Dad’s Army (2016)

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Dad's Army

D: Oliver Parker / 100m

Cast: Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, Blake Harrison, Daniel Mays, Bill Paterson, Mark Gatiss, Sarah Lancashire, Felicity Montagu, Alison Steadman, Emily Atack, Holli Dempsey, Julia Foster, Annette Crosbie, Ian Lavender, Frank Williams

Those of a certain age will remember the original UK TV series that ran from 1968 to 1977. It was immensely popular, with episodes regularly hitting the eighteen million mark for viewers, and it spawned a radio version, a stage version, and in 1971, there was even a movie featuring the original cast. Even today, repeat showings of Dad’s Army garner viewing figures in the low millions. It’s a national institution, and one of the few shows in the UK that pretty much everyone either likes or has a soft spot for. In short, it’s that good.

And now we have a remake to contend with, an updating (of necessity) of the cast – though series’ veteran Frank Williams does return as the vicar – and an attempt at recreating past glories with a slightly modern slant attached. When the project was first announced in 2014, the reaction amongst fans wasn’t as enthusiastic as the makers would have hoped, and when the trailer was first shown in cinemas in late 2015, some audiences gave it a less than warm reception. The general consensus seemed to be: this can’t be any good… can it?

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The short answer is no. This version is so disappointing that for much of its running time, viewers will be wondering how the makers could have got it so badly wrong, and with such consistency. It’s obvious from the opening scenes that find the platoon attempting to capture a bull, and which lead to their running scattershot across a field while the camera adopts the POV of the bull, that this isn’t going to be the warmly humorous affair that the series was, or as cleverly constructed. And as the movie continues, introducing its tired plot centred around the Allied invasion in 1944 and the search for a German spy, it becomes abundantly clear that whatever merits Hamish McColl’s screenplay may have had, they’ve not been transferred to the screen.

In this version, as opposed to the series, Captain Mainwaring (a game but badly undermined Toby Jones) is portrayed not as the officious prig that he was on TV but as a bumbling idiot. Sergeant Wilson (Nighy) was always the quiet Lothario, but now we’re asked to believe that he would fall so easily and in such a headstrong way for a woman from his past, the worldly-wise journalist Rose Winters (Zeta-Jones) (he was her tutor at Oxford, which raises all sorts of questions that thankfully the script doesn’t want to explore). And then there’s the rest of the platoon: nervous Corporal Jones (Courtenay, going from the sublime 45 Years to this farrago), addled Private Godfrey (an admittedly well cast Michael Gambon), doomy Private Frazer (Paterson), upbeat spiv Private Walker (Mays), and dopey Private Pike (The Inbetweeners’ Harrison). If nothing else, it’s a great cast, but it’s also a cast who are given so little to do in real terms (other than to keep advancing the plot – there’s an incredible amount of exposition here) that one ultimately wonders what was the point of hiring them.

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When the best you can do with actors of this calibre is have them stand around in a church hall for no better reason than to see how terrible they are as a Home Guard – which we already know – and then repeat the same three or four more times, it shows up the paucity of ideas on display. The rivalry between Mainwaring and Wilson, so beautifully enacted by Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier on TV, is retained, but with Mainwaring appearing so petulant and bullying in his responses to Wilson that all the subtlety of their relationship is lost, abandoned possibly from the first draft. Corporal Jones’s nervous anxiety in the face of danger is poorly channelled by Courtenay (who never seems comfortable in the role), while Private Pike’s innate stupidity is bolstered for some reason by his quoting famous lines from the movies of the period and being made to look like Errol Flynn (and all to little effect). Only Gambon succeeds in beating the odds, making Godfrey endearingly silly in his dotage, but then the character isn’t given anything else to do other than be endearingly silly, so Gambon can’t go wrong.

And then there’s the plot, the kind of hackneyed attempt at combining contemporary concerns with light humour that the series would have done more justice to, and more effectively, in under half an hour. The original scripts by Jimmy Perry and David Croft were tightly constructed, beautifully observant of their characters’ foibles, and the humour always arose from those foibles; everything was in service to the characters. Here it’s the opposite, and the characters are shoehorned into a plot that never gets off the ground (unlike a certain number of tanks). Thankfully, the script doesn’t attempt to hide the identity of its German spy (and their identity is easily deduced from the trailer), so that’s one hurdle it doesn’t have to stumble over in the dark, but it does lay a massive egg in the form of Mark Gatiss’ Major Theakes, a martinet senior officer with an unexplained limp and a penchant for fitting the war in around his leisure activities. It feels like Theakes is there as a satirical nod to the incompetencies of the command structure, but if so, he’s out of place and would be better off appearing in a World War I tale instead.

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The movie is also one of the blandest, most visually depressing movies to watch in some time, its dour colour palette and compromised colour range doing little to engage the senses beyond the red dress worn by Zeta-Jones. Even the outdoor scenes seem to have been filmed only on days when the skies were overcast and/or gloomy. And the final shootout is so devoid of tension and excitement that you can only hope it’s all over with as quickly as possible.

If it seems unfair to judge Dad’s Army 2016 with the original show, then it’s because the original was so good, and this isn’t. This is laboured, uninspired, woeful stuff in places, and not a tribute to the enduring qualities of the TV show in any way, shape or form. Even the attempts to squeeze in the various catchphrases from the show are awkwardly handled, and some you might even miss as you fight to maintain a decent level of attention. With the show having gained such a level of respect and admiration and affection over the years, to have this released now, and to be so badly put together, begs the question that’s asked here quite often: why didn’t anyone realise how bad this was when they were making it, or was it all too late if they did?

Rating: 3/10 – another example of a UK TV sitcom given a lacklustre cinema outing, Dad’s Army should stand as a warning to other movie makers looking to adapt a small screen favourite; with a script that forgot to include any jokes, or anything that an audience that could react to by laughing out loud, this should be avoided by anyone who loves the series and who doesn’t want that love tarnished by what’s been attempted here.

The Queen of Ireland (2015)

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The Queen of Ireland

D: Conor Horgan / 82m

With: Rory O’Neill

Unless you’re a part of the Irish LGBT community, or have been to one of her shows in a number of cities worldwide, it’s unlikely that you’ll have heard of Panti Bliss, the drag queen alter ego of Rory O’Neill. And you may think that a documentary about her would focus on O’Neill’s life and his experiences of being a gay man in a country where homosexuality was only legalised in 1993. But there’s a bigger story here, and one that the makers of The Queen of Ireland couldn’t have foreseen would happen when they first began filming.

In January 2014, O’Neill appeared (as himself) on RTÉ’s The Saturday Night Show. He and the presenter discussed homphobia in Ireland and as part of his comments, O’Neill alleged that some individuals in Irish journalism were homophobic. This resulted in the TV station being threatened with legal action, and in order to avoid being taken to court, RTÉ paid compensation amounting to €85,000. And then on 1 February 2014, Panti appeared onstage at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and made a Noble Call speech in response to RTÉ’s actions and about his own personal feelings as a homosexual man living in Ireland. As a result of this, Irish gay rights began to be discussed more openly and more seriously in the Irish government, and in May 2015 the country held the first referendum on same-sex marriages.

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What begins as a heartfelt and very charming introduction to an instantly likeable personality, with plenty of input from O’Neill’s family, friends and associates, would have been entirely acceptable if the movie’s focus hadn’t strayed any further than that. O’Neill is an engaging screen presence by himself, confident, self-deprecating, politically and culturally aware, and quite witty in his approach to the way in which being Panti has made his life so rewarding. And Panti is genuinely good company to spend time with, her outrageous look (“a big cartoon woman”) and friendly, approachable demeanour doing a lot to mollify any notions of prejudice. She’s funny, vivacious, passionate, and more confident than O’Neill is likely to be without the wig and makeup. We see some of her earlier incarnations, and there’s a definite progression in terms of Panti developing her cabaret style, and her character as a whole. It’s informative, enjoyable stuff, and if there’s only one problem with it all, it’s that we don’t get to see Panti onstage in all her glory for any real length of time.

But then there’s that TV interview, and the whole tone of the movie changes, as it becomes a probing examination of LGBT rights in Ireland, and how homophobia, and its endemic nature, comes to be challenged at the highest level. The movie also steps up a gear, and the issue of homosexuality comes to the fore, as O’Neill and Panti find themselves at the forefront of a cause that will lead to a major change in the rights of LGBT people in Ireland. Panti becomes an icon, the unofficial face of change, and through it all we see O’Neill maintain a quiet demeanour that reflects his determination to remain humble and unaffected by his sudden increase in fame and public awareness. He’s also very astute, and very aware of what the referendum will mean if it’s successful, and what it will mean if it isn’t.

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The nature of homophobia is perhaps best revealed in two short passages: the speech Panti gives at the Abbey Theatre (perhaps the best description of homophobia and its effects that you’ll ever hear), and a speech given in the Irish legislature attacking the way in which RTÉ failed to uphold its duties as the national broadcaster. These two speeches are supplemented by shots of emotive posters put up by groups opposing the idea of same-sex marriages, and the movie, without resorting to impassioned hysterical outbursts or relating extreme homophobic rhetoric, makes its point in a much more effective way, allowing the viewer to feel that they’re not being led by the nose into supporting Panti without appreciating both sides of the argument (something that Panti does very cleverly).

Throughout all this though we never lose sight of Panti the entertainer, and O’Neill the individual behind the public persona. It comes as a bit of a shock when, without warning, O’Neill reveals he was diagnosed as HIV+ in 1995, and the awkward effect it’s had since on his dating – just when do you let the other person know, and how much do you really hope it won’t make a difference? But O’Neill is self-assured – and self-aware – enough to ensure that being HIV+ doesn’t define him, and watching him ten years on he looks the picture of health.

After the referendum, O’Neill returns to his home town of Ballinrobe to make a one-off appearance as Panti (also her first appearance there). There are several touching moments with his family, in particular when Panti is getting ready in her parents’ bedroom, where as a young boy she used to watch her mother getting ready and putting on her makeup. It’s an unexpectedly affecting moment, and yet another example of how O’Neill has managed to stay grounded as an individual throughout all the ups and downs of his life so far. And it’s gratifying to see that despite thousands of public appearances and shows, Panti can still be nervous when faced with an audience of people she’s known since childhood.

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What makes The Queen of Ireland so rewarding is the way in which its director has assembled the footage from the various stages of O’Neill’s life, and made each period as interesting and informative as all the others. There’s not a dull, uninteresting moment in the whole movie, and O’Neill is someone the viewer can warm to right from the start. Whatever your views on LGBT rights, or homosexuality in general, this is a movie that promotes an honest, healthy attitude to both sides of the argument, and is to be commended for doing so unreservedly.

Rating: 9/10 – humorous, poignant and candid, The Queen of Ireland treats its central character and the political discourse of recent years in Ireland with a refreshing lack of bias (though it would be very difficult to take a disliking to Panti on any level); without losing sight of the man behind the makeup, Panti’s story is an uplifting one that speaks for itself and is well worth taking a look at.

Flightplan (2005)

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Flightplan

D: Robert Schwentke / 98m

Cast: Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sean Bean, Kate Beahan, Erika Christensen, Michael Irby, Assaf Cohen, Marlene Lawston, Greta Scacchi

Every once in a while a movie comes along that is one part absurd, one part stupid, and two parts ridiculous. Back in 2005 that movie was Flightplan, a modest thriller starring Jodie Foster as super-anxious widow Kyle Pratt who’s travelling with her six-year-old daughter Julia (Lawston), from Berlin to New York by plane after the unexpected death of her husband (whose body is travelling with them in the hold). Hours into the flight, Kyle awakes from a nap to find that Julia has disappeared. Panicked, she accosts passengers and cabin crew alike in her efforts to find her daughter, but everyone tells Kyle the same thing: no one has seen her, not even the flight attendant, Fiona (Christensen) who saw them on board.

The plot thickens when Kyle tries to enlist the aid of the captain, Marcus Rich (Bean), who is initially sympathetic, even though a check of the plane’s manifest reveals the seat Julia was sitting in is officially empty. A search of the plane is conducted, and as expected, Julia isn’t found. When Kyle insists she and the crew search the cargo hold and the avionics section, Rich finds her abrupt, pushy attitude hard to handle. He finds things even harder when he receives notification from the morgue that has shipped her husband’s body, that Julia is also dead, killed at the same time as her father. Kyle vigorously denies this to be true, but now everyone sees her as the deluded, grieving widow. With the aid of the flight’s air marshal, Carson (Sarsgaard), Rich does his best to contain the situation from getting any worse.

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And then it gets worse. Kyle accuses two Arab passengers (Irby, Cohen) of being complicit in Julia’s disappearance and attacks one of them. Carson intervenes but in the ensuing scuffle, she gets free. Carson chases after her but one of the Arabs intercepts her and throws her to the floor and she is knocked unconscious. When Kyle comes to she finds herself talking to a therapist (Scacchi) who nearly convinces her that her grief over her husband and daughters’ deaths have caused her to imagine that Julia is still alive (as this is easier to deal with). Kyle is almost convinced but sees evidence that Julia is alive, and she redoubles her efforts to find her. She eludes Carson and gets up into the roof of the plane where she causes the emergency oxygen masks to drop down and the loss of lighting throughout the plane.

Her efforts at sabotage allow her to go below decks to the cargo hold. She opens her husband’s coffin just as Carson catches up with her. In handcuffs and with the captain diverting the plane to land in Newfoundland, Kyle doesn’t have long to find her daughter and work out why she’s been abducted in the first place. Can she find out who’s behind it all, stop them, and get her daughter back? Are you kidding? Of course she can, she’s Jodie Foster.

Watching Flightplan again so long after seeing it for the first time is a strangely unrewarding experience. Memory – that elusive mistress – has covered the movie in a soft rosy blanket and if pressed, offers up a 7/10 rating, confident that it won’t be questioned too closely. But isn’t that the nature sometimes of first-time viewings, that with the passage of time some movies take on a brighter, shinier hue than was actually the case? Flightplan is definitely one of those movies, its high altitude hysterics and gaping plot holes you could fly a 747 through – oh, wait, they actually did – seemingly impervious to criticism eleven years ago because the movie was a whole lot of fun. But now with the dubious benefit of a second viewing, it’s a movie that’s revealed in all its lacklustre glory (oxymoron intended).

FLIGHTPLAN, Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, 2005, (c) Touchstone

Now it’s true we don’t always expect air-tight screenplays that follow every logical line when it comes to thrillers, especially so-called “high concept” ones. And sometimes, the ones that only come close to credibility by accident are often the thrillers we can enjoy the most, but Flightplan misses out on even this by virtue of two very grave errors made right from the start. The first is that it casts Jodie Foster as a grieving widow who may be hallucinating the existence of her daughter. Right away, the idea that Foster could be hallucinating anything, no matter how sad or grieving her character may be is patently absurd (that’s the first part, remember?). She’s Jodie Foster; she only ever plays strong women. And secondly, her daughter disappears on a plane, which in itself is a variation on the hoary old locked-room mystery, so of course she’s been abducted. Any other explanation would be just plain stupid (and that’s the second part).

The movie battles against these issues valiantly, but soon resorts to running Foster around in circles in her efforts to discover her daughter’s whereabouts. All the while she looks like she’s about to have a coronary, so prominent is the vein in her forehead.  But she perseveres, and is helped/hindered/helped by Sarsgaard’s dopey-looking air marshal (he really does look like he’s going to nod off right in the middle of a scene). With so few of the cast as plausible suspects for the villain role, Sarsgaard becomes the obvious choice, and despite the presence of Bean. But then he’s ruled out of the competition, then he’s back in again – oh wait, now he’s just been nice again. Yes it’s designed to add tension to a plot that lacks any kind of edge, but it only succeeds in being annoying and ridiculous (part three), though not quite as ridiculous as the reason for Julia’s abduction in the first place, which makes no sense at all and is patently ridiculous (and there we have it, part four).

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Still, Foster is good value, even when she’s running down aisles like a champion sprinter, or punching out stewardesses, and she’s as watchable as always, imbuing Kyle with that patented inner strength that Foster, as an actress at least, possesses in abundance. Sarsgaard limps along behind her in comparison, trying to find a way in to a character who appears to have no inner life at all and exists purely for the script’s lazy benefit. Bean gets to play exasperated at various points, but is compensated by being handed the movie’s best line: “I am responsible for the safety of every passenger on this plane – even the delusional ones!” Sadly, everyone else is forgettable, but that’s because their roles are.

Schwentke directs in a bland, perfunctory style that does nothing to elevate the material (not that much could), and signals his desire early on to focus exclusively on Foster, and to the detriment of everyone else. Florian Ballhaus’s cinematography shows Berlin in the bleakest light possible before trying to make us go “Wow!” at the glamorous interior of the plane, and there’s a turgid, ineffective score from James Horner. All of which goes to prove that high concept thrillers need a whole lot more than a committed lead and a hokey script to be successful.

Rating: 5/10 – Flightplan plays like a toned-down Die Hard of the skies, but with its central plot and storyline proving too uninspired for comfort, it’s left to Foster to keep things moving and the audience from straying; if you want to see an imperilled Foster trapped in a confined space, see Panic Room (2002) instead.

Misconduct (2016)

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Misconduct

D: Shintaro Shimasawa / 106m

Cast: Josh Duhamel, Alice Eve, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, Malin Akerman, Byung-hun Lee, Julia Stiles, Glen Powell, Marcus Lyle Brown

Released as a Lionsgate Premiere (rough translation: not good enough to be shown in cinemas), Misconduct is an early contender for Worst Movie of 2016. It’s ostensibly a thriller but veers off in so many different directions in an effort to be interesting that in the end it’s just a jumbled mess. There’s not even the germ of a good idea here, the script by Simon Boyes and Adam Mason resorting to cliché after cliché and line after line of awful dialogue in its efforts to appear somehow less than the sum of its parts (or the parts of its sum even).

It’s a movie where everybody is up to no good. Sadly, the audience knows this right from the start, so any “revelations” or twists and turns have the effect of inducing a headache rather than any surprises. The storyline tries to be convoluted in an attempt to mystify anyone unfortunate enough to watch Misconduct, and the basic plot – Hopkins’ pharmaceutical CO is accused of deliberately falsifying bad test results – struggles even to be relevant within the movie’s own structure. Once a badly attached blackmail plot is added to the mix, it gives the movie carte blanche to be as stupid as it wants, a move it takes full advantage of.

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As well as the blackmail plot – instigated by Hopkins’ unbalanced girlfriend (played by Akerman) and involving Duhamel’s ambitious attorney – Misconduct features a dire attempt at adding depth to two of the characters’ lives, Duhamel and his moody, depressed wife Eve, by having them recovering from the loss of a child during pregnancy. Why this subplot is even present is a mystery the movie never answers, along with the presence of Lee as a corporate-sponsored assassin who for some inexplicable reason is dying from some unstated disease (again you have to ask yourself why any of this has been included).

There’s more, but as the movie continues piling absurdity on top of absurdity, the unlucky viewer will find themselves wondering if this is intended more as a parody than a thriller, and will be laughing accordingly, but if it is then no one informed the cast, who struggle through scene after scene with resolutely straight faces and a grim determination to get through it all and reach the end with a degree of integrity still intact. Duhamel is a capable actor, but here he’s as wooden as a fence post and spends most of his screen time looking petulant, or as if there’s a bad smell under his nose (there is, and it’s coming from the script). Matching him for petulance, and using staring off into space a lot as a character trait, Eve gives probably the worst performance of her career so far, as she tries to distance herself from everyone and everything connected with the movie.

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Akerman is a poor femme fatale, her attempt to seduce Duhamel having all the allure of a drunken one-night stand with someone you hope doesn’t give you their number the next morning. As mentioned above, Lee is the assassin who’s close to death, and he sleepwalks through his role making supposedly “deep” comments and trying to appear above it all by refusing to acknowledge that this is one acting gig his agent should be apologising for profusely. And then there’s Stiles, an actress who really should be given better roles than the one she has here, a Kidnap and Response expert who gets to shout at Hopkins a lot and look suitably badass (and that’s basically it).

You get the picture: Misconduct has its fair share of bad performances to match its bad script and wayward direction – Shimasawa, making his first feature, gives an approximation of what a director should be doing – but then there’s Hopkins and Pacino, two Oscar winners now content (like De Niro) to throw away their talent and make terrible movie after terrible movie. Hopkins has the larger amount of screen time, but phones in his performance, and falls back on the kind of aloof, manipulative, all-knowing characterisation he’s played way too often in recent years. When you’ve got Hopkins in a movie and he’s playing a powerful businessman you just know in advance that he’s not going to be putting much effort in, and that’s exactly the case here. Amazingly though, Pacino is worse, his law firm boss coming across as a pale imitation of his role in The Devil’s Advocate (1997). He’s also upstaged by his own hair, which in one scene, looks like the worst comb-back in history. Why either of them took on their roles is the one abiding mystery the movie cannot solve.

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From starting out as a legal thriller – you get the idea the movie might just be about bringing Hopkins’ fraudulent CO to justice, and the hunt for the evidence to prove his negligence – it soon descends into a welter of murder and violence and betrayal on all sides, as the script decides it needs to be more punchy than in its earlier scenes. It leads to one of the movie’s more absurd scenes where Duhamel, having gouged his stomach escaping from the police, buys some glue in a convenience store and uses it to close his wound. And of course, he then runs around as if it had never happened. Lazy, lazy, lazy.

There is an attempt at providing a central murder mystery to keep the audience intrigued, but regular viewers of this kind of movie will spot the culprit from a mile off. But this is in keeping with the movie’s inability to come up with anything new or unpredictable, and again, regular viewers of this kind of star-happy dross will have resigned themselves to the movie’s inevitable outcome(s) long before they reach the end. The makers probably didn’t intend the title Misconduct to be so relevant to its own content and execution, but in one respect they can be applauded: they made sure the movie certainly lived up to it.

Rating: 3/10 – with only its standard, by-the-numbers production effort propping it up in the ratings stakes, Misconduct is a woeful, massively disappointing movie that falls down each and every time it tries to be interesting; with awful dialogue and some truly atrocious performances, it’s a movie that defies explanation as to its existence, and ranks as one of the worst “corporate/legal thrillers” in recent memory.

Aaaaaaaah! (2015)

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Aaaaaaaah!

D: Steve Oram / 79m

Cast: Steve Oram, Lucy Honigman, Toyah Willcox, Tom Meeten, Sean Reynard, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Julian Barratt, Holli Dempsey, Noel Fielding

If you’re familiar with Steve Oram, then you’ll know that he’s an actor/comedian who has popped up in a wide variety of UK TV comedies – Tittybangbang (2006-07), Heading Out (2013) and a slew of others – and that he was also responsible for the quirky Sightseers (2012). He’s always provided a somewhat skewed approach to the material he’s created himself, often coming up with characters who seem removed from daily life, and who don’t always see things in the same way that “normal” folk do. But with Aaaaaaaah!, he’s taken that removal and come up with something that’s both original and challenging.

What Oram has done is base Aaaaaaaah! on a simple premise: what if Man had involved in terms of walking upright and creating a civilisation we can all recognise, but in the process, retained the behaviours, instincts and language of the primates we’ve “evolved” from? The result is fascinating to watch, but it needs to be said at the outset: this is not a movie that everyone will either “get” or like. It’s absurdist, has obviously been shot on a very low budget, doesn’t really contain any jokes (though it is very funny), and features a game cast who are asked to behave in ways that you won’t have seen in a Planet of the Apes movie.

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The first scene acts as a kind of litmus test for the rest of the movie, and many viewers may well decide that if what happens is an indication of what’s to come, then they’ll be better off watching something else. We see two men – Smith (Oram) and Keith (Meeten) – making their way through a wooded area until they come to a stop by a fallen tree. There they pause, and while Smith sits on the fallen tree, Keith wordlessly massages Smith’s thighs. Then Smith takes a framed picture out of a pocket and begins crying. Keith clears a space on the ground and Smith gently places the picture there. While Smith continues to cry, Keith unzips his fly and urinates on the picture. Once he’s done, Smith urinates on it as well, but before he zips back up, Keith dabs away any remaining urine from the end of Smith’s penis (and in close up).

If you’re put off by this, and do decide to stop and watch something else, then you’ll already be missing the point, and you’ll be missing out on a movie that really does provide the viewer with something they won’t have seen before. Keith’s actions are completely in keeping with grooming in male primate groups, and this is what the movie is about, seeing our notions of civilised behaviour undermined by the rudimentary behaviour of our primate ancestors. From Smith and Keith we move on to meet Denise (Honigman), her mother Barabara (Willcox), older brother Og (Reynard), and Ryan (Rhind-Tutt), who has ousted Denise’s father Jupiter (Barratt) as the household’s alpha male (Jupiter now sleeps against the fence at the side of the house). Here we get to see how this family lives and copes with each other, both in terms of human ambition – we first see Ryan trying to set up a new flatscreen TV – and primate-based emotions.

An argument over food between Ryan and Barabara leads to a one-sided food fight, and Denise leaves the house. She meets Helen (Dempsey) in a park and they decide to go and do some shoplifting. Caught by the manager and his deputy (Fielding), they only escape thanks to an injudicious desire for sex on Fielding’s part. Back home, a party is in full swing, one that’s soon attended by Smith and Keith. Smith marks his territory and mates with Denise before taking her with him when he leaves. This angers Og who tells Ryan later the next day. Together they track down Smith and Denise (and Keith) and there is a violent showdown that sees Keith stabbed by Og. Smith takes his revenge on both men and returns to Denise’s home, where he discovers Jupiter’s presence and welcomes him back into the house. Which doesn’t prove to be the best of ideas…

Aaaaaaaah!

For anyone willing to go with the flow and the strange depth of Oram’s research, Aaaaaaaah! is a heady mix of animal hysterics, vicious behaviour, cruel sight gags, highly attuned emotions such as jealousy and anger, and all couched in the kind of visual stylings that are reminiscent of British short comedies made in the Seventies (and which also had little or no dialogue). Oram has made a clever, stinging comedy that is also unexpectedly witty and engaging, full of pathos, and which doesn’t short change the viewer in terms of its storyline. If some of the behaviours displayed in the movie seem a little too extreme, or even weird, then again, Oram has done his homework, and there’s nothing that doesn’t happen in the same or similar way amongst our primate cousins.

The cast are all put through their paces, the demands of Oram’s script leading to darker moments that include physical and sexual abuse, murder, and unacceptable cruelty to humans (though Oram does stop at having any of his cast flinging faeces around). What’s illuminating is that none of this is unusual amongst apes, but appears absolutely horrifying when carried out by humans (it really is a different world). Honigman fares best, but spare a thought for a game Willcox, who really does get the worst of the food fight scene (though you might think that what touches Rhind-Tutt’s forehead while he’s passed out is worse).

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To add to the sense of disorientation that viewers are likely to feel, Oram has employed a ragged, disjointed style of filming that offers odd angles and off-kilter framing, and has overlaid it with an unsettling score provided largely by Robert Fripp of King Crimson (and also Willcox’s husband). It all adds to a bravura piece of movie making that is more of a triumph than perhaps anyone had a right to expect – and that may just include its creator.

Rating: 8/10 – not for all tastes, and likely to alienate more viewers than are likely to be embraced in its inherently savage bosom, Aaaaaaaah! is a slice of natural history gone horribly wrong; subversive and strange, and at times very uncomfortable to watch, this is still incredibly funny amidst all the “madness” and chaos, and easily one of the more inventive movies made in recent years.

Love the Coopers (2015)

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Love the Coopers

aka Christmas With the Coopers

D: Jessie Nelson / 107m

Cast: Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Olivia Wilde, Ed Helms, Marisa Tomei, Amanda Seyfried, June Squibb, Jake Lacy, Anthony Mackie, Alex Borstein, Timothée Chalamet, Maxwell Simkins, Blake Baumgartner, Steve Martin

It’s February, so what better time to watch a movie set at Xmas? Coming to Love the Coopers a couple of months or so after what would be deemed the best time to watch it, the first thing that comes to mind about the movie is that it didn’t have to be set at Xmas at all. As several branches of the same extended family all prepare to get together over the Yuletide period, it’s easy to see how this could have been set at Thanksgiving, or on an anniversary, or in the run up to a wedding (or even a funeral). The backdrop is just that: a backdrop, serviceable enough, but aside from the introduction of mistletoe to encourage some very sloppy kissing, there’s nothing about Love the Coopers that required it to be set at Xmas.

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With that out of the way, the viewer can now sit back and enjoy the highly amusing interactions between the various members of the Cooper family, from acerbic patriarch Bucky (Arkin), to his uptight daughter Charlotte (Keaton) and her nearly estranged husband Sam (Goodman), and on down to their wayward daughter Eleanor (Wilde) who meets a soldier, Joe (Lacy), in an airport bar and persuades him to pose as her boyfriend. Then there’s Charlotte’s brother, Hank (Helms), who’s recently lost his job as an in-store photographer, and their sister, Emma (Tomei), who resorts to shoplifting as a way of getting Charlotte a present she’ll have to pretend to like. Oh, and then there’s diner waitress Ruby (Seyfried), whose friendship with Bucky might mean more to both of them than they’ll admit.

Wait, there was mention of “highly amusing interactions”. Well, that was probably the intention, but sadly, Steven Rogers’ screenplay forgot to include any appreciable laughs beyond the aforementioned sloppy kissing, and the tried and trusted use of inappropriate comments from a senior citizen with dementia, Sam’s Aunt Fishy (Squibb). Matters are made worse by the decision to include a narrator (Martin) who provides a running commentary on what’s happening, and what the characters are thinking, and who at the end, is revealed to be – well, let’s just say the narrator’s identity is meant to be whimsical and in some ways, cute, but it just goes to show how poorly constructed and thought out the whole thing is.

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With the humour left somewhere behind in an earlier draft perhaps, the movie tries to make the most of a series of underwhelming dramatic scenarios, from the impending break up of Charlotte and Sam, to Hank’s inability to get a new job while keeping his recent unemployment a secret from everyone else, to Eleanor’s confusion over what sort of life she wants and whether or not she believes in love (yawn). Thanks again to Rogers’ screenplay though, the viewer will find these trials and tribulations having a minimal impact, and will most likely be checking their watch to see how much longer all these banal travails have got to continue.

Taking advantage of a Xmas metaphor, the movie is the equivalent of the Xmas roast that’s not been cooked properly. It’s dramatically turgid, unconvincing, and despite the incredibly talented cast (who are clearly wasted – and not in an alcoholic way; that might have been more interesting), never takes flight in the way that its makers probably intended. Quite why it was made is hard to work out, and it’s definitely a movie that you’ll only endure once, but if there’s one thing about it that can be used as a positive, it’s that – no, actually, there isn’t anything.

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Rating: 3/10 – the dysfunctional American family coming together to feud and fuss with each other is a staple of US movie making, but Love the Coopers brings absolutely nothing new to the (Xmas) table; poor in every department, and one that its cast will probably want to forget, this is a movie that defies anyone to gain any kind of reward from it.

Happy Birthday – Isla Fisher

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Isla Fisher (3 February 1976 -)

Isla Fisher

Born in Oman and spending time in Scotland and Australia growing up (where she also started out on homegrown series such as Home and Away), Fisher has made a good career for herself as the sexy girl next door with a flair for comedy, adding lustre to movies as diverse as Wedding Crashers (2005) and The Lookout (2007). Her bright, bubbly nature is always a bonus in any movie she’s a part of, and though she often finds herself in supporting roles, she’s still an actress whose name in the credits will provide a level of reassurance in the viewer. From an early role as Woman #1 in Out of Depth (2000) right up to her recent appearance as herself in Klown Forever (2015), Fisher has proved time and again that she’s a versatile, talented actress. Here are five more examples worth taking a look at.

Now You See Me (2013) – Character: Henley Reeves

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As part of the Four Horsemen magicians’ group, Fisher had one of the most memorable scenes of 2013, chained in a tank of water and finding herself unable to get out (which actually did happen during filming). Although the focus tended to be on Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson’s characters, Fisher was still an important part of the mix, and more than held her own in her scenes with her male counterparts.

Wedding Daze (2006) – Character: Katie

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In this romantic comedy – originally titled The Pleasure of Your Company – Fisher is the love interest for Jason Biggs, a man whose previous marriage proposal resulted in his fiancee’s death. Fisher navigates the various tropes and traditions of this kind of movie with ease, and gives a fresh, happy-go-lucky performance that adds a great deal of energy to things. It’s not the greatest rom-com in the world but thanks to Fisher, it is one that’s a lot of fun when she’s on screen.

Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) – Character: Rebecca Bloomwood

"CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC" Isla Fisher Ph:Robert Zuckerman ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

A cautionary tale disguised as a rom-com, this was a movie that saw Fisher cement her place in Hollywood, as the clothing/accessory obsessed magazine employee who can’t seem to stay out of debt. Fisher is just perfect in the role, and takes every opportunity the script gives her to be funny and charming, and she even makes her eventual change of priority feel entirely credible and not just a necessity of the script.

The Great Gatsby (2013) – Character: Myrtle Wilson

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As the tragic mistress of Joel Edgerton’s arrogant bully of a businessman, Fisher has her most dramatic role to date, and doesn’t disappoint, even if her appearances are kept to a minimum. But thanks to a combination of Fisher’s understanding of the character, and Baz Luhrmann’s approach to the material, Fisher makes those brief appearances count tremendously, leading to the view that her role could – and should – have been expanded.

Hot Rod (2007) – Character: Denise Harris

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In this cult favourite, Fisher takes on the standard role of girl next door and still makes something out of it, even if it requires her to be a foil to Andy Samberg’s obsessive stuntman for much of the time. Working well within an established ensemble, Fisher shows a keen sense of comedic timing and does more than enough to ensure that she’s not overshadowed by her largely testosterone-fuelled co-stars.

Truth (2015)

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Truth

D: James Vanderbilt / 125m

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach, Noni Hazlehurst, John Benjamin Hickey, David Lyons, Rachael Blake, Dermot Mulroney, Andrew McFarlane, Connor Burke

In 2004, Mary Mapes (Blanchett) was a producer at CBS’ flagship news programme, 60 Minutes. She worked with the legendary news anchor Dan Rather (Redford), and earlier that year she and her team had produced a news report on the abuse happening at Abu Ghraib (which later won a Peabody Award). Mapes was a highly regarded producer who had been at CBS for fifteen years; when she told her bosses that she wanted to investigate irregularities connected with then President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard during the early Seventies, she was given the go ahead to look into the matter and prepare a segment for broadcast.

Soon after, Mapes came into possession of documents – memos – that claimed to show Bush had failed to follow orders while in the ANG, and that efforts were made by his superiors to influence and improve his record. These documents were purportedly written by Bush’s commander, the late Jerry B. Killian. Mapes and her team set about trying to find witnesses who could corroborate the content of these memos, but were consistently rebuffed. At the same time they sought to have the documents examined for authenticity. But there were problems: the documents weren’t the originals, and their source wasn’t confirmed before the segment was aired on 8 September 2004. Mapes, even though the documents were copies of the originals, was convinced of their probity at least, and so was Rather. The segment was broadcast, and during it, Rather stated that “the material” had been authenticated.

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But this wasn’t true, and soon criticism of the show’s claims were spreading far and wide, and focused primarily on the typography used in the memos and other anachronisms that seemed damning. CBS found themselves backtracking, and Mapes was disturbed to learn that the person who’d given her the documents, retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett (Keach), had lied about where he got them from. With their provenance appearing unsavoury at the least, Mapes came under pressure from the head of CBS, Andrew Heyward (Greenwood), to limit the damage of these revelations, and to find conclusive proof that the memos were even written by Killian. Unable to, and with other accusations of poor journalism coming in thick and fast, Mapes and her team were suspended pending an internal investigation. With his own integrity tarnished by the criticisms, Rather made a public apology regarding the segment, and later, announced his retirement.

Adapted from Mapes’ book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, writer/director James Vanderbilt’s debut feature is an awkward beast, telling its story with a great deal of enthusiasm for showing just how tarnished Bush’s ANG record was, but then failing to properly acknowledge just how badly Mapes and her team scored a classic own goal. You don’t have to be an expert in TV news journalism to realise that the whole issue of the memos – their authenticity, their provenance, what they appeared to say – was handled with an irresponsible disregard for true journalistic integrity. Anyone watching Truth, and that really does mean anyone, will be watching events unfold and wincing at just how readily Mapes and her team were willing to put their heads in a collective noose. They failed to do the one thing that any journalist or writer needs to do to make an accusation: have conclusive, incontrovertible proof that what they’re saying is true. And Mapes didn’t have that.

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But again, the movie tries its best to avoid acknowledging what should be obvious to anyone watching. It still supports Mapes in her efforts to “get out from under” the storm of approbation and scathing criticism that rains down on her once the segment airs. And it tries to make her into a scapegoat for a much larger conspiracy, one that’s expressed with anguished contempt by her colleague, Mike Smith (Grace), but the whole idea lacks weight, despite the movie clinging to it unashamedly for the last thirty minutes. This may be how Mapes and her team felt at the time, but a judicious helmer would have excised it for being too incongruous and absurd a proposition (it’s also one of those embarrassing tantrums that people have when they haven’t got anyone else to blame but themselves).

All this leads to an inescapable, but strangely welcome conclusion: the movie you’re watching is about failure, a rare topic in American movies, but one that Vanderbilt at least tries to embrace, even if he doesn’t quite know what to do with it, hence the ambivalence towards Mapes and the schoolboy errors she makes. Rather makes his apology but is seen doing so on a variety of TV screens and monitors, rather than up close, thereby limiting the effect of his regret and the connection we can make to it; it’s almost inconsequential to what’s happening to Mapes at the time, as if the movie has to acknowledge it occurred but doesn’t want to lend it too much importance. It’s like when someone says to you, “Oh, by the way…” But Mapes is resolute in her convictions right up until the credits. In any other movie the audience would be applauding her for standing up for her beliefs, but instead you can’t help but wonder if she ever learnt anything of personal value from it all.

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In the end we’re asked to have a tremendous amount of sympathy for Mapes and the way she’s treated, but it becomes increasingly difficult. Even Blanchett can’t make her entirely sympathetic, and while she gives a good performance, she’s hampered by the fact that she’s trying to elevate the position of someone who was the author of her own downfall. As Rather, Redford is a bit of a distraction, not because of how we see him after all these years, but because we have no idea if he’s portraying Rather with any degree of accuracy; there’s just not enough there for us to be sure. Further down the cast list, Grace essays yet another earnest young man role, while Quaid adds gravitas as the ex-military man on Mapes’ team. Moss rounds out Mapes’ (in)famous five, Greenwood is her angry, unsupportive boss, and Keach is the whistle blower who isn’t telling the whole truth. All give adequate performances but bow to Blanchett’s greater involvement and do their best not to get in the way when she’s in full flow (which is often).

With half an eye trained on being a prestige, awards-gathering picture, Truth aims for solid and dependable, and for the most part achieves those aims, but lacks the passion that would have made all the difference to the material. Vanderbilt has the talent to make better, more focused movies, and he’s to be congratulated for attracting what is a top-notch cast for his first project, but too often they’re operating at the edge of the frame to be effective, and are given few chances to shine (except for Blanchett, that is). And Vanderbilt needs to interpret his material more, to let it breathe and grow beyond the obvious, as several scenes in Truth have the feel of filler instead of moments that advance the storyline. But these are forgivable errors for a first-time director to make, and though the movie isn’t entirely successful on its own merit, there’s just enough here to make the experience pleasant enough to hang around til the end.

Rating: 6/10 – flawed, and with a central character who loses the audience’s sympathy with each passing minute, Truth should be an engrossing exposé of journalistic persecution, but instead proves to be far stranger, less convincing affair; Blanchett does her best to hold it all together, but she’s defeated by the material and Mapes’ recurring ability to undermine herself without anyone else’s help.

Joy (2015)

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Joy

D: David O. Russell / 124m

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Röhm, Aundrea Gadsby, Gia Gadsby

At first glance, Joy looks like a traditional rags to riches story about a plucky young woman who overcomes several hurdles on her way to making her fortune. And for the most part this is exactly the kind of movie that Joy is. But it’s also a David O. Russell movie, and that means that the story can’t be told in a completely straightforward way. Instead we’re treated to occasional dream sequences that apparently hold a mirror up to Joy’s feelings at the time, a voiceover that comes and goes without adding too much to the overall presentation, and a lengthy stopover at the headquarters of the QVC Channel that amounts to a very generous piece of promotion.

By returning to the kind of small-town milieu he depicted so well in Silver Linings Playbook (2012), Russell has forgotten to include the one thing that made that movie so affecting and effective: interesting characters. Here, we have budding business matriarch Joy Mangano (Lawrence) whose struggle to get her Miracle Mop – the first self-wringing mop – both into production and into people’s homes is punctuated by several obstacles and problems, not the least of which is her business naïvete. That she overcomes all these problems is a given – this is based on a true story after all – but in the hands of Russell and his co-story writer Annie Mumolo, Joy’s tale lacks the kind of investment in the characters that’s needed for an audience to be cheering them on through adversity after adversity.

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The problems begin almost immediately, with Joy’s grandmother Mimi (an almost unrecognisable Ladd), foreshadowing events with an upbeat voiceover that predicts Joy’s success as an adult because Mimi knows she’s destined for greatness. This is the restaurant equivalent of being told that a particular meal on the menu is going to be a feast for the tastebuds. If you’re already seated at your table (or in the back row of your local cinema), then you’re not going to disbelieve the person telling you all this, and with Joy we know in advance that Mimi’s predictions will come true. So it doesn’t need all this dreamy talk of predestination and making one’s dreams come true. And this is largely the role that Ladd has in the movie, to pop up every now and then when things go wrong and remind everyone that everything will be alright in the end. (But we know this already…)

We then have a considerable amount of time spent introducing the characters. There’s Joy, obviously, a divorced mother of two who spends most of her time clearing up after her reclusive mother, Terry (Madsen), and her father, Rudy (De Niro), who owns an auto repair shop. Her parents are divorced, but circumstances have them living in Joy’s house, Terry in her room, Rudy in the basement. There’s also Tony (Ramirez), Joy’s ex-husband, who also lives in the basement, and has his own dreams of being a singer (but this subplot is smothered at birth and dismissed thereafter). Adding to the mix is Joy’s petulant half-sister Peggy (Röhm), whose own struggle to be accepted fully by Rudy is another subplot that gets an early grave, and Joy’s childhood friend Jackie (Polanco), whose role is to support Joy at the expense of having any character of her own. All these characters interact with each other in ways that are mostly confrontational, but which add up to a series of poorly timed dramatic interludes, Russell filming these scenes as if they were rehearsals rather than the finished offering.

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And then there’s Joy herself. Whatever really happened in Joy Mangano’s life as she fought to get her Miracle Mop into people’s homes (“It’s the only mop you’ll ever need to buy” is repeated like a mantra), it’s hard to believe that someone with so much flair and the kind of intelligence to come up with such a revolutionary invention could be so continuously undermined both by her family – though admittedly with her best interests at heart – and by such a large number of poor business decisions. And the movie eventually realises this at the end, but by then it’s too late. Despite several setbacks, including a declaration of bankruptcy that gets ignored like so many other briefly introduced subplots, Joy wins out in the end, as expected, but it’s the way in which she does that shows just how uninterested Russell is in portraying his central character in any kind of consistent light. Joy solves all her business problems by providing the kind of expertly constructed and detailed deconstruction of her opponent’s position that only exists in the movies, and which has them backing down immediately.

Russell’s uneven, and often ill-considered script is the one major flaw that stops Joy from being the thought-provoking, inspirational movie it no doubt wants to be in the first place. Thankfully it’s bolstered by an impressive performance from Lawrence even if she is fighting against the script’s often painful restrictions on her ability to connect with the audience. Alas, the same can’t be said for Cooper, who plays a senior buyer at QVC as if he were a Messiah of the airwaves. It’s an arch, uncomfortable to watch performance, and helps to mire the movie around the halfway mark, as Joy’s initial attempts to sell the Miracle Mop are given awkward free rein on TV, and the movie’s pace, not the sprightliest at the best of times, grinds to a clunking halt. De Niro has the look of an actor whose starting to realise his role isn’t going to be as big or as important to the story as he’d thought, Madsen channels an odd combination of deliberate shut-in and shy Southern belle supposedly to comic effect but soon becomes annoying, Ramirez is sidelined early on and hangs around in the background for two thirds of the movie, and Rossellini comes in halfway through and behaves like a low-rent mafiosi whose just suffered a minor stroke.

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Along with American Hustle (2013), Russell seems to be foregoing content over style, but here it doesn’t work either. The wintry Long Island setting and bland interiors do little to improve the visual malaise that stalks the movie throughout, and there are too many occasions where the framing seems off-kilter, though whether this is deliberate or not is hard to tell, but it does have the effect of further distancing the viewer from the characters. Russell adds a few cinematic tricks to mix things up but they only serve to reinforce how ineffective the overall design is. With it already being too difficult to connect with Joy and her dysfunctional family, Russell’s directorial stance and ragged screenplay offer little help in getting any actual joy out of Joy.

Rating: 6/10 – lacking the necessary creative steam to get it through the hesitancies and inconsistencies of the script, Joy is a pedestrian tale of success borne out of personal tenacity; Lawrence elevates proceedings but even her sterling effort can’t save a movie that doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be, and which fumbles around for too long trying to find out.

10 Reasons to Remember Frank Finlay (1926-2016)

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Frank Finlay (6 August 1926 – 30 January 2016)

Frank Finlay

Depending on the level of your exposure to his work, Frank Finlay will be best known to you either for his Oscar-nominated role as Iago in Laurence Olivier’s Othello (1965), as the rambunctious Porthos in Richard Lester’s adaptation of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (1973) (and its two sequels), or the cheating husband in TV’s Bouquet of Barbed Wire (1976) (and its sequel). But of course, this versatile British actor had a varied, interesting career that spanned over fifty years, and he worked with some of the finest actors and directors during that period, both on screen, on stage and on TV. He always held his own, though, and his famously brooding looks were often mesmerising to watch, and though he never made it to the “big leagues” he was still the type of actor you could expect an intelligent, considered performance from, even if the production around him wasn’t quite as intelligent or considered as he was. As a character actor he could be superb, and when given the chance – as in Bouquet of Barbed Wire – he could be incredibly focused in a lead role, so much so that it’s a shame he wasn’t offered more of them. Although he will always be known for the roles quoted above, there is one role that may come as a surprise to those who don’t remember it, but is well worth watching: the Witchsmeller Pursuivant in the first series of Blackadder (1983), a rare comic role which he played with appropriate and very funny relish.

A Study in Terror (2)

1 – A Study in Terror (1965)

2 – Othello (1965)

3 – Robbery (1967)

4 – The Molly Maguires (1970)

5 – The Three Musketeers (1973)

6 – Count Dracula (1977)

7 – Murder by Decree (1979)

8 – Sakharov (1984)

9 – Dreaming of Joseph Lees (1999)

10 – The Pianist (2002)

The Pianist

Monthly Roundup – January 2016

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Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic (2013) / D: Marina Zenovich / 83m

With: Richard Pryor, Jennifer Lee, Rashon Khan, Thom Mount, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Newhart, Patricia von Heitman, David Banks, Skip Brittenham, Paul Schrader, Stan Shaw, Robin Williams, David Steinberg, Rocco Urbisci, Lily Tomlin

Richard Pryor Omit the Logic

Rating: 6/10 – a look back over the life and career of Richard Pryor featuring comments from the people who lived and worked with him; if you’re familiar with Pryor and his work then Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic won’t provide you with anything new, but its concise, straightforward approach is effective enough, even if there’s an accompanying lack of depth to the way the material has been assembled.

Floodtide (1949) / D: Frederick Wilson / 90m

Cast: Gordon Jackson, Rona Anderson, John Laurie, Jack Lambert, James Logan, Janet Brown, Elizabeth Sellars, Gordon McLeod, Ian McLean, Archie Duncan

Floodtide

Rating: 7/10 – an eager to succeed shipyard worker (Jackson) earns both the respect of the shipyard owner (Lambert) and the love of his daughter (Anderson, who Jackson married in real life), as he climbs the ladder from metal worker to ship designer; the kind of cottage industry movie that Britain made in abundance in the late Forties/early Fifties, Floodtide has a great deal of charm, and an easygoing approach to its slightly fairytale narrative.

Giuseppina (1960) / D: James Hill / 32m

Cast: Antonia Scalari, Giulio Marchetti

Giuseppina

Rating: 9/10 – on a slow, sunny day at an Italian roadside garage, young Giuseppina (Scalari) finds that life isn’t quite as boring as she thinks; an Oscar-winning short, Giuseppina is a total delight, with minimal dialogue, some beautifully observed caricatures for customers, and a simple, unaffected approach that pays enormous dividends, and makes for an entirely rewarding experience.

The Painted Veil (2006) / D: John Curran / 125m

Cast: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones, Diana Rigg, Anthony Chau-Sang Wong

The Painted Veil

Rating: 7/10 – bacteriologist Walter Fane (Norton) takes his wife Kitty (Watts) to China as punishment for an affair, but in combatting an outbreak of cholera, discovers that she has qualities he has overlooked; previously made in 1934 with Greta Garbo, The Painted Veil (adapted from the novel by W. Somerset Maugham) is a moderately absorbing, moderately effective romantic drama that never quite takes off, but does feature some beautiful location photography courtesy of Stuart Dryburgh.

5 Famous Movie Roles That Nearly Went to Someone Else

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Once a movie is released, and especially if it’s successful, it becomes difficult to imagine another actor or actress in the lead role, and even harder if they win a clutch of awards into the bargain. Some movie stars can become so indelibly linked to a part, that if someone else takes it on in a remake or a sequel you can’t help but see the original actor in their place (you might even resent them for being there). And there are times when the very idea is wrong. Spare a thought for example, for David Soul, tasked with following in the footsteps of Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in the short-lived Casablanca TV series back in 1983. No matter how world-weary he affected to be, Soul just couldn’t match Bogart for deep-seated ennui. As a result, Soul’s interpretation of the role couldn’t help but feel like a pale imitation.

David Soul

But if following in the footsteps of an iconic actor in an iconic role isn’t bad enough, then spare a thought for those actors and actresses who passed on a role that became iconic. How bad must that be? How must it feel to know that you could have taken on a role and made it your own, and yet because of some reason or other, you decided not to, and one of your more circumspect colleagues jumped at the chance and made it their own? (Probably bad enough that if worst comes to worst and the colleague is nominated for an Oscar, then that colleague won’t receive a vote from the person who lost out… at the very least.)

Here then are five movie stars and the roles they turned down. You can judge for yourselves just how successful they would have been if they’d gone ahead and played these roles, but one thing can be said for certain: each movie would have had a different dynamic as a consequence, and maybe they wouldn’t have been as successful, or as memorable.

1 – Sylvester Stallone – Role: Axel Foley – Movie: Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

Despite a long period of pre-production and several scripts written during the process, Beverly Hills Cop was always meant to star Stallone. But with a matter of weeks to go before filming began, Stallone upped and quit the project (Steven Berkoff, who plays the movie’s villain, once said in an interview that the Rocky star quit over disagreements about which kind of orange juice was to be put in his trailer). Enter Eddie Murphy, who seized the hastily rewritten character and improvised his way into the public’s affections as the motormouth cop with a bitingly funny sense of humour. It’s hard to think of Stallone being as free or confident in the way that Murphy is, and he’s not known for comedy – Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992), anyone? – so the chances of it having been as successful as well are less conclusive, but this is one of the best examples of an actor coming in and stealing the show (thankfully).

2 – Meg Ryan – Role: Clarice Starling – Movie: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Without meaning to undermine or decry Ryan’s talent as an actress, it’s perhaps very fortunate indeed that she turned down the role of Clarice Starling, paving the way for Jodie Foster to give such a stunning performance. Like some of her contemporaries, Ryan passed on the role because she felt the movie would be too violent, but with the benefit of hindsight it’s perhaps a good thing she didn’t take on the part. As with Stallone and Beverly Hill Cop‘s humour, The Silence of the Lambs and its dark, oppressive material isn’t really Ryan’s forté, and the idea of a rookie FBI agent in bouncy curls chasing down a serial killer suddenly becomes too risible to be entertained seriously.

Jodie Foster

3 – Robert De Niro – Role: Han Solo – Movie: Star Wars (1977)

When casting the role of Han Solo, George Lucas wanted to go with someone he hadn’t worked with before, and several up and coming actors – Christopher Walken, Kurt Russell, and Chevy Chase(!) to name but three – were considered. But De Niro was one of a handful of actors who actually turned down the role. With his appearances in Mean Streets (1973), The Godfather Part II (1974), and Taxi Driver (1976) already establishing him as one of the best actors of his generation, it was probably a wise move on De Niro’s part, but what he would have made of lines such as, “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs” is still a tantalising proposition.

4 – John Travolta – Role: Forrest Gump – Movie: Forrest Gump (1994)

Throughout his career, Travolta has turned down a number of roles that, in other actors’ hands, have led to critical acclaim and their movies’ success at the box office. And this isn’t the only time that Tom Hanks has benefitted from Travolta’s reluctance to take on a role: he also turned down the role of Paul Edgecombe in The Green Mile (1999). But this decision is one that Travolta still regrets today, and though it’s hard to imagine him reciting the line, “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates” with the same naïve innocence as Hanks does, it would have been interesting to see him adapt his naturally effusive style of acting to the role.

Tom Hanks

5 – Bette Midler – Role: Annie Wilkes – Movie: Misery (1990)

It’s often interesting to hear about proposed casting choices and the odd matches of actor or actress to a role, but the idea of Midler playing dowdy, homicidal Annie Wilkes is one that takes some adjusting to (especially given Kathy Bates’ Oscar-winning performance). Nothing in Midler’s career up til then (or since) gives any indication that she would have been effective in the role, so maybe she knew she was making the right decision – but to have been offered the role in the first place? Bizarre, just very bizarre.

Grandma (2015)

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Grandma

D: Paul Weitz / 78m

Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Sam Elliott, Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Peña, Nat Wolff, Lauren Tom

Elle Reid (Tomlin) is a once well-known poet. She’s also a lesbian whose long-term partner has recently passed away. She has a daughter, Judy (Harden), she isn’t on very good terms with. She’s grouchy, antagonistic and caustic as the mood takes her. She’s also just shown the door – horribly – to Olivia (Greer) whom she’s been in a relationship with for four months. And now she’s visited by her granddaughter Sage (Garner) who’s pregnant and needs $630 for an abortion by five forty-five that evening. No wonder she’s so unapologetically cranky.

Elle has another reason to be in a bad mood: thanks to an attack of principles she’s cut up her credit card and used it as a wind chime, so she can’t give Sage the money she needs. To make up for this selfish crime against modern day living, Elle agrees to help Sage find the money from other sources. First they visit Sage’s boyfriend, Cam (Wolff), where his aggressive and disrespectful attitude to Elle leads to some unexpected violence and the accrual of $50. From there they try to call in a loan from one of Elle’s friends, Deathy (Cox), but that only nets $65. When Elle next tries to sell some of her first edition books (even though they’re not in the best of condition), that plan backfires when Olivia appears on the scene and an argument ensues. With time running out, Elle decides she has to take a risk and visit an old flame, Karl (Elliott). At first Karl seems amenable to lending Elle the remaining $515 but their shared history ruins things and he refuses. This leaves Elle and Sage with only one remaining option: they have to see Judy and ask for her help, even though she and Elle are effectively estranged and she has no idea that Sage is pregnant (Elle also tells Sage that she’s afraid of Judy and has been since she was five).

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It should take the viewer roughly two minutes of Grandma‘s running time to see why Lily Tomlin signed up to play Elle. In keeping with her literary background, and doing her best to end her relationship with Olivia as quickly as possible, Elle refers to her as “a footnote”. It’s an unnecessarily cruel remark, and Tomlin delivers it casually, as if it were of no more significance than if Elle had called Olivia a terrible lay, or a boring conversationalist. And from that nasty remark, and Elle’s adamant refusal to apologise, the viewer can see that spending time with Elle is going to be made all the more enjoyable thanks to Tomlin’s acid dry performance. Yes, she’s unconscionably horrid at times, and yes she does her best to belittle the people she despises (which seems to be everyone outside of Sage and Deathy), but it’s Elle’s acerbic, take-no-prisoners attitude that is so ironically appealing, and Tomlin knows this. And knowing this she grabs the role in both hands and has a high old time with it.

But Tomlin’s performance isn’t the whole movie, and thanks to Weitz’s command of his own script, Elle isn’t allowed to overwhelm the other characters, and she doesn’t get all the best moments. And it’s not just about one woman’s misanthropic attitude to the world around her, but the ruptured family dynamics that keep her alone following the death of her partner, and how her being needed leads to a reconciliation that everyone is a part of. This gives the movie the heart it needs to balance Elle’s angry behaviour, and leavens the nihilism she seems to revel in. Without it, Grandma would still be funny, absorbing even, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as rewarding.

Weitz is back on form after a string of less than fully realised movies – Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009) and Little Fockers (2010) to name but two – and he creates a sympathetic storyline to hang his characters from, as well as making each encounter on the road to Judy’s office as grounded and credible as possible while also indulging Elle’s astringent nature. The outcome of the trip to see Karl is a particular highlight, adding a layer of unexpected poignancy to a situation that some viewers might not see coming until it’s there. It also gives Elliott the chance to show just how good an actor he is, and if Grandma has no other impact than to open the doors for Elliott to give further, equally moving performances then his appearance here will have been entirely worth it.

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By carefully balancing the inherent pathos and humour of Sage’s “situation”, Weitz also gets to poke fun at the American public’s antipathy to hearing the emotive word “abortion”. Elle and Sage are ejected from a coffee shop (that used to be a free clinic) thanks to Elle bemoaning out loud the clinic’s passing – “Where can you get a reasonably priced abortion in this town?” The word is used liberally throughout, and as an accurate description of the procedure Sage needs to have it’s entirely in context, but Weitz refuses to sugar coat the situation, and it’s to the movie’s credit that when Elle and Sage do encounter a pro-lifer (and her young daughter), their position isn’t criticised or lampooned, but instead is used to provide one of the movie’s best laughs.

With Weitz so assured in the handling of the material, his cast are free to provide fully rounded characters that you can empathise with and support (except for Cam, naturally). Tomlin, as mentioned before, is on superb form, and is ably supported by Garner who gives Sage a wistful nature that makes it seem as if she’s always working things out in her head, but is just a little bit too slow in doing so (“Screw you”). Harden pitches up in the final third and does sterling work as the mother who can’t quite work out why her daughter is afraid to tell her she’s pregnant when she has such a distant relationship with her own mother. Greer has a handful of scenes as the jilted Olivia and displays the character’s dismay and pain at being rejected with aplomb, her need to know the real reason for her dismissal a necessary challenge to Elle’s self-centred arrogance.

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Grandma is a movie that it would be easy to overlook, sounding as it does like an indie chick-flick for the generationally unbiased. That it’s profoundly moving in places, riotously funny in others, and completely charming all the way through is more than enough to recommend it. It’s short, sweet, avoids a lot of the clichés associated with the subject of abortion, features a cast who are behind Weitz all the way, and is just plain terrific.

Rating: 9/10 – one of the smarter, funnier, more enjoyable comedies of 2015, Grandma is a small-scale joy that deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible; and let’s say it again, and louder this time: “Where can you get a reasonably priced abortion in this town?”

10 Reasons to Remember Jacques Rivette (1928-2016)

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Jacques Rivette (1 March 1928 – 29 January 2016)

Jacques Rivette

Idiosyncratic, pioneering, challenging, fascinating, obscurist – François Truffaut once said of Jacques Rivette that the French New Wave began “thanks to Rivette”, and while that may be true, the fact is that Rivette had an uneasy relationship with the French movie industry, and despite an extraordinary talent as a director, never achieved the success of his contemporaries, well-known names such as Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Éric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard. He made long (sometimes very long) movies – Out 1 (1971) runs to nearly thirteen hours in its original version – and constructed them in such a way that audience attention was of supreme importance; complex story structures and innovative story-telling techniques made his movies look and sound unique. Despite a career that began in 1949 with the short, Aux quatre coins, Rivette faced challenges that would have kept many directors from continuing their careers at all. While he made a steady stream of movies over the ensuing years, he encountered so many obstacles and setbacks that his perseverance is a testament to both his personal tenacity and his talent (in particular, a four-picture deal made in 1976 was never completed due to the poor reception of the first two movies). He wasn’t an instinctively commercial moviemaker, but he was influential in his own way, and his movies reflect an approach and an attitude about the boundaries attached to modern movies that should be applauded rather than dismissed. Watch any of his movies and you’ll find the work of a true artist, a moviemaker whose intelligence, wit and liveliness shone through with a clear-sighted consistency – even if he was doing his best to baffle his audiences at the same time.

Paris Belongs to Us

1 – Paris Belongs to Us (1961)

2 – The Nun (1966)

3 – L’amour fou (1969)

4 – Out 1 (1971)

5 – Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)

6 – Le Pont du Nord (1981)

7 – Merry-Go-Round (1981)

8 – Gang of Four (1989)

9 – La belle noiseuse (1991)

10 – The Story of Marie and Julien (2003)

The Story of Marie and Julien

Bleeding Heart (2015)

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Bleeding Heart

D: Diane Bell / 88m

Cast: Jessica Biel, Zosia Mamet, Edi Gathegi, Joe Anderson, Kate Burton, Harry Hamlin

Bleeding Heart is likely to end up being one of those movies. You know the ones, those  “interesting” looking movies you pass by on your way to the New Release/Blockbuster section of your local DVD store (if there still is one in your area). It has a well-known “name” actor or actress in the lead role, and is often a drama that looks intriguing and which you may even pick up to read the blurb on the back of the case. But chances are that even then you’ll think twice and instead, plump for the latest Bruce Willis flick (Career Suicide Part 9 perhaps), or the most recent Katherine Heigl humdrum rom-com. But if you did put Bleeding Heart back on the shelf, then you would be doing both it and yourself a serious disservice.

It begins with Jessica Biel’s slightly ethereal yoga teacher May extolling the virtues of a non-violent, peaceful existence. She and her boyfriend Dex (Gathegi) have big plans to expand their yoga business, and their sense of contentment – with their work, their lives, and each other – is palpable. But May has a personal issue she needs to deal with first: getting in touch with the maternal half-sister she’s only just located (and luckily only half an hour away from where she lives). Nervous and unsure if she’s doing the right thing, May knocks on her door and drops the bombshell she’s been carrying around with her for some time.

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The young woman who answers is ten years younger and suitably shell-shocked by May’s turning up on her doorstep. They agree to meet in a bar and May’s half-sister Susan, who likes to call herself Shiva (Mamet), is nice and agreeable and pleasantly surprised by this sibling revelation. The two get on and at May’s urging, agree to meet up again. Back home, Dex is initially pleased for her, but his focus is on their business and his support dwindles at the realisation that seeing Shiva is likely to become more important than taking their current success to the level.

May accepts a late night invitation to meet Shiva and her boyfriend, Cody (Anderson), outside a bar. Cody is aggressive and clearly has a volatile temper, and when someone reproaches him for speaking harshly to Shiva, he gives them a vicious beating. May and Shiva drive off and they go back to May’s place. The next morning, with Cody in jail, May and Shiva persuade each other that spending some proper time with each other is a good idea and they head for May’s mother’s place. On the way, they stop off at Shiva’s apartment to pick up some things and May discovers that Shiva is a prostitute. May is stunned by this and by the implication that Cody is both boyfriend and pimp. But Shiva is unconcerned by it all, even appearing comfortable with it.

As they begin to get to know each other, cracks start to appear in May’s relationships with her mother, Martha (Burton) (unhappy at not being consulted about May looking for Shiva) and Dex (unhappy that she’s no longer focused on their business). But she feels a bond with Shiva that she’s never felt before, and even though Shiva tells her she doesn’t need to be saved, May’s instincts are to do exactly that. When Cody gets out of jail, Shiva goes back to him, and he drops her off at a client’s home. May, though, follows them, and decides to rescue her, and the resulting effort leads to both a consolidation of their relationship and a showdown with an angry Cody.

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At its core, Bleeding Heart has a lot to say about relationships and the nature of power and control within them. While Shiva and Cody’s relationship is volatile and intense, and his control over her is the frame within which they exist, May’s relationship with Dex is, on the surface at least, more fluid and mutually supportive. But Dex has his own control issues, and in his own way doesn’t want May to do the things she wants to do. When she begins spending time with Shiva, and even gives her money to pay her rent, Dex is angry because May’s behaviour is a threat to the orderly existence he’s cultivated with her. And when May resists his insistence on maintaining their “status quo” his reactions are similar to Cody’s (though to be fair he’s not as violent).

With May coming to terms with the impact of having a half-sister in her life, and the repercussions of pursuing that relationship, the movie concentrates on how both women find their way out of what are unhealthy relationships for both of them. It doesn’t offer any blinding revelations, or even provide any new insights into how people justify their staying with people who profess to care about them but don’t show it in reality (or when it’s really important to do so). But what it does offer is a chance to see how two people can find real dependence in each other, and despite having numerous obstacles put in their way. May and Shiva are more alike than they realise, and Bell’s perceptive script is careful to show the ways in which they begin to mirror each other, with the best of each one’s character having an effect on the other.

Both Biel – an actress whose career resumé is littered with too many lacklustre Hollywood movies – and Mamet are well suited to their roles, and their onscreen partnership is both subtly rewarding and emotionally resonant, with both actresses inhabiting their characters with confidence and skill. Biel undergoes a physical as well as emotional change, and shows a burgeoning strength of purpose that helps May refind herself after years of following what appears to be the path of least resistance. Mamet underplays the vulnerability beneath Shiva’s street smarts, and there are moments where her unhealthy dependence on Cody is both frustrating and yet entirely credible. It’s to both actresses credit that while May and Shiva are clearly recognisable “types”, they’re still sympathetic and likeable, and easy to root for.

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On the opposing side, Gathegi plays Dex like an injured puppy who can’t understand why someone would upset him (deliberately or otherwise), while Anderson’s turn as the outwardly charming Cody is hampered by his character’s lack of depth. Bell can be forgiven for this, as Cody is essentially the unthinking catalyst for the two sisters coming together, and without him this would be a different movie altogether; his adversity is necessary for May and Shiva to bond together with the appropriate intensity. That said, Anderson definitely makes an impression, and it’s difficult to remind yourself that he’s British.

Bell, making her second feature after her impressive debut Obselidia (2010), here tells a simple story with a firm grasp of the dynamics of May and Shiva’s relationship, and the unfulfilling lives they lead. If there’s an element of wish fulfillment towards the end it’s negated by the movie’s resolution, which is tougher and less cathartic than it might seem. Add some unshowy but deft camerawork by Zak Mulligan and you have a movie that is polished and assured and which offers far more than at first glance. And if Bell decides to revisit May and Shiva at some point in the future, that wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.

Rating: 8/10 – Bell is a moviemaker to watch, and imbues Bleeding Heart with a simple complexity (not a contradiction) that elevates the movie from its indie roots and provides the audience with unexpected rewards throughout; Biel and Mamet give great performances, and the whole exercise shows that even the most staple of storylines can be enhanced by well-judged brio and conviction.

Trailer – Term Life (2016)

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This may be unfair, and God knows there’s no real reason it should be getting any more exposure than it already has, but spare a thought for the people who put together the trailer for Term Life, the latest from Vince Vaughn, an actor who now wants to impose his tired, fast-talking idiot schtick on an action movie. This must have been a real challenge to assemble because this movie looks like it’d drain the life from you with every single minute of its running time (and do it deliberately). If this has anything going for it, the trailer fails to showcase it, and watching it gives the very real sense that the company responsible for the trailer must have been banging their heads against the wall trying to make the movie look less disappointing than the finished product’s likely to be. And when the trailer for your new movie makes it look this bad – even after a bunch of guys (presumably) have worked their asses off to make it look halfway decent – maybe it’s time to cancel any plans you had for promoting it, and just move on to the next project. If you’re still in any doubt about how bad this movie could be, then check out the trailer. And if after seeing it you think it’s not bad, or it’s a movie you’re now looking forward to, then drop me a line – I’d love to hear your reasons.

Happy Birthday – Scott Glenn

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Scott Glenn (26 January 1941 -)

Scott Glenn, who portrays former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld in "W.", poses for a portrait at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2008. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Glenn is one of those rangy actors with a weathered face who pops up in a variety of movies, sometimes in the lead role, but always giving good value and on occasion making an average movie (or even a downright bad one) all the better when he’s on screen. From his feature debut in James Bridges’ The Baby Maker (1970), Glenn has been the epitomy of honest screen acting, someone the audience can rely on and sympathise with, even if he’s playing the villain. He’s made some high profile movies, including Oscar winners such as Nashville (1975) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and later this year he can be seen in season two of Daredevil. But in amongst all these well-known and well regarded movies and the performances that go with them, Glenn has made a number of movies that have either slipped unnoticed under the radar, or haven’t quite managed to get the attention they deserve, or feature appearances that you might not remember him making. Here are five such movies, and proof – if any were needed – that Glenn is a talented actor, and sometimes the only reason that some movies turn out as well as they do.

Carla’s Song (1996) – Character: Bradley

Carla's Song

Glenn in a Ken Loach movie? As unlikely as it may sound, it happens here, with Glenn playing an aid worker in war-torn Nicaragua who encounters Robert Carlyle’s politically naïve Glaswegian bus driver. It’s not the most well-written of roles that Glenn’s ever played, but he manages to overcome the movie’s second-half stylistic failings to keep the viewer energised whenever he appears, and Bradley’s complex motivations allow for a degree of suspense.

Freedom Writers (2007) – Character: Steve Gruwell

Freedom Writers

Glenn takes a supporting role as the father of Erin Gruwell (played by Hilary Swank), a teacher who tackles her class’s notions of racism by showing them the horrors of the Holocaust. He’s not required to do too much, and you could be forgiven for thinking he wasn’t in the movie at all, but this is one of those occasions where Glenn’s familiar features and personal integrity adds an extra layer of truthfulness to an already true story.

My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys (1991) – Character: H.D. Dalton

My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys

The last movie directed by Stuart Rosenberg – Cool Hand Luke (1967), Brubaker (1980) – this sees Glenn as a retired rodeo rider whose return home sees him face a new set of challenges thanks to his dysfunctional family. Glenn gives another subtle, nuanced turn that’s quietly convincing, and if the ending is a little too “Hollywood”, the movie’s still worth checking out for the very good work that leads up to it.

Buffalo Soldiers (2001) – Character: Sergeant Robert E. Lee

Buffalo Soldiers

In this satire on corruption and greed within the US military just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Glenn is the top sergeant who squares off against Joaquin Phoenix’s black marketeer. As a no-nonsense, intensely loyal patriot, Glenn inhabits the character with aplomb and makes a wonderfully steadfast counterpoint for Phoenix’s less savoury activities, all of which lead to a spectacular showdown.

Personal Best (1982) – Character: Terry Tingloff

Robert Towne’s exploration of women’s athletics features a career best performance from Mariel Hemingway, but also a perfectly judged turn from Glenn as the coach who can accept that two of his athletes have feelings for each other but not when those feelings interfere with their aim to compete at the Olympics. Glenn gives such a good performance it doesn’t feel that unlikely that he could step off the screen and do the job in real life.

Oh! the Horror! – Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015) and Sinister 2 (2015)

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Paranormal Activity The Ghost Dimension

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015) / D: Gregory Plotkin / 88m

Cast: Chris J. Murray, Brit Shaw, Ivy George, Dan Gill, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Chloe Csengery, Jessica Tyler Brown, Don McManus, Michael Krawic, Hallie Foote

Promoted as the series’ entry that ties everything together and explains all that’s happened in the previous five movies, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension has arrived at a point where rounding off the convoluted storyline begun (quite simply) back in 2007 has ceased to be of any interest. It’s likely that most people, even fans, gave up after Paranormal Activity 3 (2011), as the producers attempted to make each instalment part of a bigger whole. This led to Katie Featherston’s character popping up in unlikely places to ensure some kind of continuity, and the slow but inevitable decline in both plausibility and scares.

But with this concluding entry, the makers have decided to ignore the events of Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014) and bring back the younger versions of Katie (Csengery) and Kristi (Brown) in a game of video charades. With a new couple, Ryan (Murray) and Emily (Shaw), who move in to a new home with their young daughter Leila (George), set up as prospective victims of the entity now known as Toby, the movie adds a semi-live-in nanny, Skyler (Dudley) and Ryan’s visiting brother Mike (Gill) to the mix, and once a box full of old video tapes and a video camera that looks like a parody of a boombox is found, begins to wrap things up very untidily indeed.

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As Ryan becomes obsessed with going through the tapes, strange things begin to happen in the house – strange, that is, if you haven’t seen the previous five movies (though perhaps the strangest thing is the Xmas tree, which keeps changing in size throughout – now that’s spooky). It soon becomes obvious that Leila is the focus for all this weird activity, and Ryan and Mike set up cameras around the house to film it all. It’s not long before we see a strange black figure coalescing in Leila’s room at night, or emanating from the upstairs ceiling. It’s aggressive, it’s trying to become fully formed, and it doesn’t register on every camera (this is meant to be unnerving, but serves only to make us watch even more static shots where nothing is happening). And amongst a whole slew of “explanations” for what’s happening, Ryan and Emily discover that the house they’re in has been built over the location of Katie and Micah’s house (from the first movie) that burnt down (which again is meant to be unnerving, but just seems like one “coincidence” too far).

Thanks to the familiarity and the structures of the previous movies, this (hopefully) final movie soon finds itself painted into a corner. Toby makes more progress toward human form in this movie than in all the others combined, which makes you wonder why it’s taken him this long. The scares still consist of things rushing at or past one of the cameras, and the slow build of tension that made the first movie so effective, has now become so devalued that instead of feeling anxious, the viewer is more likely to feel bored. And the characters still insist on carrying cameras around with them when the ectoplasm hits the fan, a problem none of the movies has been able to address with any confidence.

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If this is to be the last in the franchise – and there’s no reason it should be, given the final outcome – then it will qualify as the least in the series thanks to the tired nature of the narrative, and an unwillingness to do anything that might be innovative or surprising. And as if to confirm – if confirmation were needed – just how devoid of originality the movie is, the Ghost Dimension, so hyped up before the movie’s release, proves to be just… another… room.

Rating: 3/10 – unable even to sign off satisfactorily, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension sees the series grind to a creative halt amid a welter of dull scenes that rarely relate to each other let alone the rest of the franchise; with such a disregard for its own legacy, the series deserves to be laid to rest now, but if a seventh movie is on the cards, then it needs to ignore everything that’s gone before and come up with a brand new story entirely – because this one is broken beyond all repair.

 

Sinister 2

Sinister 2 (2015) / D: Ciarán Foy / 97m

Cast: James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Daniel Sloan, Dartanian Sloan, Lea Coco, Tate Ellington, John Beasley, Lucas Jade Zumann, Nicholas King

The original Sinister (2012) was a surprise, both in its inventive storyline and writer/director Scott Derrickson’s confidence with the material. Its principal villain, the demon Bughuul (King) – looking like a badly scarred Nick Cave – was kept largely in the shadows and his motives went largely unrevealed. It was a mostly effective mix of horror movie and mystery drama, and was bolstered by Ethan Hawke’s committed performance. But as with any horror movie that achieves even limited success at the box office, the inevitable sequel is here at last.

With Hawke’s character no longer around for the viewer to follow up with, we’re left with Ransone’s secondary, unnamed character as our guide to what follows. As the now ex-deputy (called So-and-So in the credits), he’s begun following the trail of killings related to Bughuul and is travelling around the US burning the buildings that these killings have taken place in, the idea being that Bughuul’s legacy can’t be continued in the same place by future inhabitants. At one such place he encounters Courtney (Sossamon), a mother with two sons, Dylan (R. Sloan) and Zach (D. Sloan), who is hiding from her abusive husband (Coco) pending a custody battle. Of course, the ex-deputy is already too late. Dylan is spending most nights in the basement watching snuff movies with the likes of Bughuul protégé Milo (Zumann) and his equally dead friends. Once Dylan has watched all the movies they have to offer, then he can make his own and become the latest in the long line of Bughuul’s victims.

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The movie cheats a bit at the start by showing us a snuff movie that we’ll see the making of later on (and which turns out differently), and it delves perhaps too deeply into the origins of its villain, making him into a kind of globetrotting malevolent entity who can pop up anywhere, and in any culture. Thanks to the same judicious use of his appearance in the movie as the first one though, Bughuul remains as scary in appearance as he did before, but with the sense of threat firmly linked to Milo and the other children, his occasional appearances lack the intensity of the first movie.

The central plot – Dylan’s recruitment by Milo – is enhanced by the snuff movies he’s encouraged to watch. These are the movie’s grim highlights, their 16mm nature proving as effective as they did in part one. One, Fishing Trip, is perhaps the nastiest (and well made), though Sunday Service gives it a run for its money. But when the movie stops for us to see one of them, it serves also as a reminder that this is where the movie really works, not with its soap opera style romance between the ex-deputy and Courtney, nor the domestic violence dramatics once Courtney and the kids are back with daddy. These are necessary to pad out the running time and give us some breathing space between the moments of horror, but are equally those moments you wish the movie would get through more quickly.

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The performances are average, with Ransone’s shy, reclusive nature soon becoming annoying, and Sossamon finally eschewing the ragged fringe look we’ve seen way too often. The brothers Sloan are okay, with Dartanian looking at times like a younger Ryan Lee, but Zumann gives such a mannered and off-putting portrayal as Milo that you wish he had less screen time (this is definitely not one of those movies where the children give easily the best performances).

In the end, Sinister 2 has a hard time justifying its existence beyond being an opportunistic cash-in on the back of an unexpected success (though some horror movie sequels have been made for even less exalted reasons). It doesn’t further the original story in any meaningful way, and has less to say about the nature of evil, something the original did with some degree of interest and flair. There are no prizes for guessing the outcome, nor that the last scene will feature a groan-inducing “scare”, and equally there’s very little chance that this will be a movie you’ll want to come back to, even if someone asks you to.

Rating: 5/10 – horror sequels such as Sinister 2 exist in a parallel world of movie making where it’s assumed that people want more of something that’s been successful, but really, that’s rarely the case; a largely by-the-numbers approach that will remind many viewers of horror sequels from the Nineties, this is a movie that never tries to be anything but a movie trying to be successful off the back of its predecessor.

Amy (2015)

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Amy

D: Asif Kapadia / 128m

With: Amy Winehouse, Juliette Ashby, Nick Shymansky, Mitch Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil, Lauren Gilbert, Sam Beste, Raye Cosbert, Andrew Morris, Lucian Grainge, Tyler James, Yasiin Bey

One of the most talented singers of her generation, Amy Winehouse “arrived” on the music scene in 2003 with the release of her first album, Frank. Eight years later she was dead from alcohol poisoning. She was in the public eye so often, and so often for the wrong reasons, that a lot of people felt they knew her. Unable to deal with the fame and fortune she so justly deserved, she retreated into a life of alcohol and drug addiction and repeated, unsuccessful attempts to throw off the demons that plagued her. One of her idols, Tony Bennett, said of her, “she was the only singer that really sang what I call ‘the right way’ because she was a great jazz-pop singer”. But why did she die at the age of twenty-seven, alone and with only her bodyguard checking on her occasionally?

Sadly, Amy doesn’t provide any answers. Nor does it probe too deeply into why the singer had such an addictive personality, or why she had been bulimic for most of her life (a topic which is mentioned partway through then dropped as a point of fact that needs no further investigation). It also fails to explore the differences between Amy Winehouse the world-famous singer/celebrity, and Amy Winehouse the private person. While there are times when her friends and family comment on her behaviour, and there’s a large amount of regret that can be felt, no one seems to have really known what made Amy tick during those brief eight years when she was so well known and so highly regarded.

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The reason that Amy fails to do this is partly due to the very cleverly constructed way in which it recounts Amy’s life, charting her teenage home life and early success with Frank, through to her increasing use of drugs and her alcohol dependency before the further success of Back to Black. From there the pressures associated with such an unexpected and meteoric rise were compounded by her poor choice of partner – step forward, Blake Fielder-Civil – and the lack of support gained from her family, in particular her father, Mitch, whose lack of empathy for his daughter is incredible to witness. All this led to repeated, and entirely predictable relapses following stays in various rehab clinics. With no one attempting to deal with her bulimia – or get her to – Amy’s health was so compromised by 2011 that those close enough to her knew that her drinking would eventually kill her.

But Amy is effectively reportage, a trawl through the singer’s life that relies on a great deal of archival footage of Amy and her friends, Amy and her working relationships, Amy on stage, Amy in the public eye, and the contributions of many of the people who knew her personally and worked with her professionally. And while some of the early, pre-Frank footage is beguiling to watch, and fascinating in a morbid way (knowing how she would look in later life), the later footage, once her demons have made themselves felt, leads the movie into darker, more disturbing territory. It’s at this point that Amy moves away from bittersweet reflection and becomes a rehash of the public and private life we all saw develop over those eight years. We see the public appearances where she seems overawed and/or overwhelmed, the sight of someone with the light in their eyes slowly dying out, and we gain the sad realisation that this person’s life can only end in tragedy.

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Did we always know this? Certainly Amy’s friends knew this, and it’s likely that her colleagues in the music industry knew this, and the movie, while not pointing any fingers directly (or with any intention of doing so), does however make one thing clear: no one did enough to stop it. Her friends stepped away because they couldn’t bear to watch her destroy herself, and her record company wouldn’t work with her unless she was clean (reasonable in itself but for Amy an ultimatum she was never going to achieve, not in the long-term). In the end, that’s why Amy died alone and with only her bodyguard occasionally checking in on her: she had nobody she could rely on to protect her.

The sadness and the largely unavoidable tragedy of all this is brought out by Kapadia’s firm control over the movie’s content, and while some people, particularly Mitch Winehouse, have subsequently decried Amy as having produced “an inaccurate narrative of Amy’s story”, there’s little doubt that in the last three years of her life, when her problems became insurmountable, that she was desperately unhappy and struggling to find direction in her life. You can see this illustrated best when she’s seen recording a duet with Tony Bennett, one of her life-long idols. The confidence that has seen her give outstanding vocal performances time and time again has deserted her; she keeps apologising for getting things wrong. Bennett continually reassures her but you can see from her eyes that Amy isn’t convinced; when the session is done, you can see how relieved she is that she’s got through it all. It’s moments like these, when she clearly wants to be at her best, but her best is too far away for her to grasp, that prove the most disturbing and the most upsetting.

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Could Amy Winehouse have conquered her demons and still be making great records today? We’ll never know, but one thing we can be sure of: her short career gave us many wonderful recordings, and it’s these lasting treasures by which we should remember her, not as the drunk, confrontational, tragically lost figure she was in her last few years. She was talented, incredibly so, and Amy reminds us of that constantly, even as it charts her downward spiral. She was always about the music, always about the irresistable pull of it, and thanks to Kapadia’s inclusion of several of her most iconic and meaningful songs, Amy is still a reminder of just how talented she was, and how much she will be missed.

Rating: 8/10 – a fascinating documentary that tells a fascinating story, even if we think we’ve seen it all before, Amy mixes archival footage of the singer along with candid commentaries from the people who knew and worked with her to create a devastatingly human story of tragedy borne out of success; that it doesn’t make judgments (except very cleverly) or arrive at any conclusions are the only things that stop this from being any better than it already is.

The Big Short (2015)

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The Big Short

D: Adam McKay / 130m

Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Hamish Linklater, Adepero Oduye, Byron Mann

It seems a little odd now that next year, 2017, will see the tenth anniversary of the collapse of the US housing market. Thanks to the greed of the Wall Street banks, in the US alone, eight million people lost their jobs and six million people lost their homes. It was a national scandal. But how did it all come about? Well, it’s fairly complicated, but The Big Short does a good job of explaining it all.

Adapted from the book by Michael Lewis, the movie looks at the people who first realised that the US housing market was a timebomb waiting to happen. It begins with a hedge fund manager, Dr Michael Burry (Bale). He had been analysing mortgage lending practices and discovered that mortgages were being sold at an alarming, and unchecked rate. With increasing defaults at the lower end of the market, a collapse was inevitable, and Burry predicted it would happen in 2007. Burry then approaches several of the big name banks, including Goldman Sachs, and persuades them to let him take out credit default swaps, an insurance against the collapse happening. If it does, they pay him a major return on his premiums.

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Burry’s actions attract the attention of a trader at Goldman Sachs, Jared Vennett (Gosling). At first, like everyone else, Vennett thinks that Burry’s idea is completely ridiculous. But he does what Burry did and digs a little deeper, until he too sees the likelihood of the collapse happening. He attempts to do what Burry has done using his own funds but a misplaced phone call ends up putting him in touch with Mark Baum (Carell), another hedge fund manager. Baum and his small team begin to create their own credit default swaps.

In addition, two young investors, Charlie Geller (Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Wittrock) hear about the default credit swaps, and with the aid of industry veteran Ben Rickert (Pitt), they too manage to raise their own swaps. Burry faces the ire of his bosses at the company where he works (who can’t see that the housing market could collapse – because it’s never happened before) because of the size of the premiums he’s paying, while Baum’s investigation into the pending collapse begins to show the enormous effect it will have on the public, as well as the financial system. The sheer size and scope of the fallout, they realise, won’t just affect the US economy, but the global economy as well.

As Baum and his team look further into the reasons why the collapse will occur, they discover that the banks and mortgage lenders are complicit in keeping the status quo, preferring to get rich off of short term investments instead of long term ones. And they also discover the existence of CDO’s (collateralized debt obligations), groups of poor loans that are packaged together and given incorrect ratings in order that they can be sold on. These packages are essentially worthless but are being used to a) prop up the already wobbly housing market, and b) to further ensure quick, easy profits for the banks.

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But it all proves to be too much and too late. In 2007 the markets defaulted and the collapse began in earnest. The ripple effect of foreclosure after foreclosure began to cripple the banks, and many closed for business, owing billions of dollars (the movie states that $5 trillion was lost in total). But – and here’s the irony – Burry, Baum, Vennett, Geller and Shipley all profited from the collapse. Their credit default swaps allowed them to make millions off of the back of everyone else’s misery. The movie acknowledges this around halfway through, and while up til then the viewer might be regarding these guys as the heroes of the story, by the end it’s doubtful you’ll see them in the same light. When Burry leaves his office once his company’s credit default swaps have been honoured you see the amount they’ve made written on a board: $2.69 billion.

By focusing on the people who warned the system what was going to happen, and who benefitted from it in the long run, The Big Short is able to show us what was happening on the inside, and how pervasive the fraud related to mortgage lending was. It’s a morality tale where no one gets off lightly. Geller and Shipley, once they realise the effect the collapse will have on ordinary people they try and warn their friends and families, but they’ve made no effort to warn anyone else during the whole time. Baum approaches one of the Ratings agencies, to see how they can justify giving approval ratings to the CDO’s, only to be told that if they didn’t the banks would take their business elsewhere; and yet Baum doesn’t warn anyone outside his own team about what this means. And Burry sits back in his office and watches it all unfold with the view that he’s just doing his job.

That the US financial institutions of the time were amoral in their approach to protecting their clients is something we’ve long been aware of, but the point The Big Short makes with absolute clarity is that everyone was too busy getting rich to even care. What makes matters worse is that the banks weren’t even worried; they knew that the government – the people, if you like – would have to bail them out if anything did go wrong. It’s this nasty, reprehensible lack of responsibility, and the extent of it, that really comes across, and even though Baum in particular bemoans the industry’s fraudulent activities, it still remains that few efforts were made to avoid the collapse when it was known about and accurately predicted.

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As the movie’s anti-heroes, Bale is on nervous, Asperger’s-type form as Burry, supposedly with a glass eye (the left one), and working with absolute certainty that his projections are correct. Burry is a character that comes across as indifferent to anyone around him, and dismissive of others when challenged, but Bale makes him into a weary financial warrior, determined to make a profit for his investors at the expense of millions of ordinary non-investors. He’s likeable enough but some viewers may find him cold and distant. Carell plays Baum as the script – by McKay and Charles Randolph – has set him up: as the tale’s sole source of any conscience. With an unflattering wig perched on his head to add to his woes, Carell looks crestfallen and morose throughout, as if the weight of the (financial) world was all on his shoulders alone. It’s less of a performance than an extended mope-athon, and aside from a few moments of outrage, Baum looks and sounds like someone who’s got inside the cookie jar, has stuffed them all in his mouth, and only then discovered that he doesn’t like the flavour.

In support, Gosling sports a hideous hairstyle and struts around breaking the fourth wall with undisguised glee (as do several other characters), while Pitt buries himself beneath another odd wig and a scruffy beard. Magaro and Shipley adequately put across the eagerness and the excitement of being in on what could be termed an “industry secret”, and their scenes together are eloquent for how they go from earnest and enthusiastic to demoralised and dismayed. The rest of the cast do well with sometimes sketchily written characters, though Mann comes in towards the end as an investment manager that the banks use to create synthetic CDO’s (even worse than the real thing) and who is scarily unconcerned about the consequences of what he’s doing.

McKay – better known for his work with Will Ferrell – has made a movie that exposes the indolence and the greed at the heart of Wall Street during the last decade, and he’s done it with no small amount of style. When something complicated needs explaining, instead of getting one of the characters to explain it, the movie is effectively paused while a celebrity does so in terms that the average viewer can understand (which leads to the surreal moment when Selena Gomez explains what synthetic CDO’s are). With the intricacies of the financial jargon overcome, McKay looks to emphasise the human cost of the banks’ endeavours and does so with a pointed, judgmental approach that can be hugely effective.

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The Big Short may not be everyone’s idea of a movie to crack open a few beers with, or indeed one that could be enjoyable, but there’s much to warrant giving it a try, and if you pay attention to what’s being said, there’s a lot to be understood about what went wrong in 2007 and why it was inevitable. As a cautionary tale it’s perhaps a little too late in the telling, but it does leave the viewer with one very clear warning right at the end: beware of “bespoke tranche opportunities”. They’re the new version of CDO’s and the banks are pushing them with all the gusto did in the past.

Rating: 8/10 – well focused on both the financial and human sides of the crisis, The Big Short is a scary look at a situation that nearly caused a global financial meltdown, and why it came about; fascinating and horrific on a continually WtF? level, the movie is at its best when its skewering the antipathy and the greed of the banks and their seemingly pathological determination to screw over everybody for the sake of a quick buck.

Trailer – Suicide Squad (2016)

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The latest trailer for Suicide Squad wouldn’t normally be a candidate for inclusion on thedullwoodexperiment – after all, the first one wasn’t. But someone, somewhere had the inspired idea that this trailer should be accompanied by, and edited to fit the rhythms of, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. And in a very strange way, it absolutely, positively works. Even if the movie proves to be lacklustre and disappointing, it will at least have this trailer to remind people of what could have been, and is a fitting testament to the idea that sometimes, trailers are a lot better than the finished product.

Steve Jobs (2015)

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Steve Jobs

D: Danny Boyle / 122m

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Ripley Sobo, Makenzie Moss, Perla Haney-Jardine, Sarah Snook, John Ortiz

Steve Jobs – maverick genius, arrogant manipulator, or indifferent human being? In Danny Boyle’s latest movie we get to learn that the late founder and CEO of Apple was all three, which shouldn’t be a surprise as each description isn’t exclusive of itself. But where Aaron Sorkin’s script, adapted from Walter Isaacson’s book, impresses most is when we see Jobs being all three at the same time.

The structure of the movie allows us to see Jobs at three separate points in his life, and each time in the immediate lead up to a product launch. So in 1984 we see him trying to launch the Macintosh, Apple’s first new product in seven years since the Apple II. In 1988 he’s on his own, attempting to impress everyone with the NeXT computer, an item that is doomed to failure. And we end on a high note in 1998 with the launch of the first iMac and Jobs’ ensuring he would never be forgotten. It’s like a crazy rollercoaster ride, as the advances in computer innovation are revealed to be less important than marketing and design. As Jobs so aptly puts it, “They won’t know what they’re looking at or why they like it but they’ll know they want it”.

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By telling Jobs’ story in three distinct episodes, Boyle and Sorkin, with the aid of a very talented cast, reveal how Jobs started with an idea and kept pursuing it for over fifteen years. That idea may have gone through some variations in all that time, but the movie paints a very convincing portrait of a man driven by the need to do things differently and in a way that’s at odds with everyone around him. In his pursuit of excellence in home computing, Jobs brooked very little compromise, and we see this in the meticulous nature of his product launches, where even the Exit signs have to be switched off so that the visual presentation can have the most impact. Jobs doesn’t compromise, and he doesn’t recognise the value and support of the people around him, including his old friend and co-creator of the Macintosh, Steve Wozniak (Rogen), and his long-suffering personal assistant Joanna Hoffman (Winslet).

Each launch brings its own set of issues and problems for Jobs to overcome, from the first Macintosh’s failure to say “hello”, to the NeXT computer’s lack of an operating system, to Wozniak’s public insistence that the iMac launch should include an acknowledgment of the work put in by the team who made Apple II so successful. Jobs refuses to accept that any of these will interfere with his plans for success, and he drives the people around him with a fierce determination that is both alienating and patronising. The movie keeps Jobs focused and uncompromising in his self-belief, right until the end, and as an anti-hero he fits the bill entirely.

But while the behind the scenes manoeuvrings that show how each phase of Jobs’ career were a necessary, evolutionary step (for him and his computers) all make for compelling viewing, the movie is less successful with its three act structure than it realises. Each section relies on a lot of repetition, as encounters and personal problems are examined each time, albeit from slightly different angles. Jobs’ condescending treatment of Wozniak is a case in point, as is his dismissive treatment of computer engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Stuhlbarg). And then there’s Lisa, the daughter he tried to deny having.

Film Title: Steve Jobs

Jobs’ relationship with Lisa is one of the bigger subplots in the movie, and as an attempt by Boyle and Sorkin to show the man’s more “human” side, it’s nevertheless quite clumsy and unconvincing in its execution. At the first launch, Lisa is five years old; up until she uses a Macintosh to draw a picture, Jobs is distant toward her, and to her mother, Chrisann (Waterston). But the picture changes his feelings about her, and in the other two acts we see the same sort of thing happen again, as Jobs begins to treat Lisa as a person and not a Court-confirmed inconvenience (Jobs was so arrogant that upon learning that a paternity test showed it was 94% certain he was Lisa’s father, he came up with an algorithm that counter-claimed that the 6% difference meant Chrisann could have slept with any one of twenty-eight million men and the result would have been the same). While it’s a creditable attempt to humanise Jobs, it’s these scenes that carry the least weight, and the least credibility. By the time Lisa is nineteen and on the verge of wanting nothing to do with him, all it takes is for Jobs to say he was “poorly made” and she forgives him just like that (as well as a hastily improvised bribe that promises she’ll have one of the first iPods).

More potent is the relationship Jobs has with John Sculley (Daniels), the CEO he poached from Pepsi to run Apple in the Eighties. It was Sculley who had Jobs ousted from Apple following the disastrous sales of the Macintosh, and Sorkin’s script soars whenever it focuses on the pair’s uneasy relationship. There’s a bravura scene where Jobs confronts Sculley over what he sees as the CEO’s betrayal of him, and Boyle intercuts with flashbacks that show the depth of Jobs’ own complicity, giving the audience a balanced view of what happened and why. Both Fassbender and Daniels are superb in these scenes, and the movie has a fire and an energy that it lacks elsewhere.

As expected, Boyle elicits strong performances from his cast, with Fassbender giving a superb performance as the empathy-lite Jobs, and Winslet stealing the movie out from under him as Joanna. Winslet is simply in a class of her own, adding subtlety and shading to a role that would otherwise have been quite bland. When she confronts Jobs over his treatment of Lisa before the ’98 launch, the pent-up emotions she releases are as liberating for the viewer as they are for Joanna. In support, Rogen shows fleeting glimpses of the actor he can be when he’s not channelling Seth Rogen, and Daniels is magnificent as Sculley.

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Jobs is frequently challenged as to what he can actually do, and at one point he tells Wozniak that “musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra”. With Jobs, Boyle shows himself to be a great conductor as well, but thanks to some uncomfortable narrative decisions borne out of Sorkin’s script, this isn’t as rewarding as some of his other movies, and his control over the material, while evident throughout, isn’t enough to overcome the movie’s built-in deficiencies. That said, and as with all of Boyle’s movies, it’s visually stimulating and in tandem with editor Elliot Graham, he maintains a pace and a rhythm that propel the viewer along effortlessly.

Rating: 7/10 – slickly, professionally made with Boyle firmly in charge and full of impressive performances, Jobs is nevertheless a movie that fails to do full justice to its central character; as a result Jobs the human being proves less interesting than Jobs the arrogant perfectionist, and any insights into the man that can be gleaned are at the expense of soap opera elements that, unfortunately, compromise his more acerbic nature.

Anomalisa (2015)

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Anomalisa

D: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson / 90m

Cast: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

If you’re new to the work of Charlie Kaufman, and haven’t seen any of his earlier works such as Being John Malkovich (1999) or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), then Anomalisa may not be the best place to start. Not because it’s a bad movie – very far from it – but because it requires a great deal of navigation to get to where Kaufman wants to take you. You can approach the story at face value: middle aged man suffering a mid-life crisis has a one-night stand while on a business trip, or you can see past the obvious and examine the bizarre psycho-sexual mindset of a man for whom everyone else in the world looks and sounds the same, and for whom personal relationships are a form of existential torture.

By having his lead character suffer from the Fregoli Delusion, a rare disorder where a person believes that different people are in fact the same person but in constantly changing disguises, Kaufman has found a new way to look at how we assess new relationships and how we assign emotional links to new relationships from old ones. It all sounds heavy going, and maybe not the best material for an animated movie, but in fact it’s the perfect approach and style for telling Kaufman’s tale.

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Michael Stone (Thewlis) is a customer service guru. He’s written a well-known and highly regarded book on the subject and he’s arrived in Cincinnati to give a speech the next day. He’s married with a young son and on the ride from the airport establishes that there’s a toy store near his hotel where he can get a gift for his son. At the hotel, called The Fregoli, Stone checks in and goes to his room where he decides to call up an old girlfriend, Bella Amarossi, and see if she’ll meet him for a drink. She agrees and they meet up in the hotel bar. There are recriminations from Bella over the way Michael just upped and left her, and the reunion ends badly when he suggests they go up to his room to “talk more privately”; angered that he just wants to have sex with her, Bella leaves.

With nothing else to do, Michael visits the nearby toy store only to learn that it’s an adult toy store. But he sees a mechanical head and upper torso, with arms, of a Japanese woman behind the counter and he decides to buy it. Back in his room he’s just getting out of the shower when he hears a familiar woman’s voice from outside in the hallway. He dashes out but no one is there. Convinced she must be in one of the other rooms, he knocks on doors until one is opened by Emily. Emily is in town for his speech along with her colleague and best friend Lisa (Leigh). Michael is immediately smitten by Lisa and after the three of them have had cocktails in the hotel bar, he invites Lisa back to his room. Fascinated by her, and in particular by her voice, Michael flatters her into having sex with him.

Afterwards he has a dream where the hotel manager speaks to him in the basement and tells him that while assignations in the hotel rooms are to be expected, Michael can do so with anyone but Lisa. A team of secretaries all offer themselves to him and as he attempts to escape he wakes up. In the morning, Michael and Lisa have breakfast together, but he begins to criticise her behaviour, and soon her voice, which he finds so alluring, begins to pall, and she sounds like everyone else. Later, when he gives his speech, Michael rambles and goes off topic, and his previous confidence deserts him; he sounds alienated and confused. And when he returns home, he still finds no relief from the problems that plague him.

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Part of the pleasure of watching Anomalisa is trying to fathom if Michael knows he suffers from Fregoli disorder or not. There are times when it seems as if he does but is choosing to ignore it (or deal with it), and there are times when he seems oblivious to it (you can guess when these moments occur). The movie’s perspective doesn’t help, with everyone except for Michael and Lisa looking the same – and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Sonny from I, Robot (2004). Further disorientation is added by having Tom Noonan voice all the other characters, male or female. (It’s a great idea, and Noonan’s rich tones are used to very good effect.) If we’re seeing all this from Michael’s perspective, then he is aware of it and is choosing to deal with it. But if we’re seeing all this from the vantage point of an observer, then Michael’s awareness of his condition is open to question, and so are his motives.

There’s much that’s open to interpretation either way, but it’s his relationship with Lisa, however short-lived, that holds the key to Michael’s behaviour. His marriage is on the rocks because he’s unhappy with his life in general (because of his disorder?), he’s in town just overnight, alone, and seeking “company”; it’s a cliché waiting to happen. Kaufman relates the ensuing “courtship” with aplomb, embedding an early clue as to Lisa’s “place” in Michael’s mindset (the payoff comes when he gets home), and leading the viewer down the path called misdirection. It’s all cleverly done, and with more than a hint of mischief, and in terms of the narrative, is richly rewarding when all becomes clear at the end.

To explain more would be to ruin the fun of discovering how Michael overcomes his disorder and makes a connection with another person. The stop motion animation style employed appears clunky and hesitant but it’s a perfect fit for Michael’s confused mind and emotions, as well as his lumbering approach to other people. It’s charming too, with little details here and there that add depth to the narrative (the zoo sign that can be seen from Michael’s hotel window). And Kaufman adds sly, witty moments of his trademark humour: the plane that can be seen from Michael’s plane (you know exactly what’s going to happen), and the hotel clerk who taps away at a keyboard without taking his eyes off Michael at all.

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So much animation is aimed at the younger market that it’s refreshing to see a completely adult-themed animated movie that doesn’t include talking animals or magical fairy kingdoms. Kaufman and Johnson have created a unique world for us to visit and spend time in, and aided by a beautifully melancholy score by Carter Burwell, have made a movie that resonates long after it’s ended.

Rating: 9/10 – a superb movie in its own right but elevated by its distinctive use of stop motion animation, Anomalisa is a sheer delight from start to finish; with much to say about how we view other people and relate to them in times of emotional crisis, and how insular we can be, it’s also at times unbearably poignant – and that’s a very good thing indeed.

Trumbo (2015)

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Trumbo

D: Jay Roach / 124m

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, Helen Mirren, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Louis C.K., David James Elliott, Roger Bart, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Dean O’Gorman, Christian Berkel, Stephen Root, Alan Tudyk, John Getz

Anyone with a passing interest in the history of Hollywood will probably have heard of the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and directors who were cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to state their affiliation (if any) with the Communist Party. They stood up for their First Amendment rights only to find that the government wasn’t listening; as a result they were fined and given prison sentences ranging from six months to a year. Hollywood exacted a further penalty: none of the ten would be allowed to work in the industry and their names would be added to the Blacklist, a list of actors, writers, directors and other industry professionals who were regarded as communists and traitors to the American way of life.

This ignominious period in American political and entertainment history is the backdrop for Trumbo, a look at the life and experiences of one of the Hollywood Ten, and the ways in which he managed to subvert the Blacklist. Beginning in 1947, the movie charts the attempts by the Hollywood establishment to fall into line with the political manoeuvrings of people such as stockbroker and US Representative J. Parnell Thomas, and to not appear out of step with the paranoia of the time. Against this, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) tries to marshal his “comrades” in an effort to rebut the accusations made against them, and with the likes of Edward G. Robinson (Stuhlbarg) in support, prepares to defy Congress and to refuse to cooperate at the hearings.

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The movie shows how some of the Ten, including Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) – a character created to represent several of the original members – have their doubts about this course of action, but they are persuaded by Trumbo, and their time before Congress leads to the ruination of their careers. Matters are made worse when supporters such as Robinson give their names to the enquiry, and the extent of the Blacklist begins to be felt once their gaol terms are completed. Hird becomes ill, while Trumbo does his best to support him. Still needing to write, Trumbo writes a screenplay that he gives to his friend Ian McLellan Hunter (Tudyk) to sell to the studios. The script is bought by Paramount and the movie made from it, Roman Holiday (1953), goes on to win an Oscar for its screenplay.

The irony isn’t lost on Trumbo, and when he’s approached by King Brothers Productions, headed by Frank King (Goodman), to produce screenplays for them (under pseudonyms of course), he jumps at the chance. However, a combination of King’s demand for scripts and Trumbo’s own exhausting work ethic leads to an estrangement from the rest of his family: wife Cleo (Lane), eldest daughter Nikola (Fanning), son Chris, and youngest daughter Mitzi. He ropes them in to be his support team, delivering scripts and rewrites whenever needed and refusing to see that they have their own lives to lead. In time, they begin to rebel against his dictatorial attitude.

As rumours of Trumbo’s involvement with King Brothers begins to spread throughout Hollywood, efforts are made by columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren) to expose him. The release of The Brave One (1956) with a script by Robert Rich (in reality Trumbo), adds fuel to the fire, especially when it too wins an Academy Award for its screenplay. With Trumbo’s profile becoming even more pronounced than it was before the Blacklist, he finds himself working for both Kirk Douglas (O’Gorman) (on Spartacus) and Otto Preminger (Berkel) (on Exodus). Both men are willing to ignore the Blacklist and give Trumbo screen credit, but not before they have to deal with the possibility of anti-Communist boycotts of their movies and widespread industry disapproval.

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In recounting Trumbo’s story, Jay Roach’s movie plays very much like every other Hollywood biopic you’ve ever seen. It moves at a steady pace, ticks all the important boxes when recounting/explaining the motives of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, shows how deeply the Blacklist affected the lives of its victims, and recounts Trumbo’s subsequent attempts to remain gainfully employed in the town that had turned its back on him. In short, it sticks to a very traditional formula and rarely strays from it, even down to the idea that Trumbo would have befriended a black fellow inmate in prison (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) (an example of his pro-egalitarian approach to people and politics). It’s only when see him at home, bashing out screenplay after screenplay, that the movie offers us something different from the standard notion of a writer struggling to maintain his career. Here, Trumbo is shown to be a bit of a monster – indifferent to his wife, dismissive of his children, and so self-absorbed he can’t see the damage he’s doing.

But like a lot of things that happen in the movie, this self-absorption and bad behaviour is easily remedied, and then it’s on to the next hurdle. For this is what Trumbo the movie is comprised of: a series of hurdles for the writer to clear. Sometimes he does so with inches of room to spare, at other times he knocks them down on his way to the finish line, and occasionally he doesn’t even realise the hurdles are even there. And he does it all with wit and panache and a fondness for the odd bon mot. For someone dealing with the issues that Trumbo had to deal with – and his pseudonym dependency issues aside – his movie incarnation never really seems to be affected by what’s happening around him. Sure he’s outraged, and sure he’s angry at the injustice of it all, but all too often the movie makes it sound like it’s all just a big intellectual challenge for him, and one that he can easily outmanoeuvre.

As the screenwriter who did some of his best work in the bathtub, Cranston gives a rasping, eloquent portrayal of a man who never loses sight of his principles, even when everyone around him is either trying to deny they exist, or castigate him for having them. It’s an award-worthy performance but one that lives or dies on Cranston’s likeability in the role, and it’s good that he is very likeable. But then so is everyone else, even the “villains” like Mirren’s vicious Hedda Hopper; there’s no one you really take exception to. In this sense, John McNamara’s screenplay becomes all surface sheen and lightweight drama, with none of the varied emotions that must have been felt by all concerned at the time.

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By arriving with an air of detachment (whether deliberate or not), and an ironic detachment at that, Roach has crafted a movie that is effortlessly watchable but which falls short of being compelling. We follow Trumbo on his journey from celebrated Hollywood screenwriter to… well, celebrated Hollywood screenwriter via a couple of detours, and though we know it probably was rough, that doesn’t come across. Still the performances are a large measure of the fun to be had (Mirren, Goodman and Stuhlbarg each bring their A-game), and the period setting gives Daniel Orlandi a chance to shine in the Costume Design department. One aspect that does work? The inclusion of archival footage from the HUAC hearings, a salient reminder that people like Ronald Reagan were quick to distance themselves from their friends and colleagues under the threat of censure. What times they were, and what a shame that Trumbo isn’t quite the movie to show us just how bad they were.

Rating: 7/10 – full of unrealised potential, Trumbo is an easy watch when it should have been more engrossing and, in terms of the political witch hunt that occurred at the time, able to invoke the viewer’s ire with ease; Cranston is on fine form and he heads a more than capable cast but this has to be filed under “missed opportunity”.

Brooklyn (2015)

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Brooklyn

D: John Crowley / 111m

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Jane Brennan, Brid Brennan, Jessica Paré, Fiona Glascott, Emily Bett Rickards, Eve Macklin, Nora-Jane Noone, Michael Zegen, Eva Birthistle, Eileen O’Higgins

Adapted from the novel by Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn is the tale of a young Irish girl, Eilis (pronounced A-lish) (Ronan) who, in 1952, travels from the small town where she’s lived all her life, to the Big Apple, and specifically the borough of Brooklyn. It’s a chance for her to make a future for herself, to escape the narrow confines of rural Irish life. She’s supported by the local Catholic diocese, in the form of Father Flood (Broadbent), and goes to live in a boardinghouse run by God-fearing, opinionated Mrs Keogh (Walters). With a job in a department store lined up for her as well, Eilis has all she needs to do well.

But she misses home, and her widowed mother (Jane Brennan) and well-liked sister, Rose (Glascott). She writes to Rose a lot to try and combat her feelings of homesickness, and at first, finds it hard to fit in with the other young women at Mrs Keogh’s. As she struggles to find her place in this overwhelming new world, she meets a young Italian boy, Tony Fiorello (Cohen), at a dance. He’s sweet, good-natured, and has a winning smile. Eilis likes him straight away, and they begin seeing each other. He meets her when she gets out of her evening bookkeeping course; they go to the movies together and to other dances; and they go to Coney Island where Eilis learns the tricky etiquette behind wearing a bathing suit.

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

Their relationship makes Eilis more confident and self-assured. She helps out at the local shelter at Xmas time, providing food for the homeless Irish. She gains the respect and approval of her supervisor (Paré) at the department store, and she sails through her first year at night school, earning Father Flood’s admiration. And then Tony tells her he loves her. At first she doesn’t know how to respond to this, and Tony believes she doesn’t love him back, but Eilis overcomes her fears and admits she loves him too (though she’s still a little uncomfortable about it). Unexpected, tragic news comes from home, and Eilis feels compelled to go back. Tony urges her to marry him before she goes, afraid that if they don’t have such a strong tie to bind them, Eilis will never come back. They tie the knot and Eilis returns to her home town of Enniscorthy.

Though she agrees to stay until after the wedding of her close friend, Nancy (O’Higgins), Eilis’s return is viewed by many in the town as a permanent one. She lands a job at a local firm doing their books for them, and attracts the attention of Jim Farrell (Gleeson), a young man who’s regarded as a bit of a catch. Eilis and Jim begin spending time with each other, and she begins to feel conflicted over her marriage to Tony; she leaves his letters to unopened in a drawer in her room. With the weight of local expectations pressing down on her, will Eilis stay in Enniscorthy, or will she return to Brooklyn and her husband?

If you’ve already seen Brooklyn, then you’ll already know that the summary above covers most of the main points in the movie, and that Eilis’s journey from smalltown girl to big city woman isn’t without its fair share of ups and downs. But you’ll also be aware – hopefully – that these ups and downs lack a certain dramatic impact. It’s not that Eilis’s story is short of incident, far from it, but what incidents there are just don’t have any weight behind them, making the movie feel under-developed. Despite being adapted from Tóibín’s novel by Nick Hornby, this is one screenplay that doesn’t do the source material justice.

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Having said that, it’s likely any subsequent adaptation would have the same problem that Hornby had: much of what transpires is only moderately dramatic, and it’s very difficult to see how the material could be strengthened without harming the observant nature of the narrative. In essence, we’re invited to watch how Eilis Lacey deals with the various problems and positives that come along in her life, but we’re not really asked to participate in them, or to become involved with her. It’s like hearing about someone from someone else: you only get the flavour of a person and their life, and not the detail.

Part of the problem is that nothing really happens, certainly not enough for Eilis to feel as emotionally burdened as she does for a lot of the time. And the script never really puts Eilis in a place where she has to make any really important decisions. Yes, she agrees to marry Tony, yes, she has to make a choice between staying in Enniscorthy or going back to Brooklyn, but that’s it. Even the notion that she might fall for Jim Farrell and stay becomes unlikely as soon as the viewer realises that all they do is go for walks on the beach together, and Eilis isn’t showing the slightest romantic interest in him. Iin a movie lasting nearly two hours, there should be more drama than that, and as romantic love triangles go it’s bland and unconvincing.

Despite all this, the movie still has plenty of things going for it, not the least of which is Ronan’s performance as Eilis. Ronan is a gifted actress, and while she’s not given too much heavy lifting to do, she still impresses as the awkward young girl who grows to adulthood in a foreign land. Her oval features are used to good effect as Eilis becomes more self-assured, and her faltering grasp on love allows Ronan to display a guarded excitement that is entirely appropriate to the character. She’s ably supported by Cohen and Gleeson as the men in her life, though Gleeson has a hard time making Farrell seem more than just a puppy dog waiting for Eilis to play with him. Walters provides a good deal of the comedy, and Broadbent is a capable substitute figure for Eilis’s father.

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Behind the camera, Crowley, who has yet to make a movie that fully realises its potential – his last was Closed Circuit (2013) – does a great job in recreating the period, and with DoP Yves Bélanger, keeps the camera focused on Ronan’s face, all the better to catch her slowly dawning self-awareness and confidence. Bélanger also keeps the movie looking rich and inviting while Eilis is in Brooklyn, and naturally beautiful when she’s in Ireland. But with the material lacking bite, there’s only so much he and Crowley can do to keep the audience involved and following along in Eilis’s wake. Things aren’t helped either by an intrusive score by Michael Brook that doesn’t so much amplify what little drama there is, as try and become it.

Rating: 7/10 – though it tells its story plainly and with few attempts made to elevate the drama, Brooklyn is the kind of movie that would suit on a wintry Sunday afternoon in front of the fire; that it never really achieves any great dramatic heights is a shame, but it’s nevertheless an enjoyable watch if you don’t expect too much from it.

The Danish Girl (2015)

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The Danish Girl

D: Tom Hooper / 119m

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard, Adrian Schiller, Pip Torrens

Copenhagen, 1926. Einar Wegener (Redmayne) is a celebrated painter and husband to fellow painter Gerda (Vikander). They live in a big house by a canal and appear to be blissfully happy together, despite Gerda’s work being passed over by the local art dealer (Schiller), and despite not having had a child together in the six years they’ve been married. They are well regarded amongst their friends and contemporaries, including Ulla (Heard), a dancer who Gerda has agreed to paint a portrait of. One day Ulla is late for her sitting and Gerda asks Einar to take her place. He puts on stockings and shoes and covers himself with a dress; the effect of having the dress next to him reawakens old feelings from his childhood. When Ulla does arrive she’s delighted to see her “substitute” and tells Einar he should be known as Lili.

Later, Gerda discovers Einar is wearing one of her nightgowns under his clothes. She accepts this and the next morning while he sleeps she sketches him, giving him an androgynous look. When Einar refuses to attend an artist’s ball, Gerda prompts him to attend in disguise, as his “cousin” Lili. She intends it to be a game while Einar is secretly pleased to be able to dress as a woman. At the ball, Lili attracts the attention of Henrik (Whishaw) who engineers a situation where he kisses her. This initially confuses Einar but the urge to continue as Lili is stronger and he continues to see Henrik secretly.

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When their relationship ends, Einar makes the decision to be Lili most of the time. Out of this, Gerda finds her muse, and her paintings of Lili begin to gain attention. When her work is noticed by art dealers in Paris, she takes the opportunity to go there, and succeeds in persuading Einar to come with her. It’s good timing, as Einar has been seeking treatment for what he believes is a condition that can be resolved, but most doctors believe he is either insane or perverted and want to see him committed. In Paris, Gerda contacts Einar’s childhood friend and art dealer Hans Axgil (Schoenaerts), but when she brings Hans back to their apartment, they find Lili there instead of Einar.

At this time Einar and Gerda hear about a German doctor who is interested in people like Einar who feel like they are a woman trapped inside a man’s body. The doctor, called Warnekros (Koch), is trying to pioneer the kind of surgery that will allow a man to become a woman, complete with female genitals. Einar agrees to undergo the procedures necessary as he feels this is his best chance of becoming the person he really is – Lili. Meanwhile, Gerda’s conflicting emotions about her husband lead her to skirt perilously close to having an affair with Hans.

At one point in The Danish Girl, Einar Wegener visits a Paris brothel and watches through a window as a young woman sensuously caresses herself. He mimics her movements, and in doing so, has an orgasm. It’s a telling moment, as Einar’s need to be a woman finds expression in a moment of heightened sexuality. It’s also the point at which the movie makes it clear to the audience that Einar’s condition isn’t the result of some mental incapacity, or a chemical imbalance. This is where Einar truly becomes Lili, even if he still has to dress as a man on certain occasions.

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Lili’s story has been told in her own words in the book, Man into Woman: The First Sex Change, published in 1933, and drawn largely from the diary entries she wrote while undergoing her sex change procedure. The Danish Girl takes the book as a starting point and tells Lili’s story with a stately precision that both heightens the drama and allows room for Hooper to delve deeply into the relationship between Einar and Gerda and Lili herself. For this to work, the movie needed two actors capable of navigating the intricacies of gender confusion and emotional displacement, as Einar embarks on his all-consuming journey to become Lili, and Gerda tries to come to terms with losing the only man she’s ever loved. Fortunately, the movie has Redmayne and Vikander in it, and these two amazingly versatile actors keep the movie from being as dreary and confined as the movie’s backdrop (the movie is a triumph of muted colours and dull settings).

Redmayne is on superb form here, portraying Einar’s transformation from tormented man to blissfully happy woman with so much tenderness and understanding of the mixed emotions both Einar and Lili must have felt that it’s impossible to detect a false note anywhere in his performance. It’s hard to think of another actor who could have portrayed the two roles so effectively. And he’s matched by Vikander, an actress who goes from strength to strength in every movie she makes (even if it’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E.). She takes what could have been a secondary character and imbues her with a clear-sighted intelligence and emotional resilience that complements Redmayne’s performance and ensures that Gerda’s part in all this isn’t forgotten or given less importance. Their scenes together have such a charge that some of them leave the viewer on the edge of their seat, poised to see how their relationship will develop and how much their love for each other will see them through.

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As mentioned above, Hooper directs in a stately manner he seems to have picked up from watching too many heritage movies, and while this doesn’t disadvantage the movie completely, it does lead to moments where the passage of time – on screen at least – seems slower than it actually is (the events here take place over four years, but you wouldn’t know it otherwise). Some viewers may find their patience tested on these occasions but this is a movie that draws you in with its performances and proves compelling because of them. Few movies take the time to examine in detail how their characters feel, and why, but The Danish Girl – thanks to Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay – does it throughout and with an honesty that uplifts what could have been an entirely depressing story. But then again, this is a movie about courage and determination against the odds, and at a time when transgender issues were only just beginning to be addressed by the medical community. And the movie tackles these issues with a tremendous amount of sympathy and compassion.

The movie has another distinguished, evocative score courtesy of Alexandre Desplat, and is beautifully framed and shot by Danny Cohen (though again, Hooper’s choice of muted colours remains an issue). And Melanie Oliver’s editing is another strength, her ability to utilise a combination of static shots and measured cutting helping to improve the visual style. Away from the main story, the movie drops the ball on only two occasions: with the subplot involving Gerda’s attraction to Hans, which is unnecessary and would seem more relevant if this were a soap opera; and Lili’s relationship with Henrik, which isn’t explored fully, and which adds confusion to the already confused state she’s in at the time (just what is their relationship about?). But these issues aside, the movie is the kind of intelligent, clearly defined movie making that doesn’t come along very often, and which does enormous justice to its central characters.

Rating: 8/10 – with a virtuoso performance from Redmayne, and an equally impressive turn from Vikander, The Danish Girl is a riveting true story about the recipient of the world’s first sex change operation; impressively mounted, and with an honesty that permeates every scene, this is a movie well worth investing the time with, and which rewards on almost every level.

Trailer – Elvis & Nixon (2016)

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In America, the most requested photograph held in the National Archives is the one that depicts then President Richard Nixon shaking hands with Elvis Presley. Using this iconic image, Elvis & Nixon seeks to tell the story of the meeting that took place between the two men on 21 December 1970. The circumstances were certainly bizarre – and have already been explored in the movie Elvis Meets Nixon (1997) – but it is true that Elvis went to the White House to seek Nixon’s approval to become what he termed a “Federal Agent at Large” for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Nixon thought the meeting would help with his lack of popularity with younger voters. That two men could be so deluded is hard to believe but as they say sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction. The absurdities of the situation and the meeting seems to be well covered, and Spacey as Nixon is the kind of casting that should have happened long ago. Shannon as Elvis may prove to be a tougher sell though, as the actor has a very distinct screen presence, but he does seem to have nailed the craziness of Elvis’s delusion. However the movie turns out it’s definitely one to check out, and could be an outside contender come the awards season next year.

The 2016 Oscar Nominations

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Oscars 2016

Is it the middle of January already? Is it time to start getting mildly excited by the prospect of another year where the Academy voters behave responsibly and predictably in their choices for Best Film, Actor, Actress etc. etc.? Well, you’re darned right it is! Except this year there’s some early controversy, especially if you’re a fan of Carol, rightly regarded as one of 2015’s best movies – if not the best – but not good enough in the Academy’s eyes to be nominated for Best Motion Picture of the Year. And they’ve snubbed Todd Haynes as well, Carol’s director. What is going on?

Elsewhere, director snubs seem to be the order of the day, with Ridley Scott failing to pick up a nomination for that well-known comedy The Martian, and Steven Spielberg being overlooked for Bridge of Spies. The thing it’s always hard to understand about the Academy is that when they do this sort of thing, it never makes sense: how can a movie nominated in the Best Motion Picture category not have its primary mover and shaker nominated for Best Director? Maybe the Spotlight team should investigate.

For the most part it’s another predictable year, with some early front runners – Cate Blanchett for Carol, Spotlight for Best Motion Picture – emerging out of the haze, but with so few movies receiving the most nominations the only interest will be in seeing who wins the most. Here then are my picks for the winners in the main categories. The ones highlighted in bold are the ones I think will win. The ones highlighted in italics are the ones I think should win. If there’s no movie highlighted in italics then the one in bold is my choice for both.

Best Motion Picture of the Year

The Big Short; Brooklyn; Bridge of Spies; Mad Max: Fury Road; The Martian; The Revenant; Room; Spotlight

Spotlight

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Bryan Cranston – Trumbo; Matt Damon – The Martian; Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant; Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs; Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl

The Danish Girl

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Cate Blanchett – Carol; Brie Larson – Room; Jennifer Lawrence – Joy; Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years; Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Christian Bale – The Big Short; Tom Hardy – The Revenant; Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight; Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies; Sylvester Stallone – Creed

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight; Rooney Mara – Carol; Rachel McAdams – Spotlight; Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl; Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

Best Achievement in Directing

Lenny Abrahamson – Room; Alejandro González Iñárritu – The Revenant; Tom McCarthy – Spotlight; Adam McKay – The Big Short; George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Bridge of Spies; Ex Machina; Inside Out; Spotlight; Straight Outta Compton

Inside Out

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

The Big Short; Brooklyn; Carol; The Martian; Room

Creed (2015)

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Creed

D: Ryan Coogler / 133m

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Andre Ward, Anthony Bellew, Ritchie Coster, Jacob “Stitch” Duran, Graham McTavish, Gabe Rosado

The Rocky series has been a recurring staple of moviegoing since Sylvester Stallone first introduced us to the Italian Stallion back in 1976. The first movie had so much heart it sometimes felt like it would burst, and Stallone’s performance was a perfect match for the character. Rocky II (1979) was the inevitable sequel, and Stallone was canny enough to replicate enough of what made the first movie so good with newer elements that complemented the original. But then he made an unnecessary third movie, Rocky III (1982), and suddenly Rocky was fighting for an uneasy mix of revenge and morality. And then we had the blatant jingoism of Rocky IV (1985), with the Italian Stallion representing American pride at its most unseemly against a near unstoppable Russian opponent (thank God the Cold War was nearly over).

That seemed to be it, but then Stallone came up with Rocky V (1990), an attempt at scaling back the stylistic excesses of the previous two movies, but which lacked an interesting story. By then, Stallone was forty-four and age was beginning to make its point (as the movie recognised), and the chances of Rocky Balboa still stepping into the ring and taking even more poundings was quickly dismissed. But just as you can never keep a good fighter down, a sixth movie appeared, Rocky Balboa (2006). It showed more of a respect for the series than parts III – V, and it gave Stallone a chance to show just how much affection he had for the character, and that Rocky could be rescued from unintended parody. And that, surely, everyone felt, was that.

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Well, almost. Now we have a seventh movie and a sixth sequel, except that this time around, the focus isn’t on Rocky Balboa but instead it’s on the illegitimate son of his most famous opponent, Apollo Creed. He has the appropriate (and unfortunate) name of Adonis, and when we first meet him he’s a young boy in a childcare facility. He’s also beating up one of the other boys, so right away we know he’s got anger issues. And we know that these issues will resurface later in the movie to provide an obstacle to getting where he wants to be, and if by chance he meets someone significant, in being with the person he wants to be with. He’s given an unexpected reprieve from a young life busting other kid’s noses by the arrival of Apollo Creed’s widow, Mary Anne (Rashad), who takes him home with her.

As an adult, Adonis (Jordan) is conflicted: he has a well-paid office job but he also fights down in Tijuana where he’s undefeated after fifteen bouts. He’s self-taught, self-motivated, but knows he needs a proper coach to help him make a name for himself in the ring. And that name needs to be Johnson, his mother’s name, because he doesn’t want to make it on the back of his father’s legendary status. So he resigns from his job, and moves from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, home of another boxing legend. There he approaches Rocky, who after the usual demurring, agrees to help him train to be a better, professional fighter. And he meets someone significant, in the form of wannabe musician and downstairs neighbour, Bianca (Thompson).

Adonis is focused, and when he wins his first US fight against local boxer Leo ‘The Lion’ Sporino (Rosado), the cat is soon out of the bag in terms of his heritage. And with World Light-Heavyweight Champion ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan (Bellew) needing a fight in the next six months, the stage is set for the kind of fairytale ending that only happens in Hollywood boxing movies, and which includes highlights of a highly physical, hugely punishing twelve round bout (basically the kind that rarely happen in the real world).

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If some of the summary above sounds a little cynical, then it is. Creed is a movie that follows a well established template, and is incredibly easy to predict, right down to the outcome of Adonis’s bout with Conlan. There’s nothing here that you won’t have seen before, and there’s little that’s new or innovative. But fortunately, this is a movie where all that doesn’t matter, because what it does have is a fondness for and a charity towards the characters that allows them to feel like old friends even though you’ve only just met them. Adonis is the eternal child trying to find a place for himself in the world, and with only a single means to do it. He’s matched by Bianca, whose progressive hearing loss means she has to concentrate on her music almost to the exclusion of everything else. They’re both sympathetic characters and easily likeable, and both Jordan and Thompson have no trouble investing them with the kind of emotional honesty needed to avoid their becoming stereotypes.

And then there’s the man himself, Rocky Balboa, aged, resigned to running his restaurant, and staying adrift from the world that made him famous. This is a character that Stallone has played for nearly forty years all told, and this is finally the movie where he gives his best performance as the Italian Stallion. It’s a modest, surprisingly complex performance, with delicate shadings that haven’t been seen in a Rocky movie before, and Stallone appears so at home in the role that it really does seem difficult to separate the two: is Stallone Rocky, or is Rocky Stallone? Either way, the much maligned actor is excellent in his signature role, and he reminds us of just how much heart and soul the character had back in the beginning.

Away from Stallone, much of the movie’s success is down to the direction of Ryan Coogler. Coogler adopts a slightly unconventional visual approach to the movie which pays off during its quieter moments as the widescreen image is used to highlight a range of emotions. He’s also adept at keeping the camera in the ring, having it circle the boxers (and sometimes getting in between them) and prowl around every punch and blow. It’s a fluid performance by the camera, and superbly orchestrated by Coogler and DoP Maryse Alberti. The editing by Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver is also a plus in these sequences, interspersing the fluid camerawork with quick cuts and flourishes when the action needs to get in tight.

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There are references to the earlier movies throughout, though bizarrely, Rocky’s early morning training run is transformed completely, with Adonis trailed and then overtaken by local youngsters on a variety of souped-up bikes. Bill Conti’s iconic score is in there as well, though you might not always recognise it, and of course, those steps outside the Philadelpha Museum of Art get a visit, but in a way that’s less majestical and more realistic. Fans will be pleased to see so much effort being put into what is the seventh movie in the series, and with the torch being passed from Stallone to Jordan, there’s always the possibility that we’ll be following Adonis Creed’s career for some time to come.

Rating: 8/10 – on a par with the first two movies, Creed is hugely enjoyable, and benefits from a script – by Coogler and Aaron Covington – that puts the characters first before the fight scenes; if there still remains a lack of development in some areas (the various subplots), there’s more than enough here to keep old, new and non-fans alike happy and satisfied.

10 Reasons to Remember Alan Rickman (1946-2016)

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Alan Rickman (21 February 1946 – 14 January 2016)

Alan Rickman

2016 has already seen the deaths of Vilmos Zsigmond and David Bowie, which ordinarily would have been bad enough, but now we have the sad passing as well of Alan Rickman. Rickman was one of Britain’s finest actors with a rich, varied career both on stage and screen, and back when he started out, on TV as well (if you get a chance to see The Barchester Chronicles (1982), you’ll see he’s always been talented). He came late to movies, making his big screen debut in a role that has proven iconic over the years, the immaculately groomed, urbane thief Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988) (and doesn’t he look great for forty-two?). More villainous roles followed but Rickman was sharp enough to move away from those types of parts and he began making movies that showcased the wide range of skills he had as an actor, even showing on occasion what many believed was a surprising gift for comedy; who can forget the witheringly funny way he would intone “By Grabthar’s hammer” in Galaxy Quest (1999)? For many he will always be Professor Severus Snape from the Harry Potter movies, a role he made his own. You never quite knew what he was going to do in a scene as Snape, and that dangerous energy could be a feature of roles elsewhere. As well as acting he made two movies as a director, the understated yet poignant The Winter Guest (1997) and the romantic period drama A Little Chaos (2014); both are well worth checking out. But what we’ll miss most about Alan Rickman will be his voice, that rich, mellifluous sound that could ooze charm, villainy, passion and disdain in equal measure and still draw you in almost like a character all its own.

Die Hard

1 – Die Hard (1988)

2 – Truly Madly Deeply (1990)

3 – Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

4 – Bob Roberts (1992)

5 – Sense and Sensibility (1995)

6 – Galaxy Quest (1999)

7 – Love Actually (2003)

8 – Snow Cake (2006)

9 – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)

10 – CBGB (2013)

CBGB

45 Years (2015)

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45 Years

D: Andrew Haigh / 95m

Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Dolly Wells, David Sibley

Geoff and Kate Mercer (Courtenay, Rampling) are near to celebrating forty-five years of married life with a big party. As their party planner remarks, it’s an odd year to celebrate, but it’s because their fortieth had to be cancelled thanks to Geoff needing a heart bypass. They live outside a small village in Norfolk with their dog Max and appear to have a tranquil, reclusive existence.

On the Monday before the party, Geoff receives a letter from Switzerland that contains a surprise. Back in 1962, Geoff and his then girlfriend, Katya, were hiking through the Swiss Alps when she fell into a crevasse. Now, with the snowline having retreated due to global warming, Katya’s body has been found embedded in a glacier. The news startles Geoff, and unnerves Kate, especially when it occurs to her that it seems odd that Geoff would have been contacted. When he tells her that on occasion during their trip he and Katya pretended to be married to get a hotel room, and because of this he’s regarded as her next of kin, it further unnerves Kate.

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As the week progresses and Kate spends her time organising the party, she begins to realise that Geoff is spending his time reliving memories of his time with Katya. There arre questions she wants to ask him but is afraid to. When she discovers that Geoff has been going up into the loft and looking at old slides, she also discovers something that proves shocking. Kate becomes distant from Geoff, and angry with him for what she sees as a betrayal of their own relationship, that he should want to spend so much time thinking about a woman he knew before he and Kate even met.

With the party looming ever nearer, Kate confronts Geoff over his behaviour but she can’t quite bring herself to fully explain her feelings. All she wants is for Geoff to make it look like he wants to be there. But even with his assurance that he does want to be there, and he does love her, on the day, Kate is wracked with unresolved emotions as the celebration of their life together gets under way.

Adapted from the short story In Another Country by British author David Constantine, 45 Years is a subtle, intelligent movie about perceived betrayal and the jealousy resulting from it that features tremendous performances from both Rampling and Courtenay, and confident, assured direction from Andrew Haigh. It’s a movie that relies heavily on the stillness of contemplation to explore the surprisingly strong emotions felt by its central character, Kate, and it quietly and effectively makes those emotions resonate with a power that is equally unexpected for their intensity.

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Haigh, who also wrote the screenplay, postions Kate and Geoff at a point where their contentment with each other is so ingrained that it brooks no question – from us at least. But when the letter from Switzerland arrives and we see their quite different reactions to it – Geoff retreats into a world of memory and introspection, Kate sees a challenge to the comfort she’s found in their marriage – that contentment is sure to be disrupted. But where some movies might explore the ways in which both characters are affected by this kind of news, Haigh does something a little unusual: he makes Geoff a silent mourner who talks about Katya in generalities, and brings Kate’s fears and concerns to the fore.

Kate is governed by an irrational but entirely understandable need to know that Katya isn’t Geoff’s great lost love, the woman he has missed for all these years, and also that their marriage hasn’t been a case of Geoff settling for second best. She wants to know that she matters, that Geoff loves her more than he did Katya, that their marriage hasn’t been one of convenience on Geoff’s part. But she cannot find the courage to ask the question directly or with any conviction that she wants to know the answer. And by doing so she makes her situation all the worse, as her assumptions and worries about her place in Geoff’s life are amplified by her insecurities.

As Kate, Rampling is simply incredible. She gives an impressive, astonishing performance, one of contained desperation, as Kate appears to allow herself to give in to the emotions she feels in the wake of the letter’s arrival. In several scenes and shots Rampling’s features are a mask behind which you can see a swirling cauldron of emotional confusion and dismay. There’s a scene where she plays the piano, and in her playing there’s a release of emotion that is so terrible for its restrained violence; as she hits the keys each note is like a plea for exculpation of her feelings. And at the party, as Kate and Geoff dance together in what should be a joyous moment for them both – a recreation of the first dance at their wedding – Rampling’s body language tells the viewer everything they need to know about how Kate is dealing with it all.

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By contrast, Courtenay is required to remain – comparatively – in the shadows. Geoff’s behaviour at the news of Katya’s discovery is largely poignant, an inadequate response given his age and his physical infirmity. Geoff looks frail throughout, and there’s always the possibility the news will prove too much for him, but Haigh is canny enough to make Geoff stronger than he seems, at least emotionally, and there’s a handsome payoff for this at the party. Courtenay is a terrific match for Rampling, his naturally far-off gaze used to good effect as someone remembering another time in their life when they were happy. When he recounts the circumstances of Katya’s death, it’s with a heartfelt sense of acknowledgment for the happiness of that time in his life. For the viewer, it’s clear that Geoff doesn’t feel his relationship with Kate is of lesser importance. Oh that Kate could feel the same way.

45 Years excels at portraying the way in which someone can so easily and quickly feel that the relationship they’ve invested so much time in can feel so false (even if it’s probably not the case; though the movie doesn’t commit itself either way). Haigh shows complete control over the material and the narrative, even in the scenes where Kate is wandering aimlessly about a nearby town and her uncertainty is clear by the random directions she takes. The action is also beautifully framed and shot by DoP Lol Crawley, and the movie revels in its autumnal colour scheme (a perfect metaphor for the characters’ time of life and expectations). It’s a rich, sometimes lyrical movie that rewards in scene after scene, and features two actors at the top of their game. And it all ends with a final shot that is devastating for the way in which it leaves the viewer to decide how, or even if, Geoff and Kate continue their marriage.

Rating: 9/10 – a moving, emotionally astute portrait of a marriage plunged into crisis by the insecurities of one partner, 45 Years is a poignant look at how easy a long-term relationship can be undermined by simple suspicion; Rampling once again shows why she’s still one of the best actresses working today, and Haigh cements his position as one of Britain’s brightest directing talents.

Solace (2015)

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Solace

D: Afonso Poyart / 101m

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Abbie Cornish, Colin Farrell, Xander Berkeley, Marley Shelton, Janine Turner, Kenny Johnson, Sharon Lawrence

Solace is one of those movies. You know, a movie that dares you not to laugh at the absurdity of it all. It’s a movie that acknowledges the idea of credibility and then tramples all over it with big hob-nailed boots on. It’s so consistently bad that there’s no getting over just how awful it is. And it just goes to show that, sometimes, actors definitely go for the pay cheque rather than the artistic challenge (not that there is one here, unless you count keeping a straight face when the movie gets really silly).

But in amongst all the terrible dialogue and horrible acting, there are lessons to be learnt from Sean Bailey and Ted Griffin’s script, lessons that could prove invaluable if you’ve a mind to write your own serial killer thriller. Here are ten pointers toward making that movie a success.

1 – Always give your central protagonist – here Hopkins’ psychic John Clancy – a heartrending backstory that will have no relevance at all until the final scene, when you can reveal a dark secret that sheds new light on the character and his/her motivations (but which will be redundant in terms of the drama).

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2 – If your central character is a psychic it’s important to keep moving the goalposts in terms of what triggers his/her visions. Start off with being touched by others, then move on to have them be practically all-seeing all by themselves.

3 – If your villain is another psychic with advanced “powers”, don’t forget to make sure that, in the end, he/she is no match for your central character, and can be easily defeated, despite having a talent for seeing every outcome of every situation ahead of time.

4 – If you have to involve the police or Federal authorities, then make sure that those characters are at odds with each other in terms of their beliefs; one should be totally behind your psychic hero, while the other should doubt their abilities, and say so more than once.

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5 – If you have an agent or policeman who doubts the psychic’s abilities then you should definitely include a scene where their history is laid bare with as much detail as possible, and which should be upsetting for them to hear. (This will ensure that the audience is completely impressed with the psychic’s powers.)

6 – It’s very important that your villain should be able to kill on more than one occasion and never leave any DNA or other forensic evidence at any of the crime scenes. This will make him/her seem invincible/uncatchable until it’s time for them to be defeated with ease by the psychic hero.

7 – Always ensure your psychic hero gets to upstage their police partners by making educated guesses that they can pass off as benefits of their psychic abilities. This will be important when the narrative takes a wrong turn or gets bogged down by its own implausibilities.

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8 – When deciding on the killer’s motivations, it’s always best to make them sound like they’re acting with the best of (misguided) intentions. But always be sure to translate those motivations into the kind of dialogue that even the most talented actor couldn’t make convincing.

9 – Never ever insult your audience by including a scene where the psychic refuses to help the authorities because of past traumas. Everyone knows they’ll take the case, and everyone knows their reason for doing so is completely irrelevant (if it’s mentioned at all).

10 – Be sure to include several “psychic montages” that comprise shots and short clips from the rest of the movie interspersed with other, abstract images that have no relevance to the story at all (but which look pretty or ominous). Feel free also to include shots that feature the characters but which don’t actually occur anywhere else in the movie; get away with this by saying these shots are “interpretive”.

Oh, and if you can, get Anthony Hopkins to play your psychic hero. He doesn’t seem to mind what roles he takes on these days.

Rating: 3/10 – originally shot in 2013 and shelved by Warner Bros until it was picked up for distribution by troubled Relativity Media, Solace is a dreadful thriller that deserves to be locked up and never seen again; the cast are wasted, the direction is ham-fisted, and the script refuses to make any sense whatsoever, leaving the viewer with only one option – and you don’t have to be psychic to work out what that is.

10 Reasons to Remember David Bowie (1947-2016)

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David Bowie (8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016)

David Bowie

Although David Bowie will always be better known for his musical career, when it came to appearing in movies he made some tremendous choices. And when you consider he appeared in only twenty-one features it makes those choices even more impressive (this list is testament to that). He was a mercurial actor in much the same way he was a mercurial musician, always reinventing his screen persona as much as his musical one. He worked with directors of the calibre of Martin Scorsese, Nagisa Ôshima, Nicolas Roeg, and Christopher Nolan, and even found time to play Lord Royal Highness in an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants (which in some quarters is probably regarded as being even cooler than working with Scorsese et al). That he made so few movies (many of which contain cameo appearances) is understandable, but there is one performance of his that stands out from all the others; it’s also the one that was never actually filmed: his stage portrayal of John Merrick in The Elephant Man. Now if we had that to remember him by, then we would be truly blessed.

The Man Who Fell to Earth

1 – The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

2 – Just a Gigolo (1978)

3 – Baal (1982)

4 – The Hunger (1983)

5 – Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

6 – Absolute Beginners (1986)

7 – Labyrinth (1986)

8 – The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

9 – Basquiat (1996)

10 – Mr. Rice’s Secret (2000)

Mr. Rice's Secret

Kidnapping Mr. Heineken (2015)

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Kidnapping Mr. Heineken

aka Kidnapping Freddy Heineken

D: Daniel Alfredson / 95m

Cast: Jim Sturgess, Sam Worthington, Ryan Kwanten, Anthony Hopkins, Mark van Eeuwen, Thomas Cocquerel, Jemima West, David Dencik

In 1982, five friends working and living in Amsterdam  – Cor Van Hout (Sturgess), Willem Holleeder (Worthington), Jan ‘Cat’ Boellard (Kwanten), Frans ‘Spikes’ Meijer (van Eeuwen), and Martin ‘Brakes’ Erkamps (Cocquerel) – are struggling to keep their construction business from going under. They don’t have any appreciable capital so the banks won’t lend them any money. But Cor has an idea (a New Year’s resolution in fact): to do something big, something that will see them all become immensely rich. That idea leads to a plan, and the plan is to kidnap the owner and founder of the Heineken brewery empire, Alfred ‘Freddy’ Heineken (Hopkins).

Needing to pull off this coup quite quickly, the five men begin to plan their abduction and how they will keep the ransom – $35m – and avoid being caught. They begin to watch Heineken to learn his routine, and to figure out the best time to grab him. They also realise that in order to look like professional kidnappers they’ll need to have some money behind them. So they rob a bank, and get away with enough cash to bankroll the abduction. At a shed owned by Jan, they construct soundproof cells where they can keep Heineken (and Ab Doderer (Dencik), his driver), and which are hidden behind false panelling.

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The kidnapping is successful and the five men wait for the ransom note to be found by the police. They hole up at Jan’s shed, taking it in turns to check on Heineken and Doderer, and to wait for the ransom to be paid. But time passes, and after three weeks they’ve heard nothing. Willem is all for sending the police evidence that they will harm Heineken if the ransom isn’t paid, but when it comes to it he can’t do it. Another demand leads to the police and Heineken’s company agreeing to pay the ransom money, and the group successfully attain it. They stash most of it in buried tubes out in the forest, but in the days ahead they become more fearful and paranoid that the police will soon be snapping at their heels, and their long-term friendships begin to fray at the seams.

True stories – in the movies at least – usually come with the disclaimer that certain scenes, characters and/or dialogue have been fictionalised or conflated or created for dramatic purposes. This we know, and it’s always the problem with telling a true story: just how much of what you’re seeing is really true. The answer, of course, is absolutely none of it. It doesn’t matter if its’s based on a true story, or has the backing and involvement of the people it concerns or portrays, every single movie that’s based on a true story, or real events – what you’re watching is never going to be exactly what happened. And while we all know this deep down, still we take for granted that what we’re seeing actually happened, as if the writer(s), director(s) and cast have a special way of recreating past events exactly as they happened.

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Sadly for Kidnapping Mr. Heineken, if that were the case, then it might help obscure or erase the movie’s most fundamental problem: it’s not in the least bit convincing or dramatic enough to work. A belated English language remake of The Heineken Kidnapping (2011), the movie is a tired, tangled piece that features five men who don’t seem to have anything in common except they take to kidnapping with apparent ease, especially when it comes to abandoning their consciences (not one of them offers any objections to the idea). And there’s an incredible naïvete about their decision that’s never properly addressed; none of them have a criminal background but they take to being criminals as if it were the most natural, and easiest, thing in the world.

With the movie establishing an awkward tone from the start, the middle section does little to rescue things, as Heineken gets the chance to be belligerent and caustic to his kidnappers on a regular basis, and they all sit around wondering why the ransom hasn’t been paid. Five more glum-looking faces you’re unlikely to see for quite some time, as the movie – scripted by William Brookfield from the book by Peter R. de Vries – fails to add any tension to proceedings, even when Willem wants to get violent. It gives rise to an odd feeling, that neither Brookfield nor Alfredson have made any connection to the story, and are telling it out of some sense of obligation.

The same can be said of the cast. Sturgess, usually a sharp-minded presence on screen, here seems held back by the vagaries of the script, in particular with regard to Cor’s relationship with his girlfriend Sonia (West), which appears to be of minor importance during the abduction but assumes a disproportionate relevance in the movie’s final third. Worthington continues to make audiences wonder why he gets so much work, giving a performance that’s so stiff you expect him to seize up at any moment. And Kwanten, thanks to one of the scruffiest wigs seen in ages, will have viewers trying to work out who he is (in real life) rather than how good his performance is. But spare a thought for Hopkins, playing yet another supporting performance and having to go from assured patriarch to rambling mental patient in the space of a competently edited chase sequence.

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The story of Alfred Heineken’s kidnapping was a major news story at the time – in Holland at least – and is notable still today for the ransom being the largest ever paid for an individual, and for the fact that some of the money has never been recovered. The movie cites this at the end, along with the fates of the main characters (two of which may come as a very big surprise). But by then you’ll be less than interested, and just as relieved as Heineken probably was at being rescued from it all.

Rating: 4/10 – plodding, uninspired and plain dull for long stretches, Kidnapping Mr. Heineken is a movie that lacks commitment from its cast and crew, and ambles along with all the urgency of a downhill racer missing his skis; broadly factual (ironically, de Vries, who was an advisor on the movie, subsequently refused to watch the movie, citing numerous discrepancies between the movie and what really happened), this is a movie that gives new meaning to the words defiantly turgid.

A Most Violent Year (2014)

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A Most Violent Year

D: J.C. Chandor / 125m

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Christopher Abbott, Matthew Maher, Alessandro Nivola, Peter Gerety, Catalina Sandino Moreno

New York, 1981. In the midst of one of the most violent years in the city’s history, local businessman Abel Morales (Isaac) is looking to expand his fuel distribution company with the acquisition of a bay-front storage facility, and to do it all legally and above board. He’s supported by his wife, Anna (Chastain), but the deal he’s making for the facility is dependent on his being able to make the final payment. With his trucks being hijacked on a regular basis, and with his drivers afraid to make deliveries, Abel struggles to make sense of who’s behind it all.

Matters aren’t made any better by his having to contend with an investigation into his company by District Attorney Lawrence (Oyelowo). Lawrence is convinced that Abel’s business must be crooked in some way, despite his protestations. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, one of his drivers, Julian (Gabel), is involved in a shootout with robbers during an attempted hijacking. Julian goes on the run, and Abel has to track him down and convince him to give himself up. But Julian refuses and remains at large.

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Meanwhile, the due date for the final payment is fast approaching and Abel has to negotiate loans from as many people and places as he can, but he’s still short. When he learns that one of his trucks is in the process of being hijacked he pursues the robbers, eventually catching one of them. To his surprise he finds that the hijackings aren’t all that they seemed, though it does lead to a discovery about one of his competitors that he uses to his financial advantage. But with time running out he’s forced to approach Mafia-affiliated Peter Forente (Nivola); Forente agrees to loan Abel the money he needs but the terms are not very favourable. But when Abel tells Anna about the deal he’s made, she reveals something she’s done which has an impact on everything.

It’s been said on many previous occasions by many other people that the title A Most Violent Year is misleading. The movie contains little actual violence, despite including a bridge shootout and Abel chasing down one of the robbers, and there’s none of the tense showdowns we’ve come to associate with gangster movies. Instead, writer/director Chandor has chosen to focus on how difficult it is to operate in a criminal environment and remain honest. To look at Abel, and to see how close he’s getting to securing his company’s future, you do expect temptation to be placed in his way, and you expect him to struggle with each temptation, but what Chandor does instead is replace temptations with a series of setbacks. Abel’s a good man, solid and trustworthy through and through, and it’s how he maintains his innate honesty when faced with these setbacks – when he could be excused for taking a short cut or looking the other way for a moment – that defines him.

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As played by Isaac, Abel is a strong, determined individual who always seems a little out of his depth, despite his commitment. It’s his wife, Anna, played with spirited guile by Chastain, who is really the driving force and overseer of the business’s fortunes, and so we have a Lady Macbeth for the Eighties, as she cajoles and prompts and on occasion, bullies her husband into doing what’s needed. It’s a subtly constructed conceit – behind every successful man is an even more ambitious woman – but in the hands of Chandor and Chastain, the movie is all the more intelligent and engrossing when Anna is forced to take centre stage.

The period setting is entirely apt, with the cold, wintry conditions of the time reflecting purposefully on the narrative, as Abel’s fuel distribution business, mostly gas, is seen as a saviour not only for him, but for the city and its battle with the elements (Isaac is seen throughout in a big mustard-coloured coat that looks as warming as it does heavy). The movie wants Abel to succeed and so do we, and as he navigates the treacherous waters of “low” finance, each time he doesn’t quite achieve what he sets out to get, it has the effect of impressing on the viewer that he too will be fighting the elements if he fails completely. Bradford Young’s cinematography is a highlight, the wet, shiny, chilly streets of New York given a light sheen of glamour that makes for some impressive shots throughout the movie.

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By focusing on the trials and tribulations of someone seeking to firmly establish themselves in their chosen area of commerce, and by keeping the stakes firmly in the foreground, Chandor achieves a directness of style and narrative that keeps the viewer intrigued as to the outcome, and committed to following Abel’s story to its conclusion. It may not be a movie that features a swift pace and dazzlingly executed photography, but its measured approach to the material allows the viewer to become embroiled in the machinations and leverages that Abel becomes involved in. And if there aren’t any standout action beats or revenge style melodramatics then it’s entirely to the benefit of the movie, and stands as a testament to the quality of Chandor’s writing and directing.

Rating: 8/10 – a modest yet effective crime drama, A Most Violent Year is yet another example of just how good writer/director J.C. Chandor is, and why he’s one of the best movie makers working today; perceptive, extremely well acted, and lacking only in its inclusion of the DA subplot (which doesn’t add anything), this is the kind of movie that shouldput audiences in mind of the kind of thrillers that were being made in the early Seventies: assured, classy, and with a lot to say.

The 2016 BAFTA Nominations

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BAFTA

It’s that time of year again when the British Academy of Film and Televison Arts (or BAFTA – much easier) aims to give a much needed boost to an ailing movie industry that’s been suffering from poor box office returns and – oh, hang on, it’s all okay, isn’t it? Star Wars: The Force Awakens has come out, hasn’t it?

Seriously though, I’ve been watching the BAFTAs each year as far back as I can remember, and while they’ve always seemed like a pale imitation of the Oscars – not quite as many A-list stars there to collect awards, less glitz and glamour, no song and dance routines (thankfully) – the evening has always been entertaining for trying to count the number of times a British connection can be made to a movie from another country. And it’s always interesting, especially last year with Still Alice (2014), to see a movie nominated for an award but which wasn’t released in the UK in the previous year (I wonder how many there’ll be this year).

Here then are the nominations in each of the main categories. The ones highlighted in bold are the ones I think will win. The ones highlighted in italics are the ones I think should win. If there’s no movie highlighted in italics then the one in bold is my choice for both.

Best Film

The Big Short; Bridge of Spies; Carol; The Revenant; Spotlight

Carol

Outstanding British Film

Amy; Brooklyn; The Danish Girl; Ex Machina; 45 Years; The Lobster

Brooklyn

Adapted Screenplay

The Big Short; Brooklyn; Carol; Room; Steve Jobs

Original Screenplay

Bridge of Spies; Ex Machina; The Hateful Eight; Inside Out; Spotlight

Leading Actor

Bryan Cranston – Trumbo; Matt Damon – The Martian; Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant; Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs; Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl

Leading Actress

Cate Blanchett – Carol; Brie Larson – Room; Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn; Maggie Smith – The Lady in the Van; Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl

Supporting Actor

Christian Bale – The Big Short; Benicio del Toro – Sicario; Idris Elba – Beasts of No Nation; Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight; Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies

Idris Elba

Supporting Actress

Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight; Rooney Mara – Carol; Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina; Julie Walters – Brooklyn; Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

Kate Winslet

Director

Todd Haynes – CarolAlejandro González Iñárritu – The Revenant; Adam McKay – The Big Short; Ridley Scott – The Martian; Steven Spielberg – Bridge of Spies

 

Daddy’s Home (2015)

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Daddy's Home

D: Sean Anders / 96m

Cast: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini, Thomas Haden Church, Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vaccaro, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Cannavale

Sometimes it’s easy to dismiss a movie when it appears formulaic and predictable, or has the same actor portraying the same kind of character they always do. And sometimes that’s okay because it’s the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. One such actor is Will Ferrell, who’s made a very successful career playing a man-child in a succession of comedies that have made a lot of money if never quite gaining critical approval (in short, the public likes him so the critics don’t matter). Ferrell rarely strays from playing this kind of character, and if he does it’s not very often; the last time Ferrell tried anything different was in Everything Must Go (2010).

And so he’s back in Daddy’s Home, as Brad Whitaker, a stepdad desperate to win his stepkids’ love and affection, and putting in the extra time and effort to do so because he can’t have kids of his own. Facing an uphill battle – his stepdaughter, Megan (Estevez) keeps drawing family pictures where Brad is shown either dead or dying – he begins to earn their respect and a confirmed place in their lives when, out of the blue, their biological father, Dusty Mayron (Wahlberg), calls up and Brad finds himself inviting Dusty to visit. Despite several warnings from his wife, Sara (Cardellini), that this isn’t a good idea, Brad assures her everything will be fine.

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Now, up until this point, Ferrell does manage to portray a slightly different variation on his usual character, and Brad is a more confident (albeit naïve) person who knows what he’s doing. But with the arrival of Dusty, it’s back to normal as Brad’s confidence goes out the window, and Ferrell ramps up the childish and confused behaviour as Brad attempts to outdo Dusty for being cool. Of course, his efforts mostly backfire – moving Dusty’s motorbike allows for a quick succession of visual jokes – and he receives less and less support from the people around him as Dusty’s friendly nature and willingness to help others makes Brad look second-rate.

It’s obvious that Dusty is there to break things up between Brad and Sara, and the issue of Brad’s infertility is brought up time and again as a potential wedge between them, while bedtime stories about the king who returns to his castle to find an evil step-king ruling his people is stretched beyond its natural lifespan. Dusty’s efforts to undermine Brad’s role are purely of the “great gift” variety, such as the treehouse he builds in a day along with a skate ramp (he’s not averse to bribing his kids with cash to earn their loyalty, either). Against this, Brad’s efforts appear paltry and ill-advised. But when he tries to play Dusty at his own game, it leads to public humiliation and estrangement from Sara. Now it’s up to Dusty to prove he can be the kind of father that Brad is.

The Ferrell movie template is adhered to pretty closely as his character’s initial security is well established, only to be undermined or reversed with predictable ease. As Brad struggles to regain his position as head of the family, Ferrell can’t resist slipping back into the kind of character motifs he’s used over and over again in the past, from inherent cowardice to inappropriate boasting to emotional shallowness. By now, each feature Ferrell makes is like a greatest hits movie, allowing the audience to tick off familiar moment after familiar moment.

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But does it all work with Daddy’s Home? The answer (predictably) is yes and no. The movie does have its moments, with Brad’s alcoholic meltdown at a basketball match proving a particular highlight, but there are still too many times when the humour is slowed down by muddled attempts to advance the (very slight) storyline, or to indulge in the kind of verbal sparring that drags on for far too long and to increasingly little effect – here it’s in a scene at the radio station where Brad works and features the man himself, his boss Mr Holt (Church), and a secondary character called Griff (Buress). The idea is there but the execution lacks both pacing and humour, leaving the viewer to wait patiently until it’s over.

There’s also a subplot involving Dylan (Vaccaro), Brad’s other stepkid, and his being bullied at school. It leads to a scene where Brad and Dusty compete to give him the best advice about dealing with the situation, but it drags on too long and loses all sense of momentum (or purpose). There is a payoff later on in the movie, and it is one of the funnier moments, if only for how unapologetically inappropriate it is, but even then, the script by Brian Burns, Anders and John Morris, follows it up with a scene that looks and feels strained and tired. It’s the movie’s curse: for every good scene that raises a chuckle or even a belly laugh, there’s at least two more scenes that cancel it all out.

With Ferrell on auto pilot for most of the movie, and the basic scenario not requiring too much effort from anyone to sell it, the rest of the cast breeze through their scenes as if they were on a break from more serious acting chores. Reuniting with his co-star from The Other Guys (2010), Wahlberg coasts along as Dusty, while Cardellini has the less than enviable task of playing the inevitably underwritten lead female. Church is frankly annoying as Brad’s boss, and is stuck with some of the worst “inspirational stories” ever relayed on screen; and Buress wanders in and out of the movie in order that Brad can be accused of racism at odd moments (and yes it is as awkward as it sounds).

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If there’s a purpose to Daddy’s Home, other than to propagate the idea that one man’s sexual potency can reverse the infertility of another man, then it quickly gets lost in the telling. This is a movie whose central idea would have been better suited to a half hour short, or perhaps an episode of Modern Family. Anders directs with all the flair of someone who prints the first take, and the movie is blandly shot and edited so as not to stand out from the blandness of the material. All in all, it’s another knock-off Will Ferrell movie, and with all the disappointment that that entails.

Rating: 5/10 – more of an effort all round would have made all the difference to Daddy’s Home, but sadly it didn’t happen, and large stretches of the movie go by without making any kind of impact whatsoever (though it might encourage a degree of apathy in the casual viewer); but when it does get it right, on approximately half a dozen occasions, then its very good indeed (surprisingly), and makes you wonder what could have been achieved if the cast and crew hadn’t settled for “just good enough”.

Trailer – Viva (2015)

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A perceptive drama set in a Havana nightclub that acts as a showcase for drag performers, Viva tells the story of Jesus (Héctor Medina), a young man who does the performers’ hair and make up. Wanting to take the stage himself, Jesus is finally given the chance to do so, but the occasion is disrupted by the arrival of his father, who he hasn’t seen in fifteen years. What follows is a touching, heartfelt tale of estrangement and reconnection between two men with opposing feelings and views on life and each other (and in its own way is a kind of love story). What makes this particular movie of interest is that it’s from Ireland, it was a hit at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival, and it’s also Ireland’s official entry for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award this year. But even without that endorsement, this still looks like a movie that should gain audience approval in 2016.

Mini-Review: He Never Died (2015)

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He Never Died

D: Jason Krawczyk / 97m

Cast: Henry Rollins, Steven Ogg, Jane Greenhouse, Jordan Todosey, Booboo Stewart, James Cade, Dan Petronijevic, Don Francks

Jack (Rollins) is a loner. He lives in a run-down apartment building and spends most of his days sleeping. When he’s awake he’s uncommunicative and miserable. He goes to the same diner every day for the same thing (oatmeal), and is oblivious to the attempts by one of the waitresses, Cara (Greenhouse), to find out more about him. The only appointments he has are with a hospital intern, Jeremy (Stewart), who sells him unidentified items out of his car. Jack isn’t just world weary, he’s time weary.

He Never Died - scene1

When two thugs (Cade, Petronijevic) come to his apartment looking for Jeremy and threaten him, Jack dispenses with them even though he’s shot in the hand. And later that same night, he receives a call from his most recent wife asking him to pick up their daughter, Andrea (Todosey), before she gets too drunk to drive home. He finds her and takes her back to his apartment. Before long, Jack is taking Andrea to the diner, and to the place where he plays bingo two or three times a week. As they get to know each other – reluctantly on Jack’s part – his true nature begins to assert itself once the two thugs from the day before try to have him killed. From there, matters escalate. Andrea is kidnapped, Jack is revealed to have certain “skills” and one heck of a back story, and the shadowy presence of an old man continually leaves Jack spooked.

He Never Died is many things: a black comedy, a thriller, a horror movie, a relationship drama, and a movie with a core mystery whose reveal is at odds with one of the first things we learn about Jack. But this is okay, because even though these various story elements don’t always gel together into an effective whole, this is a movie that has Henry Rollins giving one of the most enjoyably deadpan, sardonic performances ever. While there are times when writer/director Krawczyk’s script drops the ball (and never finds out where it’s ended up), Rollins is the rock the movie is built on, and he doesn’t disappoint, playing Jack completely straight and with a no-nonsense attitude that reaps dividends from the start. This is a man who is seriously underwhelmed by everything; to say he doesn’t suffer anything gladly would be a massive understatement.

But while Rollins is impressive as Jack, and he plays him with a hard-edged nonchalance that’s strangely endearing (for the viewer), elsewhere there are performances and characters that don’t quite fit the bill. Ogg’s slimy club owner, Alex, is played at too manic a pitch to be anything but annoying, while Greenhouse’s smitten waitress is asked to suspend disbelief too often for comfort, and too easily. It’s left to Todosey to inject some fun into proceedings, as Andrea manoeuvres her way through the minefield of Jack’s reluctance to bond.

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He Never Died is also a movie that, for a comedy-horror-thriller, is drenched in blood, whether it’s from one of the many goons who cross his path, or from Jack himself (there’s a scene with a pair of pliers that you won’t forget easily). The red stuff is all over the place here, but it’s relevant too, and thanks to Eric Billman’s often colour saturated cinematography, is memorable for its distribution and its lurid quality. But while Krawczyk pays his genre dues, it’s in terms of the movie’s humour that He Never Died works so well, with some whip-smart dialogue and a handful of killer one-liners (Andrea’s assertion that “vaginas are like coupon books for alcohol” is an instant classic).

Rating: 7/10 – while it struggles at times to be coherent and true to its main character’s origins, there’s much to enjoy in He Never Died; violent, profane and gloriously acerbic, it’s a movie that revels in its own cleverness, and wants its audience to have the anarchic ride of their lives, something it achieves with undisguised relish.

Happy Birthday – Julian Sands

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Julian Sands (4 January 1958 -)

Julian Sands

With his striking good looks and rich earthy vocal tones, Julian Sands is an actor whose early roles, including his breakout role in A Room With a View (1985), seemed destined to have him forever playing in costume dramas, but as his career has progressed he’s found a home in horror movies and thrillers alike, albeit with mixed results. For every Arachnophobia (1990) though there has been a Heidi 4 Paws (2009), and it’s always seemed that Sands’ career has never really been able to fulfill its potential. But he’s still an interesting actor to watch, and can often use his sardonic approach to less than worthy material to make things more interesting. Here are five examples of movies where he’s been a part of something worthwhile, and where his performance has been one of the main reasons why.

Romasanta (2004) – Character: Manuel Romasanta

Romasanta

This low-budget horror is based on the true story of Sands’ title character, a travelling vendor in 1850’s Spain who was also a serial killer. It’s an atmospheric chiller, and Sands is eerily effective as the man who used his victims’ body fat for soap. The part calls on his skill as a seductive charmer, and it’s this thread of gothic romanticism that allows Sands to portray Romasanta as both lover and villain.

Leaving Las Vegas (1995) – Character: Yuri Butso

Leaving Las Vegas

While everyone remembers Nicolas Cage’s Oscar-winning central performance (and rightly so), not everyone remembers Sands’ supporting role as the Latvian pimp whose selfless severing of his relationship with prostitute Sera (played by Elisabeth Shue), is the catalyst for her meeting Cage’s character, Ben. Sands is memorably vulnerable in the role and gives one of his most affecting portrayals, providing a counterpoint to Cage’s self-loathing alcoholic.

The Scoundrel’s Wife (2002) – Character: Dr Lenz

The Scoundrel's Wife (1)

Sands takes a mainly supporting role in this drama set in Louisiana during World War II where  a woman (played by Tatum O’Neal) trying to raise her two children alone is accused of being a saboteur. Sands’ gives a dignified, restrained performance as the German medic who tends to the wounded survivors of U-boats sunk in the nearby Gulf (and much to some of the locals’ consternation), and who also develops a relationship with O’Neal’s character. Based on real events, the movie isn’t entirely successful, but it is lifted whenever Sands is on screen.

Cat City (2008) – Character: Nick Compton

Cat City

A modern day film noir gives Sands the chance to play a husband who may or may not be playing around. Acting alongside Rebecca Pidgeon (the wife) and Brian Dennehy (the detective looking into things), Sands is an unscrupulous land developer who’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants, while being unaware that his wife is having him investigated. Scandal and murder ensue when one of his more shady deals goes wrong.

Wherever You Are… (1988) – Character: Julian

Wherever You Are

This sombre movie from Krzysztof Zanussi sees Sands play a Uruguayan diplomat who takes his wife (played by Renée Soutendijk) on a trip to Poland in the lead up to World War II. While she has premonitions about the impending German invasion, Julian buries himself in his work and behaves cruelly towards her. Sands gets to play very nasty indeed and under Zanussi’s direction gives a memorable performance as a man with literally no redeeming values at all.

10 Reasons to Remember Vilmos Zsigmond (1930-2016)

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Vilmos Zsigmond (16 June 1930 – 1 January 2016)

Vilmos Zsigmond

During the Seventies, Vilmos Zsigmond’s work as a cinematographer was a guarantee of excellence. He lensed twenty-three movies during the decade, and won an Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977 – where he faced being fired on several occasions), not bad for a cinematographer who started out (with fellow émigré Laszlo Kovács) shooting footage of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and who found fame, of sorts, as a DoP on movies such as Al Adamson’s Psycho a Go-Go (1965) and Horror of the Blood Monsters (1970) (movies where he was credited as William Zsigmond). But it was his Seventies output that brought him to a wider, international audience, and it was his use of natural light and colour that made his work stand out from that of his colleagues. His last movie was the comedy-drama Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks (2014), but he was still working at the time of his death, with one movie in pre-production and four others announced. His talent will be missed, as well as his generosity to others, but thankfully we have a tremendous body of work to remember him by.

1 – McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

McCabe & Mrs Miller

2 – Deliverance (1972)

3 – The Long Goodbye (1973)

4 – Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

CE3K

5 – The Deer Hunter (1978)

6 – Winter Kills (1979)

7 – Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Heaven's Gate

8 – The Crossing Guard (1995)

9 – The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)

10 – The Black Dahlia (2006)

The Black Dahlia

The Visit (2015)

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The Visit

D: M. Night Shyamalan / 94m

Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger

If you’re M. Night Shyamalan, and your career has become known more for the disappointing movies you’ve made rather than the global box office success of your third feature, then what do you do? Do you plug away at the kind of movies you like to make, where there’s a twist in the tail every time, or do you try something different? And what do you do if “different” still doesn’t work?

Well, if you are M. Night Shyamalan, then you keep coming back to the kind of movie that brought you international fame and fortune in the first place. You keep tweeking the idea to be sure, but in the end it’s the same mystery set up with a twist at the end designed to make viewers gasp, “Wow! I didn’t see that coming!” The only problem with that approach though, is that viewers will be expecting the twist and trying to work it out from the word go. The beauty of The Sixth Sense (1999) was that it was a movie with so little fanfare that when the truth about Bruce Willis’s character was revealed, audiences were properly surprised. But now, audiences are that much more savvy, and getting something past them like that is even more difficult.

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But Shyamalan is a trier, and he certainly doesn’t give up easily. And so we have The Visit, his latest venture as writer/director, and a movie that is two parts Tales from the Crypt and one part The Twilight Zone. The set up is pretty simple: single mom (Hahn) decides to send her two young children – Becca (DeJonge) and Tyler (Oxenbould) – to visit their grandparents for the first time. Mom is estranged from her parents, but feels it will be good for her kids to meet them and build a relationship with them. Becca decides to film the trip and their stay, both as a record of the occasion and as part of a larger school project.

When they arrive at their grandparents’ place, they find Nana (Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (McRobbie) to be a pleasant, welcoming couple. However, it’s not long before they begin to realise that Nana and Pop-Pop might have a few issues related to their age. Nana exhibits strange behaviour during the night, from wandering (apparently) aimlessly through the house to scratching at the wall outside their room – and without any clothes on either. But Pop-Pop explains that Nana isn’t too well, and Becca and Tyler sympathise and continue their stay – even after they play hide and seek under the house and find Nana under there with them and chasing them on all fours.

But Pop-Pop also exhibits some strange behaviour. He keeps going out to the shed each day and depositing a package there. Tyler investigates and finds that Pop-Pop has his own problems. And still the children continue their stay, even as they begin to suspect that good old Nana and Pop-Pop might not be in the best of mental and/or physical health. FaceTime calls with their mom don’t help, as she’s focused on the holiday she’s enjoying with her new man. But as the week of their stay progresses, events become more unnerving and both Becca and Tyler begin to look forward to going home, just as Nana and Pop-Pop begin to think it might be a good idea if they stayed longer.

The Visit - scene1

Let’s get the twist out of the way. It comes along with roughly fifteen minutes to go, and for seasoned veterans of this kind of movie, will have been guessed a long time before then. It’s not a particularly difficult twist to work out – Shyamalan provides enough clues – and when it comes it’s done in a suitably effective way. But while some viewers may feel it’s an unnecessary turn of events, advance knowledge actually doesn’t make the movie any less effective (as far as that goes). What it does do though is give Shyamalan the chance to ramp up the tension of the last ten minutes and inject some much needed energy.

The Visit lives or dies by how convincing the children’s reaction to their grandparents’ behaviour is. Today, with children being a lot more aware of the wider world around them, and of what is and isn’t right, being holed up with a couple of elderly people who exhibit bizarre behaviour that might lead to their being violent, doesn’t seem like something that two kids of Tyler and Becca’s intelligence would endure (even for their mom’s sake). But they do, and in reality we wouldn’t have a movie if they didn’t, but equally, in reality they would have been out of there the moment they saw Nana scratching at the walls in the all-together. Shyamalan is clever enough to invoke the sympathy card but when Becca surprises Pop-Pop “cleaning” his rifle, they still opt to wait out the week.

Suspension of disbelief is pretty much a standard requirement for horror thrillers, and The Visit requires it just as much as any other, similar movie. But here the basic set up is so banal, so bland, that when events become disturbing and threatening, Shyamalan can’t come up with a convincing reason for the kids to stay. And he’s not helped by the decision to use the found footage approach, which leads to several moments where suspension of disbelief is not only required but stretched to its limits (just how many times can a camera be dropped/left in exactly the right place to record things?).

The Visit - scene3

But while the movie’s more sinister elements aren’t entirely successful, with several references to Grimm’s Fairy Tales added to the mix, where Shyamalan does succeed is with his cast. DeJonge and Oxenbould are terrific as the children, siblings who fight and argue with each other all the time but who are clearly devoted to each other at the same time. Becca is a budding cineaste and talks about movie making as if she were an auteur; DeJonge captures the child’s need to feel and be treated like an adult with surprising precision. Tyler’s wannabe rapper feels like a way for him to deal with not having a father, and Oxenbould gives Tyler a wonderful braggadocio in these moments (even if his rapping is awful). As Nana and Pop-Pop, Dunagan and McRobbie don’t overplay their “issues” and prove remarkably effective at providing the chills beneath the sweetness of the couple’s exterior affability.

Made on a small budget but with a degree of creativity that makes the movie a lot more entertaining than some of Shyamalan’s other movies – The Happening (2008), The Last Airbender (2010) to name but two – The Visit still doesn’t quite mean a return to the early form Shyamalan showed with The Sixth Sense. But it’s a better found footage movie than most, tells its story with a refreshing lack of gimmicks, and might just be a sign that Shyamalan is turning the corner and starting to make good movies again.

Rating: 6/10 – not as eerie or as frightening as its writer/director may have wanted, The Visit is nevertheless a worthwhile entry in the found footage genre (even if it’s not technically “found” footage); good performances bolster a script that doesn’t fulfill its own potential, but most viewers will find the movie an okay watch that doesn’t insult them too much of the time, or deliberately.

Goodbye to All That (2014)

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Goodbye to All That

D: Angus MacLachlan / 87m

Cast: Paul Schneider, Melanie Lynskey, Audrey Scott, Anna Camp, Ashley Hinshaw, Heather Lawless, Heather Graham, Michael Chernus, Amy Sedaris, Celia Weston

For Otto Wall (Schneider), life appears to be ticking along quite nicely. He has a wife, Annie (Lynskey) and a pre-teen daughter, Edie (Scott), a good job, and he wins local running competitions. He’s also quite accident prone, and one day he breaks his foot. One day during his recovery, Annie asks him to meet her at her therapist’s. Unaware of what’s about to happen, he learns that Annie wants a divorce (though the reason why is less than forthcoming). Shocked and confused, Otto struggles with the need to find a new place, and telling the people around him. The only positive is that he can still see Edie, and have her stay over at his new place.

Otto soon learns that Annie has been having an affair. This prompts him to consider dating again. He hooks up with an old girlfriend, Stephanie (Graham), when she contacts him via Facebook, and they have a one night stand that leaves Otto even more confused than before. Using a dating sight he meets Mildred (Hinshaw), who will willingly have sex with Otto, but doesn’t want a relationship. When Edie expresses an interest in going to church, he meets Debbie Spangler (Camp), a young single woman he takes to a cabin for the weekend. They too have sex, but the next morning she freaks out and tells Otto they shouldn’t have done what they did (which makes the journey home a little fraught).

Goodbye to All That - scene2

Otto still sees Annie occasionally, but their meetings are brittle moments of cordiality. When Edie begins to show signs that she doesn’t want to stay over any more, following a break-in, Otto begins to feel as if his life is now in complete freefall. It’s only his high school’s 20th anniversary reunion party that offers any relief: there he sees the girl who got away, Lara (Lawless). They spend time together briefly before she announces she has to leave. Otto gets her number though, and later calls her. He’s delighted to learn that she’s divorced, but surprised to learn that she’s heading to Costa Rica to teach scuba diving. It all leaves Otto with a big decision to make: whether to go with Lara, or stay and be near to Edie.

A gentle comedy of sexual manners married to a relationship drama that lacks depth, Goodbye to All That is a movie that most viewers will watch with the idea that at some point it’ll reveal what it wants to say. But unfortunately, MacLachlan, who wrote and directed the movie, never does reveal what the movie wants to say, or what it’s all about. On the surface – a very cloudy surface, admittedly – it’s about a man coming to terms with being single again after a lengthy time being married, and having no clue as to what to do next. Otto is possibly one of the most aimless, laidback characters seen in recent years, his oblivious manner and clueless expressions the marks of a man with little or no understanding of the people and places around him; it’s like he’s sleepwalked through his entire life so far.

His sexual liaisons with Stephanie, Mildred and Debbie should allow Otto the room and the experience to grow as both a father and an individual, but he’s much the same at the end as he was at the beginning, just less of a man with a puppy dog’s approach to life. Faced with women who are more emotionally and sexually complex than he is, Otto can only marvel at the ways in which relationships have evolved since he started dating Annie. As an observation on life in general, it’s pretty shallow, and as an observation of the female characters in the movie, it’s shallower still. Stephanie is all about self-gratification, Mildred is all about boundaries, and Debbie is all about unrestrained excess (with a side order of post-sexual guilt). Put them all together and they’re still not a complete woman. Instead they’re stereotypes, created to allow Otto to express his confusion about women’s needs.

Goodbye to All That - scene1

It’s this confused state that Otto wanders around in the whole time that makes the movie less than engaging. He doesn’t learn from any of his experiences, and doesn’t realise at any point that his laidback, “everything’s okay, I don’t have to try anymore” attitude is what has prompted Annie to push for a divorce. He can’t connect properly with her, or with the women he sleeps with, and even though he has an epiphany of sorts near the end, by then it’s too late, and the viewer is no longer interested.

What writer/director MacLachlan forgets to include is a scene where Otto behaves sympathetically to any of the women he knows. If he did we might have a degree of sympathy for Otto himself, but his relationship with Edie aside, it’s all about Otto. Schneider plays him as a well-meaning doofus, but it’s a portrayal that wears thin as the movie progresses, and by the end you’re hoping that Lara will bring him down to earth with some well-chosen observations about his behaviour, but instead the script has her supporting him unreservedly. It makes you wonder – still – what on earth the movie’s all about.

Goodbye to All That - scene3

Despite some serious pitfalls and and a less than cohesive story, Goodbye to All That does feature some good performances, with Lynskey and Camp making the biggest impressions. Lynskey is an underrated actress and should be given bigger and better roles, and here she takes what could be the shrew’s role and makes it much more rounded and emotional. Camp has a ball as the sexually expressive Debbie, playing demure one moment and bawdily kittenish the next. Both actresses hold the attention when they’re on screen, and both do more with their characters than the script would necessarily allow. And Scott is a winning screen presence, a moppet with a firm grasp on the mixed emotions Edie feels in the wake of her parents’ splitting up.

In contrast, MacLachlan’s direction is solid but unremarkable, though he does show an enthusiasm for shooting the sex scenes that makes all the other scenes appear like afterthoughts, and he can’t quite stop Otto from looking baffled in each and every scene once Annie (or rather, her therapist) tells him it’s over. Corey Walter’s cinematography is a definite plus, with the autumnal North Carolina locations given an extra lustre, and praise too to editor Jennifer Lilly for making a number of scenes feel more potent than the script did (the scene in the therapist’s, Otto and Mildred’s first time together to name but two).

Rating: 5/10 – uneven, sporadically amusing (for a comedy), lacking in focus, but somehow better than a lot of other, similar movies, Goodbye to All That is perfect for a wet Sunday afternoon after a big lunch; if you can ignore Otto’s unfortunate misogyny then you might be able to reap some enjoyment from the movie, but otherwise it’s a romantic comedy-drama that doesn’t know which one it is at any given moment.

Burnt (2015)

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Burnt

D: John Wells / 101m

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Brühl, Riccardo Scamarcio, Omar Sy, Sam Keeley, Henry Goodman, Matthew Rhys, Stephen Campbell Moore, Emma Thompson, Uma Thurman, Lexie Benbow-Hart, Alicia Vikander, Sarah Greene

Adam Jones (Cooper) is a bit of a cause célèbre in the culinary world, having crashed and burned at the Paris restaurant where he worked thanks to his diva-like behaviour and propensity for drugs and booze. Now clean for two years, he turns up in London at the restaurant run by his friend and colleague from his time in Paris, Tony (Brühl). Adam tells an unimpressed and disbelieving Tony that he’s there to make up for Paris, run the kitchen in a top restaurant, and gain three Michelin stars. Naturally, Tony refuses to help him, but Adam isn’t about to give up. He bullies his way into Tony’s restaurant, shows Tony (and his clientele) what he can do, and eyes up the sous chef, Helene (Miller), with a view to poaching her for his own place.

Which, of course, he does, but not before Helene puts up a (semi-)spirited defence, and Tony has to be dragged away from his own job as a maître d’. Having assembled his kitchen staff, Adam’s opening night doesn’t go as smoothly or successfully as he’d hoped, and the abrasive side of his personality comes out, leading to a tirade of abuse directed at his staff and Helene walking out. But Tony persuades her to come back, and soon she and Adam are starting out on the rocky road to a relationship – of sorts. Back in the kitchen, the apparent arrival of two Michelin Guide inspectors sees Adam go all out to get his three stars, but an unforeseen setback destroys his dream.

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Adam goes off the deep end (albeit for one night) and winds up at the restaurant of a rival chef, Reece (Rhys). There he learns a couple of valuable lessons, reconnects with Tony and Helene, is given a second chance at gaining the three Michelin stars, and begins – again – to put his life back together.

Burnt features a screenplay by Steven Knight, a British screenwriter who’s also responsible for Eastern Promises (2007) and Locke (2013). But he’s also written the likes of Hummingbird (2013) and Seventh Son (2014), so his track record is a little uneven… and Burnt falls firmly into the latter category. There’s very little here that makes sense, and a lot of it happens for no particular reason at all, leaving the drama feeling undercooked and the romance warmed over. For example, we don’t know why Adam chooses London to make his return. It’s never explained how he manages to stay clean without attending any meetings (“I’m not good in groups,” he keeps saying). And his backers have insisted he have weekly blood tests to ensure he’s not using again; if he does they’ll withdraw their backing. (This is where Emma Thompson comes in, as the therapist who takes his blood. Why not the hospital or a doctors’ surgery? It’s a strange arrangement, and one that just sits there like a fait accompli.)

Elsewhere there are subplots and other subplots that have their own subplots, like the money Adam owes to some unsavoury types in Paris, and who have traced him to London (having failed to learn he was in the US for two years while getting and staying sober). On the back of that we’re introduced – very briefly – to an old flame (played by Vikander) who drifts in and out of the movie and provides no threat whatsoever to the relationship Adam has with Helene (it might have been predictable but it would also have raised the movie out of the dramatic doldrums it rolls around in for an hour and a half).

Burnt - scene2

And when the script decides to throw in the notion that Tony is in love with Adam, it comes literally out of nowhere and then is left hanging there to dwindle away to nothing. Maybe these moments are meant to add depth or meaning to the various relationships in the movie, but all they do is confirm the notion that Knight hasn’t really got to grips with what the movie is meant to be saying. Adam rants unconvincingly at his staff, and thanks to the movie’s PG-13 approach, sounds less like Gordon Ramsay and more like someone having a good whinge. There’s the awkward use of his rival, Reece, as well. One minute Reece is disparaging of Adam’s talent and attempt at redemption, the next he’s stuck with lines like “You’re better than me. But the rest of us need you to lead us to places we wouldn’t otherwise go.” (Really?)

There’s more, too much more, and things aren’t helped by Wells’ direction, which remains staunchly flavourless throughout, and a cast who struggle continually to do their best but remain hamstrung by Knight’s script. Cooper, normally a very capable actor, doesn’t seem to know what to do with his character, and goes with the flow of each individual scene, so that he’s angry one moment, happy the next, confused after that, and then determined, but it’s like he’s acted in each scene with no intention of linking them with any other scenes, or the picture as a whole.

Burnt - scene3

Miller is poorly used – again – and the other female roles don’t even amount to a whole one. Thompson does just enough, Vikander isn’t allowed to do even that, and Thurman pops up as a food critic who can’t even do bitchy properly (honestly, Anton Ego from Ratatouille (2007) was more caustic). On the male side, Sy is kept firmly in the background until the script needs him (only twice), Brühl struggles with a character who gives new meaning to the word “bland”, and Scamarcio is virtually a passer-by as one of the two French thugs. The Doors once sang, “No one here gets out alive”, but in terms of Burnt, the line should be “No one here gets to act alive”.

Rating: 4/10 – with the food on display looking bright and vibrant and good enough to eat, a plate is the only place you’ll find anything that’s vibrant in Burnt; tedious, muddled and poorly constructed, this is a movie that should be sent back for being completely inedible.

2015 – My Review

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Overview

Well, that’s another year over with, another year in which we were promised much in principle but were seriously let down in practice. For every trailer that offered us an amazing cinematic experience it seemed as if the opposite had to be true when the movie finally arrived, and the offer was an empty one. With only two exceptions – Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens – the big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, the tentpole movies, were all disappointing. Furious 7 abandoned any attempt at retaining the minimum credibility that episodes five and six clung on to, while Avengers: Age of Ultron was bloated and unwieldy (as well as a rehash of the first Avengers movie).

Star Wars The Force Awakens

As the year progressed we were treated – if that’s the right word – to reboots galore. We had Jurassic World, a surprise success at the box office that followed the template of Jurassic Park so closely you could have been forgiven for thinking you were watching a straight-up remake rather than a reboot. And we had Terminator: Genisys, a reboot so convoluted it quickly disappeared inside its own internal logic (or lack of it) and never found its way out again.

The summer brought us The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (shiny but vapid), Pixels (a great idea predictably ruined by Adam Sandler’s involvement), and the utterly disastrous Fantastic Four (no other comment needed). As the year continued we suffered through ill-advised misfires such as The Transporter Refueled and Pan, before being ambushed by James Bond himself in the far from thrilling Spectre. All in all, 2015 hasn’t been the best year for movies with huge promotional budgets stacked on top of huge production budgets.

So let’s get the 10 Worst Movies of 2015 out of the way. There were plenty to choose from, but these really did screw the pooch on almost every level.

10 Worst Movies of 2015

10 – Pan – when Neverland rocks to the sound of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit then you know things aren’t going to work out for the best; unnecessary and tiring to watch.

Pan

9 – Mortdecai – when this was released back in January, it seemed unlikely that there could be a worse movie in 2015 – how wrong could we be? But this is still dire, unfunny stuff that is probably still causing Terry-Thomas to roll in his grave.

8 – Fifty Shades of Grey – we all knew it was going to be bad, and on that level it didn’t disappoint, but it was the complete lack of chemistry between Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan that further hurt its chances of being taken seriously. The true masochism came from watching it all the way through.

7 – Jupiter Ascending – delayed from its original 2014 release date, this space opera from the Wachowskis was more like space junk, and featured a badly miscast Mila Kunis as a toilet cleaner-cum-princess. Pretty to look at but as empty as the void between the stars it depicts.

Jupiter Ascending

6 – The Boy Next Door – with its “be careful who you shag” central premise and defiantly unerotic approach, this was laughable for all the wrong reasons, not least the speed with which Jennifer Lopez’s cheated on wife jumps in the sack with her hunky neighbour – as you do.

5 – The Transporter Refueled – when the makers can’t even spell their movie’s title properly you just know it’s going to be bad across the board. Ed Skrein makes Jason Statham look like Laurence Olivier, the plot gives new meaning toi the word ridiculous, and the stunts are distinctly underwhelming – so what was the point?

4 – Child 44 – possibly the worst literary adaptation of the year, this lacked everything needed of a good thriller, and wasted the talents of its experienced cast. When you don’t care if the killer is caught is when you know a movie isn’t working.

Child 44

3 – Poltergeist – a remake that nobody wanted with a cast that weren’t even trying, this wasn’t even scary either, leading everyone to wonder why on earth it was greenlit in the first place.

2 – Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 – unapologetically dire, this is (allegedly) comedy at its most dispiriting. Painful to watch, and a movie that will leave your ribs untickled throughout, any idea of a third movie should be trampled on the moment it’s thought of.

1 – Fantastic Four – it couldn’t be any other movie, could it? Another movie where you have to ask yourself, didn’t anyone realise how bad this was going to turn out, and if they did, why didn’t they say something?

Fantastic Four

(Dis)honourable mentions: Blackhat, Hitman: Agent 47, Pixels, The Lazarus Effect, Aloha

5 Most Disappointing Movies of 2015

The year saw a variety of movies released that failed to fulfil their potential, and proved less than engrossing or entertaining. All of the following were movies that came with good advance word but though they weren’t bad per se, they still proved to be letdowns for one reason or another.

5 – Legend – Brian Helgeland’s uneven look at the criminal career of the Kray twins (brilliantly brought to life by Tom Hardy) lacked focus and didn’t really seem interested in them as gangsters, making the end result less than compelling.

4 – Southpaw – Jake Gyllenhaal, on a roll in recent years, plus Antoine Fuqua, equals: a boxing movie where the main character is unlikeable, and the story quickly descends into a murkily realised attempt at securing redemption – but without any emotional weight behind it.

Southpaw

3 – Tomorrowland: A World Beyond – an original sci-fi movie from Brad Bird, starring George Clooney, and a healthy dose of wonder? What could go wrong? Enough to rob the movie of its charm by the halfway mark and to turn it into a humourless plea for everyone to just get along and not be so selfish.

2 – Spectre – with every Bond movie there’s a huge degree of hype attached to it, but after the success of Skyfall (not entirely deserved, at that), this seemed to have accrued more than its fair share. Largely aimless, this outing tried to be clever in linking itself to the three previous movies with Daniel Craig, but ended up feeling and looking muddled and unsure of itself.

1 – Crimson Peak – terrific production design can’t compensate for a lack of story ideas in Guillermo del Toro’s Gothic romance. Worst still, he forgot to make it scary, a problem the movie never recovers from.

Crimson Peak

10 Best Movies of 2015

There was a point – somewhere around late September/early October of 2015 – when it looked as if this year’s Top 10 might only be a Top 6. The dearth of really good movies in the first half of the year made it seem as if the year wouldn’t – or couldn’t – catch up on itself. But since October, 2015 has got itself back on track and there’s been a handful of movies that have been released that have redressed the balance. The top three proved easy to choose, as they stood head and shoulders above the rest, but the rest of the list was trickier to place; even now it’s not certain that they’ll stay where they are in the list in a few days’ time.

10 – Bridge of Spies – Spielberg + Hanks + Cold War thriller = a happy audience, as this true story unfolds with all the fascination of a good fictional spy thriller. That it’s all true adds to the effectiveness and polish of Spielberg’s handling of the material, and there’s another effortless performance from Hanks to revel in.

Bridge of Spies

9 – Slow West – an early contender for this year’s best Western, this tale of a lovelorn young Scotsman travelling the West to find his true love is refreshing and poignant beneath the expected violence, and features yet another compelling performance from the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender.

Slow West

8 – Mad Max: Fury Road – high-octane thrills and spills galore in a movie that revels in being as gloriously, outrageously kinetic as possible. George Miller has no equal when it comes to making this kind of movie, and watching it was like getting to unwrap a very early Xmas present.

Mad Max Fury Road

7 – Spotlight – a slow-burning drama about the newspaper investigation in 2001 that exposed the extent of sexual misconduct by priests in the Catholic Church, this is potent stuff that’s sharply directed by Tom McCarthy and acted by a very talented cast. Quietly shocking, it has a cumulative effect in terms of the abuse it exposes, and is all the better for approaching the material in an unshowy, respectful manner.

Spotlight

6 – Inside Out – a wonderful return-to-form for Pixar, and one of their best movies over all, this look inside the mind of a teenage girl is full of sharp observations and droll humour. It’s also a beautifully realised movie, with Riley’s mind a fantastic cornucopia of visual ideas and creativity.

Inside Out

5 – Macbeth – the teaming of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard was an inspired idea as together they make this one of the best-acted Shakespeare adaptations ever filmed. Brimming with violent imagery and psychological resonance, this breathes new life into the text and makes for a gripping, disturbing experience.

Macbeth

4 – The Witch – an unnerving psychological horror movie about the disintegration of a Puritan family following the abduction of an infant child, this is unsettling and darkly poetic. The horror is palpable, and the performances superbly modulated to provide the maximum emotional impact, making this an outstanding movie that is hard to let go of after it’s ended.

The Witch

3 – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – easily the best indie movie released in 2015, this simple yet elegant tale of friendship won and lost and won again is heartfelt and quietly profound. With some pertinent points to make about loving and belonging, this is fresh, funny, engaging and charming in equal measure, and features wonderful performances from Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler and Olivia Cooke.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

2 – The Revenant – visually stunning, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest is a brutal, uncompromising tale of survival and revenge in 1820’s Missouri that grabs the attention from its opening sequence and keeps the viewer hooked right through to the end. A triumph just in terms of the logistics of making the movie under harsh conditions, and with excellent performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, this is raw, vital stuff that finds so many different ways to amaze its audience.

The Revenant

1 – Carol – an almost flawless piece of movie making, the latest from Todd Haynes features outstanding performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, and excels in its recreation of Fifties’ America and the social and sexual mores of the time. Love has never seemed so vital and so fragile at the same time, and thanks to a script that teases out each nuance of the relationship between Carol and Therese, the movie is both passionate and profound.

Carol

Looking ahead…

2016 is already all about the bigger pictures, the would-be blockbusters such as Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. With superheroes still trying to dominate the cinematic landscape, it’s even harder to determine which movies will emerge from under the shadows of the MCU and DC and make an impact on audiences who don’t need huge explosions and lots of running around in costumes to satisfy their cinematic needs.

But if I had to pick five movies from 2016 that I hope will do exactly that, it would be these: Everybody Wants Some; Hail, Caesar!; Finding Dory; The Finest Hours; and The Light Between Oceans. Each of these will (hopefully) bring something adventurous and different to the screen, and with the talent involved – and yes, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything – each should be at least vying for a space on the 10 Best list this time next year. So let’s hope that 2016 improves on 2015, and watching movies becomes an even more enjoyable pastime.

Monthly Roundup – December 2015

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The Hike (2011) / D: Rupert Bryan / 83m

Cast: Barbara Nedeljakova, Zara Phythian, Ben Loyd-Holmes, Lisa-Marie Long, Jemma Bolt, Stephanie Siadatan, Daniel Caren, Dominic Le Moignan, Shauna Macdonald, Tamer Hassan

The Hike

Rating: 2/10 – five female friends decide to take a trip into the woods only to find themselves at the mercy of three psychos; an unforgivably awful UK torture porn movie, The Hike doesn’t have the strength of its own convictions and features some truly abysmal “acting”.

Extraction (2015) / D: Steven C. Miller / 83m

Cast: Kellan Lutz, Bruce Willis, Gina Carano, D.B. Sweeney, Joshua Mikel, Steve Coulter, Dan Bilzerian, Lydia Hull

Extraction

Rating: 3/10 – when former CIA operative Leonard Turner (Willis) is abducted by terrorists, it’s down to his son (Lutz) to rescue him; Willis’s career continues in its downward spiral, but now he’s starting to take his co-stars with him, in an action movie that occasionally glances at credibility but then looks away in shame.

Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944) / D: Phil Rosen / 65m

aka Charlie Chan and the Secret Service

Cast: Sidney Toler, Mantan Moreland, Arthur Loft, Gwen Kenyon, Sarah Edwards, George J. Lewis, Marianne Quon, Benson Fong, Muni Seroff, Barry Bernard, Gene Roth, Eddy Chandler, Lelah Tyler

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Rating: 6/10 – Charlie Chan investigates when an inventor is found dead and the plans of the top secret weapon he was working on go missing; the first Charlie Chan movie to be made by Monogram, this is still an efficient murder mystery with a few tricks up its sleeve.

Outside the Law (2002) / D: Jorge Montesi / 90m

Cast: Cynthia Rothrock, Seamus Devers, Jessica Stier, Jeff Wincott, Stephen Macht, Dan Lauria, Brad Greenquist, Don Harvey, Petra Wright, James Lew

Outside the Law

Rating: 3/10 – betrayed secret agent Julie Cosgrove (Rothrock) takes time out from being on the run to bust up a drug smuggling ring operating out of a sleepy Florida town; late vintage Rothrock sees the action star still uncomfortable when called upon to smile, but there’s little she can do to improve this plodding (and naturally implausible) thriller.

The Revenant (2015)

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The Revenant

D: Alejandro González Iñárritu / 156m

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck,  Paul Anderson, Duane Howard, Kristoffer Joner, Brendan Fletcher, Lukas Haas, Grace Dove, Melaw Nakehk’o

If you had to guess what Alejandro González Iñárritu’s next movie would be after Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), then chances are you wouldn’t have picked this one, a Western shot on a grand scale and based on events that happened to the fur trapper and explorer Hugh Glass in 1823. And maybe you would have thought that it was too much of a challenge for the director to pull off. But for anyone who still has their doubts, let’s make it clear from the start: this is one of the must-see movies of 2015 (which makes it a shame that most people won’t see it until 2016).

Glass’s story is the stuff of legend. While working for a fur-trapping expedition along the Missouri river, he and his fellow trappers were ambushed by Arikara Indians, and forced to flee back to their base at Fort Kiowa. While out scouting for food for the remaining men, Glass encountered a grizzly bear and her two cubs. The bear attacked Glass and he was severely mauled and injured. He managed to kill the bear with the aid of two other trappers, John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger. His wounds, however, were such that it was believed he would die from his injuries. Leaving behind Fitzgerald and Bridger to bury Glass when the time came, the rest of the expedition, led by General William Henry Ashley, made it back to the fort. But Fitzgerald and Bridger left Glass for dead, and made their way back to the fort as well where they lied about his fate.

The Revenant - scene1

As a feat of physical endurance, Glass’s “return from the dead” was astonishing. Despite a broken leg, festering wounds, and cuts to his back that left his ribs exposed, the explorer bravely crawled most of the way to the Cheyenne river where he fashioned a basic raft and drifted downstream to Fort Kiowa. In all he travelled over two hundred miles, and it took him six weeks. One of the main things that kept him going was finding Fitzgerald and Bridger and exacting his revenge (though in the end he spared both of them).

In telling this tale of survival against the odds, Iñárritu has taken the book by Michael Punke and opened up the story to include rival French trappers, a tribe of Arikara Indians led by a chief whose daughter has been abducted, and a son for Glass whose mixed heritage (his mother was a Pawnee) makes Fitzgerald uneasy (with predictably violent results). And for Fitzgerald there’s no forgiveness here, as Glass hunts him down with the intention of making him pay with his life for betraying Glass and leaving him to die.

Along the way, Iñárritu shows the hardships and terrors of life on the frontier, with its sub-zero temperatures and harsh terrain, and where men face death at every turn – from each other, from the Indians, and more importantly, from nature itself, which is uncompromising and unsympathetic to their needs. The director immerses the viewer in this terrifying yet beautiful and alluring environment, and each new scene adds to the spectacle Iñárritu has created. This is a richly textured, sometimes hyper-real environment that Iñárritu has constructed, and its silent majesty is often awe-inspiring.

The Revenant - scene3

There are numerous scenes that stand out in this way, from the opening tracking shot through a water-logged forest to the brutal (very brutal) attack on the trappers, and on to the bear attack – quite possibly one of the most impressive sequences in any movie of 2015. But Iñárritu isn’t finished. Once Glass disinters himself he has to traverse the very same harsh territory that he knows is likely to kill him for sure this time, and the various places he finds himself at, offer equal parts safety and danger. And you have to applaud the commitment of DiCaprio, who must have risked hypothermia on many occasions in order to get the shots his director wanted.

The Revenant is a bloody, raw, uncompromising movie that treats the inherent violence of the times as if it was just a part of daily life, something that went largely unacknowledged. Men are replaceable but the pelts they gather are not. When Fitzgerald and Bridger arrive back at the fort there’s no warm welcome, no sign that anyone’s pleased to see them; there’s a complete indifference. The inference is clear: you do what you have to do. But while survival is a key issue, this is at heart a revenge tale, and Iñárritu doesn’t hold back in showing Glass’s angry determination to survive, or the sacrifices he has to make in order to do so. Whether it’s allowing a surging river to channel him away from the approaching Arikara, or keeping warm overnight in the belly of a horse, Glass simply will not give up.

As the indefatigable Glass, DiCaprio gives one of his best performances. With limited dialogue, and relying on facial expressions and body language to impart his character’s feelings and emotions, this is a physical tour-de-force. There are times when DiCaprio isn’t even recognisable as DiCaprio, occasions where the demands of the script have him twisted and tormented in agony. It’s a magnificent portrayal, and superbly counter-balanced by Hardy’s performance as Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is a survivor as well, a man who thinks of himself first and others second, whose sole motivation is to make it through in whichever way is needed. He’s an opportunist to be sure, but he’s also just as calculating as Glass. Both actors are astonishing in their roles, and their eventual showdown is a masterpiece of bloody threat and the will to survive.

The Revenant - scene2

The photography, by Oscar-winning DoP Emmanuel Lubezki, is stunning throughout, the landscapes and mountains and rivers captured with such penetrating exactness it’s almost like being in the movie yourself. It’s possibly the most beautifully realised and shot movie you’re likely to see for some time, and the decision to shoot with natural light has paid off handsomely. There’s also a beautiful, evocative score courtesy of Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bryce Dessner and Carsten Nicolai that adds to the richness of the material.

Rating: 9/10 – a tremendous, incredible piece of story telling – previously told in Man in the Wilderness (1971) with Richard Harris as Glass (albeit renamed) – The Revenant is a movie that is consistently impressive from start to finish, and which features stunning location photography and superb performances from all concerned; Iñárritu’s follow-up to Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is intelligent, visceral, relentless movie making that packs an unexpected emotional punch, and is possibly the most impressively mounted movie of 2015.

Spotlight (2015)

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Spotlight

D: Tom McCarthy / 128m

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan, Paul Guilfoyle, Len Cariou, Neal Huff, Michael Cyril Creighton, Richard Jenkins

In 2001, the Boston Globe newspaper hired a new editor, Marty Baron (Schreiber). Baron noticed a column in the paper about a Catholic priest, John Geoghan, who was known to be a paedophile, and a lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian (Tucci) who claimed he had evidence that the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law (Cariou), knew all about it and did nothing to stop Geoghan’s activities. Urging the paper’s Spotlight section – an investigative team made up of four people – to look more closely at the matter, Baron set in motion an investigation that would expand rapidly to reveal a far greater problem than one errant priest.

This is the story that Spotlight tells: the investigation into one priest’s predatory behaviour that revealed the systemic abuse of children over decades, and which had been covered up by the Catholic Church. It’s a tale of widespread abuse, and the political and legal corruption, and immorality, that goes with it. As the team – editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Keaton), and reporters Mike Resendez (Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams), and Matt Carroll (James) – begin looking into the story they learn that the Globe was aware of some of the allegations being made as far back as 1996 following a similar case, but these were never followed up. They speak to the founder of a support group for people who have been abused by priests, Phil Saviano (Huff), who reveals that, based on what he’s been told, Goeghan is one of thirteen priests in the Boston area that have molested children over the years.

Spotlight - scene3

Shocked by this, the team divide their attention in different areas: Resendez contacts the lawyer, Garabedian, in order to find out what evidence he has; Pfeiffer meets with a victim, Joe Crawley (Creighton); and Carroll starts looking into the backgrounds of the priests Saviano has named. What emerges is a picture of abuse that appears to have been ignored or covered up by the Church, and which is still continuing. They also get in touch with an ex-priest, Richard Sipe (Jenkins), who worked at a “treatment centre” back in the Sixties. Since leaving the Church he’s made a thorough study of the “phenomena” of sexual abuse wihtin the priesthood, and in one particularly chilling telephone conversation with the Spotlight team he tells them his findings indicate that 6% of priests abuse children. Now the team has to rethink their strategy: based on Sipe’s findings, they’re no longer looking at thirteen priests in the Boston area, but ninety.

With the enormity of the problem now fully revealed, the team have to tread even more carefully, and refocus their investigation; it’s no longer enough to target Cardinal Law and his tacit allowance of the abuse. It’s now obvious that the abuse isn’t confined to Boston, it happens everywhere. The story becomes about how the Church itself allows this to happen and never disciplines its priests, preferring instead to move them around and still allowing them to have unsupervised access to children.

In the end, Spotlight broke the story in early 2002. It was the major news story of its day, and the movie recounts those days with a measured simplicity that avoids any potential hyperbole or grandstanding. Thanks to an intelligently constructed script by McCarthy and Josh Singer, the way in which the story unfolded is handled with a sensitivity and compassion for the victims that is offset by the Spotlight team’s increasing sense of disgust at the Church’s mistreatment of them. Each of the team is affected in their own way, showing just how pervasive the issue was, and without anyone realising. It’s a sobering realisation, that the abuse of children by a powerful organisation such as the Catholic Church – such a huge presence in so many people’s lives – can have such far-reaching consequences.

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Thanks again to the script, the legal and moral issues surrounding the cases are clearly laid out on both sides, and Mitchell Garabedian aside, the lawyers involved in out of court settlements fare badly, as they put ethical issues aside and justify their actions by virtue of “just doing their job”. As one of these lawyers, Billy Crudup has a small but crucial role that highlights just how much one section of the Boston legal system was prepared to look the other way. And the Cardinal’s spokesman, a wily operator called Joe Connelly (Guilfoyle), is on hand to show how the political machine tried to keep the Church from being exposed by attempting to make it seem that the revelations would be bad for the city.

It’s safe to say that the movie exposes a lot more than the hypocrisy of the city’s movers and shakers, and it does so in a low key dramatic manner that allows the horror of the situation to seep through as the movie progresses. McCarthy and his talented cast never let us forget just how awful the amount of abuse was, and through their pursuit of the truth we get to see levels of betrayal that most of us would be hard pressed to even consider let alone believe in. And when a necessary delay in printing the story leads to an angry outburst by Resendez, we can sympathise with him, because by then the audience wants the story to be told equally as much as he does.

In many ways, Spotlight‘s steady pace and determined approach is unexpectedly gripping. As each new development unfolds, the movie steps up a gear, until the viewer is completely enthralled and can’t look away. It doesn’t matter that you know the outcome in advance, this is one of those movies that is so well constructed that you can’t help but be drawn along with it. Helping McCarthy make such an impact is his cast. Keaton is the wise old newspaperman, determined not to let the story get away and the Church off the hook, and patient enough to wait for the right evidence to come along. Ruffalo is the cocksure reporter who feels too much too often, and who uses his anger and disgust at the abuse to fuel his work. By contrast, McAdams’ lone female is affected in small ways, as in the way in which the news will be hurtful to her devout grandmother. And James’ dogged researcher learns that the issue is much closer to home than he’d realised (and which leads to one of the movie’s rare moments of humour).

Spotlight - scene1

It’s a powerful movie about a powerful subject and although the naysayers will point to diffusions and imperfections in the story – this didn’t happen like that, that didn’t happen like they say it did – the truth is still clear: abuse happened and the Church covered it up. In 2002 alone, Spotlight ran a further 600 articles based on what they learned from victims. What the movie reminds us is that looking the other way can be even more uncomfortable than looking straight at something that’s too horrible to contemplate.

Rating: 9/10 – one of 2015’s best movies, Spotlight is tense, absorbing, horrifying, and a must-see, with superb performances and and one of the year’s best scripts; it’s already won a shedload of well-deserved awards, and as a movie that tackles a disturbing subject with tact and sensitivity, should gain even more further down the road – it’s that good.

Zatoichi on the Road (1963)

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Zatoichi on the Road

Original title: Zatôichi kenka-tabi

aka Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey

D: Kimiyoshi Yasuda / 87m

Cast: Shintarô Katsu, Shiho Fujimura, Ryûzô Shimada, Reiko Fujiwara, Matasaburo Niwa, Yoshio Yoshida, Sônosuke Sawamura, Shôsaku Sugiyama, Yutaka Nakamura

The fifth entry in the series sees our hero being escorted to meet a prospective employer. Zatoichi (Katsu) is spotted by members of a yakuza clan who are aware that the propsective employer the blind swordsman is to meet is their sworn enemy, the head of a rival yakuza clan. With a showdown happening soon between the two clans, Zatoichi’s presence can mean only one thing: the rival boss is looking to hire him, and thereby swing matters in his favour. In an attempt to stop Zatoichi being hired, the gang members ambush him and his guide. Zatoichi despatches them with ease but not before his guide is killed.

The wife of one his would-be killers, Hisa (Fujiwara), witnesses the aftermath of the attack and learns Zatoichi’s identity. She takes this information back to the clan boss who, quite rightly, is disturbed by this development. But he has another plan in motion, one that involves the kidnapping of a young girl, Mitsu (Fujimura), for ransom. By luck, Zatoichi almost literally stumbles across a dying man who implores him to “save Mitsu”. Gaining her trust, Zatoichi determines to help her get back home. But it turns out that both yakuza clans have the same idea, and the blind masseur finds himself having to avoid both gangs, as well as the criminal intentions of a crooked innkeeper.

ZOTR - SCENE3

Five movies in and you could be forgiven for thinking that the series should already be running out of steam, but Zatoichi on the Road sees the franchise taking the basic “wandering swordsman” premise and putting a clever spin on things. Here, Zatoichi’s pledge to a dying man exposes the character’s nobility and selflessness to an even greater extent than in previous entries, as he shepherds Mitsu to her home in Edo, protecting her and keeping her safe. There is the usual romantic angle thrown in, but where before, Zatoichi has fallen in love with the lead female character, here his romantic feelings are held in check by his own awareness that there’s no chance of a relationship developing between them (though he does remain initially hopeful, as always).

Romanticism aside, the movie focuses on traditional notions of honour and fealty to the samurai code, with Zatoichi upholding these in isolation while – again – those who profess to follow the same code pay lip service to it. Both clan bosses are venal, greedy men who use the code for their own ends, and Zatoichi’s innate sense of propriety remains in stark contrast to the corruption that surrounds him. While each boss schemes and plots the end of the other, Zatoichi turns the tables on them, even when one of them finally manages to kidnap Mitsu and hold her hostage. By using their own avarice against them, Zatoichi highlights the ways in which their covetous natures will always undermine their criminal intentions. It’s a moral approach that everyone can relate to, and is played out with confidence and straightforward charm.

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One of the series’ strengths is Zatoichi’s avoidance of violence wherever possible. Of course he’s going to find himself in situations where he has no choice but to fight, but here Minoru Inuzuka’s screenplay features a scene of such simple brilliance that it’s worth watching over and over again for Katsu’s superb performance and Yasuda’s assured direction. In it, Zatoichi rescues Mitsu from the clutches of a crooked innkeeper and does so without resorting to using his sword. It’s a tense, riveting scene, and sees Zatoichi attack the innkeeper and his men verbally over and over, denigrating their position and their competence. It’s further enhanced by their awareness of who Zatoichi is, and what he’s capable of; no one wants to risk their lives and prove him right.

But when there is a fight that Zatoichi can’t avoid, the sadness and melancholy that afflicts him is touchingly rendered by Katsu, whose immersion in the role is by now complete. He’s a wonderfully expressive actor, vulnerable and strong at the same time, and with no airs or graces about him. Whether he’s expressing his disappointment at the situations he finds himself in, or marvelling at some of the simpler pleasures in life (tea, for example), Katsu’s Zatoichi is a fully rounded character that any viewer can relate to. And he portrays the character’s loneliness so vividly that there’s very little further information we need to know about him in order to understand why he gets involved in righting wrongs and defeating injustice.

ZOTR - SCENE1

As the object of everyone’s crooked intentions, Mitsu is essentially a McGuffin decked out in a kimono, a hook to hang the plot on. But Fujiwara imbues her with a childlike artlessness that makes her more than just an object of lust and financial gain for the two clans. Her quiet, subservient nature is so calming that it’s no wonder Zatoichi finds himself falling for her, offering as she does a peaceful alternative to the wandering, often violent life he leads. Zatoichi’s search for peace is a constant theme in the series, but it’s here, where the chance of his attaining it is so close (and yet so far) that gives his yearning such resonance.

Filmed largely on location, with some poorly lit interiors doubling as the outdoors from time to time, Zatoichi on the Road retains the visual strengths of the previous colour entries, and the sword fights are still as well choreographed as before. Yasuda’s first outing as director on a Zatoichi movie proves both absorbing and resplendent, his positioning of the camera yet another example of how determined Daiei Studios had become in ensuring that each movie had its own identity while adhering to the overall tone and and accessibility of the series.

Rating: 7/10 – another successful entry in the series, Zatoichi on the Road is as engaging and captivating as its previous outings, and manages to provide further evidence that the character can – and will – avoid the pitfalls of series’ ennui; with Katsu providing yet another polished, emotionally astute performance, the movie never once takes the easy route in telling its deceptively simple story.

NOTE: Alas, the following trailer is free from subtitles.

10 Reasons to Remember Haskell Wexler (1922-2015)

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Haskell Wexler (6 February 1922 – 27 December 2015)

Haskell Wexler

An influential figure in the world of cinematography, Haskell Wexler was a true genius with the camera, a master of mood, light and colour. From his first feature, the wonderfully titled Stakeout on Dope Street (1958) (where he was credited as Mark Jeffrey, his two sons’ names), all the way through to the numerous documentaries he lensed in the last twenty years, Wexler has been an outstanding cinematographer, adding a distinct and lasting aura to the movies he worked on, including his first feature as a director, Medium Cool (1969). Along the way he picked up two Oscars, for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and Bound for Glory (1976), and during the Sixties and Seventies (arguably his heyday) he worked with the likes of Milos Forman, Norman Jewison, Hal Ashby, and Francis Ford Coppola. But he kept going back to documentaries, either features or shorts, and it’s these movies, which often gave Wexler the chance to espouse his own political leanings, that form the bulk of his filmography. Watch any of the ten movies listed below and you’ll see just why he was regarded as one of the ten most influential cinematographers in cinema history.

The Loved One

1 – The Loved One (1965)

2 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)

3 – In the Heat of the Night (1967)

4 – Medium Cool (1969)

5 – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

6 – Bound for Glory (1976)

7 – Coming Home (1978)

8 – Matewan (1987)

9 – The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)

10 – Mulholland Falls (1996)

Mulholland Falls

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