"La Haine" "Half Of A Yellow Sun" "Hancock" "Hanna" "Hannibal" "Happy-Go-Lucky" "Harry Brown" "Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets" "Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire" "Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone" "Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban" "Haywire" "Heavenly Creatures" "The Help" "Her" "Hercules" "Hero" "Herostratus" "Hidden" "High Fidelity" "The History Boys" "The History Of Mr Polly" "Hitch" "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy" "The Holiday" "Hope Springs" (2003) "Hope Springs" (2012) "Hot Fuzz" "Hotel Rwanda" "The Hours" "House Of Flying Daggers" "The House I Live In" "How To Lose a Guy In 10 Days" "How To Train Your Dragon 2" "Hulk" "The Hunger Games" "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1" "The Hurt Locker" "I Am Legend" "I Give It A Year" "The Ides Of March" "If Only" "The Illusionist" "The Imitation Game" "The Impossible" "In Bruges" "In Darkness" "In Her Shoes" "In The Cut" "In The Loop" "In The Shadow Of The Moon" "In This World" "Incendies" "Inception" "An Inconvenient Truth" "Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull" "Infernal Affairs" "Inglourious Basterds" "Inside I'm Dancing" "The Insider" "Insomnia" "The International" "The Interpreter" "Interstellar" "Into The Arms Of Strangers" "Intolerable Cruelty" "Invictus" "The Ipcress File" "Iris" "The Iron Lady" "Ironman" "Ironman 2" "Ironman 3" "I, Robot" "The Island" "It Happened One Night" "It's Complicated" "I've Loved You So Long"
Although this French film - the title means "Hate" - was released in 1995, it was just over a decade later before I viewed it, by which time the racial violence in the estates of Paris and then nationwide in the autumn of 2005 had made the work seem particularly prescient in capturing the alienation and anger of young, poor, immigrant youth. The style of director Mathieu Kassovitz - black and white and jerky camerawork - gives this the feel of a documentary, but the involvement is much more intense, as we follow 24 hours in the life of three friends: Jewish Vinz (Vincent Cassel), black Hubert (Hubert Koundé) and Arab Saïd (Saïd Tagmaoui). Their self-destructive behaviour invites and receives pain and punishment in this compelling narrative and the makers of this movie will not have been surprised by the 2005 riots.
"Half Of A Yellow Sun"
It is a shame that this film is not much better known: it is a rarity for a British movie to have an African theme, African location shooting, source material from a black novelist, a black writer and director, and an almost exclusively black cast. But it is a pity that the film is not as successful as it could have been: too much of the work is sluggish and the script is often too leaden.
The title is a reference to the flag of Biafra, the breakaway Igbo-dominated province that provoked the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970, and the action is set in the decade following Nigeria's independence in 1960 and is seen through the eyes of Biafran characters who are struggling with their own relationship difficulties. The film is based on the novel of the same name by the Igbo Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the writer and first-time director is the Nigerian-born, London-based Biyi Bandele who was born to Yoruba parents but grew up in the northern part of the country in the Hausa cultural tradition. Both novelist and director deserve recognition for focusing on a period of Nigerian history that still shapes the nation but is rarely in the public discourse and Bandele was right to insist on making the movie in Nigeria itself in spite of the difficulties.
The two leading actors - both of whom give excellent performances in spite of a poor script - are Chiwetel Ejiofor ("12 Years A Slave", who was born in Britain to Nigerian parents, and Thandie Newton ("Mission: Impossible II"), who was born in Britain to a black Zimbabwean mother and a white British father. Both are real talents who alone would make this film worth watching.
This is a super-hero movie with several major differences. First, the guy has some serious psychological problems which result in appalling behaviour and public opprobrium - a clever twist that has great potential. Second, there is no super-villain - a really major weakness. Third, the core of the script - the relationship between the hero and the heroine - is pure piffle. The special effects are over indulgent and, if some of the money spent on them had been reallocated to a hiring a decent scriptwriter, this would have been a much better movie. The eponymous flying crusader is played by the charismatic Will Smith who is the most bankable star in Hollywood these days and the main support role comes the talented and watchable Charlize Theron, so the film is not a wash-out - just a real disappointment.
This is movie-making of a high order, thanks to the pairing of the British director Joe Wright and the Irish supporting actress Saoirse Ronan from the utterly different "Atonement".
Wright is on top of his game here in a work pulsing with energy: atmospheric locations in Finland, Morocco and Germany, flashy camera work, terrific sound, and good music from The Brothers Chemical. As in "Atonement", Ronan plays a girl of her own age, here an ethereally mysterious 16 year old with diminished social connectedness but formidable fighting and shooting skills. It is an impressive performance and, coming on top of that in "The Lovely Bones", this is a young woman with an immensely promising career, the like of that of Natalie Portman after her precocious start in "Leon".
Like the Bourne trilogy, an American secret agency is after one of its missing assets and in effect the movie is one long chase. Like "The Long Kiss Goodnight", the asset is female and only slowly discovers her true identity. Training and protecting Hanna is her father Erik played by the very watchable Eric Bana, while leading the chase is the icily cold Marissa portrayed by the always brilliant Cate Blanchett. The plot could have done with a little more clarity but overall this is the kind of entertainment that we want, but do not always get, on the big screen.
The cannibalistic Dr Hannibal Lecter now makes his third cinematic outing. After the hors d'oeuvre of Michael Mann's "Manhunter" (1986) and the main course of Jonathan Demme's "The Silence Of The Lambs" (1991), Ridley Scott serves up the dessert so to speak. As friends will testify, the dessert is normally my favourite course - but not this time. I didn't see "Manhunter", but Anthony Hopkins' compelling performance in "Silence" so seared itself on the mind that I can hardly believe it was a decade ago and not much more recently.
Ten years later, Lecter is practising his cultural and culinary talents in Florence. This is a city I know well, but I have never seen it so dark and threatening and Scott has a wonderful eye for shapes and shadows. Meanwhile FBI agent Clarice Starling - now played by Julianne Moore rather than Jodie Foster - is an altogether tougher, more confident, less trusting woman who has gained a career and commendations but sacrificed the chance of marriage and parenthood.
"Hannibal" has some gory scenes, but in truth it is not as subtle or as scary as "Silence" and at times the implausibilities strain credulity. The last supper would have been more shocking if it had not reminded me of the monkey brain feast in "Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom" but, at least when it come to making an original escape, one has to hand it to Lecter.
Britain's Mike Leigh here directs and co-writes an atypical English film: an urban slice of life with a smile on its face. Poppy - wonderfully played by Sally Hawkins - is the kind of soul that collectively we need more of but individually we might find exasperating. She is a 30 year old teacher in North London who is irrepressibly cheerful in the face of all she encounters which may be fun for her pupils and boyfriend but can infuriate a sister and a driving instructor and simply mystify others whether a tramp or passers-by. By turns funny and moving, this look at life with Poppy is never dull.
This is a tough tale of vigilantism that is far removed from the world of "Death Wish". The eponymous seeker of revenge is an aged former marine living on a south London housing estate where abuse, violence and drug-taking are commonplace and the murder of an elderly friend sets in train a bloody trail. At the centre of it all and rarely off the screen is Michael Caine, an actor who seems to be better and better as he becomes older. He was brought up in the area depicted in the movie and was in his mid-70s when shooting this film, bringing his total to over 100. Credit too to British film director Daniel Barber for his assured pacing and cinematography.
"Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets"
Harry is now in his second year at Hogwarts in this welcome return to witchcraft and wizardry. As the eponymous hero, Daniel Radcliffe is now a rather taller, but more assured, 13 (by a magical coincidence, he shares a birthday - 31 July - with Harry himself and creator J K Rowling). Most of the characters from the first film are back, but new ones include engaging Kenneth Branagh as the charlatan Gilderoy Lockhart and the voice of Toby Jones as the (computer generated) house elf Dobby (who bears more than a passing resemblance to the Gollum in "Lords Of The Rings 2" issued about the same time).
Again Rowling has been closely involved with the script and again Chris Columbus is the director, so that the film is a faithful reflection of the book (so I am told), and generally speaking this is a darker world than "The Philospher's Stone" with a giant spider, an even huger snake and much scarification and petrification. At 2 hours 41 minutes, it is too long for the young audience at whom it is aimed (at the performance I attended, little ones were constantly running to the toilet), but it is so utterly magical and entertaining that they won't complain.
Footnote: If you wait till the end of the horrendously long credits, you will see a snippet featuring the alleged Professor of The Defence Against The Dark Arts.
"Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire"
On the fourth cinematic outing for Harry and his chums, we have a third director (Mike Newell) and a darker, scarier approach (which attracts the first non-PG certificate). All the familiar characters are back at Hoggwarts, but - with the exception of Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) - rng a ring a decent scriptwriter, this migthe established adults are given only minor roles, surrendering the floor to Alastor 'Mad Eye' Moody (played with verve by Brendan Gleeson). At the heart of this adventure is the Triwizard Tournament involving an airborne dragon chase, an undersea rescue, and a devouring maze which provide plenty of challenges for Harry and excitement for young viewers, although an non-reader of the books (like me) can be confused at times.
As always, there are wonderful characters and creatures and splendid sets and special effects. What really makes this latest movie stand out from the other three is how the Harry, Ron and Hermione have grown up into teenagers with mood swings and a fascination with the strange creatures known as the opposite sex. Harry is more confident flying a broomstick and battling dragons than propositioning the bewitching Cho Chang (Katie Leung), while blossoming Hermione cannot understand why Ron fails to see her as anything other than a schoolfriend. This awakening is well-handled and will engage the legions of young Potter fans, making them enthusiastic for episode five.
"Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone"
As a guy in his fifties who has never read a word of the Potter books, I felt that I needed an excuse to see this childrens film, so - together with five other adults - I accompanied nine year old Yonatan Lee to a Sunday morning showing on the opening weekend. It was a really fun atmosphere with lots of kids dressed up in pointed hats and coloured cloaks and they cheered when the movie started and applauded at the end.
British one-time primary school teacher Joanne Rowling has now sold some 120 million copies of the first four novels in her planned seven-part saga and apparently managed to ensure that the screen version of her first story stays really close to the book. Although the funding and the director - Chris Columbus of Home Alone are inevitably American, it was shot at classic locations in England and the cast is a wonderful roll call of British character actors and youthful newcomers. Twelve year old Daniel Radcliffe is simply perfect as Harry and the casting is consistently clever from 71 year old Richard Harris as the headmaster Dumbledore to Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie's alter ego.
Like Superman, Batman and Luke Skywalker, Harry is an orphan with exceptional powers, but his training ground the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is like no other and given magical form through some brilliant special effects, not least in the furious flying game of Quidditch. The pacing of the movie might have been better but, as a mere muggle (someone without special powers), I guess Im in no position to complain and the kids are going to love all two and a half hours.
Footnote: A couple of days after seeing the film, I caught a train from Platform 9B at Londons Kings Cross station and I was delighted to find the platform decked out with Harry Potter references: signs announcing Hogwarts Express 9 ¾ and warnings such as All owls must be caged.
"Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban"
For the third HP film, previous director Chris Columbus has stepped down to be simply co-producer and handed the directorial reigns to Mexican Alfonso Cuarón, until now best known for his comedy "Y Tu Mamá También". Otherwise the only change of personnel is Michael Gambon, replacing the deceased Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore, which he does exceptionally well. The main difference in this third instalment of the narrative is the tone: except for a humorous opening sequence, this movie is darker than the others and a little more complex in that characters are not always what they seem. Another (smaller but significant) difference is that, unless I'm imagining things, Hogwarts now has more black and Asian pupils.
As usual, Daniel Radcliffe is at the heart of the adventure as Harry himself and he is now well accomplished in the part. It is gratifying to see Emma Watson given a more assertive role as Hermione Granger, although this seems to be at the expense of Rupert Grint who - by comparison - looks rather wet as Ron Weasley. Cuarón has done well to follow Columbus' practice of making full use of a wonderful range of British character actors. All the 'old hands' are there, with Alan Rickman in characteristically fine form, but there are some splendid new performances including Emma Thompson, David Thewlis and an almost unrecognisable Gary Oldman (as the eponymous prisoner).
Harry Potter films are unlikely ever to win Oscars, but this one - like the previous two - is thoroughly entertaining and a visual treat with some new creatures such as the hippogriff Buckbeak. In the years to come, the challenge is going to be balancing the tricky timing of two more books and four more films with a young acting trio who are visibly aging at least as fast as their fictional counterparts. The franchise is now so valuable and so popular that all concerned will do what it takes.
Links for all "Harry Potter" films:
official web site click here
special report on Harry Potter click here
Question: how can a movie that stars such acting talent as Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbinder and Antonio Banderas be so disappointing? Answer: because the director Steven Soderbergh - another distinguished talent - has been mesmerised into centering his film entirely on someone with no acting experience and deploying a writer, the British-born Lem Dobbs (actually Anton Kitajlly), who has created an unoriginal narrative and limp lines.
I see why Soderbergh was impressed by Gina Carano who is an attractive martial arts expert, specialising in a form of kick-boxing called Muay Thai. The fight sequences are seriously impressive. But it was a mistake to give her such a major role so soon and not to find a script that made better use of the supporting actors and a stronger storyline. The bleached colours, odd music, and terrible ending don't help either.
It took me 18 years to catch up with this New Zealand film of 1994 by which time the director Peter Jackson and co-writers Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh had achieved spectacular success through "The Lord Of The Rings" trilogy and one of the two young actresses at the heart of the action, the British Kate Winslet in her début movie role, had starred in "Titantic" and much more.
The heavenly creatures of this true story are the teenage working class New Zealander Pauline, played by Melanie Lynskey, and her precocious British schoolfriend Juliet (Winslet). In the quiet world of Christchurch in 1953 & 1954, they form a bond of extraordinary intensity which leads ultimately to murderous intent. Jackson cleverly portrays the descent into a form of madness and uses text from the diary kept by Pauline in real life, while the two young actresses give astonishing performances that both impress and disturb.
Link: information on the actual case click here
Kathryn Stockett's book on which this film is based (originally turned down by 60 publishers) and co-writer and director Tate Taylor's movie itself have both been outstanding successes in the United States where this tale of prejudice and racism towards house maids in 1960s Mississippi has clearly resonated in a country which has moved on sufficiently to elect a black president but still exhibits discrimination against African-Americans in so many aspects of its society. It is unquestionably a worthy work, championing an underprivileged ethnicity, class and gender and providing a slew of challenging roles for female actors, both black (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) and white (Emma Stone, Allison Janney, Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain).But as a film it lacks a strong narrative drive and pacing, while the characterisations are one-dimensional with only Janney's character having any real nuance or complexity. And the book and film have been criticised for representing a white heroine as liberator of the black helps instead of suggesting that they were capable of self-empowerment. In spite of these weaknesses, this is a distinctive and well-made movie that has something to say and should be seen and taken to heart.
It's called "Her" but actually it's all about him - Theodore, a professional writer of personal letters for those who can't find the words to express their emotions, played by Joaquin Phoenix in a understated performance a million miles from his appearance in "Gladiator". Theodore is rarely off the screen and Phoenix does well to hold the movie for a full two hours.
There are three 'hers' in this original work, both written and directed by Spike Jonze. There is Catherine (Rooney Mara), his estranged wife who wants a divorce, Amy (Amy Adams), a neighbour who is having relationship problems of her own, and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson who is never seen), the voice of the newly-available operating system with whom Theodore falls in love.
At times, amusing, often moving, but ultimately desperately sad, the message of this movie is all too clear: however much we may love our technology (even Eve went for the Apple), it is no substitute for the love of a human being, in spite of the inevitable flaws in all of us.
One of the first films I remember seeing at the cinema was called "Hercules Unchained" and it starred the he-man of the time, Steve Reeves, in the eponymous role. That was in 1960 when I was only 12. For a long time, I had thought that the sword and sandals genre was dead, but then in 2000 "Gladiator" came along and revived it.
So now (2014) we have a fresh interpretation of Hercules with former wrestler Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson wielding a super-sized club and accompanied by a loyal, if mixed, band of five warriours, including the brutish Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) and the sexy archer Atlanta (Ingrid Bols Berdalø). This is a very modern representation of the classical Greek hero - a man post his great labours and traumatised by the death of his family, rather than a god with superhuman powers, but an avenger who is willing to have his nephew embellish his exploits to a mythic scale if only to scare the enemy.
Director Brett Ratner ("X-Men: Last Stand") gives us an old-fashioned action-adventure which does not take itself too seriously but provides plenty of conflict including three set-piece battles that deploy both hordes of stunt men and some effective CGI. So this is an undemanding but entertaining movie that does what it says on the tin.
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was marvellous and I loved it, but "Hero" is even better and I feel it is little short of a masterpiece. What makes it so is the brilliant combination of superlatives: fine acting and sharp dialogue; exciting fighting sequences and stunning scenery; evocative sound and music; and a breathtaking use of colour and composition. This is quite simply a triumph for Chinese director Zhang Yimou - and the budget was a mere $2 million.
The setting is the Qin kingdom in the 3rd century BC when modern-day China consisted of seven warring kingdoms. An astonishingly proficient warrior known only as Nameless (Jet Li) is brought to meet the Qin emperor (Daoming Chen) on the basis that he has managed to kill the emperor's three most formidable enemies: Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Chueng). The story unfolds in a formal structure involving a series of flashbacks, as Nameless explains to the emperor how he dispatched each foe, but we see the same conflicts in different versions as a result of successive plot twists. As each segment of the tale is told, Nameless moves closer to the solitary emperor - to what end, we can only speculate.
The movie looks sumptuous with magnificent natural settings (including Inner Mongolia) and balletic fight scenes in the rain and the trees, among banners and leaves, and even on water, while the different flashbacks are distinguished by the predominant colour of the scene and the characters' costumes: red (passion), blue (love), green (youth), white (truth), and finally black (death). The sound - whether horses thundering across the countryside, massed soldiers marching into position, swords clashing angrily or arrows winging impossible distances - is terrific, while the original music from Tan Dun (who scored "Crouching Tiger .."), with Kodo drummers from Japan, is wonderfully atmospheric. The cast is huge, but the speaking - using classical Chinese grammar but pronunciation in the Mandarin dialect - is confined to less than 10 characters. Besides the actors already named, we have the young and beautiful Zhang Ziyi - another link with "Crouching Tiger.." - as the servant girl Moon.
The plotting may be a little thin, but my only real reservation about the movie is political rather than artistic: the use of tyranny is defended on the grounds of nationalism. That apart, I cannot fault this utterly sensational work which for me is up there with such classics as "Lawrence Of Arabia" and "Gladiator".
Footnote: The second time that I saw this film was at London's National Film Theatre when it was introduced by the Director of Cinematography Christopher Doyle. He described it as "'Rashômon' in colour".
The 1960s was a weird time with lots of cultural experimentation. So, as a 20 year old in 1968, I went along to the Manchester Film Theatre to see this British independent avant-garde film with an open mind. I found it one of the strangest movies I'd seen but described it in my diary as "superb" and commented: "I would certainly like to see it again." Yet, for the next 40 years, the film was inaccessible and only in 2007 did the British Film Institute intervene to make it available once more. It took me another five years to rent it via Lovefilm. But, in all that time, the stunning imagery lived with me and in particular I was haunted by a scene towards the end in which a woman (Gabriella Licudi) sobs in despair.
Written and directed by Don Levy, it was the only full-length film he ever made and it is a long (142 minutes) and slow work distinguished by its innovativeness and opacity. The narrative is pretty minimal and therefore can be briefly stated: a very angry young man called Max (Michael Gothard) decides he has had enough of life and offers an advertising company the opportunity to exploit his public suicide. This explains the erudite title: Herostratus was an Ancient Greek arsonist who destroyed the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and his name has become a metonym for someone who commits a criminal act in order to become famous.
The film looks and sounds amateurish and indeed had a tiny budget (but took six years from conception to completion). However, clearly Levy wanted some of the dialogue to be hard to hear and some of the scenes to be difficult to watch. One of the most startling and memorable sequences inter cuts the dancing of a sexy woman with the butchering of a dead animal and one of the most inexplicable (but again memorable) images is of a parasol-carrying woman clad in black with a white face. This is a work full of odd interjections ranging from the voice of the elderly Malcom Muggeridge to a near-wordless burlesque by a very young Helen Mirren in her first film role. There are extracts from semi-contemporary newsreels scattered about the film which seem to be inviting us to question what kind of world we have created.
Seeing "Herostratus" after such a long interval and at the more mature age of 66, I found that I was less tolerant of the pretentiousness of the whole thing but still captivated by the bewildering images. Also I was disturbed to read after the viewing that both the director and the lead actor subsequently committed suicide.
Link: an analysis of the film click here
Typically a French film will feature a beautiful actress like Juliette Binoche, a well-known actor like Daniel Auteuil, some eating and drinking, a slow narrative and obscure plotting. In all these respects, "Hidden" is a typical Gallic movie. What makes this work - both written and directed by the Austrian Michael Haneke - different is that there are some shocking scenes - but very brief and unexpected - and the meaning is utterly opaque. This suggests that the film is either brilliantly original and thought-provoking or deliberately unintelligible and overly pretentious. I incline to the later interpretation.
This might have worked well on the page (it is based on Nick Hornby's London-set novel), but it is rather tiresome on the screen where the location is switched to Chicago. John Cusack - an actor I admire - narrates frequently to camera ("Alfie"- style) as an obsessive record-shop owner, endlessly compiling top five lists and sadly revisiting previous girlfriends. All the female characters - led by Iben Hjejle - are so much more normal, sensitive and likeable than the pathetic men in this irritating movie.
"The History Boys"
The Alan Bennett play was first produced in May 2004 and released as a film in 2007, directed by Nicholas Hytner who did such a fine job with directing the stage version. I saw the play on stage in December 2006 so I came to it rather late and following many rave reviews. This very successful film version is faithful to Bennett's marvellous script but effectively opens up the locations to take us beyond the classroom to shots of Halifax and Fountains Abbey.
While this is a courageous portrayal of the boys' anarchic and ambivalent attitude to homosexuality and teachers' efforts to struggle with their repression, for me essentially this is a work about teaching, especially of history. Now I always loved history at school and, to this day, remember my history teacher: a short, strict man called Mr Mallon who was rumoured to have a black belt in karate. However, I had to give up history at age 15. Nevertheless I continue to read history books and to blog about history, so "The History Boys" was personally fascinating on many levels.
At the core of this marvellous play with its wonderful one-liners, perceptive dialogue, erudite cultural references and sense of loneliness, there are three very different approaches to teaching.
Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour) puts a special emphasis on remembering facts and provides what is frequently refered to as a good foundation in history which virtually guarantees that one will pass the exam with high marks. Mr Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) believes that, if one is to gain a place at Oxford or Cambridge University, one has to have an original angle, such as reversing the established view or explanation and then using the same facts to argue the counter-intuitive version of events - a kind of subjunctive view of history. Then there is Mr Hector (an exceptional performance by Richard Griffiths), an idiosyncratic teacher, who conveys a love of poetry, not for exams but for life, with the simple intention just to "pass it on".
In truth, there is a lot to be said for each of these approaches. One needs a factual structure for a subject like history - it is not an accident that the Second World War followed the First World War. But it is good to challenge the conventional analysis because, even if one returns to it, one will understand it better. Yet ultimately learning is not about memorising facts or playing with interpretations, it is about emotions and values and understanding life. All this is in Bennett's rich work which he has described as "both a confession and an expiation".
"The History Of Mr Polly"
This is a 'golden oldie' for which I have a particular affection because I studied the 1910 novel by H.G. Wells when I was a teenager at school and first saw the film adaptation in 1963. Director Anthony Pelissier also wrote the screenplay and caught well the language of the novel, imbuing it with much light humour. John Mills is ideal as the eponymous shopkeeper, while one of his daughters Juliet plays the young girl called Polly.
The message of the book, reflected in the film, is:
"When a man has once broken through the paper walls of everyday circumstance, those unsubstantial walls that hold so many of us securely prisoned from the cradle to the grave, he has made a discovery. If the world does not please you, you can change it. Determine to alter it at any price, and you can change it altogether. You may change it into something sinister and angry, to something appalling, but it may be you will change it to something brighter, more agreeable, and at the worst something much more interesting."
This is an ideal date movie because, if you're just starting a relationship, you're bound to be able to identify with some features of at least one of the four central characters. First up, there's the date doctor, Alex 'Hitch' Hitchens (the cute Will Smith), who has lots of sound advice on how a man should woo a woman, but manages to strike some wrong notes when he himself attempts to romance cynical newspaper columnist Sara (Eva Mendes). Then there's gauche but kind-hearted accountant Albert (weighty Kevin James) who is advised by Hitch on his seemingly-impossible quest to make it with poor little rich girl Allegra Cole (model Amber Valletta). Does it work out for our two couples? Heh, this is a rom-com from Hollywood, so all bets are safe, but a better than average script from Kevin Bisch provides lots of verbal and visual gags that made even this long-married romantic smile.
"The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy"
I didn't hear it on the radio, I didn't see it on the television, and I've never read the book but, as a lover of most movie genres, I gave it a go at the cinema - and rather wish that I hadn't bothered. Martin Freeman is perfectly cast as the bewildered Arthur Dent, the Vogons are well executed by the Jim Henson Creature Shop, and there are some fun ideas like the Babel Fish, but the whole thing looks and sounds so silly and surreal that it left me unmoved. The narrative is really weak and the purpose utterly obscure - and it's all far too male for me.
Written, produced and directed by Nancy Meyers ("Something's Gotta Give" & "What Women Want"), this is a chic-flic that has had variable reviews, but is really rather engaging if utterly predictable. The premise is that two women who have recently suffered broken relationships exchange homes over Christmas in order to escape men and get over the hurt only to find ... you guessed.
What gives the narrative a bit more bite is that the two women are from opposite sides of the Atlantic, so we see American high-flier and trailer-maker Amanda (Cameron Diaz) struggling with the wilds of rural Surrey in England, while the more self-effacing correspondent on Britain's "Daily Teelgraph" newspaper Iris (Kate Winslet who - get it - played the young Iris Murdoch in an earlier bio-pic) gets to live in a swanky house in warmer but windier Los Angeles. Amanda comes across Iris's brother Graham (Jude Law in a rare comedic outing), while Iris finds herself spending time with film composer Miles (an oddly-cast Jack Black).
What I liked about the parallel stories was their asymmetry: one involves lots of sex (although one bed scene sees the bra staying firmly on), while the other involves none; one includes a friendship with an octogenarian who has lost contact with much of the world, while the other features two (overly) cute little girls. Among these support roles, there is a wonderful performance from 91 year old Eli Wallach ("The Magnificent Seven" and 150 other screen appearances) who portrays a long-retired screenwriter who introduces Iris and Miles to the films of Hollywood's golden age.
In fact, it is clear that Meyers loves watching movies as well as making them because the dialogue is studded with references and allusions to various films whether it is the feisty performances of Barbara Stanwyck or the exotic soundtrack for "The Mission" or Dustin Hoffman's role in "The Graduate". Given this reverence for movie-making, Myers could have thought of a cleverer title for this fetching if somewhat false piece of escapism - something like "Love Internationally".
"Hope Springs" (2003)
No doubt the Touchstone studio executives had great faith in a romantic comedy set in a rural community called Hope, but no amount of charity can avoid the conclusion that this is a disappointing dud. The familiar love triangle involves three engaging enough stars: Colin Firth trying to give an impression of Hugh Grant, a cute but kookie Heather Graham, and a sassy but smoking Minnie Driver. The problem is that, although based on a novel called "New Cardiff" by Charles Webb" (who wrote "The Graduate"), it is trite and predictable and quite simply not that funny. In this case, hope springs infernal.
"Hope Springs" (2012)
It's a clever title, which works both as a place name and a short sentence, but it has been used before (2003) and Great Hope Springs, Maine does not actualy exist (many of the exterior shots in done in Stonington, Connecticut). The movie centres on a middleclass couple who have been married for 31 years, with the partners taking a very different view on how well the relationships is working so far down the line. Arnold, the accountant (played in best irascible style by Tommy Lee Jones), is happy enough - or so he pretends - as long as food is on the table and golf is on the television. But Fay - Meryl Streep in another brilliantly nuanced role - misses the former intimacy and craves for some honest communication.
In what is supposed to be a week of intensive counselling, Dr Bernard Feld - an excellent Steve Carell in an unusually non-comic role - tries to discover what is going on and how it can be put right. As someone who has also been married for 31 year (but thankfully is in a much happier place than Arnold and Fay). I can empathise with the couple and the exposition of their problems is painfully acute if often very funny. What lets the film down is the sudden resolution of the breakdown which (sadly) is simply not credible.
Nevertheless, it's good to see moviemakers realise that older people enjoy love and sex as well and therefore there is a market for films which embrace this, as we've seen with such recent works as "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" and "It's Complicated" (also starring Meryl Streep who is managing the difficult challenge for an older actress of finding decent parts that reflect both her age and talent).
Director Edgar Wright and actor Simon Pegg had a hit with the 2004 rom-zom-com "Shaun Of The Dead" and team up again here in a pastiche of American police action movies that they jointly scripted. It's all terribly self-indulgent: it is shot in Wright's home town of Wells in Somerset, Pegg's long-time friend and "Shaun" co-star Nick Frost is back as support, and even the name of the Pegg character (Nicholas Angel) is borrowed from the film's music supervisor, while there are constant references to everything from "Bad Boys" to Point Break". But it is terrific fun and the incredibly fast editing, sharp dialogue and final explosive action sequences keep you entertained throughout.
Like most ethnic conflicts around the world, the divisions in Rwanda between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis have long antecedents, in this case the invasion of the Rwanda highlands by the Tutsis from Ethiopia in the 15th century. However, it was Belgium - who ruled the country under a UN mandate from 1918 to 1961 - who institutionalised the discrimination by favouring Tutsis and introducing identity cards which specified the holders ethnic group. The spark which lit the tinder was the shooting down of the aircraft carrying the Hutu President on 6 April 1994. In the next 100 days, there was a ferocious outbreak of genocide orchestrated by the Interahamwe militia and sanctioned by the Hutu government in which around 800,000 mostly Tutsis were massacred while the world community failed to intervene. A decade later, a kind of collective guilt sees the release of no less than four films about these events, the most high profile being "Hotel Rwanda" which garnered three Academy Award nominations.
Portraying death on this scale in a work of 'entertainment' almost demands that we observe the savagery through the prism of selected individuals and, in this case, Irish writer and director Terry George has chosen to use the real-life experience of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina and his family. Rwanda is often called 'Le pays des Milles Collines' (the Land of a Thousand Hills) and Paul worked at the Sabena-owned Hotel des Mille Collines, a four-star establishment in the capital of Kigali. A well-educated Hutu, he was married to a Tutsi and had three young children, so he was geographically and ethnically at the heart of the madness. Like a kind of Oskar Schindler, he used a mixture of simple bribery and his sharp wits, together with charm and even obsequiousness, to create a haven in the horror that enabled 1,268 mainly Tutsis to survive.
American actor Don Cheadle, who played a cockney fool in "Ocean's Eleven" & "Ocean's Twelve", gives a powerful and textured performance here which marks him out as someone who is going to become an A-list star, while able British actress Sophie Okonedo is his wife Tatiana (Tutsis are lighter-skinned and finer-featured), and it is such a change to see the leading roles in a movie taken by black actors. The fear and powerlessness of the hotel occupants - over a thousand men, women and children crammed into a 113-room establishment - is well created and sustained. The settings are very realistic, being largely shot in Johannesburg, and most of the technical and support crew were African. The focus of the action is the hotel itself and the violence is deliberately understated and left largely to the imagination.
While one does not wish to see killing portrayed gratuitously, this artistic decision runs the risk that a largely ignorant western audience fails to appreciate the true nature and scale of this machete-fuelled rampage of rape and murder but, this reservation aside, "Hotel Rwanda" is an important and worthy work that should serve as a political warning of the price of international inaction in the face of ethnic conflict. Paul Rusesabagina, now lives in Belgium with his family, and recently told the US "People" magazine: "What happened in Rwanada is now happening in Darfur, in the Congo, in all of these places they are butchering innocent civilians. It is high time we know that a human life in Africa is as important as a human life in the west."
Link: Paul Rusesabagina click here
Three women in three times living through just one day are linked by the same novel and the same dilemma in this hugely ambitious, but brilliantly executed, work based on Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize winning novel [for review click here] with a script from David Hare. In 1932, Virginia Woolf is starting to craft a new book in her home on the edge of London; in 1951, housewife and mother Laura Brown is trying to find purpose in the suburbs of Los Angeles; while in 2001 New Yorker Clarissa Vaughan wants to celebrate the success of a poet who was once her lover. The linking novel is "Mrs Dalloway" [for review click here], which Virginia wrote and Laura reads and after whom Clarissa is affectionately named by her one-time lover.
There are so many connections between these seemingly disparate lives. There is literature - Virginia is the author, Laura is the reader, while Clarissa is an editor. There is a party - Mrs Dalloway and Clarissa are both preparing one, while Virginia is readying for lunch with her sister and Laura is baking a birthday cake for her husband. There are Sapphic kisses - at some point, each of the three main characters bestows one on a friend or a sister or a lover. There is suicide - both contemplation and realisation. And the dilemma? Each of the central trio is struggling with her alienation from family and friends and endeavouring to find meaning in life or -failing that - death.
A female friend with whom I saw the movie dubbed it "Three Women In Search Of A Razor Blade" and certainly it is a thoughtful, heavy, even depressing work. But rarely has one seen such a stellar cast give so many superlative performances. With a prosthetic nose and English accent, Nicole Kidman is barely recognisable in her wonderful creation of Virginia Woolf; Julianne Moore goes from strength to strength in her acting career and here portrays the inner torment of Laura Brown; and Meryl Streep confirms her reputation as the finest actress of her generation with a compelling performance as Clarissa Vaughan.
But other actresses seize their opportunities too: Miranda Richardson as Virginia's sister, Toni Colette as Laura's friend, Allison Janney as Clarissa's lover, and Claire Danes as Clarissa's daughter. The men make the most of some challenging roles as well: Stephen Dillane as Virginia's husband, John C Reilly as Laura's husband, and Ed Harris and Jeff Daniels as Clarissa's literary friends.
Even the music - a relentless score from Philip Glass - is something special. But the ultimate triumph is that of British director Stephen Daldry who rises above his earlier success of "Billy Elliot" to present us with a stunning film that understandably garnered no less than nine Academy Award nominations.
Link: official web site click here
"House Of Flying Daggers"
In "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome", Tina Turner sang: "We don't need another hero". But, if the heroic reference is to Chinese cinema, another "Hero" can only be welcomed. The comparison between ".. Daggers" and "Hero" is inevitable - they have the same director (Zhang Yimou), the same genre (wuxia), essentially the same setting (historic China), and even one of the same stars (Zhang Ziyi). Again we have quite brilliant and breathtaking use of colours, composition and costumes, although here the colour-coding is not quite so obvious as in "Hero". Again we have stunning fight sequences in wonderful settings, this time in the Peony Palace brothel (an outstanding sequence), a leafy forest, a shimmering wheat field, a bamboo forest (aerial combat), and an open plain where autumn turns to winter. There is more narrative than in "Hero" and indeed the plotting is quite convoluted, as each of the motivations of the protagonists change and the love triangle swings from one character to another. The only weakness in another triumph from Zhang is the last fight sequence which is surreal, even operatic, in its endlessness and had some of the audience laughing.
The House of Flying Daggers is not a place but a movement, an opposition force to the totalitarian regime in power in China in AD 859. Two colleagues and friends, Leo (Hong Kong mega star Andy Lau) and Jin (relative newcomer Takeshi Kaneshiro), set a plot for the blind daughter of the former leader of the gang, the enchanting Mei (played by Zhang Ziyi who was introduced to Western audiences in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"). Nothing quite goes to plan and no one is quite whom they seem in a movie sometimes reminiscent of the Hong Kong thriller "Infernal Affairs" (which incidentally also starred Andy Lau). The brilliant direction of Zhang Yimou, who started his career as a cinematographer, brings to mind the celebrated British director David Lean. I believe that Lean was better at characterisation, but Zhang's use of colour and composition is superlative. Zhang was a victim of the Cultural Revolution and wants to make a series of films exploring that troubled time. This is not possible in the current political climate of China, but suggests that Zhang's greatest work may yet be to come.
Link: official web site click here
"The House I Live In"
Until recently, the drug problem has been seen by many Americans as a black and brown issue and the strong emphasis on enforcement measures, with a growing use of mandatory minimum sentences, has led to a swollen ethnic prison population that, for many whites, has swept the problem off the streets and out of sight. But the availability of different drugs and the loss of manufacturing jobs has led to more white, working class men being caught up in this destruction of both personalities and communities. So, at its core, this is not an issue of ethnicity but one of poverty.
The film argues that the policies of the last four decades have failed and need to be fundamentally rethought. Drug use should be considered as less an issue of criminal justice and more a matter of public health. Many drug users are not evil or selfish but victims of poverty and deprivation who are trying to find some income where there is little employment and some solace when life is so miserable.
This is a stunning documentary that raises profound issues – and not just for Americans. It will not be an easy film to see at the cinema, so catch it on television (as I did) or buy or rent it.
"How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days"
Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson - both cute enough to look at - star in this utterly predictable, utterly fatuous romantic comedy.
"How To Train Your Dragon 2"
As a man in his sixties, I have no knowledge of the source material - the children's novels of Cressida Cowell - and had no reason see the original movie. When the sequel appeared at cinemas, however, I had charge for a couple of days of two youngsters in the family, a girl of eight and a boy of six who had seen and loved the first film. Before we entered the theatre, they explainned to me about the young viking Hiccup who had lost his left foot and his faithful dragon Toothless who had his own disability, but I was not prepared for the sheer verve and colour of this delightful visit to the land of Berk and beyond.
I have seen most of the films of talented, Taiwan-born director Ang Lee and an eclectic mix of genres they represent: following his Mandarin-language 'father knows best' trilogy, we've had English costume drama "Sense And Sensibility", middle class family angst work "The Ice Storm", American civil war drama "Ride With The Devil" and - my favourite - kung fu movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". Now surprisingly he has turned his hand to comic strip character and the result is a disappointment that one critic dubbed "grouching tiger, grumpy dragon".
Lee is obsessed with the father/son relationship, so this is an attempt to re-interpret the 1962 Marvel Comics strip and the 1970s television series into a psychological drama in which the green monster is a personification of Freud's id, while endeavouring to capture the original comic strip format in a series of split-screen episodes. However, sadly it fails on too many levels. The first hour is simply too slow and dull; much of the dialogue is hackneyed or techno-babble; in many of the scenes of conflict, one cannot actually see what is going on and, when one can, it looks silly; above all, this 15-foot, computer-generated, jumping giant is neither life-like nor that frightening.
Eric Bana ("Black Hawk Down"), as scientist Bruce Banner, and Jennifer Connelly ("A Beautiful Mind"), once again loyal partner to someone brilliant but deranged, are capable of better, while Nick Nolte and Sam Elliot - playing the respective fathers - have the kind of gravelly voices that increasingly irritate. Please don't even think of a sequel.
Link: book and film versions click here
"The Hunger Games"
Following the "Potter" and "Twilight" transpositions of a series of young adult novels into a sequence of money-spinning movies, the gap in the market has surely been filled by "The Hunger Games", the first of three books from Suzanne Collins and the first of four films planned for the new franchise.
Set in the near future in a land once called North America and now named Panem, the games are an excessively grandiose and violent version of reality television in which 12 impoverished Districts are required annually to select at random one boy and one girl aged 12 to 18 who will fight to the death, leaving only one survivor, simply for the entertainment of the pampered citizens of the Capitol. There are many other films that have deployed a similar theme, the one that comes most to my mind being "Rollerball" in 1975, but this version is created with panache and appeal with a mix of splendid sets, outrageous costumes, sustained tension, and a (barely) sufficient degree of violence.
At the heart of the novel and the movie is the selfless, brave and resourceful 16 year old Katniss Everdeen - the first name comes from a plant and the second from a character in a Thomas Hardy book. She is wonderfully acted by Jennifer Lawrence who was so brilliant in "Winter's Bone" and is clearly set for stardom. Josh Hutcherson is winsome enough as Peeta, the other District 12 "tribute", and there are some colourful adult support roles from the likes of Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci.
For me as an adult viewer, the only real problem was the violence - or lack of it. In order to secure a PG13 rating in the US and a 12A rating in the UK and enable the age group at which the book is aimed to see the movie, the amount of gore had to be contained, but this takes the edge off what should be a horrific set of encounters and certainly "Rollerball" hit much, much harder on this score.
"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"
"The Hunger Games" can be compared to "His Dark Materials' - two novel trilogies that I have read and enjoyed immensely. Both were written for young adults but have crossed over into popularity with a general readership. Both are set in a world related to ours, but profoundly different, and feature a resourceful female protagonist. But, whereas (sadly) the attempt to film "His Dark Materials" started and finished with the opening novel ("The Golden Compass"), it was always clear that the movie adaptation of "The Hunger Games" was - like the "Twilight" series - going to go all the way. In fact, "The Hunger Games" films are making far more money at the box office than "Twilight" because - in my view - the themes are much more realistic and the central actress, Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, is so accomplished.
The author of the novels Suzanne Collins continues to act as an executive producer and is ensuring that the films are faithful to the books and, as long as she and Lawrence stick with the series, it can only grow and grow. In fact, since the first movie Lawrence - like the heroine she portrays - has become bigger than the Games, as she has now won a well-deserved Academy Award for "Silver Linings Playbook". Meanwhile "Catching Fire" had twice the budget of the original film and the result is superior production values.
In this very satisfying sequel, it is a year on from the opening salvo: Katniss and her co-victor (the rather weak Josh Hutcherson as Peeta) have to go on the Victory Tour, where they find rebellion is in the air, before finding themselves sucked back into the arena as a result of a particularly cruel Quarter Quell which requires all this year's Games contestants to be drawn from previous winners. There is a new Games master (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) and new murderous challenges in the gladiatorial battlefield. And, at the end of it all (almost two and a half hours later), the final line of dialogue is identical to that of the book and sets us up brilliantly for Part 3A.
"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1"
The official title of this movie is so long that I prefer to use the abbreviation "HG3A". As seems to be the pattern these days with the last novel in a series transposed onto the screen, "Mockingjay" has been turned into two works and inevitably therefore the film has a sense of being incomplete and the final sequence brings to mind the scene at the conclusion of "The Empire Strikes Back". So "HG3A" would not really work as a stand-alone movie but, if you saw and enjoyed the first two films (as I did), then you will find this third segment more than satisfying and long for the arrivel of the fourth and final episode.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has now been rescued from the Quarter Quell games by the rebels located underground in District 13, while Katniss's own District 12 has been razed to the ground by the totalitarian forces of the Capitol. The leader of the insurgents, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and the former Games master Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) want to turn the young heroine into the black-clad, weapon-wheeling poster girl of the revolution in an act of manipulation that evokes both 20th century Nazis and Communists. Indeed part of the appeal of "HG3A" is that so many characters, including Katniss herself, are complicated and conflicted.
At the heart of the franchise's great success remains the brilliant and appealing Lawrence. Just as her character Katniss has developed in confidence and authority in Panem, so Lawrence herself, over the three years of the franchise so far, has become ever more successful as an actress and, like the Mockingjay, has become a genuine celebrity.
I'm one of the few cinemagoers who sit through all the credits and, in the case of this lengthy exposition, we have a dedication to the late great Hoffman, a reprise of Lawrence's evocative version of "The Hanging Tree", and - at the very, very end - a mockingjay on fire. Meanwhile, off the screeen and in the real world, it is striking that the military coup leaders in Thailand have banned a showing of the film because opponents of the regime are using the film as a rallying focus for their cause. Truly the Mockingjay is a revolutionary character.
"The Hurt Locker"
This is an unusual film in a number of respects: an action movie directed by a woman, Kathryn Bigelow's first work for five years, a war movie that is non-judgmental, and a story with no real narrative arc but instead a series of more-or-less stand-alone sequences. The location is in and around Bagdad (although it was shot in Jordan) in the early part of the US occupation of Iraq (2004) and the focus is entirely on a three-man bomb disposal team: its thrill-seeking leader Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremey Renner), experienced African-American J T Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and young Specialist Owen Eldridge.
In an interview with the "Guardian" newspaper, a former bomb disposal officer with Britain's Royal Engineers commented: "This film appalled me" and "The fundamental stupidity is just staggering" - so I guess it lacks something in authenticity. But, as a movie, it works incredibly well with from the opening seconds an involved style of cinematography and such sustained tension that at the end one leaves the cinema feeling emotionally drained.
"I Am Legend"
The 1954 sci-fi/vampire novel "I Am Legend" by Richard Matheson has now been filmed three times: as "The Last Man On Earth" in 1964 originally scripted by Matheson himself (which I have never seen), as "The Omega Man" in 1971 without the vampire elements (which I have viewed three times), and now with the original title and expensive sets and special effects. This time the seemingly sole survivor of the worldwide pandemic Robert Neville is played by Will Smith who is an actor with real charisma and charm and considerable box office appeal who has beefed himself up for the role.
The main strength of this version is the location shots in a deserted New York City (a move from the Los Angeles of the book and earlier films) and, although the filming of these scenes apparently caused traffic chaos and much anger for local residents, they chillingly set the tone for this dystopian thriller. To see the silent streets around Times Square or South Street Seaport or the lone scientist fishing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art or playing golf on the "USS Intrepid" is to view this heaving metropolis as we have never experienced it before. The German shepherd dog who is Neville's sole companion deserves an honourable mention for showing greater thespian skills than most of the extras and stunt men.
The principal weakness of the movie, however, is the realisation of the surviving victims of the virus. The CGI characters are almost as silly as they are scary but, above all, they are presented as more animalistic than human. "The Omega Man" handled these characters much better presenting them as sad as well as scary. The other serious fault is the lack of clarity in the narrative - at times, it is simply unclear what is happening and why and a longer director's cut would be welcome. Finally the references to Ground Zero and God may play well with American audiences but will not be so resonant to audiences elsewhere in the world.
"I Give It A Year"
The rom-com is such a commonplace genre that one has to work hard to come up with a new angle and this one is certainly more com than rom, starting where many finish with the marriage and then - like "Hope Springs" - examining how a partner's personality and habits can really irritate and annoy. At least the American couple in "Hope Springs" had given it a good shot and reached their 60s together but, as the title suggests, in this film it's downhill from the start and marriage is often represented as not so much a word as a sentence.
Written and directed by Londoner Dan Mazer and set in his (and my) home city, the English couple in question are portrayed by Rafe Spall and Rose Byrne (actually an Australian although many people think she is American because of the likes of "Bridesmaids") and their relationship is challenged by two Americans played by Simon Baker (actually another Australian) and Anna Faris, while some of the crudest lines are delivered by Stephen Merchant of "The Office" fame. This is a movie with lots of chuckles but few laugh-out-loud moments that reminds us that sadly marriage is not always love actually.
"The Ides Of March"
In one sense, this is George Clooney's film and I have been a fan of his since forever. Not only does he direct (his fourth such outing), he is co-producer and co-writer as well as taking a lead role as the charismatic and liberal contender to win the Democratic nomination for the White House. In another sense, this is Ryan Gosling's movie and I've been impressed by him since "Blue Valentine" and especially "Drive". He is the face we see first and last in this story and he plays the pivotal character, the idealistic press officer to the candidate. But there is even more acting talent on display, notably Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti who are both terrific as heads of campaign for rival Democratic candidates in the key primary of Ohio in the melting snows of March.
What attracted such a stellar cast and gives them such a vehicle to shine is a sharp script, based on a play by co-writer Beau Willimon who was himself once a key aide to a political candidate (Howard Dean). The play was called "Farragut North" which is the nearest metro station in Washington DC to the hub of lobbyist organisations in the capital. For an international audience, "The Ides Of March" works better as a title, giving us not just a calendar reference but a clear indication that we are going to experience more than one act of betrayal.
This is no cinematic equivalent of "The West Wing", my all-time favourite television series. The small-screen team may have fallen short and even messed up on occasions but were fundamentally decent and honourable political operatives. In the more cynical "The Ides Of March", everyone is compelled sooner or later to make compromises which represent an abandonment of principles. The plot details do not bear too much post-viewing analysis, but this is an intelligent and serious work that captures some of the flavour of American political campaigning and the pressures to sacrifice means for ends faced by decision-makers everywhere. "If Only"
I have a soft spot for romantic comedies and this one has the added advantages of being set in my own city of London with scenes from the Notting Hill carnival - and featuring the delightful British actress Lena Headey and the delectable Spanish actress Penélope Cruz (in her first English-speaking role). Like "Sliding Doors" which came out about the same time and is set in the same city, it centres on a double scenario in the love stakes, but bug-eyed Glaswegian Douglas Henshall does not have the charm of fellow Scot John Hannah and the tone of this movie is altogether sharper. Watch out for "If Only" appearing under other titles including "The Man With Rain In His Shoes" and "Twice Upon A Yesterday".
Adapted from a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Steven Millhauser, this is the kind of accomplished and classily-shot but understated movie that I suspect more people will see on DVD and television than at the cinema. Essentially it is a passionate love story, set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the late 19th century, between the eponymous magic man Eisenhaum (Edward Norton) and the beautiful and aristocratic Sophie (Jessica Biel). Attempting to block such a union is the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and his intelligent police inspector Uhl (an able performance from Paul Giamatti).
The illusions are integral to both the look and narrative of the film and the great illusionist Ricky Jay was technical adviser on the work by director Neil Burger, as he was on the recently-released movie "The Prestige" (directed by Christopher Nolan). Since I know the Czech Republic so well, I was almost distracted by the wonderful locations of Prague, Tábor and Ceský Krumlov, while Dick Pope obtained an Academy Award nomination for his wonderful cinematography. Meanwhile the score from Philip Glass, while not as compelling as that for "The Hours" is not as intrusive as that for "Notes On A Scandal".
"The Imitation Game"
What makes this such an exceptional film is the combination of a compelling narrative with an outstanding central performance. It is the true story of how the brilliant but eccentric British mathematics genius Alan Turing led a small, but exceptionally talented. team that managed to break the Germans' Enigma code which shortened the Second World War by years. Benedict Cumberbatch gives a wonderfully nuanced display as the reclusive and tortured scientist. A very creditable showing by Keira Kinighley should be acknowledged and Charles Dance and Mark Strong are always spot on.
Norwegian director Morten Tyldum and American writer Graham Moore eschew straightline plotting, deploying three alternating timelines: Turing's time as a desperately lonely child at boarding school, his wartime service in Hut 8 at the top secret Bletchley Park decoding centre, and his post-war arrest for an act of "gross indecency" with another man. It seems amazing now that the British state could have convicted, and arguably sent to his death, someone who made such a phenomenal contribution to the defeat of Hitler.
This is a film which, important though it is for reviving the reputation of an unlikely war hero who for so long was forgotten or maligned, speaks to us today, both because of our (fortunately) very different attitude to homosexuality now and of contemporary developments in computing and artificial intelligence/
On Christmas Day 2004, foreign tourists from around the world were enjoying the sun and sea in Thailand resorts; the next day, they were overwhelmed by a tsunami that killed around a quarter of a million people in no less than 14 countries. There is really only one way to tell such a story on film and that is to reduce the gigantic horror to one family so that an audience can make a personal connection. So we are presented with a British family of five: father Henry (Ewan McGregor), mother Maria (Naomi Watts), and their three sons, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Predergast).Not too much time is spent setting the scene and introducing the characters before we are hit by the tsunami, a brilliant and scary realisation of a force of nature that can barely be comprehended. The narrative is then split in two as Maria and Lucas are swept many miles inland and Henry and the two youngest boys have no idea if the others have survived. Never lapsing into over-sentimentality or histrionics, the portrayal of survival against the odds is presented in an emotionally powerful and convincing manner that makes this always compelling and at times a hard film to watch. McGregor is excellent as the distraught husband, especially in a traumatic scene when he has to talk on a mobile to his father-in-law at home. But this is Naomi Watts' movie - she is brilliant and her wonderful performance won her an Academy Award nomination. Holland shows promise in the role of eldest son. And watch out for a cameo from Geraldine Chaplin. Although the opening of the film explains that it is based on a true story, only at the beginning of the credits do we learn that the family in question is Spanish. The full story of María Belón is not told in the film since, after leaving Thailand, she had to spend 14 months in hospitals in Singapore and Spain. So this is - in spite of being shot entirely in English - a Spanish work: director (Juan Antonio Bayona), writer (Sergio G. Sánchez), and crew are all Spanish and, as well as filming at the actual Thailand resort, most of the shooting was in Spain. In some ways, it is sad that a film about a tsunami that largely killed Asian citizens has to feature a European family and that even the family whose story has been chosen has to be English-speaking, but this is the reality of commercial moviemaking if one wants a film that will acquire funding and be seen around the world. At least, the first names of all the family members are simply English versions of the real Spanish names and many of the details of the film family - such as their living in Japan and Maria being a doctor - are true to life. Interestingly, at the time the film was released, the oldest two Spanish boys were studying in Britain.
A European city of culture and canals popular with tourists; a dwarf mistaken for a child; and murder. Since 1973, this would have spelled "Don't Look Now", the chilling thriller set in Venice. But now the same ingredients could describe "In Bruges" filmed almost entirely in the Fleming Gothic wonder. Yet the two movies could hardly be more different.
Although set in Belgium with two Irish leads (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) and French and Dutch female support actors, In Bruges" is a very British film - written and directed by South Londoner Martin McDonagh and centred on the consequences of contract killing. Like other British gangster movies - such as "Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels" (1998) or "Layer Cake" (2004), there's tough language, drugs and violence but all leavened with black humour and some great lines.
The subject matter of some films is so serious that it makes it difficult to assess the work in purely cinematic terms. This is especially true of real-life events that raise moral issues and there can be no bigger instance than that of the Holocaust which is every second of "In Darkness". It tells a story that would be literally incredible if it was not true: how a dissolute Polish sewer worker called Leopold Socha saved the lives of 10 Jews by hiding them underground for 13 months. This happened in what was during the Second World War the Polish town of Lwów and today is the Ukrainian town of Lviv. In 1978, Socha and his wife were awarded the title "Righteous among the Nations" by Yad Vashem in Israel.
The film is the work of Polish female director Agnieszka Holland and it is a Polish, German and Canadian co-production with a screenplay by Canadian writer David F. Shamoon. In any country, the film will have some subtitles, because the dialogue involves Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish and German, and of course in English-speaking nations the whole thing is sub-titled which will limit its appeal to many, but it really is a work worth watching. Holland effectively conveys the paralysing fear and utter squalor of life in the sewers and Robert Wieckiewicz as Socha - like the other actors - shows how the unbearable stresses of such situations make people behave in ways, both good and bad, which are out of character.
Director Holland's father was Jewish and both his parents died in the Warsaw ghetto. At the time she was shooting the film, she believed that all the Jews who had survived in the sewers were dead but, before the work was released, she found that there was was still a living survivor, Krystyna Chiger. When Chiger was shown a rough cut of the film, she declared that it was "very, very realstic and accurate".
"In Darkness" does not have the narrative drive and clear characterisation of "Schindler's List" but, like Spielberg's film, it is powerful moviemaking and heart-wrenching storytelling.Link: the story of Leopold Socha click here
"In Her Shoes"
My wife and I went along to this film thinking that it was a romantic comedy. It does have romance and it does have comedy, but it has more serious aspirations as an examination of the tensions and trials of sibling rivalry between two American sisters in their early 30s. As such, this is essentially a chick flick movie for older girls and sensitive guys. Based on the best-selling novel by Jennifer Weiner, it deals with some tough issues of betrayal and hurt, but ultimately has too neat and sweet a finale to hit the mark or the heart.
The real strength of the movie is the quality acting. The two sisters at the centre of the narrative are played by Toni Collette, as the older sibling Rose, a rather plain-looking, hard-working lawyer who buys very expensive shoes to relieve her misery, and Cameron Diaz, as the wanton, selfish but very attractive and promiscuous Maggie who would love to fill those shoes in more ways than one. Since her arrival in "Muriel's Wedding", Collette has continued to impress, while Diaz repeatedly shows that she is more than just a pretty face and slim body. Also there is some excellent support work by a number of elderly actors, most notably a finely nuanced performance from the veteran Shirley Maclaine.
"In The Cut"
Whatever happened to Meg Ryan? Like so many pretty actresses who achieve film success in their 20s and 30s, she was unable to extend her cinematic career into later life. After a minor role in "Top Gun", for a time, she was cuteness personified in a string of hit movies such as "When Harry Met Sally", "Sleepless In Seattle" and "You've Got Mail", although she showed that she could take on more serious roles in such films as "Courage Under Fire" and "Proof Of Life". Nothing in her earlier career, however, compared to her dramatically different role in "In The Cut" released in 2003 when she was 41. Although we did not know it at the time, effectively this strange choice marked the end of her movie career.
But was it the role that concluded the career or it the other way round? Maybe, having decided she wanted out, she chose to make her exit via a characterisation that could hardly have been further from the roles for which she was best known and widely adored. There were signs that something was awry when Ryan appeared on British television to talk to Michael Parkinson about "In The Cut" and her almost monosyllabic answers resulted in a near meltdown.
As Frannie Avery, Ryan played an English literature lecturer in New York City who becomes obsessed with the sexual language of the seedy world stripping and prostitution (the film title itself is sexual slang) and quickly embarks on a dangerous relationship with a policeman (Mark Ruffalo) who is investigating a gruesome series of murders involving the cutting up of young women. Ryan does not hold back in the role, frequently appearing topless. It is a really dark tale and perhaps surprisingly it is both based on a novel by a woman (Susanna Moore) and directed by a woman (New Zealander Jane Campion of "The Piano" fame).
As cinema, it is a slightly bizarre work which juxtaposes explicit sexual language and activity plus imagery of bloody body parts with extracts from poems and references to the novel "To The Lighthouse". It is atmospherically shot and provides sustained tension, but it fails above all because there is no explanation or exploration of the motivation of Avery to enter such an alien and scary world and take such obvious risks. Perhaps, in this sense, the role is a metaphor for Ryan's own odd choice of role.
"In The Loop"
American television gave us the serious, while still entertaining, "The West Wing" and "Commander-in-Chief" but British television likes to satirise politics as in "Yes, Minister" and "The Thick Of It". The latter UK series has now been transformed into the full-scale movie "In The Loop" with the same scriptwriter Armando Iannucci, some of the same actors, and the same docu-verite style. Although the action is set in Washington and New York as well as London, the US actors include the likes of James Gandolfini, and the storyline is clearly about the road to war in Iraq (never actually named), the humour is very British and it's hard to see the film doing well in the States. Another problem - for both British and American audiences - is the timing: mocking the process by which it was decided to invade Iraq a full six years after the event rather lessens the impact.
Yet there is much to enjoy here, especially in the wonderful lines which fairly crackle and constantly amuse if rarely provoke outright hilarity. At the core of the interconnected relationships is that between the diminutive and hapless Minister for International Development Simon Foster, played by Tom Hollander but based on Clare Short, and the ferociously foul-mouthed Director of Communications for the Prime Minister Michael Tucker, portrayed brilliantly by Peter Capaldi and inspired by Alistair Campbell.
"In The Shadow Of The Moon"
Between 1968 and 1972, nine American spacecraft voyaged to the moon and 12 men walked upon its surface. This remarkable documentary brings together for the first, and very possibly the last, time surviving crew members from every single Apollo mission which flew to the moon - ten in all - and allows them to tell their story in their own moving words (unfortunately the very first man to walk on the moon Neil Armstrong remains reclusive and did not participate in the film). The narrative is illustrated with some stunning footage, most of it digitally remastered and much of it not seen before by the general public. One marvels at the power of the rocketry, the serenity of space, the beauty of the Earth, and the mystery of the moon and wonders if we will ever return. British director David Sington has created something truly historic.
Link: official web site click here
"In This World"
The critics were impressed by this film - it won the Berlin Golden Bear Award - but it is unlikely to attract a wide audience because, however worthy, the subject matter and treatment are both too bleak. Two Afghan boys - played by non-professionals using their own names of Jamal and Enayatullah - are seen trying to fulfil their dream of a new life in London. Filmed on digital video and using only available light with the characters mainly speaking their native Pashto, there is location shooting in Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Italy, France and Britain, so the whole thing looks and sounds like a documentary. This is bold film-making by director Michael Winterbottom that successfully engages our concern for economic refugees, but leaves one feeling saddened and powerless.
This French Canadian film - the title translates as "Scorched" - is located mainly in an unnamed Middle Eastern country that is clearly Lebanon althought it was shot in Jordan (both nations that I have visited). It tells a powerful and deeply disturbing story about how Nawal Marwan, played wonderfully by the Belgian-Moroccan actress Lubna Azabal, dies and leaves her twin daughter Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and son Simon (Maxim Gaudette) with a strange instruction: letters must be delivered to the father they thought was dead and to a brother they did not know they had. Based on a play, the narrative by writer and director Denis Villeneuve repeatedly jumps back and forth from the present day to several decades earlier which does not always make the story easy to follow (advice: look for three points on the back of a heel). So the viewer has to pay close attention as the twins learn more and more about their enigmatic mother and in the process themselves in some shocking turns of events. This is cinema of a high order that packs a genuinely emotional punch.
Be warned: this film has one of the most complicated plots that you'll ever encounter in moviedom. But be advised: this work is one of the most inventive and thrilling that you'll ever encounter on the screen. From the opening seconds to the closing seconds and everything in between, this is a movie that constantly engages with no 'downtime' at all, so you cannot afford to doze for a moment - and you won't want to do so. This is "Total Recall" on steroids - and some.
First, that plot. This is a world in which it is possible for trained operatives to enter the dreams of others and gain access to their most private secrets - a process called extraction - but, in this case, a team is required to enter a subject's dream state in order to implant an idea - the inception of the title. Except it's not that simple. The storyline takes us into a dream within a dream within a dream and even down to somewhere called limbo and, in the climatic third of the film, there are actually three narratives progressing in parallel.
Now, why it works - and so brilliantly. It's all down to the British Christopher Nolan who has already impressed us with his directorial talents on "Memento", "Insomnia", "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight". Here he is writer, producer and director and the result is a truly original and immensely assured work that is as entertaining as it is challenging. Nolan has created a dreamworld with a set of rules - so each level requires one team member to be 'awake' - and devices - such as 'the kick' to pull you out of the dream and the 'totem' which tells you whether you are still in a dream or not.
It cost a ton - something like $170M - to make, but the money is on the screen with some stunning special effects, most notably some brilliant city-shaping scenes set in Paris. The whole thing was shot in six countries on four continents. Effectively atmospheric music is provided by Hans Zimmer. And it is populated by an ensemble of talented actors of varied provenance.
Central to the whole thing working is Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, the troubled leader of the inception crew. It's a pleasure to see Ken Watanabe from "The Last Samurai" as the Japanese commissioner of the operation. Britain's Tom Hardy is charming as the roguish team operative Eames. The diminutive but ever so cute Ellen Page does not have the demanding role that she had in "Juno" but brings architectural design skills to the team as Ariadne. And this is before one mentions Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Tom Berenger and even cameos by Michael Caine and Pete Postelthwaite. Nolan gives his characters meaningful names, most obviously with Ariadne, a character in Greek mythology who possesses the key to a labyrinth.
Rarely have I left a cinema (I was at the British Film Institute's IMAX screen in London) so convinced that I wanted to see the film again, both to better understand the complexities of the plot and to enjoy once more the dazzling performance that is "Inception".
Footnote: When I did see "Inception" again one year later, it was on a DVD on television. I understood much more about what was going on (not everything though) and it was still immensely entertaining, but it was not the same mind-blowing novelty of the first viewing.
"An Inconvenient Truth"
Three years after the production of this documentary on Al Gore's presentation on global warming, I finally caught up with it. In the meanwhile, it had won a host of awards including Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, while Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Although the film has been challenged in a British court, for me its overwhelming message is incontestable and compelling and director Davis Guggenheim has done the world a service in making the lecture accessible to many more millions than have witnessed Gore's oratory at first hand. The man who was once the next President of the United States concludes powerfully: "Future generations may well have occasion to ask themselves, 'What were our parents thinking? Why didn't they wake up when they had a chance?' We have to hear that question from them, now."
Link: Wikipedia page on the film click here
"Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull"
From the very beginning, this is an affectionate homage to the three Indiana Jones movies that were released between 1981-1989 (the opening seconds are a playful reference to the initial shot in "Raiders Of The Lost Ark") and this is both the strength and the weakness of the first outing for the academic-cum-adventurer in 19 years. The young audience at whom this film is aimed will never have seen Indy on the big screen and will surely delight in the experience, while those of us who grew up with the earlier escapades will yearn for something a little more original and inventive.
Set in the midst of the Cold War in 1957, the usual plot ingredients are all there: an attempt by an evil force to obtain control of some sort of mystical power so as to dominate the world, with references to all sort of ancient civilisations and encounters with long dead bodies and very alive insects. In the process, Jones survives everything from beatings by Soviet agents to a full-scale nuclear explosion. The problem is that the narrative is weak, so many of the scenes we have seen before, and so much simply doesn't make sense (for instance, what's with the monkey business?).
Now aged 65 Harrison Ford has worn well in the intervening years and replaces his trademark fedora hat with some style and it is joy to see the lovely Karen Allen back where she belongs - in the arms of the explorer. Cate Blanchett's performance as a dominatrix Stalinist is a delight, but a trio of fine British actors - Ray Winstone, John Hurt and Jim Broadbent - are underused. Twenty-one year old Shia LaBeouf from "Transformers" is engaging enough as Indy's son and is obviously being positioned to take over the franchise if it continues (with Ford making merely a support appearance in the next adventure). From an artistic point of view, I feel that the brand has run its course, but I suspect that financially the attraction of more movies will be too strong to resist - and no doubt I'll be back in the cinema to see them.
I've seen a few films in Mandarin Chinese, but this is the first that I've viewed one in Cantonese Chinese - not that I can tell the difference. Shot in Hong Kong, this has been a massive hit in south-east Asia and with some reason. It is not the eastern movie that we might expect with excesses of shooting and balletic violence, but a more subtle examination of good and evil through the characters of a policeman (Andy Lau) and a Triad member (Tony Leung) who are both in fact working for the other side. It is fast-paced, imaginatively shot, and immensely stylish.
I deliberately didn't read reviews of Quentin Tarrantino's latest offering before seeing the movie, but it was clear that the ratings of the reviewers were all over the place. Since I knew that the story was centred on a ruthless bunch of American-Jewish soldiers in 1940s occupied France, I was expecting tons of violent action like "Kill Bill Part 1"; instead I found a five-chapter construction with extensive scenes of dialogue (much in German or French) making it much more like "Kill Bill Part 2". As a writer, Tarrantino gives his actors some cracking lines and, as a director, he allows those actors time to deliver them with immense style. The soldiers of the title feature much less than one might expect and the shooting comes in short but vicious bursts.
Of course, this re-imaging of the Second World War represents an utterly preposterous narrative but, if one surrenders to Tarrantino's adolescent and audacious vision of how he would have liked things to have gone, then this movie is enormous fun and, for a semitophile like me, something akin to what one reviewer called "kosher porn". There are some excellent performances - including Brad Pitt as Tennessee leader of the Basterds and Mike Myers virtually unrecognisable in a support role - but Tarrantino's casting discovery Christoph Waltz is simply outstanding as SS Colonel Hans Landa aka 'The Jew Hunter'. It may be long (two and a half hours) and it may be self-indulgent, but it is full of suspense and holds the attention throughout.
Whatever the film's scale of commercial success (and it should do well), this is a piece of auteurism destined to be a staple of many a film course since its reverence for the movies and countless allusions to specific works imbue almost every scene. It starts with the title, a corruption of the American title for an 1978 Italian B-movie, where the mis-spelling is never explained but is the first indication of QT's compulsive quirkiness. It ends with the last line of dialogue - "I think this just might be my masterpiece" - in which the director (none too subtly) is telling us something. In between, we have music from spaghetti westerns, a character who used to be a film critic, frequent references to German movies, a bar game involving a film title, a climatic scene in a cinema, and much much more.
"Inside I'm Dancing"
This is a little-known 2004 film which, for some reason, was retitled for American release as "Rory O'Shea Was Here". It is an unusual work in that both the leading characters have severe disabilities: Rory (James McAvoy) has muscular dystrophy and Michael (Steven Robertson) has cerebral palsy which means that both are wheel-chair users and initially in a residential care home. They are befriended by an attractive young woman called Siobhan (Romola Garai) who agrees to be their carer in their attempt at independent living. Although the originator of the story (Christian O'Reilly), director (Damien O'Donnell), all the locations (Dublin) amd much of the funding (Irish Film Board) are Irish, strangely the two lead actors are Scottish and the lead actress is English, but they aquit themselves well in a worthy work which, while having humour, is ultimately very moving.
This is not an obvious, or an easy, subject for cinematic treatment - high-level whistle-blowing in the US tobacco industry - but, in the hands of accomplished director Michael Mann, the outcome is a compelling analysis of the nature of big business and media values in corporate America. Al Pacino gives another fine performance as CBS "60 Minutes" television producer Lowell Bergman, trying to maintain his old-fashioned radicalism while surviving the tyranny of the suits and protecting his source.
It is Russell Crowe, however, who sustains the two and a half hour movie as he portrays the former Brown & Williamson scientist, turned informant and science teacher, Jeffrey Wigand. I actually viewed "The Insider" after I saw "Gladiator" and it is astonishing that the same actor could have so ably taken on both eponymous roles. For the former, 34 year old Crowe takes on the persona of a man 18 years his senior by putting on 80 lb, while grey hair, glasses and sheer talent do the rest.
This true story has an uncompromising message: cigarettes are delivery devices for nicotine and the companies that manufacture them are deliberately trying to make users addicted to them. Sad, then, that Crowe himself is a smoker.
Text of Wigand's legal deposition click here
Text of CBS "60 Minutes" programme click here
Site about Jeffrey Wigand click here
A movie with no special effects, no explosives, no real action sequences - how could it succeed? Yet British director Christopher Nolan, known previously only for "Momento", has made a wonderfully crafted remake of a 1997 Norwegian thriller. Although slowly paced, the plot is so intelligent and the acting so fine that one is in no danger of falling asleep any more than the Los Angeles cop played consummately by Al Pacino is in the near-permanent daylight of an Alaskan summer.
His quarry is a murderer who writes crime novels and likes to play mind games and it is a pleasure to see Robin Williams back in a successful 'straight' role, where the inter-play between the protagonists reminds one of the Pacino/de Niro meeting in "Heat". Young Hilary Swank gives a promising performance as a rookie cop who admires the Pacino character more than perhaps she should. Finally, the unusual location shooting gives the film a very distinctive feel, although - while set in Alaska - most of the actual shooting was done in Canada's British Columbia.
German director Tom Tykwer did an entertaining job with "Run Lola Run" (a similar concept to "Sliding Doors") and here tries hard to give us a political thriller in the image of Jason Bourne, but it is ultimately a disappointing effort. The shoot-out in New York's Guggenheim museum (recreated on a German set) is fun, although one wonders how the NYPD could be so slow to respond to such a major downtown incident, and the use of glass and steel office buildings to represent the glossiness of the corporate world makes for some striking visual images, but there are just too many flaws in this cinematic edifice.
The villain of the piece is one of the world's most powerful banks, the International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC), a deliberate echo of the real BCCI which was involved in a money-laundering scandal almost a decade before the film was released. The main weakness is the script from first-time screenwriter Eric Singer. Too many of the lines are pathetic and the narrative is both confusing and implausible.
Clive Owen, playing a shabby Interpol agent on loan from New Scotland Yard with the unlikely name of Louis Salinger, has a lot of running around to do but this does not excuse never ever shaving; Naomi Watts as a Manhattan Assistant District Attorney is sadly underused (see "The Painted Veil" for what she can do); but it is always a pleasure to see Armin Mueller-Stahl (now aged 78).
The political thriller genre is one I very much enjoy and one that director Sydney Pollack has ably visited before ("Three Days Of The Condor"). Here he has two major stars, Nicole Kidman as the eponymous United Nations employee Silvia Broome (displaying a rather good African accent and fluency in the fictional language of Ku) and Sean Penn as the secret service agent Tobin Keller assigned to investigate her unlikely claim of a planned assassination of the dictatorial ruler of the fictional African state of Matobo. He also has the skyscrapers and streets of downtown New York and unprecedented location access to the interior of UN headquarters. So my expectations were high.
Things start well with a tense scene in murderous Maboto and the first whispers of the conspiracy at the UN, but then the whole thing unravels with bewildering plot twists and weak dialogue, concluding with a really dull final sequence. Like the UN itself, this is a work which promises so much more than it delivers. The fault, I fear, is with the script which has been worked on by no less than five writers, resulting in confusion, incredulity and some over-sentimentality. Nevertheless the film does raise an immensely serious issue: how should the international community deal with a leader who started as a freedom fighter and is now a murderous tyrant? Robert Mugabe comes particularly to mind and it is clearly no coincidence that Matobo is a national park in Zimbabwe.
Science fiction is one of my most popular movie genres. Christopher Nolan is one of my favourite directors. So I was really excited about the prospect of seeing "Interstellar". When a good friend saw it before me and warned me off viewing it, I still went ahead. I don't regret my decision at all but I can understand, and share, the reservations about this over-obscure work.
In 1968, I was thrilled by the brilliance of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" but comprehended little after the passage through the star gate until I read the novel by Arthur C Clarke. "Interstellar" is similarly visually stunning but Nolan and his brother Jonathan have crafted a narrative that is so opaque that I don't know whether I will ever work it out. It seems that a worm hole and a black hole have created a narrative with a whole lots of holes.
I admire the ambition of the movie: themes do not come much bigger than survival of the human species and travel to other galaxies but extraterrestrials communicating through Morse Code and constructing giant bookcases in space just stretch credibility too far. As well as "2001", the film that comes to mind is "Contact" which, while not so grandiose in execution, made a bit more sense thanks to Carl Sagan.
There is a lot of acting talent on display here to balance the striking visual imagery. Matthew McConaughey, as a space jockey right our of "The Right Stuff", and Jessica Chastain as his scientist daughter give fine performances, but Anne Hathaway and Matt Damon seem somewhat miscast as astronauts and the Londoner Michael Caine is a very odd choice to head a future NASA. Once again Hans Zimmer provides a haunting soundtrack. So there is much to admire about "Interstellar". It's just a pity that it's so unintelligible to human beings.
The film lasts almost three hours but I didn't notice that it was so long - which means that ultimately I enjoyed it and that time is relative.
"Into The Arms Of Strangers"
For some reason, most of my closest friends are Jewish and two of them, Ivan and Ros Sloboda, suggested that my wife and me accompany them in seeing this harrowing account the 'kindertransport', the transfer from the Nazi terror of Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to Britain of some 10,000 Jewish children in the nine-month window of opportunity between Krystalnacht and the outbreak of war. Ros's mother - who was from Leipzig - was one of the kinder children.
It is impossible to convey or imagine the feelings of heart-broken parents, forced to send away their children, knowing that they are most unlikely ever to see them again, or of terrified children, torn suddenly and inexplicably from the only family, country, faith and language that they have ever known. But the alternative was almost certain death and some one and a half million children perished in camps like Auschwitz and Terezin which I have visited.
One cannot review this like a normal film. In a sense, it is not a film at all, but a documentary, consisting of two hours of personal testimony from some of the 'Kinder' with interweaving footage and photography from the time. And nothing relating to the unique horror of the Holocaust could be regarded as having anything to do with normality or humanity. Most people will see this work on television but, as Philip French of the Observer put it, "There are occasions when it's morally important for the image to be bigger than we are'.
The 'pitch' to the studios must have sounded impressive: take one of the best-looking actors, hunky George Clooney, and one of the most attractive actresses, Welsh rose Catherine Zeta-Jones, and team them with those quirky Coen brothers (Joel & Ethan) to produce an old-fashioned romantic comedy in which true love triumphs over the cynicism of the divorce lawyers. But the outcome is a wasted opportunity with a formulaic style and little subtlety in the humour. At least Clooney tries to bring some life to the limp plotting, but Zeta-Jones just glides through looking cool, while talent of the calibre of Geoffrey Rush and Billy Bob Thornton are sadly underutilised. To watch this movie is far from intolerable cruelty, but it is a real disappointment.
The title - which means 'unconquered' in Latin - comes from a famous poem by the late 19th century poet W.E. Henley, a favourite of Nelson Mandela, and the film is based on a book by John Carlin entitled "Playing The Enemy: Nelson Mandela And The Game That Made A Nation".
The movie is largely set in Mandela's term as South Africa's first black President in the run-up to and the running of the 1995 Rugby World Cup Championship which was hosted by the newly democratic 'rainbow nation'. It shows how Mandela - called here by his clan name Madiba - took great political risks to support the Springboks, a potent symbol of white South Africa, in order to unify the new post-apartheid country.
It would take someone special to play Mandela but Morgan Freeman was a natural choice and does a fine job, skilfully capturing the great man's style of speaking and moving, if sometimes faltering on the accent. Matt Damon is assured as the Springboks' captain Francçois Pienaar. Although American actors take these two lead roles, most of the other positions are filled by South Africans, the whole thing was shot in South Africa, and the script is by South African émigré Anthony Peckham.
Since this is modern history, there are no surprises in the narrative, but it is a wonderfully uplifting work that demonstrates the power of compassion and forgiveness. The surprise is the director: 79 year old Clint Eastwood would not be an obvious choice but this - his 30th piece of direction over four decades - is another impressive addition to his canon of work. Freeman and Eastwood have collaborated before on "Unforgiven" and "Million Dollar Baby", both of which won the Academy Award for Best Film.
"The Ipcress File"
This British spy film - based on the novel by Len Deighton - was released in 1965 but I did not view it until 2009 and then only because a former colleague had advised me that the office of the central character Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) was in the central London building - 28-30 Grosvenor Gardens - where I worked part-time for three years as a Council member of Postwatch, the consumer body for postal customers.
This movie came out in the same year as the fourth James Bond film "Thunderball" and the style could hardly be more different: a bespectacled agent who never travels outside London and sees very little action in a slow plot development lacking credibility. No wonder the expected Palmer franchise stopped at the first effort.
Mental illness often makes challenging cinema - think of "Rain Man" or "Shine". Now both sides of the Atlantic have produced new movies on this theme, looking at the effect of such illness on brilliant and famous individuals: from the US comes "A Beautiful Mind" examining schizophrenia and from the UK there is "Iris" portraying Alzheimer's Disease.
The latter concerns the novelist and philosopher Dame Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) who was loved and cared for by her uxorious husband Professor John Bayley, on whose books the movie is based. Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville represent the couple at Oxford University in the early 1950s, while Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent take on the roles for the last years of the author's life - what one critic has called the "bonking" and "bonkers" phases of her rich life.
The performances are uniformly excellent, with Dench compelling in a role where expressions as much as words speak volumes. When she does speak, it is often movingly, as when she comments "I feel as if I'm sailing into darkness".
The film cuts constantly from one period to the other and would have been better served with a more settled structure. Also the subject matter is terribly depressing and anyone who has watched a loved one destroyed mentally - in my case, it was my mother after a stroke - will know how utterly helpless one feels. But not all cinema can be escapist fantasies like "Harry Potter" and "Lord Of The Rings", so see "Iris" and be thankful for your mind.
"The Iron Lady"
I approached this portrayal of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by American actress Meryl Streep with some trepidation. As a member of the Labour Party for over 40 years, I am ideologically opposed to all that the Conservative Party icon stood for, but I have been a massive fan of Streep ever since "The Deer Hunter" in 1978. Streep is brilliant, representing three versions of Thatcher: the high-pitched speaking ambitious politician, the lower-tone speaking stern Prime Minister, and the dementia-ravished widow. For this performance, Streep deservedly received her 17th Academy Award nomination and her third win.
Both director and writer are women: respectively Phyllida Lloyd, who directed Streep in "Mamma Mia!", and Abi Mprgan, most of whose work has been for television. Although Thatcher was of course an immensely strong character and one can only sympathise with the sexist attitudes that she had to combat in the British political scene of the 1960s and 1970s, virtually all the male characters in this film - notably Thatcher's cabinet colleagues - are represented as pathetically weak cyphers. Even her husband Dennis, played by Jim Broadbent, comes across as a kind of of Charlie Chaplin clown rather than an astute businessman.
I have two major problems with "The Iron Lady".
First, for a film about the towering figure of British post-war politics, it is remarkably light on actual politics. There are references to events like the Falklands War, the miners' strike, and the poll tax riots, but the issues are never examined and arguably Thatcher's most profound impacts on British society - the reduction in public expenditure and the programme of privatisation - are never mentioned.
Second, the narrative structure of the work is wrong. Far too much time is spend on portaying Thatcher in her dotage with imagined conversations with her dead husband; one could have begun and ended with this perspective but it dominates the film. As a result, too little time is spent on Thatcher in her prime and the storyline is fractured and confused. In the end, this is not so much a film about a politician or about politics, but a vision of aging, loss and loneliness. Not so much an iron lady as a female King Lear.
Let's face it - it's a tough world out there, so we need all the superheroes we can find. Ironman may be in the second tier of the Marvel Comics stable but, in the hands of director Jon Favreau (who started as an actor in such films as "Batmen Begins" and "Daredevil"), we are given a very satisfying contribution to the genre which opens strongly and maintains a cracking pace with action and humour alternating to good effect.
The storyline is unoriginal and utterly predictable and we have come to take excellent special effects almost for granted. What lifts this superhero movie out of the blandness that it could have exhibited are some fine performances from Robert Downey Jr as both arms manufacturer Tony Stark and eponymous metallic flying and shooting shocktrooper and a bald-headed and bushy-bearded Jeff Bridges as his associate Obadiah Stane plus able support roles from Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark's ultra-efficient aide 'Pepper' Potts and Terrence Howard as his military friend Jim Rhodes.
This is a movie which reminds you of so many others, most obviously "Robocop", but there is enough energy and verve and sufficient contemporary references - not least to Afghanistan - that one can persuade oneself that this is something fresh if not entirely new. And, if you sit through the endless credits, you'll be rewarded with a short clip that sets us up for a later film in the Marvel Comics franchise.
It's almost an iron (sorry) law of moviemaking that a sequel is not as good as the original, but this one comes close enough to satisfy, aided by the return of the brilliant Robert Downey Jr as the manic Tony Stark/Ironman and Jon Favereau as accomplished director. There's more plot this time; indeed possibly too much, as our metallic and schizophrenic hero faces a whole slew of challenges from his one-time aide Lt Col Rhodes (Don Cheadle), rival arms manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), Russian technocrat and tatoo fanatic Ivan Vanyo (Mickey Rourke as bulked up as in "The Wrestler") with his savagely destructive energy whips, and even his own suit which is slowly killing him.
In the face of so many troubles, even a super-hero needs some assistance and much of this comes from female aides Virginia 'Pepper' Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) who provide superb management and martial skills respectively. In this sequel, there's a lot more ironmen but not quite enough of the Ironman himself. And not enough of the SHIELD's Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson). But there are good special effects and exciting action sequences so that the whole thing flies along like the suit with its jet thrusters permanently on.
All of which which makes one look forward immensely to "Iron Man 3" and, as with the original movie, if you sit through all the credits, you'll see a short item setting up the next film in the Marvel Comics franchise.
A Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr, brilliant as always) who is having trouble sleeping, experiencing panic attacks, and in therapy? Clearly Ironman found the battle in "Avengers Assemble" a tough outing and we have here a more nuanced super-hero narrative. But he can't simply be left to finesse his collection of metallic outfits and enjoy his live-in partner 'Pepper' Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow with an amazingly flat stomach for a mother of two) because there are new villains on the rampage. One is uber-terrorist The Mandarin (a wonderful performance from the British Ben Kingsley), another is science entrepreneur Aldrich Killian (Australian Guy Pearce who, as in "Lawless", exhibits real callousness), while a third is one-time Stark girlfriend Maya Hansen (another Brit in the pleasing shape of Rebecca Hall).
Third time round, Jon Favreau has handed over the directorial reins - but retained his cameo acting role - to Shane Black who is also co-writer (his original profession as in the "Lethal Weapon" franchise). Also we have the fashionable use of 3D which does not always enhance the production (often the action is too fast to really appreciate the extra dimension). So this is an entertaining, if unoriginal, romp with the requisite action leavened by wry humour.
As with the previous "Iron Man" movies, if you sit through endless technical credits, you'll be rewarded with a short extra clip but this time we are not set up for the next segment in the franchise but have an explanation of my therapy allusion. Many franchises sag at the third offering (think "Alien" or "Superman") but "Ironman" is holding up well and, after this extra clip. we are reassured that "Tony Stark will return" which is good news.
It's Chicago in 2035; someone who stands out physically from the crowd is running with a woman's handbag; a policeman assumes robbery and gives chase, only to find that the robot was simply collecting the bag for an asthmatic woman. It seems that prejudice (and allergy) is still prevalent in the future and you'd expect the cop to know better because he's black. But since this is Will Smith in his traditional summer blockbuster, we know that somewhere down the line he's going to be able to tell us "I told you so" and that - like "Blade Runner" and "Robocop" - a wicked corporation will be at the centre of the conspiracy.
"I, Robot" is billed as "inspired" by the nine stories of Isaac Asimov published in 1950, so we have the spririt but none of the narrative of Asimov's seminal work. In truth, the central theme of 'machines try to take over the world' is now rather hackneyed, done much better in "Blade Runner", more recently in "The Matrix" trilogy, and to death in the "Terminator" series.
What makes this film a little different are the stars and the special effects, welded together effectively by director Alex Pryas. A beefed-up and charismatic Will Smith shows that he can act and former model Bridget Moynahan demonstrates the potential that Sandra Bullock exhibited in "Demolition Man", while the CGI-generated robots look good, especially when set out in endless serried ranks in the manufacturing plant or when represented by the spirited android Sonny (Alan Tudyk).
Ultimately what prevents "I, Robot" rising above the entertaining, but formulaic and unmemorable, is the lack of originality, a stronger script, and deeper characterisation - the failures of most movies - and I hope that the timid ending is not setting us up for a sequel of robot wars. It could have been so much cleverer, especially if the script had picked up on the ambiguity that the robot-hating detective is part-android himself.
Any film directed by Michael Bay (think "The Rock", "Armageddon", "Pearl Harbor") is going to be loud, brash and even over-the-top and "The Island" is no exception. This is his first venture though into science fiction (the movie is set in the USA of 2019) and he has fun with some antiseptic habitats, medical laboratories, towering city structures, and futuristic forms of travel, ensuring that sooner or later everything is blown apart with the maximum noise and bits. You might be reassured to know that companies such as Microsoft and Nokia are still thriving in 2019, although it could just be product placement.
The plot - such as it is - features Ewan McGregor as Lincoln Six-Echo and Scarlett Johnsson as Jordan Two-Delta who look human enough, but soon find that their world, the island and, everything they thought they knew is not what is seems. Appealling support roles come in the form of Sean Bean (why is the bad guy usually a Brit?), Steve Buscemi (always wonderfully quirky), Djimon Hounsou (a few more lines than in "Gladiator"), and Michael Clarke Duncan ("The Green Mile"). We've seen all the elements before: replicants on the lose ("Blade Runner"), implanted memories ("Total Recall"), adults in child-like sexual discovery "Demolition Man"), a man meeting his clone ("The 6th Day"), and several scenes (especially the final escape) are taken straight out of "Logan's Run". But it's all put together with a certain panache and is entertaining enough if one leaves one's brain in the lab.
"It Happened One Night"
This 1934 black and white movie is classic Frank Capra (the director): engaging, uplifting, romantic, funny. It stars two of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time: Claudette Colbert as spoiled heiress Ellie, on the run from a domineering father and on her way to an unappealling husband, and Clark Gable, as newspaper reporter Peter who is looking for a story and finds more than he bargained for. The makeshift 'curtain' between their beds - dubbed "the walls of Jericho" - assumes a metaphorical meaning as both characters change along the journey represented in coy terms reflecting the repressed times.
The film won five Academy Awards including ones for Gable, Colbert and Capra.
Writer and director Nancy Myers has made a successful career of comedies that represent a specifically female point of view (think of "What Women Want" and "The Holiday") and here she takes her distinctive stance one stage further by portraying the viewpoint of a woman of a certain age, mother of three Jane who has been married for 20 years and divorced for 10 and thought that her sex life was over. It's a sign of Hollywood's obsession with youth that Myers' suggestion that people in their 50s might actually enjoy sex - and with each other - is regarded as novel, but she adds a further twist by presenting Jane's opportunity for a new love life as coming in the first instance at least from her ex-husband who has since married - you guessed it - a much younger woman.
Jane is played by Meryl Streep, the ablest actress of her generation who is equally adept at drama or comedy and rightly has long ago extended her career beyond the normal female thespian timescale of just her 20s and 30s. She is perfect for this role - not just totally convincing as an actress but genuinely attractive as an older woman. Her ex Jake is portrayed by Alec Baldwin who is surprisngly good in a role a long way from action hero Jack Ryan in "The Hunt For Red October". Steve Martin is less appealing as love rival Adam - it is hard to take his face seriously and his character is just too saccahrine.
All three are very comfortable professionally and financially and, while relationships are undoubtedly complicated, they beat unemployment and poverty. So it's rather escapist humour, but some of it - notably a scene with a lap top computer - is very funny."I've Loved You So Long"
This is one of those films that, the less you know about it in advance, the more you are likely to appreciate it - which makes reviewing it a little problematic. All you really need to know is that it's French and excellent. But you might like to know that it's a wonderful vehicle for Kristin Scott Thomas, the British actress married to a Frenchman, who plays Juliette, an Anglo-French woman with some dark and painful secrets which only slowly unfold as the narrative takes its traumatic course. The movie opens and closes with close-ups of her haunted face and, in between, she is rarely off the screen in a marvellously nuanced performance, well supported by Elsa Zylberstein who plays her younger sister Léa. Written and directed by Philippe Claudel and located in Nancy in the east of the country, this is French moviemaking at its best.
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.
Last modified on 24 May 2015
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