"Calendar Girls" "Captain America - The First Avenger" "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" "Carla's Song" "Casino Royale" "Cast Away" "Centurion" "Changeling" "Changing Lanes" "Charlie Wilson's War" "Charlie's Angels" "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" "Charlotte Gray" "Che: Part One" "Che: Part Two" "Chicago" "Children Of Men" "Chocolat" "Circle Of Friends" "City Of God" "City Of Life And Death" "Closer" "Cold Mountain" "Comrades" "Conan The Barbarian" "The Constant Gardener" "Contagion" "Collateral" "The Contender" "Cool Hand Luke" "The Core" "The Counterfeiters" "The Count Of Monte Cristo" "Cowboys & Aliens" "Crash" (1996) "Crash" (2004) "C.R.A.Z.Y." "Crazy Heart" "Creation" "Cromwell" "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" "Curse Of The Golden Flower" "The Da Vinci Code" "The Dancer Upstairs" "Dancing At Lunghasa" "A Dangerous Method" "Daredevil" "Dark Blue World" "The Dark Knight" "The Dark Knight Rises" "The Day After Tomorrow" "Death Race" "The Debt" "Defiance" "The Descendants" "Desperado" "The Devil Wears Prada" "Die Another Day" "Die Hard 4.0" "Die Hard With A Vengeance" "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" "The Dish" "District 9" "The Diving Bell And The Butterfly" "Django Unchained" "Domino" "Donnie Darko" "Doubt" "Downfall" "Drive" "The Duchess" "Duplicity"
In April 1999, 11 middle-aged Yorkshire women members of the Rylstone & District Women's Institute - an organisation previously known only for jam and "Jerusalem" - caused a media blitz by creating a calendar in which they posed nude to raise money for the hospital that treated one of the women's husband before he died of leukaemia. The story cried out to be made into a film, but bringing it to the screen was always going to be a balancing act, on the one hand being sensitive to the original project and its participants, on the other hand producing something sufficiently commercial to justify a £6m investment from American funders.
It was absolutely right to keep the movie - part from the money - a totally British affair with a British director Nigel Cole and a wonderful cast list of British actresses of a certain age, led by the splendid Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, supported by Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Annette Crosbie and Linda Bassett (all very familiar to British viewers). The original scriptwriter Juliette Towhidi won the confidence of the women being portrayed, but perhaps became too close to them, and Tim Firth was brought in to inject more humour. There are some lovely lines in the script, with the best one possibly being "We're going to need much bigger buns" (see the film and you'll see why I laughed so much), but there is also pathos, some drama and a little reflection, before the whole thing loses its way somewhat towards the end.
This is not in the same league as "The Full Monty" - with which it is (inevitably) compared - but it is a a delightful, feel-good movie that provides a rare opportunity for middle-aged women to carry a film plus splendid views of the Yorkshire Dales that will help the local tourist business. The studio has made an up-front payment to the Leukaemia Research Fund and agreed to donate a 1% share of all the profits, so seeing the film will actually benefit the charity.
Link: official web site click here
"Captain America - The First Avenger"
Of all the super-heroes bounding out of Hollywood at an ever-increasing rate, none is more quintessentially stars-and-stripes than Captain America (can you imagine a Captain Britain or a Captain Russia?). Unlike Superman or Thor, his powers do not emanate from another world but from our own scientists. Unlike Superman (Metropolis) or Batman (Gotham City), his locale is not a fictional city at an indeterminate time, but the United States and Europe during the Second World War. So this is a mixture of "Raiders Of the Lost Ark" and "Inglourious Basterds" with lots of allusions to "Star Wars".
Original, it ain't. But it's visually impressive and lots of fun. Like "Thor", it was converted to 3D in post-production but, unlike "Thor", I chose to see it in 2D and, by all accounts, lost little.
Taking the eponymous role is Chris Evans who is no newcomer to super-hero movies, having starred in the two "Fantastic Four" films. Some clever visual effects - there were no less than 1,600 in the movie - make him much smaller and thinner at the beginning and beef him up big time after a huge surge of electricity, the staple ingredient of all transformations since Frankenstein. Poor Hugo Weaving always seems to be the bad guy (remember "The Matrix"?) and here looks suitably devilish as Red Skull, the leader of Hydra. It's always a delight to see Tommy Lee Jones who has some of the best lines and it was welcome to see a competent female character as portrayed by English actress Hayley Atwell (whom British viewers may know from the TV mini-series "The Pillars Of The Earth").
If Captain America was the first avenger, be assured that he will not be alone for much longer. He will be joined by Thor, Iron Man and others in the forthcoming movie "The Avengers" which is the subject of mini trailer at the conclusion of the credits.
“Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”
Ever since the closing moments of “Notting Hill" when the Hugh Grant character was seen reading the de Bernières novel “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” with its distinctive blue cover, like so many fellow readers of this superb work [for review click here] I have looked forward eagerly to the film from the same British production company of Working Title. Essentially people’s reaction to the movie is likely to depend on whether or not they are familiar with the book. My three companions at the cinema had not read the novel and loved the movie. I suspect that most of those who have savoured the written version will –like me – leave with their undoubted pleasure tinged with a sense of disappointment.
Of course, a film always has to be different from the book, not least because of the distinctive media being used and the variable time available – and “Mandolin” is a particularly long and complex work. Therefore I can understand scriptwriter Shawn Slovo abandoning almost all the political references and concentrating on the romance, although I think that the result is a little too sanitised. I can even appreciate the need to change the ending and make it more immediate and emotionally satisfying. But was it really necessary to excise even the homo-erotic relationship between Corelli and his saviour Carlo?
The greatest strength of this work from British director John Madden (“Shakespeare In Love”) is the island of Cephallonia itself and, whatever the extra cost, the decision to shoot it entirely on location has resulted in some wonderful photography and a sensuous feel to the whole work. The chief weakness is the casting. The gorgeous Spanish actress Penélope Cruz is perfect as the young object of Corelli’s affections Pelagia and John Hurt is rather good as her father, the local physician Dr Iannis. But Nicolas Cage is seriously miscast as Antonio Corelli, with mannerisms and accent that defy credibility, while David Morrissey is even worse as the leading German on the island and Christian Bale little better as the rival for Pelagia’s love, the fisherman turned resistance fighter Mandras.
Link: official web site click here
This is another polemical offering from British director Ken Loach (see “Land And Freedom”). This time the focus of attention is Nicaragua in 1987, a time when the CIA-backed Contras are attempting to overthrow the revolutionary government of the Sandinistas. Glasgow bus driver Bobby, played consummately by Robert Carlyle of “Trainspotting”, accidentally makes the acquaintance of Nicaraguan refugee Carla, portrayed by dancer Oyanka Cabezas, and, in helping her to confront her wartime traumas, embarks on his own journey of discovery.
Often the Glaswegian accents are almost as hard to decipher as the Latin American Spanish, but at least the later comes with sub-titles. However, Loach is known for the realism of his cinema and this film is uncompromisingly worthy but much too one-dimensional. A better film on the war in Nicaragua is “Under Fire”.
Bond is back after a four-year absence ("Die Another Day"). "Casino Royale" was the first James Bond book published in 1953; it was the only one turned into a spoof in the movie of 1967; now it reappears as the latest film in the 44 year old franchise. But boldly, bravely and ultimately brilliantly producers Barbara Broccoli & Michael G Wilson have totally reinvented the brand while returning to Martin Campbell ("GoldenEye") as director.
The core of the reworking is a script by Paul Haggis ("Crash") and others which takes us right back to the beginning before Bond even had his double 'O' licence. There seems to be a current fashion for visiting the origins of heroes who have had previous outings - witness "Batman Begins" and "Superman Returns" (both excellent movies). In this guise, we have a very different, more credible, more post 9/11 Bond: one so serious that he makes very few jokes indeed, one so capable that he uses his muscles more than machines, one so real that he bruises and bleeds, one so arrogant that he makes mistakes, and one so vulnerable that he falls in love.
The triumph of the rebranding though is the choice of 38 year old, blond and steely blue-eyed Daniel Craig ("Layer Cake") as the sixth Bond. Much criticised when his selection was announced, his fresh and assured performance is a total rebuttal of his detractors. This is a very physical Bond and, in total contrast to all the other 007 movies, we see much more of his body than those of the women he meets. The total nakedness and appalling brutality of the torture sequence in the book is faithfully transposed to the screen, so that we literally and metaphorically see Bond as we have never seen him before.
As the Treasury money-keeper Vesper Lynd, Eva Green ("Kingdom Of Heaven") has such a cut-class English accent that you would not know she is the sixth French Bond girl. The word play and psychological sparring between James and Vesper give real edge to the evolving relationship. The Danish Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre may be a less imposing and outlandish villain than is usually the case in Bond movies, but that only underlines the greater sense of realism here.
Indeed the film stays close to the plotting and the spirit of the book, although the chemin-de-fer game in France is transposed to one of poker in Montenegro. The movie even makes use of the final line of the novel when Bond states "The bitch is dead".
In short, this is the best Bond film since "Dr No" and "From Russia With Love". Indeed there are allusions to both these works: Daniel Craig reprises the "DN" scene where Ursula Andress emerges from the water, while the final location of Venice is the same as that for "FRWL". If I have reservations about "Casino Royale", it is the use of the old-fashioned opening credits sequence and a terrible opening song from Chris Cornell and indifferent incidental music (the John Barry theme at the end is too late by far) plus some confusion in the plot, but these are minor quibbles. Craig has been contracted to do two more Bond movies and I say "Bring it on!"
Footnote 1: If you don't blink, you'll see in the airport scene a very brief view of the British entrepreneur Richard Branson.
Footnote 2: In the card game,the Japanese player is given a name which can be pronounced differently from the on-screen version: Fukutu.
official web site click here
official Bond site click here
Tom Hanks is reunited with the director of “Forrest Gump”, Robert Zemeckis, and the scriptwriter of “Apollo 13”, William Broyles Jr, to bring us this gruelling account of a Fed Ex’s manager’s four year ordeal on a tiny Pacific island. For much of the time, Hanks has to carry the movie alone, conversing only with a volleyball called Wilson, but he is a fine actor and his deliberate loss of four stones in weight for the later section shows that he is ready to suffer for his art.
The desperate struggle for survival on the island and the acute difficulty of picking up his life once he is rescued are both brought out with power and pathos. However, I was not really comfortable with the Fed Ex product placement. Although the company did not pay the filmmakers, it co-operated fully with them and the work is one long advertisement for the organisation. Also, for my personal taste, the film was a little too long and, at times, somewhat sentimental – but, at my multi-plex, it was a sell-out.
Links: official web site click here Tom Hanks site click here
If you loved "Gladiator" - and, boy, how I loved "Gladiator" - you'll have mourned ever since that there could be no prospect of a sequel since Maximus well and truly bit the dust. The next best thing then is for actor Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott to get together to portray another heroic fighting figure and so a decade later we have "Robin Hood". While we wait for the man from Sherwood to saddle up, we have the poor man's "Gladiator" in "Centurion", written and directed by Neil Marshall and starring Michael Fassbender in the eponymous role.
"Gladiator" was set at the heart of the Roman Empire in 180 AD; "Centurion" tales place on the edge of the Empire, in northern Britain, in 117 AD. "Gladiator" opened with a stunning battle sequence in which the Romans beat the Germanic barbarians; "Centurion" starts with an even bloodier encounter in which the legendary Roman Ninth Legion is wiped out by the resourceful Picts except for a handful of survivors who then have to fight both warrior and weather to find refuge at Hadrian's Wall. In no respect - script, characterisation, acting, special effects, music - does "Centurion" equal "Gladiator" but there's plenty of action and much blood and then more blood - plus some splendid Scottish scenery and even a Bond girl.
We've long known that Angelina Jolie was more than a (very) pretty face - after all, besides Lara Croft and Mrs Smith, she has given us the Academy Award-award winning performance in "Girl, Interrupted" as well as the more recent "A Mighty Heart". And we've known for many decades that 78 year old Clint Eastwood is an exceptional producer and directer who continues to build up an amazing canon of work including recent and immensely sensitive films such as "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby". Working together for the first time here, Jolie and Eastwood have created an outstanding work that sears into the soul.
'Changeling' is not a word I've come across before this movie, but its definition - a child exchanged for another - tells you all to need to know before seeing the film. It is based on a true story: the disappearance in 1928 of nine-year old Walter Collins in a Los Angeles badly served by a deeply incompetent and corrupt police force.
This abduction became one part of the wider case of the infamous Wineville Chicken Coop Murders and, if the details of the case depicted so graphically in the film were not a matter of public record, one would never believe them. The recreation of the period is brilliantly done and the cast of actors is uniformly excellent, including John Malkovich playing (for once) a force for rationality and justice. Real credit should go too to screenwriter and former journalist J Michael Straczynski for telling an horrific story in a compelling and measured manner.
Link: Wineville Chicken Coop Murders click here
As we know from Michael Douglas's performance in "Falling Down", driving on the roads of American cities can make you crazy. So it's not too surprising when a fender-bender on New York's FDR Drive brings into conflict a hot-shot young lawyer trying to keep his law firm out of serious trouble (surprisingly well portrayed by Ben Affleck) and an alcoholic struggling to keep in touch with his estranged wife and two sons (Samuel L Jackson as a more conventional character than usual). But a mislaid file rapidly leads to a vicious escalation of alternating retribution in scenes reminiscent of "The War Of The Roses".
British director Roger Michell ("Notting Hill") uses some edgy camerawork and rapid cutting to pile on the tension but, just when he should be pushing his characters to breaking point, the whole thing collapses into a most unsatisfactory ending of unconvincing decency. Along the way, Sydney Pollack, who has himself directed a movie exposing the hypocrisy of the legal profession ("The Firm"), is on the mark as the head of the law firm and the father-in-law of Affleck's character, but first-rate actors like William Hurt and Toni Collette are only given bit roles. The whole thing could, and should, have been so much better and the main fault has to lie with the last quarter of the script.
Link: official web site click here
"Charlie Wilson's War"
The storyline here would be literally incredible if it was not true: the success of a US Congressman with a playboy lifestyle who managed to arrange the covert funding of the armament of the mujahedin resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The eponymous politician is played by Tom Hanks in semi-comic style , while Julia Roberts is the Texan heiress who inspired his interest in the region and (a particularly fine) Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the unorthodox CIA operative who makes it happen.
Based on the book by CBS journalist George Crile, the sharp script is penned by Aaron Sorkin who gave us the television series "The West Wing" as well as movies like "The American President". For me, the humour was a bit too light-hearted for such a serious political theme and could have been blacker. But the film raises challenging contemporary questions about how America fails to understand the implications of its foreign interventions and to follow up its military intiatives with community-building programmes.
Link: article based on George Crile's book click here
I’m old enough to remember the television series (1976-1981) and the movie version manages simultaneously to capture the sense of fun of the original while cleverly up-dating it. It is all terribly post-modern, sending up old-fashioned sexism while at the same time pandering to it. The plot is so slight and silly as not to bear mentioning, but the whole thing is done with such speed and panache as to make it immensely entertaining, borrowing scenes from “Mission Impossible”, “The Matrix” and almost every Bond film. The never-seen Charlie is still voiced by John Forsythe (now 81). As the angels, Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore (who co-produced) have a natural comedic sense, but Lucy Liu needs to lighten up and, attractive though they all are, for me support player Kelly Lynch is the real beauty.
"Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle"
The final line of the movie occurs when the character played by Lucy Liu is questioned about her career choice: "It's a no brainer". You could say the same thing about this film. It's not high concept, it won't win any Academy Awards, and it's totally derivative - of the 1970s television series, of "Raiders Of The Lost Ark", of "The Matrix", and much else. Indeed the whole thing looks like an extended music video with thumping rock music and amazing stunts - not so surprising, given that the director is McG who has spent most of his life crafting such vacuuous but flashy material.
Nevertheless, as entertainment and fun, these angels are close to heaven. There is never any need to think, because it's all so simple and signposted - Cameron Diaz in a white bikini is obviously the cute cherub, while Demi Moore - still wonderful at 40 - in the black bikini has to be a fallen angel, while the guy who played the bad terminator and the one who is trying to put on an Irish accent have to be devillish villains. There are not many films with four leading roles for attractive women who kiss ass - so just enjoy.
Link: official web site click here
I've been a great admirer of Cate Blanchett ever since I saw her eponymous performance in "Elizabeth" and she is perfectly cast here as the Special Operations Executive agent on her first mission to Vichy France. Blanchett is the Meryl Streep of her generation - not classically beautiful but simply luminescent, wonderful with different accents in different roles, and a magnificent actress. Ironically Streep herself once played a former SOE agent in the film "Plenty".
As well as - unusually in a war film - a woman in the leading role, the director is a woman, Gillian Armstrong, and indeed this is more a love story than a war movie. Yet, when all is said and done, this is the Second World War and the film does lack action sequences and dramatic pacing. I much enjoyed Sebastian Faulks' First World War novel "Birdsong" and I suspect that - when I do eventually read it - I'll find that "Charlotte Gray" works much better as a book than a film.
Link: official web site click here
"Che: Part One"
A year after I visited Cuba, the country celebrated the 50th anniversary of its revolution and the week of that commemoration marked the release of the first part of this lengthy diptych on the most famous - indeed iconic - participant in that revolution, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. In Cuba even today, Che's image is omnipresent, with a particularly huge portrayal on the side of the Ministry of Interior, and in Santa Clara - the town where Che fought and won the last and decisive battle of the revolution - there is museum marking his life and containing his remains that projects the man as a secular saint. How would this film represent such a complicated and controversial character?
Picking up where "The Motorcycle Diaries" left off, the movie covers the period from Che's meeting with Fidel Castro in 1955 to the successful overthrow of the dictator Fulgencio Batista in January 1959 with interspersed black-and-white scenes of Che's visit to New York in 1964 when he spoke to a journalist and addressed the United Nations. The whole thing has the feel of a documentary, with director Steven Soderbergh also responsible for the cinematography, and the sense of verisimilitude is aided by use of Spanish and actors who pass quite reasonably for the real life Fidel, Raúl, Camilo and the asthmatic Che himself (an excellent performance from Benicio del Toro).
Shot largely in Puerto Rico, this is a serious and worthy work that has obviously been the subject of meticulous research - it is based partly on Che's own "Reminiscences Of The Cuban Revolutionary War" - and many individual scenes are gripping and insightful. The problem is that the sum of the parts is strangely lacking. The narrative lacks form and flow so that the story jerks around rather than sweeps us along and, in the process, we learn little about Che's motivation and character and see nothing of his noted cruelty and arrogance.
"Che: Part Two"
Part One left Che on the road to Havana following the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship; Part Two jumps forward seven years, so that we miss out his time as a minister in Castro's government and his abortive adventures in the Congo. Compared to the earlier film, this second element of the diptych is much tighter than the first in narrative terms, focusing only on Che's year in Bolivia (1966-67) and takes a straightforward chronological approach.
It has some of the strengths of the first film: the cinematography and direction of Steven Soderbergh, which give the whole work a lifelike, almost documentary feel, and the superb acting of Benicio del Toro who - even more than before - is rarely off the screen. However, the narrative is less compelling this time with the guerrillas seemingly going from one place to another with no obvious strategy. The main criticism of both parts though is that we have over four hours of excessively reverential treatment of an immensely controversial figure with little acknowledgement of the egotism that was at the heart of the doomed Bolivian mission.
official web site click here
Wikipedia page on Che Guevara click here
"Chicago" the movie has been a long time coming. The story started life as a comedic play by Maurine Watkins in 1926. Then it was turned into a film called "Roxie Hart" in 1942. Reverting to its original title, it became a Broadway musical in 1975, when John Kander and Fred Ebb - who had worked together on "Cabaret" - produced the music and lyrics respectively. Next, in the nineties, the musical was revived on stage and achieved new popularity.
I don't normally like movie musicals - "Moulin Rouge" was a brilliantly distinguished exception - and, when I saw "Chicago" twice on the London stage, I was not over-impressed, but this film is a distinct improvement on the show. The whole thing is opened up more, with clever cutting between 'reel' life scenes and stage performances and close-ups and varied angles bringing the audience more into the action.
Richard Gere is surprisingly competent as the flamboyant lawyer Billy Flynn and Renée Zellweger is wonderful as the murderess Roxie Hart, but she is in danger of losing the show to Catherine Zeta-Jones who is terrific in what is supposed to be a supporting role of husband-killer Velma Kelly. The Welsh girl has certainly come a long way since we first saw her on British television screens in "Darling Buds Of May".
"Children Of Men"
This British science fiction film is adapted from a 1992 novel by the British thriller writer P D James, but directed by the Mexican Alfonso Cuaron who gave us "Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban". This particular HP movie was the darkest of the series and "Children Of Men" is even darker, in both tone and appearance (indeed the washed-out colours could lead you to remember the movie as a black and white work).
The time is 2027. No child has been born for 18 years because for some reason women have become infertile. Chaos has descended on the world and Britain is a barely functioning state caught between a brutal paramilitary police force, a desperate swarm of immigrants ('fugees'), a rebel army of immigrant resistors ('Fish') and their British sympathisers ('Cods').
Julianne Moore - in a role which is far too small - is a Fish leader who persuades her former partner, played by dishevelled ant-hero Clive Owen, to take charge of a young black woman (Clare-Hope Ashitey) who may offer a way out of this hunman extinction. What follows is then a chase movie with lots of bangs and bodies, with a near concluding scene that reminded me of the end of "The Alamo".
This is an ambitous film that has many political and religous allusions, but it could have done with a stronger narrative and some relief from the unmitigating bleakness.
Link: official web site: click here
By the time I caught this film on television, I had long ago read the Joanne Harris novel [for review click here] and bought the soundtrack, so I felt that I already knew the movie. So it proved to be because Swedish director Lasse Hallstõm has stayed close to both the text and (importantly) the spirit of the novel.
The cast deploy a bewildering range of accents for characters who are supposed to be inhabitants of a small town in France but, if one can overlook that, the talent on show is impressive and it's almost a case of 'spot the star'. Juliette Binoche is enchantingly beautiful which is appropriate since effectively she plays an enchantress who uses chocolate as her magic; Johnny Depp always plays roles his own way and, in some senses, here presages his later role in "Pirates Of The Caribbean"; Alfred Molina, here portraying an uptight mayor, can fill roles as varied as a Mexican ("Frida") to a maniac ("Spiderman 2"); Carrie-Anne Moss is a million miles away from her Trinity character in the "Matrix" trilogy; Leni Olin is almost unrecognisable as the bowler-hatted star of "The Unbearable Lightness Of Being"); then we have Leslie Caron of "Gigi" fame; while Judi Dench (spymaster M in the latest Bond films) is superb as an eccentric but loveable woman who wants to choose her own way out of this life. In short, a wonderfully sweet chocolate selection.
"Circle Of Friends"
Based on bestselling Maeve Binchy's 550-page novel, this is the tale of childhood friends Benny (Minnie Driver) and Eve (Geraldine O'Rawe) who, having grown up in the sleepy town of Knockglen in rural Ireland, go to Dublin University where they meet the more worldly-wise Nan (Saffron Burrows). Together they learn more about themselves and their sexuality in the repressed Ireland of the 1950s, experienced by Binchy herself. This is a 'rites of passage' movie that is a million miles away from the usual Hollywood fare - an altogether gentler and more feminine perspective.
"City Of God"
Cidade de Deus is actually a huge favela or slum on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro and this is a nightmare vision that I had no idea of when I visited Rio itself as the start of a South American tour. Originally this was a best-selling novel by Paulo Lins who lived in the area and spent eight years interviewing and researching for his shocking work. Now it is a stunning film which is the first to be directed solely by Fernando Meirelles who is based in São Paolo.
Shown through the eyes of slum-dweller but would-be photographer Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), it portrays the abject poverty and utter hopelessness of a community on the edge of civilised society which breeds a type of gangster that is so young and so brutal that one is both mesmerised and horrified by the sheer casualness with which life is blown away by the ubiquitous handgun. The subject matter is disturbing enough, but what makes the movie utterly compelling is the attention-grabbing style of the film. The unconventional narrative sequence involves a whole series of flash-backs, detours and jumps, while the harsh lighting, jerky camerawork, and rapid cuts - combined with a young, unknown and largely amateur local cast - gives the whole thing the verisimilitude of a documentary. This is moviemaking of the highest order and purpose.
Link: official web site click here
"City Of Life And Death"
The city is Nanjing, then capital of China. The time is 1937-38 when Japanese forces occupied the place. The story is the horrific consequence of that occupation for Chinese soldiers and civilians alike. The film is dedicated to the 300,000 victims of the atrocity, a figure that is still debated. The executions, the hangings, the beheadings, the burning, the bayoneting, the burying alive, the rapes - all of which happened - are all shown, but not overly dwelt upon. Instead young Lu Chuan, who both wrote and directed, tells a human story, focusing on a limited number of individuals, not all Chinese. This 2009 work was originally shot on colour film and then desaturated into black and white and the cinematography by Yu Cau is very impressive.
We are offered politically correct depictions of the bravery of the Chinese soldiers and the nobility of Chinese civilians, especially the women, but the focus on the international safety zone brings to the fore the role of John Rabe, often called the German Schindler, and other nationals. Surprisingly, however, Lu gives an important role to a (fictional) young Japanese officer called Kadokawa who is shown as compassionate and horrified by what his fellow soldiers are doing - a characterisation that understandably proved controversial in China.
When I was in Japan, where they talk of the 'Nanjing Incident', at the Memorial Museum in Hiroshima of all places I found that the Japanese are still downplaying the scale of this slaughter. When I was in China, where they call it the 'Nanjing Massacre', not least during my time in Nanjing itself the history was still live and feelings remain raw. I wish that this film could have been seen as much in Japan - which has still not faced up to its wartime crimes in the way that Germany has done - as in China and indeed Europeans and Americans should know more, as they would by viewing the film, about the rape of Nanjing.
Two utterly beautiful American women (Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman), two good-looking British guys (Clive Owen and Jude Law), a sharp script from the writer of the original play Patrick Marber, the London where I live, and music by Mozart - there is lots to like about this movie. It begins romantically as each of four inter-related liaisons takes off in charged circumstances, most notably an electrifying kiss between the Roberts and Jude characters. But this is a milieu created by director Mike Nichols in which words are weapons, loving is lacerating, and infidelity is inevitable. As one character puts it: "What's so great about the truth? Try lying for a change - it's the currency of the world".
For once, at a little over one and a half hours, we have a film that doesn't over-run its course. Over four years, relationships start and finish and we are left to imagine what went in between. The language is as sexually explicit as any mainstream movie that you'll see, but there is virtually no flesh and certainly no sexual activity on display. For all practical purposes, there are only four speaking roles in this work and each of the actors gives a powerful and persuasive performance. This is a work which is as compelling as it is cynical and cold.
Link: official web site click here
Every really accomplished film starts with a well-crafted script - something too many directors forget, simply plunging into an excess of explosions and special effects. British director and scriptwriter Anthony Minghella, who gave us the excellent "The English Patient", has taken another novel - the 1997 work by Charles Frazier - and turned a compelling narrative into a kind of poor man's "Gone With The Wind", part harrowing portrayal of the brutality of civil war for both combatants (the battle of Petersburg) and those left behind, part aching romance between two souls who barely know one another.
The narrative stretches over five years (1861-1864) and, in the early sections, the switching of chronology is a little confusing, but then it settles into a pattern of two alternating lives that once touched too briefly and must be fused once more in spite of all the geographical and human obstacles.
John Seale's cinematography is superb, with effective use of locations in North Carolina and Romania, and a good deal of effort has gone into the authenticity of costumes and weapons and the use of contemporary music. The acting is of a high order with Jude Law (who filmed with Minghella in "The Talented Mr Ripley") as the taciturn Inman and Nicole Kidman as his much better-educated muse Ada. Kidman is always clever with her accents ("The Hours"), whereas Jude is not so acute, but some others are even worse. The best performance, however, comes from a barely recognisable Renée Zellweger who is simply brilliant as the raw, but capable, Ruby.
Politically the film can be criticised for not making clear what the war was about and black slaves are hardly ever seen and never heard, but "Cold Mountain" is a movie that deserves warm praise and sears into the memory so many powerful images.
"The Constant Gardener"
When one considers the contributors to this work, expectations are high and fortunately they are fulfilled in a quality work that is nevertheless somewhat dispiriting because of its sombre political message and doomed love affair.
The story comes from the 2001 novel by reputed thriller writer John le Carré and direction is the work of the Brazilian Fernando Meirelles who gave us the stunning "City Of God"; the main roles are filled by Ralph Fiennes as Justine Quayle, the restrained, quintissentially British civil servant who would rather tend to his beloved plants than become too involved in political intrigue, and Rachel Weisz as Tessa, the passionate and mercurial political activist whom he marries almost without knowing her, both giving naturalistic performances that involve an element of improvisation; and then we have first rate support performances from Danny Huston as Justin's colleague who is also mesmerized by Tessa and Bill Nighy as the reptilian senior mandarin who wants to keep his garden free of weeds.
The plot - part love story, part political thriller - is constructed through a series of extended flashbacks, so one's constant attention is demanded, and Meirelles - transposing his camerawork from the favelas of Rio to the Kibera shanty town outside Nairobi - uses his trademark kineticism to put us right among the squalor and the action. As Justin discovers more about the machinations that led to his wife's death, so he learns more about the nature of her life.
The social issue at the core of the film is the pandemic of AIDS in Africa and the villains of the piece are the pharmaceutical companies who dump outdated drugs on poor Africans and manipulate the impoverished to take part in rigged medical trials. Yet the political betrayal is parallelled by the personal betrayal in a work that is as downbeat (but as impressive) as Fiennes' earlier movie "The English Patient". The ending seems somewhat contrived and melodramatic, but this is still superior fare.
David Souter - formerly director of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Association - adds:
Interested by your review of "The Constant Gardener" which I saw a month ago at the opening of the London Film Festival and where it was received with prolonged applause from a (very, obviously) movie-savvy audience. I thought it was very impressive, too, and mostly overcame three weaknesses (the drug company / activist dichotomy is somewhat caricatured; arrival in Darfur at the exact moment of a Janjaweed attack is too much of a plot device; there are no significant African characters in a story set in Africa - the doctor is Belgian). The most interesting thing for me, though, was that - in spite of the third point in brackets - its African environments were more real than in other Western films (because it used Kibera as a location, because it used hand-held cameras; but particularly because it glimpsed positivea as well as negativea: most Western images of African cities are very one-dimensional).
Link: official web site click here
This is a movie which promises much but, in the end, does not quite deliver the punch that it should.
The subject matter - the threat of a pandemic that spreads around the globe with terrifying speed and potency - is all too real with the recent scares of SARS and H1N1 in our mind and the film's scientific advisers ensure that plot is all too authentic and believable with reminders of the 1918 flu pandemic that killed at least 50 million people. The cast is top-notch with Laurence Fishburne, Elliott Gould, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle and Marion Cotillard all working to combat the virus, Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow as victims, and Jude Law as a blogger with an unorthodox solution. Then we have acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh who also acts as his own director of photography (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews). And it starts so well with scary images and an urgent score.
So, why doesn't it work? The main reason is poor pacing. It should build up to a dramatic finale but there are too many slow bits that interrupt the tension and the discover of a vaccine is just too easy. Then there are the loose ends. Bits of the narrative just seem to be left hanging without explanation. And there is a serious under-use of the acting talent that has been assembled - even if we do get to be inside the head of one of them. Some of the stars are killed off early on and others have too little to do.
There's a 1970s feel to this movie: a collection of well-known actors put into a disaster setting. But "Outbreak" in 1995 did the 'beat the bug' story better and Soderbergh himself marshalled multiple characters to better effect in his work "Traffic" in 2000. Having said all this, it's still an entertaining film. Just don't see in a cinema when you have a bad cough ...
This is a superbly stylish thriller from the director who gave us "Heat". Like that earlier movie, this is set in Los Angeles - but this time the action takes place in a single night - and the city itself is a player with brilliantly atmospheric aerial shots of the slumbering metropolis. A professional hit man, identified only as Vincent (Tom Cruise), flies into town to execute five contract killings in rapid order. From the beginning, things go awry, but Vincent seems to almost relish the challenge of the need to improvise and adapt. The driver of the immaculately clean cab that he chooses for his errands - Jamie Foxx as Max - is horrified by the whole nightmare which is a million miles away from his quiet - but never to be fulfilled - plans to establish a luxury limousine company. To survive, he too will have to improvise in a manner which he never thought possible.
Cruise has always been a charismatic star who carries a movie but, especially when he plays an unsympathetic character as in "Born In The Fourth Of July", "Magnolia" and here in "Collateral", the guy really can act and he gives a compelling performance as the sharp-suited, grey-haired jazz aficionado who can kill with fast and furious efficiency. Foxx is excellent in a role which demands major transformation, but I would like to have seen more of Jada Pinkett Smith, a lawyer whose appearances frame the action. The script by Australian Stuart Beattie is sharp and at different times philosophic or amusing. The ending, while neat, could have been stronger, but overall this is superior fare with a sequence in a crowded nightclub proving particularly taut.
In 1843, six English agricultural labourers – George and James Loveless, Thomas and John Standfield, James Brine and James Hammett - were sentenced to transportation to Australia because they had formed a trade union (which was legal) and administered oaths (which was not). This is the compelling story told in “Comrades”.
It took writer and director Bill Douglas eight years to make the film and it was finally released in 1987 when Margaret Thatcher was doing her best to neuter the British trade union movement. It was poorly received at the box office and quickly withdrawn from cinemas; it was rarely shown on television and spoiled by advertisements; only in 2009 – to mark the 175th anniversary of the Tolpuddle martyrs - did the British Film Institute reissue the film as a DVD which is how I came to see it.
As someone who spent 24 years as a professional trade union official, I approached the film with enthusiasm but I cannot let my political values diminish my critical faculties as a reviewer. Elements of this film are masterly but it is deeply flawed.
Let's start with the positives. This seminal event in the history of the British labour movement deserved the big screen treatment. It was shot entirely on location in Dorset and Australia. The cinematography – by Gale Tattersall – is wonderful. It is a marvellous evocation of the times with great attention to clothes and buildings and the 'new' technology of the laternists. There are mesmerising close-ups of characterful faces. The acting is impressive with the working class portrayed by relatively unknown actors and some well-known stars – such as James Fox and Vanessa Redgrave – taking on the role of the rich.
But there are such serious weaknesses. It is far too slow. It is far too long – just over three hours. The dialogue is excessively sparse – so too little information is provided and frequently it is unclear what is happening. We do not see the trial of the labourers or anything of the campaign to have them released. It is uneven with more action and dialogue in the Australian scenes and an incident with an Italian photographer that is totally out of place both in subject and tone.
And the characters are far too one-dimensional: the labourers and their families are presented as mythic in their nobleness while the landowners and their allies are shown as unremittingly callous and evil (there is a scene with a dog that has no justification whatsoever). The little speech at the end – reminiscent of the conclusion of “The Grapes Of Wrath” - is unnecessarily polemical.
When all is said and done, “Comrades” should be seen and admired, but this is not the masterpiece that some would pretend.
"Conan The Barbarian"
This is the 1982 original of the sword and sorcery tale - there was a remake in 2011 - that launched Arnold Schwarzenegger as a movie star. In the eponymous role, he has few lines and does not deliver them particularly well, but his sheer physicality - muscles upon muscles - made him well-suited for the part. Statuesque Sandahl Bergman provides a strong female support role that is too often missing from the genre and the location shooting in Spain provides some striking scenery. Although somewhat ponderous, there's enough action and spilt blood to provide an enjoyable viewing.
As a political animal who can’t get enough of the American television series “The West Wing”, I approached this political thriller with high expectations and, on the whole, I was not disappointed. Former film journalist Rod Lurie provides an accomplished debut as both writer and director of this dramatic account of the Congressional nomination hearings of the first woman to be put forward as Vice-President.
There is a sharp script and authentic sets, but what really makes the movie is a triumvirate of fine performances. Jeff Bridges is excellent as Democratic President Jackson Evans, exhibiting the charisma of a Clinton but without any women – even a wife – in sight; a barely recognisable Gary Oldman fills yet another bad guy role with distinction as the hard-line Republican Shelly Runyon; and, in a role specifically written for her by Lurie, Joan Allen is superb as the nominee Laine Hanson, facing allegations of sexual misconduct with a coolness only a few degrees above her performance in “The Ice Storm”.
It all becomes a little trite towards the end with some implausible plot twists and two grand-standing speeches, but one forgives this because of its uncompromising support for political liberalism and gender equality. Indeed a measure of the difference between British and American politics is that positions which are so commonplace in the former – support for a woman’s right to choose an abortion, opposition to the death penalty, abolition of possession of hand guns, and separation of church and state - seem so radical when espoused by Allen’s character.
Link: official web site click here
"Cool Hand Luke"
Rarely can a cinematic character have suffered more than Luke Jackson, a one-time war hero spending two years in a tough Southern prison and chain gang, in this 1967 movie that was a starring vehicle for an impressive Paul Newman. Demonstrating more courage than calculation, Luke suggests that "Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand to play..." but shows that one can only play it so often. Down-beat, even depressing, but oddly gripping.
As with "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" (both 1998 - a bad year for rogue asteroids), a natural disaster threatens the end of the world, but science - and more specifically nuclear weapons - can save us. In this case, though, the source of the problem is inner space which requires a journey full of unknown hazards more reminiscent of 1966's "Fantastic Voyage". The physics is, of course, utter fantasy but then, if Jule Verne could get away with it in his novel "Journey to The Centre Of The Earth, maybe we shouldn't be too tough on director Jon Amiel.
As we know from "Boys Don't Cry" and "Insominia", Hilary Swank is not just a (very) pretty face and can do much better than this. Less money has been spent on the cast or the script than on the special effects, some of which - such as the collapse of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge - looks better than others - for instance, the destruction of the Coliseum in Rome. The whole thing is totally formulaic, with the six-person crew including one woman, one black and one European, and it is pretty obvious who is going to survive the predictable mishaps but, if you enjoyed the disaster movies of the 1970s, this is brainless fun.
Link: official web site click here
"The Count Of Monte Cristo"
Since Alexandre Dumas wrote his wonderfully-plotted novel of false imprisonment and cruel revenge in 1844, there have been countless film and television versions, but the success of "The Mask Of Zorro" - which similarly involved the tutoring of an intended avenger in the art of swordmanship - clearly showed audiences' appetite for old-fashioned swashbuckling. This new version comes from director Kevin Reynolds who gave us "Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves" and "Monte Cristo" is more restrained but almost as entertaining.
American Jim Caviezel, as the unfortunate Edmond Dantes, and Australian Guy Pearce, as his erstwhile friend Fernand Mondego, both put on English accents for this romp in Napoleonic France, but acquit themselves well, especially the sneering Pearce (the bad guy had the better role in "Rob Roy" too). Richard Harris - who, as in "Gladiator", has to die to move on the storyline - makes the most of his role, but the Polish/American Dagmara Dominczyk should have brought more than a pretty face to her part as Edmond's lover and Fernand's wife.
There is some magnificent scenery - the film was shot in Ireland and Malta - and some memorable sequences, such as the arrival of the Count in a balloon and the final swordfight in a wheat field, but the movie needed more pace and a better soundtrack if the buckle was really to swash.
Just when you think that there is little new that can be said about the Second World War in a movie, there comes along a film that tells us something not just different but astonishing: a secret German plan to destabilise the British and American economies through the largest counterfeiting operation in history code-named Operation Bernhard. In fact, I didn't catch this Austrian work until a full year after it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and then I saw it at a special showing - at the "Phoenix" in East Finchley, London - in the presence of Adolf Burger, the author of the book on which it is based (the English version is titled "The Devil's Workshop").
Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky had little work to his credit when he brought the story to the screen but he produced the script in close collaboration with Burger who at the showing I attended declared himself pleased with the treatment. In some ways, he might well do so since, although the film is centered on Salomon 'Sally' Sorowitsch (played by Austrian Karl Markovics), a Russsian Jew who was a professional counterfeiter until his arrest in Berlin, the moral core of the plot comes from the Burger character (German actor August Diehl), a Slovak Communist trained as a typographer.
The interplay between these characters - who were close friends in the camp but never saw each other after the war - draws out the moral dilemma facing the 144 Jewish prisoners of 13 different nationalities at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp: forced to produce perfect pound notes and work on counterfeit dollar notes while housed in relatively comfortable conditions or die immediately, knowing that their efforts could undermine the economies of the Allies and that once their work was done they would be killed anyway.
At times the characters are a little cardboard, but generally this is a worthy and accomplished work that tells a remarkable story with real attention to detail and consistent maintainance of tension. I was pleased to have seen it, delighted to have met Adolf Burger, and had no hesitancy in buying his book which he autographed for me. Aged 91, Burger stood up for his speech which he delivered - like his original book - in a mixture of Czech and Slovak.
details of Operation Bernhard click here
biography of Adolf Burger click here
"Cowboys & Aliens"
"Cowboys & Aliens" is a great title for a movie. It reminds me of "Snakes On A Plane". In each case, you get what it says on the tin. With "Snakes", the tension was leavened with lots of laughs. By contrast, "C&A" takes itself very seriously - but it works. It succeeds because of a half-decent plot and some fine acting coupled with great scenery, reasonable special effects, and sustained action. The strongest part of the work is the opening pre-credit sequence, while the weakest is the final (unnecessary) scene but, in between, there's entertainment aplenty. Director Jon Favereau ("Iron Man") had crafted a mash-up which is quite a treat.
Set in Arizona (but filmed in New Mexico), the story is located in 1873 - which suggests that Roswell was not the first time aliens have visited the United States - and the folks of the desert town of Absolution don't seem overly surprised by the ferocious attacks from the sky but I guess that the wild west toughened up its settlers to expect anything from indians to aliens. As with the other summer 2011 alien adventure "Super 8", it seems that the visitors from outer space want our bodies and our metal, although you'd think that such advanced life forms would have cracked the potential of nanotechnology and not need anything.
The revelation in this movie is Daniel Craig. I've never thought of him as a mean gunslinger but he's terrific here. Since his first major film "Layer Cake", his charisma has grown and grown. For once, Harrison Ford acts the grizzled bad guy in an effort to play against type, as Henry Fonda did in "Once Upon A Time In The West", although he turns out to have much more heart that Fonda's character. In almost all westerns ("The Quick And The Dead" was an exception) and virtually all sci-fi movies (the "Alien" series was a wonderful exception), female characters are either absent or bit players. Here Olivia Wilde - who has amazing eyes - has a role which is a little more than love interest but still underwritten.
A pleasant change from all the sequels and prequels - so please: leave it there; the world does not need "Cowboys & Aliens & Cops".
I would never have gone to the cinema to see a film like this, but years later I caught it on satellite television as part of a Film Four “Fatal Attractions” series to see exactly what the fuss was about. It is not difficult to appreciate the moral outrage that would be occasioned by a movie dealing with the eroticism of cars, crashes, scarification and violent death. What is surprising is why David Cronenberg – he was writer, producer and director – would want to make such a work, but then again he does have an interest, bordering on the obsessive, with the man-machine interface. Equally strange is why such actors as James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas and Rosanna Arquette would want to depict such bizarre sex, but then I’m one of the few men I know who has no interest in cars, so auto crashes certainly don’t do it for me. Difficult, disturbing – but not dangerous.
This is a movie which has nothing in common with the controversial 1996 Cronenberg work of the same title. Instead it can be compared with "Grand Canyon" and "Magnolia" in that all three films feature a series of interlocking stories in a California setting. Here the Canadian Paul Haggis - who wrote the rightly acclaimed "Million Dollar Baby" - makes his directorial debut with a film which he also conceived and co-wrote by presenting a set of linked lives in his adopted city of Los Angeles over a two-day period. This is a metropolis in which estranged and fearful people crash into one another both physically and metaphorically.
So far, so relatively familiar. What really distinguishes this work, however, is the complex and controversial theme of race as explored in narratives in which most of the characters and situations portrayed are morally ambiguous. The so-called American melting pot is shown to be a boiling cauldron of multiple tensions and prejudices, whether it is the Iranian shopkeeper who despises the Mexican locksmith or it is the girlfriend of the black policeman who objects to him calling her Mexican, when her parents are from Puerto Rica and El Salvador, or the same woman who mocks an aggressive Chinese woman for her poor pronunciation of English. This is a complicated world in which a good cop can find himself committing a terrible act, while his racist colleague can discover himself behaving heroically with the last person who would expect or want that.
Of course, the plotting is contrived, but the whole of cinema is contrived which is what distinguishes storytelling from straight documentary. This is an intelligent and compelling film which constantly demands attention and, once it is all over, provokes much thought. We are shown that the world is not colour-coded and we need to take the time and trouble to understand who people really are. The ensemble acting by a host of capable performers is a delight, whether it is Sandra Bullock appearing against type as an angry and prejudiced housewife, Matt Dillon as a racist but brave policeman, Don Cheadle as a detective trying to balance the conflicting pressures of career and family, or Thandie Newton who wants her husband to be braver in standing against racial injustice, or the many other strong supporting roles.
It is rare for a Canadian film - as opposed to an American film shot in Canada which is commonplace - to have a worldwide distribution, but even rarer for us to see a French Canadian move, but this one is a delight. Set in the Quebec of the 60s and 70s, it is the story - amusing, quirky, poignant, sad - of Zac Beaulieu (the Z of the title) born on one Christmas Day as one of five very different brothers (the initial letters of the names of the others spell out C.R.A.Z.Y. and the song with this title features on the soundtrack).
Zac's doubtful sexuality is a problem for him, his girlfriend and his Catholic parents, especially the macho but loving father played by Michel Côté and the resolution of this situation is not without confusion and pain. The film is a triumph for Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed the film and co-wrote it, and he is well served by a sensitive and nuanced performance from Marc-André Grondin as Zac.
Like the earlier and superior "Walk The Line", this is a tale of an alcohol-fuelled and washed-up country singer, ultimately saved by the love of good woman. Whereas the first movie was a bio-pic of Johnny Cash, this one tells the fictional story of Bad Blake, an unsympathetic role inhabited with total conviction by Jeff Bridges who even sings the songs in possibly the finest performance of his career, with Maggie Gyllenhaal as his (much younger) romantic interest. Well-played support roles are filled by Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall.
While this is a commendable work from first-time director and co-writer Scott Cooper, this is not really my type of film and it's certainly not my kind of music, so it was more a choice for my wife than for me.
Evolution is one of the greatest ideas in science and Charles Darwin, the thinker who first articulated the theory, was a fascinating character, so it was entirely appropriate that "Creation" was issued in 2009, the bicentenary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the first edition of "On The Origin Of Species". The film is less about the man as a scientist and more about him as a husband and father and less about evolution as an idea and more about the 'evolution' of that idea and the willingness to publish it. Darwin struggled not just to be sure that his theory was supported by argument and evidence but to reconcile the revolutionary idea with his collapsing belief in God and his wife's sustained faith in the Almighty.
All these ideas are not exactly mainstream material for the movies and it is to the credit of British director and co-writer Jon Amiel that he has done such a sensitive task in translating to the screen Randal Keynes's book "Annie's Box". The relationship between Charles Darwin and his cousin and wife Emma Wedgwood is all the more credible for the pair being played by real life couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connolly who met on the set of "A Beautiful Mind". Annie was the 10 year old daughter who died seven years before Darwin eventually published his great work and she is wonderfully portrayed by Martha West, a young actress with a real future. Complementing the fine acting is gorgeous English scenery, some of it the actual home where Darwin lived and worked.
For all its commendable attributes, however, "Creation" is rather lugubrious and too rarely engages the viewer while the cutting and flashbacks are sometimes confusing. Of course, this not the reason why the film struggled to find an American distributor.
Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) is one of the most fascinating figures in British history and the English Civil War is one of the most influential periods in British politics, so it is surprising that there have not been more films of this kind but, other than "Cromwell", there has only been "To Kill A King" in 2003.
The 1970 movie is much the more ambitous with a budget, cast and style that make it something of an epic. Richard Harris is well-cast (if increasingly hoarse) in the eponymous role and Oliver is presented as a quick-tempered but honourable figure, noble and heroic. King Charles I (a fine performance by Alec Guinness) is rightly portrayed as arrogant and deceitful in his dealings with Parliament but noble in the face of execution. Supporting roles are taken by a host of familiar faces in the British thespian world, such as Timothy Dalton (later to play James Bond).
The movie was both written and directed by Ken Hughes and he takes a broad sweep, starting in 1640 before the civil war, showing the Royalist victory of Edge Hill (1642) and the Roundhead success of Naseby (1645), finishing with the regicide and Cromwell's assumption of near dictatorial power. It is all a little melodramatic and somewhat overlong (141 minutes), but worth viewing and an interesting contrast to "TKAK".
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”
Taiwanese-born director Ang Lee has made some fine English-language films, such as “The Ice Storm” and “Sense And Sensibility”, but bravely he has returned to the Chinese language and culture for his latest work in a totally different genre – and it is a triumph. The story is taken from the fourth volume of a series set in the early 19th century Qing dynasty and written by Wang Du Lu in a magical style known in Chinese as ‘wu xia’.
At heart, this is a double love story. The first relationship – silent and simmering – is between veteran warrior Li Mu Bai (played by Chow Yun Fat of “Anna And The King”) and his close friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh from “Tomorrow Never Dies”). The other relationship – a much more combustible and passionate affair – is between the young bandit Lo (Chang Chen) and the beautiful Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi).
Astonishingly, these very different relationships are played out in the context of a martial arts movie which contains some absolutely stunning fight scenes, choreographed by Yeun Wo-Ping who did similarly brilliant work on “The Matrix”, and it is Lee’s genius that combines personal passion and martial miracles to such dramatic effect. In this mysterious new world, there is even a sword called ‘Green Destiny’, a villainess known as Jade Fox, and a fight scene in the tops of bamboo trees.
Since I’ve only recently returned from a tour of China, I loved the wonderful sets and rich costumes. Shot in Beijing and the Gobi desert, the scenery is simply breathtaking, the photography glorious and the cello and drum-beat music stirring (I've bought the soundtrack). In short, this is set to be both a cult and a classic.
“The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button”
There's whole genre of movies whose plot line could be summarised as 'a fish out of water' where the central character is out of place ("Crocodile Dundee") or time ("Back To The Future") or body ("Big"). "Benjamin Button" is firmly of this type with its preposterous idea of a baby born as an old man and then becoming younger and younger. The proposition comes from a 1921 short story by F Scott Fitzgerald that, most unusually for a literary work adapted for the screen, can be read much faster (about 10 minutes) than the film can be viewed (an overlong 165 minutes).
The eponymous curiosity is played by Brad Pitt who gives such a languid performance than one suspects that he was as bored as many viewers will be. Really the star of the movie is the ever-excellent Cate Blanchett who is BB's love interest Daisy (actually he manages an awful lot of sex in spite of his physical challenges) and Tilda Swinton and Julia Ormond are fine as well.
The narrative takes nothing from the short story except the name and the concept and screenwriter Eric Roth is clearly attempting a repeat of his success with "Forrest Gump" - another 'fish out of water' - but "BB" has none of the humour and charm of the earlier work. Amazingly the film has been nominated for no less than 13 Academy Awards, but this is an overhyped affair that only deserves awards for the very clever technical trickery depicting the ageing and reverse ageing processes of its central characters.
"Curse Of The Golden Flower"
Nobody in the world makes movies like the Chinese director Zhang Yimou. For abundant colour, dazzling composition and sheer spectacle, he is in a class of his own. Following "Hero" and "House Of Flying Daggers", both of which I loved, this work is the third piece of his trilogy in the magical style known in Chinese as 'wu xia'.
The golden flower in the title is the chrysanthemum, since the film is set at the time of the Chong Yang Festival in a China of the 10th century when the Tang dynasty rules (although it is based on a modern play). In fact, in contrast to the scenic settings of his two earlier films, Zhang Yimou locates this work almost entirely in the Forbidden City (although it was not completed until 1420), a place of suffocating ritual and intrigue in which everyone is manoeuring for position and fearful of usurpation, not least the Emperor Ping himself (played by Chow Yun Fat), his current wife Empress Phoenix (Gong Li - one-time lover and muse of the director), and the three sons with different loyalties and ambitions.
Visually this is a simply stunning work: the colours -especially red, gold and jade - are breathtaking, the cast is one of thousands, and there is a battle scene with a pitiful body count. One can easily understand how this is the most expensive film ever made in China. However, the narrative is often confusing and all the characters - except possibly Jay Chou as Prince Jai - ultimately unsympathetic. Compared to "Hero" or "House Of Flying Daggers", "Curse Of The Golden Flower" seems to lack a heart and certainly, compared to the selfless heroism of the first movie, here we have a sad and tragic conflict within the royal family in which the fate of the common people is never a factor.
"The Da Vinci Code"
"The Da Vinci Code" has been a publishing phenomenon. Even before the film version appeared, the novel had been translated into 44 languages and sold an utterly amazing 40 million copies. Rarely then has a film been so anticipated by millions and then so panned by virtually all the critics. In truth, I had hoped that this would have been one of those very rare occasions when the movie would prove better than the book because the novel contains some interesting plot elements but is appallingly badly written. Sadly I have to record that the critics are right and my hope has been dashed.
Tom Hanks, as the American professor of symbology Robert Langdon, sports a strange haircut and speaks as if he has a cold, while gamine Audrey Tautou, as French cryptologist Sophie Nevue, struggles somewhat with her first English-speaking role and accomplished actor Jean Reno - here playing the policeman in charge of the murder investigation - is underused. Only Ian McKellen, in a rather camp and breathless performance as the Holy Grail expert Leigh Teabing, really impresses.
I had thought that the movie might soften the portrayal in the book of the Catholic Church and more especially the Opus Dei organisation and that it would ease back on the self-punishment inflicted by the albino monk Silas, but there is no sparing of Catholic sensibilities here. Indeed the film is remarkably faithful to both the substance and the style of the book - and this is mainly what dooms it to such tedium. The movie, like the novel, has little characterisation, is excessively wordy, and concludes in a limp and most unsatisfactory manner.
Director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer can do much better than this ("A Beautiful Mind" and "Apollo 13"), so I blame Dan Brown. He wrote the book, he was executive producer on the film, and he even supplied a bit of the music and some extra codes. The film looks quite good - with location shooting in places like The Louvre - and sounds good too - with music from Hans Zimmer - but it is too long (two and half hours), too dense, and poorly written and paced. In spite of these serious flaws, I suspect that the movie will still do well enough to recoup its considerable investment and will push the novel back to the top of the best-seller lists because so many people have a restless urge to see patterns and meanings and conspiracies even when there are none.
Link: official web site click here
"The Dancer Upstairs"
Acclaimed actor John Malkovich has made his directorial début with an assured political thriller that combines tension and intelligence to make for a gripping two and a quarter hours. The setting is a South American country which is unnamed, but the clear inspiration for the storyline is the early 1990s experience of Peru (which I have recently visited) when the bizarre Abimael Guzmán led the murderous Shining Path movement, while the movie was shot in Spain, Portugal and Ecuador.
Javier Bardem plays Augustin Rejas, a former lawyer turned policeman who manages rare dignity and honesty as he battles with the interventions of a regime teetering on the edge of a military dictatorship and the pursuit of a fanatical revolutionary codenamed Ezekiel, while struggling with the varying emotions associated with a vapid wife, an adoring daughter, and his daughter's dance teacher, the eponymous and allurring woman upstairs (Laura Morante as Yolanda). Bardem - who reminds me of an early Raul Julia - gives a languid yet charismatic performance and hopefully we will see much more of this talented actor.
In some respects the work is reminiscent of Costa-Gavras's "State Of Siege", a clip of which is actually used here. However, the movie is based on a novel by the British writer Nicholas Shakespeare, who wrote the screenplay which features some conversation in Quechua (a native language of Peru and Bolivia), and this is a more personal examination of terrorism than the 1973 French-speaking movie.
Link: official web site click here
"Dancing At Lunghasa"
I’ve been a big fan of Meryl Streep throughout her distinguished career and I regret that it is so difficult for an actress of her age to find challenging film roles. I confess that I wouldn’t have watched this movie – a slight and down-beat tale of 1936 rural Ireland – if she had not been in it and, once again, she gives a fine performance, displaying once more her prodigious skill at accents. Streep plays the eldest of five sisters – Kathy Burke and Catherine McCormack are two of the others – whose lives are changed forever one summer by the arrival of two men, one a brother, the other a lover.
"A Dangerous Method"
"A Dangerous Method" is a film based on a play ("The Talking Cure") which in turn draws on a book ("A Very Dangerous Method") so it is bound to have more dialogue than action sequences and, since the subject matter is the origin of psychoanalysis and the competing schools in this new science, the exchanges are often heavy and sometimes opaque. But a short running time (100 minutes) and four compelling performances make this a fascinating movie that appeals to the intellect in a way that little mainstream fare even attempts. The photography is wonderful and the locations in Germany and Austria quite splendid.
Michael Fassbender is 29 year old Swiss Protestant psychologist Carl Jung, while Viggo Mortensen is 48 year old Austrian and secular Jew Sigmund Freud. At first, it looks as if Jung will be the natural successor to Freud, but their very different approaches - Freud the rationalist who sees sex as the root of all pychological problems and Jung who belives that science should be open to exploring a variety of paranormal activity - lead to a painful rupture in their professional and personal relationships. Two patients bring different insights and issues to Jung. Keira Knightley plays 18 year old Russian Jew Sabina Spielrein in probably her strongest performance since "The Edge Of Love" in a role which requires her to be darker and more physically exposed than we have ever seen her. Then there is Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross, a sexually liberated but ultimately self-destructive individual who is both psychiatrist and patient. Whether all the events portrayed actually happened and whether one believes that Freud and Jung deserve the veneration that they have received in some quarters, this is an intelligent and original movie that will provoke thought after viewing.
Does moviedom really need another comic-book superhero? Well, I suppose as long as there is evil to be fought - and there's plenty of that in these unsettled times - we can do with all the help we can get and this is above average entertaining escapism . As so often in this type of film, the sets and the stunts are far superior to the minimal plot and the weak dialogue and the producers would do well to invest more in a decent scriptwriter for the inevitable sequel.
Like all such heroes, Daredevil has a prosaic alter ego, but what is different about pro bono lawyer Matt Murdock is his blindness which gives him an affecting vulnerability. Furthermore, in the title role, good-looking Ben Affleck has the physicality that was so lacking in Tobey Maguire's portrayal of "Spiderman" and the love interest, the excellent Jennifer Garner as Elektra, is an altogether more resourceful heroine than Spiderman's Mary Jane. Irishman Colin Farrell is suitably villainous as Bullseye, but I can't see Michael Clarke Duncan (Kingpin) as terribly threatening when I recall his friendly giant role in "The Green Mile". By the way, watch the credits and you'll see an extra scene.
Link: official web site click here
"Dark Blue World"
This is a Czech-German production with the dialogue half in Czech and half in English made by the Czech father and son, writer and director, team of Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák who brought us the delightful Oscar-winning "Kolya" in 1997 I had to wait for a ttull year after the film was shown in the Czech Republic before it secured a British release, but I was always determined to see it because it concerns a subject close to my family and my heart: the war-time record of the Czechoslovak pilots who flew with the Royal Air Force. My wife's father, Karel Kuttelwascher, was the top-scoring member of this brave group and some of his wartime clothing was worn in the film by the main character.
Like "Pearl Harbor", the war becomes a backdrop to a triangular love story involving two men besotted with the same woman. In this case, the rivals are the Czech airmen Franta (Ondřej Vetchý) and Karel (Krytof Hádek) fighting over a married English girl (Tara Fitzgerald) which rather dilutes the political messages of the movie. Most viewers will not have known that these heroes were imprisoned after the 1948 Communist take-over in Czechoslovakia and that it was not until the 'velvet revolution' of 1989 that many young Czechs knew about their countrymen's contribution to the allied victory.
The film is a well-researched piece, full of authentic detail, with some splendid Spifire flying and beautiful photography, but ultimately it is too slow and too sentimental to make the impact that it should for viewers who are less interested than me.
Footnote: When an event was held at the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum to promote the film, my sister-in-law Mari Rowe was photographed with Tara Fitzgerald for the local newspaper and the actress autographed copies of the offical film brochure which quoted attributively from my book "Night Hawk".
official web site in Czech: click here
unofficial web site in English: click here
Czechoslovaks in the wartime RAF: click here
Karel Kuttelwacher's record: click here
"The Dark Knight"
I'm a sucker for superhero films and a summer without one is like a summer without sunshine, 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") before thoroughly enjoying Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" (2005). Three years later, the British director - who also co-wrote and co-produced - is back with an even darker and even more impressive outing for Bob Kane's caped crusader, the first not to include 'Batman' in the title.
Like any top-notch action movie should, it opens immediately with a fast-paced and violent sequence that is well-shot and well-executed and the excitement and exhileration never let up for a lengthy 152 minutes. It's not always clear what is been said and the plotting is sometimes confusing too, but the sheer fury and verve of the thing carries you through and gives you a real adrenaline rush.
All the usual Batman elements are there: the man himself, played again with cool skill by Christian Bale; his English butler (Michael Caine) and Q-like support (Morgan Freeman); the soon to be Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman); the love interest Rachel Dawes (with Katie Holmes out of the picture, portrayed this time by Maggie Gyllenhaal); an array of ugly bad guys and one who starts off as both good-looking and ultra-good (Aaron Eckhart as Harvey 'Two Face' Dent); the soaring and brooding city of Gotham (actually Chicago); of course, the technology, including a new sleek Batmobile and an amazing bike-like Batpod; plus the insistent soundtrack of Hans Zimmer.
What's different is the performance of the character intending to be Batman's nemesis and the political message permeating this post 9/11 thriller.
The late Heath Ledger gives a chillingly brilliant portrayal of The Joker that is miles apart from the earlier outing by Jack Nicholson. This is a villain who can not be bought and with whom one cannot negotiate because he is not in the game for any material or political objective but simply to cause utter mayhem. A kind of Osama bin Laden character then, except The Joker is even crazier in setting up life and death choices for people that have no purpose but cruelty and chaos.
Time and time again, men in the movie are faced with the dilemmas facing democracies today: should personal liberties be sacrificed to make it more likely that one will prevent an attack on one of our cities with an inevitable loss of innocent lives? should we torture someone evil if we believe that the resulting information will save lives of the good? At times, even Batman behaves like (George) Bush or (Jack) Bauer (of "24") in a morally ambiguous representation of power.
"The Dark Knight Rises"
I just love a good superhero movie, 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") before thoroughly enjoying the British director Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" (2005) and "The Dark Knight" (2008). Four years later, Nolan - who again co-wrote and co-produced - is back with the final and longest part of his acclaimed triology. The expectations were very high and Nolan does not disappoint (and deserves particular thanks for not using 3D).The opening sequence - which I saw in an early trailer - is terrific and almost the best thing in the film and Nolan makes sure that the rest of the story races along with verve and tension, aided by Hans Zimmer's incessant, throbbing score and some sharp cutting.
It's eight years after the last film and Bruce Wayne (once more the talented Christian Bale) is a broken man, physically, psychologically and even financially. Two contrasting characters arrive in Gotham City to draw him out of retirement: a slinky cat thief (well played by Anne Hathaway who has the most humorous lines) and arch villain Bane (a fearsome-looking Tom Hardy whose lines are unfortunately muffled by his face mask). The Bane character may not be in quite the same chilling class as the brilliant Heath Ledger as The Joker, but Catwoman is a splendid addition to the cast list.I didn't always understand what was going on - a recent viewing of the two previous films might have helped (who remembers the League of Shadows?) - and I saw it with a friend who was enjoying it for the second time and found the plot more intelligible, so that may be encouragement - if any was needed - to catch it again sometime. But the film always looks wonderful and the action is exciting and unrelenting, satisfyingly alternating from brutally visceral fighting between Batman and Bane to the deployment of some heavy hardware including a bat bike and a bat jet.
So, now that Nolan has triumphantly completed his trilogy, does this mean that the crusader is hanging up his cape? No way. The money to be made by continuing the franchise and the setting up of the Robin character (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) means that some other director will soon receive the call from Warner Brothers ...
"The Day After Tomorrow"
Disaster movies used to have a localised focus: "The Towering Inferno", "The Poseidon Adventure", "Twister", "Titanic". More latterly though, the whole world has been in peril: "Armageddon", "Deep Impact", "Independence Day". However, as the budgets have got bigger and the special effects more dramatic, the scripts have remained dire and the acting indifferent.
"TDAT" is no exception - and we would not expect anything else from Roland Emmerich, the director of "Independence Day". Actually Dennis Quaid is not that bad as the climatologist Jack Hall who assures his son "I will come for you!" - a line borrowed from "The Last Of The Mohicans". But the science is very confused and the timescales utterly ridiculous. In so far as there is a plot, it is totally formulaic: a political establishment that is selfish and short-sighted and - as in "Deep Impact" - a father who has neglected his parental responsibilities and a teenage romance to reflect the average age of the typical American cinemagoer.
However, the fundamental message - that the US cannot go it alone on environmental policy (or lack of it) - is well-made and there are some none too subtle, but still telling, political points about the overbearing role of the Vice-President (a Dick Cheney lookalike) and the need for tolerance of migrants.
Above all, though, one judges a movie of this specific genre on the effects and here Emmerich delivers. From the opening sequence with a huge crack in the Antarctic ice, the visuals are stunning and, by the end, the destruction of New York City by Godzilla (another Emmerich production) has been totally outclassed and overawed by the flooding and freezing of Manhattan which are superbly done. In short, the movie is not a disaster but rather cool.
Link: official web site click here
The original movie, directed by the acclaimed Roger Corman, was made in 1975 and set in 2000 for no particular reason than the date seemed futuristic (how times change). Now the remake, both written and directed by the British Paul W S Anderson with Corman as one of seven producers, is released in 2008 but set only four years ahead when the world is facing financial chaos (guys, you're behind the times!). Actually I preferred this hard-edged remake against the more satirical original, although the plot this time owes more to the superior 1975 "Rollerball" (itself remade in 2002).
Shot like a grand video game, this is a testosterone-fuelled film for young men (or, like me, young at heart men who sometimes like a bit of pure escapism), full of guns, girls and gasoline. Beefy British actor Jason Statham - who first came to our attention in "Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels" - is physically fine as the heroic central character Jensen Ames, a former driver who is framed for the murder of his wife and sent to the maximum security prison at Terminal Island. The only real acting comes from the icy Joan Allen as the prison governor looking to maintain the hit ratings for her pay-per-view, three-stage, ultimate reality show. You get to see the whole exercise in driving, destruction and death for the price of one ticket.
Footnote: The original film's star David Carradine reprises his role of Frankenstein for an opening voiceover.
This espionage thriller is an English-language version of a 2007 Israeli film "Ha-Hov" and it is immediately apparent why an adaptation that will inevitably win a much larger audience was made. This is a gripping tale, intelligently told and cleverly constructed. It is much more exiting than the other spy movie of the summer of 2011 "Tinker Tailor Solider Spy" and a much more authentic representation of the Israeli secret service Mossad than "Munich".
Essentially we have two stories here, set in different times (1965 and 1997) and different locations (Berlin and Israel/Ukraine) but involving the same characters; yet director John Madden - whose first success was the contrasting "Shakespeare In Love" - has done a skilful job in interweaving the two narratives in a manner which requires the viewer to re-evaluate regularly both situations and motivations. The early period works better than the later one and fortunately it accounts for the majority of the film, but this is almost two hours of sustained tension.
Unusually there are seven strong roles in one film. The three Mossad agents Stephan, David and Rachel are played by Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain respectively in the Cold War period and portrayed by Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds and Helen Mirren respectively in the modern day setting, while the Danish Jesper Christensen is the surgeon of Birkenau throughout the story and gives this profoundly unsympathetic role a subtle psychological dimension.
Although most of these roles are male, it is the two female performances that are especially memorable. Mirren has had a brilliant career and it is wonderful to see her at the top of her game in her sixties, while Chastain seems to have suddenly burst into movies with "The Tree Of Live" and clearly has a major career ahead of her.
This film tells a story of the Second World War so remarkable that it is amazing that most people - me included - previously had no knowledge of it, even though it featured in a 400-plus page book by Holocaust scholar Nechama Tec published in 1993 - the main source material for the movie co-written, produced and directed by Edward Zwick and co-produced by Tec's son Roland. We are so used to Holocaust movies depicting the passivity of the Jews as quintessential victims - Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" on the Warsaw ghetto uprising was a notable exception - but this film narrates the astonishing tale of how a set of four brothers - Tuvia (Daniel Craig), "Zus" (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron Bielski - led a group of partisan who fought the Germans and managed to rescue around 1,200 Jews from certain death.
The real location of the forest that was their home for more than two years was near Nowogródek (Navahrudak), an area that at the beginning of the Second World War belonged to Poland, but in September 1939 was seized by the Soviet Union and today is Belarus. The realistic location shooting for the film was actually in Lithuania, where 90% of the Jews were murdered, and there has been impressive attention to detail in the creation of the underground zemlyankas (dugouts) and the clothing and weaponry of the Bielski otriad (partisan detachment). Also the tough decisions which the leaders of the group had to take and some of the brutal actions that the partisans carried out are not missed out. So, in spite of being a little stilted at times, this is both an honourable ans effective piece of film-making that tells a little-known story in a manner which manages to be both informative and entertaining.
Wikipedia account of the Bielski partisans click here
Polish opposition to the film click here
Writer-producer-director Alexander Payne does not make many movies but, when he does, you know that you are set for a treat of sharp observation and wry humour. His previous film "Sideways" was eight years ago and both "Sideways" and "The Descendants" are so good that we can only hope that he does not wait another eight years before entertaining us again. This time his source material is a debut novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, a family saga set in her native Hawaii - all t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops.
At the centre of the story is Matt King, a successful lawyer who has engaged too little of late with his wife and two daughters, only to find that he has to take on new responsibilities and discoveries when his wife has a serious accident putting her in a coma. George Clooney leaves his assured, action man image behind, to play the confused and vulnerable husband and father who is now - in his words - just trying to keep his head above water. There are many other fine performances, but newcomer Shailene Woodley - whose previous work has been on television - is especially good as the older daughter Alexandra and could find that this proves to be her breakthrough role.
There is much use of local music which I confess is not to my taste, but the geography of Hawaii itself is almost an additional character in this charming, moving and magical work.
Written, produced and directed by Robert Rodriguez, this a is a much more expensive and flashier sequel-cum-remake of his earlier low-budget film "El Mariachi". It is utterly over the top in its balletic violence, but it doesn't take itself too seriously and as a result it is very entertaining. Antonio Banderas is the avenger with a very special guitar case and Salma Hayek is his female accomplice and lover - two stars who rival each other for length of hair and sheer sexual magnetism - while Joaquim de Almeida is a suitably vicious and manic bad guy.
“The Devil Wears Prada”
I've been a huge fan of Meryl Streep ever since her appearance in "The Deer Hunter" in 1978 so, while having no interest in women's fashion, I had to see her portrayal of Miranda Priestly, the ferocious editor of the iconic "Runway" magazine, clearly modelled on "Vogue" editor Anna Wintour. Lauren Weisberger was Wintour's assistant from 1999-2000 and the film is a version of her novel of the same title.
The movie is a 'chick flick' that manages to make harassment at work funny with some really sharp lines and even sharper clothes. Anne Hathaway is cute and capable as Andy Sachs, the assistant who slowly offers her soul to the devil. Does she recovery her sense of values in time? What do you think?
I saw the film on the Champs-Elysées during a break in Paris and, although most of it is set in New York, there is a near final sequence in Paris which was a pleasant touch. Overall though this is a fluffy work that wounds but dare not strike an industry that is gross as well as glossy.
“Die Another Day”
The James Bond franchise is the longest-running and most profitable in the history of the cinema, with each successive movie being seen by around a quarter of the world's population, and the 20th film in the 40th year is a homage to the oeuvre with repeated allusions to earlier films. This is a lot of fun for those of us who have seen all the earlier outings of 007, but it serves to emphasize how difficult it is to come up with new plot lines - this one is basically a repeat of "Diamonds Are Forever" - and how totally derivative is the whole of the latest effort.
The best reminder is Halle Berry's recreation of the famous scene where we first see Ursula Andress appear on the beach in "Dr No". In fact, Oscar-winning Berry as the formidable Jinx is one of the finest features of "DAD" and it's rumoured that she's going to have her own spin-off series.
In Pierce Brosnan's fourth appearance as the agent licensed to thrill, there are as always great locations, exciting chases and endless explosions, but we are shaken rather than stirred. What is really different this time is that New Zealand director Lee Tamahori makes excessive use of computer graphics. These simply do not have the impact of those stunning stunts from earlier works and at times - like the scene of windsurfing through the ice pack - are rather silly. But it is all enormously entertaining and Bond will be back.
official web site click here
official Bond site click here
"Die Hard 4.0"
It may be 12 years since John McClane (now a bald and battered 52 year old Bruce Willis) donned his dirty vest to save his fellow Americans, but a fourth outing for a franchise that kicked off almost two decades ago means that you know exactly what to expect - and, in that sense, this movie doesn't disappoint. It is all pretty senseless and over the top but, if you want some mindless entertainment for two and a half hours, you'll get your money's worth.
In the States, "Die Hard 4.0" - an allusion to the computer hacking plot and an attempt to be cyber hip - goes by the more triumphalist moniker of "Live Free Or Die Hard" and it is a very American work with its emphasis on explosions over exposition, its allusions to Hurricane Katrina and the anthrax plot, and a clever compilation of clips from Presidential utterings. On the other hand, if you didn't understand a word of the dialogue, you could enjoy the set-piece confrontations - especially the downing of a helicopter and the showdown with an F-35 jet.
All the support roles - Justin Long as the expert hacker, Timothy Olyphant as the cyber-terrorist, and Maggie Q as the bad guy's kick-ass companion - are the sort of age Willis was when he first took on this role and this audience demographic will be willing to trade anything like a credible plot or meaningful characterisation for non-stop action, bullets and explosions - even if the end is weak ("Yippee-ki-yay" doesn't do it).
Link: official web site click here
“Die Hard With A Vengeance”
After the success of "Die Hard" (1988) and "Die Hard 2" (1990), it must have been just too tempting to milk the franchise some more with this third outing in 1995 by independent-minded and bloody-vested and seemingly indestructible Bruce Willis as New York cop John McClane, but this offering is so lame that it almost killed the franchise, taking another 12 years before they dared to revive it. The problem is that, while moderately entertaining, it is all so preposterous with Jermey Irons as the villain sporting a terrible German accent and inventing stupid riddles that seem to have no purpose other than to give us some car chases. Samuel L Jackson, who plays a character reluctantly siding with the police, is always watchable but the stunts are simply by the book and the amount of strong language nothing to help.
“Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights”
Although this 2004 movie is a bit of a titular tease, it deserves to be better known and loved. Tease 1: the title suggests that it a sequel to the enormously successful original "Dirty Dancing" in 1987, but the only connection is a cameo role for Patrick Swayze as an unnamed dance instructor. Tease 2: the title refers to the Cuban capital and, while all the action is set there in 1957-58, it is actually filmed in Puerto Rico.
Based on the teenage experience of the film's co-producer and choreographer JoAnn Jansen, this is modern-day Romeo & Juliet-type tale of a clash of both cultures and classes as reflected in both the young leads and the dancing styles they each know best. The American Katey Miller (played by the British Romola Garai) meets the Cuban Javier Suarez (the Mexican Diego Luna) and the good-looking young couple learn to fuse their different forms of dance in the interests of entering a competition while inevitably falling for each other - but do they win the competition and each other?
The music is exciting and the dancing is infectious - and there is even an underlying political theme as the Castro revolution reaches its success. Like the original "Dirty Dancing", this is a movie you can enjoy again and again.
"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"
Muppet man Frank Oz directed this remake of the "Bedtime Story" (1964). This time round, the eponymous rogues are played by the urbane Michael Caine and the manic Steve Martin who strive to out-scam each other with the sweet, innocent Glenne Headly as the object of their nefarious rivalry. It is all very predictable but enormous fun.
On 20 July 1969, I was one of 600 million people around the globe watching live television pictures of Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon. What I didn't know until I saw this film was that those iconic shots were transmitted from the Parkes observatory, set in the middle of a sheep paddock in New South Wales, Australia, and that the pictures were carried in spite of exceptional winds. The story is told in this movie in a gentle, humorous, life-affirming manner that both pokes fun at rural Australians and celebrates their humanity. For most viewers, Sam Neil as the man in charge will be the only familiar face, but there are many fine cameos in this endearing, if somewhat fictionalised, tale.
History of Parkes click here
Parkes today click here
So many films are formulaic or derivative, if not plain remakes or sequels, that it's a real pleasure to find one with some originality as well as pace and verve. This is a science fiction work that is located entirely on Earth in the present day but the clever twist is that the scene is Johannesburg in post-apartheid South Africa where the ugly alien refugees - known for their lobster-like appearance as "prawns" - act as a metaphor for the blacks in the apartheid era or the Zimbabweans of present-day South Africa. There's plenty of tension and action, with a documentary style, excellent sound and atmospheric music, but this is also an intelligent allegory about how we treat 'the other'.
The success of the movie is down especially to three men. Neill Blomkamp is from Johannesburg but now lives in Canada and, as the co-writer and first-time feature director, he has scored a triumph; New Zealander and "Lord Of The Rings" maestro Peter Jackson was Blomkamp's mentor and producer and his special effects house was responsible for the extraordinary creatures; while Sharlto Copley - a first-time actor improvising most of his lines - is a revelation as corporation operative Wikus Van De Merwe charged with relocating the aliens who grows to be close to them in more than one respect.
The style of the film is somewhat inconsistent and the bad guys - the security company Multi-National United and the Nigerian bootleggers - are presented stereotypically, but this is still a fine premiere by Blomkamp which leaves itself open to a sequel.
"The Diving Bell And The Butterfly”
Three years after I read an English translation of the book, I saw this French-language film of the extraordinary story of Jean-Dominique Bauby - known to his friends as Jean-Do - who suffered locked-n syndrome but managed to compose an account of his experience by blinking his left eye, the only part of his body that could move. Again I was deeply moved by the palette of emotions on display.
The cinema version of the story was directed by Julian Schnabel who cleverly captures the sheer fixity of Jean-Do's dilemma by initially 'placing' the viewer behind his eyes. Mathieu Amalric is brilliant as Jean-Do and Anne Consigny is utterly convincing as the aide who painstakingly takes down his 'dictation'.
More than the book, the film shows us the differing reactions of those around Jean-Do: the mother of his children from whom he was estranged, his lover, his aged and immobile father, his black friend, the doctors and therapists. It is a truly haunting work.
Nobody makes movies like Quentin Tarantino. I have seen almost everything he has produced (a deliberate exception was "Death Proof") and my personal favourites are "Kill Bill" Parts 1 & 2. Now he turns his talent to the western but, from the garish red of the opening credits, it's clear that this is more spaghetti western than the traditional territory of say John Wayne. Indeed the lead character is inspired by a 1966 film directed by Sergio Corbucci and part of Tarantino's homage to the earlier work is to provide a cameo role for Franco Nero who was the eponymous protagonist first time round.
Some of the trademarks of Tarantino's distinctive style are to create novel characters while slipping in references to so many other movies (including his own). So here we have a German dentist (Christoph Waltz) and a black slave (Jamie Foxx) as the unlikely pair of gunslingers who ride to the unlikely-named slave plantation Candyland (Leonardo di Caprio as owner) to rescue the even more unlikely-named Broomhilde von Shaft (Kerry Washington). Another of Tarantino's quirks is his fascination with language and his set-piece conversational confrontations. In this movie, Waltz and di Caprio give brilliant performances as they duel linguistically and Samuel L Jackson is outstanding as a supreme version of the Uncle Tom character.
Set in 1858 (a couple of years before the outbreak of the American Civil War), this is a long film of two and three quarter hours, but it is deliciously entertaining, if often disturbingly violent. Tarantino specialises in revenge, retribution and revisionism. In his last film "Inglourious Basterds", he offered us a vision of the Nazi leadership being wiped out in 1944; here he allows a freed slave to be the nemesis of an outrageously racist and sadist slave owner while managing to turn hooded vigilantes into figures of fun. This is not a film that will be everyone's cup of tea (as we say in Britain) - or should we say goblet of gore - but most Tarantino fans will - like me - love it.
Very loosely based on the short and colourful life of English model turned bounty hunter Domino Harvey, this was Keira Knightley's attempt to move away from her nice girl image created by such movies as "Pirates Of The Caribbean", "Pride And Prejudice" and "Love Actually". For all the shouting, swearing, and shooting, she doesn't really cut the mustard and the whole work - directed by Tony Scott - is a confusing offering that tries too hard to be hip and happening with continously flashy shooting and sharp editing. Mickey Rourke and Édgar Ramírez play her fellow bounty hunters and several familiar faces appear in the casting.
Link: the life and death of Domino Harvey click here
It took me three years after this movie was first released in 2002 to be persuaded to watch it and it will take me at least another three years to figure out what it means. This is the début of writer-director Richard Kelly who has made a film that defies genre categorisation and contains one of the most surreal characters in movie history (a six foot, demon-masked rabbit who predicts the end of the world in 28 days). At the centre of events and 'worlds' is the eponymous Donnie, a deeply troubled teenager who is sensitively portrayed by newcomer Jake Gyllenhaal, who appears to occupy parallel universes.
I have to admit it was totally engrossing; my problem is that I simply have no idea what it is all about. The final lyrics must be a clue: `I find it kinda funny/I find it kinda sad/the dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had'.
Doubt can be a good thing, since it is often a mistake to be too dogmatic, and "Doubt" is a good movie, since it has an open ending which requires the viewer to think. The complete antithesis to a blockbuster, this is a slow-moving tale with few characters but lots of words, reflecting its original as a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It is written and directed by the author of the play itself, John Patrick Shanley, who clearly draws on his own experience of a Catholic education in the mid 1960s.
There are two outstanding performances: Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius, the stern, strict, unbending, traditional nun, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn, the affable, sensitive, supportive, modernising priest. When the priest is accused of an improper relationship on the basis of circumstantial evidence, we want him to be given a fair hearing but we are aware of the terrible abuse and the unforgivable cover-up that characterised the Catholic Church in America at that time. At the end, we are left in doubt.
This is the first German film in 50 years in which Hitler is a central character and almost five million Germans have seen it at the cinema, so it is clearly an important work which represents a honest attempt to face the nation's history in a manner which would be unthinkable from present-day Japan. Of course, this real life version of Götterdämmerung is familiar material to viewers of a certain age or education, but nevertheless the narrative - the last 10 days of the Führer's infamous life - is utterly compelling.
The work is an immense achievement for Bernd Eichinger who both wrote and produced it. Although based on two detailed accounts of the claustrophobic life in the bunker - "Until The Final Hour" by Hitler's young secretary Traudl Junge (from whose perspective the film is shot) and "Inside Hitler's Bunker" by German historian Joachim Fest - Eichinger has clearly done enormous research and has attempted to root all the significant scenes in a documentary source. He was aided by a fine director Oliver Hirschbiegel and a sizeable (for a European work) budget ($16M).
Above all though, the film works because of the mesmerizing performance of the Swiss German actor Bruno Ganz as the dictator losing all sense of reality as his dream of a thousand-year Reich is blasted away by Soviet artillery and - as he sees it - the lack of will of the German people. Among a uniformly excellent cast, Ulrich Matthes gives a chilling portrayal as Joseph Goebbels and the scene where Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels murders their six children, because she cannot bear them to live without National Socialism, is the most disturbing in a work that could haunt one for a long time through its violent images.
The movie is framed by events involving the secretary Traudl Junge: her job 'interview' in 1942 by a Hitler who seems interested only in that she is from his beloved Munich and an extract from an interview that she recorded just before her death in 2002 when she admits that her youth was no excuse for not thinking about her political seduction. This framing device works well, as does the concluding reminder of the war's toll (six million Jews killed and a total of 60M deaths) and of the post-war experience of the leading characters.
Any work about Hitler and especially one by a German production team is bound to attract controversy. The film has been criticised by reviewers for making Hitler too human, but I think that Eichinger has answered this well by insisting: "If he had been a monster rather than a man, it would take the guilt away from other people". It has also been challenged by historians for not making clear the Nazi background of Junge and the war crimes of some of the characters who are portrayed more sympathetically than others, but even a work of this scope cannot indulge in so much back-filling.
A final danger is that the film might be seen as representing at least elements of the German forces as valiant fighters to the last and the German people themselves as in a sense victims of Hitler's mania, but I feel that a balanced assessment of the work would acquit it of such a charge. My wife and I saw "Downfall" with a Jewish couple who are very close friends and who, between them lost four grand-parents in the Holocaust. They too found it a worthy work which is sufficient validation for me.
I saw "Drive" a week after I viewed the British spy thriller "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and two of the adjectives I used to describe that film - laconic and languid - could apply equally here.
The script is very sparse: the lead character, an utterly brilliant Ryan Gosling as the driver with no name and no history, takes an age to speak and then says very little; the love interest, superb British actress Carey Mulligan, is a superlative example of less is more when it comes to speech; and for long stretches there is simply no dialogue. And it is often slow, even at crucial times slow motion - but then there are explosive instances of brutal violence that remind me of the first time I saw "The Godfather".
It's hard to imagine many Hollywood directors being capable of helming such slow-burning dramas and indeed "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" was directed by the Swedish Tomas Afredson while "Drive" was directed by the Dane Nicolas Wining Refn. Here superb direction is supported by splendid cinematography from Newton Thomas Sigel who offers us contrasting night-time aerial shots and gritty street-level scenes of Los Angeles. Even the original music by Cliff Martinez enhances the tension in a complementary rather than showy manner.
"Drive" is a kind of urban western with the car as the horse and the Gosling character as either Clint Eastwood personality-wise as The Man With No Name in the "Dollar" movies or The Stranger in "High Plains Driver" or as good-looking Alan Ladd narrative-wise as Shane in the eponymous movie where a man goes to the rescue of a threatened woman and her child only to find that a man's gotta do what he's gotta do.
This is one of the most stylish works I've seen in a long time where even a silver bowling jacket - the constant garb of the driver - can look cool in a tale where the anti-hero's nerves are as steelish as some of the weapons utilised by the low life he has to encounter. This is such a terrific movie that I could see it becoming a cult classic.
A British costume drama - now, there's a surprise. And Keira Knightley in period dress - more surprise. So, why make it? The novel angle in director Saul Dibb's work is that this is a true story about the life of Georgiana Spencer who became the Duchess of Devonshire in a loveless marriage so there is much resonance with the experience of Diana Spencer in our own times.
In a sense, this is a movie which cannot fail - after all, there is a steady market for period drama with wonderful English stately homes and repressed English sensibilities. On the other hand, it needs to be rather special to stand out from so many similar outings - and there's nothing unique or outstanding here.
Although there is a good supporting cast - Ralph Fiennes as the Duke, Charlotte Rampling as the mother and Dominic Cooper as the lover - this is very much a starring vehicle for young Knightley (still only 23) who is rarely off the screen. This is not her best performance (that was probably "Atonement" with "Pride And Prejudice another success) but it is perfectly competent, even if - unlike her wig - it doesn't catch fire.
Link: Wikipedia page on Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire click here
There's no denying it: Julia Roberts - here playing former CIA agent Claire Stenwick - is a star and we've missed her in recent years. British actor Clive Owen - ex MI6 agent Ray Koval - is watchable enough, so the pairing works quite well, especially when delivering some sharp lines from writer Tony Gilroy who also directs (the same twin talents that he exercised on "Michael Clayton"). Supporting roles are ably filled by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson as rival entrepreneurs locked in a bitter conflict that seemingly only one-time spies can bring to a resolution. Throw in some glitzy locations - New York, Rome, the Bahamas - and slick and stylish cinematography and one has a good-looking movie, but not necessarily one that delivers.
In a film that could be called "Ocean's Two", the strength of the work is also paradoxically its weakness. The constant flashbacks are essential to Gilroy's calculated and entertaining - if utterly implausible - narrative but, after a while, they come to feel somewhat convoluted and contrived and the hair-raising plot has an ending that is thin to the point of baldness.
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.
Last modified on 21 January 2013
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