A very good film with a stunning central performance
I've seen some poor films recently, e.g. 'No Escape' and (on DVD) 'The Holiday'. But 'Legend' makes up for them. It's a riveting film with a stunning performance by Tom Hardy as both Ronnie and Reggie Kray. His split-screen role never seems odd and his acting is simply spellbinding. The film has its faults. It's too visually arresting at times. A little less gloss and a little more spit and sawdust would have been appropriate. Some of the external scenes seem more like studio ones such is their overly pristine nature. And the character of Frances, Reggie's girlfriend, is not adequately developed. The reasons for her mental fragility are not properly explored. The soundtrack is superb. There are scenes of graphic violence but they are wholly germane to the film's theme. The talented supporting cast is uniformly excellent. But, above all, 'Legend' is Hardy's film. I rate it 8/10.
"Mystery Road" is a thriller (with film noir overtones) and a western rolled into one. It examines race relations in modern-day Australia, in particular those between the indigenous Aboriginal population and those Australians of European descent. It does so through the eyes of Aboriginal detective Joe Swan (Aaron Pedersen), who returns after a period of 10 years away to the remote small Australian town in which his daughter Crystal (Tricia Whitton) and her mother - Swan's estranged wife, Mary (Tasma Walton) - live. Swan is immediately thrown into the investigation of the murder of a teenage Aboriginal girl, whose body has been discovered in the outskirts of the town. His investigations soon yield a great deal of uncomfortable information, including police corruption, sexual exploitation and the possible involvement in the crime of his ex-wife and daughter (as well as sundry other local residents). The laconic detective has to contend with a complete lack of co-operation from his police colleagues and from the town's residents, who view any form of authority with suspicion and utter disdain. It all leads to a closing shoot-out sequence that is, for once, realistic and which is beautifully filmed. Indeed, one of the film's many strong points is its direction (by screenplay writer Ivan Sen). The cinematography (for which Sen is also responsible) is amazingly good - just about the best I have seen in any film. The cast too are terrific, particularly Pedersen and Hugo Weaving (who plays Johnno, a possibly corrupt white police colleague of Swan's). The only aspect of the film about which I have reservations is the plot, which does not seem to me to hang together. I may have missed something but there appear to be unexplained gaps in parts of the story. Other than that, "Mystery Road", which starts slowly before gradually building up to its dramatic conclusion, is an almost faultless film - and is certainly one that is worth looking out for. 8/10.
Sunshine on Leith is an enjoyable, exuberant film musical that is based on the songs of The Proclaimers. It tells the story of two young Scottish soldiers who return to their families in Edinburgh after serving in Afghanistan. What awaits each of them is an unsettled future during which they are forced to confront a number of issues that make it difficult to rehabilitate themselves successfully into civilian life: the need to secure employment (they find temporary work in a call centre); feelings of guilt at returning home in good physical shape when a friend of theirs who served with them sustained severe injuries and is having to contend with the loss of both legs; trying to rekindle their neglected love lives; having to cope with the revelation of family secrets that in the case of one of the ex-soldiers puts pressure on his parents' marriage; and the problems of simply being welcomed and accepted by friends and family after a long absence. None of these issues is dealt with in anything other than a superficial and sentimental manner. But that does not really matter all that much.
The cast, which includes Jane Horrocks and Peter Mullan, is very good. The cinematography is first rate (Edinburgh looks stunning), as are the staging of the set-piece routines and the choreography. And we even get a brief, Hitchcock-like cameo appearance by The Proclaimers themselves, who are seen near the start of the film emerging from an Edinburgh pub. The music is uneven. Two of the most notable Proclaimers numbers - "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" and "Letter from America" - are delivered in a much more muted and less punchy style than their original versions, which somehow seems unsatisfactory. From my personal perspective, there is also one underlying problem with Sunshine on Leith, that is incapable of resolution. I do not think that film is the right medium for musicals. I often enjoy musical shows that are performed in the theatre. But I simply cannot come to terms with them in the cinema. The transition from spoken dialogue to singing seems to me to be unnatural and mildly clumsy on celluloid in a way that does not appear to be the case on stage. (I feel the same about opera!) That problem aside, Sunshine on Leith is an engaging film, albeit one that is unlikely to live long in the memory. 6/10.
Initial impressions of a book, film, play, piece of music etc. can sometimes be ill-considered. I have occasionally revised my opinion of such a work with the passage of time. I am confident, however, that I shall not change my view on "About Time", the sheer brilliance of which has quite bowled me over. It's not only one of the very best films I have seen recently. It's one of the best I have ever seen. Yes, I think it's that good.
"About Time" is a romantic comedy about the vicissitudes of life and love. It's witty, clever, intelligent and very funny. But it's also a film of perhaps quite surprising depth. The centrepiece of the film is the relationship between Tim (Domnhall Gleeson), a young lawyer living in London, and his father (Bill Nighy), who lives with Tim's mother (Lindsay Duncan) in Cornwall. Tim's father is able to time travel. He cannot change history when doing so; but he can revisit past experiences and incidents within his own life and alter their outcomes. Tim has inherited this ability from his father (a gift which apparently is hereditary on the male side of the family). He uses it to improve his love life. He builds up a strong bond and a young family with Mary (Rachel McAdams). But he soon realises that his exceptional gift does not protect him from the normal ups and downs of family life. Indeed, one of the most moving scenes in the film (and there are many) is a conversation Tim has with his father on learning that the latter has terminal cancer.
The performances, the screenplay, the direction and the soundtrack are first class. The humour is excellent. There is one very funny scene in which Tim nervously meets his prospective in-laws for the first time and blurts out an admission that he and Mary do not practise oral sex. There is also a very amusing sex scene. The soundtrack includes music performed by The Cure, Amy Winehouse and Nick Cave. Indeed, the featured Cave song, "Into My Arms", forms a motif for the themes depicted in the film and gets a specific mention by Tim's father when he is discussing his funeral arrangements with Tim.
"About Time" is a very watchable, intelligent and witty film that could so easily have descended to mawkishness and sentimentality. But it doesn't. It's a brilliant film that raises in the viewer's mind all sorts of important questions about life, love and loyalty. Do go and see it. 10/10.
A film that is OK but which is essentially a disappointment
"The Great Gatsby" is a novel of style and substance. This film version of the book is a triumph of the former over the latter. It's not a bad movie. It's visually stunning; it's well-acted; and the soundtrack is (perhaps unsurprisingly) very good. But the plot and the characterisation seem to play second fiddle to the director's insistence on giving greater emphasis to the costumes, to the cinematography and to an overall sense of spectacle. The result is an enjoyable but ultimately shallow film that fails to interact sufficiently with the viewer. A disappointment. Read the novel instead (if you haven't already done so). 6/10.
Fast & Furious 6 is not the kind of film that I generally like. It's preposterous, absurd and completely in your face. But I enjoyed it! It's not really a good film, let alone a great one. However, that does not really matter. This is a film that does not take itself too seriously - and it's all the better for it. The director and the cast seem to know exactly what they're doing - and they deliver a film that won't live long in the memory but which nonetheless provides two hours or so of solid entertainment that allows the viewer to forget about the stresses and strains of modern life for a while. And, it does so very well indeed.
Much of the film is set in London. The plot strains credulity and is full of holes. It took me a while to get used to some of the characters and what I assume were occasional references to their back stories (because I have not seen any of the 5 earlier films in this seemingly ever popular series). But, to be honest, the details of the plot are not really that important. Fast & Furious 6 is an almost wholly visual film about machismo, crazy driving sequences and adventure. Vin Diesel (that cannot be his real name, surely?) is very good in the lead role and he is ably supported by a cast that seems to have been plucked from the United Nations branch of central casting. I particularly liked Luke Evans (Owen Shaw), who plays the arch baddie.
Fast & Furious 6 is the sort of film that defies rational criticism. It's a delightfully innocent, energetic and enjoyable romp. 7/10
"The Place Beyond the Pines" is an excellent film; indeed, it's one of the best I have seen for ages. It's essentially a movie that consists of three separate but interlocking stories that focus on two generations of two families, primarily father and son. Luke (Ryan Gosling) is an expert motorcyclist who entertains customers at funfairs. He becomes aware that he is the father of a child by his ex-girlfriend Romina (Eva Mendes), a waitress who has a new boyfriend and who has not told Luke about their young son. Armed with the news that he is a dad, Luke decides to go on a bank-robbing spree to get hold of the money he feels he needs to support his son and to become an active part of his life. As a result, he crosses swords with a police officer, Avery (Bradley Cooper). Their encounter has far-reaching consequences for both characters - and for their sons, whose lives become entangled when they are teenagers at school (some 15 years later). Things move on from there but it would be unfair to say more than that.
"The Place Beyond the Pines" is a beautifully written and acted, thoughtful and intelligent film. It is essentially a fable about ambition and about the difficulties that members of blue-collar families experience when trying to escape the limitations imposed on them by their background and their early lives. The cinematography is excellent, as is the soundtrack. Although coincidence plays an important part in the development of the plot of the film, it does so in a way that does not strain credulity (and that is not something that can be said about many films these days). "The Place Beyond the Pines" is a superbly entertaining film that will live long in the memory. I cannot recommend it too highly. 9/10.
A reasonably entertaining film that is a little disappointing
It's been a long time since I have seen so much advance publicity for a film. Underground stations and trains, buses and billboards in London seem to be festooned with posters advertising "Welcome to the Punch". There has also been a noticeable TV advertising campaign in the UK, aimed at plugging the film's supposed entertainment value. It is clear that "Welcome to the Punch" has a substantial PR budget attached to it. I am not surprised that so much effort is being made to convince potential viewers of the film's credentials. Although "Welcome to the Punch" is a reasonably entertaining film, it is ultimately a disappointing one. It has more style than substance. It's a slick, glossy thriller that looks expensive. However, it is also a bleak film with (apart from one funny scene that is a strangely effective mixture of humour and tension) little to lighten its almost unremittingly depressive milieu.
"Welcome to the Punch" is an attempt at modern day noir. It seems to me to have been heavily influenced by some of the recently successful TV crime series emanating from continental Europe (primarily Scandinavia), such as "The Killing", "Borgen" and "Spiral". However, it's not as good as any of those programmes. A few years ago, criminal mastermind Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong) injured London detective Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) and fled to Iceland to escape the clutches of the police. He has now returned to London because his son has been shot and injured and is critically ill. This gives Lewinsky the opportunity to try to apprehend him for his past misdemeanours. Thus begins a complex tale of revenge, political and police corruption and obsession.
"Welcome to the Punch" is entertaining. It is beautifully filmed and is a visually confident film that is a delight to look at. The acting is, for the most part, good - there is very effective support from the likes of Peter Mullan, Daniel Mays and David Morrissey. The soundtrack too is spot on. So, why is it no better than an averagely good film? Well, for one thing, the plot is so complex that it is sometimes difficult to follow. There is, for example, one scene in which the behaviour of a character (which ultimately leads to her being killed) is simply inexplicable. We have to wait a further 30 minutes or so for an explanation of why she did what she did. This is most definitely a film that requires the viewer's undivided attention - so much so that watching it sometimes seems to be much more of a chore than a pleasure. In addition, it is sometimes difficult to discern, amidst the frequent scenes of gun violence and mayhem, exactly which character has been injured or killed. This is because several of the actors have a similar physical appearance to each other and because the action all too often takes place in a darkly lit, brooding atmosphere that makes it difficult to see exactly what is going on. McAvoy gives a very good performance as the obsessive detective hellbent on revenge (despite occasional lapses with his London accent!). And it is certainly the case that "Welcome to the Punch" is a stylish film. But it is ultimately also a bleak and empty one that, despite the money and behind the camera talent expended on it, barely raises itself above the level of a competent thriller. 6/10.
"Identity Thief" is a deeply disappointing film. It's a very weak comedy that is ostensibly about the havoc that a person committing identity fraud can wreak on his or her victims and their families. But it doesn't deal with the crime in a serious way and the film is a mess in many other ways too. It could have been a very good thriller about an issue that is of growing concern in our 21st century of mass electronic communication and trade. It could also have been a good social satire on the issues of class, the difficulties faced in adult life by those people whose childhoods were relatively deprived and the struggles faced by modestly paid breadwinners in middle class families. However, it is none of those things. Instead, the film opts for a comedic approach. The problem is it just isn't funny. What is more it is full of ludicrously implausible scenes that, even allowing for dramatic and cinematic licence, frequently beggar belief.
Diana (Melissa McCarthy - who is much the best thing about the film, although that isn't saying much) steals the credit card details of Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman). This causes him acute embarrassment as well as financial difficulties, not least because it leads to his wrongful arrest by the police at a time when he has just begun work for a much higher salary than he has ever been used to. His new job, which brings with it the title of Vice-President, is for a company that has been formed by a group of his ex-colleagues. They had become increasingly aggrieved by the way in which their former employer had been treating them. So, Sandy takes immediate leave from his new job in an attempt to track down Diana. The result is a silly road movie in which Sandy and Diana become a sort of likable but bellicose odd couple whose travails include: being hunted by a sinister pair of thugs who are themselves keen to catch up with Diana; implausible bouts of gun violence; and cliché-ridden car chases, from which both characters unsurprisingly escape virtually unscathed. Almost inevitably, this pot pourri of mediocrity and schmaltz ends in a flurry of sentimentality.
"Identity Thief" is an unoriginal, lazy and embarrassingly stupid film. It is saved from being a complete turkey by the performance of Melissa McCarthy. Her character evokes the viewer's outrage for her demonic and wilful behaviour one minute and the viewer's sympathy the next because of her vulnerability and essential loneliness. It's a fine performance that is worthy of a much better film. 4/10.
"Rear Window" is a very good suspense thriller, and one of Alfred Hitchcock's best films. Based on a story by noir writer Cornell Woolrich, it appeals to the voyeur in all of us. Human beings are naturally nosy and inquisitive. And that is the premise on which the film is based.
L.B. Jeffries, known as "Jeff", (James Stewart) is a photo journalist who works for a magazine. He is wheelchair-confined in his small, seemingly cramped apartment, recovering from a leg injury sustained while on an assignment. Because he is bored, he spends a great deal of time looking at the goings-on in the block of flats opposite. As a result of what he sees, he begins to suspect that one of the residents of that block may have murdered his bed-ridden wife. He involves his fiancée, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), his carer, Stella (Thelma Ritter) and an old friend from war service, serving police detective Thomas Doyle (Wendell Corey) in his suspicions. But are those suspicions the product of an overactive imagination or is there some substance to them?
"Rear Window" keeps the viewer on tenterhooks right up until its excellent conclusion. It is a riveting and entertaining film with superb performances from its principal actors. It is proof positive that a film does not need high-octane action sequences, expensive special effects, a cast of thousands or breathtaking scenery to keep the viewer's interest. This is a film that is claustrophobic, almost theatrical in nature ("Dial M for Murder" was apparently based on a stage play; and I can envisage "Rear Window" making a successful theatrical transfer, if it hasn't already done so). The direction by Hitchcock is, of course, excellent.
Hitchcock makes his trademark cameo appearance in the film (about 30-40 minutes in), as a guest in one of the apartments opposite Jeff's. Incidentally, Stewart and Kelly each make a very minor error when delivering their lines in two separate scenes (they hesitate slightly and stumble over their words). These are barely noticeable but I am nonetheless surprised that both scenes were not re-shot or, if they were, that the unblemished versions were not inserted into the final version of the film.
"Four", which I have just seen at the London Film Festival, is a very good film. It's a story about awkwardness, indecision and the search for love. It boasts excellent performances from the four leading actors and a very good screenplay and, at a mere 75 minutes or so, is a short film. Despite its relative brevity, it packs a powerful emotional punch and is a very impressive piece of film-making.
Set on 4 July (Independence Day in the United States), it features two seemingly mismatched couplings: Joe and June; and Dexter and Abigayle. Joe (Wendell Pierce) is a forty something black college professor who is married, but whose wife is ill and needs constant care and attention. Abigayle (Aja Naomi King) is his adolescent daughter. Joe has a seemingly settled home-life but is, in fact, secretly gay and uses the internet to try to meet other gay people. June (Emory Cohen) - an odd name for a boy: his parents named him thus because he was supposed to have been born in that month but he was a premature baby and his birthday is actually in April - is a white 15- year old and is trying to come to terms with the fact that he is gay. But he is a very self- conscious, awkward, occasionally taciturn teenager who is finding it difficult to come out to friends and family. Joe and June meet via the internet and are having their first "date" together. Whereas June is shy and introspective, Dexter (E J Bonilla) is almost the complete opposite. He is brash, confident and extrovert. He loves playing basketball and has dropped out of school. Dexter is going out with Abigayle, although their relationship is clearly fragile. Abigayle challenges what she sees as his idiotic chat-up lines and his general cockiness. While her father is meeting June (unbeknown to her, of course), she agrees to meet Dexter for a short time. She is supposed to stay at home to look after her mother and because she is expecting a phone call from her father who she believes is on a work-related visit to Boston. In fact, their date appears to last for the whole evening, and in the course of it Abigayle unexpectedly sees Joe in his car with June (although Joe is unaware that his cover has been blown).
"Four" very skilfully portrays the search for love and for happiness that, in their own different way, each of the four principal characters is undertaking (as, indeed, we all constantly are, of course). That search is an emotional minefield with confusion, an inability to communicate, self-loathing and an arrogance that conceals vulnerability and timidity all on display to some extent. This is a very well-acted and -directed film that says much in its 75 minutes. It is also intelligent, thoughtful and heartbreaking. I suspect that "Four" will not hit the headlines or cause much of a stir. But in its understated way, it is a devastatingly effective film and one that will linger long in the memory of anyone who sees it. Highly recommended. 8/10.
A disturbing and uncomfortable film that is difficult to like
"Simon Killer" is an odd, bleak and deeply unsettling film that I simply could not get to grips with. It tells the story of a young American neuroscience graduate, Simon (Brady Corbet). Simon leaves the United States and goes to Paris in an attempt to get over the somewhat traumatic break-up of a five-year relationship with his girlfriend Michelle (a character who does not appear in the film). There is something not quite right about Simon. He is a bit like Patricia Highsmith's well-known anti-hero Tom Ripley: cold, unfeeling, amoral and emotionally unintelligent. He is also a compulsive liar.
Soon after his arrival in the French capital (where he initially stays with a cousin of his - who is, in fact, not really a relation but a friend of the family), Simon goes into a sex club where he pays for sex with one of the resident prostitutes, Victoria (Mati Diop). As a result of that encounter, he develops a relationship with her and later moves into her small flat. Victoria opens up to Simon and tells him intimate details of her past, including the fact that she miscarried some time ago. Simon is less willing to disclose information about himself to Victoria. Indeed, one of the many problems with the film is that the viewer is given little or no hint as to what actually motivates Simon and why he frequently behaves so oddly. Part of that oddness is his attitude to women, whom he seems to view as nothing more than objects of sexual desire. At the same time, he attempts to blackmail some of Victoria's "customers" in order to finance his stay in Paris. He later meets another attractive young woman, whom he had bumped into earlier in his stay, and begins a brief relationship with her. This understandably upsets Victoria. Things move on from there.
"Simon Killer" is a very unpleasant film. It is full of graphic sex scenes, many of which are quite unnecessary in that they add little or nothing to plot or character development. In addition, Simon is a deeply unsympathetic character. It is left to the viewer to decide why he is like he is. There are hints that he has some sort of Oedipus complex or perhaps a personality disorder (or both). What is clear is that he is an extremely selfish and shallow person who lacks any sort of empathy for other people. Much of the plot has the feel of improvisation about it. And it's really not at all clear what the message of the film is. In addition to all that, I was simply not convinced by the relationship between Simon and Victoria, in particular why, of all her many "customers", she would choose him as someone with whom to have a serious relationship. Although the conclusion of the film is well done, much of what precedes it is ponderous and lethargic and, as a result, extremely boring. The soundtrack, however, is one of the best of any film that I have seen. But when all is said and done, "Simon Killer" is an unsatisfactory film that is difficult to recommend. 5/10
It's not very often that I enjoy a film in which very little actually happens! But "Everyday" is an exception. I saw it recently when it premiered at the BFI London Film Festival. It's a thoughtful, understated film with excellent performances. It held my interest right up until the end. And I enjoyed it very much.
Filmed over 5 years, "Everyday" is a worthy but never dull film about how a mother and her four young children cope while her husband and their father serves a term of imprisonment. Karen (Shirley Henderson) spends the time accompanying her children to and from school, trying to keep the family's home-life on a reasonably even keel and visiting her husband Ian (John Simm) with the children. At the same time, she is trying to hold down her job as a barmaid at the local pub. She is also having an affair with one of her customers.
"Everyday" examines the impact of Ian's absence on his wife and children. It does so in a naturalistic and unassuming way. There are no histrionics or very dramatic scenes. What we get are quietly effective vignettes that show how disruptive a husband and father's extended absence from home can be, particularly on young children. The acting is first rate. Henderson and Simm are very good indeed, as are all four youngsters who play the couple's children. The direction and the camera-work are also very effective. "Everyday" is a visually confident and a very impressive film. 8/10.
Oh, dear! "The Black Dahlia" is one of the worst films that I have seen in a long time. It boasts a strong cast on paper and a director, Brian de Palma, with a very good reputation. But it's a dull and frequently incomprehensible film that left me very disappointed.
Adapted from a novel of the same name (which I haven't read) by the American writer of noir fiction, James Ellroy, the plot is based on an incident that actually took place. It concerns the gruesome murder in the 1940s of a minor Hollywod star, Betty Ann Short (Mia Kirshner). Ms Short was also known as 'The Black Dahlia'. The crime is investigated by two police officers, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Dwight 'Bucky' Bleichert (Josh Hartnett). Blanchard is married to Kay (Scarlett Johansson). Bleichert develops a relationship with Madeleine (Hilary Swank), who is a member of a very high-profile and influential family. Madeleine knew 'The Black Dahlia' and is therefore a crucial figure in the police investigation. The film is actually more about the lives of Blanchard and Bleichert than the murder itself.
Just about everything about "The Black Dahlia" is below par. Superficially, it looks good. The costumes are first-rate, for example. But dig a little deeper and the visual weaknesses are all too apparent. The vaguely sepia cinematic tint is off-putting and many of the scenes are simply unconvincing in that they too readily make the viewer aware that they have been shot in a film studio. There is an air of unreality about them. That is particularly true of the opening few minutes of the film. In addition, the narrative clarity is poor. "The Black Dahlia" is a very wordy film. Its plot and character development are heavily dependent on a voice-over that leaves much to be desired in terms of comprehensibility. The content of some of the narration seems to contradict itself and is frequently difficult to follow. What is more, the conclusion of the film is, not to mince words, completely incomprehensible and illogical. I have no confidence whatsoever that I understand what actually happened and why. While some of that may well be ascribable to inattention and poor concentration on my part, I think the screenplay is at fault too. 'The Black Dahlia' is a very confusing film. Despite the stellar cast, the acting is little better. None of the stars acquits themselves well. Overacting abounds. And to cap it all, there is very little sense of tension or suspense. A poor film. 3/10.
An excellent film with stunningly good performances from its leading actors
I knew next to nothing about "Shame" before I watched it earlier today. I am rather glad that that was the case. Had I read any reviews of it or seen any details about it beforehand, I fear I might not have been keen to view it (given its subject matter). And what a pity that would have been - because "Shame" is a brilliant film, and just about the best recent release that I have seen for a very long time. Despite its nihilistic bleakness, it is an engrossing, thoughtful and intelligent movie.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a young single man in his 30s. He seems, on the surface, to have an enviable life. He lives in a smart Manhattan apartment. He works in an office (exactly what job he does is not spelt out) and earns enough to go in the evenings to expensive singles bars, high quality restaurants and what seem to be 5-star hotels. He does not have to think twice about taking taxis from A to B. And he can afford the services of a high-class prostitute. However, Brandon's life is not, in fact, as comfortable or secure as those outward trappings might suggest. He lives alone. He is addicted to passionless sex and to pornography. He finds it necessary to make eye contact with attractive women when commuting on the New York subway. And he has few, if any, real friends. Basically, Brandon is a deeply unhappy man. Out of the blue, his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up and asks if she can stay with him for a few days. Brandon agrees. And, as a result, his life goes from bad to worse. Sissy, who is a cabaret singer, is the exact opposite of Brandon: she is an uninhibited extrovert. She embarrasses her brother in two ways. First, she has an affair with his boss David (James Badge Dale, an actor whom I have not come across before), who is married with children. Also, her presence in Brandon's apartment cramps his style somewhat. It makes it much more difficult for him to view pornography on his computer (which he does habitually), to have one-night stands there (again, something he does frequently) and to arrange for the services of a prostitute (another habit of his). Brandon, whose longest relationship to date lasted only four months, is essentially a sex addict. His life is empty. He never smiles. He is cold and unfeeling. And, although he perhaps does not realise it, he hates himself. "Shame" icily depicts the vacuum in Brandon's life and, in doing so, throws a spotlight on the shallowness of modern urban existence in much of the affluent western world.
The acting, direction and screenplay are quite simply excellent. Both Fassbender and Mulligan are superb. Indeed, Fassbender's performance is surely worthy of an Oscar. The soundtrack, which is varied, is also a plus point. It makes excellent use of Glenn Gould's recordings of keyboard music by Bach, for instance. Yes, there are a lot of sex scenes, many of them graphic. But all are germane to the plot and to the depiction of Brandon's flawed personality. "Shame" is film-making at its very best. 10/10.
A very good adaptation of a superb John Le Carre novel
John Le Carre's espionage story "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" is one of the best novels I have read in a very long time. It is a superb tale of duplicity and double dealing involving the British Secret Service and that of the German Democratic Republic (the name at that time for communist East Germany) in the early 1960s. This film adaptation (which I watched immediately after finishing the book) is faithful to the novel. Indeed, whole chunks of the dialogue are lifted almost verbatim from Le Carre's prose. The plot of the film is also very similar to that of the book. Very few changes have been made.
The principal character is Alec Leamas (played brilliantly by Richard Burton), a world-weary, cynical employee of the British Secret Service, who is sent by his bosses in London on what he thinks is a sophisticated undercover operation designed to avenge the recent murder by the GDR Secret Service of one of Britain's most valuable double agents. That agent was, at the time of his death, being supervised by Leamas, who was a field operative in the GDR. However, things are more complicated than that. Leamas, whose involvement in the operation involves his pretending to defect to the other side, is, in fact, an unwitting stooge for George Smiley (Rupert Davies) and Control (Cyril Cusack), his immediate superiors in London. They have other, more complex motives for organising the revenge mission. Also involved in this messy business is Nan Perry (played by Claire Bloom), a young idealist and Communist sympathiser, whom Leamas meets while working in a library (having been discharged from his secret service post after the double agent's death) and with whom he is romantically involved.
"The Spy Who Came in from the Cold", which is filmed in monochrome, is an entertaining and absorbing movie. It depicts the shadowy world of espionage, and the double dealing, betrayal and sense of disillusionment that must inevitably persist within it, very convincingly indeed. The acting is very good (Richard Burton is excellent in what is surely one of his least well-known performances), as is the direction. The film reinforces the perception that espionage is conducted by ordinary people like you and me who are fallible and anything but extraordinary. It also compels the viewer to confront the idea that there is no wrong and right, in the sense that our own security services are just as capable of ruthless, immoral and duplicitous behaviour as those of our supposed enemies. I should also single out the cinematography, which skilfully creates an atmosphere of bleakness and grimness that accurately complements the details of the plot. A very good film that is well worth seeing. 8/10
A very good thriller with an excellent performance from both leading actors
I take it all back! I used to think of Harrison Ford as one of the most overrated Hollywood actors of recent years (and Nicolas Cage as another). I continue to subscribe to my view of the latter. But, in the light of his excellent performance in this slick, entertaining and tense thriller, I think I may have to amend my judgement of Ford. His performance is a masterclass of controlled, understated and believable acting and contributes hugely to one's enjoyment of what is an intelligent and gripping film.
Ford plays Dr Richard Kimble, an eminent vascular surgeon in Chicago, who, having been wrongly convicted of his wife's murder, escapes police custody on his way to prison (where he will face the death penalty) and goes on the run in a desperate attempt to track down the real culprit. His escape is facilitated by a spectacular collision between the bus in which he is being transported to jail and a train. In the immediate aftermath of that incident, Kimble manages to escape the clutches of the security officers who are responsible for his transfer. While on the run, he is tenaciously pursued by wisecracking Marshal Sam Gerard (played brilliantly by Tommy Lee Jones). The film, which is loosely based on a TV series of the same name that was made in the 1960s, features the cat and mouse chase between Kimble and Gerard and the former's quest to overturn the miscarriage of justice of which he is a victim.
"The Fugitive" is essentially a chase movie. But it is a rather better one than many films of its kind. The acting, direction, dialogue and glossy cinematography are all first class. The train and bus collision that allows Kimble to make his getaway is brilliantly and spectacularly depicted. And a scene in which he dives into a waterfall is also wonderfully filmed. I do, however, have some reservations about the movie. In particular, certain elements of the plot strain credulity. The ease with which Kimble is seemingly able to enter and wander around hospital buildings unchallenged is, frankly, incredible. That goes especially for one such incident in which he is mistakenly regarded by a medic as a hospital porter and is asked to transport a young patient to the operating theatre. En route, and after a brief chat with the patient about his medical history, Kimble makes use of his knowledge and expertise and amends the patient's medical notes and the written details of the treatment recommended for him. By doing so, he saves the patient's life! The way in which Kimble manages to evade Gerard by making a giant leap into the gurgling waterfall of a massive dam and emerge mentally and physically unscathed, with the contents of a wallet in a pocket of his trousers undamaged, frankly beggars belief. There are one or two other scenes that do not ring true for the same reason. There are also some minor continuity errors. But the film somehow gets away with these mistakes, primarily because there is far more that is right about it than is wrong.
"The Fugitive" is an energetic, intelligent and entertaining film that is well worth watching. 8/10.
A reasonably entertaining film but not one that Holmes traditionalists are likely to enjoy
I am a great fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I have also enjoyed a number of the British TV adaptations of the Holmes stories over the years, with Jeremy Brett, Douglas Wilmer and Peter Cushing in the title role. I regret to say, however, that "Young Sherlock Holmes" is simply not my cup of tea. I like my Sherlock Holmes to be presented in a traditional fashion - with foggy streets peopled by urchins and beggars, smoke-filled sitting rooms and hansom cabs. We get little of that sort of thing in this film. What we do get are seemingly expensive special effects that are quite out of keeping with the world of Holmes and Watson in a film that reminded me in places of the Indiana Jones movies, The Goonies and even Back to the Future. I suppose that's the influence of Steven Spielberg for you (he's one of the executive producers of the film)!
The plot centres on Holmes's adolescent years. Much of the action takes place at an English public school known as Brompton. The film suggests that it was, in fact, here where Holmes and Watson first met, when both were pupils together and shared the same dormitory. The story concerns the investigation by the teenage Holmes of a number of seemingly unrelated murders that involve a religious cult and the use of hallucinatory drugs. It's all enjoyable enough, I suppose, if you are happy to accept the use of special effects and, given what happens in the Conan Doyle stories, a somewhat unconvincing love interest for Holmes. There is no doubt that the special effects themselves are imaginative: a roast pheasant on a restaurant diner's plate bites back; hat stands seemingly come to life; and Watson is attacked by cakes in a bizarre graveyard scene. But, as I say, they have no place in a film of this sort. The acting is good - the supporting cast is made up of a number of high quality British character actors such as Freddie Jones, Nigel Stock and Roger Ashton-Griffiths. And the direction is competent, if uninspiring.
So, I give some marks to "Young Sherlock Holmes" for trying to do something slightly different. But the film just doesn't work for me. 5/10.
I should add that it is important to keep watching right up to the end of the closing credits, when a nice little twist is delivered. I wonder how many of the people who saw "Young Sherlock Holmes" in the cinema missed it, given that, in my experience, many cinema-goers seem to rush for the exit almost as soon as the closing credits begin to roll!
An unusual Hitchcock film that fails to live up to the standard of his others
"The Wrong Man" is somewhat different in nature from most of Alfred Hitchcock's other work. Based on true events, it is more like a documentary than a feature film. It tells the story of Christopher Emanuel Balestrero, a happily married father of two young children. Balestrero is a musician. He plays the bass fiddle in a musical group at the upmarket Stork Club, a nightclub in New York. His wife Rose needs expensive dental treatment because she has four impacted wisdom teeth. The couple cannot afford the treatment, which will cost $300. So, Balestrero visits the office of the insurance company at which he is paying for life insurance policies for himself, his wife and the two children to see if he can borrow the money to pay for Rose's dental treatment against her policy. While there, he is identified by several members of staff as being the person who robbed the company previously. Balestrero is arrested and subsequently charged with the crime (which, as the title of the film suggests, he did not, in fact, commit). And that sets in train a chain of events that causes a huge amount of emotional and financial turmoil for the Balestrero family.
The acting is first rate. Henry Fonda and Vera Miles are excellent in the starring roles. Miles is particularly good at portraying the emotional scarring her character (Rose) receives as a result of events that she is helpless to influence and which appear to be spiralling out of control. There are, however, a number of problems with the film. It is sombre in tone. That by itself would not ordinarily be an issue worthy of comment. But "The Wrong Man" is also - and this is somewhat surprising, given that it is a Hitchcock film - extremely dull and turgid. There is almost no suspense or tension. And there is none of the macabre humour that is present in most of Hitchcock's other work. Even the trademark brief non-speaking appearance by the director is dispensed with in this film (although that may be because Hitchcock makes a short appearance in shadowy form before the opening credits to explain that "The Wrong Man" is somewhat different from his other films). There are also some continuity problems. No further reference is made in the film (after the initial one) to the dental treatment that Rose supposedly needs. Did she receive it? And, if so, how was it paid for? Much later in the plot, Rose needs (and receives) what must surely have been expensive medical treatment under the American health care system of the time. No explanation is offered as to how it was paid for. This seems odd when the screenplay does address the issue of how $7,500 is found to fund Balestrero's bail and does refer to the problem Balestrero is likely to have in paying his legal fees (his lawyer is sympathetic and agrees not to insist on an immediate payment). Also, as good as Fonda is, I think he looks rather older in the film than the age of the character he is playing (who is 38 years old).
So, although not a bad film, "The Wrong Man" is a disappointingly ordinary one that is unlikely to live as long in the memory as most of Hitchcock's others. 6/10.
"City of God" is a quite brilliant film that portrays three decades - the 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s - of child and adult drugs gang warfare in the slums (favelas) outside Rio de Janeiro. Its quality is all the more astonishing given that many of its stars are non-professional actors who seemingly act out their own personal experiences for the camera.
The film is set in a crime-ridden housing project known as Cidade de Deus (City of God). It focuses on two young boys - Li'l Dice (who becomes known as Li'l Ze, when an adult) and Rocket - whose lives develop in opposite directions. Rocket attempts to escape the crime, violence, drug-dealing and killing that is the norm for young men and adults who live in Cidade de Deus. He is fascinated by photography and attempts to pursue that as a career. Li'l Dice opts to go with the flow, and with his determination and ambition for power and control becomes a ruthless drugs dealer and eventually the head of one of the gangs that control life in the favela. The plot highlights the turf war that is waged with ruthless violence between the different gangs in Cidade de Deus over drugs, money and (to them, perhaps most important of all) influence, control and power.
"City of God" is absorbing and extremely thought-provoking. Living as I do in the relative comfort of middle class London, I can only imagine what life must be like for the people portrayed in the film. "City of God", which seems from this relatively safe distance to be infused with a gritty realism that few feature films possess, makes one realise in no uncertain terms the extent to which all our lives are governed by an accident of birth. How would any of us cope if we were born and brought up in circumstances like those of the characters in the film that are almost impossible to escape from?
The narrative structure of the film is excellent. The principal characters are introduced to the viewer one by one and at a particular point in their lives, usually when they are relatively young. The film then returns to their story later on in their lives when they have become more adult and have been exposed more fully to the difficult circumstances which they have to confront head on. There is a judicious use of narration and of flashback, both of which help to explain what motivates each character's actions. The acting, the cinematography and the direction are superb. What is more, the film does not romanticise the violent lives on display. And, (how can I put this without giving too much away?), it does not - as many films of this sort probably would - opt for a wholly redemptive and hopeful ending. Indeed, one of the many messages of the film is how difficult it is to escape from a life of poverty and violence, on a generational as well as an individual basis.
"City of God" is a brilliant, almost faultless film. It's a masterpiece of modern cinema. 10/10.
"Impact" is the ideal sort of film for a wet Sunday afternoon. It is one of those many enjoyable, if largely unmemorable, crime dramas churned out by Hollywood studios in black and white in the pre-TV era.
Walter Williams (Brian Donlevy) is a self-made man. Having started life as a sheet-metal worker, he has worked his way up over a period of ten years to become a successful industrialist who has the board of directors of the company that employs him eating out of his hand. He adores his wife Irene (Helen Walker), whom he sometimes addresses as "Softy", and earns enough to keep her in fine style and to buy her expensive jewellery and flowers. However, unbeknown to Walter, his affection is not reciprocated. Irene has grown bored with him and is having an affair with Jim Torrance (Tony Barrett). The two of them hatch a plan to kill Walter in a staged car crash. But their scheme does not work out and Torrance is killed instead. Walter escapes to a small town known as Larkspur, gets a job as a garage mechanic and falls in love with the garage proprietor Marsha Peters (Ella Raines, whose role as a beautiful car mechanic stretches credulity almost to breaking point). At the same time he has begun gradually to piece together the details of his wife's duplicity. Things move on from there.
"Impact" is not intended to be a serious film. It is essentially a pot-boiler whose only purpose is to provide 90 minutes or so of entertainment. On that basis, it is reasonably successful. Yes, elements of the plot are frankly ridiculous and rely far too much on coincidence. The film looks technically prehistoric by today's standards in that many outdoor scenes are clearly filmed in a studio with an appropriate backdrop that, to modern viewers, will simply be unconvincing and amateurish. But that is perhaps an unfair criticism of a film that was made more than 60 years ago. The acting and the direction are competent enough, without standing out in any way.
"Impact" is an enjoyable, if forgettable, film. 6/10.
An excellent film that bears all the Coen Brothers' hallmarks
"No Country for Old Men" is an excellent film. Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, and based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy (which I haven't read), it is a stylish, bleak and brooding movie with undertones of a Western and of film noir and with an almost matchless evocation of time, mood, place and character. It is also surprisingly amusing in places.
Set in Texas in 1980 (the date can be pinpointed by one scene in the film in which a coin minted in 1958 is described as being 22 years old), it tells the story of Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin). Moss, a young veteran of the Vietnam War, is a welder by trade. He and his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) have little money and live in a modest house trailer. While out hunting one day, Moss encounters the detritus of a drugs scam that has evidently misfired. There are several dead bodies and a number of abandoned vehicles strewn around the scene, as well as a dead dog. One of the vehicles contains a huge consignment of drugs. The money deriving from the deal - $2 million - is also there, in a briefcase next to a dead man. Moss thinks quickly and decides to purloin the cash. Unfortunately for him, that money is being sought by Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Chigurh is a ruthless, vicious, evil man, with psychopathic tendencies. He will happily and perfunctorily decide whether to kill or to spare someone literally on the toss of a coin. Chigurh carries a canister of compressed air around with him. He uses it, amongst other things, to help to break into premises. He also has a stun gun, with which he kills anyone who attempts to thwart him. It emits a cylinder into his victim's head and thrusts it back afterwards. Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) and his assistant are the law enforcement representatives who attempt to prevent Chigurh's murderous stalking of Moss.
"No Country for Old Men" is essentially about the complex nature of evil, as personified by Chigurh. He is cold, ruthless and unfeeling but also displays some (admittedly weird) principles in his behaviour. In one scene late in the film, he needlessly goes after Carla Jean precisely because he thinks such action is a matter of principle. Moss had earlier refused to compromise with him and to hand over the money even though Chigurh had said that Moss's failure to do so would result in his having to assassinate Carla Jean. Chigurh therefore feels duty bound to carry out his threat.
The cinematography, the screenplay and the direction are first rate, as is the acting. It would perhaps be invidious to single out any one particular member of the cast, given that everyone is so good. But, for me, Bardem is the star. His performance as Chigurh is astonishingly good. There is one distinctly memorable scene in which he confronts the owner of a gas (petrol) station in the middle of nowhere and chillingly plays mind games with him about whether he will kill him or not. That scene is brilliantly acted by Bardem (and by Gene Jones who plays the gas station owner).
"No Country for Old Men" is a classy, intelligent and entertaining film. It is a must-see. 9/10.
An absorbing, complex film noir that is marred by pretentiousness
If ever a film could be described as too clever by half it is "Memento". An undoubtedly entertaining thriller about revenge, it is a technically accomplished film noir that is over- reliant on its dominating gimmick: its reverse storytelling structure. That gimmick cannot, however, conceal the impression that, while it is a good film, "Memento" is really no better than many other films of its kind.
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, and based on a short story by Jonathan Nolan (any relation, I wonder?), "Memento" has all the accoutrements of classic film noir: a seedy California setting; seemingly lonely and emotionally disturbed characters; motels that exploit their customers; and murder as a pivotal part of the plot. It tells the story of Leonard (Guy Pearce), whose wife called him Lenny but who likes to be addressed by everyone else by his full first name. Leonard is an ex-insurance fraud investigator. He has short-term memory difficulties - he knows who he is and can recall everything about his life before the incident in which his wife was killed. However, he has been unable to make any new memories since that traumatic event. His failure to prevent the rape and murder of his wife, and a knock on the head that he sustained during that incident, have induced in him a sort of reverse amnesia and left him with a single-minded determination for revenge. Hampered by his inability to retain new information, Leonard resorts to having his body tattooed (by himself in some instances; by a professional tattooist in others) with vital pieces of information that will assist him in the search for his wife's killer. He also takes Polaroid photos and writes notes to himself as a means of recording other important details that will help him, e.g. the location of the motel at which he is staying. Leonard is aided (or perhaps thwarted?) in his efforts by Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), a barmaid with a dodgy boyfriend, and by the mysterious Teddy (Joe Pantoliano). Natalie is the classic femme fatale beloved of all such films!
So, the basic plot - the need to avenge a terrible crime - is not particularly original. But the memory issue is. That, however, pales into insignificance when set beside the highly unusual structure of the narrative of the film. Time appears to move backwards and forwards in chunks in almost equal measure in a complex presentation of the chronology of events that is sometimes difficult to follow. The viewer needs all his wits and attentive powers about him to work out exactly what is going on and when. There is the added complication of a seemingly unimportant sub-plot concerning someone whom Leonard was investigating for possible insurance fraud before his wife's demise and who was apparently suffering the same memory difficulties that now plague Leonard.
"Memento" is an absorbing and entertaining film. It is beautifully acted by all concerned. Guy Pearce is superb as Leonard. He appears in virtually every scene in the film. His performance is such that the viewer cares about him and his crusade to avenge his wife's death. The film is well directed. And it is skilfully edited, something that is crucial to the plausibility of the plot, given the film's unusual structure. The problem is though that "Memento" is at times overrun by a sense of cleverness, knowingness and pretentiousness. I have no idea why, for instance, a number of crucial scenes (they usually involve Leonard on the telephone to an unidentified policeman who seems to be providing him with unreliable information) are filmed in monochrome. And while the reverse chronology of the film is unusual it does not really enhance what I think is one of the main messages of the film: which is that memory is a tantalisingly fragile aspect of human life, and that what and whom we trust are governed by all sorts of things beyond our control. So what we have here is an entertaining and fascinating film noir that, for all its technical accomplishment and wizardry, is just that: an enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable, movie. 6/10.
An excellent drama about middle-age anxieties dressed up as a thriller
"Lantana" is an excellent film. Ostensibly a thriller, it is, in essence, a psychological drama about a number of middle-aged married couples whose paths cross and who are experiencing various degrees of marital and family difficulties.
Set in what seems to be small-town Australia but is, in fact, a suburb of Sydney (judging by what is said in a news broadcast about one of the pivotal incidents of the plot), the story features a policeman, Leon Zat (brilliantly portrayed by Anthony LaPaglia). Zat is slap bang in the middle of a mid-life crisis. He is having an affair with a woman named Jane (Rachael Blake), who is separated from her husband. He has symptoms of possible coronary problems; he is violent towards suspects; and he is angry towards his wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), and sometimes towards his lover. In one telling scene, he accidentally collides with a jogger in the street and loses his top with him before realising that he has overreacted. Sonja is seeing an American relationship counsellor, Valerie (Barbara Hershey), who is married to John (Geoffrey Rush). Valerie and John's marriage has been in difficulty since the death of their daughter a few years ago. It seems that Valerie suspects that John may be having a relationship with a gay man whom she is counselling. When Valerie herself disappears after her car breaks down late at night, suspicion falls on one of Jane's neighbours, Nik, who is happily married to Paula, with whom Jane has a good friendship. These interrelated stories form a credible plot that skilfully examines the emotional turbulence and pitfalls experienced by many people who are in their forties and which at the same time provides an entertaining puzzle.
The acting in "Lantana" is superb. The screenplay is, for the most part, plausible (there is perhaps a slight over-reliance on coincidence in the way in which the lives of the principal characters intersect). It is also beautifully written. All of the characters are believable and fully fleshed out. The direction and the cinematography are first rate. And the soundtrack, which is primarily made up of Buena Vista Social Club-style Cuban dance music, is very entertaining. "Lantana" is an intelligent and entertaining film. 9/10.
There is one slight mystery about the film. I may have missed something but I do not understand the reason for its title. Wikipedia suggests that "lantana" is a genus of a perennial flowering plant that is common in the Australian-Pacific region. But quite what that has to do with the film, even one whose opening scene is of a camera panning through a plantation that hides the limbs of a dead woman's body, is not immediately clear (to me, at least).
A very good film of the kind they don't seem to make any more
"Where the Sidewalk Ends" is film noir at its best: entertaining, well-acted and directed, with a very good plot and outstanding cinematography and character depiction.
Based on the hardboiled crime novel "Night Cry" by William L Stuart (which I have not read), the film tells the story of 16th precinct New York police detective Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews). Dixon is somewhat unconventional in his working methods. He seems to want to punish criminals in addition to investigating them, an attitude that apparently springs from his relationship with his father who was a thief and who died when Dixon was 17 years old while trying to escape from jail. At the beginning of the film, Dixon is not only passed over for promotion because of his disruptive approach to his work but is also demoted. While investigating the death of a wealthy patron of an illegal crap game, he accidentally murders the principal suspect while trying to get information from him. He covers his tracks but, in doing so, inadvertently casts suspicion on an innocent taxi driver, who happens to be the victim's father-in-law. To complicate matters further, Dixon falls in love with Morgan (Gene Tierney), the taxi driver's daughter and the estranged wife of the man he has killed. Matters continue from there (but it would be inappropriate to say anything more about them).
The acting in "Where the Sidewalk Ends" is superb. Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney give excellent performances and are ably supported by Karl Malden (who plays the detective who is promoted at Dixon's expense) and Gary Merrill (who plays Scalise, the crook who organised the illegal crap game that brought about the events depicted in the film). Andrews's performance skilfully elicits sympathy from the viewer for a character who is dogged by his antecedents and by the anguish and injury that his unconventional behaviour causes. The screenplay is very good indeed. And one of the many effective aspects of the film is its judicious use of its excellent score. Indeed, one of the notable features of "Where the Sidewalk Ends" is the comparative absence of music in important parts of the film. The opening credits, which consist primarily of a picture of a pair of feet walking along a pavement (sidewalk), have no musical accompaniment at all. There are some faults. A fight scene involving Dixon and Scalise and his fellow hoodlums seems amateurish in execution (many of the seemingly effective punches thrown make no contact whatsoever with their intended targets), even for a film made in 1950. And the optimistic tone of the conclusion jars somewhat.
But, despite its faults, "Where the Sidewalk Ends" is a very clever, enjoyable and entertaining film. 8/10.