Wednesday, 27 November 2013

some new releases worth looking out for

These release dates relate to the UK - apologies to the rest of the world.

In two days time we have the general release of Saving Mr Banks - a must-see film even if you're not a fan of disney films.

Inside Llewelyn Davis

Here is new offering the Coen brothers due out on 24 January. It follows a week in the life of an a singer/song-writer struggling to make his way in Greenwich Village ,New York in 1961. It's attracting great reviews and a high score on IMDb and other review sites.

The Book Thief

Set in Nazi Germany, a young girl is intrigued by what is so special about books that the Nazi's burn them. She bravely retrieves a book that survives the bonfire and begins to read - her imagination does the rest.  This looks like another strong film and is already attracting a strong showing on IMDb. Out on 31 January 2014.

12 Years a Slave

Latest offering from Director Steve McQueen is released on 10 January and explores the issue of America's history with slavery. Promises to be good.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

I'm not a fan of Ben Stiller - I feel he only ever really plays himself - but from the trailer and reading up about this one, it seems that in this case it might just be appropriate! You can catch it from Boxing Day.

Dallas Buyers Club

This film stars Matthew McConaughey and explores the AIDS crisis in the late 1980's. Based on a true story, this film presents a sadly familiar story with a different twist. Due for release 07 Feb 2014.

Other possible films to look out for are:

  • Jeune & Jolie 29 November
  • The Railway Man 01 January 2014
  • All is Lost 26 December 2013
  • The Wolf of Wall Street 17 January 2014
One to avoid .... Anchorman 2!

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Saving Mr Banks

I had seen the trailer for this film a number of times - but I still wasn't sure what to expect. I managed to catch it today at a members' free preview screening  from those very nice people at Harbour Lights in Southampton. Thank you Picturehouse. The 'heavy' in the suit demanding that all punters turned off their phones on entering the auditorium was an unwelcome encounter. If it becomes a regular feature, I will review my membership!

The premise of this film is simple. A rigid and pompous P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of Mary Poppins has been wooed by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for 20 years as he attempts to secure the film rights to the story. Travers fears the Disneyfication of her beloved Mary Poppins - a descent into trivialisation where the characters would have the resolve of candy floss. After all, Mary Poppins is 'family'. The gulf between Disney and Travers is wider than simply the Atlantic Ocean. However, Travers' has fallen on hard times and is in desperate need of the money the project will generate. Reluctantly she agrees to visit Disney in Hollywood to work on a script - flying First Class and staying at the Beverly Hills Hilton does nothing to soften here strident tone and overbearing demeanour.

Demanding complete control over the script, fighting the notion that this would be a musical and presenting Disney with a long list of requirements such as, no facial hair, no animation, no Americanisms, no Dick van Dyke, Travers manages to alienate everyone she meets in California - but at the same time intrigues them with her so over-the-top Britishness that they all find so appealing. This is a film of contradictions that hold each other in creative tension to produce a truly wonderful piece of drama that will scale the heights and plumb the depths of human experience and emotion. I cannot remember the last time I cried so much at the cinema - and this is largely a comedy! That said, this film engages deeply with themes of loss, anger, regret, forgiveness and transformation - all ripe for theological reflection. As the film unfolds, so the reason for each of Travers' seemingly unreasonable demands becomes clear.

A Disney Pictures film about Walt Disney does appear on first inspection to be more than a little incestuous. This need not concern the viewer as this, one of the many seeming contradictions, is dealt with in a very open and even-handed way. The film was shot largely at Universal Studios in Hollywood - even the parts set in London and Australia. The art of illusion remains alive and well in Disneyland.

As well as charting the difficult relationship between Travers and Disney, the film also unearths in a series of flashbacks, Travers' own childhood in Australia and the family set up that gave rise to the creation of Mary Poppins. The editing of this film is done beautifully as different parts of the script enrapture Travers, so we are transported back to the childhood setting that gave rise to that particular part of the Mary Poppins story. In beautiful back-lit golden soft focus, the flashbacks are more schmaltzy Little House on the Prairie than anything else, but the big dollops of melancholy don't come over as being as sugary sweet as they might at first seem to want to be. It is only as Travers reaches back into her own childhood that Disney begins to glimpse the true meaning behind Mary Poppins. The screenplay and acting in this film strike a wonderful balance that mitigates against the temptation towards needless sentimentality. Hanks and Thompson deliver performances worthy of Oscar nominations - but then so do the rest of the cast - particularly Paul Giamatti as Ralph the chauffeur and Colin Farrell as Travers' father.

At just over two hours long I found this to be an engaging, entertaining, educational but also an emotionally demanding film. It was excellent. With a PG certification I'm sure it will do very well over the run up to Christmas and the holiday season. Can you remember where and when you first saw Mary Poppins? I can, it was on it's initial release at the Odeon in Bristol in 1964. It would undoubtedly help to have seen Mary Poppins before viewing this film - but not essential. I'd like to see Saving Mr Banks again - it is thoroughly enjoyable and very entertaining. Sounds just like a Disney film! I'll give it 9/10.

Friday, 22 November 2013

The Counsellor

Take five of Hollywood's most beautiful A-listers, add a dynamic and complex script, motives of greed and power which are pursued with ruthlessness and you get a fast moving, violent and engaging film about drug supply in the USA. Well, that's the glossy veneer that the eyes see - but if you look a little more deeply and listen with greater intent you find a film that explores the relentless logic of the consequences of the choices that are made.

Directed by Ridley Scott and written by Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men, The Road) this was always going to be a beautifully made and intellectually engaging film. In some ways it is quite similar to No Country as its pretext is a Tex-Mex drug deal involving a Mexican cartel shipping a consignment of cocaine from Colombia to Chicago in a tanker full of sewage. All pretty routine.

The central character, The Counsellor (Michael Fassbender) is a lawyer who decides to try and make a lot of money very quickly by underwriting a shipment of drugs. All of his associates tell him to be very careful as the cartels don't mess around. His naivety - especially in seeing business partners as friends - leaves him exposed, weak and vulnerable. Of course, things do not go to plan and the cartel exact revenge on those they think responsible.

The two female characters Laura (Penélope Cruz) and Malkina (Cameron Diaz) are presented as stunning beauties but in every other respect could not be more different. This is the first time I have seen Diaz play a character who is utterly frightening, ruthless and will stop at nothing to ensure she gets her way. Irrational, clever, manipulative, sadistic and gluttonous, she wants it all - now! Cruz' character on the other hand is gentle and innocent - way in over her pretty head.The other two leads are Reiner played by Javier Bardem and Westray played by Brad Pitt. Bardem is utterly compelling and Pitt seems to play himself but on a bad day.

Viewers will need to pay attention to the dialogue as little clues are dispensed in throw-away lines that later take on an importance that their original context failed to register. Early on in the film a new assassination device is described and I spent the whole film waiting to see if it would be deployed - I was not disappointed. As far as I recall, none of the characters are ever depicted 'doing drugs' - alcohol, seems to be the drug of choice - but usually in a cocktail glass unless it is a piece of blatant product placement.

There is no doubt that this is a clever and extremely well-made film. Did I enjoy watching it? Enjoy is not the word I would use - I'd be more likely to speak well of its intellectual engagement. Whether you choose to see it as a morality tale or an essay on existential philosophy, my guess is that some viewers will see and take from the film those things they choose to be impacted by. For others it will simply be an action film with pretty people and fast cars. I wonder if it tries to be a little too clever. It's not one I would hurry to see again or add to my disc collection when released. Having said that, some of the film's visual and aural images will stay with me for a long time! I'll give it 7/10.

Saturday, 16 November 2013


From the trailers and hype the story line of this film is already out there - we know it's about stranded astronauts and the question is, will they get home. Well I'm not going to spoil that for you - you will have to go and see it for yourself. What is remarkable about this film is the cinematography - that and the fact that there are only two characters (and four voices). Filmed at Shepperton Studios in the UK using a room whose walls serve as massive LED screens and using gyros and gimbals to give the appearance of weightlessness, this film advances cinematic technology in a similar way to the innovations we saw in The Matrix trilogy. The visual effect is as though you are there with them floating and tumbling through space - more of a documentary feel with long single takes that travel long distances.

The two characters are Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) a medical doctor on her first space trip and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) on his last trip before retirement. They end up stranded in their space suits after a space walk goes horribly wrong. At one point they are tethered together and the tag line 'don't let go' becomes the golden rule as they seek solutions to their problem.

The film raises a  number of issues - the most immediate one being the legacy of space junk and the unintended consequences of simply abandoning it when no longer useful. It also shows the increasingly international nature of space exploration with the Americans, Russians and Chinese all featuring which leads at one point to the wonderful line delivered by Stone 'No hablo Chino!".

As much as the story is about the physical safety of 'not letting go' it is also the emotional safety of having to let go. Stone is carrying a great weight within her psyche - something she has not been able to put down. As the film progresses, the seriousness of their situation encourages the two characters to engage in some metaphysical dialogue as they explore the meaning of their existence. For me this is the real nub of the film and provides the icing on the cake. Stone delivers a wonderful monologue in which she rehearses the 'I know we all have to die at some point - but like this, not today' argument. She questions the meaning of life and the importance of leaving a legacy and draws inner strength from a renewed sense of purpose. I wonder if viewers of this film will allow themselves the indulgence of asking such questions of themselves?

Whilst the visuals of this film are stunning - and yes I did, after the unlikely encouragement of Dr Kermode, shell out to see the 3D version - the big question is, with only two characters can the film sustain sufficient movement, interest and anticipation for its 91 minute runtime? The answer is a resounding 'yes'! The pace is relentless and I left the film with my veins full of adrenalin!! One of the voices that we hear in the film is that of the NASA Mission Controller - played by Ed Harris, a nice homage to Apollo 13 and The Truman Show two films in which he stars and which are about a space disaster and the quest to discover the meaning of existence.

The visuals in this film alone make it worth going to see. The acting from Bullock is immense and Clooney almost plays himself - something he is becoming increasingly good at doing. The estimated $100m production costs has been more than doubly recouped in US box office takings alone in its first six weeks since release - this film will repay Warner Brothers investment and faith in Director Alfonso Cuarón many times over. The project was four years in the making and Warner Bros apparently didn't see a single frame in the film until a few months before release.

As you may imagine, I rather liked it - and like the good Dr would recommend the 3D experience - it would be even more immersive in IMAX I would imagine. Do go and see it - no matter how big your TV is this will never be quite the same unless you view it in the cinema. For innovation, acting, conceptualisation and the ability to consistently sustain tension, I'll give it 9/10!

Tuesday, 5 November 2013


If ever a role was written for an actor it is this title role and Dame Judy Dench. She makes it her own and is completely compelling. This film will tug at the heart strings - and make you laugh. It is is a film about love, grace, evil and hope. It would too easy and too simplistic to develop ideas that stereotype the main players in this tale - again based on a real story. We need to deal with the reality of what the film presents rather than take pops at the main baddies in the story - religion, nuns and the Catholic Church. We also need to remember that it begins in the early 1950's - a very different world to the one we live in today. Philomena is at one and the same time both a simple and yet immensely complex character. Dench effortlessly brings great depth and subtlety to the role.

The trailer and hype surrounding this film have already disclosed the plot so there really is nothing to spoil. That in no way diminishes the emotional weight of the film neither does it obscure Dench's performance. This film is so worth seeing - we need to collectively stand in Philomena's pain and the pain of thousands like her around the world. (Not all by any means, victims of Catholic nuns!) Illegitimate children and their young mothers were taken in by convents in exchange for manual labour - a modern-day workhouse. Mothers were allowed one hour's contact with their child each day. The babies were 'sold' to those who could afford them and adopted - quite often to Americans. This is what happened to Philomena's son Anthony.

The Central Statistics Office of Ireland has revealed that in 2012 36.5% of babies were born outside marriage. Clearly things have moved on in the last 60 years. Irish society was firmly in the grip of a certain kind of Catholic dogma and the Church held that sex outside marriage was a sin. The nuns saw it as a spiritual kindness to offer the girls and their children a future they would not have otherwise had. The way in which they ran the convent workhouses and piled guilt and scorn on the heads of these young women is repugnant in the extreme. That it was done in the name of God and love, for me only adds to the abhorrence I felt watching the story. That the nuns then tried to make it impossible for mothers to track their children or even worse vice-a-versa simply heaps even more deplorable behaviour on this sorry tale.

Throughout her life Philomena remains devout. She is on one hand lacking in sophistication and simple yet on the other very shrewd when she wants to be. She is undemanding, a good mother to the family she raised after leaving the convent and able to appreciate and enjoy the novelty of luxury when she encounters it.

The other main character is the former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith played by Steve Coogan who also co-wrote the screenplay. I must confess to not being a fan of Alan Partridge (Coogan's alter ego comedy character from TV) and each time I see him (including in What Maisie Knew) I can't get past Partridge to the character he is playing. He makes Sixsmith veer between being self-obsessed and objectionable, to being compassionate and a crusader for truth. This sets up an interesting relationship between Philomena and Sixsmith as they track down Anthony.

As I said, this film will evoke a range of emotional responses from viewers. Whilst Sixsmith is not afraid to voice his judgement on what has happened Philomena offers a different response. For 50 years she kept her secret and once she had revealed it, it took on a life and energy of its own that gives the film its gripping story. Of course we all want to know what happened to Anthony and whether or not they will be reunited. We all know that the story will not be straightforward and that there will be twists and turns. The story, based on Sixsmith's book of the account, does not disappoint.

We are all of us complex creatures with needs we know of and satisfy, needs we know of and hide and needs that remain unknown yet exert an influence on our behaviour and longings. Actions have consequences and whether it being 'taking down your knickers' or disclosing that you have a long lost son to his half-sister, moments of revelation and discovery can generate unforeseen outcomes that have a tangle of both good and bad that seem inseparable. The point in the film where Philomena recalls the moment of passion amongst the straw at the fair is pure poetry and she seems not to regret it for one moment.

The story is driven by love - and not just Philomena's. The evil is evident in the convent and most of the nuns who populated it then - and now and who collude with obfuscating the truth. What shone through for me was that in her simple understanding of faith and who God was and is, that Philomena was able to act with grace and maintain her own integrity without diminishing her view of herself. This primarily is a story about grace. I saw it at Harbour Lights on Sunday and the folk there said that it was 'going mental' with huge turn-outs to view it. Go and join the throng - you won't be disappointed. I'll give it 8.5/10.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Captain Phillips

Can a film sustain an even pace and then build to a climax after 2 hours and 15 minutes? Yes it can. Director Paul Greengrass delivers a tale of high drama set on the seas off the Horn of Africa that trades in the currency of the disparity between this world's haves and the have-nots.

I'm not giving anything away I hope when I say the story-line is straightforward and 'based on' a true story of Somali pirates hijacking a Maersk container ship en-route from Oman to Mombasa. The title character commands the container ship and is played by Tom Hanks who delivers one of his best performances in years. The central axis of the story is the relationship between Phillips and the leader of the pirates Muse (Barkhad Abdi).

The film gives a little insight into the anarchy that rules Somalia and the demands of the Warlords on former fishing communities for their young men to turn to piracy and deliver multi-million dollar ransoms back to the Warlords. The gulf between the size and technology of the pirates boats in comparison to the container ship could hardly be wider. The anarchic pirates living in huts in the dunes with few possessions contrast garishly with the ordered opulence and automation of the container ship and its cargo of luxury consumer goods. Fuelled by khat (a stimulant drug derived from a shrub) and adrenalin, the pirates shoot and force their way aboard waving their AK-47s at anything that moves.

The screenplay explores the tensions between the thoughtful and quiet family man of Phillips and the excitable and apparently greed motivated pirates. However, the character of Muse shows an awareness of his situation and he repeatedly articulates the desire to make enough money to travel to the USA. He should be careful of what he wishes for. In typical hostage-drama style, the film documents the strain and fickle nature of the relationship between captors and captive. Phillips cleverly tries to win the sympathy and trust of some of his captors whilst setting others against one another.

I remember this story in the news when it happened and that it was brought to end by American military intervention. A further gulf between the resources of the pirates and the captive's homeland is demonstrated by the range of craft, technology and special forces that are deployed to bring the drama to its climax.

I was left feeling very uneasy about the professionalism with which the US military went about its business - for them, just another day at the office. I guess that's how it has to be but I'm not sure that I feel okay about such people protecting my best interests so anonymously, vicariously and without any form of consultation with me. Perhaps I am simply naive. Along with Zero Dark Thirty this is another film that shows the USA's self-appointed role as world policeman where no territory or target is off-limits. I am not advocating a world ruled by anarchic Warlords or holding out for some utopian neverneverland. It is clear that the world-order is going through a period of realignment in these present decades. How much longer the USA will be allowed to act at will around the world is becoming a moot point - especially in the wake of the damaging wikileaks revelations that seem to have no end. What would be worse I fear, would be for the USA to return to isolationism and have no dialogue at all with other nations. No-one ever said global politics was an easy place to inhabit whilst maintaining integrity.

Although I would have liked more backstory on why the Somalis exchanged fishing for piracy - a chance to enter into their world a little more sympathetically - I'm sure Captain Phillips has had his fill of Somalis and seen enough. As a film I felt it was well paced and maintained an excellent level of tension throughout. The acting - especially from the two leads is top class and worthy of Oscar nomination. Am I happy that people like Captain Phillips and his crew put their lives in danger simply to transport my consumer goods to me - no! Education must be the first step on a road to an alternative scenario and perhaps this film will inspire some to begin that journey - let's hope so. I'll give this film 8/10.