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  • "About A Boy"
  • "About Elly"
  • "About Schmidt"
  • "About Time"
  • "Adam"
  • "Adaptation"
  • "The Adjustment Bureau"
  • "Africa United"
  • "After Earth"
  • "Agora"
  • "Air Force One"
  • "AI: Artificial Intelligence"
  • "Alexander"
  • "All Is Lost"
  • "Amazing Grace"
  • "The Amazing Spider-Man"
  • "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"
  • "Amelia"
  • "Amélie"
  • "Amen"
  • "The American"
  • "American Beauty"
  • "American Gangster"
  • "American Hustle"
  • "American Sniper"
  • "America's Sweethearts"
  • "Amour"
  • "Analyze This"
  • "Angels & Demons"
  • "Anger Management"
  • "Anna Karenina"
  • "Another Earth"
  • "Another Year"
  • "Apollo 13"
  • "Arbitrage"
  • "Argo"
  • "Armageddon"
  • "The Artist"
  • "The Assassin"
  • "The Assassination Of Jesse James"
  • "Atonement"
  • "August: Osage County"
  • "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me"
  • "Australia"
  • "Avatar"
  • "Avengers Assemble"
  • "Avengers: Age Of Ultron"
  • "The Aviator"
  • "AVP: Alien Vs Predator"
  • "Away From Her"
  • "The Baader-Meinhof Complex"
  • "Babel"
  • "Bagdad Cafe"
  • "The Bang Bang Club"
  • "The Banger Sisters"
  • "Baraka"
  • "Batman Begins"
  • "Baise-Moi"
  • "Beautiful Girls"
  • "A Beautiful Mind"
  • "Becoming Jane"
  • "Before I Go To Sleep"
  • "Before Sunrise"
  • "Before Sunset"
  • "Before Midnight"
  • "Begin Again"
  • "Behind Enemy Lines"
  • "Behind The Candelabra"
  • "Being John Malkovich"
  • "Belle"
  • "Bend It Like Beckham"
  • "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"
  • "Bhaji On The Beach"
  • "Big Fish"
  • "Big Game"
  • "Big Hero 6"
  • "Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"
  • "Billy Elliot"
  • "Black Hawk Down"
  • "Black Swan"
  • "Blended"
  • "The Blind Side"
  • "Blood Diamond"
  • "Blue Is The Warmest Colour"
  • "Blue Jasmine"
  • "Blue Valentine"
  • "Blue Velvet"
  • "Bobby"
  • "Body Of Lies"
  • "The Book Of Eli"
  • "The Book Of Life"
  • "The Book Thief"
  • "Borat"
  • "Bound"
  • "The Bourne Identity"
  • "The Bourne Supremacy"
  • "The Bourne Ultimatum"
  • "The Bourne Legacy"
  • "The Boxtrolls"
  • "The Boy With The Striped Pyjamas"
  • "Boyhood"
  • "Boys Don't Cry"
  • "Bread And Roses"
  • "Breaking And Entering"
  • "Brick Lane"
  • "Bride And Prejudice"
  • "Brideshead Revisited"
  • "Bridesmaids"
  • "Bridget Jones's Diary"
  • "Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason"
  • "Bright Star"
  • "Brokeback Mountain"
  • "Bruce Almighty"
  • "Brüno"
  • "Buena Vista Social Club"
  • "Burn After Reading"
  • "The Butler"

  • "About A Boy"

    Forget the Hugh Grant of "Four Weddings And A Funeral" or "Notting Hill", all foppy-haired, mumbling and well-intentioned. Here, as thirty-something Will Freeman - a north Londoner living off the earnings of his father's one-hit Christmas wonder - he looks and sounds altogether different: shorter, spikier hair, cynical and selfish manner, and outspoken to the point of cruelty. Who is going to reform such a self-centred character? Why, the boy, of course - 12 year old Marcus played with style by young Nicholas Hoult.

    Such an unlikely pairing comes about when Will hits on the idea of hitting on available and vulnerable women by attending a single-parents self-help group - Single Parents Alone Together or SPAT - as a make-believe single father of a son. Cue relationships of sorts with three of them: Marcus's wacky mother, portrayed by Toni Collette looking a million miles from her break-through role in "Muriel's Wedding", an Irish blonde played by Victoria Smurfit (familiar to British viewers of the television series "Cold Feet"), and a dark-haired sophisticate acted by Rachel Weisz from "The Mummy" series.

    No prizes for guessing who Will's going to finish up with but, along the way, this a thoroughly entertaining movie, involving both pathos and bathos and both funny and feel-good. Credit goes to the Americans Chris and Paul Weitz, responsible for direction and screenplay, who have stayed close to the spirit of the book on which the film is based, written by British novelist Nick Hornby. Indeed this is an unusually wordy film with parallel voice-overs from Will and Marcus that complement effectively the amusing and sharp visuals.

    Footnote: A couple of decades ago, I was a single parent with a real son and went to a north London single parents group called Gingerbread. I can confirm that it's an opportunity for a single man to meet single women and, in my case, she actually had three children. Whatever happened to you, Hazel?

    "About Elly"

    Iranian Asghar Farhadi both wrote and directed "A Separation", an impressive film which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2012. Having viewed "A Separation", I was encouraged to see his previous work "About Elly" which he made a couple of years earlier. Again he is both writer and director, again it is a domestic drama, but this time there is a larger cast of characters and a more serious turn of events.

    A group of middle-class Iranian friends travel to the shores of the Caspian Sea on a three-day break. There are three couples and their children, together with a single man looking for a wife and the eponymous and mysterious Elly. There is much subterfuge and lying before we find out what happens to Elly and the impact on those who thought they knew her. It is a rather slow work and I was looking for a more dramatic conclusion, but it is a refreshing change from much thoughtless Hollywood fare.

    "About Schmidt"

    This is certainly not your standard Hollywood fare. For a start, the central character is not a pubescent teenager or a comic strip super-hero, but a former insurance man become brutally aware of the fragility - and indeed the futility - of his life. Recently retired, even more recently widowed and awaiting his daughter's wedding to a man he believes to be a nincompoop, 66 year old Warren Schmidt of Omaha, Nebraska is - in the words of one woman he meets on the road with his huge trailer home - "a sad, sad man".

    As the eponymous loner, Jack Nicholson gives one of the finest performances of his long and distinguished career, a magnificently understated portrayal in which a look, a grimace or a tear conveys so much about his inner torment and deep melancholy. He is supported by a series of finely-observed vignettes, none better than that from Kathy Bates who bravely reveals her less than svelte-like body. There is no simple resolution to Schmidt's dilemma, but he is ultimately given an insight into how even his selfish life has made a difference.

    Full of pathos and wry humour, great credit then to Louis Begley who authored the original novel and to Alexander Payne who co-wrote the script and directed. We need more character-driven movies like this which reflect life as most of us find it - frequently disappointing but never too late to redeem.

    "About Time"

    Over the years, British writer Richard Curtis has scripted some wonderful romantic comedies: "Four Weddings And A Funeral", "Notting Hill", and "Love Actually". So, by now, we know the features of Curtisworld: locations in London, upper middle-class English types, lots of friendship and love, plenty of wry and sometimes rude humour, a socially inhibited boy, an attractive North American girl, a doddery elderly male relative, a freaky young female relative, probably a wedding, probably a funeral, obviously some heavy rain, well-chosen songs, and finally a clever film title. "About Time, which Curtis has both written and directed, delivers all the familiar ingredients and is a charming addition to the canon but, while I really liked it, it was not love actually.

    This time, we have two love stories and a time travel device that enables both to achieve special fulfilment. There is the father-son relationship between Bill Nighy and Domhnall Gleeson and the sexual relationship between Glesson and (Canadian) Rachel McAdams (coincidentally "The Time Traveler's Wife"). Both the technique of time travel (clenching hands in a darkened space) and the rules (forget the 'Butterfly Effect') are rather ridiculous, but the device serves to pose some almost philosophical questions: If you could travel back in time to change things in your life, how often would you do it and what would you change? In the end, is it a power that you would use to change the facts of the past or your perception of the present?


    The chances of you seeing this movie on the big screen are close to zilch since it's had such a limited cinematic release, so be sure to catch it on television or DVD because it is a rom-com with a special edge. Although the couple are young Americans in New York City, it is the British Hugh Dancy who gives an excellent performance as the eponymous IT professional and amateur stargazer who suffers badly from Asperger's Syndrome, while it is the Australian actress Rose Byrne who is delightful as the young woman willing to make the effort to understand him. The treatment of AS is handled sensitively, but not without humour, and the ending avoids the temptation to be trite. A real accomplishment then for the American Max Meyer who both wrote and directed and whose previous writing and directing has been almost entirely for the theatre.


    A news item about the arrest of an American orchid thief becomes an article for the "New Yorker" magazine which becomes a successful book which in turn is optioned for a film. The scriptwriter finds it so difficult to turn the book into a screenplay that he finishes up turning the film into an account of his struggle to adapt the book with himself as a central character in the movie. Confused? Well, this is the writer (Charlie Kaufman) and the director (Spike Jonze) that created the critically-acclaimed "Being John Malkovich" [for review click here], so this Russian doll of a movie is perhaps not a total surprise - but does it work?

    It is certainly pretentious and self-indulgent and the ending is a disappointment, but what lifts the film into a must-see category is the superb performances of its actors. I am an enormous fan of Meryl Streep (who plays the author of The Orchid Thief") and "Adaptation plus "The Hours" makes this is a great time for us devotees; I don't always like Nicolas Cage, but he is impressive as both Kaufman and his (fictional) twin brother; however, the revelation is Chris Cooper who shines as a man whose life is defined by his absolute passion for orchids.

    "The Adjustment Bureau"

    The idea - that someone called The Chairman has a plan for us all which, when it goes wrong, needs the intervention of angel-like characters called The Adjustment Bureau - is from a Philip K Dick short story. The execution is pure George Nolfi, since he wrote, produced and directed the movie, so he is to blame for a slight and silly tale involving frequent appearances of hats and doors in downtown New York.

    Yet it is oddly enjoyable, since it is less a piece of science fiction than an old-fashioned romance between an an aspiring politician - Matt Damon as David Norris - and a successful dancer - Emily Blunt as Elise Sellas. Each of the leads is immensely watchable and genuinely talented and together they create real chemistry. The Chairman may have to adjust his plan ...

    "Africa United"

    This is not a blockbuster film with a mega publicity budget, but what attracted me to such an independent work was that the writer Rhidian Brook is the son of a colleague of mine on the Communications Consumer Panel. I'm pleased that I made the effort to see the movie because it is original in subject matter and talent and refreshing in both content and delivery.

    Everything about it is different from the usual Hollywood fare. The British director Debs Gardner-Paterson is fourth- generation Rwandan, all the central roles are taken by African children, and all the wonderful locations are in Africa while there is some smart use of animation. Essentially it is a road movie with a bunch of kids determined to travel from Rwanda to South Africa in order to be at the opening ceremony of the 2010 World Cup. Although there is sharp dialogue and much humour, serious issues are touched upon, ranging from child soldiers to HIV/AIDS.

    "After Earth"

    What on Earth?!? On a blue planet not unlike our own, a long time ago writer and director M Night Shyamalan ("Sixth Sense" & "Unbreakable") used to make interesting movies and charismatic actor Will Smith ("Bad Boys" & "Men In Black") was a reliably bankable star, but here they crash and burn on a future version of that planet. It's sad really because it is clear that the whole project was intended as a family affair to boost the career of Smith's 14 year old son Jayden ("The Karate Kid") who is the central character of the tale, but the boy just does not have the character or experience to carry such an expensive work on his young shoulders. Will Smith conceived the story and he and his wife were co-producers so Jayden knows that it was his well-intentioned parents who messed up.

    Lines of dialogue and particular scenes reappear in a formulaic script, while the minimal storyline is riddled with incredulity and inconsistency. Set a thousand years in the future, some of the technology on show - like a foldable computer screen and intelligent clothing - is being developed now. The Will Smith character has some kind of special power than enables him to detect a asteroid shower, when all the spaceship's technology fails to do so, but then he is surprised to land on Earth. All the animals we see are different from those of today (apparently they have evolved to destroy humans although there haven't been any there for a millennium), but whales remain unevolved in order to link to an odd reference to "Moby Dick".

    It looks as if Will Smith planned "After Earth" as a whole franchise of films, books, comics and games. Please, Will, give up now.


    The title tells us little about this well-intentioned but sadly unsatisfactory film. An agora was a place of congregation and the word comes from Ancient Greek. In this case, the setting is Alexandria during the Roman occupation in the late fourth and early fifth centuries and the agora is the location of some of the conversations of the central character, the real life philosopher Hypatia. She was certainly a remarkable character, a woman in a man's world who was free of religious superstition and brilliantly original in her thinking about the movement of the planets, and she is presented as a rationalist icon for our troubled times.

    Rachel Weisz is fine as Hypatia and could and should have been given a more dominant role. The sets and the CGI - it was shot in Malta - convey well Alexandria at a time when it hosted the most famous library in history. But almost everything else is a disappointment. The dialogue is wooden and the narrative confusing with Christians, Jews and pagans competing for men's minds (Hypatia is the only female character) and various former associates competing for Hypatia's affections.

    The fault has to be down to the Spanish Alejandro Amenábar who both co-wrote and directed the effort. One interpretation of this film is that it shows that early Christianity preceded modern Islam in having a fundamentalist strand which was intolerant of other faiths, hostile to women, and in conflict with rational and scientific enquiry. But the tale could have been so much better told.

    "Air Force One"

    This is an above-average action thriller from Wolfgang Petersen who made "In The Line Of Fire". Harrison Ford is excellent as the U S President held hostage aboard the Boeing 747 with Gary Oldman chilling as the renegade Russian nationalist. It is all very one-dimensional and far-fetched with a weak script and obvious use of models, but nevertheless very well-crafted and entertaining.

    "AI: Artificial Intelligence"

    The late Stanley Kubrick spent a long time developing this project, but it was Steven Spielberg who brought it to the screen as both writer and director. These mixed antecedents probably explain the uneven nature of this over-long and very disappointing work. The first and third segments are sickly sentimental and clearly come straight from the creator of "E.T.", while the middle third represents a much more violent and dystopian world that owes more to the director of "Clockwork Orange".

    Young Haley Joel Osment ("The Sixth Sense") is perfectly cast as David, the latter-day Pinocchio - a super-sophisticated robot who just wants to be a real boy - and Jude Law looks good as a robotic gigolo. There is even an mechanical teddy bear that will delight young viewers, but irritate others who will think that a miniature Ewok has wandered in off the set of "Return Of The Jedi".

    Certainly I would have liked more science and less schmaltz. Also I saw the movie just five days after the destruction of New York's World Trade Center and my enjoyment of the film was not helped by an unsettling shot where the tops of the towers appear above the flood waters caused by melted ice caps.

    "All Is Lost"

    Writer and director J C Chandor has here crafted an astonishingly minimalist film of great power. There is only one character: he has no name, he has no back story, but he is virtually never off the screen. There is hardly any dialogue: a short opening monologue, much later a brief announcement, and later still a single word expletive. There is even very little non-diegetic sound and such music as is used is muted.

    Yet the story is compelling. An aged sailor wakes to find his yacht the 'Virginia Jean' has been holed by a container that has obviously fallen off of one of those huge transport ships in the Indian Ocean. Over the next week, his prospects - always terrible - become more and more terrifying until he decides that all is lost. As gripping as the narrative is the casting: this lone mariner is played by no less a star than Robert Redford, now aged 77. Ever since he portrayed the Sundance Kid in 1969, he has been the golden-haired hero of so many movies and the thought that this man could be brought so low is excruciatingly painful to watch.

    "All Is Lost" bears comparison with "Gravity" - both show an individual in a hostile environment trying everything to stay alive, even as the chances of survival become ever more remote. "Gravity" was stunning technically and offered a clear conclusion, whereas "All Is Lost" is more elemental - none of us have been in space but most of us have sailed far from shore - and the ending could be seen as ambiguous.

    For me, there are two moving messages. One is that life is worth fighting for and we should never give up hope. The other is that the kind of life we lead is important - as the sailor states at the very beginning: "I tried, I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't."


    I had awaited this movie eagerly: the story of a man who conquered most of the known world by the time he was 25 is truly epic; I have recently read one of the many new biographies of the Macedonian warrior [for review click here]; in his time, director Oliver Stone has produced some fine work; and here he has spent no less than $150M, making it Europe's most costly film. One could not fail to be aware of the panning given the work by the critics, but I figured that it really couldn't be that bad. But, believe me, it is. "Gladiator" showed what an epic should look like and "Troy" was a good effort, but Stone - who, at his best, has given us such impressive work as "Salvador", "Platoon" and "Wall Street" - will be fortunate to survive this plodding and pedestrian débâcle. The first hour is utterly tedious and one cries out for the sort of battle seqeunce which opened "Gladiator" while, towards, the sprawling end, we seem to be revisiting the manic ending of "Apocalyse Now" without Brando's style.

    So, when did it go wrong? Well, seemingly at every stage of the production process. First, Stone - and his producer Moritz Borman - rushed the whole thing in order to beat a rival production (now unlikely to reach the screen) planned by Australian director Baz Luhrmann. Then the script - co-authored by Stone himself - overdoes the theme of Alexander's bi-sexuality which is death at the US box office and becomes somewhat histrionic for the rest of the world. Some of the casting is odd - most notably the choice of Angelina Jolie (only one year older than Colin Farrell in the eponymous role) to play Alexander's mother. Next we have the appalling decision to have most of the lead actors deploy incongruous Irish accents just because lead Colin Farrell (who can do other accents) hails from the emerald isle. The whole structure is a disaster with a boring, and largely redundant, narration, confusing flashbacks, and a total bum-numbing, mind-bending length of just under three hours. Finally the editing is all wrong, as Stone made three major cuts to slice away close to an hour, but slashed too little and disjointedly. The essence of cinema is storytelling and this work utterly lacks a compelling narrative which, given the heroic feats and complex character of the man, is a special kind of achievement.

    Surely the film has some redeeming features? Well, the two battle sequences - the defeat of Darius and his superior forces at Gaugamela and the encounter with Indians and elephants at Hydaspes in India - are genuinely large-scale and exciting, although it is difficult to follow Alexander's tactics. The Moroccan and Thailand locations are exotic, the richly-designed sets are grand and the CGI creations, especially of the glory of Babylon, are well done. The attention to historic and military detail is commendable and thanks to Oxford academic Robin Lane Fox who gets to lead the battle charges as a reward. Angelina Jolie has the best accent (not Irish) and gives the best performance. But this is far from enough to justify the price of a theatre ticket. Can the work be rescued for the DVD or is it destined to sink like Stone? Often the DVD offers us a longer version of the movie, but this time we need a shorter, reordered account with a linear narrative, less talk and much more action.

    "Amazing Grace"

    William Wilberforce headed the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for 26 years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807. To mark the 200th anniversary of the Act, this film tells his story and takes its title from the hymn penned by his mentor, John Newton, a slave ship captain turned repentant priest. Ioan Gruffudd plays the MP and Albert Finney is the priest, while other cast members include Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon and Romola Garai. Sadly this is a work where the whole is less than the parts: a worthy cause is portrayed by some fine actors but the overall product is rather awkward and leaden.

    Link: biography of William Wilberforce click here

    "The Amazing Spider-Man"

    It seems that the world can't get enough of super-heroes and it's a genre that I always find fun but, after three "Spider-Man" movies with Sam Raimi as director and Tobey Maguire in the arachnid persona and an interval of five years since the last film, it seems that it's time for a re-boot. So now Marc Webb ("(500) days Of Summer") takes on the directorial duties and British actor Andrew Garfield ("The Social Network") spins Peter Parker's webs and the storyline goes back to the beginning with a reprise of the spider-biting incident and the death of his uncle.

    We have a new baddie in the guise of Rhys Ifans who, after his charming arrival in "Notting Hill" seems to have adopted the frequent role for British actors of being the unpleasant character in an American movie (see also "The Five-Year Engagement"). At least Emma Stone, who was in "Spider-Man 3". has made progress with a larger role as Peter's girlfriend Gwen (who unfortunately has a police chief as a father). Even Spider-Man creator Stan Lee is back with his usual cameo (look out for the music teacher).

    All involved - especially Garfield - acquit themselves well and the special effects are fine (I saw the movie in its intended 3D), but there is really nothing new or special here. A short clip early on in the credits, however, makes it clear that a fifth episode of the money-spinning franchise is on the way.

    "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"

    This really is a golden age for fans of super-heroes movies like me with Batman, Superman, Iron Man, X-Men and more hitting the screens month after month with big budgets and even bigger takings. When a character seems to run out of steam, one just has to leave him alone for a few years and then re-boot the hero. So, after three "Spider-Man" movies from director Sam Raimi, Marc Webb had such a success with "The Amazing Spider-Man" that he's back with another winner.

    I actually prefer Andrew Garfield to Tobey Maguire as the titular arachnid and this outing he's somewhat schizophrenic in mood: astonishingly light-hearted in the face of any villain but really morbid when it comes to family history and current romance. There is genuine chemistry between Garfield and co-star Emma Stone (as Gwen Stacy) which is obviously helped by their real-life coupling.

    The chief protagonist this time is a sparky character called Electro who had an unfortunate swimming accident with some eels and James Foxx clearly had fun in a different type of role for him. The subsidiary opponent is the Green Gobin whose starring role is obviously being kept back for the next movie in the series, ensuring that we will see the creepy Dabe HeHaan again. I enjoyed the more varied use of our hero's web in this movie for a lot more than swinging from one skyscaper to another. Stan Lee has met Tim Berners-Lee, so that the web has now become world wide.

    There are three writing credits for this film which might explain why some characters are underwritten. Certainly I would like to have seen more of the excellent Paul Giamatti as The Rhino and newcomer Felicity Jones as Harry Osborn's assistant. So take that as a request for "TASM3".


    Hilary Swank is a fine actress who has done good work since I first saw her a decade ago in "Boys Don't Cry", for which she received a well-deserved Academy Award, and she is rarely off the screen as the eponymous American aviatrix Amelia Earhart in this bio-pic for which she was also an executive producer. She really looks and sounds like her subject and the evocation of the period (late 1920s and early 1930s) is well-done, while the cinematography - the movie was shot mainly in Canada with some scenes in South Africa - is superb.

    All the support roles are male: Richard Gere as Earheart's publicist and husband, Ewan McGregor as her colleague and lover, and Christopher Eccleston as her navigator on the ill-fated round-the-world effort in 1937. Surprisingly though the director is an Indian woman: Mira Nair who gave us the wonderful "Monsoon Wedding". Sadly the film has an undistinguished script and a fragmented structure, giving the whole thing a rather pedestrian feel, but at least there is plenty of flying and beautiful-looking aircraft, notably the Lockheed Electra of the final flight.

    Link: Wikipedia page on Amelia Earheart click here


    It's very unusual for a French-speaking film to break into the Anglo-Saxon world, but this quirky Gallic offering has done it. Some American audiences may find the sub-titles and the saccharine-sweet treatment difficult to swallow, but most British viewers should manage to cope. After all, the Paris portrayed here is the kind of innocent charm that so many of us seek on our holidays there; all the characters are eccentric and we are noted for our tolerance of eccentricity; and, after all, the eponymous role was originally written for the British actress Emily Watson (hence the name).

    In fact, following the stunning success of the movie in its home land, it's hard to imagine anyone else in the lead role than the gamine newcomer 23 year old Audrey Tautou who gives a wonderful performance as the Montmatre waitress Amélie Poulain who wants to escape her own withdrawal from so much of life by giving some pleasure to so many other lives (but anonymously). In the process, she discovers love in the odd form of a porn-shop worker who spends his time collecting torn-up photo booth pictures (Matthieu Kassovitz).

    The bizarre story-line and the inventive shooting are the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, previously known for "Delicatessen", "The City Of Lost Children" and "Alien: Resurrection" (only the last of which I have seen). The - possibly unfashionable - message of the movie is that all of us need a little magic in our lives and, if we can be the one to bring some of that magic to some other lives, then our own will be enriched along the way. Escapism par excellence.


    The Greek-born, French-naturalised film director Costa-Gavras (short for Constantinos Gavras) has made a succession of powerful true-life political thrillers in a distinguished career spanning many decades. I was impressed by such works as "Z" (Greece), "The Confession" (Czechoslovakia), "State Of Siege" (Uruguay), "Missing" (Chile) and "Music Box" (wartime Hungary). He was approaching 70 when he directed and co-wrote "Amen" in 2002 which, like the other pictures, was based on actual characters and incidents.

    This time, Costa-Gavras tackles one of the largest moral issues of the last century: the Nazi Holocaust. We see little of the Jewish victims themselves. Instead unusually the viewpoint is that of a German SS officer and member of the Institute for Hygiene of the Waffen-SS called Kurt Gerstein, a devout member of the Protestant Confessing Church, who astonishingly witnessed mass murders in the Nazi extermination camps of Belzec and Treblinka and made desperate efforts to inform the wider world and specifically to bring amount condemnation by Pope Pius XII.

    Although an English-language film, most of the actors are German - Ulrich Tukur plays Gerstein - and, although set in Germany, Italy and Poland, all of the shooting was in Romania. It is an intensely worthy work, raising profound moral questions about what was known and what could have been done about the Nazi slaughter of the Jews, but the script is somewhat leaden and the characterisations far too mono-dimensional. In particular, most of the Vatican figures are represented as sanctimonious and uncaring which seems simplistic and may be unfair, although we will not be able to make a well-informed assessment of the Catholic establishment's role until the Vatican opens its records which so far it has refused to do.

    Link: Wikipedia page on Kurt Gerstein click here

    "The American"

    This is not a movie that will appeal to everyone, even fans of George Clooney, who is in almost every scene. His famous smile and immense charm are totally absent in a tight, laconic role as the eponymous assassin-cum-gunsmith Jack/Edward/Mr Butterfly. But I really admired this brave departure from the Hollywood dazzle which has a genuinely different pacing plus look and sound.

    So if you're expecting a fast-moving, action-packed thriller, forget it. After a dramatic pre-title sequence, there is more than an hour of a quiet, slow build up to the retributive finale. The assassin is determined to do one last job before giving up his nefarious profession, but two women are complicating his intentions: fellow shootist Mathilde, played icily by the Dutch Thekla Reuten, and a local prostitute Clara, the beautiful Italian actress Violante Placido. Which woman will get her man?

    This is a visually striking work, partly because of the unusual setting in the arid terrain of the Abruzzo region of central Italy and the narrow, cobbled streets of the town of Castel del Monte, partly because of the artistry of Dutch photographer turned director Anton Corbijn and his German cinematographer Martin Ruhe. The sparse script is the work of Rowan Joffe (son of the director Roland Joffe) who has adapted the novel "A Very Private Gentleman" by the British novelist Martin Booth.

    Clooney is a great lover of all things Italian and this film - which he co-produced - is obviously a very personal work which is likely to be more enjoyed in Europe than in the States.

    "American Beauty"

    What a pleasure to see such an intelligently scripted and superbly acted film that grips you with every scene. The originators of this impressive work are surprising – it is the cinematic debut of both British director Sam Mendes and American scriptwriter Alan Ball and the offering of the Dreamworks studio which originally gave us "The Peacemaker".

    I'm a fan of Kevin Spacey and much admired his performances in "The Usual Suspects", "L.A. Confidential" and "The Negotiator". Here he gives an Oscar-worthy showing as 42 year old Lester Burnham, a nondescript suburbanite just waiting to explode. Annette Bening is excellent as his brittle wife Carolyn and there are some fine performances from youngsters Thora Birch, as his damaged daughter Jane, and Mena Suvari, as the flirtatious muse who inspires several fantasy sequences involving large, red rose petals.

    It's not spoiling the movie to reveal that, like the classic "Sunset Boulevard", the narrator is a dead guy - but how and why he is killed has to wait until the closing moments. By turns hilarious, poignant and shocking, "American Beauty" conveys perceptively and powerfully the seething anger that lies just below the surface of so many stale relationships.

    "American Gangster"

    The narrative of this film is so incredible that, if it were not all true, it would seem utterly far-fetched. A black hoodlum from the American South beats the New York Mafia at their own game by setting up a direct line of supply of high grade heroin from sources in the jungles of Thailand using for delivery the resources of the US Army and ultimately even the coffins of dead GIs from Vietnam. He is brought down by a cop who once passed up the opportunity to seize for himself a million dollars in unmarked notes and, when he eventually takes down the gangster, they work together to bring to book two-thirds of the New York Police vice department before the cop becomes his lawyer and even his friend.

    This utterly gripping tale is told by director Ridley Scott (now a venerable 70) in fast-moving and compelling scenes that make the two and three-quarter hours of the movie zip by. The eponymous drug king Frank Lucas is played brilliantly by Denzel Washington who manages to make an explosively violent and totally manipulative crook charismatic and even charming. His nemesis - a characteristically superb Russell Crowe - is Richie Roberts, a relatively lowly cop from New Jersey who has made a mess of his private life and happens to be quietly Jewish. These two seemingly opposite characters only meet towards the end of the film when they clearly form a certain respect and liking for one another. Their actual encounter comes in a climactic scene that echoes the conclusion of "The Godfather Part I" except that this time, while the big man is at church, it is not his opponents but his empire which is taken down.

    This is film-making of the highest order and should not be missed.

    Wikipedia page on Frank Lucas click here
    Wikipedia page on Richie Roberts click here
    The magazine article that inspired the film click here

    "American Hustle"

    "Goodfellas" meets "The Sting" in this gloriously fun black comedy co-written and directed by David O Russell with a cast to die for. I confess that I would have gone to see it for Jennifer Lawrence alone and she gives another wonderful performance as the blousy and totally wacky wife of the narrator Irv played by Christian Bale looking a million miles from his lean role as "Batman", all bespectacled, bewigged and paunchy. The revelation though is Amy Adams who is terrific in the best (and sexiest) role of her career as the Irv's partner in hustling and in fornicating Sydney. Then there is Bradley Cooper as the manic FBI agent who wants to use Irv and Sydney to ensnare some bigger fish and Jermey Renner as the first of those larger fish.

    As if this wasn't enough, there is an unexpected and uncredited cameo role by a big name actor. Plus the five lead actors almost have a sixth companion in the form of their hair, three of them appearing in rollers and one of them with a quiff which alone makes it clear - as if the clothes and the music were insufficient - that we are in the late 1970s.

    At the beginning of the movie, we are told that "some of this actually happened" and that is a reference to the "Abscam" operation mounted by the FBI with the aid of a fake sheikh. But nothing and nobody is real here; everything and everyone is obfuscation if not outright deception. At one point, Irv describes his wife as "the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate" and Russell draws from a varicoloured pallette of talent to present us with an animated version of Hieronymus Bosch.

    "American Sniper"

    A two-word title with the first word being 'American' is a common appellation for a Hollywood movie - think "American Graffiti", "American Beauty", "American Gangster" and most recently "American Hustle". In this case, the real-life eponymous military hero is one of epic achievement and reputation. Chris Kyle was a Texan cowboy who became a Navy SEAL and served no less than four tours in Iraq as a sniper credited with 160 confirmed kills out of 255 probable kills. As a result, he has been proclaimed the most lethal sniper in US military history and awarded five Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.

    Kyle's story - based on his autobiography - is in safe hands with 84 year old Clint Eastwood. This is a director who knows how to portray war, having even made two films about the Second World War battle for Iwo Jima, and as cinema this is a stunning work. From a tense opening which involves a split-second life-or-death decision, the movie never lets you go. The repeated tours, with frightening stake-outs and terrifying fire-fights, represent a viseral experience for the viewer. I saw "American Sniper" on an IMAX screen and the huge images and brilliant sound made me feel as if I was there.

    As Chris Kyle, Bradley Cooper, who has beefed up big time and keeps his emotions tight, looks and sounds a world away from his normal-bodied, emotionally-expressive roles such as in "Silver Linings Playbook" or the previously-mentioned "American Hustle". This is truly a powerful performance. As his wife Taya, British actress Sienna Miller, normally seen as a blonde, also looks and sounds very different from the days of "Layer Cake". Other support roles are well-cast, although the naturalistic dialogue is not always intelligible.

    "American Sniper" is "The Hurt Locker" meets "Black Hawk Down" with narrative elements (a conflict between snipers) from "Enemy At The Gates". If it is magnificent as an action movie, it lacks psychological and political subtlety. Director Clint Eastwood and writer Jason Hall present Kyle (known to the marines as "The Legend") in uncritical, almost mythic, terms and there is virtually no context to the war. But, when the credits roll up silently, you will feel that you have seen something special.

    Link: Wikipedia page on Chris Kyle click here

    "America's Sweethearts"

    So much talent in one film; so little to show for it. The sweethearts in question are former partners and fellow movie stars Eddie (talented John Cusack) and Gwen (a weak Catherine Zeta Jones) and those who are trying to get them back together to launch their last (unseen) film are Gwen's sister Kiki (the always captivating Julie Roberts) and PR man Lee (co-writer Billy Crystal who can be very funny). As if that wasn't enough ability around, there's Christopher Walken, Stanley Tucci and Hank Azaria, each of whom can light up a movie.

    So where did director Joe Roth go so wrong that it all turned out so weak? The key failure has to be the script (the other co-writer was Peter Tolan). The work can never make up its mind whether it is a traditional romantic comedy or a cruel satire on the falsehood of Hollywood - so it misses both marks and leaves one just disappointed.


    Very, very slow. Very, very moving. It's hard to imagine the USA or the UK producing a film of such pain and passion. Although written and directed by the Austrian Michael Haneke, it is set in Paris with a French script and French actors. In fact, for most of the film, there are only two actors on screen: Jean-Louis Trintignant (aged 82) and Emmanuelle Riva (85) as the elderly couple Georges and Anne whose deeply loving relationship is sorely tried by her succession of strokes. These are performances of a masterclass stature and for this role Riva became the oldest ever woman to be nominated for Academy Award Best Actress.

    "Analyze This"

    Sometimes you don't want to psychoanalyze a film; you just want a good laugh; and here's a very funny movie that fits the bill. We all know that Robert De Niro is a consummate actor; what we didn't know was that he has real comedic talent, as evidenced by this hilarious performance as a mobster suffering from panic attacks in a brilliant parody of so many of his earlier tough guy roles. Billy Crystal is back on form as a psychiatrist pressed into service as the Mafia man’s shrink and some of the best scenes are when De Niro and Crystal adopt elements of the other’s character.

    "Angels & Demons"

    Three years after the Dan Brown novel "The Da Vinci Code" appeared as a film which took a staggering $760 million, another of his books receives the large screen treatment. Although Brown wrote "Angels & Demons" first, the film version represents this story, which is sympathetic to the Catholic Church, as following "The Da Vinci Code" which was seen as hostile to the Church. Whatever the difference in stance towards Catholicism, Brown's work is always terribly formulaic: a twisting plot set over a matter of hours, lots of symbols and signs, considerable running, much desecration of the flesh, the counterbalancing of religion and science, minimal characterisation, and changing perception of key characters. This time it's all cardinals, cathedrals, crypts and catacombs plus a camerlengo scattered over central Rome and the Vatican.

    Again Tom Hanks as the Harvard symbologist does his best with a wooden script (but a better haircut) - at least "Angels & Demons" is less wordy than "The Da Vinci Code". Again there is only one female character - this time Italian physicist Vittoria Vetra (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer). Scottish Ewan McGregor (who struggles to affect a Northern Irish accent), German Armin Mueller-Stahl and Swedish Stellan Skarsgård each play Vatican officials who may be an angel or a demon. It's hard to work out which is the greatest threat: the Illuminati, an anti-matter bomb or the implausibilities of the plot. Papal bull or curate's egg? - you decide. It's a miracle that it works at all, but if you have faith, I confess that it's really quite an entertaining piece of hokum.

    "Anger Management"

    Adam Sandler gives an uncharacteristically understated performance as Dave Buznick, a man with his emotions under tight control, even when it comes to committing to his long-term girlfriend (Marisa Tomei). For his part, Jack Nicholson is as manic as ever as Dr Buddy Rydell, an anger management therapist who gives every impression of being certifiably insane. This is not so humourless that one is angry at having paid the price of a cinema ticket, but it is far less funny that reviews from the US had suggested. Ever since I saw her in "My Cousin Vinny", I've thought that Tomei was a real talent and she - and many others - are underused in a movie that makes one smirk more than smile.

    "Another Earth"

    This wonderfully original independent film is a tribute especially to 27 year old Brit Marling. As a graduate in economics from Georgetown University, she was offered a job with Goldman Sachs but decided instead that she wanted a very different career, moving to Los Angeles and teaching herself writing. She co-wrote "Another Earth" and takes the lead role, giving a mesmerisong performance in a work that provokes much thought. Her co-writer and director is Mike Cahill, while her co-star is William Mapother (Tom Cruise's cousin).

    Marling plays a bright student about to start a degree at MIT while Malpother portrays an academic at Yale. Minutes into the film, the two - who have never met - find their lives linked both to each other and to their alter egos on the eponymous planet. The physics of the movie does not bear examination, but the other Earth is essentially a device to pose fundamental questions about causality and identity and the ending is as brilliant as it is sudden. You will be pondering the narrative and the meaning for a long time.

    "Anna Karenina"

    I've never read Tolstoy's towering 1870s masterpiece, although a copy of the novel does sit on my book shelf in a version running to 850 pages of small print. I am familiar with the basic story, however, through viewing the 1935 classic film with Greta Garbo in the eponymous role - one of at least a dozen screen versions of this story.

    Bringing yet another interpretation to the screen is, therefore, an adventurous act, but what makes director Joe Wright's new version especially bold is his decision to locate almost all the movie in a representation of a derelict theatre (actually a Shepperton studio sound stage). We are told that the reason for such a dramatically changed approach, chosen after delivery of Tom Stoppard's screenplay which was not then changed at all, was the difficulty in finding locations in Russia and England that had not been used many times before, although one cannot help feeling that budgetary considerations must have played a part.

    Does it work? It certainly provides a fresh angle to a well-known narrative, but for me it would have worked better if the whole of the film had been shot this way instead of the jarring jumps from theatre to more naturalistic settings from time to time.

    No version of "Anna Karenina" can succeed without sound casting of the principal role and Keira Knightley carries this movie like no other in her career so far. Knightley has had some rough treatment from some critics since she has had to craft her talent very much in the public eye, but she has matured as an actress from her early roles in "Bend It Like Beckham" and the "Pirates Of The Caribbean" franchise with some excellent performances in "The Edge Of Love", "Atonement" and "A Dangerous Method". Knightley may never have the mysterious allure of Garbo but she can be proud of this portrayal of a beautiful young woman caught between a prim husband, accomplished Jude Law as Alexei Karenin, and a dashing lover, struggling Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky.

    "Another Year"

    Pedestrian. Prosaic. Unhappy. Unresolved. Yet compellingly watchable. This is the latest offering from British writer and director Mike Leigh. He is the epitome of the phrase that "Life is just one thing after another", so this a film without a clear beginning and end but given form by four segments in which the seasons are clearly signalled by the state of a London allotment.

    Leigh is noted for the collaborative manner in which he crafts his work and as usual this results in outstanding performances from a cast who portray some eclectic characters. There's Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) who are not cat and mouse but love birds approaching retirement while still in married and respectful bliss. But Tom's overweight friend Ronnie (David Bradley) and widowed brother Ken (Peter Wight) and Gerri's psychotherapy client Janet (Imedla Staunton) and work colleague Mary (Lesley Manville) have the full range of personal problems that make life so hard for so many.

    There is plenty of pain here but also some humour and much subtle observation of the human condition.

    "Apollo 13"

    I was in my teens and early twenties during the Apollo space missions and followed the exploits with considerable interest, so the movies "The Right Stuff" - a more critical account of the early space programme - and "Apollo 13" - a more patriotic account of recovery from seeming disaster - really appealed to me. In the latter case, director Ron Howard does an excellent job of creating a documentary feel for the action and sustains the tension throughout, even through we know the fortunate outcome. Amazingly Howard used no NASA footage and the scenes of weighlessness were achieved through flights in a KC-135 aircrat. Tom Hanks is convincing as the mission's commander Jim Lovell, while Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon give decent support as fellow crew members Fed Haise and John Swigert respectively.

    Link: NASA account of mission click here


    This may not be the best title for a film, since many cinema-goers will not know what it means and those that do - it refers to the near simultaneous buying and selling of the same securities or commodities in different markets to profit from unequal prices - may well feel that this does not auger a thrilling movie experience. In fact, "Arbitrage" is a fine work that maintains attention and tension throughout.

    In large part, this is a credit to Nicholas Jarecki, a New Yorker whose parents are commodities traders, who both wrote and directed the film, his first. However, he was incredibly fortunate to obtain the services of Richard Gere in the lead role of Robert Miller, owner and manager of a leading hedge fund that is is desperate financial trouble. Gere may now be 63 - only a year younger than me - but he still looks great and has real charisma and his assured performance makes the movie, although the supporting actors - including Susan Sarandon as his wife and Tim Roth as a police detective trying to bring him down - are fine as well.

    A real strength of this character-driven film is that nobody - even Miller - is wholly villainous, while none is completely virtuous either. Almost everyone is deceiving somebody about something. This moral ambiguity, plus regular shifts in the plotting, make this an accomplished piece of movie-making that genuinely entertains.


    Rarely can a film title have been so unilluminating about its subject matter - in this case, the astonishing true life story of how six Americans stationed in the US Embassy in Teheran when it was stormed in 1979 managed to walk out and take refuge with the Canadian Ambassador before being spirited out of the country by a bizarre CIA operation, the details of which were only declassified in 1997. "Argo" was the title of a science fiction film which was actually scripted but never made and provided the cover for the six who amazingly pretended to be a scouting crew for the planned movie.

    The work opens with a rapid-fire post-Secomd World War history of Iran which makes plain why many Iranians are suspicious of the West (the Americans and British arranged a coup in 1953 against the democratically elected Prime Minister). It then shows the 1979 storming of the embassy by fundamentalist forces in a style that is so real it is almost documentary (the credits show contemporary photographs which underline the verisimilitude of the movie). Most of the film, though, focuses on the planning and execution of the exfiltration (as the CIA termed it) by the Agency's top 'exfil' guy Tony Mendez. The final segment, a bit of post-escape bonhomie, should have been excised.

    in some ways, this cannot have been an easy film to make because we all know the outcome from the beginning and for this incredible tale to be credible on the screen it could not depart too much from the facts (it is unfair to Britain's role), so Ben Affleck as director has done a terrific job in sustaining the tension without adding too much fiction and his portrayal of Mendez is convincingly understated (this is an agent who never fires gun or even wields a fist but relies solely on guile and sheer guts). Among a fine cast of support actors, the stand out is Alan Arkin as a veteran Hollywood producer.

    Link: the details of the "Canadian Caper" click here


    Why do so many Hollywood movie come in pairs? Essentially this is the same story as "Deep Impact" released just a few months earlier: an asteroid is about to hit the earth and destroy all humankind (pretty serious, huh?). This time Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck lead drilling teams who plan to land on the asteroid and blow it apart with a nuclear bomb. Do they succeed? Well, we’re still here aren't we? Like all such films, it is all very implausible but, of all the summer 1998 science fiction blockbusters ("Deep Impact" itself, "Lost In Space" & "Godzilla"), this is the best. It has stars, action, humour, music, brilliant pacing and terrific special effects (especially the destruction of New York and Paris). A little-known fact: at the cinema, the climax of "Armageddon" scored a record 110 decibels (compared to a recommended maximum noise level in the US of 87).

    "The Artist"

    This is an audaciously original movie that succeeds spectacularly but it is hard to see how such success could ever be replicated. In the age of American widescreen blockbusters with glorious colour, crashing sound. sharp dialogue, and computer-generated special effects, who would have expected the creation of, let alone the acclaim for, a Franco-Belgian 1.33:1 aspect ratio, black and white work with (virtually) no sound and only old-fashioned visual effects?

    Above all, this is a triumph for writer and director Michel Hazanavicius. Much of Hazanavicius' television and film work is a pastiche of earlier cinema and "The Artist"is a homage to a past era. It is set in Hollywood at the time that silent movies were being being surpassed by the talkies, a transition that ruins the previously-feted eponymous, handsome George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) but plays to the strengths of the winsome newcomer Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, the director's wife). In France, Dujardin is something of a national treasure but, until now, he has been largely unknown outside his Gallic homeland. The two French leading roles are supplemented by those of two familiar American actors, James Cromwell as chaffeur to Valentin and then Miller and John Goodman as director of both. But the fifth star of this most unusual work is a talented canine who gives us the biggest laughs: a Jack Russell terrier named Uggie.

    Those who know their cinematic history will delight in the many cultural references, perhaps above all to John Gilbert who failed to make the transfer from silents to talkies. Those who have longed for a movie with a plot that one can understand, despaired at trying to catch snatched lines of dialogue, and feared that too much contemporary cinema is callous and cynical will thrill to a simple and humanist work which has its share of pathos but leaves you with a huge smile on your face.

    "The Assassin"

    For once, Hollywood does a decent job copying a European movie success. This is director John Badham's excellent 1993 remake of the raw French 1990 thriller "La Femme Nikita" starring the capable Bridget Fonda as Nina, a junkie turned state killer, with Gabriel Byrne and Dermot Mulroney in support roles. The remake follows the original almost scene for scene except for the final assignment and a more up-beat ending.

    "The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford"

    The lengthy title makes abundantly clear the essence of the narrative but the surprise comes in the sheer style in which the plot unfolds. Long (153 minutes) and often slow, this elegiac tale is set out in a consummate piece of filmmaking with striking geography (it was shot in Canada) and superb technical skill, especially in the framing and lighting of scenes.

    For this archetypal American genre movie, New Zealander Andrew Dominik was both director and writer, while the British Roger Deakin was director of photography. The charismatic Brad Pitt plays the outlaw with a reputation akin to Robin Hood but a complex pyschology, while Casey Affleck is outstanding as the one-time idoliser turned cool killer.

    Link: Wikipedia page on Jesse James click here


    It is such a rarity, but such a delight, when an accomplished novel is successfully transcribed to the screen. I was enormously impressed by the exquisite prose of Ian McEwan's work "Atonement" [for my review click here] and anxious about how it would fare as a movie, but the result is a triumph. Director 35 year old Joe Wright - whose only previous direction was the most enjoyable "Pride And Prejudice" - and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (helped by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey) have crafted a fine adaption which is faithful to the novel but makes impressive use of the film medium to give us a new insight into the work.

    At one level, this is an achingly poignant love story centred on the upper class Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley in one of her best performances to date in a role where her thinness is actually appropriate) and the son of the family's cleaning women Robbie Turner (James McAvoy in a richly textured offering with no hint of his natural Scottish brogue). But, at an another (deeper) level, this is a narrative of betrayal and atonement by Cecilia's younger sister Briony - played successively by Saoirse Ronan as the pubescent and overly-dramatic 13 year old, by Romola Garai as the tortured 18 year old, and by screen legend Vanessa Redgrave as the 77 year old author.

    No film can replicate or emulate the prose of a novel but "Atonement" the movie scores in other ways: an incessant and insistent typewriter-laden score, detailed invocation of period clothing and settings, repetition of crucial scenes from different viewpoints, a sharper, clearer and more emotional ending, and - above all - a stunning, lengthy steadicam shot of the hell on earth beach scene at Dunkirk. This is almost as good as cinema gets.

    "August: Osage County"

    So many mainstream American movies are set on the east or west coast, so it's pleasant change to see a film located in the mid western state of Oklahoma. This is not an accident: Tracy Letts, the writer of the much-garnered play on which the work is based and of the screenplay itself, is from Oklahoma and one of the ways in the which the movie is different from the play is that the landscape itself becomes a character in the story. Ultimately, however, almost all films based on plays have the great strength of strong dialogue (there are some wonderful lines here) but the real weakness of a static location (in this case, a large house and most especially a crowded dinner table that provides an electric set of encounters).

    It is an ensemble piece of distinguished actors, but the male Letts has written the best roles for women: the family matriarch Violet (Meryl Streep), her three daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson & Juliette Lewis), and her sister (Margo Martindale). This is a magnificent role for the ever-accomplished Streep and she utterly devours it, managing to make the pill-popping mother with a lacerating tongue something of a sympathetic character. Roberts is impressive as the oldest and strongest daughter - a kind of rational counterweight to all the madness unfolding in this familial imbroglio.

    One could almost feel sorry for the male actors, except that Sam Shepard (the husband) and Chris Cooper (the brother-in-law) can hold their own in any cast and the British pair Benedict Cumberbatch and Ewan McGregor must have had their reasons for wanting to struggle (in McGregor case very much so) with an Oklahoma accent. Perhaps one should feel sorry for the audience, since this is a miserable tale of damaged and damaging people, but the fine script and superb acting make the viewing more than worthwhile.

    "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me"

    I can't believe that I went to see this movie, but our local multiplex had nothing better on that I hadn't seen before, and anyway I was curious to see how Mike Myers could be rivalling George Lucas at the box office. The film lived down to my worst expectations - it is simply dreadful. I suppose that Canadian Myers has a certain talent: he plays the eponymous secret agent, the villain Dr Evil, and a disgusting character called Fat Bastard as well as co-writing the screenplay. However, I'm not well-disposed towards spoofs of 60s spy films to begin with - I enjoyed the originals too much at the time and the spoofing commenced almost immediately anyway (see "Our Man Flint" as long ago as 1965).

    What I really hate about "Powers" is the juvenile nature of the jokes which seem to focus mainly around the penis and the anus ("Oh, behave!"). This childish type of cinematic humour really got under way with "Dumb And Dumber", took a further leap downwards with "There's Something About Mary", and seems to have reached its nadir (I hope) with the two "Powers" films, but I suppose we should never forget that the core of the audience for a Hollywood movie is pubescent Americans.


    A couple of weeks before we started a holiday in Australia, my wife and I rented the Baz Luhrmann film to put us even more in the mood. Like all Luhrmann movies - think "Strictly Ballroom" or "Moulin Rouge" - there are surreal elements and stylised special effects but it is fun to watch, part wallaby western and part war film.

    The setting is the Northern Territory in the three years between the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 and the Japanese air attack on Darwin in 1942. At one level, it is an old-fasioned romance between a seemingly unlikely couple, the prime British aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman fashioning a passable English accent) and the rough-hewn "Drover" (a good-looking Hugh Jackman), who encounter a range of characters with faces familar from other Australian films. At another level, it is an examination of the assault on the native Aborigine people and culture with the 'narrator' being a 12 year old mixed-race boy called Nullah (portrayed by the engaging Brandon Walters).

    It is overly long and overly sentimental, but it has heart and it is entertaining.


    Is this the greatest movie ever made? Well, no. But it's the most expensive in the history of the cinema (a reported $230M), it's going to be one of the biggest revenue earners in the history of films (already the fastest ever to make $1B), it's technologically groundbreaking, and we've waited 12 years (since "Titantic") for writer and director James Cameron to return to our cinemas. All of which makes it something really special. I saw it in both 3D and IMAX on the largest screen in Britain (BFI in central London) and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is not "Lawrence Of Arabia" but it is immensely entertaining and its glorious imagery lives in the mind long after viewing.

    Set in 2154 entirely on a planet unoriginally called Pandora which uniquely houses a special energy source inanely named Unobtainium, much of the interaction between the humans - disabled ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) - and the 10 foot tall, blue-skinned, flat-nosed locals the Na'vi - most notably Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) - comes through the adoption by the humans of avatars which only operate when they are in induced sleep.

    There was scope here to explore what it means to be human and what treatment we should accord not just 'tribal' people but artificial creations, but subtlety is not Cameron's forte. Instead we have largely stereotypical characters - most especially in the economically-driven company man and the psychotic warrior colonel - with heavy dialogue and no plot surprises. The messages are very New Age spiritual, with lots of talk of energy and deity, and eco-friendly in a form that is almost Gaia-like, while the military treatment of the Na'vi makes this a sci-fi version of "Dances With Wolves" and the talk of fighting "terror with terror" and use of "shock and awe" clearly relates to recent American action in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    But, heh, visually this is a stunning work with a fantastical world of flora and fauna and lots of high-tech gadgetry wonderfully created in three dimensions that should be seen on the biggest screen you can visit. There is enough action and excitement to fill the more than two and a half hours and make this a movie to remember and - like "Titantic" - worth revisiting.

    Link: official web site click here

    "Avengers Assemble"

    For we super-hero fans, this movie has been a long time coming but the end result largely justifies the wait. We've had two Iron Man outings and separate films highlighting Captain America, Thor and the Hulk. Now these four - plus the lesser-known Hawkeye and Black Widow - are assembled by S.H.I.E.L.D to combat Thor's evil brother Loki whom we have seen before. Balancing so many larger than life characters and featuring so many special skills must have presented a mega challenge but director Joss Whedon - who gave us another ensemble piece in the under-rated "Serenity" - has done a skilful job and as writer he has crafted a sharp script with plenty of wry humour.

    No viewer will doubt that British actor Tom Hiddleston makes a wonderful super villain, but opinions might differ on who makes the best super hero. All six candidates - Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson - give fine performances and bounce well off one another in the early, competitive phases but, for me, Downey Jr is still the ace in the pack.

    There is plenty of action and excitement and the special effects are well done, although it might make a change for a city other than New York to be smashed up and, in the 3D version I saw, the extra dimension only really worked in the final titanic battle.

    "Avengers: Age Of Ultron"

    Joss Whedon has done it again. The man who directed and wrote the hugely successful "Avengers Assemble" has performed the same roles with the same achievement with this sequel. The first movie was challenging enough with its deployment of no less than six S.H.I.E.L.D superheroes, but this time - as well as Ironman (Robert Downey Jr), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo}, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) - we have new villains in the shape of the Maximoff twins, Pietro/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) plus the eponymous Ultron (voiced by James Spader), not to mention assorted other characters.

    So, at first viewing, it's not always clear what's going on but the whole thing is a visual treat and I was fortunate enough to experience it on the Sky Superscreen in 3D at London's O2 Arena. The pacing is superb: it opens with a big action sequence and closes with a huge action battle and, in between quieter interludes alternate with lots more action. All the superheroes get to show off their very individual talents but they are seen to blend as a team and two of them are starting to become emotionally involved. Inevitably, a city gets trashed but this time it isn't New York but somewhere called Sokovia.

    "The Aviator"

    Any movie directed by Martin Scorsese has to be worth watching and this ambitious, if flawed, biopic of Howard Hughes is certainly well worth the price of a cinema ticket. As he did in "Gangs Of New York", Scorsese works with Leonard DiCaprio who here has the most challenging role of his career so far as the eponymous businessman, womaniser, flyboy, movie mogul, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder-sufferer. Thirty-year old DiCaprio works hard at the role and captures the manic energy, tortured expression and obsessive mannerisms of Hughes, but ultimately his boyish looks make this less than ideal casting. Except for a brief and unsatisfactory childhood scene, the film covers only the twenty years 1927-1947 of Hughes' 70 years, a period which enables Scorsese to present a remarkably sympathetic portrait of this complex character which underlines his great vision and commitment to competition - twin virtues of modern-day capitalism. The man's tyrannical behaviour is excused as the product of genius, while his anti-semitism and near fascist politics are overlooked entirely.

    Cinema is first and foremost a visual medium and this movie is wonderful to look at. The grand sets and contemporary clothing - enhanced by music of the period - provide a rich evocation of the era, while the appearance in the narrative of so many movie stars of the time enhances the feeling that we have stepped back to a time when Americans were assuming leadership of the world. The realisations of these famous personages is uneven: while Cate Blanchett is brilliant as Katherine Hepburn and a paunchy Alec Baldwin convincing as Juan Trip, Kate Beckinsale is weak as Ava Gardner and Jude Law is disappointing as Errol Flynn.

    The real stars of the movie, in many ways, are the aircraft, most of which are necessarily CGI creations. We feel with Hughes as he films from the sky swirling dog fights for his film "Hell's Angels", takes Hepburn night flying over Los Angeles, sets a new speed record, twice crashes experimental aircraft, and finally lifts the mammoth 'Spruce Goose' a few feet off the water. This film of almost three hours is longer than it should have been, but it is at its most entertaining and exhilerating when it conveys the adrenalin excitement and social transformation of modern aviation.

    "AVP: Alien Vs Predator"

    Sometimes one isn't looking to the cinema for a profound statement on the human condition, but just for sheer entertainment and escapism. If that's all you want, then "AVP" does the trick fine. It takes two successful movie creature franchises with a combined total of six outings and melds them together in a 'clash of the titans' with minimal plotting and weak dialogue but sustained, fast-moving action. Sigourney Weaver and Arnold Schwarzenegger are nowhere in sight and the cast is unknown - except for a neat appearance by a much older Lance Henrikson whom we saw in two of the "Alien" films - so the money can go on sets and special effects. The final scene sets us up for a sequel which I suspect the accountants will find is a temptation too hard to resist.

    "Away From Her"

    This 2006 Canadian film is based an a 2001 short story by Alice Munro entitled "The Bear Came Over The Mountain" and was both written and directed by actress Sarah Polley in her feature-length directorial debut. It shows the final stages of a long - and not always faithful - marriage between now retired couple Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie), as her developing Alzheimer's Disease necessitates her entering a nursing home where she forms a strong attachment to another inmate. The work is slow and episodic with repeated shifts in time but it is an intensely moving tale beautifully told and with fine acting all round, most especially from British actress Christie who in her mid 60s is still as beautiful as when I first saw her in the British television series "A For Andromeda" in 1961.

    "The Baader-Meinhof Complex"

    Formally named the Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion in German), this German urban terrorist group - at its height in the late 1960s and 1970s but only formally dissolved in 1998 - was more commonly referred to by the names of two of its leaders, Andreas Baader (played here by Moritz Bleibtreu) and Ulrike Meinhof (portrayed by Martina Gedeck). This is not an easy movement to represent, still less explain, partly because the events are so numerous, partly because the timescales are so long, and above all because the politics behind it and the state reaction to it are morally complex, but this German film makes a very commendable attempt, showing the narrative mainly from the perspective of the group without ever glamorising their actions which resulted in 34 deaths and many injuries.

    The script is based on a best-selling book by Stefan Aust, Chief Editor of the German weekly news magazine "Der Spiegel", but considerable credit must go to Uli Edel who both co-wrote and directed this compelling work that tries to face up honestly to a terribly painful period of post-war German history. It is a long film (two and a half hours) and sometimes confusing, with plenty of graphic violence, hard language and some nudity, but it raises sharp questions that still resonate today about the idealism of the young, the expression of political protest, and the role of the media and the police in confronting such anger and disillusionment.

    Link: Wikipedia page on the RAF click here


    This is not an easy work for the viewer in either structure or subject matter, but it is thoughtful and thought-inspiring and contains many impressive performances.

    Scripted by Guillermo Arriaga and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Mexicans who worked together on "21 Grams"), this is a film in four languages (English, Spanish, Arabic and Japanese) linking four families (American, Mexican, Moroccan and Japanese) on three continents (America, Africa and Asia) told in 24 non-chronological chapters. The link is a hunting rifle which was made in the USA, bought in Japan, and given away in Morocco.

    Cate Blanchett is the American tourist on holiday in Morocco who is hit by a bullet from the rifle, while Brad Pitt is her husband in a deeply fractured marriage. Their two children are taken to a wedding in Mexico by their maid (Adriana Barraza) and her nephew (Gael García Bernal) while, over in Japan, the original owner of the weapon (Kôji Yakusho) struggles to cope with the suicide of his wife and the estrangement of his deaf-mute teenage daughter (Rinko Kikuchi).

    Some of the characters are dealt with by authority with respect and courtesy, but others are handled with contempt and even brutality. All these lives are inter-connected but some seem to matter more in an unequal and unfair world bedevilled by a lack of communication at so many levels - truly a modern-day tower of Babel. An ambitous and intelligent work that somehow feels sadly soulless.

    "Bagdad Cafe"

    "Bagdad Cafe" - which was originally released as "Out Of Rosenheim" - has nothing whatsoever to do with Iraq, being set in California. It is in the 'stranger comes into town' genre. But what a stanger: well-built Jasmin from Rosenheim in Germany (ably played by Marianne Sägebrecht). And what a 'town': just a run-down diner and rusty gas pump by the side of a dusty highway, the place populated by a strange bunch of wacky characters who include the irascible cafe owner Brenda (CCH Pounder) and the aged set painter Rudi (68 year old Jack Palance). In a quirky but engaging tale, Jasmin both metaphorically and literally brings both magic and harmony to this disparate community, in the process discovering a new role and home for herself.

    "The Bang Bang Club"

    The 'club' - a real life group of four white photographers - operated in South Africa during the difficult last years of the apartheid era in 1990-1994 when the white regime encouraged the Inkatha Freedom Party to attack the supporters of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress and appalling atrocities of black-on-black violence were committed. Two of the photographers won Pulitzer Prizes for their shots but all suffered psychologically and physically.

    The film is an adaptation of a book by the two surviving members of the 'club' written and directed by South African documentary film-maker Steven Silver and it was shot on location in Thokoza township south of Johannesburg. So there can be little doubt about the authenticity of the principal events and the verisimilitude of the settings. Somehow, however, the script and acting have a amateurish feel, so that the work is not quite as gripping as it should be.

    The movie reminds me of the 1973 work "Under Fire". Although the political situations are different - the 1973 film is about the civil war in Nicaragua - both films centre on the work of photographers in recording conflict and presenting it to the wider world and both explore how the motives and role of such participants can be complex and controversial. Even observers of dramatic political events cannot be neutral or passive.

    Wikipedia page on the club click here

    "The Banger Sisters"

    This 2002 movie was obviously an attempt to appeal to a neglected cinema demographic of middle-aged women, so it stars 56 year old Goldie Hawn as Suzette and 55 year old Susan Sarandon as Lavinia who are not in fact relatives but former sister-in-arms during an early sex-fueled period when they were 'banged' by a lot of rock stars (resulting in a collection of photos of 'rock cocks') and even a few roadies. One of them is still the free-spirited, laid back (sorry for the pun) soul of yester years while the other is now an upright and uptight married woman with two daughters. No prizes for guessing which (1). One of them succeeds in changing the other to embrace her view of life. No prizes for guessing which (2). This is a weak attempt at comedy that risks trivialising the consequences of casual sex.


    This 1992 film with a title that means 'the essence of life' is the creation of writer, cinematographer and director Ron Fricke and can be seen as a kind of follow-up to the 1982 film "Koyaanisqatsi" on which Fricke was also the photographer. Again we have no actors, no plot and no dialogue but an array of stunning images from all around the world. It was filmed in Dolby stereo and 70 mm in a host of exotic and interesting locations in some 24 countries. The sound is brilliant and the visual images are amazing, but one never knows where one is and the scene changes constantly.

    "Batman Begins"

    I'm a bit of a sucker for superhero films and Batman has a kind of credibility as the superhero without superpowers, so I happily saw the two Tim Burton offerings ("Batman" & "Batman Returns") and even the pair of inferior Joel Schumacher works ("Batman Forever" & "Batman & Robin"). I wouldn't have expected the British director Christopher Nolan ("Memento" & "Insominia") as the choice to revive the franchise, but the return to the origins of the story - a mere 12 frames in Bob Kane's 1939 comic strip - and the much darker, more psychological approach work really well and result in a superior and entertaining movie.

    Christian Bale - whom I first saw as a child in "Empire Of The Son" - is a credibly brooding Batman/Bruce Wayne, but Tom Cruise's current squeeze Katie Holmes is rather weak as his conscience cum love interest. One distinguishing feature of this fifth outing for the caped crusader is the impressive line-up of support actors who include the British Michael Caine as Wayne's Cockney butler, Tom Wilkinson as the head hood, and Gary Oldman as the future Commisioner Gordon (a rare opportunity for Oldman to play a good guy) plus Rutger Hauer and Morgan Freeman, who are employees of Waynes Enterprises with very different motivations, and Liam Neeson of the mysterious League of Shadows.

    In any superhero movie, the non-human stars are the gadgets and here "BB" offers some good-looking stuff and an original angle on how Wayne acquires it all. The Batmobile is very different from previous films - a kind of ultra-rugged Humvee that smashes all in its path. Some, at least, of the reported $180 that the movie cost to make has obviously gone on this hardware with a lot more on the stylistic sets of Gotham City, Wayne Manor and a Tibetan retreat. The rousing soundtrack from Hans Zimmer adds to the atmosphere. In short, this is a visually and aesthetically satisfying outing and, Oldman's final reference to the Joker, is either Nolan's bid for a sequel or a clever link to the 1989 Jack Nicholson role.


    In some 30 years of cinema-going, this is just about the most graphically violent and sexually explicit 'mainstream' movie in my experience. Of course, it's French (the title translates as "Rape Me"). More surprisingly, it is written and directed by two women, the novelist Virginie Despentes (on whose book it is based) and the pornographic film-maker Coralie Trinh Thi. In the UK, the film obtained an '18' certificate after the British Board of Film Classification cut 10 seconds from the early brutal rape scene.

    This extreme and shocking version of the "Thelma And Louise" tale sees Manu of north African origin (Raffaëla Anderson) and middle-class Nadine (Karen Bach) on an orgiastic journey of sex and violence, unrelieved by any sympathetic characters, unhinded by any police action, and with no obvious purpose. It is simply impossible to divine what the makers were trying to tell us, but clearly - like their principal characters - they are very damaged and very angry.

    "Beautiful Girls"

    This is a film which deserves to be better known. It may be small - no special effects, no car chases, no 'A' list stars - but it has a sparkling script by Scott Rosenberg and an impressive ensemble cast that includes Matt Dillon, Timothy Hutton, Uma Thurman, Mira Sorvino, Rosie O'Donnell and young Natalie Portman. Told over a few days in a snown-threwn winter, this is the tale of five male friends in their late 20s who all went to high school together in small-town America and are now struggling to come to terms with their relationships with women. O'Donnell gives the best outburst while, unlikely though it sounds, the relationship between Hutton and Portman is the most touching. The inter-related stories are well-handled by director Ted Demme who at the time was only a little older than his characters.

    "A Beautiful Mind"

    Mental illness often makes compelling cinema - think of "Rain Man" or "Shine". Now both sides of the Atlantic have produced new movies on this theme, looking at the effect of such illness on brilliant and famous individuals: from the UK there is "Iris" portraying Alzheimer's Disease and from the US comes "A Beautiful Mind" examining paranoid schizophrenia.

    This latter work is essentially the story of American mathematical genius John Forbes Nash Jnr whose biography of the same name was written by Sylvia Nasar. However, I say 'essentially' because director Ron Howard - known for his 'triumph over adversity' movies ("Apollo 13", "Backdraft", "Parenthood") - has given us a somewhat sentimentalised and sanitised version of a complex life. Nowhere in this film will one learn anything of Nash's homosexuality or importuning, one would never guess about his divorce and remarriage, and we are told nothing of his repressed upbringing or his son's own troubles with schizophrenia.

    Having said all this, "A Beautiful Mind" is a must-see movie, primarily because of an outstanding performance from Russell Crowe who plays Nash from his arrival at Princeton in 1947 to his award of the Nobel Prize in 1994. Adopting Nash's West Virginian accent, his ornamental style of speech and mannered mode of movement, this is a character a million miles away from the assured confidence of Maximus in "Gladiator" and will deservedly win him many awards.

    Jennifer Connelly is excellent as Nash's wonderfully supportive wife Alicia. Like "Iris", there is not much on the principal's work but, again like "Iris", this is ultimately a love story - an account of how a partner can be there when the spouse has literally lost his or her mind. Director Ron Howard skilfully manipulates us, both visually and emotionally, but in a sense all art is manipulative and, if we fall for the trap, it's because we want to. We want the human spirit to survive and succeed - and here it most assuredly does.

    Link: autobiography of John Nash click here

    "Becoming Jane"

    It is a truth universally acknowledged, that anything on celluloid concerning the English novelist Jane Austen will have an audience. Since her six books have been adapted so many times, it must have seemed a clever pitch to create a movie that looks and sounds so much like these various adaptations but centres instead on Austen's encounter with an Irish lawyer named Tom Lefroy in 1795 when she would only have been 20 and just starting her writings. However, the nature of this relationship is entirely speculative, although the source material - a 2003 book by Jon Spence - would pretend otherwise.

    In this unlikely but not impossible tale, Austen is played by the brown-eyed American Anne Hathaway, fresh from her success in "The Devil Wears Prada", and she manages a passable English accent, even if she is rather too pretty for the role. Her suitor is portrayed by the blue-eyed Scot James McAvoy in a very different role from his recent "The Last King Of Scotland" and he too affects an effective English accent, even if he is too short for her. The always splendid Maggie Smith and Julie Walters are in supporting roles that are all too easy for them.

    In the film, Austen assures us that "My characters will have all that they desire" - but here we don't. This is a costume drama in which the costumes are more convincing than the drama. The whole thing is sadly too pedestrian and predictable, although it looks wonderful, even if it is rural Ireland standing in for England's Hampshire.

    "Before I Go Sleep"

    In 1995, there was a movie called "While You Were Sleeping", a romantic vehicle for Sandra Bullock, but this 2014 similarly-titled work is very different: a thriller with Nicole Kidman in the central role as Christine, a woman who suffered a serious assault years ago and now forgets everything each time she sleeps. Two men are trying to help her, husband Ben (Colin Firth) and therapist Dr Nash (Mark Strong). Like most standard thrillers, we find that our assessments of the principals swing back and forth before 'the big reveal'.

    There is a sub-genre of movies involving limited memory - think "Blink", "The Bourne Identity" or "50 First Dates" to name just a few - and "Before I Go To Sleep" is not the best of them (that would be "Memento") but, if one does not think too much about the implausible narrative, this is entertaining enough, helped by good source material (the best-selling novel by S J Watson) and the solid acting (Kidman with a good English accent, Firth not as straighforwardly charming as he is usually, Strong not as as unremittingly threatening as he is so often).

    "Before Sunrise"

    Directed and co-written by Richard Linklater, this is an unusual work with a minimal amount of plot, a minimum number of characters, and a short period of time but a good deal of dialogue and characterisation. Two strangers in their early 20s meet on a train and, on impulse, decide to spend a night walking round Vienna together. Some viewers will find this slow and inconsequential but I was charmed and engaged.

    The movie is made by its two young stars: Ethan Hawke as the American Jesse and Julie Delpy as the French Celine. The dialogue and the acting are both so naturalistic that we feel as if we're listening in to a real-life conversation and my favourite scene is when each character in turn pretends to be calling a friend and talks about the person they've just encountered. Jesse and Celine have never met before and will probably never meet again and yet, over the hours, they are powerfully drawn together as we are to them.

    "Before Sunset"

    You should really see "Before Sunrise" (1995) first. If you don't enjoy that - and many will find it too slow and wordy - then don't bother with the follow-up. If you liked the original - and I certainly did - then you have to see this sequel (2004).

    It's the same director and co-writer (Richard Linklater); it's the same actors playing the same characters (Ethan Hawke as the American Jesse and Julie Delpy as the French Celine); and it's the same structure (essentially one long conversation as the duo walk around a European city over the space of a few hours). Again the dialogue and acting are so naturalistic that one feels that one is listening in on a real exchange.

    What's different? It's day not night. The city is Paris not Vienna. Most importantly, it's nine years later and Jesse and Celine have lived and loved in their own fashion and had time to think about what might have been. But can it still be? Most sequels fall short of the original; this one complements it beautifully.

    "Before Midnight"

    For those who enjoy writer and director Richard Linklater's "Before ..." trilogy - and most cinema-goers will despair at the lack of narrative and action and be bored by the wordiness of them all - we regard the American Jesse (Ethan Hawke), now a celebrated writer, and the French Celine, now an environmentalist activist, as our lovely friends whom we wish to see as a loving couple.

    The formula is wonderful: every nine years, a European setting of around 12 hours in which the two talk and talk in a naturalistic manner that no other films have dared to replicate. After two capital cities - Vienna in "Before Sunrise" (1995) and Paris in "Before Sunset" (2004) - the location this time is the much more bucolic Greek Peloponnese. There are two other major differences: Jesse and Celine have now been married for eight years and have twin daughters, so now we are examining not what could be (".. Sunrise") or "should have been" (..."Sunset") but what has been and is, and they are not the only characters, so we have a lunch scene in which people of various ages with their own experiences of relationships offer very different visions of what it means to be a couple.

    There has never been a triptych like the "Before..." movies and I cannot think of any three linked films that collectively I have admired and enjoyed more. "...Midnight" is a triumph for both the director and his two co-writers and stars. What was so wonderful about the first two offerings - the long continuous takes and the witty, engaging conversations - is still there, but the whole story is genuinely developed in a style that makes the central relationship seem utterly real. From painful experience, I can vouchsafe that the arrival of children and the passage of seven or eight years presents real challenges to a relationship and anyone who has sustained a relationship in such conditions will find some of the dialogue almost painfully poignant.

    As the lights in the cinema came on, I fell into conversation with a couple of similar age to Jesse and Celine in the first film: one a Europan and one an American. I could not help but think about what life would hold for them. As for Jesse and Celine, will we see them again in 2022 in "Before Midday" located in Chicago? Really I can't wait that long to meet them again ...

    "Begin Again"

    I loved this movie. From beginning to end, a smile rarely left my face. OK, so it's essentially a remake of "Once" (2007) with the same writer and director (Irishman John Carney) and the same story (a man and a younger woman from another country meeting in a major city of the guy's nation and uniting to create unconventional music). I actually enjoyed "Begin Again" more than "Once". The earlier film was shot on an almost non-existent budget with camcorders, whereas this one has a decent budget and much more professional production values; I think New York is snazzier than Dublin (I've been to both about half a dozen times); and Mark Ruffalo as the guy and Keira Knightley as the girl are much better actors than ... (exactly - who remembers them?).

    The movie has a smart opening with beautiful Knightley as the British singer-songwriter Gretta giving an open-mic performance of one of her songs before meeting charming Ruffalo as a washed-up American A & R man Dan before the film backtracks twice to show us how each of these very different characters came to be at this place at this time. In a similar fashion to my wife (who can view a room and mentally refurnish and even redesign it), Dan can visualise how Geta's song would come over with full backing musicians and a revised arrangement.

    The songs - written by Gregg Alexander of New Radicals - are good, but it is Knightley who is the surprise. Although she is married to a rock and roll player, she is outside of her comfort song here, but she learned to play the guitar for the role and sings well (as indeed she did in "The Edge Of Love"). I have purchased the soundtrack CD.

    "Behind Enemy Lines"

    It often happens that films come in pairs and, in the same month on British screens, we have "Behind Enemy Lines" and "Black Hawk Down", two movies featuring rescues of American servicemen from policing missions in distant parts of the globe where the US involvement was less than brilliant. Their appearance is not coincidental - it reflects a wish, post the horror of the World Trade Center attack, to show America at its most heroic. Certainly "Behind Enemy Lines" deliver an adrenalin rush, but the style is too gung-ho for it to last long.

    The plot concerns the shooting down of an American jet which is 'off mission' over Serb-occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina. The American military has co-operated fully with the hardware, so - in a return to "Top Gun" territory - there are terrificly atmospheric shots of the aircraft carrier that is the crew's base and some really exciting film of the F-18 Hornet that is their 'mount'. Slovakia stands in for Bosnia but fits the bill convincingly.

    It was a shrewd move not to cast a star in the lead role, but instead the newcomer, blond-haired, pinched-nosed Owen Wilson. In fact, the only really well-known actor in the movie is Gene Hackman, playing a characteristically gruff role as the admiral of the carrier, but he is sadly under-used, even when stupidly he is shown leading the helicopter rescue operation ("Let's go get our boy!").

    First time director John Moore deploys some flashy camera-work and provides plenty of pyrotechnics but, besides the fact that it has been done before (in the more intelligent "Bat 21"), the whole thing is just too formulaic and simplistic to make a lasting impression.

    "Behind The Candelabra"

    Wladziu Valentino Liberace, known to the world simply by his Italian surname, by friends as Lee and by his family as Walter, was a genuinely talented and immensely flamboyant entertainer whose trademark was a candelabra on his grand piano but, behind his public persona, he was a rampant homosexual who seduced a series of younger men who became ornaments in his homes of "palatial kitsch". Director Steven Soderbergh has insisted that this bio-pic of Liberace is his final act, but is it a television movie or a theatrical film? The answer is both. Soderbergh claims that no Hollywood studio would finance such a revelatory and intimate portrait and therefore he made the work for America's HBO television network but, outside the United States, it has been shown in cinemas.

    One can perhaps understand, if not excuse, Hollywood's sensitivities since this is a remarkably frank, if generally sympathetic, portrayal, not least sexually (although little is actually seen). It is based on a memoir written by Scott Thorsen who met Liberace when the entertainer was 58 and spent five years in a relationship with him before a bitter break-up and the pianist's death from AIDS aged 67. Michael Douglas is brilliant as Liberace, utterly convincing as a man with all the riches he could want but desperate for true companionship and love. Matt Damon is impressive in the difficult support role and there are cameos from some surprising and barely recognisable stars: Rob Lowe, Dan Ackroyd and Debbie Reynolds.

    Liberace's love for Thorson was a strange and suffocating affair in which the performer required his young companion to undergo facial surgery to make him look like an earlier version of himself and take drugs to keep him slim, all the while confined to a gilded cage which required him to give all of his space, time, and dignity. So this is ultimately a profoundly sad work, not necessarily recommended for a New Year's Eve iTunes download (which is how we viewed it with friends) by definitely well worth seeing.

    "Being John Malkovich"

    Scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze have produced a brilliantly inventive and utterly surreal movie that will blow your mind. Both hardly recognisable, John Cusack and Cameron Diaz play an out-of-work puppeteer and his animal-loving wife who each manage to make love to the enigmatic Maxine (Catherine Keener) by virtue of entering the mind of an iconic actor (Malkovich as himself).

    Entry to the aforesaid portal is at the back of a filing cabinet on floor 7 1/2 of a New York office block, where the clerical staff have to walk around with hunched shoulders because the ceilings are so low, and at one point in the bizarre narrative there are even subtitles in chimpanzee language. Wacky or what? But it works as original, amusing and thought-provoking entertainment of a high order.


    In late 2013 and early 2014, two films made by black British directors and starring black British actors took a real-life historical black figure to say something important about slavery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries - but the two works could hardly be different in tone. Whereas "12 Years A Slave" was brutally hard-hitting in its account of a free American who was kidnapped into slavery, "Belle" is a much more gentle tale of the daughter of a black slave who manages to be raised more or less as a member of the British aristocracy.

    Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate, mixed race daughter of a well-born British sea captain and an African slave. She is played wonderfully by the mixed race actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw (her father is black South African), whose previously work has been mostly on television, and the movie is the accomplished work of the director Amma Asante (her parents are Ghanaian), whose only previous feature direction was a decade ago, and we are going to hear a lot more about these talented women. A fine cast of British character actors, including Tom Wilkinson as the Lord Chief Justice and Emily Watson and Penelope Wilton in more support roles, make this a very watchable work.

    Given the setting - London mainly in 1772 (although the film was largely shot on the Isle of Man) - Dido has a degree of status and some wealth but has to contend with the triple trappings of race, gender and class, as she battles both to find a husband who actually loves her (enter Sam Reid as the earnest Mr Davinier) and to encourage the LCJ to make the honourable decision in the real life court case about the 'Zong' slave ship. In true Jane Austen fashion, our heroine finds both love and honour, so no surprises here but a movie with a heart.

    Wikipedia page on Dido Elizabeth Belle click here
    Wikipedia page on the 'Zong' massacre click here

    "Bend It Like Beckham"

    This is a sheer delight of a film. OK, the clichéd plot-line is straight out of a cheap comic: young footballer overcomes personal obstacles to score winning goal in final seconds of crucial match. But the twist is that the 18 year old football fanatic is a girl and she's Asian to boot! Parminder Nagra is utterly credible as Jess, inspired by her hero David Beckham and encouraged by her English friend Jules (Keira Knightley) and Irish coach Joe (Rhys Meyers), but thwarted by Indian parents trying hard to maintain their religious and social traditions in west London's Hounslow (just down the road from where I live). Director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha presents a wry and very funny observation of the culture clash and its ultimate resolution in a movie brimming with sharp dialogue and comedic scenes, all enlivened by a superb sound track.

    "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"

    Admit it: when was the last time you saw a film in which the seven lead roles are taken by British actors in their 60s and 70s? Never - right? So this is a movie aiming at a very different demographic than the usual teenage-targeted Hollywood fare and it is a refeshing and welcome change that will delight young as well as old.

    The doyennes of the cast are Judi Dench and Maggie Smith who are both now in their late 70s but sparkle here as very different lonely singletons. Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton play a sweet and sour couple in the thespian menu. Tom Wilkinson is a retired judge with a secret. Finally Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup are two more sad souls who might or might not find solace together. All of the seven find that retirement can be 'outsourced' to an Indian hotel that certainly looks exotic in the (photoshopped) brochure, but actually needs somewhat more than the enthusiasm of its young manager (Dev Patel) who has romantic problems of his own.

    The location of the hotel is Jaipur in northern India which is a character in itself and, since I have visited the city, I can attest to the wonderful vibrancy and colour of this extraordinary metropolis. But, as our seven intrepid Brits learn, India requires some adjustment to one's expectations and lifestyle and some make the adjustment sooner or better than others. A cynic might dub this multiple storyline of comedy and romance as "Love Geriatrically" and the characters are rather stereotypical, but this is a delightful movie that makes the viewer feel good about life.

    "Bhaji On The Beach"

    In this cleverly-titled film, the beach is at Blackpool - a seaside resort in the north-west of England that I know well from many political and trade union conferences - while the bhaji is the vegetable savoury consumed by a group of Asian women on a day trip from Birmingham and the argy-bargy or argument that ensues when they confront a variety of generational, gender and culture differences. Writer Meera Syal and director Gurinda Chadha tackle a large agenda with both humour and pathos.

    "Big Fish"

    There are tall tales; there are TALL tales; and then there's those told by Edward Bloom (played by Ewan McGregor as a young man and by Albert Finney as an old one). His son (Billy Crudup) believes very little, but just maybe there's more truth in these stores that he or we originally thought - and, in any event, sometimes the embellished truth is what what makes life more colourful and fun. Tim Burton ("Edward Scissorhands" & "Batman") is the perfect director for such an entertaining, even enchanting, world of the strange and the surreal, but I'm never comfortable with British actors as familiar as McGregor, Finney and Helena Bonham Carter adopting American accents and the conclusion is oddly down-beat.

    "Big Game"

    To enjoy this passably entertaining film, one has to suspend belief and accept the notion that a small bunch of terrorists could bring down Air Force One and a 13-year old boy with a bow and arrow could defend the U.S. President. And can you really imagine an American president who is black with a sense of humour or a villain who has a beard and wears a black leather jacket? This film is an effort by Europeans to produce something in the vein of "Air Force One" or "White House Down": a work written and directed by a Finn (Jalmari Helander), shot in Finland and Germany, pairing a well-known American actor (Samuel L Jackson playing it by numbers) with an unknown child Finnish actor (a strangely inert Onni Tommila), and music from a Slovak orchestra. Hollywood has nothing to fear.

    "Big Hero 6"

    A little over a year after I took my granddaughter Catrin (then almost three) to her first ever movie "Frozen" (which she utterly adored), I took her (now just four) to see this very different film from the same stable (Walt Disney Animation Studios) and I'm delighted to record that she loved it. We saw it in IMAX in 3D and we were both blown away.

    Although this time the central character is a young boy - Hiro Hamada of the city of San Fransokyo - rather than two princesses, my granddaughter had no trouble relating to it because Hiro is so cute, his inflatable robot Baymax is androgynous, and two of his four friends - making up the six heroes - are very capable girls.

    I reckon that "Frozen" plus "Big Hero 6" - with a few films in between - will give her a lifelong love of the movies.

    "Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"

    I managed to catch "Birdman" while it was still on the big screen but, by the time I did this, the movie had already garnered four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Most of the Academy's voters are actors and this is very much a film about acting and actors. If American cinemagoers had voted for Best Picture, "American Sniper" would have won hands-down and has taken more money that all the other Best Picture nominations combined. I admired both works - but they could hardly be more different.

    While "AS" covers a lot of ground, both in terms of geography and time, the action in "Birdman" largely takes place in a New York theatre and, although the narrative traverses several weeks, the shooting contrives to give the impression that, in the main, this was a single take (you have to look much closer than in Hitchcock's "Rope" to spot the 16 actual cuts). If "AS" is about a man that most Americans see as a hero struggling with his inner demons, then "Birdman" is about an actor who used to play a superhero devoured by his demons. One of the many delights of the film is the delicious irony that the eponymous superhero is played by Michael Keaton who, of course, once portrayed another black-clad, caped superhero.

    But while Keaton gives a tour de force performance which gained him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor (it went instead to Eddie Redmayne), like any good play this is an ensemble piece with a slew of fine thespian displays. Leading the pack is Edward Norton, but the young female stars - Naomi Watts, Emma Stone and Britain's Andrea Riseborough - are all impressive. And both the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and the jazz drum music from Antonio Sanchez add to this marvellously accomplished work.

    If one person has to be singled out in assessing "Birdman, it must be the Mexican Alejandro González Iñárritu who directed, produced and co-wrote the movie. Maybe, just maybe, however, the whole thing is too artful, knowing, contrived and ultimately -dare I say it - pretentious. So many lines of dialogue, so many scenes, shots and props, can be seen as alluding to another character or another film or capable of several interpretations. Indeed the title itself involves an ambiguous sub-title and even then the parentheses do not enclose the word 'or'. Perhaps this is a flawed work of genius that, while never less than utterly absorbing, tries just a little too hard to be so clever.

    "Billy Elliot"

    "Flashdance" meets "The Full Monty" in this sentimental but uplifting movie début by British director Stephen Daldry. Jamie Lee - a 13 year old lad from Billingham chosen from 2,000 hopefuls - is outstanding as the 11 year old Billy who discovers a passion for dance that enables him to channel his frustration and anger and to escape the problems of his widowed family and strike-ridden community.

    I've loved Julie Walters ever since her Mrs Apron character in the television sketch 'Acorn Antiques' and here she gives a remarkably assured performance as the boy's mentor. Gary Lewis is effective as Billy's father, a man of pent-up emotions who cannot understand his son'a strange ambitions. Set against the bitter miners' dispute of 1984-85 in the north-east of England, there is a great deal of pain in this film, but also much humour, real exhilaration, and ultimately personal triumph.

    "Black Hawk Down"

    Like "Behind Enemy Lines", this is a movie rushed out in the aftermath of the World Trade Center horror, apparently on the assumption that it will make Americans feel better about themselves. It would seem that, in the US, there has been a "Let's kick ass" response but, to this British viewer at least, such a reaction is hard to fathom. Certainly the film is a celebration of comradeship and heroism, but it reminds us of an appalling military misjudgement by the Americans and a lack of political will by the international community.

    It depicts in savagely graphic form the outcome of an October 1993 operation in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu when an attempt to detain henchmen of the local warlord gave rise to a 15-hour "firefight" in which 18 American soldiers lost their lives and more than 70 were injured, while something like 500 Somalians - men, women ands children - were killed. Élite soldiers of the Rangers and Delta Force regiments go in, supported by Black Hawk and Humvee helicopters but, from the start, it is a mess, as one soldier falls from Black Hawk, resulting in it being downed by the local militia. This is war as we have never seen it before on the big screen: brutal and confused combat in city streets and houses where the enemy does not wear a uniform or fight by the rules and rescue is far from hand.

    This was always going to be a better work than "Behind Enemy Lines" because it is helmed by one of the finest directors around and presents a very much less 'gung ho' depiction of war. Fresh from his success with the wonderful "Gladiator", British Ridley Scott - the son of a Royal Marine - has taken locations in Morocco and used magnificent camerawork to produce a stunning visual and visceral record based closely on the book by journalist Mark Bowden. Indeed such is the verisimilitude of Scott's action that one can't always hear what is said or understand what is happening.

    As I left the London screen where I saw "Black Hawk Down", I found myself in conversation with the cinema attendant who incredibly happened to be a Somalian who was there in 1993. He assured me that the events were worse than shown in the film - we didn't see (fortunately) the parading of the dead Americans through the streets - and the situation is just as bad now as it was then, with four clans controlling different quarters of Mogadishu.

    A year after the disastrous American intervention in Somalia, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan and we all looked the other way until the appalling events of 11 September 2001. If Scott's film serves to remind us that we cannot forgot the injustice in Somalia - and other parts of Africa - perhaps it will have served a higher purpose than entertainment.

    "Black Swan"

    "Swan Lake" has been my favourite ballet since I saw the famed Margot Fonteyn perform the lead role in my first visit to this art form. Natalie Portman has been a favourite actress since her precocious performance as a 12 year old in "Leon" led on - via "Star Wars" - to such accomplished work as "Closer" and "The Other Boleyn Girl". I can't say that Darren Aronofsky is a favourite director since, while he is genuinely talented and I admired "The Wrestler", I found "Requiem For A Dream" really disturbing and "The Fountain" unwatchable.

    So I approached "Black Swan" with both real excitement and some trepidation. This psycho-drama, which is reminiscent of both "Repulsion" and "The Red Shoes" and has many parallels with the body-punishing depiction of "The Wrestler", will not appeal to everyone and some will regard it as over the top, but I admired it enormously. Aronofsky ensures that the camera is never still and every scene is claustrophobic physically and/or psychologically.

    But it is 29 year old Portman who is simply outstanding in her best performance to date as ballet dancer Nina Sayers who has to conquer the demanding twin roles of the White Swan/Odette and the Black Swan/Odile. The role seems made for Portman who is hardly ever off the screen, since she was a dancer as a child and has a degree in psychology. She prepared physically for a year and the choreographer is now her partner Benjamin Millepied.

    Supporting roles come from Barbara Hershey as Nina's overbearing mother and Vincent Cassel as the intimidating ballet director and from Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder as up-and-coming and past-her-best ballet dancers respectively - all of whom appear to represent threats to the increasingly paranoid Nina. In the final segment as the eponymous dark bird, Portman looks terrific and her acting achieves new heights, while - as in "The Wrestler" - Aranofsky ends the film on exactly the right shot.


    Sometimes the film is chosen for me, when I have a two hour gap in my schedule of meetings, there is a limited choice at that time and place, and I've already seen all the best movies on release. That's how I got to see this rom-com starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. Now I'm not a fan of Sandler but I do admire Barrymore (boy, has she come a long way since she was that cute little girl in "E.T."), so this did not seem that that bad an option.

    In fact, I've only seen two other Sandler movies: "The Wedding Singer" and "50 First Days" and, what do you know, both starred Barrymore. This time both Sandler and Barrymore are single parents, him with three girls and her with two boys. After a short and miserable blind date stateside, they accidentally find themselves at the same resort in South Africa and the rest of the plot is inevitable.

    "Blended" had a promising and well-intentioned concept: lots of families these days are untraditional (including my own) and blending such families is a challenge but the presentation is very simplistic and sentimental and Sandler's brand of wry humour offers too few actual laughs. What's more the choice of location for much of the shooting is bizarre. Sun City is the last place I'd want to visit in South Africa (and I have toured the country) and all the local characters are presented as absurd cartoonish stereotypes. Thank goodness for Barrymore ...

    "The Blind Side"

    This is not a film which is going to play well outside of the United States. It is the true story of how a tough Memphis mother in a wealthy family (Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy) befriends a huge, homeless and ill-educated black man (Quinton Aaron as Michael Oher), enabling him ultimately to become a highly successfully professional American football player. Of course, outside the USA, few people will have heard of Oher or have much interest in American football. Even the title - a footballing term - is unhelpful. Furthermore, as a narrative, it has the additional problems of being slow and lacking dramatic tension.

    Having said all this, it is a fine performance by Bullock who has to adopt a Southern accent for a role which sees her playing a much more assertive and less cute character than is usually her wont. It won her the Academy Award for Best Actress. And, in its own way, the tale is inspirational, showing that with some tender loving care (and in this case a lot of money) the most unlikely and ill-equipped can be enabled to succeed.

    "Blood Diamond"

    There are not many Hollywood movies shot in Africa that deal with a specifically African subject, so this examination of the role of conflict diamonds in wars such as that in Sierra Leone is worthy and welcome. It is written by Charles Leavitt ("K-PAX") and directed by Edward Zwick ("The Last Samarai") and it was filmed largely in Mozambique with other scenes in South Africa.

    The film does not flinch from depicting some terrible images including child soldiers and limb amputation and raises the question of responsibility of the diamond industry plus governments and media. However, at heart this is an action thriller revolving around three very different characters: African-born white smuggler Danny Archer played by Leonard Di Caprio whose accent here may vacillate somewhat but whose thespian talents continue to grow; Solomon Vandy, a local fisherman and father, portrayed by Benin-born Djimon Hounsou who was so memorable in "Gladiator"; and American journalist and campaigner Maddy Bowen acted by one-time model Jennifer Connelly of "A Beautiful Mind".

    Politically this is a somewhat simplistic offering but its intentions are honourable and it manages to be entertaining as well as instructive.

    "Blue Is The Warmest Colour"

    The winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2013, this three-hour examination of young lesbian love is a quintessentially French film: very long, very slow, intellectual conversations, lots of eating, lots of drinking, lots of smoking, serious, intense, lingering, and then there's the sex. It has the longest and most explicit sex scene that I have seen in some 50 years of viewing movies.

    The story is one of love found and love lost between a teenage schoolgirl Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and a little older art student blue-haired Emma (Léa Seydoux) as directed by Franco-Tunisian Abdellatif Kechiche. The relationship between the actors and director has been complex and controversial: script and scenes evolved fluidly as the production proceeded, shooting was prolonged and repetitive (that sex sequence took 10 days), and both women have publicly complained over the tyrannical approach of Kechiche. Then Julie Maroh, who wrote the original graphic novel that inspired the movie, has dismissed this adaptation as a straight person's fantasy of gay love.

    So this is a controversial film at several levels. But the result of all this creative tension is a powerful and compelling work with superb acting by Seydoux and a truly stunning performance from 18 year old Exarchopoulos. The whole film has a naturalistic feel about it, whether the leads are conversing or coupling, and the ambiguous ending seems so right.

    "Blue Jasmine"

    Woodly Allen - now 77 - makes a sparkling return to form in this his 46th film as director. It opens with the eponymous American socialite (Australian Cate Blachett) on a flight from New York to San Francisco, seemingly having a conversation but in reality indulging in a ranting monologue, and it closes in a similar style on a San Francisco park bench.

    In between, we are treated to briliant, Oscar-worthy acting from Blanchett as a woman tottering on the edge of complete mental breakdown as her material world and ridiculous illusions vanish in a terrifing miasma, partly of the making of a financially and sexually venal husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) and partly the result of her own fantasy vision, latterly fuelled by much pill-popping, spirit consumption, and outright lying, laced with much condescension and cynicism.

    Her materialistic values and inveterate duplicity are contrasted with the lifestyle of Ginger (the excellent British Sally Hawkins). Jasmine and Ginger were both adopted and raised as sisters but could hardly be more different. Jasmine's history with her husband and sister are only slowly revealed in a series of flashbacks which serve to underline this nightmare of a car crash in slow motion.

    Ginger's fiance Chili (Bobby Cannavale) is the nearest we see to a decent man and he is lacking intelligence and composure. The rest are either too trusting or utterly untrustworthy. So "Blue Jasmine" is not a great advertisement for the human condition, but it is a movie of great flair and a spectacular central performance.

    "Blue Valentine"

    The title's a clue. "Valentine" - it's a love story. "Blue" - there's a lot of sadness. So this is no rom-com. Indeed mainstream Hollywood rarely produces work as mature and downbeat as this and it is in fact the output of independent director Derek Cianfrance who also co-wrote the script. Both the cinematography and dialogue are very naturalistic, so that the viewer almost feels like an eavesdropper on real conversations and situations.

    Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams - who are credited as executive producers - give marvellously nuanced and heartfelt performances as Dean and Cindy, two young working class Americans from dysfunctional backgrounds, two people who conceive a child and decide to marry but find the relationship really tough to sustain. We first meet them at the point of melt-down but successive flash-backs tell us how they met and married. Here are two good people with no compelling reason to part but not enough in common for both to want to stay together. Painfully realistic.

    "Blue Velvet"

    I've always thought of director David Lynch as too weird for me and, so except for "The Elephant Man (1980) and "Dune" (1984), I've stayed away from his work. However, 20 years after its release, I was persuaded to watch "Blue Velvet" when a friend loaned me the DVD. I wasn't wrong: Lynch, who wrote as well as directed this film, is a man with a strange vision and this movie is a very edgy and deeply disturbing work that does not encourage me to tackle any of his other more recent efforts. I guess my problem is that, while I can take a lot of sex and violence in my cinematic experience, I don't like them together. I do have to accept that this is a stylish work and, in Frank Booth (played by a truly scary Denis Hooper), we have an unforgettable villain. However, in a work that is so dark, the ending is perhaps too conventionally reassuring and familiar.


    Robert Altman may now have shuffled off to the great director's chair in the sky, but his hallmark style of multiple storylines and well-known actors has been picked up here by Emilio Estevez who is writer, director and one of the stars of this compelling work which manages to be both hugely entertaining and strikingly political.

    Although there are no less than 22 characters - the majority played by very well-known faces in a star-studded, ensemble piece - all the action occurs on one day (6th June 1968) and in one place (the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles) - the day and the location of the assassination of Robert F Kennedy as he was winning the California Democratic primary in a race that might have taken him back to the White House, this time as president instead of Richard Nixon. Much use of archive footage almost makes RFK himself one of the cast.

    The inter-related stories of the staff and occupants of the hotel are told so well that, by the time the movie reaches its inevitable conclusion, we care about the welfare of the fictional charcters almost as much as we tense up at the knowledge of the senseless slaying of RFK. This is one film where it pays to stay for the credits because there are so many interesting photographs of RFK and other historic characters.

    In one sense, this is probably a work that resonates particularly powerfully with those who were alive at the time (I was 20 but Estevez was only six). On the other hand, the speeches of RFK referenced by Estevez sound astonishingly contemporary, as he laments America's involvement in a foreign war, the growing threat to the environment, the scourge of working-class poverty, and the divisions between racial groups in the USA. If anything, for a general audience, the political messages are bludgeoned a little too strongly in the final set of speech extracts, but this is a minor complaint.

    Martin Sheen, Emilio's father and liberal activist, a man who played John F Kennedy in a television mini-series and fictional president Josiah Barlett in "The West Wing", and one of the wonderful ensemble cast in "Bobby", must be mighty proud of his boy.

    "Body Of Lies"

    Hollywood has given us a stream of movies focused on Islamic fundamentalist terrorism and "Body Of Lies" has nothing original to say on the subject, but it is an entertaining enough couple of hours with cinematography, plot locations, and narrative developments jumping around at a frenetic pace. This is not vintage work from British director Ridley Scott (that would be "Alien" and "Gladiator") but it zips along in the style that he brought to "Black Hawk Down" and "American Gangster".

    Scott always enjoys working with Russell Crowe and here Crowe plays cold and callous CIA controller Ed Hoffman in fine style. His apparent mannequin is agent Roger Ferris, portrayed ably by Leonardo DiCaprio (although he could have done without the goatee beard), but also pulling the strings is Jordanian spy master Hani Pasha (the British Mark Strong). The love interest comes from Iranian actress Golshifteh Farhani who became the first star from Iran to act in a major Hollywood production since the Islamic revolution, an act for which she was banned from leaving her country.

    The film is based on a novel by "Washington Post" columnist David Ignatius and would have benefited from a less messy plot line.

    "The Book Of Eli"

    Like "The Road", this a film set in a post-apocalyptic United States with a man walking all the way to the west coast. For Eli, played by the charismatic Denzel Washington, this is a 30-year journey with little for company except a Bible and a vision and an uncanny ability to survive impossible situations. The cinematography is impressive with atmospheric bleached-out shooting and there are some fine action scenes which combine the ambience of "Mad Max" with the characterisation of a Clint Eastwood-style avenger.

    Non-American audiences though are unlikely to be moved by the heavy religious nature of the message and there is an appalling underuse of talent with Gary Oldman yet again hamming it up as the villain and the likes of Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour given far too little screen time. If you want to see a futuristic movie about the power of the written word, I recommend "Farenheit 451" whose ending is partially plagiarised by "The Book Of Eli".

    "The Book Of Life"

    It was half term and I was looking after Joshua - the seven year old son of very close family friends - for a few days. He chose this film and wanted to see it in 3D. He had his wishes and he was not disappointed. From producer Guillermo del Toro and director Jorge Gutierrez, this is an animated comedy with a unique visual style - a veritable riot of colours and shapes. Set around the Mexican Day of the Dead, it is the classic love triangle as two boys - Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) - seek the affections of Maria (Zoe Saldana). Somehow, everyone (including Joshua) ends happy.

    "The Book Thief"

    I admired the novel by Markus Zusak which describes the experience of a young girl in wartime Germany but the story works better on the page than on the screen. Many of the ingredients - effective sets and locations, good photography and strong acting - are creditable, but the script is not strong enough and there is insufficient narrative dynamic to make this worthy film the success that British director Brian Perceval and his German crew clearly sought. Young Canadian Sophie Nélisse does well as the central character Liesel Melinger and Australian Geoffrey Rush and Briton Emily Watson are excellent as her adoptive parents, while Roger Allam provides the gentle yet chilling voice of Death. Sadly the fear of Nazism and the magic of books do not come through as powerfully as they should.


    ... or, to give the movie its full title "Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan". This is genuinely ground-breaking cinema as the most gratuitously offensive work I have seen in over 40 years of film viewing - and yet it is brilliantly inventive in its politically-charged humour with endless visual and verbal gags that hit so many targets right between the eyes. I found it really funny and my wife thought it hysterical, at one point (the naked fight sequence) being in danger of stopping breathing.

    British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has a huge success here with his portrayal of a Kazakhstan television presenter making a documentary on his examination of American culture and his search for Pamela Anderson. Kazakhstan has no reason to object to this sending up of the nation which can only increase tourism and is as nothing compared to the exposure of the prejudice and hypocrisy of so many sections of American society ranging from fraternity houses to evangelical Christians.

    Footnote: Cohen - who is of course Jewish - seemingly makes a whole succession of anti-Semitic jokes while in reality exposing the ridiculous nature of ant-Jewish prejudice and (I am reliably informed by a Jewish friend), along the way, frequently spouts fluent Hebrew.


    Few people noticed this film at the time of its release, but it has become particularly interesting as the only work written, produced and directed by the Wachowski brothers (Andy and Larry) before they hit the big time with "The Matrix". From the teasing title, one might think this is a movie involving bondage but, except for one lesbian love scene, there is no overt sex. Husky-voiced Jennifer Tilly ("The Getaway"), a ganster's girlfriend called Violet, and tatooed Gina Gershon ("Showgirls"), a thief known as Corky, form a partnership to defraud mafia henchman Caesar (Joe Paliano) of $2M in this wonderfully stylish thriller with lively camerawork.

    "The Bourne Identity"

    There are echoes here of the 1996 movie "The Long Kiss Goodnight" when Geena Davies plays someone who only gradually discovers that she is a highly trained agent. In this case, it is Matt Damon - as the eponympous Jason Bourne - who has to discover who he is and what he does in a complicated but enjoyable action-filled thriller based on the book by Robert Ludlum. He is assisted by a German free spirit called Marie (played by Franka Potente) who discovers more than she expected when she goes along for the (car) ride. Chris Cooper, Clive Owen and Brian Cox are among those who want Bourne buried. Direction is from Doug Liman, while the screenplay comes from Tony Gilroy.

    "The Bourne Supremacy"

    It's two years later, they are still trying to wipe out Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), and he and we are almost as confused as before with much still unexplained about the CIA's Treadstone operation. Direction this time comes from the British Paul Greengrass, but original director Doug Liman is an executive producer and the writing credits are again split between novelist Robert Ludlum and scriptwriter Tony Gilroy. In this sequel, the action jumps from Goa to Berlin to Moscow (scene of a spectacular car chase) and the camerawork is especially frenetic with plenty of tension and action to entertain. Senior Agency staffer Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) fails to bring Bourne in but, in the final sequence, tells him his real name ...

    "The Bourne Ultimatum"

    I saw "The Bourne Identity" (2002) and "The Bourne Supremacy" (2004) on television but enjoyed them so much that I was determined to see the 2007 third segment on the big screen where the furious pacing and visceral violence has full impact. So many trilogies fail to live up to the promise of the original movie and the later works too often look as if they've been tacked on to sweat the asset of the franchise (there's much talk of "the asset" in this movie), but the Bourne films have got better as they've progressed, are neatly linked by characters and plot, and in the end are satisfyingly symmetrical (we open and close the series with a floating body).

    Doug Liman got things off to a commendable start as the original director, but having Paul Greenglass at the helm of the second and third films and Tony Gilroy as a scriptwriter on all three has really paid off. The trade-mark running through streets and over roofs and racing in cars and on bikes (with no regard for traffic rules or laws of gravity) are here again in spades, but most of the locations are new, notably London's Waterloo station (very familar to me) followed in short order by Madrid, Tangier and New York. The dazzling editing, the insistent score and the 169 stunt performers present an enthralling couple of hours.

    I was delighted to see that (like me) Bourne is a "Guardian" reader, but sadly my PC does not work as fast as those at the CIA and I doubt that even the Agency has quite such immediate access to such voluminous data bases (if they do, the 'war on terror' should have been a breeze).

    This time Blackbriar is added to Treadstone, but things gradually become clearer to Bourne, both in term of his fractured memories and his real enemies. The narrative arc works well as Bourne discovers who are his friends in the Agency and only kills when he really has to do so. As the eponymous ex-CIA black ops agent, Matt Damon exhibits physical and technical resources that are frankly superhuman and the ending could have been stronger, but this is still a thrilling and satisfying piece of cinema.

    "The Bourne Legacy"

    Who would have thought that the Bourne franchise could survive without director Paul Greengrass, actor Matt Damon, and even the Jason Bourne character himself? That it does, and does so rather successfully, is primarily down to Tony Gilroy. He wrote the screenplay for the three previous Bourne movies - "Identity" (2002), "Supremacy" (2004) and "Ultimatum" (2007) - and, five years after we might have thought that the conspiracy had run its course, he's back as both writer and director (for good measure, he also conceived the story).

    OK, it may not have the originality of the earlier works and the final chase sequence (a full 15 minutes) is too long, but I found the plot more intelligible and, in a film with no downtime, the tension and the action are sustained for the full two and a quarter hours, all the way from Alaska to Manila.

    As the great tag line explains" "There was never just one". In the fall-out from the conclusion of "The Bourne Ultimatum", the Defense Department is forced to freeze all its covert black ops programs which involves dispensing with the services of some exceptional assets, but one agent - Outcom 3 or Aaron Cross - wants to stay alive which, to start with, requires him to find a way of coping without his steady supply of ability-enhancing green and blue meds. The rebooting of the franchise works so well because of the casting of Jeremy Renner, an actor of real presence and physicality, as the rogue agent. After more than a decade of solid work, Renner achieved 'overnight' success in his breakthrough movie "The Hurt Locker" and he is now set to be a major action star.

    Cross needs to team up with neurophysicist Dr Marta Shearing who is played by Rachel Weisz, an accomplished actress who can pull off a role which is a lot more than the usual girl along for the ride. Cross's nemesis is Retired Colonel Eric Byer, portrayed chillingly by the ever-able Edward Norton. Even the smaller roles are filled by strong actors and, throughout it all, we have an insistent score by James Newton Howard.

    The critics have been rather dismissive of "The Bourne Legacy", but audiences are enjoying it - and I certainly did.

    "The Boxtrolls"

    There are cute children's films - like "Frozen, the first movie to which I ever took my granddaughter Catrin (then just under three) - and then there is the more challenging kind - like "The Boxtrolls" to which I took her nine months later. We haven't read the source material, the novel "Here Be Monsters!" by Alan Snow, but she knows all about trolls from "Frozen" and other stories and these are very cleverly represented through stop-motion capture by the specialist production company Laika. But it's a little bit scary for young ones, so Catrin held on to my hand most of the film and sat on my lap for the final third.

    For British adults of a certain age, the characters of the town of Cheesebridge look like people from a Gerald Scarfe cartoon and the subterranean habitat of the boxtrolls themselves is like a cross between the worlds of Heath Robinson and Hieronymus Bosch. The voices are very well-done and for me the best of comes from Ben Kingsley as a hard bad guy and Richard Ayoade as a soft bad guy. Stay for the credits when early on there is a little bit of existential angst on display from two of the stop motion characters.

    "The Boy With The Striped Pyjamas"

    The Holocaust is always a hugely sensitive topic for storytelling, even more so when the perspective is that of a child. It was done successfully, if unconventionally, with the Italian work "Life Is Sweet". In this case, the source material is a novel by Irish writer John Boyne which has been adapted for the screen and directed by the British Mark Herman.

    For much of the time, one is not sure if this is going to work. All the characters speak with middle-class English accents, including Vera Farmiga who is American, which hardly aids authenticity. Then the central proposition - that the eight year old son (Asa Butterfield) of a German commandant of a concentration camp (David Thewlis) could befriend an inmate of the same age (Jack Scanlon) and not understand anything of what was going on - seems preposterous. Of course, fiction is allowed to depart from reality to examine a central truth and therefore the conclusion of this tale is critical and it is the moving finale that ultimately makes this a powerful and instructive piece of filmmaking.


    Three of my favourite films are "Before Sunrise" (1995), "Before Sunset" (2004) and "Before Midnight" (2013), all written and directed by Richard Linklater, all featuring the same two characters growing up over time, all starring Ethan Hawke as one of those characters, all using naturalistic dialogue as the main narrative device to tell very domestic stories. So I was never going to need any persuading to see "Boyhood", written and directed by Linklater, centred on a boy growing up from five to 18, again starring Hawke, and again using dialogue rather than action to tell the stories and overwhelmingly set in a variety of homes.

    What makes "Boyhood" different from the other three movies, indeed what makes it astonishing, is that this 12 year story was shot in twelve chronological segments over a mere 39 days with the same core actors but it is presented as one integrated whole over two and three quarter hours. There is no overt signalling of the year to year jumps with the viewer left to join up the chapters which proves remarkably easy and even fluid. The commitment of all concerned is simply breathtaking.

    The eponymous Texan boy is Mason played by Ellar Coltrane who proves to be a remarkably subdued and laconic teenager, unremarkable in many ways and yet strangely attractive. His mom is Patricia Arquette who is terrific as a strong woman who neverthless makes some bad choices, starting and finishing as a single parent. Hawke is the birth father who drops in and out of his children's lives with often a greater boyish sense of fun than his offspring. And Mason's sister is portrayed by the director own daughter Lorelie Linklater.

    This is not a film that one can judge by conventional storytelling standards. There is no real beginning, middle and end. We come in at a somewhat arbitrary point, we hang out with the characters for more than a decade of growth and development, and we drop out at a fairly random point (Mason is about to start college but has reached no real decisions about who he is and what he is going to do). As his mother laments towards the end: "I just thought there would be more." This feels less like a feature film, therefore, than a real-life documentary. It is that good.

    "Boys Don't Cry"

    This is a film with an unusual subject and a surprising performance. It is the true story of American transgendered Brandon Teena who was born as a girl but lived as a man - so successfully that a deep relationship with a woman was established but so tragically that it led to a brutal rape and sadistic murder. The astonishingly beautiful Hilary Swank gives such a convincing and sensitive portrayal of Brandon that she rightly won an Academy Award for Best Actress. Chloë Sevigny is excellent too as Brandon's friend and then lover Lana Tisdale, resulting in her own Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The movie was researched for five years by Kimberley Peirce before she co-wrote and directed it - a remarkable and moving achievement.

    Link: Wikipedia page on Brandon Teena click here

    "Bread And Roses"

    Like most films about trade unionism, this one is based on actual events (even though, at the end, it proclaims that everything is fictional). The title comes from the historic slogan of the striking textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912 and the contemporary storyline is inspired by a three-week strike of janitors in Los Angeles in 1990 which was a turning point in the 'Justice for Janitors' campaign waged by the Service Employees International Union. This is an LA that one never sees in the countless movies shot in the city which show glamour and gangsters but never the under-paid and exploited workers who keep so much of the metropolis going.

    The key characters in the narrative are Mexican sisters: the elder one Rosa (played movingly by Elpidia Carrillo), who already works in the city as a janitor and is struggling with a sick husband and young children, and the younger one Maya (a fiesty Pilar Padilla), whom we first see as an illegal immigrant crossing the US-Mexican border at dead of night. As in "Norma Rae", the workers are encouraged by a white, male, Jewish trade union organiser: in this case, Sam Shapiro (ably played by Adrien Brody). Although not without some humour and drama, the characters in the film are essentially one-dimensional and there is never any doubt where justice lies in this unequal battle between working-class Latinos and middle-class whites.

    The real surprise of the movie is its source. This may be a very American story, but the director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty are British and the work was funded by five European countries. Most of the dialogue is in Spanish and sometimes the subtitles are shown against a bright background which makes them difficult to read. But the use of the immigrants' own language certainly adds to the authentity, as does the classic Loach documentary-like style of shooting. Indeed many real-life janitors played small roles and a couple of real-life organisers make appearances.

    "Breaking And Entering"

    How does one choose a film to view? Often it is the subject matter - here the fraught relationship between landscape architect Will and both his partner of 10 years Liv (who has an autistic daughter) and his new lover Amira (who has a thieving son). Sometimes it is the star - in this case, Jude Law who has to choose between his American partner with an obsessive approach to parenthood (Robin Wright Penn) and his Bosnian refugee girlfriend working as a seamstress (Juliette Binoche). Other times it is the director - on this occasion, Anthony Minghella who writes as well as directs as he returns to the north London milieu in which he located "Truly, Madly, Deeply".

    All of these are reasonable reasons for wanting to see "Breaking and Entering", but I confess that it was the supporting French actress Juliette Binoche that drew me to the work. I've been in love with her ever since her first English-language appearance in "The Unbearable Lightness Of Being" in 1988. She is simply beautiful in a bewitching manner, while always convincing as an actress, especially in vulnerable roles (as here).

    This is a multi-layered work in which the title can be taken in three ways: the obvious sense with the robberies perpetrated by Amira's son Miro; the deeper sense with Will's emotional assault on Amira; and still another sense as the middle-class Will and his like invade the traditionally working-class area of Kings Cross.

    Those who need car chases or special effects in their movie experiences should avoid Mighella's parable, but those who value thoughtful and nuanced works will find much to admire here.

    "Brick Lane"

    So many British films are costume dramas or gangster movies that it's a real pleasure to see a work that focuses on the modern and very real challenges of an immigrant community. Where "East Is East" dealt with a Pakistani family and "Bend It Like Beckham" had an Indian focus, "Brick Lane" - based on the Booker-nominated novel by Monica Ali - addresses the life of a teenage girl from a village in Bangladesh (scenes actually shot in a beautiful-looking India) who is married off to a much older compatriot living in the eponymous area of east London.

    So much is fresh and feminine here: most of the roles are for women and newcomer Tannishta Chatterjee, as the central character Nazneen, is excellent, often conveying so much simply with her eyes; Sarah Gavron is assured in her first directing role; the writing credits go to Ali herself and two other women; while the original score comes from Jocelyn Pook and the haunting singing from Natacha Atlas. This is a measured and intimate work that is more about different types of love and religion than it is about the Bangaleshi community itself.

    "Bride And Prejudice"

    Who put the 'B' in "Pride" in the title of Jane Austen's famous novel? Why, Bollywood. Gurinder Chadha, an Indian who has been a long-time resident in London, gave us the wry and amusing "Bhaji On The Beach" and "Bend It Like Beckham" and now co-writes and directs this makeover for a very familiar and very English storyline. Set in India (Amritsar & Goa), the UK (London) and the USA (Los Angeles), it was actually shot mainly in London and Buckinghamshire in order to secure funding from the UK Film Council. However, the treatment is classic Bollywood with lots of singing and dancing and no kissing.

    The Darcy role is taken by smooth New Zealander Martin Henderson, who lacks the brooding passion of the novel's character, while Indian actress Aishwarya Rai portrays the headstrong character of Elizabeth Bennet (here renamed Lalita Bakshi). She really makes the movie beause she is the "Queen of Bollywood", a beautiful former Miss World who can speak seven languages who has already starred in some 40 films. The colourful costumes and exotic locations make up for the lightness of it all.

    "Brideshead Revisited"

    I haven't read Catholic convert Evelyn Waugh's famous 1945 novel or seen Granada's acclaimed 1981 television adaptation. so I approached the story fresh, as indeed will most viewers of this quintissentially England tale of the repressive nature of religion and class. I understand that the adaptation by Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock has taken some liberties with the orginal, more subtle narrative, but this is inevitable in a work of just 133 minutes compared to the 11 episodes of the television series.

    Directed by the English Julian Jarrold who made "Becoming Jane", the film has many strengths. As well as evocative music, there are wonderful locations in Oxford, Venice, Morocco and above all Castle Howard in North Yorkshire standing in - as in the television version - as the eponymous country house that is almost a character in itself. The script contains some fine lines - often very cutting and very cruel. Above all, there is some accomplished acting, both from veterans Michael Gambon and Emma Thompson as Lord and Lady Marchmain and newcomers Ben Whishaw and Hayley Attwell as their son Sebastian and daughter Julia and Matthew Goode as Charles Ryder, a young artist who falls in love in different ways with both Sebastian and Julia as well as their home and style.

    Sadly, however, ultimately the whole film seems somewhat pedestrian and leaves one feeling strangely cold and disconnected.

    Link: Wikipedia entry on the novel click here


    Hollywood is constantly pumping out crude, gross-out comedies aimed at testosterone-charged young men, so it's a change to have a comedy with a good dose of both crudity and grossness aimed at women of an older age demographic. "Bridesmaids" is a chick-flick that will appeal to many guys too and, at its best, it is laugh-out loud funny. At its core is Kristen Wiig as maid of honour Annie who gives a marvellously naturalistic performance that reminds us of Meg Ryan at her height ("When Harry Met Sally") and Wiig - familiar to American viewers but unknown outside North America - also deserves credit as co-author of the often sharp and acerbic script.

    But is this a movie that feminists will find appealling? I'm glad you asked. On the one hand, there are six leading roles for women actors here and ultimately the film is about female friendship and support. We avoid the bums and breasts that would be in a male-oriented gross-out, but lovemaking scenes in which the woman wears her underwear look ridiculous and we still have vomit and faeces. On the other hand, a narrative that places at its heart the notion that the marriage ceremony and all that leads up to it is the height of any woman's aspiration and consequently worth throwing inordinate amounts of energy, time and money at is deeply unfeminist. And the only developed male character in the movie is an Irish state patrolman of unbelievable gentleness.

    "Bridget Jones's Diary"

    I found the eponymous heroine of Helen Fielding’s best-selling novel [for review click here ] a rather pathetic and even sad character. In this movie version, Renée Zellweger turns her into a more endearing personage and it is amazing that the Texan-born actress was willing to put on so much weight and was so capable of mastering a middle-class English accent. The jokes start from the very beginning and don’t finish until mid way through the closing credits, but they simply aren’t good enough to make you laugh rather than merely smile.

    "Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason"

    Saturday evening. Go to north London cinema to see new BJ movie with latest flame (OK, wife of 22 years) and best friends Ivan and Ros (their idea). Gap between two films: for us - three years; for Bridget - six weeks or (as she puts it so delicately) "71 ecstatic shags" (that's some going - or coming). Same trio: Colin Firth (g.), Hugh Grant (v.g.), Renée Zellweger (v.v.g.). But also same silly scenario - like second layer of box of chocs with same flavour and same shapes. Only new character: Jacinda Barrett - too little screen time and body weight. Best bit: law society dinner quiz. Worst bit: tasteless Thailand prison sequence. Bridget wiggles and wobbles, audience giggles and gobbles.

    "Bright Star"

    The title is the same as that of perhaps the most famous composition by the English Romantic poet John Keats and it is commonly assumed that the final version of the poem was inspired by his great love Fanny Brawne. Here the young British actor Ben Wishaw gives a convincing portrait of the aspiring but sick poet, while the beguiling Australian actress Abbie Cornish effects a fine English accent as his muse.

    The real credit for this unusual and difficult choice of movie subject has to go to New Zealander Jane Campion who - as with the superb "The Piano" - is both writer and director. Shot in England, the photography is beautiful, the costumes are magnificent, and the poetry (six works are quoted) is - while not easy - wonderfully lyrical.

    "Bright Star" will not be to everyone's taste seeming to many to be slow and laborious, but the discerning viewer will find this elegiac work a small gem.

    biography of John Keats click here
    text of the poem "Bright Star" click here

    "Brokeback Mountain"

    Ang Lee is a uniquely accomplished director who has produced a succession of distinguished films which encompass an astonishing range of genres. Following fine work in his homeland of Taiwan such as "Eat Drink, Man Woman", he has made the period drama "Sense And Sensibility", the examination of family angst "The Ice Storm", an unusual western "Ride With The Devil", the wonderful 'wu xia' work "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", the comic book fantasy "Hulk" (a rare failure), and now an anguished study of homosexuality between two modern-day cowboys in his latest triumph "Brokeback Mountain".

    It is based on a short story written by Annie Proulx for the "New Yorker" in 1997 but commences in 1963. Located in Wyoming, USA but shot in Alberta, Canada, the scenery is stunning, even down to the cloud formations. Jack Gyllenhaal is the attractive, confident Jack Twist, while Heath ledger is the rougher, brooding, laconic Ennis del Mar - two men who have known little affection in their lives until an unexpected turn of events while they are tending sheep on the eponymous hillside. It is a relationship that struggles over two decades, even while both men marry and become fathers. The love and the pain, both between the two men and between them and their wives, is handled with great sensitivity and pathos, leaving the viewer saddened and moved.

    "Bruce Almighty"

    I've not been a particular fan of Jim Carrey. Nothing would have induced me to see the "Ace Ventura" films, but I enjoyed his performances in "The Mask" and "The Truman Show" and he's been growing on me through television interviews. There is no doubting that the buffet-haired, plastic-faced, motor-mouthed one is a rare, if manic, talent and this movie is a showcase for his wacky style which sadly under-utilises Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Aniston as God and girlfriend respectively.

    As a morality tale of a man who has God's powers for a week, there are some really funny scenes here (such as the Moses-inspired parting of the red soup), but the plotline is far too thin and shmaltzy. It seems that - as in "Groundhog Day" - the conservative message is that we should be content with our lot, even if that 'only' means being a reporter of bizarre community stories on a local television station.


    This is the third movie from Sacha Baron Cohen, the very talented and utterly outrageous British comedian who has the unlikely background of an upbringing with Orthodox Jewish parents and an education at Cambridge University. "Ali G Indahouse" held little appeal for me but "Borat" was a sensation, representing truly ground-breaking humour. Whereas "Borat" sent up xenophobia in savagely effective style with the eccentric, dark man from Kazakhstan, "Brüno" seeks to do the same with homophobia in the form of the gay, blond boy from Austria - both seemingly endearing, innocent, inquiring souls.

    There are some wonderful scenes here - I especially liked the 'exposure' of the Christian "gay converters" and the concluding 'fight' scene - but "Brüno" does not hit the mark as much as "Borat" did for several reasons. "Borat" was a brilliantly original piece of film-making whereas this is essentially a retread with the same style and some of the same targets (notably gullible Americans). The focus on the anal aspect of the homosexual lifestyle hardly does justice to being gay and is often so outlandish that it would offend its targets even if it was heterosexual practice that was being parodied.

    In short, "Brüno" is so, so - more schadenfreude than wunderbar.

    "Buena Vista Social Club"

    The Buena Vista Social Club was originally a location in Havana that achieved local fame in the 1940s, but this is the film that, almost five decades after most of the performers were largely came out to wide acclaim, but it was only in 2008 - after a wonderful visit to Cuba - that I finaly got around to viewing it.

    The movie is a mixture of a recording made in Havana by Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González and American guitarist Ry Cooder and concerts by the performers in Amsterdam and New York in 1998. At the time, the oldest participants were in their ninties so, by the time, I saw the work, some were already dead.

    The narrative could have been smoother and clearer, but this award-winning documentary scores because of the sheer exuberance of the Cuban music it features and the remarkable cast of immensely talented characters whose work it revives and celebrates. In short, a triumph that has profoundly changed the lives of the musicians and introduced their music to a new audience.

    Link: Wikipedia page click here

    "Burn After Reading"

    Wonderfully quirky characters played by sparkingly talented actors pulse through a narrative on the interconnectedness and happenstance nature of life in this combination of tense thriller and black comedy written , produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.

    It all starts with the resignation of CIA analyst Osborne Cox (a truly scary and foulmouthed John Malkovich) who is married to Katie (cold and calculating Tilda Swinton) who is having an affair with federal agent Harry Pfarrer (a dark-bearded George Clooney). This would make for an odd enough cast but then we have the three staff of the Hardbodies Fitness Center: Chad Feldheimer (a blond=streaked Brad Pitt) who thinks that he can extort Cox, Linda Litzke (an edgy Frances Dormand) who would like a share of the proceeds for a series of cosmetic operations, and their boss Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) who really cares for Linda just as she is.

    In pursuing their very different objectives, some of these characters are going to reach a sticky end in a tight tale of barely more than one and a half hours. For the Coen brothers, this is a world away from their previous work, "No Country For Old Men", and a successful and entertaining return to some of the territory traversed by "Fargo" in 1996.

    "The Butler"

    This hugely ambitious and immensely worthy film attempts, through the experience of the eponymous manservant in the White House, to tell the story of American racial segregation and the civil rights movement that challenged it over three decades. It is "inspired by a true story" which came to light in a "Washington Post" article in November 2008 as the first black President in US history was about to secure his momentous victory.

    The real life butler was Eugene Allen (who spent 34 years in service), but in the film he is called Cecil Gaines and portrayed with understated sensitivity by Forest Whitaker. In her first acting role for a decade a half, Oprah Winfrey is excellent as his long-suffering wife Gloria. This is a movie with lots of roles for black actors, such as Cuba Gooding Jr and David Oyelowo, but there are also many celebrity cameos, especially in the representation - of varied quality - of a succession of Presidents: Eisenehower (Robin Williams), Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Lieb Schreiber), Nixon (John Cusack), and Reagan (Alan Rickman).

    There are echoes here of "Forrest Gump", another movie that sought to narrate social change in America over a period of decades with all sorts of chance encounters by the character of the title but, in that case, we excused the contrivances as part of the humour. Another film that comes to mind is "The Help" where again we had an indictment of racial discrimination in terms that lacked much subtlety or nuance and that all too obvioulsy wore its heart upon its sleeve. In "The Butler", director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong strain to do too much and be in too many places and some of the characterisations are stereotypical and a few of the scenes mawkish.

    This is a movie which will play better in its home country than elsewhere but still, in the north-west London cinema where I viewed it, there was a substantial black element in the audience and there was applause at the end. So, for all its flaws as a film, this is cinema with a powerful message.

    All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.

    Last modified on 16 May 2015

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