"The Eagle" "The East" "East Is East" "The Edge Of Love" "Edge Of Tomorrow" "An Education" "Electricity" "Elles" "Elizabeth" "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" "Elysium" "Emma" "Emperor" "End Of Days" "The End Of The Affair" "End Of Watch" "Ender's Game" "Enemy At The Gates" "The English Patient" "Enigma" "Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room" "Entrapment" "Equilibrium" "The Equalizer" "Erin Brockovich" "Escape From Planet Earth" "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" "Europa Europa" "Evening" "Event Horizon" "Ex Machina" "Exodus" "Exodus: Gods And Kings" "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" "Eyes Wide Shut" "Face/Off" "Fahrenheit 9/11" "Fair Game" "The Fall" "Far From Heaven" "Far From The Madding Crowd" "Fast & Furious 7" "Fateless" "The Fault In Our Stars" "Fever Pitch" "Fifteen Minutes" "The Fifth Estate" "50 First Dates" "55 Days At Peking" "Fight Club" "The Five-Year Engagement" "(500) Days Of Summer" "Flags Of Our Fathers" "Flight" "Flightplan" "The Flowers Of War" "Flyboys" "The Fountain" "Four Horsemen" "Frank" "Fracture" "Frida" "Friends With Benefits" "Frost/Nixon" "Frozen" "Fury" "Galaxy Quest" "The Game" "Gangs Of New York" "Gangster Squad" "Garden State" "The General's Daughter" "Gettysburg" "The Ghost" "The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest" "The Girl Who Played With Fire" "Girl, Interrupted" "Girl With A Pearl Earring" "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" "Gladiator" "Glorious 39" "Godzilla" (1998) "Godzilla" (2014) "The Golden Compass" "Gone Girl" "Gone In 60 Seconds" "Good Bye Lenin!" "Good Night, And Good Luck" "A Good Year" "Good Will Hunting" "Gosford Park" "Gran Torino" "The Grand Budapest Hotel" "Gravity" "The Great Gatsby" "Green Lantern" "The Green Mile" "Green Zone" "Greenberg" "Groundhog Day" "Guardians Of The Galaxy"
The Romans did have a Ninth Legion and it did serve in Britain, but the suggestion that it was wiped out north of Hadrian's Wall while its standard (the eagle) survived is just fiction, popularised by a successful children's book from Rosemary Sutcliff in 1954. Much later, in 2011, Scottish director Kevin Macdonald has brought the story to the big screen, using excellent location shooting in his native Scotland and (mostly) Hungary (homeland of his grandfather). The son of the lost legion's commander, who is searching for both the standard and his family's honour, is played by American Channing Tatum, while the young British actor Jamie Bell (best known for his very early "Billy Elliot") is his loyal slave in this moderately entertaining action movie.
Brit Marling is obviously a woman to watch. I enjoyed her appearances in "Another Earth" and "Arbitrage" and, as in the first of these, for "The East" Marling is a writer as well as the lead actor. The East is an eco-terrorist group which Sarah (Marling) infiltrates on behalf of a private agency and the work has a strong pro-environment message which it rather spoils with simplistic representations of offending corporations and some implausible plot lines including an unlikely conclusion. Nevertheless it is a commendable and watchable effort to be a little different and raise some important issues.
"East Is East"
I lived in Manchester until 1971 and I now live in the London Borough of Brent which has a large Asian population, so I was quite willing to view this small, but succesful, British film centred on a family headed by a Pakistani living in Salford in the early 1970s. Writer Ayub Khan-Din has produced a sharp script which manages to be full of both humour and pathos, while director Damien O'Donnell has elicited fine performances from a virtually unknown cast (unless you watch television's "Coronation Street"). Om Puri is excellent as George Khan who presides over his English wife and seven children (all but one of them sons). Somehow his arrogant and often brutal character manages to win our sympathy as he tries to instill in his Anglicised off-spring acceptance of his culture, while Linda Bassett is impressive as his partner, torn between respect for her husband and understanding for her children.
"The Edge Of Love"
Set during the Second World War in both London and Wales, this film portrays the complex relationships between four real-life characters: the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (played by Welsh actor Matthew Rhys abandoning his American accent from the US television series "Brothers And Sisters"), his Irish wife Caitlin MacNamara (British actress Sienna Miller), his first love Vera Phillips (another British actress Keira Knightley) and Vera's husband the British soldier Captain William Killick (Irish actor Cillian Murphy). Many of the incidents represented are a matter of record but other occurences are simply speculation on the part of screenwriter Sharman Macdonald (Knightley's mother).
In truth, it is Keira Knightley's film. Her striking physiognomy always makes her a pleasure to watch, but this is the finest performance of her young (still only 23) career, as she affects a decent Welsh accent and even sings in a nuanced act of thespianism of which she can be proud. Director John Maybury does not make the character or the poetry of Dylan Thomas any more accessible but the bonding and bruising between his wife and his lover create a humanistic tale.
"Edge Of Tomorrow"
Taken from the novel "All You Need Is Kill" by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, "Edge Of Tomorrow" is "Groundhog Day" and "Source Code" meets "Saving Private Ryan" and "Starship Troopers" with much of the structure and style of a video game. If that makes the movie sound derivative, it is - but it remixes these old elements in a flashy new style. The basic storyline is that Continental Europe has been taken over by metallic octopus things called 'mimics' that seem remarkably easy to kill one at a time but come in such numbers and farsightedness that the invasion of the French beaches by the UK-based United Defence Force fails and then fails again and then fails again ...
At the heart of the action is Tom Cruise as military PR man William Cage who - in a nice variation on his usual roles - wants nothing of this heroics thing. Whatever people say about Cruise, he is still a genuine star who carries any film in which he appears. This time, he has a strong female companion Rita Vrataski, the pin up soldier of the war, in the delightful shape of Emily Blunt who is rapidly acquiring star quality herself. She is really good and looks great dirty. The director is Doug Liman who gave us "The Bourne Identity" so the cutting is ferociously fast and furious.
It's all pretty ridiculous, with the repeated scenes and the frenetic editing verging on the irritating, but it's carried off with panache and pace and it's certainly so much better than Cruise's last sci-fi outing "Oblivion". From Cruise landing in a helicopter in the middle of London's Trafalgar Square, it looks and sounds terrific and I enjoyed it on a giant screen at the newly refurbished Empire cinema in London' Leicester Square.
Sixteen year old London schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) obtains more than one type of education when she encounters smooth and middle-aged con man David (Peter Sarsgaard) in the early 1960s when learning Latin and reaching Oxford take a back seat to expensive socialising and early sex. Mulligan is utterly convincing as the bright but bored student seduced by a more immediate and exciting lifestyle and clearly has a fine acting career ahead of her. This is a story which could so easily have been told in a stereotypical fashion but writer Nick Hornby and Danish director Lone Scherfig handle the material in an accomplished and nuanced manner that gives credibility to what is in fact a biographical experience taken from the memoirs of journalist Lynn Barber.
I was drawn to this small, little-known British film by its star, since I have always found that model Agyness Deyn has such a fascinating face. In fact, Deyn - in her first major movie - is not just the central character but in every scene and, given her lack of acting experience, her performance is remarkable. She plays Lily O'Connor, a young woman from the north who travels down to London to seek the younger brother she has not seen since childhood. The distinguishing feature of this film, directed by Bryn Higgins, is that from a very early age Lily has suffered frequent and severe epileptic fits. I was once travelling on an inter-city train when the young woman sitting next to me had an epileptic fit and I have never forgotten it. This film is part-funded by the Wellcome Foundation and its representation of such fits is very effective and striking.
Although directed and co-written by a Polish woman (Malgorzata Szumowska), this French-language film has so many of the ingredients that we associate with Gallic art house movies: it is slow and ponderous, the narrative is fractured, there is smoking, drinking, and eating, there is sex but much of it is sordid or sad or sadistic, there are scenes which are simply inexplicable, and the conclusion is utterly unresolved and even senseless.
Juliette Binoche plays Anne, a journalist with "Elle" researching an article on how students fund their education through prostitution. Apparently she only interviews - repeatedly - two students: the French girl Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and the Polish girl Alicja (Joanna Kulig). Neither hooker seems as unsettled by the lifestyle she has chosen as Anne appears unbalanced by the interviews. It is all rather disjointed and unsatisfactory and the only reason for seeing the film is the wonderful work of the ever-impressive Binoche.
This historical drama of 16th century England - directed by the Indian Shekhar Kapur - is a triumph. Script, sets, costumes and music are all well-crafted. With the exceptions of the inappropriate casting of Angus Deayton and Eric Cantona, the acting is uniformly excellent, with particularly fine performances from the Australians Cate Blanchett, as the eponymous 'virgin' queen, and Geoffrey Rush, as the trusted but callous Walsingham. On second viewing especially, I was struck by the superb camerawork: shots from above, rotating shots, framed shots through arches and doors, and obscured shots through curtains or grills.
The story is young Elizabeth's struggle from virtual outcast to secure leader of her nation during the period 1554 to 1572. This is a royal court full of shadows and whispers and the final, bloody consolidation of power is reminiscent of the conclusion of "The Godfather".
"Elizabeth: The Golden Age"
A film with the same subject (England's most successful queen), the same leading actress (Cate Blanchett) and the same director (Shekhar Kapur) as the wonderful 1998 work "Elizabeth" excites great expectations and, while there are many jewels here, sadly all that glitters is not gold. As with the earlier movie, it looks magnificent, with wonderful locations. sets, and costumes, and the camera work is stunning with clever compositions and remarkable fluidity and angles. Again the acting is particularly fine with Blanchett a tour de force.
The focus is narrower in time, beginning in 1585 and climaxing with the defeat of the Spanish Armada three years later in action scenes absent from the first film. The main problem is the script from Michael Hirst & William Nicholson. The narrative is too slow and too confused and some of the lines are somewhat banal, while the attempt to create a romantic storyline between the 'virgin' queen and the adventurer Walter Raleigh (an able Clive Owen) is too contrived and unlikely.
In 2009, a new talent burst on the cinematic scene in the form of writer and director Neill Bllomkamp, a South African living in Canada, who gave us the startlingly original and political science fiction movie "District 9", a bitingly satirical take on apartheid South Africa. It's taken him four years to come up with his follow-up work, another sci-fi project, but it wipes the floor with the other genre offerings of this summer "After Earth" and "Oblivion".
This time the setting is an over-populated and environmentally ravaged Los Angeles in 2154 (the same year as "Avatar"). In classical mythology, Elysium was the home of the blessed after death; in this film, it is a space station where the ultra-rich escape the crime and ill-health of Earth. The head of security at the station is the icy Delacourt played by Jodie Foster and the person who is trying to break into this Brave New World is ex-con, now radiation worker Max portrayed by Matt Damon with shaven head, exo-skeleton and a brain full of code. Delacourt's special agent and Max's intended nemesis, the ferocious Kruger, sees the return of South African Sharlto Copley from "District 9".
Comparing BlomKamp's two films, both use the genre of sci-fi to make political points, this time the scourge of inequality and the injustice of immigration control. The difference between the works is the budget: an estimated $30M has become an estimated $115M which means bigger stars and bigger special effects, so "Elysium" looks great - especially in IMAX - but the plotting is somewhat simplistic and the conclusion overly sentimental.
Link: discussion of the film's moral message click here
Films often come in pairs and 1996 saw two adaptations of novels by Jane Austin: "Sense And Sensibility" and "Emma" (published in 1816). The later work was distinguished by the American craftmanship of this most English story: both writer-director Douglas McGrath and lead actress Gwyneth Paltrow - who sports a marvellous English accent - are from the USA. Yet there is an ensemble British cast - led by Greta Scacchi, Juliet Stevenson and Jeremy Northam - and superb Dorset settings in this charming tale of a 21 year old well-intentioned, but meddlesome, matchmaker who finally marries her match.
This film tells a fascinating story in fine style, but it is difficult to see how anyone thought it was big screen material. Its box office takings were predictably low and it was in theatres so briefly that I had to catch it on DVD which was certainly a worthwhile endeavour.
In 1945, General Douglas MacArthur was made Supreme Commander for Allied Powers (SCAP), a role with emperor-like powers, in American-occupied Japan and one of his first and most momentous decisions was whether or not to execute Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal. For most Americans, there was no debate: Hirohito was the man who endorsed the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor. But, whether or not he backed the war, a case could be made that he was crucially instrumental in bringing about the peace by ordering the Japanese to surrender. Furthermore the hanging of the emperor - still revered by most Japanese as a deity - could well lead to an explosion of violence that would make the occupation by the Americans and the revival of the shattered nation immensely more difficult.
MacArthur commissioned Brigadier General Bonner Fellers to make a study of the emperor's complicity and make a recommendation on execution - all in a mere 10 days. Fellers was someone who knew the Japanese well and had considerable respect for their ancient culture. Indeed, before the war, he had fallen in love with a Japanese woman studying in the United States and, even after the war, was anxious to see her again.
This amazing story is told respectfully by British director Peter Webber and writers Brazilian Vera Blasi and American David Klass, drawing on Shiro Okamoto's book "His Majesty's Salvation", in a film that even-handedly represents Japanese perspectives of the time. The acting is first-rate with Matthew Fox (best-known for the TV series "Lost") giving a sensitive performance as Fellers and Tommy Lee Jones perfectly cast as the swaggering MacArthur. Many excellent Japanese actors contribute, notably the lovely Eriko Hatsune as Fellers' girlfriend. Shot on locations in both New Zealand and Japan, high production values make this an admirable viewing experience.
The movie lacks the fast-paced action that many expect from a visit to the cinema and arguably it is overly sympathetic to the Japanese position and somewhat saccharine in its treatment of the romance (which seems to be an invention), but it is a real pleasure to see a work that tells a little-known story of such consequence so well.
"End Of Days"
After a two-year screen absence, Arnold Schwarzenegger returns in this eve of millennium supernatural hokum that could be termed "Terminator" meets "The Exorcist". This time the enemy is Satan himself - played by Gabriel Byrne, who can at least act - and, as usual, the devil has the best lines. The prey is Christine York (Christ in New York - get it?) played by the winsome Robin Tunney. Can Arnie save her from diabolical violation and the world from Satanic domination? Well, what do you think? Along the way, director and cinematographer Peter Hyams ("TimeCop") offers us shocks and gore - hence the '18' certificate - plenty of pyrotechnics and some 450 special effects shots before faith conquers all. This mess of a movie will not do much for Scwarzenegger's flagging film career, but it won't do his political ambitions any harm in a country where fundamentalist Christians hold extraordinary sway.
"The End Of The Affair"
This is a frightfully English film in which the suave Ralph Fiennes ("The English Patient") plays the writer and narrator Maurice Bendix who has a passionate affair with the delectable Julianne Moore as Sarah Miles, the neglected wife of the repressed man from the ministry portrayed by Stephen Rea. Most of the story is set in a war-time London, where it seems to be constantly pouring with rain, and the earth certainly moves for Maurice and Sarah - with a little help from the Germans. Nevertheless, it's difficult to fathom why the movie attracted an '18' certificate in Britain. It can't have been the occasional glimpses of Moore's breasts, so one has to assume that it had something to do with the equally brief shot of Fiennes' heaving buttocks. Writer and director Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game") has done an excellent job and produced an atmospheric and intelligent work, full of illuminating flash-backs and repeat scenes.
The film is based loosely on the autobiographical novel by the Catholic writer Graham Greene which in turn was inspired by his affair with the married socialite Catherine Walston. In fact, Greene and Walston did not meet until 1946 and, far from being short-lived, the affair lasted 13 years.
"End Of Watch"
Writer and director David Ayer spent his teenage years on the violent streets of the South Central district of Los Angeles where this movie is located and offers here a work that is not easy to view on several levels: the camerawork is deliberately close-up and jerky in the form of a homemade video, the language is naturalistic and sometimes hard to follow, and the subject matter is the tough task facing a couple of LAPD cops who accidentally get in way above their heads.
Ayer portrays the cops in humanistic terms, as essentially decent, unquestionably brave, and at heart family-orientated, whereas his villains are utterly one-dimensional with a distinctly limited vocabulary over-loaded with a single four-letter word. In a sense, "End Of Watch" is the flip-side of "Training Day", which Ayer also penned, where the dividing line between law enforcement and law breaking was totally blurred.
What maks the film is the bromance between the two cops: Anglo Brian Taylor (a shaven-headed Jake Gyllenhaal), wise-cracking but intelligent and always ready to take the intiative, and Hispanic Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), the driver who is a traditional husband and always ready to back up his buddy. Both Gyllenhaal and Peña give excellent performances so that you really care about what's going to happen to them and, as the tension builds, you know it ain't going to be good.
This an adaptation of a very dark and violent science fiction novel by American author Orson Scott Card in which the eponymous hero Andrew "Ender" Wiggin is only six. Even making the battlecrew young teenagers for the film means that the acting is amateurish and the young thespians (the English Asa Butterfield as Ender) are not helped by a stilted script written by the director Gavin Hood. The plot is pretty silly too: somehow humans manage to defeat an alien species called the Formics with something called the Molecular Detachment device. It's all rather formulaic until a couple of twists at the end, but what redeems the movie and makes it quite watchable are some splendid special effects, a rousing score and an irascible performance by veteran Harrison Ford.
"Enemy At The Gates"
They are very few western-made films about the Second World War's Eastern Front. After all, although the casualty toll - around 20M dead overall, including up to a million at Stalingrad alone - far exceeded that on the West, it was not American or British but Soviet lives which were lost. The two such works that I have seen are "Cross Of Iron" (1977) and "Stalingrad" (1992).
Now French director Jean-Jacques Annaud ("The Name Of The Rose") offers us "Enemy At The Gates" which is also about the ferocious 1942 Battle of Stalingrad, but - a novel angle for a war film - this is set around a personal duel between crack snipers. The movie has provoked some controversy since, while the Soviet marksman Vasily Zaitsev (played by Jude Law) did exist, the German shooter Major Konig (a charismatic Ed Harris) was almost certainly an invention of Communist propaganda. However, such minor tampering with history is certainly not on a par with the travesties in "U-571" or "The Patriot".
The sets and special effects - it was filmed in Berlin - are stunning in their verisimilitude and some of the action sequences, especially at the beginning, approach those in "Saving Private Ryan" in the brutality of their impact. Bob Hoskins impresses in a cameo role as the young Nikita Kruschev. Nevertheless the rivalry for the affections of woman soldier Tania (Rachel Weisz) is too sentimental and the script far too weak for this to be as good a film as it could have been.
information on the battle click here
information on Vasily Zaitsev click here
"The English Patient"
This Oscar-garlanded movie has a complex structure of repeated flash-backs and certainly benefits from a second viewing. Based on a novel by Michael Ondaatje, this is a triumph for the British Anthony Minghella who both scripted and directed. Beautifully shot on location in Tunisia and Italy and set before and during the Second World War, this is a heart-wrenchingly tragic love story with unconventional characters at its centre. Strangest of all is the patient himself, the enigmatic, laconic and cold Count played supremely well by Ralph Fiennes. He is loved - in very different ways - by the recently married and classically English Katherine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and a French Canadian nurse (Juliette Binoche). The tale unravels slowly and episodically to an unconventionally down-beat conclusion.
This is a rare pleasure of a film - one that is prepared to treat its viewers intelligently and tell a war-time story without explosives and histrionics and without falsifying history to glorify the Americans. It is based on the best-selling novel by Robert Harris whose previous work 'Fatherland" suffered so badly when translated to the screen. Here he has a decent screenplay from Tom Stoppard, assured direction from Michael Apsted, and three fine performances by British actors.
Dougray Scott, in a very different role from his "Mission Impossible 2" outing, has lost weight to portray brilliant, but tortured, code-breaker Tom Jericho at Britain's war-time Bletchley Park; Kate Winslet put on weight (she was pregnant at the time) for a performance far removed from "Titantic" as the frumpy, but clever, Hester; and Jeremy Northam is excellent as the sardonic secret service agent Wigram who knows far more than he is prepared to reveal.
Link: Enigma machine site click here
"Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room"
Enron was the US energy company that "Fortune" named as "America's Most Innovative Company" for six consecutive years and, at its height, it employed 22,000 people and claimed revenues of around $100 billion. It went bankrupt at the end of 2001 and this documentary was released in 2005, but I did not see it until four years later. By then, we had experienced 'the end of capitalism as we've known it' and the most serious collapse in financial markets since the Wall Street Crash. What Enron and the wider market crash have in common is the murky world of derivatives, an excessive exuberance for risk, and simple avarice and hubris, while the mother and father of both crises are deregulation.
Alex Gibney co-wrote, co-produced and directed this work which, though occasionally complex, is compelling viewing and a lesson to us all on corporate greed and regulatory failure. Interviews with key observers and extracts from Congressional hearings are linked by a narration from Peter Coyote. The heroines of the story are Bethany McLean, the financial journalist who first questioned the valuation of Enron, and Sherron Watkins, the senior manager who blew the whistle on the company. The villains are a long list of men headed by Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay and Chief Executive Jeffrey Skilling. Maybe there is a gender lesson here as well - as many financial and political ones.
Link: Wikipedia page on the Enron scandal click here
I wanted to enjoy this film since the three main locations are well-known to me and individually the two British stars have done some good work - but what a disappointment. It features dramatic robberies set in New York, London and Kuala Lumpur respectively with - in the last case - the architecturally distinct Petronas Towers standing in for a special bank, so it is visually quite glossy. However, the leading actors are simply inadequate to the occasion. Sean Connery as Mac is charismatic but at 68 just too old for these sort of escapades, while Catherine Zeta Jones - just 29 - is attractive enough but too wooden in her performance. The double life of the Jones character is implausible and the age difference makes the chemistry between the actors difficult to accept.
"Logan's Run" (1976) meets "The Matrix" (1999) in this visually stylish sci fi thriller in which one of the enforcers of a strict order of compliance in a future authorianian version of Earth is tempted over to the light side. The character displaying the moral doubts of Logan 5 and the fighting capabilities of Neo is one of the so-called 'clerics' called John Preston who is played by a steely-eyed and black-clan Christian Bale.
The sets are impressive and the fight sequences exciting, while the odd plot twist keeps the attention. If only there had been a better script and more subtlety, this could have become a cult classic. Since Kurt Wimmer was both writer and director, he is responsible for both the film's strengths and weaknesses.
A former secret agent with a special set of skills who has tried to leave all this behind him but is pulled back into the field when a young woman is badly treated by foreign thugs. Sound familiar? This is very much the ground trodden by the "Taken" franchise, although the title of this film and the name of its lead character are borrowed from a television series of the late 1980s. On the small screen, Edward Woodward played a British former spy; in this big screen version, the role is filled by the charismatic Denzel Washingtion as ex-CIA. It starts slow and remains pedestrian for half-an-hour so. Then the action starts and rackets up and up to a major shoot-out in the hardware depot where Robert McCall was previously a nondescript worker and now find original use for some of the tools on sale.
This is a wonderful star vehicle for Julia Roberts in the eponymous role as the brash and brassy unmarried mother of three who foists herself on a small-time law firm and then brings to account an American utility that has knowingly poisoned hundreds of trusting citizens. Roberts is rarely off the screen and gives arguably the finest performance of her career. She is well-served by a hard-hitting script from Susannah Grant and excellent direction by Steven Soderbergh. Brockovichs boss Ed Masry is played by Albert Finney who has had good reviews, but I dont understand why a British character actor was cast in such a role.
The case - closely based on a real one - concerns 600 residents of the small town of Hinckley in the Mojave desert who, it transpires, have suffered decades of poisoning from water contaminated by chromium 6 leaking from the gas transmission plant owned by Pacific Gas & Electric. Most legal dramas conclude with a court-room scene in which victory is secured through some clever verbal exchange. This one is very different and more typical of most legal work: the case never goes to trial but is instead resolved by arbitration and success only comes after four years of research and negotiation. In 1997, Hinckleys residents were awarded $333 million (£208 million) in the largest settlement in American legal history.
The film has had a major impact in the United States. On the one hand, it has stimulated many more class actions against utility companies, with Brockovich herself now working on seven new toxic litigation cases. On the other had, many of those involved in the Hinckley case are now arguing that it should have gone to trial and that their settlements were too low. Any film that can stimulate such controversy is a must-see.
"Escape From Planet Earth"
Having successfully taken my grandaughter Catrin (then a month short of her third birthday) and her little friend James (just a few months older) to their first film (together with James's mother), we repeated the exercise a couple of months later with this animation feature. But "Escape From Planet Earth" is not in the same category as "Frozen" so, while enjoyable enough, it did not make the same impression with our little charges. It looks good with lots of colourful aliens - notably the wonderfully-named hero Scorch Supernova - and it has some famous voices (including Ricky Gervais and Sarah Jessica Parker), but the storyline is not engaging enough and the dialogue too knowing for small ones.
"Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind"
Moviemakers have often been fascinated by memory - think of "Total Recall" or "Memento" - and the medium lends itself well to the realisation of what are above all visual recollections and reconstructions. Here acclaimed scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman displays more of the inventiveness than was so successfully on show in "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation". This time, though, the director is not Spike Jonze, but Michel Gondry, a maker of music videos and commercials, turning his hand for the first time to a full-length feature. In fact, the film often feels like a video, with a grainy and jerky - almost dreamlike - look.
The essence of Kaufman's story is the attempt by two unlikely and very different characters to erase the memories of their less than idyllic relationship. Jim Carrie plays withdrawn and melancholic Joel in the most restrained, even rather sad, performance that we have ever seen this from this usually manic comic, while Kate Winslet is totally convincing as Clementine, a cheery and colourful, but wild and impulsive, personality who infuses herself into his life and his heart. When each in turn wishes to blank out the memory of the other, a weird company appropriately called Lacuna offers to do the deed.
In an original romantic comedy where one thinks and smiles more than laughs, we are invited to value memories, however uncomfortable or even painful, as part of our experience and identity and possibly capable of being revisited and refashioned. It's all rather indulgent and at times esoteric, but then this is Charlie Kaufman. One wonders how long he can perform these mind tricks before he attempts a more conventional narrative but, in the meanwhile, this a film to be savoured at least once and preferably twice.
The erudite title comes from a poem by Alexander Pope called "Epistle Of Eloïsa To Abelard":
"How happy is the blameless Vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot:
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted and each wish resign'd."
Link: Lacuna web site click here
The odd choice of title for this 1990 film tells you nothing about its subject matter but does suggest something of its provenance. It is a German/French/Polish work, using mainly German but some Russian, Polish and Hebrew, and it has a Polish director (Agnieszka Holland) and Polish locations (mainly Lódz). It tells the story of the teenage German Jewish boy Salomon Perel, played by young Marco Hofschneider, who flees Hitler's Germany to seek safety in Poland and then the Soviet Union, only to find himself back in Germany as a member of the Hitler Youth. The tale would seem to be utterly fanciful, but in fact it is based on the memoirs of Solomon Perel who makes a brief appearance at the end of the film. An incredible story well told.
Link: the experiences of Solomon Perel click here
This film would be a prime candidate for the most star-studded work that most movie fans have never heard of. Sadly this has a lot to do with the fact that the stellar cast of thespian talent is overwhelmingly female and the author of the original novel and co-author of the script is a woman too. I suspect that, if so much male talent had been dissipated, we'd know more about it.
Imagine a movie with Vanessa Redgrave and daughter Natasha Richardson, Meryl Streep and daughter Mamie Gummer, Glenn Close, Toni Colette, and Claire Danes. How could it possibly fail? But it does. Maybe it's the men that one should blame, especially co-writer Michael Cunningham ("The Hours") and Lajos Koltai on only his second directorial outing.
I imagine that "Evening" worked much better as a novel, where the constant time shifts would be easier to follow, and I understand that Susan Minot's book presented a darker picture than even the rather nihilist picture in the film version. This tale of love and loss could have been so much more powerful, but this treatment is too slow and fractured to hit the emotions as it should.
The "Event Horizon" is in fact an experimental space craft that can travel faster than the speed of light through a device that can 'fold' space to create a singularity (I know ..). In 2040, it disappears somewhere near Neptune, only to reappear seven years later with no signs of life aboard. A special crew is sent to investigate led by the intrepid Laurence Fishburne and including the archetypal mad scientist played by Sam Neill. Like most science fiction films, this is derivative of so many others, mainly the seminal "Alien" of 1979 (crew picked off by some unseen evil) and the Russian "Solaris" of 1972 (a craft that can manipulate human memories) with even a scene from the 1973 shocker "Don't Look Now" (image of dead child leads adult to death). The space ship shows more life than the crew who struggle with a leaden script, but there are some excellent sets and splendid special effects to entertain.
The female robot has a long cinematic history, stretching from "Metropois" (1927), through "The Stepford Wives" (1975 & 2004) to "Blade Runner" (1982). What has changed is the advance of artificial intelligence technology, which has made it harder and harder to distinguish the metallic from the human, and our sense of ethics, which has led us to query how we should treat such increasingly sensitive creations. For some scientists, the vision is what is called the singularity when AI will exceed human intellectual capacity and control.
"Ex Machina" is a slow, stylish and intelligent sci-fi erotic thriller, both written and directed by the British Alex Garland, that poses some challenging questions about AI including a reference to the singularity. It is so lean in location and characters that it could almost have been a play, except that the robot is represented through some effective special effects.
Virtually all the action takes place in an ultra-modernist home-cum-laboratory built largely underground, while essentailly there are only three players in this techno game: Nathan, the owner of the facility, the rich and reclusive owner of the Bluebook search engine and creator of the robot Eva (a clever, passive-aggressive portrayal by Oscar Isaac); Caleb, a staff member of the company apparently chosen to test whether Eva is truly self-aware (a diffident and increasingly credulous Domhnall Glesson), and Eva herself (the Swedish Alicia Vikander in a mesmerising performance which for most of the time sees only her face located in an exo-skeleton). Inevitably there is a twist in the tale which could be seen as a vindication or a warning.
Note: What does the title "Ex Machina" mean? It is an abbreviated version of the term 'deus ex machina' which literally means 'a god from a machine' and originated from the conventions of Greek tragedy where a machine is used to bring actors playing gods onto the stage. In the context of this film, you can read it two ways: either Nathan is a god who has created what is essentially just a very clever machine or perhaps the 'machine' is the cruel Nathan who has created the ultimately all-powerful 'god' Eva. More generally, the term 'deus ex machina' refers to a dramatic device to resolve the plot in a storyline - so expect a twist.
When this film was first released (1960), I and the state of Israel were just 12 years old; by the time I finally caught up with it (2008), we were both 60 and I had just visited the country for the first time. The creation of Israel - the subject of the movie - was highly problematic and its survival and success over six decades are little short of miraculous, so this film, based on the best-selling novel by Leon Uris, ought to have been thrilling, but it turned out to be an exercise in dullness.
Set and filmed in Cyprus and Israel (Jerusalem and Acre), there is a good deal of historical verisimilitude here, especially in the treatment of the conflict between the Haganah and the Irgun (for my description of these organisations click here), but everything moves so slowly and so deliberatively, while much of the acting - especially from the younger performers - is dire.
The presence of stars Paul Newman and Eve Marie Saint cannot lift the work beyond the well-intentioned but mediocre and the love story between their chararacters is one of the weaker lines of narrative. At the end, Newman's character, a senior Haganah man, makes a graveside speech looking forward to Jews and Arabs living together in peace. Of course, sadly we are still waiting.
The whole epic runs an incredible three and a half hours. There's a story - possibly apocryphal - that, at a preview with the director Otto Preminger, the Jewish comedian Mort Sahl stood up after three hours and pleaded "Let my people go!" In short, very worthy, very long, very pedestrian.
"Exodus: Gods And Kings"
Throughout the century of cinema, the Bible has been a regular source of stories for film makers from Cecil B DeMille - who made both silent (1923) and talking (1956) versions of "The Ten Commandments" - to Darren Aronofsky - who earlier this year offered us a version of "Noah". And Ridley Scott is a wonderful director with a roll call that includes "Alien", "Blade Runner" and "Gladiator". So there was no way I was going to miss this movie and I even gave up on my usual aversion to 3D and donned the glasses.
Now making a film with a religious narrative is harder these days because, on the one hand, the largest market (the United States) still has a predominantly God-believing citizenry with a significant presence of evangelical adherents while, on the other hand, many of the other major markets (Europe, the Middle East, India, China) are either quite secular or non-Christian. Scott and his (four) writers address this dilemma by making the central character Moses (a convincing Christian Bale) a skeptic for the first half of the film and offering the possibility that the interventions of God could actually be largely natural phenomena. However, to represent God as a child (played by an English boy, 11 year old Isaac Andrews) is an odd interpretation, although not as bizarre as Aronofsky's rock creatures building the ark in "Noah".
Where this "Exodus" - not to be confused with the one in 1960 - really scores is in its sense of the epic: a lot of money and a lot of CGI, plus Scott's directorial brilliance, has ensured that the parting of the sea scene is well done, the portrayal of the plagues is terrific, and the opening battle scenes - for me, the most exciting part of the movie - are simply wonderful. Indeed the successive plagues - ending with mass infanticide - are so dramatic that one cannot help wondering what kind of God would be so cruel and so vicious. It is a wonder that Ramses (a nuanced performance by Joel Edgerton) did not let the Hebrews go much sooner.
A weakness in most epics - most notably my all-time favourite "Lawrence Of Arabia" - and indeed too many other mainstream movies is the lack of good roles for women. Here distinguished actress Sigourney Weaver is massively underused as the mother of Ramses and beautiful Spanish newcomer Maria Valverde has little to do as Moses's wife Zipporah. I don't suppose for a moment that we can look forward to a sequel "Exodus: Goddesses And Queens".
Link: some controversies around the film click here
"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"
For anyone living in Manhatten on September 11, 2001, the collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center was clearly both extremely loud and incredibly close but the echoes still reverberate in so many lives. This movie, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by New Yorker Jonathan Safran Foer, tells the fictional story of one middle-class New York family. There is an unusually strong support cast which includes Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis and John Goodman, but astonishingly the lead role - and he is rarely off the screen - is taken by 14 year old Thomas Horn in his first film role who is amazing as Oskar Schell, a precocious but autistic single child of nine whose father is killed in "the worst day".
A year after 9/11, Oskar is exploring his late father's closet when he finds a key in a packet labelled simply 'Black' and he starts a compulsive quest to discover the person named on the packet and the lock which the key will open. In the process, he meets an odd array of characters with many problems of their own and discovers important things about himself. For much of the movie, Oskar is hardly a likeable person, lashing out at his mother, obsessed with his own search, and lacking normal social mannerisms. Yet, we are always deeply moved by his trials in this intensely emotional journey which has some heart-rending moments, but the epiphanic ending is only just on the right side of mawkish.
"Eyes Wide Shut"
This is the film for which we have waited 12 years - the first work from masterful, but idiosyncratic, movie-maker Stanley Kubrick since "Full Metal Jacket" in 1987. It is his 13th production and, since he died aged 70 shortly after completing it, clearly his last. This erotic thriller is loosely based on a novella called "Tramnouvelle", first published in German in 1926, and the English translation "Dream Story" was issued free in paperback by the "Guardian" on the weekend that the film was released in Britain. The film is remarkably faithful to the book, simply transposing the action from beginning of the century Vienna to present day New York.
Typically a movie will take three months to shoot, but the obsessive Kubrick needed 18 months and some $65M. Although the action takes place over just three days - it is set in New York but was actually filmed in London - it takes a ponderous 2 hours 39 minutes to screen.
Remarkably little happens. Professional American couple Dr William Harford and his wife Alice, played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, confront the nature of their seemingly secure marriage when she confesses to a dream fantasy involving a naval officer and he - as a reaction to this revelation - gains entry to a bizarre, masked and sybaritic orgy which may or may not have had murderous consequences. Yet the whole exercise is carried out with superb style, some fine acting, brilliant costumes and photography, and wonderfully atmospheric music (from Dmitri Shostakovitch and Jocelyn Pook).
The verisimilitude of these surreal events is much aided by the use of a high-profile, real-life couple for the lead roles. I saw the film with two women friends and the consensus was that Kidman - while on screen for less time - out-acted her husband. However, there was much less agreement between us about what the film meant. I thought that it posed the questions of what constitutes infidelity and how one can resolve it, but what is certain is that this is a film which has to be seen and will have you thinking and discussing long afterwards.
This is an exciting action-thriller from director John Hoo with his trademark balletic violence and fluttering doves that has a more original (if highly improbable) plot than most involving FBI agent John Travolta and arch criminal Nicolas Cage 'trading' faces and places in a narrative that requires each actor to mimic the other's character. Plenty of chases and lots of double-handed shooting. Good fun.
This is a must-see movie whose images live long in the mind. Written, narrated, produced and directed by the maverick Michael Moore - who has, almost single-handedly, reinvented the political documentary - this is a tour-de-force which deconstructs the simple-mindedness, dishonesty and corruption at the heart of the Bush administration. It is not fair or balanced, it is frequently outright satirical, it is sometimes too personalised, and (at one point at least) it is frankly cheap (the effort to persuade Congressmen to send their sons to war). But we know before we go into the cinema that this is not a standard documentary but a personal polemic and it is all the more powerful and impressive for that.
From the opening scenes - where we are reminded of how differently it should all have been (since Al Gore actually won the Presidential election of 2000) - the visuals are captivating. So often, Bush destroys himself by his vacant stare or his banal comment or totally inappropriate behaviour. The testimony from a dead soldier's mother from Moore's home town of Flint is very moving and the footage from Iraq itself, obtained while with US troops, is deeply disturbing. It reveals the class divide in America - poor, often black, men fighting wars that make rich, white men even richer - in a political system that likes to deny the concept of class. Indeed this is a very a rare work: a political film that might actually influence politics.
Michael Moore's site click here
Moore's notes and sources click here
This film deserves to be much better known because it tells an important true story in a compelling style.
In March 2003, the Americans invaded Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein had an active WMD programme but, four months later, former ambassador Joe Wilson wrote an article questioning some of the evidence adduced by President Bush to justify the military action. Eight days after the piece in the "New York Times", Wilson's wife Valerie Plame was outed as a CIA operative. When this appalling abuse of power by the political establishment was exposed, it was revealed that the White House regarded Plame as "fair game" once her husband had challenged the prevailing orthodoxy.
This movie version of events is based on books subsequently written by both Wilson and Plame and concludes with the start of her oral evidence to a Congressional inquiry. Naomi Watts is excellent as Flame, while Sean Penn is brilliant as Wilson, both conveying emotionally the impact on them professionally and personally of the betrayal by a system which they had previously so loyally and capably served. Doug Liman ("The Bourne Identity") was both director and director of photography, turning what could have been a dense and worthy polemic into an accessible and exciting account that fuels righteous anger.
Link: Wikipedia page of the Plame affair click here
I'm really surprised that it took me four years to discover this film and that it is not much better known and appreciated, for it is a real curiosity and a true gem. Although it is based on a screenplay of a Bulgarian work with the unlikely title "Yo Ho Ho". this is very much the creation of Tarsem Singh, the Indian director who co-wrote and co-produced it. Indeed he largely financed the film with his own funds. Visually it is stunning with a fantastic selection of locations and some wonderful cinematography. There is footage from over 20 countries, most notably from the director's home nation of India including the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri (all of which I have visited).
The plot is a tribute to the power of storytelling. It is the 1920s and the dawn of the movies. A stuntman called Roy is hospitalised in Los Angeles and befriends a six year old girl called Alexandria who speaks broken English. For selfish reasons, Roy creates a mythical world in story form in which five colourful characters are seeking revenge on a man so evil he is called Odious. As the story develops, it is increasingly unclear who is controlling the story, how it will work out, and what it will mean for Roy and Alexandria. But it is never less than by turns inventive, fantastic, exciting and moving.Find "The Fall" and fall for its charms.
"Far From Heaven"
From the opening credits (which these days usually don't happen) to the closing credits, this is a movie that looks like it was made in the 1950s rather than simply set in that period. The clothes, the cars, the colours all wonderfully recreate the time. But the subject matter is very contemporary: an examination of homosexuality and race relations that simply could not have been reviewed in these terms at that terribly repressed period.
Writer and director Todd Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman are responsible for conjuring up the Connecticut of 1957 in such credible and convincing terms, but they are wonderfully served by their actors. Julianne Moore (blonde rather than red-haired here) gives an outstanding performance as the liberal-minded but socially naive Cathy Whitaker, while Dennis Quaid is excellent as her sexually tormented husband Frank.
This is a movie which is close to heaven as far as talent and skill are concerned, even if the issues examined are at times somewhat hellish.
"Far From The Madding Crowd"
The problem with viewing a remake of a story that one has seen and enjoyed in an earlier version is that it hard to be totally objective. I saw John Schlesinger's 1967 interpretation twice on its release and again very recently on its re-issue. During almost 50 years, for me Thomas Hardy's Bathsheba Everdene has been Julie Christie. But I am a huge admirer of young actress Cary Mulligan who takes the central role in this 2015 remake by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, so I was willing to revisit the bucolic Dorset of 1870.
As always, Mulligan is excellent and her three co-stars - Matthias Schoenaerts as the grounded Gabriel Oak, Michael Sheen as the wealthy William Boldwood, and Tom Sturridge as the rakish Sergeant Troy - give assured performances. So this new version is a respectful telling of the story but I found the treatment somewhat languid and would have liked a bit more drama and passion. Scriptwriter David Nicholls builds up Bathsheba as a proto-feminist, but ultimately the weakness in the tale may be that of Hardy the novelist, since his characters rather annoy me by their indecisiveness.
"Fast & Furious 7"
Between 2001-2013, the first six movies in this incredibly lucrative franchise totally escaped my attention but, on a wet and gloomy Good Friday in 2015, two young friends organised that we should see three new releases in one day and chose "Fast & Furious 7" to start the project. I found it utterly mindless but totally entertaining. The acting is wooden and the dialogue is dire (such gems as "Let's do it!"), but it is an action-packed, adrenaline-pumping rollercoaster full of car chases, fist fights, and some breathtaking stunts with exotic locations and some scantily clad women for good measure.
The villain is Deckard ('deck' and 'hard' - get it?) Shaw, played by British 'actor' Jason Statham, who is upset that his brother was badly treated in the previous movie. So he is out to get the old crew led by Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) who find that they can turn hunted into hunter by accessing a super surveillance system called "God's Eye" that (somehow) has not yet been revealed to the world by Edward Snowden. The punishment that these adversaries can take and the feats that cars can apparently perform (leaping from one skyscaper to another is an special treat) are ludicrous but fun.
For fans of the franchise, a poignancy about this seventh outing is that, during filming, Walker was killed (by all things through a car accident) and how his loss is dealt with in plot terms will please the devotees.
This 2005 Hungarian Holocaust film had the biggest budget in the country's moviemaking history and was a considerable success in its home nation but sadly it is relatively unknown elsewhere. It is based on a semi-autobiographical novel published in 1975 and written by Hungarian Nobel Prize-winner Imre Kertész who also penned the screenplay. As a teenager, Kertész was sent to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and the central character of the film - 14 year old György (played convincingly by Marcell Nagy) - similarly spends time in these two camps before then going to the labour camp at Zeitz.
Directed by Lajos Koltai, "Fateless" has much to commend it technically. The use of washed-out sepia colours and authentically constructed sets, plus excellent cinematography, make this a compelling work to watch. There are so many haunting scenes, such as the contortions used by the prisoners to enable them to stand in one spot for so long. However, I'm not sure that Ennio Morricone's music is right for this setting and British actor Daniel Craig in a cameo as an American GI seems an oddity.
Of course, there have been many, many films about the Holocaust but this one stands out for a couple of reasons. First, in this long work of 140 minutes, the pacing is slow and episodic and there are no grand set pieces. This was very deliberate on the part of Kertész who wanted to communicate his experience of the camps as moment by moment survival with no past and no future. Second, the camp inmates - and one particular mentor to the boy especially - are shown as exhibiting kindness and humanity as they struggle to retain a sense of self-esteem in spite of all the horror. This is such a contrast to the selfishness and hopelessness that we witness in so many other films on the Shoah.
"The Fault In Our Stars"
This could so easily have gone wrong: a story about two teenagers facing life-threatening cancer risks being overly-sentimental but, while being a real tear-jerker, this treads the fine line with skill and warmth. Hazel has thyroid lesions which have metastasised to her lungs and throughout the film wears a breathing tube and lugs around a portable oxygen tank. Gus has n osteosarcoma condition which has stabilised after the amputation of one leg. They meet at a support group for youngsters experiencing cancer and her favourite novel, "An Imperial Affliction", takes them to Amsterdam where nothing goes as they expect.
Since the movie is based on a best-selling young adult novel by John Green, it will find a ready audience in spite of its serious subject, but those who don't know the novel (like me) will find this an impressive and moving work because of the fine acting by the two leads - Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, both of whom star in the "Divergent" series - and the assured direction by young Josh Boone. Of course, it is easy to be cynical about a film like this, dismissing it as mere manipulation, but ultimately all cinema, indeed all art, is manipulative and this is not a self-pitying, rather a life-affirming, tale.
Footnote: The title of the novel and the film comes from Shakespeare's "Julius Caeser" when Cassius declares: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings". For Hazel and Gus, their cancer is in the stars but their response to such tragedy is ultimately in themselves.
This is the film based on the first book written by British author Nick Hornby about his obsession with north London football team Arsenal with Colin Firth in the lead role. It's amusing enough but, if - like me - you are one of the few Englishmen who cares little for the sport, you'll find it inexplicable that someone should find twenty-two men running after a bag of air more appealing that Ruth Gemmell.
I set out for my local multiplex to see "Thirteen Days", only to find that it had been wrongly advertised in the press and so instead I finished up seeing "Fifteen Minutes" - which I guess is shorter. This is a crime thriller set in New York and both written and directed by John Herzfeld. The guy tried hard, so hard - especially with his edgy camera style - but it really doesn't work.
No movie with Robert de Niro - a celebrity cop who is here teamed up with a fire marshall played by Edward Burns - can be totally written off, but this is no "Heat" or "Ronin". Instead there are elements of "Dirty Harry" with the cynical treatment of the American justice system and its cannibalistic media and a final shoot-out with the deranged killer. There's fire and firepower, but insufficient characterisation and subtlety.
"The Fifth Estate"
Australian information campaigner Julian Assange is a complex and fascinating figure and WikiLeaks, the whistle-blower web site that he founded, is a massively controversial project. So there is plenty of challenging material at hand here, but this film does not quite come off as the exciting and provocative narrative that it should have been.
Although Assange - currently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London - pleaded with Benedict Cumberbatch not to take the role, Cumberbatch gives a very convincing and spirited performance as the human rights advocate with an ego the size of the Internet. Many people who challenge the most powerful in our society are branded as self-centred and even delusional, but the truth is that one has to have exceptional self-belief and a passionate commitment to take on the elites of the world. This is not a flattering portrait of Assange by any means because it draws on two books critical of him by people who have worked most closely with him and who feel that they have in a sense been betrayed by him, notably the German WikiLeaks expert Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Brühl) and colleagues of the British "Guardian" investigative journalist Nick Cohen (David Thewlis).
In an age when the ability to obtain and store vast amounts of information on governments, corporations and individuals is ever more possible thanks to incredible development in technology, questions about the legitimacy of holding, using, abusing, and revealing such information are at the core of what privacy and protection mean in the age of all-powerful governments and armed fundamentalist groups. Some of these issues are raised in the movie. By focusing on one US state official (played by Laura Linney) and one informer against his corrupt government, we are asked to appreciate that simply revealing everything that is leaked without careful redaction and the provision of context - arguably best done by conventional media like the "Guardian" newspaper - is literally playing with life and death.
This is heavy stuff and director Bill Condon (previously director of bio-pics "Gods And Monsters" & "Kinsey") seeks to liven it up with some kinetic and flashy camerawork and surreal sets which actually detract from what needs to be a serious examination of an incredibly serious issue. The challenge was to make compelling story-telling and he does not quite pull that off. Part of the problem may be that stories are supposed to have a beginning, a middle and an end - although not necessarily in that order - and, in the case of Assange, the story is far from over and it may well be that Edward Snowden's story in the end will have the more impact and influence.
Wikipedia profile of Julian Assange click here
Wikiperdia page on the WikiLeaks site click here
"50 First Dates"
I normally steer away from Adam Sandler movies - his gauchey manner, whiney accent, and gross-out humour turn me off. But he was tolerable in the recent "Anger Management" and I enjoyed "The Wedding Singer" which he made six years ago with Drew Barrymore. So, the lack of anything more appealing at my multi-plex and the re-uniting of Sandler with Barrymore, persuaded me to give him another chance.
It was not a mistake, but it was a pleasure of distinctly limited proportions. We see a gentler side of Sandler in this romantic comedy when - shades of "Groundhog Day" - the inveterate womaniser falls for a woman who can only retain new memories for 24 hours and therefore does not recognise him each morning and needs charming all over again. There are some silly characters and adolescent humour, although some of the animal scenes are cute. However, far the best feature of the movie is Barrymore who has come such a long way since "E.T." and is by turns utterly winsome, genuinely funny, and quite moving.
"55 Days At Peking"
When Samuel Bronson produced this movie in 1963, it was regarded as something of an epic with impressive sets in Spain and a rich cast including Charlton Heston, David Niven, Ava Gardner and Flora Robson. Today though it is not just the name of China's capital that has changed; it is our whole expectation of films. Now the work appears over-blown and over-long with a weak script and wooden delivery. The time in which the story is located - the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 - deserves to be better understood, especially now that China's global position is so important, and there is something of an effort to put the Chinese case through the words of the Empress, but essentially this is an old-fashioned celebration of imperialism, especially of the Anglo-Saxon variety.
Link: Wikipedia essay on the Boxer Rebellion click here
I thought that this film would be violent (it is), so I stayed away from it when it was on cinematic release, but friends recommended it so, when it had its British television network premiere (at Christmas!), I decided to catch it. The first half-hour is slow and I wondered why I'd bothered, but then it picks up accelerating pace and power. I should have known that anything directed by David Fincher (who gave us "Seven") would be special and, in both subject matter and style, this is something different.
Based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, Edward Norton is both the narrator and central character, an alienated office worker who suffers serious insomnia. He meets Brad Pitt, a soap salesman who has some strange ideas about the components and uses of his product. It starts with the blood-splattered fight club of the title which attracts increasing numbers of disaffected young men who have no purpose in their lives and utter contempt for our consumer society. It ends in explosive and startling fashion, leaving one dizzy but enthralled.
"The Five-Year Engagement"
In the wonderful French film directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, there was "A Very Long Engagement". Here the British psychology major Violet (the totally lovely Emily Blunt) and American aspiring chef Tom (a likeable, if rather flabby, Jason Segel) only spin out the path to nuptials for half a decade, but that's long enough for much romance and humour and not a little sadness and heartache.
Co-scripted by Segel and director Nicholas Stoller and from the same producer as the hit "Bridemaids" (Judd Apatrow), this is a superior kind of rom-com, distinguished by a good script and a wonderfully engaging (no pun intended) performance from Blunt, an actress who goes from strength to strength.
Some of the location shooting is the ever-familar San Francisco but the rest is in the rarely used Michigan (which is part of the humour). Several scenes are laugh out loud, notably one where Violet and her sister have a tense conversation while adopting the voices of Cookie Monster and Elmo respectively (there is a reason).
"(500) Days Of Summer"
Here is a rom-com with a number of differences, starting with the title. This Summer is not a season (even Los Angeles does not have that much sun) but a girl (the cute Zooey Deschanel) amorously pursued by Tom (talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt), both of whom work for a greeting cards company trading on triteness. The structure of the narrative is terribly post-modern in being non-chronological and the genre is subverted in not following the conventional formula. The final major novelty is a series of intersected cinematic flourishes such as - my favourites - an open-air dance sequence of triumph and a split screen depicting expectation and reality.
At the heart of the movie's success is a clever script from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. The film begins with the disclaimer: "Any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental ... Especially you, Jenny Beckman ... Bitch." but Neustadter has admitted that the story was based on a real romance that he experienced while studying at the London School of Economics. The departure from the conventional rom-com resolution and the sense of authenticity imbue this entertaining tale with an element of reality as well as much hilarity.
"Flags Of Our Fathers"
I've been a massive fan of Clint Eastwood's directorial talents ever since "Play Misty For Me" (1971), so the arrival in 2006 of a diptych on the Battle of Iwo Jiwa - the American viewpoint in "Flags Of Our Fathers" and the Japanese perspective in "Letters From Iwo Jiwa" - was genuinely exciting.
The first of these movies is centred on the experience of three of the six men photographed by Joe Rosenthal in his iconic shot of the raising of the stars and stripes on Mount Suribachi: the Marine Rene Gagnon (Jess Bradford), the Navy man Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillipe) and the Pima Indian Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). The source material is a book written by Bradley's son.
This is an unusually downbeat, even cynical, look at what is usually represented as 'the good war', highlighting how this was actually the second flag-raising by a totally different group from the first and how the three did not see themselves as heroes but as tools of a government desperate to raise bonds to fund the war.
There is much to admire in the film, notably the disturbingly realistic depiction of the landing on the island and the battle for the mount, all the more convincing for being shot in muted colours. In these scenes, one literally hardly sees the Japanese defenders and, when one does, they are either dead or about to become so, at either the hands of the GIs or themselves. What lets the work down is the fractured chronology with constant jumping between the actual invasion, the fund-raising back home, and the post-war experiences of the three men which both breaks the narrative and makes it difficult to identify the characters.
Wikipedia page on the battle of Iwo Jima click here
Wikipedia page on the raising of the flag click here
In spite of the title, it would be a brave (or foolish) airline that screened this as an in-flight movie. It's not just the initial nudity, frequent strong language, regular snorting or injection of drugs, and repeated excess consumption of alcohol, it's that eponymous trip at altitude. A drunken lead pilot, a nervous co-pilot, a fierce storm and a suspected mechanical failure are not exactly reassuring motifs to flash in front of even hardened fliers.
Clearly this is the most adult movie of the career of director Robert Zemeckis who started with the "Back To The Future" trilogy and latterly has worked on motion-capture films for children. Equally it marks a new point in the acting trajectory of Denzel Washington, here playing the inebriated and arrogant pilot 'Whip' Whitaker, who first came to prominence in the role of secular saint Steve Biko and has, in recent years, portrayed a succession of less attractive and more morally complex characters as in "Training Day" and "American Gangster". This is one of the finest performances of his illustrious career.The first half hour of the film is terrific and inevitably the remaining near two hours struggle to sustain the same grip and should perhaps have been a bit shorter, while the ending is possibly a little too moralistically neat, but this is a movie well-worth seeing - just not on your holiday flight.
"Flightplan" is a starring vehicle for Jodie Foster who, as in her last film ("Panic Room"), is a young mother coping without a father in looking after a daughter in danger in markedly contained surroundings. It is good to see a strong central role for an actress and Foster gives a fine performance full of resilience and resourcefulness. Sean Bean, as the pilot of the ultra-new Aalto Air E-474 airliner, and Peter Sarsgaard, as the aircraft's sky marshal, are in good form and Greta Scacchi makes surprise appearance as a therapist, all of whom are convinced that propulsion engineer and recently-widowed Kyle Pratt (Foster) is fantasising the disappearance of her daughter. There are some taut Hitchcock-like scenes, but ultimately the movie fails to take off because there are just too many implausibilities and an improbable and unsatisfactory ending.
"The Flowers Of War"
In the winter of 1936-37, the Japanese occupation of Nanjing, then the capital of China, was so unspeakably brutal that it was dubbed the rape of Nanjing. Most people in the West have never heard of the event but, in China, it is still an intensely raw issue. In recent years, two Chinese films have been made about the occupation. In 2009, there was "City Of Life And Death" directed by Lu Chuan. Then, in 2001, we had "Flowers Of War" directed by Zhang Yimou.
"City Of Life And Death", which is unquestionably the far superior work, made little effort to appeal to a Western audience, although it did have a European character - the real-life John Rabe, known as the German Schindler - as a key character. "The Flowers Of War", however, was deliberately pitched at a Western audience: the chosen director had achieved considerable acclaim (and rightly so) for films like "Hero" and "House Of Flying Daggers"; the central character is a (fictional) American mortician played by Christian Bale (echoes of his much earlier role in "Empire Of The Sun"); almost half its dialogue is in English; and it was accorded a massive budget of some $100M from the Chinese Government and state-backed banks. At the domestic (Chinese) box office, it proved to be the highest-grossing Chinese production of all time but, in the United States, it was a total flop.
The story - drawn from a novel - is actually a powerful one: convent girls and prostitutes, with seemingly nothing in common, thrown together as they take refuge from the marauding Japanese inside a Catholic church where the priest is dead and their only hope is a drunken Westerner. While it is an invented tale, the context in which it is told was all too real and nothing that is shown or hinted at comes near the horror of what actually happened. So "The Flowers Of War" does not have the strengths of the more realistic "City Of Life And Death" but it is well worth viewing and would be instructive to Americans who think the Second World War started with Pearl Harbor.
This is a worthy and entertaining enough film that tells a story little covered in the movie world: how American pilots made up a squadron La Lafayette Escadrille in the French Air Force during World War One before the USA eventually entered the war. It claims to be inspired by actual characters and, surprising as it may seem, there was - as the movie depicts - a black flier in the unit. Also some effort has been made to get the technical details right: the references to aircraft types (the squadron flew the Nieuport 17) are accurate and pilots did wear silk scarves so that they could look around the sky more easily.
The success of the movie is the model work and the CGI. Most of the time, the aircraft do look authentic and the technical wizardry enables a closer up portrayal of the exciting action - and there is a lot of it - than could ever be possible with real aircraft. The problems are with stereotypical characters (lightweight actors led by James Franco) and predictable scenarios (the evil German ace is bound to meet his end).
Link: info on La Lafayette Escadrille click here
Darren Aronofsky is an unconventional film director whose work is always provocative but not invariably successful. By the time I got round to viewing his 2006 offering "The Fountain", I had viewed five of his movies. I was impressed in different ways by "Requiem For A Dream", "The Wrestler" and "Black Swan", less happy with "Noah", and put off by "Pi". "The Fountain" is definitely worth seeing - an innovative work which he wrote as well as directed.
It tells three stories across vastly different time periods: a Spanish conquistador in a Mayan civilisation on a quest for his queen, a contemporary scientific researcher struggling to keep his wife alive: and a future space traveller in a bubble with a tree on the way to a dying star. The three tales are introduced briefly and enigmatically at the very beginning of the film and only as the work unfolds do the meanings and connections become apparent, strengthened by the repeated appearances of the same actors Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz.
This is a philosphical work about love and loss and about mortality and immortality that is beautifully composed and shot with a limited budget eliminating the use of any CGI. It is not totally comprehensible but it is thought-provoking.
"Four Horsemen" is the debut feature from writer and director Ross Ashcroft and the four parts of this documentary address the banking crisis, the terrorism threat, worldwide poverty and ecological collapse respectively. While worthy, well-intentioned and (mostly) well-evidenced, for the non-political, this critique of rampant capitalism is probably heavy going with lots of talking heads - no less than 23 experts, including many senior economists and academics, express their trenchant views.
The film seems to have been popular in film festivals and indeed I saw it at the first London Labour Film Festival where it was applauded at the end, but it has some major deficiencies.
First, it is overly ambitious in scope and should perhaps have concentrated simply on the crisis of the banking sector. The links between the four threats were not always made clear and the section on terrorism was particularly weak and over simplistic. Second, the policies promulgated at the end - while rooted in a pro-capitalist position intended to be 'realistic' - involve some outrageously fanciful notions such as returning to a gold standard and abolishing income tax. I would like to know more about Ross Ashcroft and the funding of this work which might explain the source of these odd notions. Third, at no point in either the analysis or the prescription does the film acknowledge that economic and societal change does not start with institutional reform but with the organisation of workers, consumers and citizens. Real change comes through people working together in political parties, trade unions, pressure groups, and social movements.
For all these weaknesses, "Four Horsemen" does make you think and will engender much-needed debate about the urgent need to reform radically our ideas on how we create, consume and distribute wealth and how we regulate and control the institutions involved.
The opening credits themselves do things that make it clear that, from now on, much will not be as it seems in this tightly-constructed and accomplished thriller set in Los Angeles, essentially a battle of wits between a brilliant - but cuckolded and vengeful - structural engineer Ted Crawford, played with a wandering accent by Anthony Hopkins, and hot-shot young prosecuting lawyer Willy Beachum whose ambition is challenged by his ultimate sense of righteousness, an excellent performance by cool Canadian actor Ryan Gosling. The plot twists are clever and satisfying, although they do not hold up to too much after-viewing analysis or legal validation.
This strange movie was inspired by the experience of writer Jon Ronson who spent a while as a keyboard player with a band led by the late British Chris Sievey, the creator the comedy character Frank Sidebottom who wore a huge head which he never removed. The cast includes two actors whom I really admire: Michael Fassbender who plays the eponymous mystery figure and Maggie Gyllenhaal who is one of the band players. Both actors are known for willing to take roles out of the mainstream - think "Shame" for Fassbender and "Secretary" for Gyllenhaal - but I have no idea why they would waste their time on this oddity.
In so far as the film seems to pose any kind of question worth thinking about, it seems that both the group at the heart of the 'story' and the film itself are asking us: should art be simply for the artist or should it aspire to an audience? I guess "Frank" is like an optical illusion: you either get it or you don't - and I didn't. Many critics loved it, but I found it slow, pretentious, self-indulgent and - frankly (pun intended) - boring. I gather it was supposed to be a comedy but I found it simply sad.
There are not many films about painters - "Surviving Picasso" and "Pollock" are two examples realsed around thew same time - and I cannot remember a previous one about a female painter. Indeed the subject of this bio-pic, the Mexican Frida Kahlo (1910-1954), does not even feature in my "Penguin Dictionary Of Art And Artists". But it is always good to see something new and to learn about someone previously unfamiliar.
Above all, we have the Mexican actress Salma Hayek to thank for this, since she laboured for eight years to bring the work to the screen, was one of the film's producers, and takes the eponymous role. The diminutive (5' 2"), but stunningly beautiful, Hayek is splendid as the painter, tortured by the pain from a terrible accident and the resulting 32 operations, who projects her suffering onto canvas, while experiencing a turbulent marriage with fellow artist Diego Rivera ( 6' 2" Alfred Molina), an affair with revolutionary Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), and several lesbian relationships. Cameo performances come from Antonio Banderas and Edward North (then Hayek's boyfriend).
However, considerable credit also goes to the director Julie Traymor, who uses her theatrical background ane expertise to mix colourful Mexican locations and costumes with clever transpositions from life into art, and her partner Elliot Goldenthal provides a brilliantly evocative soundtrack.
I first saw "Frida" at the cinema when it was released in 2002 and I have twice revisited it on DVD, during which time I have been to an exhibition in London's Tate Modern of 87 of Kahlo's distinctive and often disturbing paintings.. I admire the film even more on each viewing and believe that it deserves much wider appreciation.
Link: Wikipedia page on Kahlo click here
"Friends With Benefits"
Hollywood movies often come in pairs as films with the same premise are released within months of one another. "Friends With Benefits" and "No Strings Attached" were released very close to one another and both pose the question of whether it is possible for a couple simply to have sex and be friends without becoming emotionally or even romantically involved. Many men have never had any problem with this concept and Hollywood is now toying with the issue of whether liberated women can think the same. There are no prizes for guessing the conclusion of both romantic comedies but it's entertaining to see how each film works round to essentially the same ending.
This time round the guy is Dylan (Justin Timberlake) who moves from Los Angeles to New York to take on a new job at the behest of headhunter Jamie (Mila Kunis). Like "No Strings Attached", "Friends With Benefits" has a lot of talk about sex - the script is sharp and often funny - but is remarkably coy when it comes to showing it with nothing more risqué than a bare back. The film makes fun of movies that are overly romantic while coming quite close to being one of the works it parodies. So innocent fun which finishes up being rather old-fashioned. The French would have done it differently.
Michael Sheen is excellent as British television interviewer David Frost while Frank Langella is outstanding as American President Richard Nixon in this recreation of the famous four interviews conducted in the summer of 1977, three years after Nixon was forced from office after the cover-up of Watergate. The strategy, the tactics, the mind games make for compelling viewing and the script - adapted by Peter Morgan from his own play - is razor-sharp. Ron Howard directed this in between "The Da Vinci Code" and "Angels And Demons" and knowing that this particular conspiracy was the real thing and not the invention of Dan Brown makes the movie all the more chilling.
"Frozen" will always have a special place in my heart because it was the first film seen by my granddaughter Catrin (one month short of her third birthday). We saw it with her little friend James (just three months older) who was also making his first visit to the cinema. Both sat through all 102 minutes totally transfixed and then at the end cried because they did not want it to finish.
This offering from Walt Disney Animation Studios tells the tale of two huge-eyed royal sisters from the kingdom of Arendelle: Queen Elsa who has a power to freeze things that grows uncontrollably, leading her to flee the kingdom, and Princess Anna who is determined to find her sister, while coping with two very different suitors, a crazy reindeer and a talking snowman. The visuals are magical even in 2D (we judged that the 3D version would be sensory overload for a first movie on the big screen) and there are plenty of songs - notably the empowering "Let It Go" and the exuberant "For The First Time In Forever" - and humour plus a ice monster that had the kids jumping.
"Frozen" went on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Film. Meanwhile Catrin's parents took her to see the movie again and then bought her the DVD the first day it went on sale.
Brad Pitt and the Second World War. What's not to like? Even if, now 50, Pitt really is too old to play a front-line soldier. And the movie is rightly proving a huge commercial success. But haven't we seen all this sort of stuff before, most obviously in "Inglourious Basterds"? Well, yes and no - "Fury" does have some distinctive features.
First, it is not often that war films focus on the tank as weapon. The best example was "Lebanon" and, although a good deal of "Fury" is located within the soldiers' vehicle, the Israeli film was shot entirely within the confines of a tank. A major difference between the two films though is that, in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, they faced no heavy weaponry whereas, in "Fury", we see the the US Army's standard armoured weapon, the M4 Sherman medium tank, facing the much better-armoured German Tiger tank and a sequence when four Shermans lock horns with one Tiger is one of the most viscerally thrilling of the movie.
But there are other differences too. The Second World War is usually presented as the nearest we've had to a 'good' war: we know who is the evil invader and who is the noble liberator, who commits war crimes and who acts with unfailing decency. Except that "Fury" does not flinch from showing Americans behaving badly, even murderously. A final difference - which adds a certain poignancy to the film - is that it is set in Germany in the final days of the war when the Germans have no reason to keep fighting and the GIs just want to stop killing and go home.
All these elements of "Fury" are the result of the writer and director being David Ayer for whom this is a very personal movie. Both of his grandfathers fought in the Second World War, he himself is a US Navy veteran who served on a nuclear submarine, and he has made a career out of telling stories about men losing their innocence (think "Training Day and "End Of Watch"). In the case of "Fury", the innocent character is Norman (Logan Lerman), a clerk suddenly forced to be a gunner, who comes under the unconventional guidance of tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Pitt). The other three crew members are a mixed bunch of veterans played by Shia LaBeouf ("Bible'), Michael Peña ("Gordo"), and Jon Bernthal ("Coon-Ass").
At so many levels, this is an outstanding work. The direction, the cinematography and the sound are superb, while the vast crew who made the Herfordshire and Oxfordshire countryside of rural England look like the war-blasted Germany have done a terrific job. Ultimately, though, this is two films presented as a single adventure. For the first two-thirds of the movie, we have a traditional 'war is hell' approach. Then, when the tank called "Fury" loses its track, we lurch into another kind of film altogether, one in which 'fury' becomes an adjective rather than a noun, one that recalls the final body-fest in the conclusion to "The Wild Bunch", one in which war may be hell, but damn it, it's also incredibly exciting and oh so heroic.
I love science fiction movies, but I confess that I'm not a great "Star Trek" fan - I find both the television series and the films too ponderous and moralistic and the original cast certainly overstayed their time on the big screen. So it's OK by me to spoof the series, its cast, and its fanatical followers in the inconsequential, but rather entertaining, "Galaxy Quest". Tim Allen is almost touching in the Kirk-type role and the British Alan Rickman brings a lovely dead-pan style to the Spock-alike part. But the revelation is the statuesque Sigourney Weaver. We know that she can do comedy - "Ghostbusters" made that clear - but it took a certain kind of self-deprecating charm to poke gentle fun at her "Alien" role as "The Talented Miss Ripley" by taking on a persona that required her to be both blonde and buxom.
Link: fan web site click here
If I tell you that this is from the director of the shocker "Seven", you know that it's not about baseball or basketball. If life was a trial for Franz Kafka, then seemingly for David Fincher it's some sort of game - in both cases, we don't know the rules or the outcome, let alone who's behind it all. Like "Seven", this is a dark work in both visual and narrative terms. Michael Douglas, who is never off the screen, is excellent as the tough investment banker Nicholas van Orton who's approaching his 48th birthday and willing - however reluctantly - to try something novel as a birthday gift from his younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn in a role for which he is too young and under-used). But is this clever entertainment, a financial scam, or something entirely different? We only find out at the end of an inventive thriller with as many twists as a corkscrew.
"Gangs Of New York"
One of the outstanding directors of his generation, Martin Scorese never creates a movie that is less than both interesting and impressive and "Gangs" is both.
Partly it is the unusual subject material: the gangs dominating a vicously violent Five Points distict of New York in 1863 - the largely British & Dutch heritage Natives commanded by Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting and the mainly Irish immigrant Dead Rabbits originally led by 'Priest' Vallon. Partly it is starry cast and the compelling acting - especially a brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis as the utterly chilling 'Butcher' and an impressive Leonardo DiCaprio as Vallon's son Amsterdam, but also Cameron Diaz as Amsterdam's lover, Jim Broadbent as a corrupt political boss, and John C Reilly as an equally corrupt police chief plus a cameo appearance by Liam Neeson as the 'Priest'. Partly - and this is what is seared on the brain - it is the bloody, brutal and often random violence that is visited upon so many of the movie's New York characters at a time when the Civil War was in full flow.
This is not the 'American Dream' as we traditionally envisage it and viewing "Gangs" is not an uplifting experience. It is all shot on sets and this is rather obvious. And it is perhaps longer than it needed have been (almost three hours). But it is still a must-see movie.
Link: the Five Points click here
The title leaves no doubt as to the genre here, but the squad is not one of gangsters but a special team of cops put together to combat them in the Los Angeles of 1949. Looszely based on some actual characters, the idea for an off-the-books team comes from police chief Parker in the form of Nick Nolte, now in his 70s and looking like a block of rough granite. Leader of the unorthodox crew is former war hero John O'Mara (the excellent square-jawed Josh Brolin) and his effective deputy is fresh-faced Jerry Wooters (the ever-cool Ryan Gosling who alone is a reason for viewing the film).
They are out to bring down the brutally cruel Jewish 'Kosher Nostra' crime boss Mickey Cohen who is played so well by a heavily made-up Sean Penn that his performance is almost a caricature. All gangsters movies are overwhelmingly male-dominated, but there are two females roles - taken by Emma Stone as Cohen's squeeze and Mireille Enos as O'Mara pregnant wife - which are brief but strong.
"Gangster Squad" is not up there with "L.A. Confidential" or "The Untouchables" - both of which it owes much to - but it is immensely stylish and always entertaining. The main weakness is its total lack of subtlety: like O'Mara himself, it just charges through the front door all guns blazing and the characters, dialogue and plotting are all standard to the point of comic book.
I confess that I only looked at this 2004 movie because it stars Natalie Portman. I've been a fan since her remarkable performance in "Leon" (1994) and, following her great success in "Black Swan" (2011), I wanted to catch up on some of her earlier work. She gives an assured display here as a cookie youngster. But this is Zach Braff's film - at the age of just 29, he wrote it, he directed it and he takes the lead role as a troubled young man returning to the Garden State of New Jersey (Braff's home state) after a long absence to confront family and friends and in the process discover himself. It's slow and quirky but it picks up pace and spirit to make for a rewarding viewing.
"The General's Daughter"
Like "A Few Good Men", this is an investigation of a murder on an American military base where the top bass simply want a cover up. It is effectively a star vehicle for John Travolta as Paul Brenner from the Army's Criminal Investigation Division and he gives a strong, if one-dimensional, performance as someone who will stand up to anyone, including the General (James Cromwell), to find the truth. James Woods plays one of the many suspects and, thoupways he is simply brilliant. Ultimately I found this film unsettling and unpleasant - although the final credits purport to make the movie a tribute to women in the military, it uses themes of sexual violence in a manner which I found offensive.
Prior to seeing this spectactular movie, I toured the battle site at Gettysburg and I read the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on which it is based ("The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara), so I suspect that I understood the personalities and the tactics of this decisive conflict of 1863 more than most non-Americans (I am British) which was certainly a help. Originally planned as a mini series for television, thanks to the support of Ted Turner the work had a theatrical release in 1993 in a version lasting over four hours (making it even longer than "Lawrence Of Arabia"). It did not do well at the box office but has been praised by critics.
There is a great deal to admire, notably the huge efforts made to ensure authenticity (with the notable exception of placing the 20th Maine in the line of Pickett's Charge). Much of the film was shot at Gettysburg National Park and over 13,000 Civil War re-enactors volunteered their efforts with their own props and costumes. Visually the movie is stunning, with the defence of Little Round Top and Pickett's Charge providing thrilling cinema, all enhanced by Randy Endelman's rousing score. Most of the casting is spot on, with Jeff Daniels as Laurence Chamberlain and Sam Elliott as John Buford on the Confederate side and Tom Berenger as James Longstreet and Stephen Lang as George Pickett on the Union side all giving fine performances.
But the movie does have weaknesses. The most obvious is the last-minute casting of the normally splendid Martin Sheen as Robert E Lee, an odd choice (he is too short) and an odd portrayal (he comes across as somewhat effete). Another problem is the preponderance of full-scale speeches which sound preachy and slow down the narrative. Finally, for non-Americans and for Americans who are not Civil War enthusiasts, the film really is too long and could have benefited from some sharper editing.
The whole project took some 15 years to bring to fruition, by which time Michael Shaara was dead, but he would have been very happy with this production which follows closely his plotting and uses much of his dialogue. For Ronald F Maxwell, who both wrote and directed this massive enterprise, the movie is a triumph and it will stand as one of the best war films ever made.
The storyline - based on a novel by British writer Robert Harris - has nothing to do with the supernatural; instead the title (in Europe) refers to the ghost writer (the title in the US), ably played by Ewan McGregor disguising his Scottish accent, drafted in to rewrite the memoirs of recently retired British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) who has just been charged with war crimes in the conduct of his government's ant-terror policies. The action is set on America's north-east coast but the film was shot in Germany (including the island of Sylt in the North Sea) with seemingly endless rain-lashed days.
This is a work with a lot of baggage: Harris has written some accomplished (if sometimes formulaic) novels and adapted his own book for the screen which gives it a rather 'by the numbers' feel; Harris famously broke with Tony Blair when the latter took the UK to war over Iraq and this is a thinly-disguised critique of a political leader he once admired; while the director Roman Polanski could never have shot the movie in the United States, where it is set, because he is wanted there on charges of child abuse and indeed had to edit the film while under house arrest in Switzerland.
It is one of those films that works fine at the time, with sustained tension and a final twist that is satisfyingly sudden and dramatic, but once out of the theatre one quickly realises that the plot devices are both contrived and implausible.
I saw this film, about young American women in a private psychiatric hospital in the 1960s, several years after its release, by which time its main stars Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie had exhibited some bizarre behaviour in real life. Indeed an early reference to stealing when one could afford the goods seemed almost prophetic in the case of Ryder. They both give strong performances (Jolie won an Academy Award for best supporting actress) and Whoopi Goldberg and Vanessa Redgrave add to the talent on display in this sensitive and moving work based on the actual experience of Susanna Kaysen (the Ryder character) who is diagnosed as having borderline personality disorder, a controversial description.
"The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest"
This is the Swedish-language film adaptation of the third of the three "Millennium" crime novels (titled "The Aircastle Which Got Blown Up" in the original) penned by the Swedish crusading journalist Stieg Larsson. As with the second segment and the six-part television series, the director is Daniel Alfredson.
Once again Noomi Rapace is utterly compelling as the laconic Lisbeth Salander, unable to overtly express emotion whether to a caring, young doctor or a crusading, middle-aged journalist, and she looks stunning in the final court-room sequences. Michael Nyqvist is still the crumpled, "Millennium" investigator Mikael Blomkvist who takes extraordinary risks for someone who cannot return his love and with someone who does in spite of all.
For me personally, the second film was not quite as outstanding as the first and this final part of the triptych is not as satisfying as either of the other two. Of course, we have the resolution of the mystery (although quite what The Section was up to is confusing) and the nemesis of the bad guys (although the arrest of geriatric former spies is hardly that dramatic), but much of this long work is rather slow and the pacing uneven. Wonder what Hollywood will make of the remakes?
Link: the "Millennium" trilogy click here
"The Girl Who Played With Fire"
This is the Swedish-language film adaptation of the second of the three "Millennium" crime novels by the Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson and it's really essential that one sees "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" first because vital themes are continued. Most middle segments of trilogies lack the bright originality of the first and the satisfying denouement of the last, but this one will certainly hold your attention until the girl kicks the hornet's nest.
In this central segment, Lisbeth Salander (the mesmerising Noomi Rapace) is much more central to the narrative and indeed she and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) are only physically together for moments, although often in electronic communication and always in emotional connection.
The criminality being investigated by the "Millennium" team is more woman-hating in the form of sex trafficking and again the plot contains some surprises but this time the villains are reminiscent of Bond baddies like Blofeld and Jaws. The violence is not quite as stomach-churning as in the first episode, yet there's still plenty of bone-crunching, blood-splattering action. Lisbeth here is the most death-defying female avenger since The Bride in "Kill Bill Part 2".
Link: the "Millennium" trilogy click here
"Girl With A Pearl Earring"
I've viewed with admiration the luminescent Johannes Vermeer painting in The Hague; I've read with delight the inventive novel by Tracy Chevalier [for review click here]; and now I've seen the magnificent film directed so admirably by Peter Webber. Young Scarlett Johansson, perfectly cast in the eponymous role, is in another work released at the same time ("Lost In Translation") in which she has a charged, but unconsummated, relationship with a middle-aged man. Here it is Colin Firth who - in a more challenging role than he is normally offered - is the Dutch artist, captivated by his maid Griet who clearly understands his creative processes much more than his highly-strung wife (Essie Davis) or his domineering mother-in-law (Judy Parfitt). The scene where Vermeer pierces the girl's ear and draws blood is clearly a metaphor for what does not take place.
Set in Delft in 1665, this co-production was not shot in that location or even Amsterdam but in Luxembourg and it looks simply sensuous. Indeed this is a jewel of a movie with so many sparkling features: the glorious cinematography by the Portuguese Eduardo Serra who makes marvellous use of natural light, the production design by Ben vas Os who captures the detail of 17th century Dutch life, the authentic costume design by Dien van Straalen, the bravely (but properly) sparse dialogue by Olivia Hetreed, and the haunting music by the French Alexandre Desplat. The acting is uniformly impressive and, besides the roles already mentioned, credit should go to Tom Wilkinson in a strong, if unsympathetic, performance as Vermeer's (invented) patron.
Link: web site for book click here
"The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"
This is the Swedish-language film adaptation of the first of the three "Millennium" crime novels (titled "Men Who Hate Women" in the original) penned by the Swedish crusading journalist Stieg Larsson and published only after his premature death to astonishing worldwide acclaim. The eponymous young anti-heroine is the tattooed and pierced ace hacker, bike rider and bisexual Lisbeth Salander, brilliantly portrayed by Noomi Rapace, who becomes the accomplice of middle-aged, disgraced investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). Together they work on a crime four decades old: the disappearance of Harriet Vanger from a gathering on the island owned by the powerful and dysfunctional Vanger family.
This is a much colder and darker Sweden - both physically and metaphorically - than the open and tolerant society that we usually imagine and often makes for uncomfortable viewing, especially in scenes of sexual violence. Yet we have no choice but to watch because the narrative is so compelling and twisting and we want to know how the unlikely pairing of Mikael and Lisbeth will work out almost as much as we need to discover who is behind all the sadistic murders and how retribution will be delivered. A Scandanivian version of "Silence Of The Lambs".
Link: the "Millennium" trilogy click here
When I first started going to the cinema some 40 years ago, the sword-and-sandal saga was a staple part of the repertoire. Many of the films came from Italy and starred the ubiquitous former Mr Universe Steve Reeves who ironically died a few days before the opening in Britain of "Gladiator". Easily the best of these epics was "Spartacus" (1960), but I had thought this type of film long dead before the talented and resourceful Ridley Scott - director of such magnificent work as "Alien", "Blade Runner" and "Thelma And Louise" - decided to revisit (but surely not revive) the genre. The plotting and values of "Gladiator" are decidedly old-fashioned, but the skill and technology deployed to bring it to the screen are state-of-the-art.
The basic storyline is thoroughly familiar to anyone who has seen "The Fall Of The Roman Empire" (1964): following the death of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius in AD 180, a noble soldier seeks to restore the glory that was Rome in the face of the corruption and brutality fostered by the new, young emperor Commodus. But, whereas "Fall" was very slow and stilted, from the opening battle scene in Germania to the closing combat in the Colosseum, "Gladiator" is simply thrilling. Above all, this is a tribute to Scott who is a consummate film-maker: the photography, the cutting, the sound, the music are all brilliant. Having twice visited the ruins of the Colosseum, I had wondered what it looked like originally and now I believe I know as a result of Scott's computer-generated recreation of the mighty edifice and its visceral exhibition of violence.
Yet the director is well-served by his stable of actors. New Zealand-born Russell Crowe, who first came to the fore in "L.A. Confidential", is inspiring as Maximus, a hero as honourable and laconic as he is brave and resourceful. Plato would have been proud of him, since he believed that the only man fit to rule was one who did not want to do so. Joaquin Phoenix has a deeply unsympathetic role as Commodus but brings immense depth to the evil part. Among the other performers are an unusually venerable Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius, Derek Jacobi who was so magnificent in the British television series "I, Claudius", and Oliver Reed who drank himself to death during the filming in Malta.
I first came across the captivating young British actress Romola Garai in the 2004 movie "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights". Since then, most of her work has been for television, but she was back on the large screen in the 2009 film "Glorious 39". The '39' refers to 1939 when Britain was on the edge of war with Germany. 'Glorious' relates to both the nature of that year's summer and the affectionate name for Garai's character Anne, the adopted daughter of the aristocratic Keyes family which is headed by an influential Conservative Member of Parliament who is appalled by the notion of the country going to war for the second time in only a couple of decades.
Written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff as a kind of Hitchcockian thriller, this is a work replete with well-known British character actors spanning the age range from Christopher Lee & Julie Christie through Bill Nighy & Jeremy Northam to David Tennant & Eddie Redmayne. With so much talent available, one has a right to expect more than is actually delivered. The plotting is rather silly and often slow and the characterisation somewhat stilted, while the ending is most unsatisfactory. The locations - mostly in Norfolk - are fine though.
German-born director Roland Emmerich is not noted for his subtlety - his previous film was "Independence Day" - and there is nothing subtle about this version of a huge monster ravaging an iconic city, in this case New York. Matthew Broderick struggles to bring some sense to the mayhem, while French actor Jean Reno seems to have wandered into the wrong movie. The script is very poor and the plot almost non-existent, but the special effects are fun in this cross between "King Kong", "Aliens" and "Jurassic Park". There are some familar Manhatten sights including the Flat Iron Building, the Chrysler Building, Madison Square Garden and Brooklyn Bridge, but the city suffers as much as the audience.
Clearly one cannot keep down a monster the size of Godzilla (the name is a combination of two Japanese words meaning 'gorilla' and 'whale'). Since his first appearance in a Japanese movie in 1954, there have been no less than 28 offerings from Toho Studios, while there have now been four American productions: two (1956 and 1985) repackagings of a Japanese film, the ill-fated 1998 version (which was supposed to have been the first of a trilogy), and now this Legendary/Warner Brothers outing.
Let it be said immediately that British director Gareth Edwards has produced a superior film to the mess than we had in 1998 - a well-paced and entertaining thriller. He is helped by advances in technology (the end credits name a vast army of special effects artists) and the co-operation of the US military (the same end credits acknowledge the use of an arsenal of ships and weaponry), but also we have a vaguely understandable plot this time, as San Franscisco rather than New York City is pummelled into the ground. Godzilla looks the part (congratulations to the casting director), but the two MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) look as if they were rejects from the 1997 movie "Starship Troopers".
As two of those in charge of the monster hunt, Ken Watanabe and David Strathairn fit their roles well; and, as a romantic couple in peril, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are pretty enough; but Sally Hawkins is miscast for a blockbuster movie (and I mean that as a compliment) and there is a criminal underuse of the wonderful French actress Juliette Binoche (as with Jean Reno in the 1998 film, it seems that the producers just wanted to pull in a Gallic audience). For once in a movie, the ending comes at exactly the right point (with no silly coda) and makes it clear that a sequel is likely.
"The Golden Compass"
It was always going to be difficult to bring to the screen the Philip Pullman trilogy "His Dark Materials" because, while the novels are full of characters and images that state-of-the-art CGI could render so effectively, the complex themes present a real challenge for what is essentially an entertainment medium. For those who haven't read the 1,300 pages, it's going to to be difficult to appreciate all that is going on while, for fans of the novels (such as me), anything left out or changed is going to be something of a let down.
It's no wonder then that the film rights were sold 14 years before the first movie hits the screens and that American writer-director Chris Weitz at one stage pulled out of the whole enterprise. But it's been worth it. While not a total success, this is a fine adaptation of the first novel - "Northern Lights" in the UK and "The Golden Compass" in the USA - that must surely lead to the filming of the other two novels.
The casting is excellent. Thirteen year old acting newcomer from Brighton, the oddly-named Dakota Blue Richards, is convincing as the teenage heroine Lyra Belacqua, even if her 'urchin' accent wanders somewhat. Nicole Kidman is brilliant as the icily smooth Mrs Coulter. A bearded Daniel Craig is strong as Lord Asriel. Eva Green has the exotic looks for the witches' leader Serafina Pekkala. Sam Elliott is suitably gravelly as the cowboy aeronaut Lee Scoresby.
But, of course, a fantasy film like this would not work without convincing special effects and, generally speaking, these are first class. The various daemons are well-executed and the giant polar bears - especially the heroic Iorek Byrnison (voiced magisterially by Ian McKellan) - are splendid. Naturally all sort of compromises are necessary to bring a work as complex and controversial as this to the big screen but, to my mind, it is acceptable to turn the Magisterium from not simply a representation of the Catholic Church but to a symbol of all religious and political authoritarianism.
Philip Pullman's site click here
my review of the book "Northern Lights" click here
I love the title: short, punchy, alliterative. It is, of course, the title of the best-selling novel on which it is based. Now, in such cases, I'm never sure whether it is better to see the film first or read the book first. In the end, it comes down to an accident of timing. When you read a novel, you don't know if it will be made into a film; when a film is released, it is too late to read the novel first if you want to see the movie at the cinema. So I haven't read the novel and, in this case, the film screenplay - although written by the author herself Gillian Flynn - apparently has a different ending, so go figure.
Nick and Amy Dunne - played by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike - have had to relocate from New York to Missouri and have now been married exactly five years, but this is the anniversary from hell when the girl goes and the revelations crash one upon another.
We always knew from as early as "Good Will Hunting" that, given a decent role, Affleck can act and this movie cements his return from mediocrity announced by "Argo". English girl Pike first came to our attention as a Bond girl in "Die Another Day", but always had more to offer and she is simply brilliant as the glacial beauty who calls to mind the main female characters in both "Basic Instinct" and "Fatal Attraction". The movie has somehow been classed as both feminist and misogynist, but what is undeniable is that it offers a strong and complex central female role and that is all too rare in cinema.
Nick moans: "Yes, I loved you and then all we did was resent each other, try to control each other. We caused each other pain." Amy replies: "That's marriage." But this is not your usual marriage and just how unusual becomes ever clearer up until the final moments and for two and a half hours one is mesmerised by the descent into horror. Director David Finch, who shocked us with "Seven" and mystified us with "The Game", has produced a terrific thriller than I will certainty see again. And I guess I'll have to read the book too.
"Gone In 60 Seconds"
I always look forward to films produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and movies like "Con Air" and "The Rock" provided great entertainment, but "Gone.." disappointed me. It seemed like an excuse to show flashy cars and yet another prolonged chase sequence with little thought of the need for a plot. Nicolas Cage - the master car thief pulled out of 'retirement' - is at his most languid; fine actors like Robert Duvall and Will Patton are seriously under-utilised; I would have liked to have seen more of Angelina Jolie (I know..); our own Vinnie Jones inexplicably has only one speaking opportunity; and I'm becoming a little tired of the callous villain always being a Brit (this time Christopher Eccleston).
"Good Bye Lenin!"
A little over a decade after its demise, communism in Europe is becoming an historical curiosity. In Prague, there is now a Museum of Communism (next door to a McDonalds) and here we have a German film which satirises the Honecker regime through an inventive storyline set just before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
A middle-aged woman - movingly played by Katrin Sass, a successful actress in the former East Germany - goes into a coma due to a heart attack and, when she resumes consciousness eight months later, her son (Daniel Brühl) is warned that a sudden shock could kill her, so - through increasingly complex contrivances - he has to maintain the fiction for her that communism is still thriving. This requires him not just to disguise, but ultimately to subvert, history by representing the pulling down of the wall as a kindly act by the Communist regime to admit West Germans disillusioned with the excesses of capitalism.
Perhaps one needs to have lived in an East European communist state (or at least to have visited one - as I did) to appreciate the bitterness of some of the humour and certainly this movie has done incredibly well in its native Germany. But anyone can enjoy this work, directed and co-written by Wolfgang Becker, for its mixture of quaint love of a son for his mother and sending up of some of the injustices and indeed absurdities of the former regime. The most memorable visual image is a brief, but somewhat surreal, one involving a statue of Lenin, seemingly bidding farewell to a failed system permeated by waste and deceit.
"Good Night, And Good Luck"
This wordy and worthy film is a homage to veteran CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow who dared to challenge the hysterical campaign of Senator Joseph McCarthy to find Communist sympathisers in every corner of the post-war American establishment. David Strathairn is wonderful as the fearlessly independent TV presenter who would sign off his pieces with the phrase "Good Night, And Good Luck".
The black and white treatment and the close-up camerawork make this look like a documentary and indeed a good deal of film footage from the time is used which adds to the effect. Such an uncommercial movie could not have been made without George Clooney who directed, co-wrote and stars as Murrow's producer Fred W Friendly. The whole thing was made for a mere $7M.
Other well-known actors contributed to this political statement that television has to be about more than entertainment and advertisers: Robert Downey Jr, Frank Langella, and Jeff Daniels (who some years later headed the cast of "The Newsroom", a TV series inspired by the spirit of Murrow).
"A Good Year"
When one thinks of director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe, one thinks of "Gladiator", but here they are together in a lighthearted piece with comedy and romance and a setting in rural France which is about as far away from centurions and the colosseum as one could imagine. The choice of director is odd because the action movie is clearly his forte, but the casting of Crowe is even odder, although he affects a reasonable British accent and brings a light touch to this tale of tough City shark falling for the charms of the French vineyard and the Gallic restaurant owner (Marion Cotillard) very loosely inspired by Peter Mayle's book "A Year In Provence". It's entertaining enough but give me Maximus any day.
"Good Will Hunting"
This is a life-affirming movie with some excellent dialogue (and a deliciously dirty joke from Minnie Driver), co-written by close friends Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, both of whom star. Damon is the eponymous dysfunctional maths genius, while Affleck is his life-long buddy in the non-aspirational working-class world of south Boston. Stellan Skarsgård, as an MIT maths professor, and his friend Robin Williams, as a psychiatrist with his own problems, try - in their very different ways to rescue Will but, in the process, discover things about themselves and their friendship. Williams is excellent in a role which in some respects reprises his performance in Awakenings, while Damon exhibits a raw young talent as the tortured rebel.
I didn't think that they made films like this anymore, but I'm certainly glad they do because it is a sheer delight. In many ways, it is the quintessential British movie, combining the social satire of the old television series "Upstairs, Downstairs" with the conventions of an Agatha Christie murder mystery, the whole thing populated by a magnificent collection of British character actors. Yet it was directed by the American Robert Altman who has become the master of the ensemble movie, whether it be "The Player" or (less successfully) "Pret-Á-Porter".
Gosford Park - actually Syon House in west London, near where I live - is the stately home of Sir William (Michael Gambon) and Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas) who invite some relations and guests to a shooting party in 1932. Before too long, Sir William has been murdered and writer Julian Fellowes - who gives the cast some wonderful lines in a richly-textured script - ensures that there are plenty of suspects with a whole variety of theoretical motives.
In fact, Sir William is such an unpleasant character that we don't really care that he's been killed and the rites and rituals of the British upper class are dissected with such fascination that we don't care that much who killed him either. But tradition decrees that we have a murderer and a motive and we are given at least one of each.
There are so many fine performances from so many well-known (at least to a British audience) faces - Alan Bates, Jeremy Northam, Charles Dance, Clive Owen, Robert E Grant, Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, and many more - but it is the aged Maggie Smith as the Countess of Trentham who has some of the best lines and ultimately steals the show.
Since "A Fistful Of Dollars" in 1964, Clint Eastwood's body of work as an actor and director is without precedent in volume and accomplishment in the history of Hollywood. After directing only in the triptych "Flags Of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jiwa", here he returns to the combined acting and directing (plus producing) of "Million Dollar Baby" and again the core of the movie is the relationship between Eastwood's character and a young person seeking a way in the world.
Now aged 78, Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a Silver Star veteran of Korea who subsequently spent 50 years on the production line at Ford, where he acquired his immaculately-preserved 1972 Gran Torino. Grizzled and growling, he has just lost his beloved wife, is estranged from his two grown-up sons, and has a fractious relationship with his ethnic neighbours, notably the Hmong family next door. There is a lot of anger and racism in this film but, book-ended by funerals, it ultimately manages to be up-lifting and redeeming.
We're told that this will be Eastwood's last acting role (his 45th since adopting the pancho of The Man With No Name) but hopefully we'll still see his directorial work (this being his 29th such outing).
"The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Rarely has a movie looked so good: the compositions and colours make each shot a minor work of art. Rarely has a film had such a constellation of stars: in a fun exercise of 'spot the actor', you should be able to identify a dozen, although one will prove harder than the rest (clue: it's an elderly woman). But then this is a work from the idiosyncratic Wes Anderson who wrote, produced and directed.
The structure is a story within a story within a story and at the heart of this Russian doll is a tale set in a mythical Middle European nation called Zubrowka between the two world wars and focused on Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the dedicated but eccentric concierge of the eponymous hotel, and his aspiring young bell boy Zero Mustapha (Tony Revolori). In a wonderful cast full of exquisite performances, Fiennes is a revelation. The man who chilled us in "Schindler's List" here shows a remarkable skill in comedic acting.
In a twisting plot of deceit and murder, above all this is a whimsical work from the opening views of the hotel to the final credits (when a little Russian character does a dance). Shot entirely in Germany, many of the scenes were filmed on the stages of the Babelsberg Studios.Footnote: My friend Stephen Locke comments: "The German city of Görlitz where some of the filming was done, including some of the hotel shots (done in an art nouveau former department store), was the home of my great grandfather until he was booted out by the Nazis in 1940 and subsequently murdered."
The title is telling. Set in orbit around the Earth, there is virtually no gravity here but, thanks to a freak accident, very soon the gravity of the situation becomes terrifying. Gravity and oxygen are not the only things in short supply in this film: there are only two characters (played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) and in consequence not a lot of dialogue but, if there is a paucity of words, there is almost an excess of wonder and drama in this terrific movie from Mexican director Alfonso Cuardón ("Pan's Labyrinth").
Although years in conception, Cuardón - who also co-wrote the script with his son - does not waste time with scene-setting or character exposition on Earth. Immediately we are suspended in space, marvelling at the silence and gloriousness of it all. At the other end of the story, Cuardon does not bother with Hollywood-style codas to lighten the mood - "Gravity" ends exactly when it should. In between, there is never a moment when you are not captivated by what is happening on screen. And, for once, a blockbuster does not overrun its time, coming in at just an hour and a half.
Bullock and Clooney are excellent in portrayal of very different characters who will live or die by the other's decisions. She is Dr Ryan Stone, the mission specialist with no previous time in space who becomes fear personified. He is Matt Kowalski, the space veteran on his last mission who never loses his charm or cool. The crisis they face is so predictable - if, hopefully, unlikely - that it has a name in the scientific community (the Kessler syndrome).
For movie fan like me, there are so many allusions to earlier films: the floating majesty of the opening scene recalls the first view of space in "2001"; when the astronauts are warned by Houston mission control of the impending danger, the voice is that of Ed Harris from "Apollo 13"; when Bullock takes off her bulky space suit, we are inevitably reminded of Sigourney Weaver at the end of "Alien".
I saw "Gravity" at London's newest multiplex - Cineworld at Wembly's London Designer Outlet - and I opted to view in 3D (which i normally avoid) and D-BOX (which I have never experienced before). I can't say that the tilting seat added that much to the enjoyment of the movie, but the 3D was terrific. Not since "Avatar" have I felt that the extra dimension worked so well. I really felt as if I was in space and there is an especially moving moment involving a single tear. Some of the science may be suspect, but the brilliant special effects made it all too real for me.
"The Great Gatsby"
Any movie by Australian director Baz Luhrmann is worth seeing because he has such a distinctive and exuberant style and you have to admire his willingness to be different, even if he is - as the "Guardian" film critic Peter Bradshaw put it - "a man who can't see a nuance without calling security for it to be thrown off his set". In different ways, I enjoyed "Moulin Rouge" and "Australia" and I was prepared to give "The Great Gatsby" a go, in spite of some harsh reviews.
The F Scott Fitzgerald novel of 1925 has been filmed no less than four times before, notably in 1974 when Robert Redford played the plutocrat Jay Gatsby and Mia Farrow was his great love Daisy Buchanan in a restrained interpretation. Of course, Luhrmann does not do restraint and, in this movie, as well as his trademark grandiose sets and extensive CGI, he has shot the work in 3D, but I can only take so much Bazz and for this jazz I chose to see a 2D version, although even then it is very obvious where the 3D was intended to hit you in the eyes.
It is, of course, over the top (most obviously in those huge party scenes in the Gatsby mansion), the framing device of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) in a sanatorium is unnecessary, and the use of non- contemporary music by the likes of Jay-Z often jars. But there are some lavish sets and some gorgeous costumes and the whole thing has undeniable energy. Leonardo di Caprio has both the charm and the menace of Gatsby, while Cary Mulligan as Daisy continues to grown as an international star. Not so much "All that Baz" as "Not that bad".
I'm not a reader of comic books but I enjoy a good super-hero movie and recognise that comics are a rich source of characters for such films. Marvel has given us the likes of Spider-Man, Iron Man, X-Men and Thor, while DC Comics has been racing to catch up with Superman, Batman and now "Green Lantern". Since most of these are franchises, that's one huge battery of super-heroes and new movies inevitably struggle to differentiate themselves and offer something new.
"Green Lantern" is entertaining enough but lacks distinction. Character-wise, it is hardly special. We have the usual alter-ego, a human with childhood issues and a disbelieving girlfriend, although at least Hal Jordan (a lantern-jawed Ryan Reynolds) is a cocky test pilot with 'the right stuff'. We have the familiar evil destroyer which in this case looks strangely like the dust cloud that raced through the streets of New York City after the collapse of the Twin Towers (deliberate?).
Filmed on location in Sector 2814 of the Universe, "Green Lantern" scores in scenes set on the Green Lantern Corps home planet of Oa, but is at its weakest when it tries to be funny. I saw it in 3D which worked well for many sequences - and even for the early credits when a short scene sets us up for the inevitable sequel.
"The Green Mile"
One is bound to compare "The Green Mile" with "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994): both were written and directed by Frank Darabont, both are based on stories by Stephen King, and both are set in American pre-war prisons. "Mile" has been much more successful at the box office, but it is not as good a film. The acting is uniformly excellent, with another fine performance by Tom Hanks leading the kindest collection of prison warders - with one notable exception - ever seen on celluloid and Michael Clarke Duncan moving as the mystical black giant John Coffey (his initials are not unintentional) accused of murdering two young girls. The script and the direction are so good that one accepts the presence of a performing mouse called Mr Jangles. And there is an important social message about the revolting nature of capital punishment by electrocution. However, in the end, the whole thing is just too sentimental and silly and too long into the bargain. A urinary infection plays a role in the plot and it may well be that, after 3 hours 9 minutes, the toilet is not that far from your mind.
British director Paul Greengrass + American actor Matt Damon = "The Bourne Supremacy", "The Bourne Ultimatum" and now "Green Zone", so we know what to expect here - and we're not disappointed. From the opening seconds, we're into the action with the trademark Greengrass 'in the action' frenetic camerawork and sharp editing. Although the film is said to be inspired by the non-fiction book "Imperial Life In The Emerald City" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a journalist for The Washington Post, the conspiratorial storyline is the invention of Greengrass who developed the original script.
If the tension isn't as excruciating at that other Iraq movie "The Hurt Locker", at least "Green Zone" has a narrative and poses some questions, hard questions that many American viewers would probably were rather not aired: what was the source of the 'intelligence' that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction? why was the source so readily believed when the evidence was so thin? could the bloody insurgency which followed the relatively easy initial occupation have been avoided if the Americans had been willing to work with elements of the Iraqi army?
See the movie and think about the issues. As a central Iraqi character puts it: "It's not up to you to determine what happens in this country."
"Hurt people hurt people" mid-20s Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig) tells 40-ish Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) in this quirky movie with a lot of psychological hurt although not without whimsical humour. Florence has just come out of a relationship and is struggling to become a ballad singer, while suddenly finding a personal problem she never expected. Roger has just emerged from a breakdown, having long ago blown his chance of a career as a rock musician, along the way breaking relationships with his wife and fellow band members. The unlikely pairing comes about when Florence, a home help to a wealthy Los Angeles family, finds herself in the company of Roger who is house-sitting while the family is abroad. This was probably supposed to be Stiller's movie and it is a rare pleasure to see him in a non-comic role. But in reality this is Gerwig's film - she is so natural and engaging.There is probably an element of autobiography here - although we don't know how much - because director Noah Baumbach co-wrote the script with his wife Jennifer Jason Leigh (who has a small role as Greenberg's ex wife). Like Greenberg's life (he tells people, that he is trying to "do nothing"), the film has no plot and no resolution with a sudden and very open ending but, in the same way that Florence tells Roger "You like me more than you think you do", perhaps you'll like the movie more than you think you will.
An acerbic and irascible weatherman, played by Bill Murray, is required once more to cover the odd tradition of the even-odder named Punxsutawney in Pennsylvania whereby each February 2 an attempt is made to predict the onset of spring with the aid of a furry friend. Except this time, he finds himself in a time loop, endlessly repeating the same 24 hours. In this inventive comedy that is a kind of latter-day version of "It's A Wonderful Life", he can either go crazy as he descends further into the nightmare or he can learn to become a better man and win the heart of TV producer Andie MacDowell. No prizes for guessing which, but it's all done with a lot of fun and some charm.
"Guardian Of The Galaxy"
It really shouldn't work: a sci-fi, super-hero movie with an utterly bizarre set of five characters - the guardians of the title. There's Quill (Chris Pratt), the only human, an Indiana Jones/Hans Solo type with a devil-may-care attitude to all danger; next up we have Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned woman with special martial skills who seems to have wandered in from the set of "Avatar"; then there's Drax (Dave Bautista) with huge muscles, multi-coloured skin and a habit of taking comments literally; even more outrageously we have Groot (Vin Diesel in motion-capture), a tree - yes, a tree - with lots of branches but only a three-word vocabulary (remind you of Chewbacca?); and finally - my favourite - there's a talking racoon with attitude called Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a little fella with some BIG guns.
And yet, work it does - but how? Well, visually it's an absolute treat - different worlds, buildings, vehicles and weapons, the magic of deep space, and lots and lots of colour. I saw the film in 3D on an IMAX screen and it sucked me in. Plot-wise, it's all a bit confusing - lots of complicated names and something to do with a mysterious metal orb - but the whole thing zings along so speedily, it just doesn't matter. Perhaps, above all, it is quite simply fun - it is a rollicking escapade with lots of humorous one-liners and funny situations. At the end of the credits (as well as the usual extra clip in Marvel movies), we have an assurance that no trees were harmed in the making of the film as well as the promise that the guardians will be back (I'll be waiting).
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.
Last modified on 14 June 2015
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