Monday, 27 May 2013


As with all great stories the simpler the story the better it is. This is simple in the extreme but at 2 hours 10 minutes it's amazing how it weaves the threads together and keeps the tension and momentum moving towards an unpredictable conclusion. This is a coming of age story that pays homage to Mark Twain and echoes the landscape and feel of both Winter's Bone and Deliverance.

The narrative is carried by two 14 year boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone ( Jacob Lofland) growing up in the bayou's of Arkansas on the mighty Mississippi. Trying to make sense and meaning of the world around them, they explore the necessity of livelihood, the fickleness of love and imperfection of relationships whilst daring to believe Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and the story he painted. In Mud the boys saw someone they could believe in, someone who could offer them a glimpse of a transcendent way of life and reasoning.

This film maintains a high view of morality throughout. Honour, respect and honesty are the hallmarks of a good man. Neckbone who has been raised by his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) receives this advice from him "This river brings a lot of trash down, you gotta know what’s worth keeping and what’s worth letting go" .As the boys stretch and fumble for a moral anchor points, so they sift what they hear and see for a truth they can comprehend. Men who mistreat women are not tolerated. The hormones that accompany the onset of puberty fuel both bravado and a growing interest in girls. Ellis is the more mature of the two and Neckbone constantly lives out his inquisitive fantasies through his friend's exploratory and tentative relationship with May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant).

There are many relationships in a variety of states of health in this film. Ellis' parents, Galen and his girlfriend, Ellis and May Pearl, Mud and Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) who turns in a performance that combines a surreal beauty with a fragile and alluring vulnerability.

This film is beautifully shot and the choice of locations depict both the isolation and the remoteness of the main location and also the small-town sense of community that the local town enjoys. The underlying culture and way of life depicted in the film will be unfamiliar to outsiders - at least it was to me - and at times it wasn't something I'd be queueing up to experience, but I would like to meet all of the characters. They were presented as believable, multi-dimensional people who were wrestling with the hardships of subsistence living and the complexity of family bonds and love in their relationships.

This really is a great film - outstanding. It is going to get the coveted 9/10. Go and see it while you can.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

This film offers a perfect blend of Roddenberry's utopian liberal society and a tongue-in-cheek homage to the characters quirks and failings with cutting edge CGI and a well written story acted with conviction and passion. It's rather good. I'm not going to give any plot detail away but I will address a few issues the film raises - hopefully without giving anything away.

The film has spawned 'Pine Nuts' who are fans of Chris Pine who plays Kirk and 'Cumberbitches' who are fans of Benedict Cumberbatch who plays the baddie. There are fine performances from the other characters and jarringly English rose amongst gung-ho Americans and Vulcans etc in the form of Alice Eve who plays Science Officer Carol Marcus.

This film is essentially about two things:
  • Following orders
  • Following feelings
and how you do one or the other to do the right thing. Doing the right thing and doing the thing right are not the same thing! The story raises a pile of issues that pose moral dilemmas and time and time again the characters are tested - often to the limit. This is not a simple story of baddie versus goodie - it is both more complex and more subtle than that.

It is great to see a Tribble again - and central to the story! The CGI contribution is truly amazing with seamless blending of the real with the virtual. The soundtrack offers some good songs at appropriate moments. The film is shot with lots of close-ups where a head fills the screen leaving me with the feeling that much of the acting effort is expended in re-emphasising the core characters' personalities which are played much more strongly and directly than in the original TV series. Okay, there are one or two passages that are little over-long but on the whole the pace is well maintained throughout. Well done J J Abrams.

This is an excellent film - believe the hype and go and see it! It is great to see Cumberbatch in such a strong role and playing a baddie and a cast that offer three dimensional characters. The action is pretty well non-stop and some interesting relationship twists provide a richer plot than the usual. I'm giving this an 8.5/10.

Monday, 13 May 2013


Being a fan of the Stieg Larsson novels and films, I was looking forward to my first encounter with Jo Nesbo - dubbed "the new Stieg Larsson". Scandinavian noir thrillers are all the rage these days and so I nestled down with a high degree of expectation. For me, it was hard to put my finger on it, but I found the film failed to deliver the level of satisfaction I was anticipating. Perhaps it was because we watched the dubbed version rather than the Norwegian originals with subtitles. Also, none of the characters endeared themselves to me and in terms of the outcome, I felt they all got what they deserved. This is a nice little story about relationships, emotions and morality.

The narrative arc is provided by the lead character Roger Brown (Askel Hennie), a diminutive executive headhunter who compensates for his lack of height and the attendant fear of losing his beautiful and leggy wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), by over-stretching himself financially to lavish gifts on her. To make up the difference between income and lifestyle Brown engages in a series of thefts of paintings which he sells on the black market. Does Brown reconcile himself to his 5'6" by the end of the film? You'll have to watch it to find out!

To begin with Brown has a nice little arrangement but when he gets in over his head he unsurprisingly finds himself out of his depth. Greed and fear of loss are very strong motivators. One untruth requires several more to cover it up and the whole thing escalates out of control. Factor in a maverick ex-Danish special forces operative and Norway's leading Detective and the elements combine to produce a pacy thriller.

Sadly this is no Girl with .. any kind of tattoo. The characters are not convincing enough and the plot development relies too heavily on the sparsely populated Norwegian countryside to cover over a multitude of convenient 'how did he get away with that' happenings. Some of the action is akin to James Bond but most of it is closer to Johnny English. The ambiguity of the title is clever as the executive headhunter becomes a head that is itself hunted.

I may be paying Jo Nesbo a disservice but I will not be rushing to add his works to my Kindle to sit alongside Larsson's - neither will I be rushing to see future film adaptations of his work. I'm glad I only paid £2 for this from Blockbuster Marketplace (well worth checking out - some great deals)! I'll give 6/10.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Live Free or Die Hard (Die Hard 4)

This franchise is the Ronseal of movies - it does what it says on the tin  You know exactly what you're going to get - the only grounds for complaint would be not enough of it. This one doesn't disappoint. Bruce Willis reprises the role of New York Detective John McClane who always happens to be in the right place at the right time to save the city and the world from impending doom. This fourth iteration of the series contains the usual sado-masochistic beating of the indestructible cop who simply gets up and carries on when even your average super-hero would call it a day.

The plot is updated and centres on cyber-terrorism meted out in revenge by a former government security programmer Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) who has been shunned by his former employer. The plot is quite simple - a 'fire sale'. A three stage plan to shut down transport, communication and utilities that leave the country in chaos and black out - and all on the 4th of July. The narrative arc is provided by McClane's estranged daughter Lucy (May Elizabeth Winstead) who is reconciled to her hero-dad at the climax of the film. McClane also saves the nation and kills Gabriel - in the most bizarre of ways.

There are plenty of chases, shoot-outs, explosions, computer geek conversations and people simply refusing to die. Most of the film is set in Washington DC but it starts in New York and ends up in West Virginia. McClane's inventiveness reaches new heights as he takes out helicopters, trucks and the Air Force's lastest fighter jet.

I didn't find much cinematically to comment on and as regards the plot it's a bit thin but allows some engagement with moral questions over government power and it abuse, our reliance on a virtual world to run the real one and cyber terrorism. As I said, it does what it says on the tin. I wonder how many more the ageing Mr Willis can make? If you want an action movie that demands little form it's viewers then this is good - fire up the popcorn. I won't hurry to see number 5, although seeing Moscow get CGI trashed might be interesting. I'll give this 6/10. I was stuck in a hotel and this was the late night offering on TV - just about the right context to watch it in.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Harry Brown

Michael Caine was in his mid seventies when he made this and as possibly one of his last starring roles chooses to return to his roots. Caine's own humble origins find a resonance in the high-rise housing estate where the dignified and upright character Harry Brown lives in south London.

Harry's only child, a daughter, already lies buried in the cemetery. His wife lies in a catatonic state in hospital. Each day he washes his breakfast dishes, puts on his tie and jacket and walks to the hospital to visit. He then meets his friend Len for a game of chess in the local pub over a pint. That pattern seems to be the extent of Harry's life - a stark change from the days of active service he saw in the troubles of Northern Ireland as a Royal Marine Commando.

When Harry's wife dies, he stands on the precipice of emptiness. The local estate is controlled by drug-dealing yobs who traumatise the residents and who turn some parts of the estate into no-go areas. Len has been the target of the yobs for some time and he lives in fear of his life. He takes matters into his own hands and ends up dead. Harry has nothing but his dignity and justice left to live for as he tumbles over the precipice.

In a film that is strongly reminiscent of Gran Torino Harry Brown puts his quick mind and military training into practise. Rather than the leafy suburbs of Detroit, we get the concrete wasteland of Elephant and Castle - but the rest of the story is remarkable similar.

The trajectory of the narrative doesn't take much guesswork. The only twists are provided by the degree of inventiveness that Brown employs to deal with the thugs. As social commentary, it is a powerful indictment of inner-city community policing which can sometimes leave communities isolated and vulnerable. The predictability of the 'good cop' set against an ineffectual police force obsessed with its own vanity is provided by Emily Mortimer who plays DI Alice Frampton.

This is a bleak, violent and bloody film that will not be on the list of the London Tourist Office. Its warmth comes from the characters of Brown and Frampton and its morality sees a higher justice engaging with the law of the street in a society that has been abandoned by the judiciary. Is vigilante law enforcement ever a good thing or does it signal the breakdown of law and order, civilisation and democracy?

The acting all-round is strong. The way the film is lit and shot maximises the dark grittiness of the bleak urban landscape. Brown's loving kindness shows itself as he tends the graves of his wife and daughter and in being the only mourner at Len's funeral. This contrasts tangentially with his cold professional and detached ability to despatch thugs with seemingly no remorse. His efforts frustrated only by the frailties of his ageing body and emphysema. The twist at the end of the film takes him back to his tours of duty in Ulster.

The ever-changing way in which statistics on crime are gathered and presented make it difficult to gauge whether or not the kind of lawlessness depicted in this film is still with us. I suspect that in pockets it sadly is. The film presents a significant challenge to explore how communities drift into this kind of situation and how the police and the courts are seemingly powerless to do anything about it. When this kind of scenario unfolds, it is not surprising that vigilantes emerge - but is their form of 'justice' any more welcome than the inactivity of the police? My sense of justice screams out for it - but two wrongs can never make a right and it seems to me that this is another in a growing list of films that appeal to utility for the means to justify the end. For me, that is a dangerous direction in which to be heading. We need to be careful about our understanding of how art can reflect and at the same time shape society. Would you like Harry Brown living next door to you?

If you want to see an English film about thugs 'getting what they deserve' with some very good acting and action, then this is a film for you - enjoy if you can. If you want to see a film that invites debate about how we police our communities and how law and order could work more effectively, then this will offer fertile ground. Or, if you simply want to enjoy a performance from one of cinema's true greats, this will not disappoint. I'll give it 8/10.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Silver Linings Playbook (Take #2)

I saw and reviewed this film a couple of weeks ago here. It made such an impact on me that when my local art-house cinema (Harbour Lights - Southampton) screened it last night, I dragged my significant other along to watch. A good move. As the film has long finished in the cinema and has been out on disc for a while, please forgive me if I discuss some aspects of the plot. If you don't want to know - stop reading here!

It's rare for me to re-watch a film so soon after a first viewing, but this was still very fresh in my mind and I wanted to know if I could see anything more in it second time around. In terms of plot and story development there wasn't much that was new. However, the characters made a stronger impact on me -particularly Pat (Bradley Cooper), Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) and Pat Senior (Robert De Niro). The energy and power with which Cooper delivers bi-polar Pat is captivating. The blend of in-your-face independent minx and vulnerable grieving widow that Lawrence moves between is entrancing. First time around the influence of De Niro's character had not made the same impact on me but this time it is clear that each successive male generation in the Solatano family ensured the family weaknesses were passed on and possibly even amplified. Hence Pat Junior's predisposition to the illness he suffered from.

What struck me even more this time around was how much this is a film about loss. Pat Junior has lost his job, house, mental health and wife. Pat Senior has lost his job and his pension - and his youngest son to mental illness. Tiffany has lost the love of her life and her self-respect. Ronnie has lost the fire in his marriage and a healthy perspective on his business. Danny has lost his freedom to mental illness. Nikki has lost her husband to mental illness and her marriage is unlikely to recover.

Some things received a positive exploration, such as the role of home as a sanctuary and place of acceptance - both Pat Junior's and Tiffany's parents (particularly Pat's mother) doing their utmost to hold their child lovingly and provide some degree of stability within a loving context. Another area to receive positive treatment was the importance of truth. Pat Junior confessed that he couldn't filter his thoughts before he spoke them and Tiffany was so direct and straight, she was at times frightening - but at the same time equally refreshing. You always knew where you were with Tiffany as she had developed the ability to reflect deeply on her feelings and relate them to her experience and thereby to grow in her ability to understand both herself and others. It is the character of Tiffany that drives the narrative towards its conclusion and provides the energy to empower change in the lives of those she touches.

Although the ending is a little Hollywood-sugary, I liked the fact that it wasn't predictable and had a couple of twists. I also liked the fact that a character who is central to the story throughout the film doesn't actually appear until the end. I would like to ask everyone who has seen the film to write down exactly what it is they think Pat whispered to Nikki at the end. What was it that he said so appropriately that allowed closure of one chapter the beginning of another?

For me this was even better second time around and it is clear to see why the 22 year-old Jennifer Lawrence was awarded an Oscar. It is refreshing to see a film with no car chases, explosions or shoot outs and minimal violence. The violence that does occur is located realistically within its context in the narrative. This is a plot and character driven film - and an excellent one at that. One to add to the list of films to use with groups to explore feelings, emotions, relationships and what it means to be family. I'm going to upgrade my original score and award it 8.5/10. Do get the disc and watch if you've not seen it - or see it again if you have. It will repay a second viewing.