"Take This Waltz" "Taken" "Taken 2" "Taken 3" "The Taking Of Pelham 123" "A Tale Of Two Cities" "The Talented Mr Ripley" "Tamara Drewe" "Ted" "Tell No One" "The Terminal" "Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines" "Terminator Salvation" "Terminator Genisys" "Thanks For Sharing" "The Theory Of Everything" "There Will Be Blood" "The Thin Red Line" "The Thing" "13 Assassins" "Thirteen Days" "This Is 40"" "This Year's Love" "The Thomas Crown Affair" "Thor" "Thor: The Dark World" "A Thousand Times Good Night" "3 Days To Kill" "300" "300: Rise Of An Empire" "Three Kings" "3:10 To Yuma" "The Time Traveler's Wife" "Timecode" "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" "Titanic" "To Kill A King" "Tomorrowland" "Total Recall" "Touching The Void" "The Tourist" "Traffic" "Training Day" "Transcendence" "Transformers" "The Tree Of Life" "Tron: Legacy" "Tropic Thunder" "Troy" "True Grit" "The Truman Show" "Twelve Monkeys" "12 Years A Slave" "21 Grams" "24 City" "2012" "2 Days In Paris" "2 Days In New York" "Two Days, One Night" "Twilight" "U-571" "The Ugly Truth" "The Unbearble Lightness Of Being" "Unbreakable" "Under Seige" "Under The Skin" "Unfaithful" "Unfriended" "United 93" "The Unknown Known" "Unstoppable" "Untouchable" "The Untouchables" "Up" "Up In The Air" "The Usual Suspects" "V For Vendetta" "Valentine's Day" "Valkyrie" "Vantage Point" "Vanilla Sky" "Veronica Guerin" "A Very Long Engagement" "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" "La Vie En Rose" "W." "A Walk Among The Tombstones" "Walk On Water" "Walk The Line" "WALL·E" "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" "Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price" "Waltz With Bashir" "Wanted" "War Horse" "War Of The Worlds" "Watchmen" "The Water Diviner" "Wanted" "War Horse" "War Of The Worlds" "Watchmen" "The Water Diviner" "The Way Back" "We Were Soldiers" "West Beirut" "West Is West" "Whale Rider" "What Maisie Knew" "What Women Want" "Whatever Works" "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" "While We're Young" "White Christmas" "White House Down" "Wild" "Win Win" "The Wind That Shakes The Barley" "Winstanley" "Winter's Bone" "Withnail & I" "The Wolf Of Wall Street" "The Wolverine" "The World Is Not Enough" "The World's Fastest Indian" "World War Z" "The Wrestler" "Wuthering Heights" (1992) "Wuthering Heights" (2011) "Xanadu" "X-Men" "X-Men 2" "X-Men: The Last Stand" "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" "X-Men: First Class" "X-Men: Days Of Future Past"" "xXx" "Your Sister's Sister" "The Young Victoria" "You've Got Mail" "Zero Dark Thirty"
"Take This Waltz"
I have wide tastes in films but sometimes the contrasts are just so great. It's the summer of 2012. One day, I'm watching "The Dark Knight Rises", a big, brash movie of unrelenting action and plentiful special effects. The next moment almost, I'm viewing "Take This Waltz", a slow, gentle, naturalistic examination of infidelity. I really enjoyed them both which is what makes the cinema so great.
You could call "Waltz" a woman's film but that should not put off male viewers: it is both written and director by a woman, the Canadian Sarah Polley in her second such outing; the lead role is taken by a woman, the brilliant Michelle Williams; and there is a cameo from a well-known woman, the comedienne Sarah Silverman. Williams plays 28 year old freelance journalist Margot who has been married for five years to cookbook author Lou (Seth Rogen in a more restrained role than we usually see), but attracted to neighbour Daniel (good-looking Luke Kirby). The three of them live in the Portugal Village part of downtown Toronto by the lake.
Williams gives a wonderfully nuanced performance, while Polley ensures in the script that the choices are difficult - like life, in fact. Since this is a kind of woman's film, the nudity is different - women of various sizes and ages (including Williams & Silverman) in a full frontal nude showering scene - and the sex is different - at one point, a wordy but erotic description of intimacy and, at another point, varied couplings which might just be fantasies.
Does Margot make the right choice? Now, there's a question. As one of the characters puts it: "Life has a gap in it... It just does. You don't go crazy trying to fill it."
This is Liam Neeson's film. As a former CIA agent on a personal mission to recover his 17 year old daughter from Albanian sex traffickers in Paris, he is rarely off the screen. The 6' 4" Northern Irish actor may struggle with an American accent, but nothing else bothers his character in this movie of non-stop action, graphic violence and an amazing body count. It's totally predictable and utterly implausible but for sheer entertainment it delivers the goods.
Like the father says: "I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you." He proves to be a man of his word.
Four years after the sleeper hit that was "Taken", Liam Neeson - now 60 - is back as ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills with his black leather jacket and special set of skills. This time the storyline is inverted: he is not seeking the Albanians, they are after him; he is not rescuing his 'taken' daughter Kim (now a 30 year old Maggie Grace), but she is looking for her kidnapped father and her mother is 'taken too'. Also the scene switches to Istanbul with - as in "Skyfall" - action sequences on the roof of the Grand Bazaar.
It is entertaining enought but lacks the punch and the iconic speech of the original movie. Grace gets more to do and demonstrates that you can throw grenades around and attract little attention (criminals, please note) and drive into the US Embassy with comparative ease (terrorists, please note). The body count falls by five but that still leaves 30 to be shot and stabbed and strangled.
In the beginning, former special forces expert Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) found that his daughter was taken in Paris while, in the sequel, he himself was taken in Istanbul. Clearly Neeson took a bit of persuading to play the role a third time, but it would appear that three factors persuaded him: first, he didn't want to do any travelling this time (so all the shooting - in both senses of the word - is in the overly-familiar Los Angeles where he goes "down the rabbit hole"); second, apparently he didn't think anyone should be taken this time (and the writers obeyed the injunction until near the end when they just couldn't resist any more); and third, he wanted the money.
This is a movie which divides the critics and the public: the former have been very condescending about it but the later enjoy Mills using his special skills again and again (and you can't really blame them). The bad guys here are (mostly) Russians who have terrible accents and awful clothes (especially underwear), but it is always a pleasure to see Forest Whitaker (an intelligent member of the LAPD who knows the significance of a warm bagel). The tag line in the advertisements for "Taken 3" is "It ends here" and I think that would be a sensible decision (although I wouldn't guarantee it).
"The Taking Of Pelham 123"
Remakes are normally sad affairs but, by most accounts (I missed the 1974 original), this one is more exciting than the original. Of course, it's in the hands of British director Tony Scott whose utterly frenetic style is such than he rarely makes one cut when he can impose three and, for this style of thriller, Scott's energy and excitement work well, providing us with a genuinely entertaining ride. The two-hour movie opens strong and maintains a breathless pace, so the final few minutes are uncharacteristically slow and weak.
John Travolta is commanding as the leader of the gang who take over a New York subway train, whereas charismatic Denzel Washington is somewhat low-key in this performance as a senior rail manager temporarily required to act as a controller. James Gandolfini as the mayor and John Turturro are fine, if underused, in the support roles. The orginal plot is followed closely except that the ransom demand is raised from $1M to £10M and broadband communication makes a useful contribution.
"A Tale Of Two Cities"
Only recently have I got round to reading the Charles Dickens classic of 1859 and, having finished it, I immediately wanted to view this 1958 British film version. It is a faithful adaptation in terms of both narrative and language, although some of the information is presented earlier and the overall timescale is much contracted. Controversially the director Ralph Thomas insisted on shooting the movie in black and white since he felt that this would be more authentically Dickensian.
Produced on a tight budget and shot largely at Pinewood studios, the film was rightly a commercial success and stands up even today. Dirk Bogarde gives an impressive and nuanced performance as Sidney Carton in a breakthrough role that established him as a serious actor. Sadly Dorothy Tutin is miscast as Lucie Manette, being essentially a stage and not a film actress. Among an ensemble of fine British actors, Cecil Parker is excellent as Jarvis Lorry and Christopher Lee chilling as the Marquis St. Evremonde.
"The Talented Mr Ripley"
In real - as opposed to reel - life, Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow are now an item but, in this piece, they are protagonists over the affections and well-being of an American played by the British actor Jude Law who may find that, following appearances in such films as "Gattaca", this proves to be his breakthrough movie. Damon is the eponymous Tom Ripley who is asked to go to late 1950s Italy and persuade a rich stranger called Dickie Greenleaf (Law) to abandon his wanton ways and return to New York, but chameleon-like Tom is seduced by Dickie's lifestyle with ever-complicated consequences. It would spoil the film to say more about the intriguing, if unlikely, plot; suffice to say that Ripley's multiple talents range from the musical to the macabre.
The movie is both written and directed by the British Anthony Mingella, who had such a success with The English Patient, and here he has another winner on his hands. It's always an extra pleasure when one knows the locale of a film and Mingella has used a wonderful variety of Italian sites, including Naples, Rome and Venice, each of which I've visited more than once.
This is an utterly, utterly English film and all the more charming, wry and artful for that. No wonder both BBC Films and the UK Film Council helped to fund it. Director Stephen Frears ("The Queen") has taken a screenplay by Moira Buffini, adapted from a comic strip by Posy Simmonds which in turn is a kind of pastiche of Thomas Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd", and combined it with a wonderful British cast and the stunning Dorset countryside to create a delightful work which could hardly contrast more with the usual Hollywood output.
Set in the mythical and comatose village of Ewedown over the course of one year, the film - like Hardy's book - has three men vying for the attention of a bewitchingly beautiful young woman - Tamara who was brought up in the village, has reshaped her life in so many ways, and now returns as a successful journalist.
The casting is brilliant from gorgeous, former Bond girl ("Quantum Of Solace") Gemma Arterton as the eponymous attraction, sporting the most diminutive denim shorts imaginable, to 17 year old Jessica Barden who is terrific as the village teenager who unwittingly causes most of the mayhem, with so many fine performances in between, whether male or female, whether large or small. For fans of Thomas Hardy, there are many allusions to his charcter and work. For the rest of us, Buffini's script offers so many sharp lines before serving up a satisfying, if traditional, conclusion.
Seth MacFarlane is a multi-talented guy and this is totally his movie: it is his story, he co-wrote the script, he co-produced, he debut-directed and he voices the titular bear. The two main human characters - Ted's childhood friend John and John's live-in girlfriend Lori - are played engagingly by Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis, but it always comes back to the furry one. MacFarlane turns upside down and inside out the conventional notions of the teddy bear with the most foul-mouthed dialogue you can imagine. It is crude, rude, racist, irreverent and often very funny and there is a fight sequence that it the most hilarious since the one in "Borat". But this is a film for a specific demographic: the younger you are, the more you're likely to love it; the older you are, the more you're likely to find it juvenile.
"Tell No One"
This French film - titled in the orginal "Ne le dis à personne" - is an accomplished thriller which will be enjoyed most by those who know least about it before viewing because a good deal of the work's success comes from a clever plot which, like an onion, seems to have endless layers which are only slowly revealed. Based on a novel by Harlan Corben, it is directed by Guillaume Canet with François Cluzet as pediatrician Dr Alex Beck as a man whose wife was brutally murdered eight years previously in circumstances which suggest that he himself could have been the assailant. Cluzet convincingly portrays the pain and confusion and anger of a man suffering loss and betrayal and bewilderment, while Canet keeps us constantly on edge in a two-hour narrative with many meaningful moments, a good chase sequence, and as many final twists as a corkscrew.
Over three decades, director Steven Spielberg has achieved outstanding success through offering us two main types of movie: blockbuster works of thrilling entertainment (think "Jaws", "ET" and the Indian Jones series) and more serious and historical narratives (such as "The Color Purple", "Schindler's List" and "Munich"). "The Terminal" is neither of these. Most of the time, it is a romantic comedy but, towards the end, the plot spins off in an entirely different direction. This lack of clarity may well account for the lacklustre performance at the box office.
Inspired by the bizarre case of the Iranian refugee Merhan Nasseri who resided at Paris's Charles de Gaulle for an incredible eight years, this is the story of Easter European Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a visitor from the fictional state of Krakhozia, who finds himself stuck for months at New York's JFK airport (actually filmed in Montreal) where he befriends a cast of characters included an exceptionally unhelpful airport official (Stanley Tucci) and a very attractive air hostess (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
Hanks is rarely off screen and does his usual excellent job although, instead of his usual Mr Everyman role, here he is more Mr Noman. Essentialy this is a moral about the power of waiting, but done very lightly.
Link: the case of Merhan Nasseri click here
"Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines"
The first two "Terminator" films were classics and, given the disappointments of Arnold Schwarzenegger's more recent movies (such as "End Of Days" and "The Sixth Day"), it was obviously enormously tempting to return to his most famous and iconic role, even after an interval of 12 years. But it was a wise decision - Arnie has shaped up (literally) and cleaned up at the box office in a return to form that might yet prove to be a platform to political success that terminates his 'acting' career.
Director James Cameron has now left the scene and his role is taken over by Jonathan Mostow who - as we know from the history-twisting, but action-laded "U-571" - is a competent producer of exciting movies. Like all sequels, "T3" is formulaic - a repetition of the key elements of earlier movies in the franchise with a few variations. But it is a winning formula and the obligatory road chase sequence is really well done, while the main twist - a female terminator - works effectively with Kristanna Loken looking chillingly attractive. I especially enjoyed the deployment of some new machines.
There is no real plot or character development here, but the storyline remains honest to the original premise that Armageddon is inevitable. Above all, it is thoroughly entertaining; as Arnie comments at one point: "Your levity is good - it relieves tension and the fear of death". A couple of lines leave open a possible return to the franchise and, since terminators obviously come in many forms, this could even happen without Arnie if he proves to be busy running California. One way or another, I'm convinced he'll be back.
"T1" (1984) and "T2" (1991) were terrific, but then both were written and directed by James Cameron. "T3" (2003) - directed by Jonathan Mostow - was not in the same class, but still thoroughly entertaining. Even as "T3" was released, we knew that Arnold Schwarzenegger was embarked on a political career that was likely to mean that (in spite of his catch phrase) he would not be back in the iconic role.
Six years later, we are back - but with a different director and no Arnie and, in contrast with the largely contemporary settings of the first three movies, a story set in a post-apocalyptic 2018. At the helm on this occasion is McG (real name Joseph McGinty Nichol) - best-known for directing the two "Charlie's Angels" films - but some gravitas comes from the overly-intense Christian Bale as resistance leader John Connor and the Australian Sam Worthington as a cyborg with identity problems.
The narrative can be summarised in just six words: one explosion after another after another. In the middle of all these conflagrations, there are no less than ten types of machine seeking to eradicate the remaining humans. So there's plenty of exciting action and impressive visuals represented in bleached colours, but it's a classic case of a triumph of style over substance with minimal characterisation, a plot that is implausible when it is not confusing, and an ending that is surprisingly and disappointingly weak.
I thought the first two "Terminator" movies (1984 & 1991) were terrific and the third (2003) and fourth (2009) were entertaining enough, so - after an interval of another six years - I looked forward to a fifth outing for the franchise, but I was sadly disappointed. The main problem is the script which is confusing and often risible. The narrative goes back to 1984 and reworks the plot in a way that turns it inside out, upside down, and back to front. I managed to avoid the trailers which I believe contained major plot spoilers and, as a result, while understanding less than might have been the case I at least had some surprises. But it just made no sense and I feared that, if there was one more reference to"quantum this" or "quantum that", I would be tempted to find a gun and blow my brains out.
And, honestly how can one take seriously a "Terminator" movie in which Arnold Schwarzenegger is 67 and referred to as "Pops"? The third actor to play the adult John Connor (Jason Clarke) is quite good, but the third actor to portray Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) and the second actress as Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) are rather weak. So what's left? Well, director Alan Taylor ("Thor: The Dark World") ensures that the action sequences and special effects are moderately enjoyable, but nothing that we haven't seen before. Apparently this rebooting of the franchise is supposed to be the first of a trilogy and a mid-credits scene suggests that Skynet is not totally defeated. I guess that we will have to suffer this but, to paraphrase Arnie's repeated line in this movie "Old, not obsolete", I fear that the franchise is now both old and obsolete.
"Thanks For Sharing"
I went along to this movie thinking that it was a rom-com. There is some romance and some comedy, but mainly this is a serious look at a serious subject that the media usually finds difficult to treat seriously: sex addiction. This is shown to be much like other addictions, such as those to drink or drugs - utterly destructive of the addict's personal and professional life and needing a great deal of support to combat.
This is a brave choice of subject for co-writer and director Stuart Blumberg who also penned "The Kids Are Alright" which dealt with childrearing by a lesbian couple. What makes the film is the excellent cast which includes good-looking Mark Ruffalo (who was in "The Kids ...") as a sex addict, the ever gorgeous Gwyneth Paltrow as his new girlfriend, the maturing Tim Robbins as the leader of the addicts' support group, and the spikey singer Alecia "Pink" Moore as another sex addict in only her first major acting role. As a film, it has its weaknesses but it is an honourable attempt to deal with a sensitive subject in a way that balances honesty with entertainment.
"The Theory Of Everything"
Over the past two and a half decades, I have read three books by theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and a biography of him, as well as attending his famous 1995 lecture at the Royal Albert Hall in London (the last physicist to fill that venue was Albert Einstein in 1933). Furthermore I was very aware of the buzz around this film and especially the plaudits for the performance by Eddie Redmayne in the central role. So there was no way I was going to miss this movie and I was not disappointed. Redmayne is simply brilliant and totally inhabits the role, but I was also impressed by newcomer Felicity Jones as Hawking's first wife Jane.
At one point in the film, Jane briefly explains the nature of the theory of everything: an attempt to unify general relativity and quantum mechanics. But like CMB - the cosmic radiation that is regarded as proof of the big bang theory - the science is in the background. In the foreground is the relationship between Stephen and Jane and indeed the film is based on her 1999 memoir, "Music To Move The Stars" which was republished in a revised version in 2007 as "Travelling To Infinity, My Life with Stephen".
Life married to a self-centred genius would never have been easy but, when one adds the impact of progressive motor neurone disease plus the fame that went with the former and the support staff that went with the latter, it is a testimony to Jane's humanity that the marriage lasted so long, although the later years were characterised by an open relationship on both sides. The towering performance by Redmayne, movingly displaying the physical deterioration over time, plus family scenes shot as if with a home movie camera, makes the film look more like a documentary than an artistic creation. Indeed brilliant British director James Marsh has more experience with documentaries ("Man On Wire") than films ("Shadow Dancer") and this skill has paid off enormously with this splendid film that is bound to win many awards.
The most moving lines are when Stephen and Jane decide to part and when they are joined by their three children at Buckingham Palace and the final scenes - a flashback through time - offers a clever and apposite conclusion to the film but not the story (Hawking - given two years to live when first diagnosed with MND - is amazingly now 72).
Link: Wikipedia page on Stephen Hawking click here
"There Will Be Blood"
There will indeed be blood but only after two and a half hours and only after much appearance of another sticky stuff which provided the title of the novel on which the film is based: the 1927 work "Oil!" by Upton Sinclair. This movie by Paul Thomas Anderson - he both wrote and directed it - has had rave reviews from the critics and in truth it is wonderfully photographed in Texas and features a tour de force performance by Daniel Day Lewis as Californian oilman Daniel Plainview. But it is a tale of unremitting misery centered on a character with a soul as black as the liquid he seeks and sells. There is no explanation for why he is so evil and no hint of redemption in this technically brilliant but emotionally sapping morality tale.
The fourth actress to play Sarah Connors (Emilia Clarke) "The Thin Red Line"
Inevitably this film will be compared with "Saving Private Ryan", since they were issued about the same time and both deal graphically with the experience of American troops in World War Two. Yet the two could hardly be more different. It is not just that ".. Line" is set in the Pacific rather than the European theatre; the structure and style of this first work in 20 years from the maverick director Terrence Malick is a world apart from Spielbergs offering.
The impressive cast is led by Nick Nolte, Sean Penn and John Cusack, but they are ably supported by less well-known Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel and Ben Chaplin, and the performances are uniformly excellent. The photography is superb and the music haunting. But ultimately this is a mess of a movie. The narrative is weak and punctuated by incomprehensible monologues in a dream-like scenario that at times borders on the surreal. It received seven Academy Award nominations but lost out - in my view, rightly - to ".. Ryan".
“The Thing”My tastes in films are eclectic but I tend to stay clear of musicals and horror movies. Nevertheless I accompanied a young friend to this work as his choice for a gloomy winter's afternoon viewing. He had seen the original 1982 film by John Carpenter whereas I hadn't. As I understand it, this prequel - coming three decades later - explains and leads into the original, but I found that it stood up as a tale on its own. It's 1982 an somewhere in Antartica they've found an alien spaceship and an alien body encased in ice. Now given that “Alien” appeared three years earlier, you'd think that the occupants of the Norwegian base would know better than to go messing around and indeed so much of the movie is derivative of the Ridley Scott movie, including the feisty female – in this case, newcomer Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The pacing and tension are quite well done, but too many people get killed too quickly. If we had fewer victims whom we had come to know better and if their deaths were less sudden, we would feel their pain more. "13 Assassins"
I don't see many Japanese films but I love a good samurai movie and you don't see many of them these days. "The Last Samurai" (2003) was an American effort, yet rather good. "13 Assassins" is more authentic in being Japanese and is in fact a remake of another Japanese work of 1963. The director Takashi Miike is noted for being prolific (this was shot in just two weeks) and excessive (this is certainly a bloodfest, although somewhat restrained by past standards). Using a minimum of CGI, this is a gritty, muddy conflict in which limbs are lost and heads do roll.
Set in 1844, at the end of the Edo period of rule by the shoguns, the story pits the noble warrior Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) and 12 volunteers for death against the brutal Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) and his entourage of 200 soldiers. After a slow process of selection and training of the assassins - a process familiar from both "Seven Samurai" and "The Magnificent Seven" - we have a terrific last three-quarters of an hour of non-stop combat in a deserted village. It would not be a spoiler to tell you that, at the end of its all, not many are left standing. Not since "The Wild Bunch" in 1969 have I seen such a concluding orgy of death.
I was 14 at the time of the Cuba missile crisis of October 1962. I was scared at the time and have seen no reason not to have been as a result of watching several subsequent documentaries and re-enactments of those incredibly dramatic 13 days. This 2000 movie of that historic period is directed by Roger Donaldson and often looks like a drama-documentary, a style deliberately evoked by occasional use of black and white, but underlines the sense of drama by using a few scenes of what might have been as missiles are launched.
The strengths of the film are its careful use of detailed records of the key meetings and conversations plus the use of a range of actors who look and sound like President John F Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood), his Attorney General Brother Robert F Kennedy (Steven Culp), Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Air Force General Curis Lemay and others. The weakness is the casting of Kevin Costner as Kenny O'Donnell, Special Assistant to the President, through whose eyes we see the events. Our familiarity with Costner as an actor and the use of O'Donnell for the perspective both serve to unbalance what should have been an unremitting focus on the President himself.
Having said that, what the film does really well - in total contrast to so many political movies - is to demonstrate how difficult and complex is the decision-making process, especially when one has imperfect information, conflicting signals, and rival factions (which frankly is usually the case).
"This Is 40"
In "Knocked Up" (2007), writer and director Judd Apatow focused on the unlikely couple of Ben and Alison, but a sub-theme was the experience of Alison's sister Debbie (Leslie Mann who is Apatow's wife) and brother-in-law Pete (Paul Rudd), representing a warning vision of how adulthood can so often work out. Five years later, Apatow is back as both writer and director to tell us how things now look for Debbie and Pete (played by the same actors) as they both hit the big four-oh.And it's not a pretty sight as they struggle with both relationship and professional challenges plus inter-generational problems at both ends of the life scale. Their daughters Sadie and Charlotte (played by Apatow's own children) are a handful and a half and Pete's father (Albert Brooks) and Leslie's father (John Lithgow) present very different, but equally painful, dilemmas.
If this sounds grim, it is far from it with both dialogue and situations providing lots of humour, much of it very broad indeed. Somehow Apatow manages to balance hilarity with pathos, so that the viewer is constantly ricocheting from laughter to sadness, often in the same scene. Essentially this is a a kind of rom-com, but its insights into marriage and parenthood give it a powerful extra dimension.
"This Year's Love"
Like the much better known "Notting Hill", this is a very British film centred on a part of north London - in this case Camden Town - but, in every other respect, the two could hardly be more different. "This Year's Love" has grit and grime with lots of swearing, smoking, drinking and - to use the vogue word - shagging. Like the television series "Friends" it narrates the lives and loves of six twenty-something characters who all know each other but, in this case, there is much less amity and much more sexuality with, in the course of the three year time-scale, each of the main characters bedding at least two of those of the opposite sex, with some extra coupling thrown in for even more colour.
It is a credit to David Kane, the writer and debut director, that this tragicomedy all works so well and it is a shame that one cannot always hear the sharp dialogue. Kane was aided by fine performances from a relatively unknown cast, headed by actors Douglas Henshall, Dougray Scott and Ian Hart and actresses Catherine McCormack ("Braveheart"), Jennifer Ehle ("Wilde") and Kathy Burke ("Nil By Mouth").
"The Thomas Crown Affair"
This is the movie that my colleague Beth Lamont walked out of while on holiday in New York City. However, while it is light and predictable (especially if you saw the original), it is a slick production that is enjoyable and entertaining. This remake of the 1968 success stars suave Pierce Brosnan, taking time off from being 007, as the businessman turned art thief and sophisticated Rene Russo as the insurance investigator who is supposed to be his nemesis. These were the roles taken first time round by Steve McQueen (who died in 1980) and Faye Dunaway who appears in this reprise as Queens psychoanalyst. It is a homage to the original: while the chess scene is gone, the glider sequence is still there and the song "Windmills On Your Mind" (sung now by Sting) can be heard if you stay for the credits.
Like "Entrapment" the heart of the movie is the relationship between two canny protagonists, but here the lovers are played by actors virtually the same age and it is a delight to see a 45 year old woman 'allowed' to be the femme fatale (it helps that Russo is a former model). Incidentally, if "Entrapment" and "Thomas Crown" seem to have a similar plot, that's no coincidence. Brosnan, who produced "Thomas Crown", did not like the original script for the intended remake, so the writer took it to Sean Connery.
I'm a bit of a sucker for super-hero movies, although I was unfamiliar with this particular character. Equally unfamiliar to me was the actor who plays this Norse god, 27 year old Australian Chris Hemsworth, and the one - British Tom Hiddleston - who portrays Thor's brother Loki. But I'm a fan of Anthony Hopkins, who here has fun as the top god Odin, and of Natalie Portman, who here is rather wasted after her terrific performance in "Black Swan". And then I was intrigued by the director: Kenneth Branagh who more usually directs works by Shakespeare (although let's not forget "Frankenstein").
The result is entertaining and fun, although the visuals are often stronger than the plot or the dialogue. I saw it in 3D but the extra dimension did not add as much as one would hope. While other men lose their mojo, Thor mislays something called his Mjolnir (his mighty hammer) but, once it's back in his hand, the young cosmologist (Portman) is all over him (so why does he leave her behind?).
Note: Like "Ironman " and Ironman 2", if you sit to the end of the credits, you'll see a clip which is setting us up for another Marvel Comics movie "The Avengers".
"Thor: The Dark World"
"The Aether awakens us. The convergence returns." OMG. How bad can this get? "The walls between worlds will become almost non-existent. Physics is gonna go ballistic. Increases and decreases in gravity. Spatial extrusions. The very fabric of reality is gonna be torn apart." OMG!!! That's how bad it's gonna get. OK, so the dialogue is pretty awful - although there are a few fun one-liners. And the Norse god Thor is not my favourite super-hero - too much like "The Lord Of The Rings" meets "Star Wars".
But I find it hard to resist any super-hero movie and Chris Hemsworth (the eponymous hammer-wheeling man from Asgard) went up in my opinion with his performance in "Rush", I'm always ready to view a movie with Natalie Portman (an actress with a Harvard psychology degree who delivers that line about "the fabric of reality"), and I enjoyed seeing the scenes in my home city of London (although my friends in Greenwich will wonder why that was the centre of the convergence and a joke about Thor using the London Underground to return to Greenwich overlooks the fact that Greenwich is not actually served by the Underground). And the special effects are wonderful.
Marvel movies have a habit of offering a teaser clip at the end of the credits and this time we are treated to two: one mid credits and one at the very end. So it is clear that this second outing for Thor in his own film will not be the last in the ever-growing universe of the Marvel film franchise
"A Thousand Times Good Night"
This is a truly European production with a genuinely global agenda. A Norway-Sweden-Ireland co-production, it was shot in Ireland, Afghanistan, Kenya and Morocco and both the director Erik Poppe and writer Harald Rosenløw Eeg are Norwegian (the story is inspired by Poppe's personal experiences as a war photographer). War photographer Rebecca (the French Juliette Binoche) is married to marine biologist Marcus (the Danish Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and they live in Ireland with their two daughters, but Rebecca is constantly drawn to conflict zones where she take incredible risks to obtain dramatic photographs. The film explores what such a situation does to the family left at home and what drives someone to risk all that is dear to them. The largely wordless opening sequence presages a slow work, but a compelling one, and as always Binoche gives a mesmerising performance.
"3 Days To Kill"
This mish-mash of genres could have been called "3 Ways To The Till" since it seems to be a confused effort to get different audiences to pay up for a cinema ticket. It could have been a hard-edged thriller about an aging hit man with some sardonic lines of dialogue - like "Leon" directed by Luc Besson. Or it could have been a caper movie with slap-stick violence and some pretty women - like "Charlie's Angels" directed by McG. And how about throwing in the idea of a former agent nearing the end of his time wanting to reconcile with his estranged daughter - like, I don't know, say Sean Connery's character in "The Rock".
Well, "3 Days To Kill", written by Luc Besson and directed by McG, tries to have it all and, as a result, is all over the place, one moment depicting execution or torture or threatened rape and the next showing assassins arguing about the age of their victims or a villain willingly climbing into the boot of a sports car or a CIA agent constantly interrupted by an irritating ring tone placed on his mobile by his teenage daughter.
And, while we don't expect too much reality in movie designed for entertainment, how is the viewer supposed to accept a top agent taking time off at the height of a key operation to make a birthday phone call or a callous killer who is happy to have a large family of Mali immigrants in his flat or a dad teaching a teenager to ride a bike in one of the most public places in tourist Paris? At the centre of this hokum is Kevin Costner who can - and deserves to - do better than this "Dances With Fools".
The 480 BC Battle of Thermopylae is the stuff of military legend when, in popular lore, a mere 300 Spartans commanded by King Leonidas held off a Persian force led by Xerxes the Great that Herodotus claimed as 2.6 million. In truth, the Spartans were backed by a mixed force of almost 7,000, while there are enormous variations in modern estimates of the multi-ethnic Persian army, but somewhere between 100,000-200,000 seems realistic. Whatever the actual figures, the odds against the Spartans were terrible, death was inevitable, and their honour secure.
The story was first told on film in 1962 when director Rudolph Maté went to Greece and shot a worthy, but conventional and surprisingly leaden, version entitled "The 300 Spartans", starring American Richard Egan as King Leonidas and the British David Farrar as Xerxes. "300" takes the same basic narrative and presents it in an utterly different style in a blood-fest when "The Wild Bunch" meets "Kill Bill" and the visuals are like nothing except "Sin City". This time the director is Zack Snyder, known for his music videos, and the location is three small sets in Montreal with green backgrounds later filled by superb computer-generated graphics and the whole storybook style is based on the graphic novel by co-producer Frank Miller. Both versions use the legendary exchange: "When we attack today, our arrows will blot out the sun!" "Good; then we will fight in the shade." But only "300" has such fun lines as: "Spartans! Enjoy your breakfast, for tonight we dine in Hell!"
Ever since its first public showing at the Berlin Film Festival, most critics have mauled "300" and it presents an easy target for those wanting something more cerebral: there is virtually no plot or characterisation, the script is sparse and bland, much of the acting is exaggerated and over-loud, when it is not homo-erotic it is oddly camp, and the whole thing is stereotypical when it is not outright xenophobic and politically incorrect. And yet, as entertainment, it has much to offer: the sepia-tinged visuals are absolutely stunning and the fight sequences viscerally exciting. I was fortunate enough to see it in IMAX and I regularly felt blood-splattered and exhausted and quite ready to leap into the action.
There are no big names in the cast list which helps the sense of history but does not raise the thespian talent quotient. Gerard Butler plays King Leonidas with a Scottish accent, while the Brazilian Rodrigo Santoro is a version of Xerxes bejewelled with ethnic metalwork. Most of the warriors are literally larger than life: the actors playing the Spartans reveal most of their bodies with digitally-enhanced muscles, while on Xerxes' side characters include a huge hunchback, a giant emissary and a claw-armed executioner as well the metal-masked Immortals. This is before we get on to an enormous raging rhino and bedecked elephants. Truly this is a battle with a circus-like cast. The love interest comes from the feisty wife of Leonidas, Queen Gorgo, portrayed by the alluring British actress Lena Headey. There is even a scene in a rippling corn field borrowed from "Gladiator".
At the end of the day, what makes the movie are the thrilling fight sequences with encounters in which the film is slowed down and then speeded up to give a video-game quality that is unlike anything you have previously seen on the big screen. When a sword slashes or a spear lungs or an arrow whistles, you really feel and hear it. At times, it is as if a picture by Hieronymus Bosch had come to life.
Link: Battle of Thermopylae click here
"300: Rise Of An Empire"
If you enjoyed the original "300" directed by Zack Snyder in 2006 (and I did), then you will delight in "Rise Of An Empire" which Snyder helped to write and produce - while leaving direction to first-timer Noam Murro - coming along eight years later. Again the focus is on the clash between the Persians and the Greeks in 480 BC, but this time the Battle of Thermopylae is a footnote as the action both precedes and succeeds that conflict, culminating in the sea battle at Salamis which has been described as one of the most significant battles in human history.
Of course, great liberties are taken with historical detail, the exposition of the narrative is a bit plodding, and much of the dialogue is frankly risible, so most film critics are not going to admire this work, but audiences will thrill to the return of so much of what make the first "300" so distinctive and such fun: the muscular bodies, the slashing swords, the spurting blood, all drawn from a palette of subdued colours and underlined by the slow motion-fast forward shots. Although much of the action is set at sea, the whole movie was shot at the indoor green-screen sound stages of in Bulgaria. and the special effects look good in 3D.
British actress Lena Headey is back as Queen Gorgo (having meanwhile starred in television's "Games Of Thrones") and the Brazilian Rodrigo Santoro reprises the role of bejewelled Xerxes. This time, the hero is Athenian politician and general Themistocles played by the Australian Sullivan Stapleton who does not have quite the presence of Gerard Butler but does well enough.
The star of the movie though is Eva Green as kohl-eyed, sword-wheeling, super villainess Artemisia, the Greek queen who sided with Xerxes and was the only female commander at Salamis. I've had a bit of a thing for Green since seeing her in "Kingdom Of Heaven" in 2005. This French actress with the cut-glass English accent has the most stunning eyes and these are not the only parts of her on display in a brutal encounter with Themistocles.
Link: Battle of Salamis click here
Written and directed by independent-minded David O Russell, this is a war film with a difference that defies easy categorisation. For a start, it begins on the day that the war - Operation Desert Storm in March 1991 - ends. Then the action is not about territorial conquest, but initially about personal greed and later increasingly about group liberation. In spite of the title, there are not even three protagonists but four, well-played by George Clooney (the former "ER" television doctor who is now a star of growing charisma), Mark Wahlberg (an actor previously known for playing a porn star with a prodigious tumescence in "Boogie Nights"), Ice Cube (the former gangsta rapper with the most ridiculous name since Rip Torn), and Spike Jonze (director of "Being John Malkovich").
There are echoes of other films: like Courage Under Fire, it has a Gulf War setting; like Kellys Heroes, its centred on a freelance wartime quest for personal wealth; and, in some of the stand-off scenes, one is reminded of The Wild Bunch. But Russell has a very personal style of his own with jerky, newsreel-like camera action and an almost surreal take on the effect of a bullet on the human body. This is an impressive work which poses some sharp political questions about the conduct and purpose of the Gulf War, let down only by a too-easy ending. Quiz time: what do "Twister" and "Three Kings" have in common? Answer: both feature flying cows (you'd better believe it!).
"3:10 To Yuma"
Don't generally get no westerns no more so I guess, when one rides into town, I'm gonna mosey on down and check it out.
Now there have been so many westerns in the history of the cinema that it's impossible for a new one not to be derivative and "3:10" is self evidently so, both in being based on a 1953 short story by Elmore Leonard and being a remake of the 1957 movie of the same title starring Glenn Ford in the lead role. There are obvious echoes of "High Noon" in the cowardice of all but one man to do the right thing and of "Shane" in a boy finding inspiration in a cowboy's courage. So, if the trail is so well-trodden, why go there?
It's partly the joy of the western itself: those terrains, those outfits and - above all - those guns (and here, when shots ring out, they RING out). It's partly the more nuanced character of the main protagonist: the outlaw Ben Wade who is cunning, ruthless and real fast with a pistol, but knows his Bible, can sketch a sensitive drawing, and is polite to the women folk. Above all it's the fine acting, mainly from the charismatic Russell Crowe as the leader of the gang and Christian Bale as the rancher Dan Evans who is determined to get him on that train, but also from various support performances including the veteran Peter Fonda as a bounty hunter endlessly on Wade's trail and Ben Foster as Wade's psychopathic second-in-command.
The very final sequence is too light-hearted for the 122 minutes that have preceded it but, that apart, this is a fine western that manages to combine both exciting action and character delineation in a work that will further enhance the reputation of director James Mangold who did so well with "Walk The Line".
"The Time Traveler's Wife"
Time travel is a time-honoured (sorry) narrative device but it's hard to do well because the plot inconsistencies are so obvious and numerous. Clearly this tale worked fine as a novel since Audrey Niffenegger's fantasy romance was an immmediate bestseller when it was published in 2003. Director Robert Schwentke does his best to turn the story into film but the results are rather shakey when they are not outright confusing.
The TT is played by Eric Bana and his long-suffering wife is Rachel McAdams and they make the film watchable. We already know from the "Terminator" movies that time travel involves losing one's clothes (so lots of rear shots of Bana's bum) but it seems that another feature is that one never has the time to have a decent shave (so lots of Bana's bristles). Apparently there are some advantages though: you can buy a winning lottery ticket (naughty!) and you can have sex with a 'younger' version of your husband (very naughty!).
Films do not come bolder and more experimental than this. Throughout the entire 93 minutes, the screen is divided into four segments and each quadrant is occupied by the product of one hand-held camera generating one continuous shot - a feat not technically possible until the advent of digitalisation. As if this were not enough, there was only an outline script, permitting and indeed requiring considerable improvisation by the cast of 28.
It is not as difficult to follow as one might fear because the soundtrack is usually dominant in one corner, focusing the viewer on one quarter while allowing other points of view. There are some very attractive women on show: the director's partner Saffron Burrows, Salma Hayek, Jean Tripplehorn and Xander Berkeley. But plot-wise the focus is on a male: a dissolute producer played by Stellan Skarsgård ("Ronin").
Essentially though, this is the work of an auteur - the British Mike Figgis was director, co-producer, writer, and even composer. The whole thing is a satire on Hollywood film production and, when one character describes the very kind of film portrayed by "Timecode", the producer character condemns it as "the most pretentious shit I ever heard". "Pretentious"? Probably. "Shit"? No. Successful? Tentatively.
Link: Mike Figgis info click here
"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Languid and laconic are the words that most come to mind when recalling this accomplished film adaptation of the famous John le Carré novel of 1974. The plot unfolds slowly and the silences are prolonged; yet the pacing and paucity work so well in this espionage drama because the direction by Swedish Tomas Alfredson is so assured, the script by British husband & wife team Peter Straughan & the late Bridget O'Connor is so compelling, and the multi-talented cast is so superlative.
We are used to the British Gary Oldman playing American characters of evil intent, but here he is brilliant as George Smiley, the resilient and lugubrious hunter of the mole in MI6's Circus. He heads a roll-call of terrific British talent which includes John Hunt, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Ciarán Hinds and Benedict Cumberbatch. Even le Carré (now aged 79) makes a momentary appearance. This is a very male movie but Kathy Burke rounds off what is almost an embarrassment of thespian ability in one film.
If you've not read the novel or seen the 1979 BBC serialisation (as I haven't), you may struggle at times to follow each twist in this tale of betrayal at so many levels, but this does not spoil the experience so much as encourage a second viewing.
Like many others, I've always been fascinated by the tragedy of the "Titanic". One of the first films I ever saw was the black and white 1958 account called "A Night To Remember" and, a few years before the release of this movie, I visited an exhibition at London's National Maritime Museum of artefacts recovered from the wreck. Therefore I wanted to see this film, but I could have done without the tidal wave of publicity which preceded it.
The main reason for the hype was the staggering sum - allegedly some $200 million or more - spent on it by the writer and director, the driven James Cameron, to produce a 3 hour 15 minute spectacular. Against the background of the famous 1912 sinking, there is an "Upstairs, Downstairs" love match between Kate Winslet as the refined Rosie and Leonardo de Caprio as the free-spirited Jack. Once the ship hits the iceberg, so many of the scenes and characters are borrowed from the earlier film, but this version is distinguished by a 90% scale model of the ship and some sensational special effects depicting the sinking. It is certainly an impressive piece of work, but not as informative or moving as the British offering of 1958.
As the world now knows, in fact the Cameron film was so successful that "Titanic" won an amazing 11 Academy Awards - equalling the record set by "Ben Hur" in 1959 - and became the biggest money-making movie of all time. The excellent soundtrack and theme song have also been great successes. As a result, a sequel has been suggested which opens with Jack bursting from the waves panting for breath - not really!
Footnote: Some 15 years after the original release of "Titantic" to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking in 2012, James Cameron offered us a new version of the movie with retrofitted 3D and I saw it in IMAX on the biggest screen in Britain at London's British Film Institute. We are told that some 300 computer artists put in more than 750,000 man hours to 'sculpt' the original photography into a three-dimensional presentation. So does it work? The 3D does not add that much - not like Cameron's "Avatar" - but it is well-done and gives a little added punch to what is already a terrifically entertaining film which I thoroughly enjoyed seeing on the big screen again."To Kill A King"
The English civil war and its aftermath is one of the most fascinating periods of British history [for a book review click here] - after all, it is the only time in the last 1,200 years than the country was a republic. The events were covered in a 1970 film called "Cromwell" in which Richard Harris played the eponymous role. This 2003 work has an alliterative title which emphasizes the drama of regicide and it is different in many other ways.
Whereas "Cromwell" features scenes of great physical conflict (notably the 1645 Battle of Naseby), "TKAK" starts at the end of this battle and is very much a character-driven movie. There are four fine performances from the leads: Tim Roth as the idealistic but power-driven Oliver Cromwell, Rupert Everett as the cunning and conniving King Charles I, Dougray Scott as General Sir Thomas Fairfax, an inspirational leader of the Parliamentary forces who nevertheless seeks compromise with the king, and Olivia Williams as Fairfax's wife Lady Anne, torn between love of her husband and loyalty to her class. Strangely the events are seen from the perspective of Fairfax who was a much lesser character in the earlier film.
This is a work with many strengths: strong acting, a decent script, and splendid location shooting (especially at Hampton Court Palace). Its weakness as history is to overplay Halifax at the expense of Cromwell, while its main deficiency as a movie is its poor pacing with the lack of a strong finish.
I'm a big fan of George Clooney and I love science-fiction films, so I was looking forward to this movie, but it left me feeling somewhat disappointed: not enough Clooney, in any event, probably miscast; not enough Tomorrowland, even then, not sure how it fitted into the plot; a ridiculous scene set in Paris; a very obvious piece of product placement by Coca Cola; and overall a narrative that doesn't make a lot of sense. It is not even clear what Tomorrowland is: the future of our planet? an alternative universe? someone's imagination?
Director Brad Bird has given us some wonderful family entertainment in the past ("The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille") but I fear that children and adults alike are going to feel let down by this offering. Perhaps it is no surprise that the screenplay was largely crafted by Damon Lindelof who co-created the fiendishly enigmatic television series "Lost". However, I give the film credit for its optimistic viewpoint - too many visions of tomorrow are miserably dystopic. I would like the odd projection of the future to be attractive, since it's where I intend to spend the rest of my life.
"Touching The Void"
This stunning drama-documentary sears itself on the brain so that the memories are fresh long after the credits roll. The reason is that every harrowing detail is true and yet the feat depicted seems so superhuman that it is hardly credible.
Simon Yates and Joe Simpson are two British mountaineers who decided to tackle the unpreviously unclimbed West Face of the 21,000 foot snow-covered Siula Grande mountain in Peru. The ascent was exceptionally difficult, but the descent was a disaster with Simpson breaking a leg and Yates having to abandon him. How Simpson survived was narrated in his best-selling book from which the film takes its title [for my book review click here] and, in this Oscar-winning documentary, Yates and Simpson tell the story without any third-party comment or analysis, while the events are dramatically recreated by actors with sensational filming in the Alps and Peru itself.
You cannot watch the work without feeling the cold and the pain and the hopelessness and asking yourself how you would have reacted if you had been in anything like a similar situation to Yates and Simpson respectively. Ultimately this film is a tribute to the power of the human spirit. That Simpson could survive is a miracle; that he could face six operations and return to climbing is amazing; and that such an impressive documentary could be made is a triumph for director Kevin Macdonald.
I totally recall the 1990 movie version of Philip K Dick's short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" as both exciting and entertaining. Arnold Schwarzenegger as manual worker Doug Quiad brought a certain vulnerability to the role as this mountain of man who had no idea what was going on and Dutch director Paul Verhoeven gave a real verve to the whole production. Sadly this remake 22 years later is something of a disappointment, although some critics have been overly harsh.
Colin Farrell now in the lead role is a far better actor than Arnie but the pace is so frenetic that he is not given much opportunity to display his thespian talents. The role of his 'wife' - memorably filled by Sharon Stone in the original - now goes to Kate Beckinsale (wife of director Len Wiseman) and is much expanded from the first outing, so that the part of the rebel agent, originally taken by Rachel Tocotin and now played by Jessica Biel, is rather underwritten.
It seems perverse to call a remake derivative, but so much of this version of "Total Recall" reminds one not just of the original film, but of so many other sci-fi movies: the world of the workers looks like "Blade Runner", the flying cars evokes "The Fifth Element", the synthetic troops are retreads of either the Stormtroopers or the clones from "Star Wars" films, even the relentless pursuit by Beckinsale's character echoes Arnie in the first "Terminator" movie. Oddly this work is both too dark, in that there is rarely enough lighting, and not dark enough, in that - unlike the original - there is little ambiguity about whether the whole thing is a dream.
There are three beautiful things to view in this movie: 1) Johnny Depp as the eponymous tourist, an American teacher called Frank; 2) Angelina Jolie as the mysterious British girl Elise, oozing glamour with a series of gorgeous outfits; 3) the city of Venice where most of the story takes place, which displays both its magnificent buildings and its dark alley ways. Sadly the rest is a disappointment.
The pacing is pedestrian and the dialogue is limp. Above all, German director and co-writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck - a million miles away from his wonderful work in "The Lives Of Others" - can't make up his mind whether this is a thriller or a romance or a comedy, so that it never quite works at any of these levels.
What I know about drugs, you could write on the back of a cigarette packet (Ive never even smoked) and I was not initially inclined to spend two and a half hours witnessing an examination of the problem as exhibited in the relationship between Mexico and the United States. But the reviews and word of mouth were so good that I made the effort and - together with my 24 year old son - I found a powerful and challenging work.
Both the subject matter and the style make this an uneasy experience. Its no fun seeing young people overdosing or turning to prostitution and the whole movie is shot in a grainy, bleached, jerky documentary style with rapid inter-cutting of different narratives. Director Steven Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan take a social problem so often viewed in simplistic terms and present a multi-layered, multi-faceted approach, devoid of easy answers and even any answers at all. The final line if dialogue is "Were here to listen" and I guess that the purpose of the movie is to make us think rather than to offer us a solution.
This is one of those films in which there are many good performances and no one is allowed to overshadow the subject matter itself. Real life husband and wife Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones play respectively a judge turned drugs czar and a naïve wife turned drug baroness, but they never appear on screen together. There are some excellent roles for minority actors- indeed almost half the dialogue is in Spanish - with Benicio Del Toro particularly impressive as a Mexican policeman in a moral maze. You'll be thinking about this work long after you've left the cinema and that can only be beneficial, given the scale and complexity of our drugs problem.
Don't be misled by the innocuous title of this 2001 movie - for Los Angeles cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) on his first day with the narcotics division, this is going to be a day from hell. And don't be caught out by the casting of Denzel Washington as Detective Alonzo Harris, Jake's mentor-cum-nemesis - this is is not the Washington whom we first met in 1987 in "Cry, Freedom" who has since played a whole series of good guy roles. In this movie, he is one real m****r f****r. And, if you don't like this sort of language, don't watch the film because it is replete with four- and six-letter expletives as well as street language that is sometimes hard to follow .Writer David Ayer and director Antoine Fuqua have provided a violent and bloody narrative that grips from start to finish. Both Washington and Hawke are rarely off the screen and Washington in particular gives a capital performance. In fact, both actors attracted Oscar nominations with Washington deservedly winning for Best Actor for his bravura turn. The Alonzo Harris character was loosely inspired by the disgraced LAPD officer Rafael Perez who served two prison terms totalling six years. If he ever saw the movie, he would feel that it could have been a whole lot worse.
This is a film which showed some promise. After all, it raises some fascinating questions: Would it be possible to turn the mind of a human being into electrical impulses that could be stored on computers? If such a virtual mind was connected to the vast resources of the Internet, what would be the consequences? The cast list was tantalising too: Johnny Depp in as conventional role as we ever see him, Morgan Freeman as sageful as always, and the appealing Rebecca Hall. But the treatment is such a disappointment: painfully slow and surprisingly dull with a script that is frankly dire.
Director Michael Bey won me over with "The Rock" in 1996 and here gives us the longest, the loudest and easily the most explosive summer blockbuster of 2007 and probably any other year. It may simply be an extended product placement exercise for the Hambros toys, the US military and eBay; it may be difficult to work out which robots are the Autobots (led by Optimus Prime) and which are the Decepticons (headed by Megatron); it may have one of the most hackneyed sub-plots in teenage cinema (geek gets girl); it may have a simplistic humour that includes explicit reference to masturbation. But none of this really matters. Hell, this is sheer entertainment of the fast and furious kind that knows the demographics of its target audience and is going to clean up at the cinema making a sequel inevitable.
"The Tree Of Life"
In 1968, I struggled to comprehend the meaning of "2001: A Space Odyssey", but it 'only' covered the history of humankind and at least it had some dialogue and a linear narrative - although the ending was really obscure and I only really understood it when I read the novel.
When it comes to "The Tree Of Life", we have a whole new level of bewilderment: it kind of embraces the history of the universe, although we only really know that from the reviewers who had the benefit of media briefings; there is virtually no real dialogue with most of the speech in the form of mumbled voice-overs veering between banality and bathos; and the narrative line is like a zig-zag, jumping from the extinction of the dinosaurs to a flip-flop between the 1950s and the present and a final scene that could be in any place and time. I think you get the picture ...
It is no wonder that at the Cannes Film Festival The Tree Of Life both won won the Palm d'Or and attracted hoots of derision. Neither reaction will have fazed writer and director Terrence Malick who occupies his own parallel universe. This is a man who moves at a pace which is more glacial than galloping, so that this is only his fifth film in 40 years and, at this rate, the 67 year old may not have many more creations to offer.
The plot - such as there is one - is simply told. The O'Briens are a pretty typical American family of the post-war years living in Waco, Texas: a repressive, disciplinarian father (a mature performance from Brad Pitt), an ethereal stay-at-home mother (Jessica Chastain), and three boys growing up in a small town where nothing much happens. But, aged 19, the middle boy is killed in circumstances which are never explained.
So at one level this is a work about the meaning or the meaningless of life with the pain of one family set in the context of all time and all space. At another level. I'm convinced that this is a deeply autobiographical work: Malik grew up in Waco, his brother committed suicide, and he is a man of Christan faith.
If the work sounds pretentious and opaque, it is. And it is long and slow. But it is audaciously ambitious and it is full of stunning imagery, magnificent photography, dazzling camera work and wonderful classical music. I'm pleased I saw it, I would see it again, but this is not a particular tree that everyone will want to climb.
When I went to the cinema in 1982 to see the Walt Disney production "Tron" with my young son who is now about to become a father, I found it enjoyable but - in spite of the first use of computer-generated backgrounds and special effects - underwhelming. Plotwise (what plot?), I saw no case for a sequel and I would never have imagined that any follow-up would take 28 years. So why go back inside the world of bits and bytes? The reason is simply the same as that for the original production: to show off the latest digital technology. And it sure does that. I saw the movie in 3D on the biggest screen in Britain (central London's BFI cinema) and the look and sound were awesome.
Cleverly first-time director Joseph Kosinki only brings on the 3D when Sam Flynn (good-looking Garrett Hedlund), in the search for his long-missing father Kevin (a bearded, grizzled Jeff Bridges), first enters 'the Grid' and the effect is truly scalp-tingling. The races with light cycles and fights with light discs are immense fun and visually the whole work is a delight. The sound is terrific: at times the cinema seems to shake and the pounding soundtrack from Daft Punk is genuinely atmospheric.
The problems this time round are the same as three decades ago: the plot is minimal and unintelligible and the script is banal. At one point, Kevin Flynn exclaims: "You're messing with my Zen thing, man!" Believe me, I felt the same - man.
Characterwise, the sequel has some contrasts with the original. Now we have not just one but two Kevin Flynns, the second being Clu (short for catchy Codified Likeness Utility) who is wholly computer-generated in a rather effective, if rather smooth-faced, creation. Also the babe-factor is turned up a few notches with the cute Olivia Wilde (Remy from "House") as the feisty, black-clad Querra and Beau Garrrett as the white-clad siren Gem. The most bizarre character is cyberspace bar-owner Castor played astonishingly by Michael Sheen - he who gave us such convincing portrayals of Tony Blair and David Frost - in a camp performance which is a sad effort to inject some much-needed humour into a script that is littered with references to the like of "biodigital jazz".
This is a film about the making of a film about the shooting of a film and stars a dude playing the dude disguised as another dude. Confused? Well, "Tropic Thunder" is that kind of movie. From the very beginning - no credits, just mock advertisements and fake trailers - we're in for a rumble in the jungle with much madness, mayhem and even a touch of genius with visual and verbal gags coming so often and so fast that nobody will get them all on first viewing (especially some of Robert Downey Jr's heavily accented lines) but most will catch enough to have a lot of fun.
Most of the credit goes to comedian Ben Stiller who co-wrote, co-produced and directed this work as well as taking a leading role. The whole thing is a parody of action movies in general and Vietnam movies in particular with "Apocalypse Now", "Platoon" and "Rambo" being just three of dozens and dozens of films that are referenced. The focus is on a team of five thespians - Tugg Speedman (Stiller), Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr), Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) plus two minor actors - who start off making a war movie with grand ambitions and pathetic outcomes, only to realise (slowly) that they really are in a conflict situation and nothing is what or who it seems.
Footnote: The name "Tropic Thunder" is a play on 'Tropic Lightning', the nickname of the 25th Infantry Division which fought in Vietnam.
Essentially cinema is story-telling in modern guise and one of the oldest and greatest stories of humankind is Homer's work "The Iliad" which "inspires" this movie by German director Wolfgang Petersen who first came to our attention with a very different film about war "Das Boot". The story is much conflated and twisted and Achilles' heel barely figures. Homer would have been unimpressed at the many liberties taken with his classic work and all of us have to suffer a rather dire script and some indifferent acting (except for veteran Peter O'Toole as the aged King Priam) and a strange mixture of American, English, Scottish, Australian and other accents.
However, at the heart of any story of war are the warriors and the battles and here "Troy" delivers in some style. Brad Pitt as the running, throwing, sword-wheeling Achilles and Eric Bana as a brave and able Hector are physically in good shape and their exciting fight sequence is one of the highlights of this 2 hour 43 minute work. Achilles is presented as a very modern hero, arrogant, full of angst, and no respecter of authority.
The battle sequences themselves rival those of "Lord Of The Rings" for the stunning use of special effects and the depiction of visceral violence. Indeed Orlando Bloom and Sean Bean seem to have stepped straight out of "LOTR" into "Troy", although the few actresses in the movie are generally newcomers, notably former model Diane Kruger as Helen whose beautiful face launches a thousand ships (most of which we see, thanks to the wonders of CGI).
"Troy" apparently cost some $185M to make, with filming in Malta and Mexico as well at the studios in Shepperton. It was "Gladiator" which revived the sword and sandal saga, but "Troy" is not in the same class as that superlative movie. However, if the Hollywood wizards can set up "Alien vs Predator", maybe they could conjure up "Maximus vs Achilles".
Doggawn it, who woulda thought anyone would wanna remake a 1969 western which won The Duke an Oscar? Well, those Coen boys sure made a mighty fine movie and no mistake.
The talent of Joel and Ethan Coen is legendary and their choice of subject eclectic. After the success of "No Country For Old Men", "Burn After Reading" and "A Serious Man", they have made their first western, although "No Country ..." could be seen as a kind of cowboy movie and, like that work, "True Grit" is based on a novel (in this case by Charles Portis). As with every Coen film, it looks wonderful and again the cinematography is by Roger Deakins who worked on that other beautifully-crafted western "The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford". The sound is brilliant too from the sharp lines of dialogue or the period music to the clinking of a man's spurs or the panting of an exhausted horse.
The crowning achievement is the casting. Perhaps only The Dude - Jeff Bridges in a bravado performance - could outshine The Duke (John Wayne) in the central role as Rooster Cogburn. It was not so difficult to surpass Kim Darby's original portrayal of Mattie Ross, but Hailee Steinfeld - this time someone the same 14 years old as the novel's character - shows precocious talent. If Cogburn is the most hirsute of all the men in this movie, others are not far behind, notably Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon in a refreshingly different performance from his Bourne-type roles) plus bad guys Tom Chaney (a convincing Josh Brolin) and Lucky Ned Pepper (a colourful Barry Pepper).
In short, a rootin, tootin classic.
"The Truman Show"
I came late and reluctantly to this film because I am not a Jim Carrey fan, but here he gives an unusually multi-layered performance as the eponymous star of a 30-year long, 24 hours a day, world-wide television show in which the only 'reality' is the man himself. This 'world within a world' is reminiscent of the science fiction work "Logan's Run", but this time the inner world is populated by actors with the exception of Truman Burbank. The show is controlled by the God-like Christof - a strong performance from Ed Harris - who, at one point, calls: "Cue - the sun!"
This is an inventive movie directed with style by Australian Peter Weir who similarly elicited a 'straight' performance from a comedian when he made the excellent "Dead Poet's Society" with Robin Williams. "Truman" has a thoughtful premise, an intelligent plot, accomplished acting and atmospheric music (from Philip Glass) in what is ultimately a life-affirming story.
"Terminator"-like, a shaven-headed Bruce Willis leaves behind the dyspeptic world of 2035 - all but wiped out by a virus unleashed some four decades earlier - to travel back to the Baltimore and Philadelphia of 1996 in an effort to learn how to combat the plague. In a psychiatric hospital, he meets a psychotic played by Brad Pitt, in an able performance far removed from his usual pretty boy roles, and psychiatrist Madeline Stowe, who is eventually persuaded to join the effort to combat the eco-terrorist group the Twelve Monkeys of the title. British director Terry Gilliam was once a member of the famed Monty Python's Flying Circus and here gives us an inventive mix of the present and future and the real and imagined which is not finally clarified until the last seconds of the movie.
"12 Years A Slave"
Let's be honest about it: this spotlight on the darkest days of American history is a particularly British triumph. The brilliant director (and artist) Steve McQueen and outstanding Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the eponymous Solomon Northup, are both British; even Michael Fassbender, in the main support role as a sadistically brutal slave-owner, is half British; and Benedict Cumberbatch makes an appearance as a 'kinder' slave owner.
But, of course, there is a vast array of American talent here too. As always, Sean Bobbitt is inspiring as director of photography, making full use of the Louisiana locations. And a host of fine US actors make cameo appearances, notably Brad Pitt (who was one of the 10 producers), Paul Giamatti (looking as if he had walked straight out of the TV mini series "John Adams"), Sarah Paulson and Alfre Woodard. In her first film role, Lupita Nyong'o gives a heart-rending performance as a young slave who is horrendously abused. Original music by Hans Zimmer and use of contemporary songs add to the searing atmosphere of the work
McQueen is unrelenting in his focus: except for short pieces at the beginning and the end of the film, all the time is the period in captivity and, except for occasional glimpses of humanity, we see the slaves subjected to humiliation and horror again and again and again. McQueen's style is slow and penetrating with some long and wordless scenes totally captivating.
As a piece of social history, this movie is simply stunning - a virtual blow to the solar plexus. As a cinematic work, it has some challenges: there is no conventional narrative arc in which a plot unfolds or a character develops because Northrup is confined to a small geographical space where he can only survive by keeping as low a profile as possible; the characters are literally black and white with little subtlety or nuance; and there is not really a sense that the period of incarceration is more than a decade.
At the start and finish of the film, we are reminded that this is a true story based on the book written by Northup in 1853, once he finally re-acquired his freedom (in a pedestrian act of bureaucracy rather than anything more dramatic or violent). As if Northup has not suffered enough, we learn that his legal actions against both those who sold and bought him failed in the courts. A special award should go to McQueen's Dutch partner Bianca Stigter who discovered Northup's book and recommended it to the director.
This is one of those films when, the less you know about it, the more you are likely to appreciate it. What you probably do need to know about it though is that it has a totally non-linear structure and is presented to us as a series of unordered fragments like a shattered mirror. This unconventional format demands considerable concentration from the viewer, but this makes for a compelling movie experience in which one constantly re-evaluates characters and events.
The work is the first film in English by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Mexican director of "Amores Perros", and it is written by his collaborator on that film, Guillermo Arriaga. At its core are three outstanding Oscar-nominated performances from Sean Penn ("Mystic River"), Benicio Del Toro ("Traffic") and the British-born Naomi Watts. The themes could not be more serious - suffering, guilt, life, death, rebirth - but ultimately the movie manages to be redemptive.
"21 Grams" is a reference to the weight allegedly lost by a human body when it dies (which is, of course, nonsense - but it makes for an intriguing title).
Not many Chinese films obtain a release in Western cinemas. Those that do tend to be set in the distant past and have large casts, colourful costumes and exciting action - think "Hero", "House Of Flying Daggers", "Curse Of The Golden Flower" and "Red Cliff". This is not one of those movies. "24 City" is contemporary in subject, pedestrian in pacing, and documentary in style (director Jia Zhang-ke uses a mix of real characters and actors including Joan Chen).
It is set in the city of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in south-west China, which I visited a few weeks before seeing the film and I took along two friends from Sichuan who know the city well. It tells the terribly sad tale of the closure of a factory, which once employed 4,000 workers on the manufacture of military hardware, so that the site can be used for a modern complex of apartments and hotels - the 24 City of the title.
The unusual part documentary/part fiction style - there are five authentic interviews and four fictional scenes delivered by actors - means that the work lacks the 'bite' of a real documentary and the narrative of full fiction, but some critics admired it.
I'm always attracted to disaster movies for the sheer escapist thrill and German director and writer Roland Emmerich, who gave us "Independence Day" (1996) and "The Day After Tomorrow" (2004) as big budget contributions to the genre, now offers "2012" as what must be statistically the biggest disaster movie of them all (over six billion die - sorry if that's a spoiler).
The actors are almost incidental to what is a feast of fun special effects, but John Cusack is engaging as Jackson Curtis (note the initials) who manages single-handedly to save humankind (oh dear, another spoiler) and, in the process win back the heart of the cute Amanda Peet as his ex-wife plus the affections of their children Noah (original name for someone destined for an ark) and Lily. All the characters are caricatures though - and how can one believe that the US President could be black?
The science - something about pesky neutrinos - is laughable and whatever the problem was seems to sort itself out very rapidly (and conveniently) at the end oops - another spoiler). Meanwhile the mobile networks seem to carry on working fine and the Chinese (bless them) show a remarkable capacity to build vast arks at great speed without anyone noticing. There's a politically correct message, as what is left of humankind returns to Africa where it all started (gosh - another spoiler).
In short, "2012" is unlikely to figure on anybody's list of the top 10 or 100 or 1,000 films ever made and it's not even the best disaster movie ever produced ("Towering Inferno" in 1974 was the most gripping human drama), but it's entertaining enough and never takes itself seriously.
"2 Days In Paris"
In 1995 and 2004, the French actress Julie Delpy starred (with the American Ethan Hawke) in two movies set in major cities over a short period in which the two lead characters talk a great deal together: "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" - both of which I loved. Clearly, Delpy - who writes and directs as well as acts - was inspired by writer and director of the two "Before ..." movies Richard Linklater and here takes on all three roles in this 2007 movie, supported in the thespian department by the American Adam Goldberg.
"2 Days ..." has a similar style and feel to the "Before ..." offerings - which is good - but there are differences: the American-Gallic couple are already an item, they are far from the only characters in the film, there is a bit more time and movement to play with, and there are more explicit sexual references. I really enjoyed it - insightful as well as amusing.
All credit to Delpy who, as well as the duties already mentioned, produced and edited the movie, did some song writing and singing, and cast her mother and father as her character's parents.
"2 Days In New York"
In "2 Days In Paris" (2007), Marion (Julie Delpy) was visiting her eccentric family in Paris with her American partner at a trying time in her New York-based relationship. Five years later, she is still living in NYC but now with a new partner called Mingus (played by the wonderful Chris Rock in under-stated manner compared to his exuberant stand-up comedy performances). This time, Marion's family are visiting her or at least her father (again played by Delpy's real father) and sister plus ex boyfriend are here (sadly Delpy's real mother - like her character in the previous film - has since died).
Again we have a mixture of English and French dialogue and lots of wry humour and sexual references, but new elements include Marion's sale of her soul to Vincent Gallo and Mingus's conversations with a cardboard cut-out of Barack Obama. It's all great fun and marks out Delpy - who again writes and directs - as a real talent.
"Two Days, One Night"
This French-language film is both written and directed by brothers Jean Pierre & Luc Dardenne and set in their native Wallonia part of Belgium, poorer than the Flemish north of the country and hard hit by the post-2008 recession. It is the complete antithesis of the Hollywood movie: slow and deliberate with no special effects or action sequences.
A small company has a vote of its workforce which decides that it would rather all the staff receive a bonus than take back a female colleague who wishes to return to work after a bout of depression. The woman at the heart of this moral dilemma is Sandra, played by the talented French actress Marion Cotillard, who has just a weekend to persuade her colleagues to change their mind. Essentially this is a film about solidarity - or lack of it - not just in the workplace but also at home and shows how different factors influence our decisions and how those decisions have consequences for ourselves and for others.
Very occasionally, I don't choose the film; it chooses me - as when I make an unexpected visit to a multiplex with a very tight time window and I've already seen the other movies in that window. This is how I came to see this teenage vampire movie which I guess is aimed at girls of a certain age. "Twilight" comes with a following, since it's the first novel of a series of four by American Mormon writer Stephenie Meyer, and the scriptwriter (Melissa Rosenberg) and the director (Catherine Hardwicke) are both women as well.
Given their very limited resources - this is a low-budget production with some dire special effects - the outcome is a fair one. Mainly this is due to the good-looking young stars: Kristen Stewart who is really sweet as Bella Swan and Robert Pattinson who is suitably edgy as Edward Cullen. But the locations - in Oregon and Washington states - give the work a distinctive feel and the soundtrack is rather good too.
In the wartime Battle of the Atlantic, a crucial element in the success of the U-boats was the Germans' Enigma encryption system. This film suggests that the turning point in the Allies' breaking of the code was the assault on U-571 by an American submarine crew led by Lt Andrew Tyler (played with some stoicism by Matthew McConaughey) in the Spring of 1942. In fact, the Enigma machine and code books were first captured from U-110 by a British boarding party from the Royal Navy's ship the "Bulldog" led by Lt David Balme and the incident occurred on 9 May 1941 - when the Americans were not even in the war.
"U-571" tries to compensate for this historical travesty by including in the final credits a dedication to the 'Allied' effort on Enigma and dates of two British as well as one US capture of vital material. However, I'm one of the few people I know who sit through such credits and, by the end of the war, the British had actually captured 13 Enigmas to the Americans' one. Is it really necessary commercially for Hollywood to portray the Second World War as consisting of heroics exclusively by characters of its own nationality?
Historical fallacies aside, this is a superior action-adventure movie and director Jonathan Mostow has created a fine addition to the long submarine genre flowing all the way from "Run Silent, Run Deep" (1958) to "Das Boot" (1981). He may have paid more attention to the technical details than the characterisation, but there is sustained tension and continual action, assisted by excellent special effects and superb sound. You can almost feel the sweat.
"The Ugly Truth"
Former model Katherine Heigl is a beautiful young woman with real comedic talent as an actress as evidenced by her performance in "Knocked Up", but it's a mystery why she should want to take a role which presents such a one-dimensional, utterly anal character as television producer Abby and a total enigma how such a sexist script could come from three women and Heigl herself could be one of the (eleven) producers. At least the unreconstructed male with whom she stars and spars - Gerard Butler as relationship 'expert' Mike - is given some back story to excuse his Neanderthal behaviour, but Abbey's persona is utterly inexplicable. There are some funny bits - especially the restaurant scene - but too much of the script is coarse and crude. The ugly truth is that this movie is like much dating, offering more than it delivers.
"The Unbearable Lightness Of Being"
The odd title of this film comes from the novel on which it is based written by Czech-born, France-based Milan Kundera. It tells the story of a sexually rampant surgeon called Tomáš (British-Irish Daniel Day-Lewis) who marries Tolstoy-reading barmaid turned photographer Tereza (French Juliet Binoche) but still has many lovers, most notably the free-spirited, bowler-hatted artist Sabina (Swedish Lena Olin). Really this rather long enterprise (almost three hours) is an erotic art film that somehow managed to attract a commercial budget, but it is by turns amusing and moving and always intelligent.
The timing of the tale is politically very signficant since it is set just before and after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia which brutally crushed the 'Prague Spring'. The timing of the production is equally significant - although unappreciated at the time. The film was released when Czechoslovakia was still Communist-controlled and therefore most of the shooting was in France, but the year after its release in 1988 the 'velvet revolution' overthrew Communism in Czechoslovakia which a few years later split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Following his well-deserved success with "The Sixth Sense", the young (29 year old) M Night Shyamalan has come up with another clever and original occult thriller which he wrote, produced and directed. It is often slow and deliberate, but always mesmerizing.
Again Bruce Willis is the leading character, but this time he has a strange alter ego in the form of the ever-able Samuel L Jackson. The precise relationship between the two characters is not revealed until the final seconds and, as with "The Sixth Sense", any further information will simply spoil the pleasure of the viewer with this accomplished, if not quite so powerful, successor to the earlier movie.
"Under The Skin"
I'm always ready to try a film that's different, but "Under The Skin" was such a disappointment. It is a dark work - both literally and metaphorically - but, above all, it is so utterly minimalist: minimal dialogue, minimal narrative, minimal comprehensibility. Often one complains that a movie did not explain everything, but this one explains nothing. It is based on a science fiction novel which I understand makes much more sense, but it seems to have departed widely from the book. The only saving grace is that one gets to see a lot of dark-haired Scarlett Jonansson - an alien with an appetite for lonely Scottish men - one way and another (way). But I have no idea why she made this film. It is tosh, pretentious tosh.
I always like a good adventure film and this one enjoyably fills an evening of television (although I first saw it at the cinema). It is a kind of "Die Hard At Sea" starring laconic martial arts expert Steven Seagal in an intellectually undemanding but action-packed caper. Tommy Lee Jones is wonderful as the villain who combines menace with humour ("Four seconds ahead of time. God, I'm good"), but ex-"Baywatch" babe Erika Eleniak displays little more than her (ample) breasts. Seagal is not noted for his dialogue, but I love the scene where Miss July asks him "So, what are you, some kind of special forces guy?" and he summons up all his thespian talent and responds: "Nah, I'm just a cook". In the next hour or so, cook and kook battle for control of the nuclear weapons aboard the soon to be decommisioned ship and there's no prizes for guessing who brings home the bacon.
Director Adrian Lyne - who gave us "Nine And Half Weeks" and "Fatal Attraction" - here provides some of the raw sexuality of the former with some of the chilling tension of the latter but in an altogether more prosaic and therefore more credible setting. Ed and Connie Sumner (Richard Gere and Diane Lane) have been married for 11 years and seem to have it all: a great-looking partner, an amusing young son, and a wonderful home outside New York. But Connie chances upon a younger Gallic male (Olivier Martinez) who lights her fire and incites Ed's ire. You just know it's going to end in tears, but the story is well-executed and stylishly shot, even though the ending is somewhat unsatisfatory.
As a massive film fan, I enjoy most cinema genres, but the horror movie is not generally one of them. I made an exception in this case because of my intense interest in all aspects of the Internet. I'm glad I did because this is a clever piece of work that has something to say about the need for caution in how we express and expose ourselves online through a medium where content is more-or-less permanent and ubiquitous. The message is especially relevant to young users of the Net who are those most likely to see the film. Directed by Georgian Levan Gabriadze and written and produced by American Nelson Greaves, this is a work of some talent.
The film is a classic case of how less can be more. Turning the tiny budget (a mere $1M) into an advantage, the entire point of view of the movie is the computer screen of a teenage girl interacting with five friends and a troll. The whole thing (83 minutes) is shot in something approaching real time. So the viewer is pulled into the narrative and has to pay constant attention as text is rapidly typed onto the screen and video links of the teens come and go. So, just after one has leaned forward to read a new piece of text, one is flung back by the sound of violence.
Although there have already been a couple of television programmes on the seismic events of 11 September 2001, this is the first feature film. There will, of course, be many more, but it is difficult to imagine a more stunning and impactful one. In a sense, therefore, it is ironic that the writer and director Paul Greengrass is British and that most of the filming was done at the Pinewood studio just outside London, using the inside of a salvaged Boeing 757.
The style adopted by Greengrass so effectively is an utterly sparse one. The hand-held camera work and rapid cutting give the whole thing the feel of a documentary. There is no preamble or scene-setting, no flash-backs, no explanations, no star actors. Instead the narrative is simply linear and the confusion self-evident. The research as to events and dialogue is meticulous, members of the aircrew are played by actual stewardesses and pilots, and many of the air traffic controllers and military personnel are playing themselves.
There may be no analysis or commentary but many of the messages are stark. The nearest F-16 was 100 miles away and the military knew nothing of the airliner's fate until four minutes after it struck the ground. Neither the President nor the Vice-President was in contact. They and we were totally unprepared for an event of this nature.
Since United Airlines flight 93 took off from Newark airport 40 minutes later than scheduled, the passengers were able to learn of the suicide missions carried out by the three other sets of hijackers. Since the time to elapse from the first jet slamming into the World Trade Center to the crashing of United 93 was around an hour, this film is able to adopt a real-time narrative.
The tension, as the 40 passengers gradually understand more about their dilemma and plan a last-ditch effort to gain control of the plane, is almost unbearable. The mobile calls to relatives and friends makes one's eyes well with tears. The timing and nature of the final shot - the actual crash and a totally black scene - is stunning.
This impressive and compelling work was produced in full co-operation with the relatives of the passengers and it is a fitting tribute to them, their bravery and their sacrifice.
"The Unknown Known"
"There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns - there are things we do not know we don't know." This was the enigmatic quote from American politician Donald Rumsfeld that inspired the title of this interview by acclaimed documentary maker Errol Morris. Rumsfeld had an astonishing career working for no fewer than four US presidents and serving twice as Secretary of State for Defense - once as the youngest holder of the position (1975-1977) and then later as the oldest holder of the post (2001-2006). In his second term as Defense Secretary, he was a principal architect of the so-called 'war on terror', sending troops into Afghanistan and then Iraq.
The fascinating testimony presented by Morris is both written and oral. Rumsfeld was famous for his blizzard of memos - known as "snowflakes" - and Morris managed to gain access to all the unclassified ones and to pursuade Rumsfeld to read out the most relevant to the documentary. Additionally Morris posed a series of searching questions in an interview shot over 11 days and recorded using the film maker's trademark "Interrotron" device which means that Rumsfeld is seen staring straight into the camera. It has to be said that Rumsfeld is a fluent writer and an articulate speaker and, after eight decades, is as sharp as ever, so there is no revelatory moment like David Frost's interview with Richard Nixon, but it is precisely his evasiveness and the charming manner in which he accomplishes this that is so revealing of a bizarre and (when given power) frightening character.
I saw "The Known Unknown" at its UK premiere in central London's Curzon Soho cinema in the presence of Errol Morris who made some opening remarks and then, after the screening, took a question & answer session. He compared this documentary with "The Fog Of War", his 2003 interview with another US Defense Secretary when he questioned Robert McNamara on the Vietnam war, and called the two films "bookends". He noted that McNamara was "deeply reflective", but characterised Rumsfeld's performance as "deeply unreflective". He called Rumsfeld "a skilful obscurantist" who was "obsessive with language" and had "a complete lack of irony", highlighting his "infernal grin".
The banality of much of Rumsfeld's language - "The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence" - reminded me of Peter Sellers' penultimate film "Being There" (1979) in which he played a simple gardener whose bland aphorisms about nature led to him being co-opted by America's political power brokers. Morris has done us a service in capturing all this for history in the hope that we can learn from history. What is totally unclear is why Rumsfeld agreed to the interview. This was Morris's last question to him and he responded: "I'll be darned if I know"."Unstoppable"
This is moviemaking by numbers with standard characters and an utterly predictable narrative - but, in the hands of action director Tony Scott, these are terrific numbers. There is Frank, the cool, old-timer who has been driving trains for decades (charismatic Denzel Washington), and Will, the cocky rookie conductor (good-looking Chris Pine), a difficult pairing who are about to face an even more difficult challenge, a runaway freight train the size of the Chrysler Building with enough explosive power to blow up Will's home town in Pennsylvannia. Apparently this scenario was inspired by real events.
It is a thoroughly entertaining ride with no scene and no dialogue wasted. From the opening seconds, we are starting to wonder and worry and the pacing is excellent with pauses for breath but no stopping in the rising tension. It's a good ride.
Link: the incident that inspired the movie click here
This French film was a massive box office success in its country of origin and nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award but, in the English-speaking world, it will not make the impact that it should. It tells the tale - inspired by a true-life friendship - of a most unlikely couple: a wealthy white man who is a quadraplegic following a paragliding accident (François Cluzet) and a black immigrant just out of prison (Omar Sy). Although somewhat simplistic, this uplifting story addresses issues like disability, class, race, and sexuality in a light-hearted, often very amusing, manner that cannot fail to lift the spirits.
It opens with a terrific Dolby stereo version of Ennio Morricone's gripping incidental music. From the beginning, the camerawork is inventive: high shots, low shots, revolving shots. We are in Chicago in 1931 for a gangster movie starring newcomer Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness and magnificent Robert de Niro as Al Capone. In fact, all the performances are excellent, with Sean Connery particularly engaging as an Irish cop with a Scottish accent.
The director is Brian de Palma ("Scarface") and he produces a stylish and exciting film with memorable lines and some dramatic and bloody scenes, including the death of the Connery character as we hear the opera "Pagliacci" and a sequence on the railway station steps that is borrowed from "Battleship Potemkin". As a gangster movie, it does not have the realism and depth of that all-time great "The Godfather" but, in its own way, it is most effective with pace, power, tension and humour. It is a classic of the genre.
Animation movies have become so much more sophisticated. It's not just that technically they are so good to look at but many now have interesting characters and captivating stories. "Up" is one of those. The opening sequence is as poignant a tale as youll ever see in an animated film, while the relationship between the two principal characters - 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Edward Asner) and Russell, a wilderness explorer 70 years his junior (Jordan Nagai) - is wonderfully portrayed. A floating house and talking dogs - "Up" has it all.
"Up In The Air"
This is not an easy film to categorise - which is a good thing. It's a kind of road movie, except that all the travelling is in the air as Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) aims to hit a personal (and meaningless) target of 10 million air miles. It's a sort of rom-com with Bingham meeting Alex (Vera Farmiga), his match as a hard-nosed executive who likes some fun on the side. There's an odd-couple theme as Bingham is teamed up with Natalie (Anna Kendrick), the very young newcomer to the corporate world who tries to outdo her companion in coldness. And the whole thing is a satire on the brutality of capitalist enterprise that sacks hard-working and long-serving staff with a management-speak that makes it sound as if the company is doing them a favour.
Whichever way you look at it, this is Clooney's film. He is rarely off the screen and gives a marvellously assured and textured performance as the mobile downsizer or "career transition counsellor" who at a personal level does not want to be burdened by anything or anybody (shades of Clooney's own reluctance to commit to a relationship). Credit must also go to young director (and co-writer) Jason Reitman, hot from his success with "Juno". If the film has an episodic narrative, this is clearly because it is based on a novel by Walter Kim with chapters based on Bingham's visit to different airports and different companies in various mid-western towns.
The economic context to the movie feels very contemporary since the release comes at a time of high unemployment in the United States (as elsewhere) as a result of the worst recession since 1929; yet the novel was published in 2001 and Reitman began work on a screenplay in 2002. An interesting touch is that almost all the people fired in the movie were real-life workers who had recently lost their jobs in St Louis and Detroit and were asked to say what they felt about the experience.
"The Usual Suspects"
"Who is Keyser Soze?" If you've never asked yourself this question, you'll be mesmerized by it at this end of this brilliant movie. Borrowing its title from a famous line in "Casablanca", this is a showcase for superior direction from 28 year-old Bryan Singer and fine acting from an ensemble cast including Gabriel Byrne and Kevin Spacey. It is a violent thriller with some strong action, a complicated plot and a clever twist at the end, as everyone struggles to identify the dreaded Hungarian gangster who has set up the whole project.
"V For Vendetta"
This is the 2005 film adaptation of the comic series published between 1982-1989 that achieved a new notoriety in 2011 when members of the anti-capitalist Occupy movement adopted the stylised Guy Fawkes mask worn by the eponymous libertarian cum terrorist. Although set in London, it was largely shot on sets in the Babelsberg studios outside Berlin (which I have visited) with a crucial final sequence filmed at the long unused Aldwych tube station in London (whose closed entrance I've walked past many times). Also, although many of the support parts are filled by familiar British actors, the two leading roles are taken by non-British thespians who nevertheless affect convincing English accents: English-Australian Hugo Weaving who is V and Israeli-American Natalie Portman as Evey who becomes his companion in arms.
These leading actors have very different experiences on set: we never see Weaving's face and he wears a long wig as well as mask and cloak, whereas Portman is in one sequence stripped down to a hospital-like gown and her face is the subject of unusual focus when she has to lose all of her hair. Characters in this movie - most notably V himself - are more complicated and nuanced than in most such fantasy tales and I was more impressed by the work and it provoked more thought than I was expecting.
Although V has some pretty special physical characteristics and skills, this is no super-hero movie but an altogether more grounded and usually much darker exposition of an avenger with contemporary themes around the need to fight for individual and collective liberty. As a Londoner who has worked in the Houses of Parliament, I had mixed feelings about a plot to blow up the building some four centuries after Fawkes failed and, as a peace-loving democrat, I was troubled by V's propensity to dispense summary justice with some relish, but his character had suffered cruelly and he was on a vendetta.
Oh dear, oh dear. This 2010 effort by the Americans to emulate the formula and the success of the British 2003 "Love Actually" produces a confused and limp offering. It must have looked such a great idea when pitched to the studio: a huge cast of stars, multiple storylines with cross connections, different takes on romance, lots of songs about love, and - even better than the Anglo film they would claim - Los Angeles (instead of London) and Valentine's Day (instead of Christmas).But it just doesn't work and only underlines how subtle and clever was the original version. There are just too many relationships going on with too much confusion in the tales and, above all, a really weak and saccharine script from Katherine Fugate. The best performance comes from Anne Hathaway but, if you just want to spot the stars, there's plenty on show including Ashton Kutcher and Jamie Foxx, Julia Roberts and Jennifer Gardner, Hector Elizondo and Shirley MacLaine. That's right, someone for guys and gals, young and old, white and ethnic, straight and gay. Except for a couple of nice little twists at the end, it is all so formulaic and predictable - and a little moralistic. "Valkyrie"
This is certainly a tale worth telling - the 1944 unsuccessful attempt on the life of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler by a group of dissident army officers centring on the aristocratic Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. Furthermore the director Bryan Singer has an exciting record with work including the first two X-men movies. And visually it looks good, being made at Germany's Babelberg studios (which I have visited) with much of the action centred on the Nazi Army Ministry (which again I have visited - it is now a Museum of the Resistance to the Nazis).
The film opens well and, after a dullish section, finishes strongly but that "Valkyrie" fails is primarily down to the poor casting. There are some fine British actors on show, including Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Terence Stamp (although it's hard to take comedian Eddie Izzard too seriously), but the short scientologist and American Tom Cruise as the tall, cultured German von Stauffenberg does not work at all.
Link: details of the plot of 20 July 1944 click here
This is a film that sounded promising. First, it has a starry cast including Dennis Quaid (a welcome return), Matthew Fox (an escape from "Lost"), Forest Whitaker (always engaging), William Hurt (looking presidential in a Gerald Ford way) and Sigourney Weaver (sadly underused). Then the plotting offered something a little different: the same assassination attempt shown through eight different vantages with the viewer gradually learning more before it is all knitted together in a frenetic concluding section involving a furious car chase.
It certainly moves fast enough and provides some entertaining escapism, but nothing is what it seems, the plot twists are increasingly unlikely, and the whole fandango threatens to collapse under its own sense of fantasy. Set in Salamanca in Spain, in fact only the aerial shots are the real Plaza Mayor with most of the the production located in the Mexican cities of Cuernavaca and Puebla. Salamanca is a common word for "trick" in Filipino which probably borrows from the Spanish colonialists. Like I say: nothing is what it seems.
What do you have if you take two Cruises and two Camerons? Four Cs and a B+, that's what. The first two Cs are Tom Cruise and Penélope Cruz who are playboy publisher David Aames and his newly-discovered love (both on and off-screen). The second two Cs are Cameron Diaz as Aames' "fuck-buddy" Julie and Cameron Crowe as both writer and director of this strange thriller set in New York with an appealing soundtrack.
Is David Aames demented or dreaming? Is he a murderer or a victim of a set up? Who knows? More relevantly, who really cares? If Aames seems thoroughly bewildered by what is happening to him, maybe you'd be confused if you had to choose between making love four times a night to someone like Diaz and having an idyllic relationship with someone like Cruz.
The movie - a remake of the 1997 Spanish work "Open Your Eyes" - tries hard to be clever and original and has some memorable scenes with Cruise often looking like the "Phantom Of The Opera", but it only partly succeeds, leaving me at least more than a little perplexed. In short, no more than B+.
Guerin was a Dublin journalist who exposed the role of the drug barons in Ireland and was threatened, then shot, and subsequently murdered for her crusading efforts a few days short of her 38th birthday in 1996. Seven years after her assassination, this worthy American film portrays her campaign in a testimonial style which focuses mainly on the ordeals she faced rather than the motivation for or methods of her investigations. As the film reveals, Guerin was not just immensely brave, but also reckless and not beyond criticism by others in the profession. Sadly the attempt to provide an up-beat ending does not sit well with the continued size and pervasiveness of the drug problem in Ireland.
As the eponymous campaigner, the Australian Cate Blanchett gives a very accomplished performance, Ciarán Hinds is convincing as her principal source, and Gerard McSorley is chilling as her assumed nemesis.
Link: Wikipedia page on Veronica Guerin click here
"A Very Long Engagement"
"A Very Long Engagement" is a bit too long, a bit too complicated, and ends a bit too abruptly but, these criticisms aside, this is a wonderful French film that is a refreshing antidote to so much simplistic Hollywood fare. From the director of Amélie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and featuring the same actress in the leading role, Audrey Tatou, this work has much of the feel and form of the earlier work and could be dubbed "Amélie Limps To Love". Here Tatou plays Matilde, a young Breton woman whose childhood polio has left her with a lame leg. Her equally young fiancé Manech, played by Gaspard Ulliel, is forced to serve as an infantryman in the nightmarish trenches of the Great War where he becomes one of five men sentenced to death for self-mutilation. In a convoluted sequence of flash-backs and revelations, Matilde discovers what happened to each of the men at the oddly-named Bingo Crépuscule section of the trenches, last of all to the love of her life.
Characteristic of Jeunet's work, we have a broad collection of colourful characters from a bicycle-skidding postman to a mysterious female assassin to a farting dog. The acting is uniformly spot-on with an unexpected cameo role from French-speaking Jodie Foster. There are some brilliant sets, ranging from the ultra-realistic trench and battlefield locations to recreations of early 20th century Paris, and some splendid sequences, including a scene of children on top of a lighthouse and another inside a makeshift field hospital housing a barrage balloon. The whole work is a richly-detailed, visual treat, with Jeunet using different colours and textures for the different locations and periods, and long after one has seen the movie one's mind revisits scene after memorable scene.
"Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
I'm not a constant Woody Allen fan - so I loved "Hannah And Her Sisters" and then was disappointed by "Scoop" - but this film, which he both wrote and directed, is something different. Of course, it does no harm that it is full of attractive people - Rebecca Hall as the restrained Vicky and Scarlett Johansson as the impulsive Cristina, two young American friends spending the summer in Catalonia, plus Javier Bardem as Juan Antonio and Penélope Cruz as Maria Elena, Spanish artists who once had the near-prefect marriage - and of gorgeous locations - Gaudí's Barcelona, of course, but also Oviedo and Avilés.
What makes the movie though is the relationships and inter-relationships, mainly between these four colourful and contrasting characters but also between Vicky and her fiancé and an older American couple who seem to foretell where one of the young women is going. The acting is very naturalistic and the script has its fair share of humour in a narrative that presents a shifting kaleidoscope of emotions. When the shaking stops, how different will things be? You might be surprised ...
"La Vie En Rose"
"La Vie En Rose" (literally "Life In Pink") is the 2007 French biographical film about the life of French chanteuse Édith Piaf. It has two great strengths: an outstanding performance in the lead role from Marion Cotillard who won an Academy Award for Best Actress (the first time an Oscar has been given for a French-language role) and the magnificent songs that made Piaf's career. But this is a dark film, both literally, with much of the action in shadows, and metaphorically, since Piaf was both a tragic and irascible character who died when she was only 47. The disjointed narrative do not help either.
To see a film on the life of America's 43rd president just four days after the election of the 44th president was a weird experience. Let's face it: George W. Bush and Barack Hussein Obama could hardly be more different - Republican and Democrat, shock and awe, literally white and black. Now radical director Oliver Stone (the same age as his subject and a contemporary at Yale) is not noted for always being subtle, but here he makes a real effort to be respectful and even understanding of Bush; yet the whole work teeters on the edge of parody - much more like "The Jon Stewart Show" than "The West Wing".
Josh Brolin is remarkably good as the eponymous president, looking and sounding as like Bush Jr as any actor could. Indeed several of the support roles involve very passable imitations of the principals, such as James Cromwell as Bush Sr, Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld, and Toby Jones as Karl Rove. The two black characters stand out for different reasons: Colin Powell (played by Jeffrey Wright) is sympathetically represented as warning against the invasion of Iraq while, by contrast, Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton) is portrayed as weak and sycophantic.
The eight-year presidency of Dubya is a rich source of momentous material, yet this movie comes across as surprisngly flat. The constant flash backs to Bush's youthful years do not help and a more chronological treatment would have worked better. The choice of songs and certain fantasy images show an unfortunate heavy-handedness. Above all, the central theme - that Bush Jr was always trying to impress and ultimately out do his unloving and unforgiving father, even to the point of toppling Saddam Hussein where the older man pulled back - is really just so much psychobabble.
The first time we see W. in the Oval Office he is discussing the use in his next speech of the chilling phrase "axis of evil". His Manichaean view of the world, underlined by his born again Christianity, was his fundamental flaw - and Stone's body of work too often suffers from the same fault.
"A Walk Among The Tombstones"
Once upon a time, Liam Neeson used to take on challenging acting roles - I'm thinking of films like "Schindler's List" and "Michael Collins". But, in the last five years, he seems to have specialised in less demanding, but probably more lucrative, action roles, notably his three "Taken" outings and now "Tombstones". Here he is not an ex CIA agent but a former New York City cop who is now a private investigator in the city. Based on a novel by Lawreence Block, writer turned writer-director Scott Frank tells a dark and unpleasant story involving two psychos who are so revolting that we almost feel sorry for the drug dealers they are trying to exploit. The sexual threat is more suggested than shown, which is why the film did not receive a tougher certificate, but it is enough to make for uncomfortable viewing.
"Walk On Water"
This is an unusual Israeli film, not least in that it is only partially in Hebrew, partially in German, and mainly in English. The explanation is that the two central characters - a young German man whose grandfather was a Nazi and a little older Israeli who is an accomplished Mossad agent - only have English as a common language and spend much of the film together, first in Israel and then in Germany. The good-looking leads are Knut Berger as Axel and Lior Ashkenazi as Eyal who go on a journey as much emotional and political as geographic.
Director Eytan Fox and writer Gal Uchovsky - a gay couple - have produced a work that raises so many complex issues about relationships - between straight and gay men, between Jews and Arabs, between Israelis and Germans - and so many moral issues - including suicide bombing, state assassination and private justice - that one has to forgive them for a number of implausibilities in the plot (that I could only discuss by spoiling your viewing).
Although I am not Jewish, I have visited Israel (including all the locations featured in the film) and I saw the movie in a synagogue in North London with close Jewish friends. Following the screening, there was a group discussion which revealed a spectrum of views on the extent to which Jews should 'live' in the past as compared to simply remembering it and to which today's Germans can or should be held 'responsible' in any way for the horrors of the Nazi era. The impact of "WOW" was such that it provoked deep thought long after this debate concluded which is a powerful recommendation.
"Walk The Line"
As musical bio-pics go, this is certainly superior fare, but how much you'll enjoy it might well depend on how much you like the genre and how much you appreciate the (country) music. This film was more my wife's choice than mine.
It is the story of the early professional life of the American singer Johnny Cash, "The Man In Black", set mainly in the 1950s and 1960s with a soundtrack of no less than 16 songs. We already knew that Joaquin Phoenix is a superb actor (from movies like "Gladiator") and here he demonstrates a fine singing voice too. The revelation is Reese Witherspoon, as Cash's singing companion and future (second) wife June Carter, who makes it clear both that she is a fine actress (not self evident from films "Legally Blonde") and has a good singing voice.
Considerable credit goes to James Mangold who laboured on the project for many years, working closely with both Cash and Carter (before they died within four months of one another), and then both directed and co-wrote it.
The odd title is actually an acronym: Waste Allocation Lift Loader, Earth-Class. This little robot unit is the last of a series originally intended to clean up a massively polluted Earth while humankind left the planet for a temporary five years which, after the failure of the project, has resulted in an absence of 700 years. The pacing and atmosphere of the movie would be remarkable for any work, let alone one of animation, with a long opening scene with little action and no dialogue. Even when another robot EVE arrives from outer space and a technical romance ensues, the dialogue is minimalist but the action accelerates at a exciting and satisfying pace.
Pixar have here given us outstanding work and Andrew Stanton, who conceived the story and directed the film, deserves special praise. The film is entertaining with action, humour and great visuals, but its is also subtly instructive with clear messages about the damage to the planet and to our bodies from our adoration of consumerism, making it appealing to children and adults alike. Many science fiction classics - from "2001" to "Silent Running" - are referenced, but the treatment is so original that "WALL·E" itself is destined to be a classic.
"Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"
In 1987, Oliver Stone directed and co-wrote "Wall Street" with Michael Douglas as a super-confident corporate raider Gordon Gekko ("Greed is good") and Charlie Sheen as his young acolyte. The real-life financial crash of 2008 was obviously a powerful inducement to Stone to return to the crime scene and 23 years later Stone again directs and co-scripts, Douglas is back as a Gekko who has served his jail term, and even Sheen has a small cameo. The young newcomers are Carey Mulligan as Gekko's estranged daughter and Shia LaBeouf as the daughter's partner. Other talent on show includes Frank Langella and Josh Brolin and even a 95 year old Eli Wallach.
This is a glitzy production that includes another hard-hitting speech by Gordon Gekko ("Money is a bitch that never sleeps!") - this time savaging the irrational exuberance that leads to speculative bubbles in over-complex and opaque financial markets. Sadly, however, the film pulls its punches by putting too much blame on one rogue trader than on the systemic crisis in modern capitalism and offering a trite conclusion to the tensions in the Gekko family.
"Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price"
This year (2006) has seen two hard-hitting documentaries exposing the unacceptable face of American capitalism: one on energy giant Enron and this one on retail hegemoth Wal-Mart. Enron went into bankruptcy and its most senior managers have been convicted, while Wal-Mart is still enjoying massive commercial success, but this film makes clear that this success is at a very high cost to individuals and communities.
Small businesses in small town USA are put out of business; staff are paid low wages and denied representation by a union; shoppers risk rape and robbery in the store's car parks; east Asian suppliers are exploited. Director Robert Greenwald illustrates all this with a succession of personal testimonies and emblazoned statistics that leave no room for sublety or doubt. The company itself only has an indirect voice through archive footage of CEO Lee Scott at a company rally messianically addressing loyal staff and then defensively in a television interview suggesting that any opposition is confined to a small minority.
The final section of the 95-minute film turns this tale of devastation into a call to arms by showing how well-organised local communities can and have resisted the onward march of Wal-Mart. This is not a balanced documentary but a powerful polemic that is a much-needed antidote to so much of the commercial propaganda to which we are all so subject.
Link: Wal-Mart watch site click here
"Waltz With Bashir"
Animation is not just for children - the French Persepolis" (about a girl in Iran) made that clear and the Israeli "Waltz With Bashir" (about the invasion of Lebanon) dramatically underlines the point. The Israeli work was written, produced and directed by Ari Folman and is based on his experiences as a soldier and his video of his exploration of the traumatic events some 20 years later. Like any really powerful film, the opening and closing sequences are stunning - but the intervening one and half hours contain so many moving and disturbing images - some simply surreal - that the animation plays in the mind long after the credits have rolled.
The title is a reference to Bashir Gemayel, the newly appointed President of Lebanon, who was assassinated on 14 September 1982 following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon on 6 June 1982. The assassination led the Israeli command to authorise the entrance of a force of approximately 150 Phalangist fighters into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, resulting in a massacre of at least 800 civilians. It is this horrific incident that is the emotional heart of the movie and the cause of Folman's mental repression.
Link: Sabra and Shatila massacre click here
Ultra violent and ultra silly, but with lots of action and special effects including bullets that bend, it is hard to imagine how this splatter of a movie attracted the likes of James McAvoy (struggling with an American accent), Morgan Freeman, Angelina Jolie and Terence Stamp.
When I was a youngster in the early 1960s, I used to travel down from my home in the north-west of England to spend a few days at my grandmother's house in the Midlands where I would sleep in a bedroom with a striking picture on the wall. It showed an utterly exhausted horse collapsed in thick mud with a soldier in First World War uniform kneeling down by the animal's head with a pistol in his hand. Underneath the harrowing scene were the words of the man to the horse: "Sorry, old friend". That image was in my mind as I entered the cinema to see "War Horse".The 1982 children's novel by Michael Morpurgo and the National Theatre stage version were both huge successes and film director Steven Spielberg has crafted so many wonderful films from "E.T." to "Saving Private Ryan" that I had high expectations for his cinematic adaptation of this story of a beautiful horse called Joey travelling from the peaceful English countryside of Devon to the hellish conflict in the trenches of north-west France, but I have to confess to a real sense of disappointment. Certainly there is much to admire here with wonderful composition and cinematography, some fine young British actors, and certain scenes - notably the two cavalry charges and Joey's run through No Man's Land - as outstanding. But I found the first hour too languorous and much of the film overly sentimental. At times, human characteristics were so obviously imputed to Joey - the same horse that had the eponymous role in "Sea Biscuit" - that I half-expected him to start talking (perhaps I've watched "Babe" too often). When death happens, it is so quick and/or distant that it does not really engage the emotions. The version of the English countryside that is presented to us is that of the chocolate box kind and the sunset at the end a throw-back to "Gone With The Wind", while the dialogue is often stilted. Sorry, Steven, but - in spite of the subject matter - too often the tone of this movie is more "E.T." than "Saving Private Ryan". It will undoubtedly be a great success with family audiences but a discriminating adult will feel let down.
"War Of The Worlds"
The combination of director Steven Spielberg and actor Tom Cruise - last paired in "Minority Report" - promises much and the vehicle of the 1898 H G Wells novel "The War Of The Worlds" seems like an exciting basis for their undoubted talents. The basic elements of the original story are retained, notably an alien tripod invasion of Earth with a Morgan Freeman opening narration quoting the first words of the novel and the ultimate defeat of the invaders through the same mechanism as offered by Wells. The transposition from late 19th century England to early 21st century United States is understandable commercially, but the abandonment of any mention of Mars and the absurd notion of aliens descending down lightning bolts to inhabit huge vehicles buried long, long ago weaken the credibility of the plot. A sequence involving Tim Robbins as a crazy survivalist (especially a cringe-inducing effort to sing a children's song) is also misplaced and unpleasant.
However, Cruise as always is very watchable and here dispenses with any special bravery or skills to portray a confused father desperately trying to save his two children, constantly scared, confused and on the run. Eleven year old Dakota Fanning is so good as his daughter that she is in danger of becoming the star of the movie. Where "WOW" scores big time - and I mean BIG time - is in the 400+ special effects generated by Industrial Light and Magic The opening sequence when the first tripod erupts from the city streets is brilliant and other scenes - notably the crashing of a Boeing 747 - are the exciting visions and sounds that beg to be witnessed on a large screen. This is Spielberg much more in "Jaws" and "Jurassic Park" mode than "ET" and "Close Encounters", but in the end it is more a case of "WOW" than "wow".
I don't do graphic novels so I haven't read the 1986/87 "Watchmen" comics/book by British writer Alan Moore, but I'm a huge fan of superhero films so there was no way I was going to miss the movie adaptation, especially as it is directed by the young American Zack Snyder whose "300" I enjoyed so much. It is certainly well worth viewing since, in many respects, "Watchmen" is a true orginal - a film like no other you've seen before. It is a visual treat, irredeemably dark, morally ambiguous, outrageously violent, frequently bloody, sometimes sexy, and featuring an eclectic soundtrack.
These are superheros who depart big time from the standard. They may have two identities, which is almost compulsory, but - except for superb fighting skills - they actually lack super powers, with the notable exception of Dr Manhattan who is not so much a superhero as a kind of god, and these are deeply flawed 'heroes', vindictive and violent, who - at worst - rape and murder.
Set in a counter-factual 1985 version of America, it is hard to know which is scarier - the idea of Nixon winning a third term, avoiding Watergate and winning the Vietnam war or the threat of nuclear Armageddon from a US/USSR conflict and difficult to know which is more incredible - that exposing one man to radiation can turn him into a demi-god or that humankind can cope so easily with the nuclear obliteration of 15 million (the largest death toll in any movie in history?). In the end, it didn't quite work for me, mainly because the narrative is so disjointed and the finale insufficiently dramatic. The current benchmark of quality for superhero movies is "The Dark Knight" and "Watchmen" simply does not have the pacing, excitement and virtuoso acting of that movie.
information on the original comic click here
information on the film adaptation click here
"The Water Diviner"
Since Russell Crowe came to the attention of cinemagoers worldwide in "L. A. Confidential" (1997), he has starred in some 25 films and given a series of terrific performances - most notably in "Gladiator" - but this is the first film that he has directed. He also takes the lead role as Australian rancher Joshua Connor, who loses three sons in the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915, so this is clearly a very personal movie for Crowe as well as for Australians generally in the centenary year after the conflict (director Peter Weir covered the battle more directly in his 1981 work "Gallipoli").
What makes Crowe's film interesting is that he treats sympathetically the viewpoint of the defending Ottoman Turks underlining their losses as well as those of the ANZAC troops (65,000 Turks dead and 46,000 Allies dead including 7,600 Australians), depicting the rise of Turkish nationalism and resistance against Greek invaders, and providing serious roles for Turkish actors. The battle scenes are well done and the cinematography is excellent.
What weakens the work rather is a degree of sentimentality, partly around the powers of divining but more especially around the relationship between the Ozzie farmer and a local woman played by former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko. Also the main British character has an appalling accent and is unfairly stereotypical. But overall this is a very commendable directorial debut by Crowe and augers well for his future career.
"The Way Back"
In 1955, a Polish army officer who was captured by the Russians in 1939 and sent to a prison camp in Siberia wrote "The Long Walk", an account of how he (Slavomir Rawicz) escaped the gulag with six others and managed to travel by foot across Siberia, Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, Tibet and the Himalayas before the surviving members reached India in 1941 - a staggering journey of some 4,000 miles. Did he personally do it? Almost certainly, no. Did anyone do it? Probably not. Does it matter? For the purposes of this film which tells that story, no. It is a cracking tale and Australian director Peter Weir has chosen to refer to Rawicz's book as a novel.
Weir is a terrific movie-maker who has not directed a film for seven years ("Master And Commander") and here he allies a great adventure with striking visuals and accomplished acting. The photography is by Russell Boyd and the shooting was done in Bulgaria, Morocco and India. The international ensemble of actors includes British Jim Sturgess as the Polish officer Janusz, Romanian Dragos Bucur as Yugoslav accountant Bucur, American Ed Harris as the enigmatic Mr Smith, Irish Colin Farrel as psychopathic Russian convict Valka, and Irish Saoirse Ronan as the Polish teenager Irena.
This may not be Weir's best work (that might be "Witness"), but this road movie without the road is well worth you joining for the stroll.
"We Were Soldiers"
Mel Gibson has now given us a trilogy of 'leadership in war' movies. Putting aside "Gallipoli" (where he was a mere foot soldier), he has led the Scottish against the English in "Braveheart", turned the tide for the Americans against the British in "The Patriot", and now he commands Custer's old unit in Vietnam. This is an account of one of the very few full-scale battles between American troops and North Vietnamese regulars which occurred in November 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley in the Central Highlands (recreated in central California). Some 400 US soldiers took on around 2,000 Vietnamese in a fire fight lasting three days and nights.
I've never been over-impressed by Gibson as an actor. He's fine in roles such as the wacky cop in the "Lethal Weapon" series, but I find him a performer of limited range. Nevertheless, here he has beefed up his body, adopted a gruff Southern accent and put on a smart uniform to enable him to give a more than adequate performance as the real life Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore. For Gibson, this is clearly a very personal endeavour. His company Icon co-funded and distributed the film and the director and screenwriter is his old friend Randall Wallace who wrote "Braveheart" (and "Pearl Harbor"). Gibson - himself a Catholic with a large family - obviously identifies with Moore who is represented as fatherly to both his children and his men. Ironically Gibson's own father moved the family from the USA to Australia partly so that his sons would avoid the draft.
Veteran Sam Elliott is good as the stereotypically tough, loyal and laconic second-in-command ("Sir, Custer was a pussy. You ain't"), but Madeleine Stowe is sadly under-utilised as Moore's stoical wife. By contrast with "The Deerhunter", "Platoon" or "Born On The Fourth Of July", this is very much an officer's view of the Vietnam war with working class characters given very little to say.
War movies will never be the same since "Saving Private Ryan". "We Were Soldiers" - like "Black Hawk Down" - presents a brutally visceral version of war in which we are left in no doubt of the terrible sound and awesome destruction of modern ordnance. Indeed there are so many similarities between these two films issued within weeks of one another. Both are based on books and show the essential role of the helicopter in modern warfare to both deliver and sustain ground troops and the all-decisive nature of air power; both involve US troops being massively outnumbered by local forces, inflicting far more deaths than they suffered, and having to fight by night as well as day; and, above all, both portray ill-conceived and ultimately failed American operations in an heroic light.
What distinguishes "We Were Soldiers" from so many other Vietnam movies is the patriotic and religious tone which is made easier by the timing of the incident in question. This was a period before the cynicism and chaos of the war had taken hold, when the Americans still thought they were right to be in this Asian quagmire. For the British viewer, this tone will not sit so easily, although one cannot fail to be stirred by the action and the music. However, I saw the movie with an American friend, who once wrote a book based on the recollections of 19 Vietnam veterans, and he confirmed my clear impression that American audiences - especially post-9/11 -will love it.
The DVD of this Arabic-language film was given to me by a British friend working in Beirut shortly after my visit to the city. It is set in Muslim side of Beirut at the beginning of the civil war in 1975 and it was written and directed by Lebanese-born 36-year-old Ziad Doueiri who worked as a cameraman on three of Quentin Tarantino's films.
In many ways, it is a very personal work: the central character, the teenage Tarik, is played by the director's young brother Rami and Rami's educated parents are loosely based on his own. In other ways, it has more universal themes, since it is a rite of passage movie that portrays the loss of casual innocence, accentuated by the experience of conflict - much like the British "Hope And Glory" which was one inspiration.
"West Beirut" is both emotional and amusing and it full of wonderful characters, but it probably helps appreciation of the film to know something of Lebanon's factional and fratricidal politics and the ending is rather abrupt and down-beat.
"West Is West"
In 1999, "East Is East" was a pleasurable and incisive look at the clash of different cultures in an Anglo-Pakistani family in a Salford set in 1971. Over a decade later comes a sequel of sorts, this film located mainly in the Punjab part of Pakistan a few years on. Although the director is different (Andy DeEmmony this time), the writer is the same (Ayub Khan-Din) as are some of the lead actors, notably Om Puri (actually from the Indian part of the Punjab), again outstanding as the patriarch struggling to give his youngest son an appreciation of his Pakistani culture, and Linda Bassett as his long-suffering English wife.
It is an uneven work, with some of the characters merely caricatures and some of the humour simply slapstick, but there are plenty of moving scenes - above all one between the English and Pakistani wives when neither can understand the other's language but both manage to convey deep understanding - and the locations and soundtrack are excellent.
The strange title comes from the legend of the Maori Whanghara tribe who trace their arrival on the east coast of New Zealand to the myth of Paikea who rode there on a whale. Centuries later, all the old traditions are dying and elderly Koro (Rawiri Paratene) is resolved to revive them by finding a new male successor to lead the community. However, the person most in tune with the old ways and most determined to lead the village is Koro's eleven year old grand-daughter Pai (brilliantly portrayed by first-time actor Keisha Castle-Hughes).
New Zealander Niki Caro both wrote and directed this rare work, based on the acclaimed novel by Witi Ihimaera. Clearly it was a labour of love with deep reverence for the Maori culture and stunning use of local scenery and archive footage of whales. This makes for the very antithesis of a Hollywood blockbuster, but pleasingly the simple and moving - if somewhat sentimental - tale has garnered many film festival awards.
I first saw this 2002 film in the cinema when it was originally released in the UK but, at that time, I had never visited New Zealand. I rented "Whale Rider" for a second viewing after a trip to New Zealand in 2013, when I learned more about Maori culture, which made the work all the more enjoyable."What Maisie Knew"
The adorable six year old Maisie (a very persuasive performance by Onata Aprile) lives in New York City where she is the subject of a bitter custody battle between her rock star mother Susanna (American Julianne Moore in an unsympathetic role) and her art dealer father Beale (British Steve Coogan in - for him - an unusual non-comic portrayal). Each parent co-opts an aide in the war, Susanna taking up with bar man Lincoln (the Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård) and Beale seducing Maisie's former nanny Margo (Scottish Joanna Vanderham). The twisting narrative is seen through Maisie's eyes as she is treated like a shuttlecock between the four adults who often behave more like children themselves.
It is clear where this story is going pretty early in the tale, but I found this small, independent movie genuinely moving and it had me talking to the television screen on which I viewed it. This is partly because I found it so evocative: I was myself the subject of a contested custody battle when I was eight (my mother won) and my first wife and I handled our custody case so, so differently (I had custody of our five year old son). But any viewer would find "What Maisie Knew" impressive because of the convincing performances and believeable situations.
"What Women Want"
A wonderfully alliterative and attention-grabbing title and a clever idea (macho man suddendly able to hear women's thoughts), but the treatment is less incisive than it could have been and goes for the simple laughs. Female co-scriptwriter and director, Cathy Yuspa and Nancy Myers respectively, work with Mel Gibson (in his first romantic comedy) and the talented Helen Hunt playing rival ad agency ideas people in a predictable, but quite engaging, work with cameo roles from Alan Alda, Marisa Tomei and Bettle Midler. Gibson is surprising good in a role outside his usual repertoire - willing to don tights, able to impersonate Sean Connery, and up to performing an old-fashioned dance routine.
This is not a film that I would venture to the cinema to see but, as an evening of DVD viewing, "Whatever Works" works fine. In many ways, it is traditional Woody Allen - he is writer and director, we are back in New York, and the lead character looks and sounds like a younger version of Allen himself. In fact, the central role of virulently truculent, former professor of physics Boris Yellnikoff was originally written for Zero Mostel in the 1970s, but the project was put aside when Mostel died in 1977 and the script has now been dusted down for Larry David.
An attraction of opposites - reminding us of Allen's own relationship - is presented by the arrival of the wonderfully named Southern belle Melodie St. Ann Celestine played by the delightful Evan Rachel Wood. Threats to the odd pairing come successively from Melodie's mother, father and young admirer, all caricatures rather than characters.
There are sections - especially at the beginning - delivered straight to camera and the lines are theatrical rather than natural, but this is a romantic comedy with touches of philosophical insight which was never going to change the world but might just modify how you look at it for an enjoyable hour and a half.
"What's Eating Gilbert Grape?"
Directed by the Swedish Lasse Hallström, this is a odd, small, but enagaging film with some odd characters not all of whom are small. If fact, one of them - Gilbert's mother Bonnie - is played in her first movie role by 500lb Darlene Cates. Part of the fun in watching this work now is to see some stars whose career has really taken off. Notably there is Johnny Depp, here playing shoulder-length haired Gilbert, a quiet pivot of the strange Grape family and a world away from his subsequent roles as Captain Jack Sparrow in the "Pirates Of The Caribbean" series. Then there is Leonardo DiCaprio (only 19 at the time of this role) who gives an impressive performance as Gilbert's younger brother, the mentally handicapped Arnie. Other stars to enjoy are Mary Steenburgen and Juliette Lewis, both playing women who represent part of what is eating Gilbert.
"While We're Young"
It feels as if we're back in "Greenburg" territory with "While We're Young" made four years later, since we have the same writer and director (Noah Baumbach) and the same lead actor (Ben Stiller) playing a similar central character. This time, Stiller is Josh, married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a middle-aged married couple who find themselves hooking up with Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a couple in their twenties, who remind the older pair of the freshness and spontaneity of youth while he struggles professionally and she laments their inability to become parents.
The female roles are underwritten and, while Driver is good, this is really Stiller's film. The trouble is that he is such an irritating character, unable to complete a long-running project to produce a boring documentary and foolishly trying to recapture his lost youth. There are some funny scenes and situations, but this is an uneven work with a sequence at a hippy retreat proving particularly silly.
This 1954 classic - the first movie in Vistavision - is as schmaltzy as they come with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye playing ex-GI singer-dancers who team up with a sister act (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen) to help out their former general (Dean Jagger). It is all very obviously done on sets and the dialogue is particularly corny, but the dance numbers add some life to this wooden work and the famous "White Christmas" song opens and closes the show.
"White House Down"
Often Hollywood movies come in pairs, so 2013 saw two that, a decade or so after terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, felt able to represent an assault on another iconic American building: the office of the President. First out of the trap was "White House Down" which I saw at the cinema and rather enjoyed. "Olympus Has Fallen" was released later and I waited until it was on DVD to catch it on rental.
The basic plot of the two movies is remarkably similar: bad guys seize the White House and capture the President before attempting to take over control of all US missile forces, while a military helicopter attack fails and a lone agent succeeds with a kid in the middle of the mayhem. The major difference is that "WHD" had twice the budget of "OHF" and deploys much more special effects to give us bigger explosions and more aerial sequences.
However, in my view, "WHD" is inferior to "OHF": the capture of the White House is just too easy, the motivation of the attackers too personal, and the storyline too jokey, while Jamie Foxx is not as convincing a President as Aaron Eckhart and Channing Tatum does not come over as tough as Gerard Butler. But, heh, both are entertaining enough if one suspends all belief.
In the summer of 1995, 26 year old American writer Cheryl Strayed took on a backpack weighing nearly half her weight and made a 1,100-mile hike from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border which she subsequently wrote about in a memoir entitled "Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail" that topped the "New York Times" Best Seller list for seven consecutive weeks and has been translated into more than 30 languages. Even before it was published, actress Reese Witherspoon - who was so good in "Walk The Line" - optioned it for this film, so that she could both produce it and take the lead role, giving a wonderful portrayal of a deeply troubled young woman.
There are two problems with making a film of this kind. First, while all cinema is necessarily episodic, "Wild" is a whole series of mini episodes with no grand scenes or dynamic narrative. Second, nothing really special happens to Strayed on the trail (the transformation is internal) and, while much happened in her life to drive her to this strange journey, these scenes are quite brief and lacking in detail. It is, therefore, a real tribute to Witherspoon, who is rarely off the screen in nearly two hours, that the movie works and is so moving.
Witherspoon is helped by an intelligent script from British writer Nick Hornby. Director Jean-Marc Vallée ("Dallas Buyers Club") shot the film on location in California and Oregon and it looks terrific, while never minimising the physical ordeal involved in such a challenging and lonely quest. Utimately this is a tale of redemption - as Strayed puts it: "I'm going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was" - and, in a sense, it is redemption too for Witherspoon who gives her best performance since she was Mrs Johnny Cash ten years ago.
Wikipedia page on Cheryl Strayed click here
interview with Cheryl Strayed click here
Paul Giamatti is a terrific actor with a deceptively naturalistic style and I really enjoyed his big screen work in movies like "Sideways" and his small screen performance in the series "John Adams". Here writer and director Tom McCarthy provides Giamatti with an appealing role as Mike Flaherty, a middle-aged lawyer in a small New Jersey town who is facing a hard time financially and makes a wrong decision that nevertheless ultimately has some welcome consequences.
The decision and the consequences revolve around the aged Leo (Burt Young) who is in the early stages of dementia and his weird teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer). Along the way, Mike has to wrestle with his conscience, while Kyle wrestles with a high school team, with both coming out on top in a tale that is perhaps a little too neat and oddly amoral but often wryly amusing and eminently watchable.
"The Wind That Shakes The Barley"
British director Ken Loach always makes films that are political in the broadest sense and several - such as "Carla's Song", "Land And Freedom" and this one - are explicitly about real-life political situations in another time and place. The enigmatic title is taken from a poem by 19th century poet Robert Dwyer Joyce and the subject matter is the Irish fight for independence from Britain in the early 1920s. In this powerful film as in the other two, Loach requires the viewer to work hard because the strong Irish accents make the dialogue difficult to follow and the internecine politics may be obscure to those not versed in Irish history.
The story is told throught the conflicting perspectives of two brothers: Teddy (Padraic Delaney), an early recruit to the armed struggle who is later ready to accept the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and Damien (Cillian Murphy), initially reluctant to take up arms but then unwilling to support the Free State. As in "Land And Freedom", there is a scene involving a prolonged political debate - an unusual feature in movies - and, although, both sides are enunciated, it is clear that Loach as always favours the more radical position.
"The Wind That Shakes The Barley" makes an interesting contrast with that of "Michael Collins" which covers similar ground and was produced 10 years earlier.
Gerrard Winstanley (1609 – 1676) was an English Protestant religious reformer and political activist during the period after the English Civil Wat under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. He was one of the leaders of a movement which called itself the True Levellers, was known by others as the Diggers, and could be characterised as a form of Christian Communism.
This little-known and well-intentioned film about the radical movement - directed and co-written by Kevin Brownlow - will not be to all tastes. Visually, it reminds one of the best of early cinema such as that of Eisenstein: 4:3 ratio, black and white, distant shots of figures, close up shots of faces, a variety of framed shots. And it is a vivid and authentic reaction of the period. But much of the acting is very amateurish and there is a lack of both characterisation and narrative.
If Hollywood blockbusters or feel-good rom-coms are all you really enjoy, then you'll have to give "Winter's Bone" a miss - it's far too slow and bleak and the authentic local dialogue is often a struggle. But, if you like to try films that are different, you'll find that this fits the bill wonderfully. It shows a United States - both socially and geographically - that we rarely see in the movies: rural, white, and dirt poor, eking out a living in the Ozarks of Missouri.
At its core is an outstanding performance from young actress Jennifer Lawrence who plays 17 year old Ree Dolly, whose father is missing, leaving her to fend for her traumatised mother and two young siblings. If that is not challenge enough, their home is about to be repossessed because it is the bulk of a bond set against the appearance in court of her lawless father. So she needs to find him and soon and she is determined to do so, whatever the obstacles and the cost.
"Withnail & I"
This film was released in 1987 and has become a cult work, but I resisted watching it for some two decades because I did not believe that I would like the characters or the subject matter. Staying with friends on the Isle of Wight one weekend, they enthusiastically put on the DVD of one of their favourite films and - guess what? - I was put off by the debauchery of out of work actors Withnail (Richard E Grant) and 'I' (Paul McCann) and by the constant drinking, smoking, drug-taking and all round foulness. I can accept that writer-director Bruce Robinson has crafted some good lines and that Grant gives an outstanding performance, but I found the characters reprobate and the work indulgent.
"The Wolf Of Wall Street"
Imagine the ambience and characterisation of "Wall Street" combined with the first person narration and manic energy of "Goodfellas" and you begin to anticipate the content and style of "The Wolf Of Wall Street", but nothing quite prepares you for the scale and frequency of the drug consumption (notably methaqualone and cocaine), the nudity and sex (full frontals galore) and the profanity (an estimated 569 versions of the f-word), not to mention abuse of a goldfish and a misdirected piece of ham. No wonder the film was independently funded. Which mainstream studio would want this product? But director Martin Scorsese, now in his 70s, has given us another powerhouse of a movie. It was nominated for five Academy Awards although it did not win any.
Set over no less than three hours, this is the true-life story of American stockbroker Jordan Belfort and based on his memoirs of the same name. Leonardo di Caprio, in his fifth collaboration with Scorsese, gives a storming performance in the eponymous role with some wonderful 'inspirational' speeches. The impressive castlist includes Matthew McConaughey and Jonah Hill as fellow moneymen and Margot Robbie as Belfort's second wife, while cameo roles include Rob Reiner, Joanna Lumley and even - in the final moments - Belfort himself.
This is a black comedy which lampoons both the acquisition and experience of being rich. It could be argued that the film is moral in that it records the reality that Belfort served 22 months in federal prison for a "pump and dump" scheme that led to investor losses of approximately $200 million. But ultimately I was saddened by the movie because it represents the perpetrators of this huge scandal as amiable buffoons rather than ruthless crooks and it has nothing to say about the misery suffered by so many gullible, small-time investors.
Link: Wikipedia page on Jordan Belfort click here
Wolverine is the fulcrum of the X-Men franchise, appearing in every one and clocking up far more screen time than any other character. He had his own movie with "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and he does so again here but, whereas the 2009 film was a look back at his life of centuries, this one - after a scene set in 1945 Nagasaki - looks forward a little to a time after "X-Men: The Last Stand" when he is still mourning the death of Jean Gray and has attempted to withdraw from society. It is a darker work than other "X-Men" forays, being a tale of existential angst as Logan struggles with the curse of immortality and the loss of so many friends.After Dougray Scott had to pull out of the role in the first "X-Men" Australian Hugh Jackson has made the role totally his own. The hair, the beard, the T-shirt, and of course those adamantium claws are all his. What makes this sixth "X-Men" adventure particularly different and entertaining is that it is largely set in Japan (although it was mainly shot in Jackman's home country Australia).
So Wolverine is presented as a ronin - a samurai with no master - and meets a collection of exotic players, some of whom are allies - beautiful Mariko (former model Tao Okamoto) and playful but accomplished Yukio (Rila Fukushima) - and some of whom - Mariko's husband Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and her former lover Harada (Will Yun Lee) - who may or not be on his side. We see a more vulnerable version of Wolverine as his powers of healing start to diminish and there is a moving scene as he is brought to a halt by a succesion of arrows in the back.
Will he survive? Well, put it this way: he's already signed up for "X-Men: Days Of Future Past".
"The World Is Not Enough"
Growing up as an adolescent in Britain in the 1960s was for me very much about the Beatles and Bond. I read all 14 of Ian Fleming's books and, over the 37 years of the franchise, I've seen each of the 19 movies as they appeared. "World" is Pierce Brosnan's third outing as 007 and he is now very assured in the role. In many ways, this is classic Bond with all the standard ingredients: guns, gadgets and girls, exotic locations and above all superb action. Yet this one manages, under the direction of Michael Apted, to offer a little more subtlety of plot and characterisation: Bond does not always understand what is going on and is not in the peak of fitness, Elektra King - played very well by France's Sophie Marceau ("Braveheart") - is genuinely enigmatic, and even the villain Renard - our very own Robert Carlisle ("Trainspotting") - is less one-dimensional than the likes of Blofeld. Bond is the most successful franchise in the history of the cinema and, on this excellent showing, there's plenty of life left in it yet.
"The World's Fastest Indian"
I doubt very much that I would ever have seen this 2005 film about New Zealander Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) if I had not gone on a conducted holiday in the country eight years later. Our tour director decided to relieve the boredom of a long coach journey by showing the movie in less than ideal viewing circumstances. This is the unlikely but inspiring tale of how Munro spent years building a 1920 Indian motorcycle, the eponymous bike on which he set a land-speed world record at Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats in 1967. The film is often funny, occasionally moving, and always (like its subject) quirky.
"World War Z"
Summer blockbuster + Brad Pitt. Heh, that's all I need to know. I'm in. From the apocalyptic vision presented on the poster, I thought it would be a disaster movie or a science fiction adventure. Imagine my surprise then when I found that I was attending my first zombie movie since "I Am Legend" (2007). Maybe I should have known this earlier, but maybe the former United Nations investigator played by Pitt should have known something was up with the world before he took his family driving in downtown Philadelphia where suddenly all hell lets loose. I'm glad I opted for the 2D rather than the 3D version. I can only get so close to zombies.
It's a really good opening and the pacing is then well done with lots of racing around the world and scary encounters interspersed with brief periods to catch one's breath, but the final resolution of the crisis is lame and very oddly located in Cardiff of all places. Apparently the whole thing cost a staggering $400M which can buy you lots of zombies and, thanks to the wonders of CGI, at times there are a lot of zombies.
The film is capable of all sorts of political interpretations. The United Nations - especially its agency the World Health Organisation - is presented in a favourable light which is a counter to the US Republicans who seem to think the UN is a secret vehicle for world domination. Israel is portrayed as sensibly building a wall against the zombies which can be seen as endorsement for the wall around the West Bank. The solution to the 'war' - which is really a pandemic - is scientific rather military which might be a call for less dependence on force to solve world problems. The zombies themselves - innocent humans who are slaughtered without hesitation or thought - could be a metaphor for Islamic fundamentalists or even all Muslims. Or maybe this is just a well-crafted, but ultimately somewhat silly, zombie movie.
I first remember Mickey Rourke as the suave lover in "Nine 1/2 Weeks" (1986) but his career has since bombed big time and, a couple of decades later, as the eponymous sports figure he's almost unrecognisable as a beefed-up but worn-out has-been not unlike the man in real life. Yet he utterly inhabits this role as Randy 'The Ram' Robinson in an outstanding portrayal.
As for supporting star Marisa Tomei, I first recall her in "My Cousin Vinny" (1992) where she was terrific and showed a promise that has never really been realised, before appearing here in a brave role where she appears almost naked as Cassidy, the archetypal tart with a heart. She is by turns sexy and sweet in a wonderfully engaging performance. So here we have both a come-back and a come-on.
Directed and produced by Darren Aronofsky, this is a movie which might initially be thought of as simply "Rocky" for wrestlers and it does play to some of the same themes, but ultimately we're given something different, something a little less traditional and more honest.
"Wuthering Heights" (1992)
Only recently have I got round to reading the Emily Brontë classic of 1847 and, having finished it, I immediately wanted to view this 1992 British film version. It is a faithful adaptation in terms of both narrative and language but, although it is filmed in North Yorkshire, both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange are represented as much larger and grander than I had imagined them. One other criticism: the dance scene is not in the novel and is incongruous because the Grange does not do entertaining.
A notable strength of director Peter Kosminsky's work is its casting. The bewitchingly beautiful Juliette Binoche plays both Catherine Earnshaw and her daughter Cathy Linton and one can imagine why a man would go mad for love of such a woman. As the tormented and cruel Heathcliff, Ralph Fiennes is credibly dark.
Another great virtue of this film version is that, unlike all the other movie adaptations of this enigmatic novel, it covers the whole story, rather than stopping at the death of Catherine. The novel is a long one covering three decades, so no film can depict all the incidents, but arguably the most pivotal scene is when Catherine declares her intention to marry Edgar Linton while confessing her love for Heathcliff and this scene is there in this movie.
"Wuthering Heights" (2011)
Only months after I read the 1847 Emily Brontë novel and saw the 1993 film adaptation, along comes yet another version of this enigmatic work. Director Andrea Arnold has taken a bold approach to her interpretation that, like all movie representations of books, has its strengths and weaknesses.
The boldest feature of the film is its casting of Heathcliff as black (Solomon Glave as the youngster and James Howson as the self-made man). Brontë describes Heathcliff as notably dark and Arnold - who co-wrote the script - has taken the character a significant step further in a manner which underlines Heathcliff's difference from the country folk. The accents are well done with young Cathy (Shannon Beer) perhaps better than older Catherine (Kaya Scodelario). The photography is wonderful with stunning views of the Yorkshire Dales (such a contrast to the more frequent very tight shots) and the sound is brilliant with a real sense of the wild natural setting.
Set against these undoubted virtues, it has to be said that the dialogue is so sparse (and sometimes muted) that, unless one has read the novel, it's often unclear what's going on and, even if you've read the novel, you sometimes yearn for the film to get a move on and, while some of the exchanges are taken straight from the novel, others are so crude that one cannot imagine Brontë ever penning such vulgarities. The leisurely pace means that, like all except the 1992 version, this one can only deal with the first half of Brontë's uncomfortable, indeed bleak, tale, so that one does not see the full, sustained vindictiveness of the anti-hero.
In the summer of 1980, I was in the blistering heat of New York City and took refuge in an air-conditioned Times Square theatre to see this musical. I loved it. Some three decades later, I endeavoured to recapture the magic by renting the DVD. I had to admit that the acting and dialogue are both dire and it is terribly corny, but the music, singing, dancing and roller-skating are so exuberant and the treatment so colourful and inventive that I went with the flow and enjoyed the movie all over again. It's a starring vehicle for the lovely Olivia Newton-John but it's a delight to see Gene Kelly back in action as well and the Electric Light Orchestra provide some lively songs. Someone should revive it as a stage musical.
I love science fiction and fantasy films because they are the most escapist of movies and best differentiate the cinema from other art forms like the theatre. So I really looked forward to the 'X-Men" and hoped that it would come close to the brilliance of "The Matrix", but sadly, while there are some excellent special effects and a few thrills, it is not in the same class.
Certainly it is a visual treat with no less than ten superb looking mutant characters with a variety of spectacular powers. Newcomer Australian Hugh Jackman is particularly convincing as the metallicly-enhanced Wolverine, but overall the casting is fascinating and includes once child star Anna Pacquin from "The Piano", the British Shakespearean actors Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, and three former models, Halle Berry ("The Flintstones"), Famke Janssen ("GoldenEye"), and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos.
However, the film lacks effective pacing and compelling narrative, with the damsel in distress ending being particularly weak. At least the message is more meaningful and liberal than most SF movies: mutants - like ethnic minorities, or all groups who are perceived as different - can be good or bad and we should not be too quick to judge.
Rule One of successful sequels: reprise the main characters. The noble Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his friend Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the sinister Magneto (Ian McKellan) and his aide Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), and most of the other mutants from the original movie are back with their varied gifts. Rule Two: introduce some new characters. So this time we have Colonel Stryker (Brian Cox), a human who is as nefarious as any mutant, and some new mutants, including blue-skinned, German-speaking (really!) Kurt Wagner (Alan Cumming) and metal-taloned Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu). Rule Three: better the effects. While some of the scenery looks obviously artificial, generally the effects are extremely well-done with some great form-changing sequences.
Rule Four: develop the narrative. Ah, there's the rub .. The pacing of the sequel is better than the original, because we don't have all that scene-setting, but instead more sustained action. But the storyline is weak, when it isn't confused. And the script - with the rare good line ("You are a god among insects") - is banal. Where the X-men franchise scores over super-heroes such as Spiderman or Daredevil is that there are so many special powers to display. The down-side though is that the multitude of players allows no space for character exploration or development. So, the film is fun, furious but ultimately froth. I expected a lot of the original and was a rather disappointed but, this time, I knew what to expect and it delivered on that limited level.
"X-Men: The Last Stand"
Bryan Singer directed two passable X-Men tales, but left this third outing for the mutants to Brett Ratner (three "Rush Hour" trips), while he went off to direct "Superman Returns". The other distinguishing feature of this sequel is that there is a strong narrative idea - the discovery of a 'cure' for mutancy - so that the plot is easier to follow, although the full political potency of such an interesting concept is not explored. As with the two earlier films, there are some superb special effects and entertaining action sequences.
The great appeal of the X-Men franchise is the multiple variations in the extraordinary powers possessed by them and how these work with and against each other. So many of the old favourites are back, including the noble Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his colleagues Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and - in a more developed role - Storm (Halle Berry), the maniacal Magneto (Ian McKellan) and the wonderfully exotic Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), and crucially the super-powerful Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), although this time it's unclear where she stands among these opposing forces. Then, as always, we have some new characters to entertain us, such as hairy and blue-skinned Beast (Kelsey Grammer), huge-winged Angel (Ben Foster) and the unstoppable Juggernaut (a typecast Vinnie Foster).
Cleverly the whole thing comes in at half an hour shorter than "X-Men 2" so that, at 104 minutes, it doesn't outstay its welcome. It all comes together in a climactic (and climatic) battle set on Alcatraz Island with Golden Gate Bridge playing a spectacular role (although the whole thing is actually shot in Vancouver). Of course, the good guys win but there are some losses and the final seconds of the movie creates the opening for a further sequel ...
"X-Men Origins: Wolverine"
After the original three "Star Wars" movies, there was a long interval and then we had another three providing the back story to the initial trilogy. After the original three "X-Men" films (2000, 2003 & 2006), it looks as if - after a mere three-year wait - we're going to have another series explaining how the various mutants acquired their special powers, starting with the steel-clawed Wolverine (the Australian Hugh Jackman). The idea makes some sort of commercial sense, but one of the great strengths of the franchise was the variety of exotic powers on display and the interaction between their use by benevolent and evil mutants and an "Origins" series is always going to be weak on this dimension.
"Wolverine" opens promisingly with a series of short scenes set in 1845, the American Civil War, the two World Wars and Vietnam war when Wolverine's brother-in-arms is the increasingly mean-minded Victor (an able Liev Schreiber). Government agent Stryker (Danny Huston) is the chief protaganist as he develops various embryonic mutant powers, but we are missing impressive female characters this time with a weak Lynn Collins as Kayla the only offering. There are some fun action sequences but, if you've seen the trailer, you've seen the very best bits. So, in short, entertaining enough but well short of its potential to exhibit some real characterisation and originality.
By the way, if you sit all the way through the credits (as I always do), you'll see a tiny clip which acts as bridge to the first "X-Men" movie.
"X-Men: First Class"
Having seen the previous four X-Men movies and in varying degrees enjoyed them all, I wasn't going to miss this fifth outing and by and large I was not disappointed. Like the last three episodes of "Star Wars" and the J J Abrams version of "Star Trek", this is prequel (as well as something of a reboot) which explains how familiar characters became the ones we know so well. Above all, we meet young versions of Charles Xaxier/Professor X (a chippy James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (an impressive Michael Fassbender) and learn how the former finished up in a wheelchair, how the latter acquired his helmet, and how the two became mortal enemies.
British director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn - who first burst on the scene with "Layer Cake" - sets most of the narrative in the early 1960s at the height of the Cold War (although I don't remember skirts being that short or the stealth aircraft being available then), so we are presented with an alternative vision of the causation and conclusion of the Cuban missile crisis. Lots of mutant powers and special effects are on display which keeps the action moving and the entertainment levels high. Call me weird, but I'm a sucker for a blue-skinned, shape-shifting woman and Jennifer Lawrence is especially appealing as Raven/Mystique.
"X-Men: Days Of Future Past"
Including "The Wolverine", this is the seventh outing for the X-Men of the Marvel Comics franchise and Bryan Singer who helmed the first two, is back as director. He's not the only one who's back. Thanks to a time travel plot, we have both the old (Patrick Stewart) and the new (James McAvoy) Charles Xavier/Professor X and the old (Ian McKellen) and the new (Michael Fassbender) Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Fassbender is my favourite of this talented quartet). Lots of others return too: Wolverine, Mystique, Storm, Beast, Iceman, and more beside. So there are a plenitude of characters and powers on display here.
That's not all. a complicated narrative means that we have good mutants, bad mutants, past mutants, future mutants, one who manages to be in both the future and the past, and another who contrives to have a conversation between his past and future selves. Are you still following me? Do pay attention at the back.
So it's not always clear exactly what's going on in this complex choreography, but it is loads of fun with some terrific scenes even in the 2D format in which I (deliberately) chose to watch it. I especially enjoyed a freeze-time scene where a mutant called Quicksilver gets to do his stuff and a sequence in which Magneto raises an entire game stadium before putting it to original use. Now it's three years since Jennifer Lawrecne took over the role of Raven/Mystique from Rebecca Romijn and, in that time, Lawrence has become a major star, so it's not surprising that in this movie she is given a bigger role and it is a delight to see her in action.
The James Bond films are the longest running and most profitable franchise in the history of the cinema, so it's not surprising that there are regular interpretations of the genre. On the 40th anniversary of 007's movie début comes a new kind of action hero, an extreme sports fanatic who is reluctantly pressed into state espionage in a film with many references to both the characters and situations of the Bond movies.
Vin Diesel (born plain Mark Vincent) has the physicality and boyish charm that enable him to pull off this variation as the muscle-bound and heavily-tattooed Xander Cage who - thanks to a vast cast of stunt men and expensive computer graphics - performs some spectacular escapades. The whole thing is utterly mindless but enormous fun - just leave your brain at the door, enjoy the ride, and look forward to the sequel.
By the way, much of the shooting was done in atmospheric Prague which is my favourite city, so I recognised many of the locations and even the speed boat which carries its deadly cargo down the River Vlatava in the concluding climax (I actually saw the craft on the river during one of my visits).
"The Young Victoria"
Queen Victoria was Britain's longest-serving monarch, reigning for an incredible 63 years (1837-1901) and the abiding image of her is an aged and dour woman, but this film presents a very different picture, the run-up to and the early period after her taking the crown at the tender age of just 18. It was a challenge for Emily Blunt, still only in her mid twenties, to carry a major movie in this way but she gives a fine performance, by turns vulnerable, assertive, impetuous, and amorous.
Diana, Princess of Wales, famously asserted that there were always three people in her marriage to Prince Charles and her royal predecessor Victoria - albeit in a different sense - had many people in her courtship with and marriage to her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (Rupert Friend), most notably Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), and this account makes plain the personal and political manoeuvring around the teenager as she sought her independence.
It is a fascinating history tale by French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée but, as a film, fails to excite or engage, since the script by Julian Fellowes does not come up to the standards of his work for "Gosford Park". Splendid settings and costumes are not enough.
Footnote: Sarah Ferguson, once a member of the British royal family, was a producer on the film and one of her daughters, Beatrice, has a non-speaking and uncredited cameo role as a lady-in-waiting.
"Your Sister's Sister"
I would see the beautiful and accomplished British actress Emily Blunt in anything and last viewed her in "The Five-Year Engagement". While this was a big, Hollywood romantic comedy, "Your Sister's Sister" is a small, independent rom-com with a more serious edge. Playing opposite Blunt is Rosemarie DeWitt as her sister and Mark Duplass as the brother of her ex-boyfriend. These three virtually occupy the whole 90 minutes and have plenty of (largely improvised) dialogue in a movie which some might find wordy but I felt was incredibly naturalistic and engaging.
The film was both written and directed by Lynn Shelton and might be thought of as a woman's movie but I would recommend it to anyone interested in human relationships for its sensitive, yet amusing, exploration of sibling relations, different forms of love, and the desire for parenthood.
"You've Got Mail"
As you'e reading this review on the web, it's a fair bet that you use e-mail, so you have to see this movie which is effectively an on-line romance courtesy of AOL's Instant Messaging system. This is a reuniting of the team that made such a success of "Sleepless In Seattle" (1993) - the dependable Tom Hanks, the cute Meg Ryan, and writer/director Nora Ephron - in what essentially is a remake of "The Shop Around The Corner" (1940) that could be called "Sleepless In Cyberspace". This time we have a modern setting as Joe Fox (a.k.a. NY152) and Kathleen Kelly (a.k.a. Shopgirl) fall in love in spite of being rivals in the book-selling market of New York City. It's all entirely predicable, but charming, funny and romantic.
"Zero Dark Thirty"
The title is never explained, but it is military jargon for 30 minutes after midnight, the time that the raid on the Abbottabad compound was launched, and apparently it refers also to the darkness and secrecy that cloaked the entire decade-long mission to capture or kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (or "USB" as he is referred to sometimes in the movie). The film reunites the winning team of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, who were responsible for the brilliant "The Hurt Locker", and who have now produced a stunning piece of work.
When bin Laden was eliminated by SEAL Team Six on 2 May 2011, it was obvious that there would soon be a film about the exploit, but few would have guessed that the director would be a woman, the lead character would also be a woman, the focus would be on the intelligence-gathering operation rather than the military planning of the raid, and the whole thing would be so lacking in machismo and so non-triumphalist. All these unexpected features, plus outstanding acting, brilliant cinematography and superb sound, make this a superlative exercise in film-making.
The narrative is in the form of a triptych: a deeply disturbing set of interrogations involving torture, a painstaking and obsessive pursuit of intelligence links to the courier, and then the audacious raid into Pakistani territory under the noses of the country's equivalent to West Point (depicted in almost real time). Linking the three segments is Maya, the female CIA analyst on whom we have no background information, played by Jesica Chastain who confirms her status as one of the finest actresses of her generation.
In this long, but gripping, film, only one scene did not work for me: when a CIA chief lambasts his team for failing to find their man. This scene apart, the whole movie is utterly absorbing in its authentic presentation. There are clearly conflations and mistakes in the telling of this true story, but it is clear that Bigelow and Boal have had access to people who know a lot about this unique operation and have helped the creation of a work of great verisimilitude and power.
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.
Last modified on 9 July 2015
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