was both written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who at school wanted to be a jazz drummer and had a tough music teacher, and it is a feature length version of his award-winning short film of the same name. The plotting is quite thin but this is not a slow work - the rehearsal sequences, which are the core of the story, are sharply cut and well shot. What gives the narrative some complexity is that Mr Fletcher's appalling behaviour is a consequence of his own failure and could be seen as well-intentioned, while Andrew's willingness to take so much abuse and punishment is the result of his all-consuming passion to be the best. A prolonged drum solo at the end is a tour de force that seems to make it all worth while - but you'll end up feeling exhausted.
This 1954 classic - the first movie in Vistavision - is as schmaltzy as they come with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye playing ex-GI singer-dancers who team up with a sister act (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen) to help out their former general (Dean Jagger). It is all very obviously done on sets and the dialogue is particularly corny, but the dance numbers add some life to this wooden work and the famous "White Christmas" song opens and closes the show.
"White House Down"
Often Hollywood movies come in pairs, so 2013 saw two that, a decade or so after terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, felt able to represent an assault on another iconic American building: the office of the President. First out of the trap was "Olympus Has Fallen" which I saw at the cinema and rather enjoyed. "White House Down" was released later and I waited until it was on DVD to catch it on rental.
The basic plot of the two movies is remarkably similar: bad guys seize the White House and capture the President before attempting to take over control of all US missile forces, while a military helicopter attack fails and a lone agent succeeds with a kid in the middle of the mayhem. The major difference is that "WHD" had twice the budget of "OHF" and deploys much more special effects to give us bigger explosions and more aerial sequences.
However, in my view, "WHD" is inferior to "OHF": the capture of the White House is just too easy, the motivation of the attackers too personal, and the storyline too jokey, while Jamie Foxx is not as convincing a President as Aaron Eckhart and Channing Tatum does not come over as tough as Gerard Butler. But, heh, both are entertaining enough if one suspends all belief.
In the summer of 1995, 26 year old American writer Cheryl Strayed took on a backpack weighing nearly half her weight and made a 1,100-mile hike from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border which she subsequently wrote about in a memoir entitled "Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail" that topped the "New York Times" Best Seller list for seven consecutive weeks and has been translated into more than 30 languages. Even before it was published, actress Reese Witherspoon - who was so good in "Walk The Line" - optioned it for this film, so that she could both produce it and take the lead role, giving a wonderful portrayal of a deeply troubled young woman.
There are two problems with making a film of this kind. First, while all cinema is necessarily episodic, "Wild" is a whole series of mini episodes with no grand scenes or dynamic narrative. Second, nothing really special happens to Strayed on the trail (the transformation is internal) and, while much happened in her life to drive her to this strange journey, these scenes are quite brief and lacking in detail. It is, therefore, a real tribute to Witherspoon, who is rarely off the screen in nearly two hours, that the movie works and is so moving.
Witherspoon is helped by an intelligent script from British writer Nick Hornby. Director Jean-Marc Vallée ("Dallas Buyers Club") shot the film on location in California and Oregon and it looks terrific, while never minimising the physical ordeal involved in such a challenging and lonely quest. Utimately this is a tale of redemption - as Strayed puts it: "I'm going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was" - and, in a sense, it is redemption too for Witherspoon who gives her best performance since she was Mrs Johnny Cash ten years ago.
Wikipedia page on Cheryl Strayed click here
interview with Cheryl Strayed click here
Paul Giamatti is a terrific actor with a deceptively naturalistic style and I really enjoyed his big screen work in movies like "Sideways" and his small screen performance in the series "John Adams". Here writer and director Tom McCarthy provides Giamatti with an appealing role as Mike Flaherty, a middle-aged lawyer in a small New Jersey town who is facing a hard time financially and makes a wrong decision that nevertheless ultimately has some welcome consequences.
The decision and the consequences revolve around the aged Leo (Burt Young) who is in the early stages of dementia and his weird teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer). Along the way, Mike has to wrestle with his conscience, while Kyle wrestles with a high school team, with both coming out on top in a tale that is perhaps a little too neat and oddly amoral but often wryly amusing and eminently watchable.
"The Wind That Shakes The Barley"
British director Ken Loach always makes films that are political in the broadest sense and several - such as "Carla's Song", "Land And Freedom" and this one - are explicitly about real-life political situations in another time and place. The enigmatic title is taken from a poem by 19th century poet Robert Dwyer Joyce and the subject matter is the Irish fight for independence from Britain in the early 1920s. In this powerful film as in the other two, Loach requires the viewer to work hard because the strong Irish accents make the dialogue difficult to follow and the internecine politics may be obscure to those not versed in Irish history.
The story is told throught the conflicting perspectives of two brothers: Teddy (Padraic Delaney), an early recruit to the armed struggle who is later ready to accept the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and Damien (Cillian Murphy), initially reluctant to take up arms but then unwilling to support the Free State. As in "Land And Freedom", there is a scene involving a prolonged political debate - an unusual feature in movies - and, although, both sides are enunciated, it is clear that Loach as always favours the more radical position.
"The Wind That Shakes The Barley" makes an interesting contrast with that of "Michael Collins" which covers similar ground and was produced 10 years earlier.
Gerrard Winstanley (1609 – 1676) was an English Protestant religious reformer and political activist during the period after the English Civil Wat under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. He was one of the leaders of a movement which called itself the True Levellers, was known by others as the Diggers, and could be characterised as a form of Christian Communism.
This little-known and well-intentioned film about the radical movement - directed and co-written by Kevin Brownlow - will not be to all tastes. Visually, it reminds one of the best of early cinema such as that of Eisenstein: 4:3 ratio, black and white, distant shots of figures, close up shots of faces, a variety of framed shots. And it is a vivid and authentic reaction of the period. But much of the acting is very amateurish and there is a lack of both characterisation and narrative.
If Hollywood blockbusters or feel-good rom-coms are all you really enjoy, then you'll have to give "Winter's Bone" a miss - it's far too slow and bleak and the authentic local dialogue is often a struggle. But, if you like to try films that are different, you'll find that this fits the bill wonderfully. It shows a United States - both socially and geographically - that we rarely see in the movies: rural, white, and dirt poor, eking out a living in the Ozarks of Missouri.
At its core is an outstanding performance from young actress Jennifer Lawrence who plays 17 year old Ree Dolly, whose father is missing, leaving her to fend for her traumatised mother and two young siblings. If that is not challenge enough, their home is about to be repossessed because it is the bulk of a bond set against the appearance in court of her lawless father. So she needs to find him and soon and she is determined to do so, whatever the obstacles and the cost.
"Withnail & I"
This film was released in 1987 and has become a cult work, but I resisted watching it for some two decades because I did not believe that I would like the characters or the subject matter. Staying with friends on the Isle of Wight one weekend, they enthusiastically put on the DVD of one of their favourite films and - guess what? - I was put off by the debauchery of out of work actors Withnail (Richard E Grant) and 'I' (Paul McCann) and by the constant drinking, smoking, drug-taking and all round foulness. I can accept that writer-director Bruce Robinson has crafted some good lines and that Grant gives an outstanding performance, but I found the characters reprobate and the work indulgent.
"The Wolf Of Wall Street"
Imagine the ambience and characterisation of "Wall Street" combined with the first person narration and manic energy of "Goodfellas" and you begin to anticipate the content and style of "The Wolf Of Wall Street", but nothing quite prepares you for the scale and frequency of the drug consumption (notably methaqualone and cocaine), the nudity and sex (full frontals galore) and the profanity (an estimated 569 versions of the f-word), not to mention abuse of a goldfish and a misdirected piece of ham. No wonder the film was independently funded. Which mainstream studio would want this product? But director Martin Scorsese, now in his 70s, has given us another powerhouse of a movie. It was nominated for five Academy Awards although it did not win any.
Set over no less than three hours, this is the true-life story of American stockbroker Jordan Belfort and based on his memoirs of the same name. Leonardo di Caprio, in his fifth collaboration with Scorsese, gives a storming performance in the eponymous role with some wonderful 'inspirational' speeches. The impressive castlist includes Matthew McConaughey and Jonah Hill as fellow moneymen and Margot Robbie as Belfort's second wife, while cameo roles include Rob Reiner, Joanna Lumley and even - in the final moments - Belfort himself.
This is a black comedy which lampoons both the acquisition and experience of being rich. It could be argued that the film is moral in that it records the reality that Belfort served 22 months in federal prison for a "pump and dump" scheme that led to investor losses of approximately $200 million. But ultimately I was saddened by the movie because it represents the perpetrators of this huge scandal as amiable buffoons rather than ruthless crooks and it has nothing to say about the misery suffered by so many gullible, small-time investors.
Link: Wikipedia page on Jordan Belfort click here
Wolverine is the fulcrum of the X-Men franchise, appearing in every one and clocking up far more screen time than any other character. He had his own movie with "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and he does so again here but, whereas the 2009 film was a look back at his life of centuries, this one - after a scene set in 1945 Nagasaki - looks forward a little to a time after "X-Men: The Last Stand" when he is still mourning the death of Jean Gray and has attempted to withdraw from society. It is a darker work than other "X-Men" forays, being a tale of existential angst as Logan struggles with the curse of immortality and the loss of so many friends.After Dougray Scott had to pull out of the role in the first "X-Men" Australian Hugh Jackson has made the role totally his own. The hair, the beard, the T-shirt, and of course those adamantium claws are all his. What makes this sixth "X-Men" adventure particularly different and entertaining is that it is largely set in Japan (although it was mainly shot in Jackman's home country Australia).
So Wolverine is presented as a ronin - a samurai with no master - and meets a collection of exotic players, some of whom are allies - beautiful Mariko (former model Tao Okamoto) and playful but accomplished Yukio (Rila Fukushima) - and some of whom - Mariko's husband Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and her former lover Harada (Will Yun Lee) - who may or not be on his side. We see a more vulnerable version of Wolverine as his powers of healing start to diminish and there is a moving scene as he is brought to a halt by a succesion of arrows in the back.
Will he survive? Well, put it this way: he's already signed up for "X-Men: Days Of Future Past".
"Woman In Gold"
The lady in question is Adele Bloch-Bauer who was the subject of a magnificent painting, deploying lots of gold, by the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. Following the Anschuss of 1938 when Germany took over Austria, this painting was one of many, many artefacts seized by the Nazis from Jewish families in occupied Europe.
The film tells the story - a little fictionalised - of Adele's niece Maria Altmann who escaped from Vienna to live in California and, during the 1980s as an octogenarian, pursued an audacious claim to take back this painting and other Klimt works from the Austrian Government. Helen Mirren is brilliant as Altmann in another distinguished performance in a sparkling career during which she has played everything from "The Queen" to an assassin (RED"), while Ryan Reynolds is surprisingly good as her lawyer Randy Schoenberg in a role a million miles from "Green Lantern" or "Deadpool".
There's a lot going on in this film: legal battles over the art work with some classic courtroom scenes, flashbacks (in sepia colours) to Altmann's earlier life in 1930s Vienna, and an evolving relationship between the irascible Altmann and the idealistic Schoenberg, both descendants of famous Austrians. This is not the kind of film that was ever going to be a major box office draw but it is certainly worth a home viewing.
This is a refreshingly different super-hero movie: one with a female central character (Diana Prince - the name Wonder Woman is never used in the film - played by the tall and beautiful Israeli martial artist, model and actress Gal Gadot) and a female director (Patty Jenkins who previously gave us "Monster", another work with a central female personage) with a significant number of female support roles (Amazonian heroines, a chemist villainess, and a comedic aide). Of course, we've seen WW before in "Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice" and we'll see her again soon in the forthcoming "Justice League". What works so well with this movie is that it is an origin story that stands alone and does not require the audience to have any familiarity with other super-heroes which enables it to reach out to a new (especially female) audience.
The narrative is straightforward, starting on the well-realised Amazonian island of Themyscira and then moving, via 1918 London, onto a blood-splattered battlefield at the conclusion of the First World War. There are effective action sequences but also some nice humorous touches in a work that does not take itself too seriously and delivers handsomely on the entertainment front. Chris Pine is ideal as the good-looking American who leads Diana from one world to the other and introduces her to the best and the worst of humankind, while David Thewlis is interesting casting for a vital dual role. The flaws in the film include the easy defeat of the main villain (after all, he is a god) and an excessive running time and some feminists will criticise the portrayal of the titular heroine, but overall the work is a major success that deservedly will do well at the box office.
"The World Is Not Enough"
Growing up as an adolescent in Britain in the 1960s was for me very much about the Beatles and Bond. I read all 14 of Ian Fleming's books and, over the 37 years of the franchise, I've seen each of the 19 movies as they appeared. "World" is Pierce Brosnan's third outing as 007 and he is now very assured in the role. In many ways, this is classic Bond with all the standard ingredients: guns, gadgets and girls, exotic locations and above all superb action. Yet this one manages, under the direction of Michael Apted, to offer a little more subtlety of plot and characterisation: Bond does not always understand what is going on and is not in the peak of fitness, Elektra King - played very well by France's Sophie Marceau ("Braveheart") - is genuinely enigmatic, and even the villain Renard - our very own Robert Carlisle ("Trainspotting") - is less one-dimensional than the likes of Blofeld. Bond is the most successful franchise in the history of the cinema and, on this excellent showing, there's plenty of life left in it yet.
"The World's Fastest Indian"
I doubt very much that I would ever have seen this 2005 film about New Zealander Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) if I had not gone on a conducted holiday in the country eight years later. Our tour director decided to relieve the boredom of a long coach journey by showing the movie in less than ideal viewing circumstances. This is the unlikely but inspiring tale of how Munro spent years building a 1920 Indian motorcycle, the eponymous bike on which he set a land-speed world record at Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats in 1967. The film is often funny, occasionally moving, and always (like its subject) quirky.
"World War Z"
Summer blockbuster + Brad Pitt. Heh, that's all I need to know. I'm in. From the apocalyptic vision presented on the poster, I thought it would be a disaster movie or a science fiction adventure. Imagine my surprise then when I found that I was attending my first zombie movie since "I Am Legend" (2007). Maybe I should have known this earlier, but maybe the former United Nations investigator played by Pitt should have known something was up with the world before he took his family driving in downtown Philadelphia where suddenly all hell lets loose. I'm glad I opted for the 2D rather than the 3D version. I can only get so close to zombies.
It's a really good opening and the pacing is then well done with lots of racing around the world and scary encounters interspersed with brief periods to catch one's breath, but the final resolution of the crisis is lame and very oddly located in Cardiff of all places. Apparently the whole thing cost a staggering $400M which can buy you lots of zombies and, thanks to the wonders of CGI, at times there are a lot of zombies.
The film is capable of all sorts of political interpretations. The United Nations - especially its agency the World Health Organisation - is presented in a favourable light which is a counter to the US Republicans who seem to think the UN is a secret vehicle for world domination. Israel is portrayed as sensibly building a wall against the zombies which can be seen as endorsement for the wall around the West Bank. The solution to the 'war' - which is really a pandemic - is scientific rather military which might be a call for less dependence on force to solve world problems. The zombies themselves - innocent humans who are slaughtered without hesitation or thought - could be a metaphor for Islamic fundamentalists or even all Muslims. Or maybe this is just a well-crafted, but ultimately somewhat silly, zombie movie.
I first remember Mickey Rourke as the suave lover in "Nine 1/2 Weeks" (1986) but his career has since bombed big time and, a couple of decades later, as the eponymous sports figure he's almost unrecognisable as a beefed-up but worn-out has-been not unlike the man in real life. Yet he utterly inhabits this role as Randy 'The Ram' Robinson in an outstanding portrayal.
As for supporting star Marisa Tomei, I first recall her in "My Cousin Vinny" (1992) where she was terrific and showed a promise that has never really been realised, before appearing here in a brave role where she appears almost naked as Cassidy, the archetypal tart with a heart. She is by turns sexy and sweet in a wonderfully engaging performance. So here we have both a come-back and a come-on.
Directed and produced by Darren Aronofsky, this is a movie which might initially be thought of as simply "Rocky" for wrestlers and it does play to some of the same themes, but ultimately we're given something different, something a little less traditional and more honest.
"Wuthering Heights" (1992)
Only recently have I got round to reading the Emily Brontë classic of 1847 and, having finished it, I immediately wanted to view this 1992 British film version. It is a faithful adaptation in terms of both narrative and language but, although it is filmed in North Yorkshire, both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange are represented as much larger and grander than I had imagined them. One other criticism: the dance scene is not in the novel and is incongruous because the Grange does not do entertaining.
A notable strength of director Peter Kosminsky's work is its casting. The bewitchingly beautiful Juliette Binoche plays both Catherine Earnshaw and her daughter Cathy Linton and one can imagine why a man would go mad for love of such a woman. As the tormented and cruel Heathcliff, Ralph Fiennes is credibly dark.
Another great virtue of this film version is that, unlike all the other movie adaptations of this enigmatic novel, it covers the whole story, rather than stopping at the death of Catherine. The novel is a long one covering three decades, so no film can depict all the incidents, but arguably the most pivotal scene is when Catherine declares her intention to marry Edgar Linton while confessing her love for Heathcliff and this scene is there in this movie.
"Wuthering Heights" (2011)
Only months after I read the 1847 Emily Brontë novel and saw the 1993 film adaptation, along comes yet another version of this enigmatic work. Director Andrea Arnold has taken a bold approach to her interpretation that, like all movie representations of books, has its strengths and weaknesses.
The boldest feature of the film is its casting of Heathcliff as black (Solomon Glave as the youngster and James Howson as the self-made man). Brontë describes Heathcliff as notably dark and Arnold - who co-wrote the script - has taken the character a significant step further in a manner which underlines Heathcliff's difference from the country folk. The accents are well done with young Cathy (Shannon Beer) perhaps better than older Catherine (Kaya Scodelario). The photography is wonderful with stunning views of the Yorkshire Dales (such a contrast to the more frequent very tight shots) and the sound is brilliant with a real sense of the wild natural setting.
Set against these undoubted virtues, it has to be said that the dialogue is so sparse (and sometimes muted) that, unless one has read the novel, it's often unclear what's going on and, even if you've read the novel, you sometimes yearn for the film to get a move on and, while some of the exchanges are taken straight from the novel, others are so crude that one cannot imagine Brontë ever penning such vulgarities. The leisurely pace means that, like all except the 1992 version, this one can only deal with the first half of Brontë's uncomfortable, indeed bleak, tale, so that one does not see the full, sustained vindictiveness of the anti-hero.
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.
Last modified on 6 June 2017
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