Coming Soon: 2017 Preview

Given the plethora of superhero movies dominating cinema schedules over the next few months, one person not heading to his nearest multiplex is director Ridley Scott. Scott recently complained about the excess of such movies saying he “can’t believe in the thin, gossamer tightrope of the non-reality of the situation of the superhero.” Already underway is the assault on cinema screens by all kinds of superheroes and vigilantes.

Assassin’s Creed opened New Year’s Day, visualising the popular computer game on the big screen. Michael Fassbender stars as Callum Lynch whose memories are unlocked enabling him to experience the adventures of his ancestor’s as he travels through time and space. The next installment of the Underworld franchise Underworld: Blood Wars, is released on 13 January with Vampire death dealer Selene fighting off adversaries on all sides. Xander Cage returns a week later (I wasn’t aware he’d gone away!) in the appropriately titled xXx: The Return of Xander Cage and stars Samuel L. Jackson. The onslaught doesn’t give up in February as we ask will it really be the final chapter for Resident Evil as Alice (Mila Jovovich) makes a final stand against the undead. Hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) returns in the imaginatively titled  John Wick: Chapter 2 on 17 February soon to be followed by X-Men spin-off Logan (Hugh Jackman) on 3 March. As if that wasn’t enough five ordinary teens band together as the Power Rangers to fight off an alien threat to obliterate earth on 24 March. With Trump in the White House many will hope they don’t succeed!

For cinema goers like Scott, who prefer narratives based on reality and would rather be submerged in a vat of flesh-eating popcorn than watch any of the above – don’t despair. A stimulating alternative is available so, while Callum Lynch explores his family tree on one screen, in a parallel universe not too far away Martin Scorcese’s latest movie showing. Silence is the epic adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel in which two catholic missionaries (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) go in search of their mentor (Liam Neeson), lost in Japan at a time when christianity and their presence is forbidden. While some applaud this as a masterpiece other viewers claim it slow and over-indulgent.

Should you prefer movies based on actual events then three very different movies open in January. The overly sentimental Lion tells of five year old Saroo who gets lost on a train travelling across India and is separated from his family by thousands of miles. Saroo survives alone in Kolkato before being adopted by an Australian couple. Now 30 years old, Saroo (Dev Patel) sets out to find his long lost family. Hankies at the ready.

In contrast, Natalie Portman stars as the iconic Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy in Jackie. This is Pablo Larrain’s first english-language film and is an intimate portrayal of the first lady following the assassination of her husband, President John F Kennedy. With its focus firmly on the first lady it will be interesting to see how this compares to Parkland (2013) and Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). Elsewhere Director Mel Gibson focuses on WWII with his latest movie Hacksaw Ridge, released late January.  This is the incredible true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), an army medic who believed war was justified but also held the belief that killing was wrong. Doss, during one of the bloodiest battles of the war, saved 75 men without shooting or carrying a gun and was the only American soldier to fight on the front line without a weapon. Truly inspiring.

Chinese director Zhang Yimou, whose breathtaking visual style was seen in his earlier films Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, Curse of the Golden Flower, tells the story of an elite squad battling for humanity along China’s most iconic structure – The Great Wall. The first english-language movie for Yimou stars Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal and Willem Dafoe and is due for release mid-February. Also scheduled for release just prior to Valentine’s Day is the Jamie Dornan/Dakota Johnson sequel Fifty Shades Darker in which shadowy figures emerge from Christian Grey’s past to destroy the couple’s happy future. The original cast from Fifty Shades of Grey are joined by Oscar winner Kim Basinger and James Foley.

Renton, Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie return in Danny Boyle’s much anticipated sequel T2: Trainspotting late January. The original cast (Ewan MacGregor, Ewen Bremner, Johnny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle) reunite for Renton’s homecoming twenty years later. A forced homecoming is the subject of Kenneth Lonergan’s acclaimed new drama Manchester by the Sea. Lee (Casey Affleck) discovers his lifestyle suddenly ruptured by the death of his brother, Joe. Returning home he is faced by his estranged wife (Michelle Williams) and the discovery that Joe has made him guardian of his teenage son.

Without doubt the movie of the moment, with numerous Golden Globe awards and BAFTA nominations, is the Ryan Gosling/Emma Stone musical rom-com La La Land.  With it’s exuberant song and dance journey through the love affair between a wannabe actress and a jazz pianist, La La Land is a paean to the glory days of the  movie musical and the golden age of Hollywood. This is Hollywood escapism, fuelled by young love, hope and dreams and with an all-singing and dancing Gosling and Stone – what more could you ask for?

If nothing here rocks your boat then fall back on two re-released classics from Marty ‘the Master’ Scorcese. Gangster classic Goodfellas returns to cinemas in a 4D print on 20 January followed by ‘You lookin’ at Me?’ Taxi Driver on 10 February.

La La Land re-engages audiences with musicals, romance and the golden age of cinema. It is obviously too early to say if it will be regarded a classic by future generations, a point I raise to highlight the enduring appeal of the musical. In 1952 MGM released Singin’ In The Rain starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’ Connor and newcomer Debbie Reynolds. No one could have imagined that over five decades later Singin’ In the Rain would be regarded as one of the greatest musicals ever made. Much of the films appeal was the effervescent performance by a 19-year old girl who would become one of Hollywood’s much loved stars. The poignant loss of actress Debbie Reynolds on December 28, 2016 was all the more tragic in that her death occurred the day after her daughter Carrie Fisher, known by millions of Star Wars fans as Princess Leia. Throughout 2016 we lost many beloved entertainers of stage and screen but their artistry and unique talents will be remembered in the incredibly talented body of work they leave behind.

I’m sure there will be much to enjoy during 2017. Enjoy whatever you do, whether it be watching movies, concerts or television.

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Sully: Miracle on the Hudson | Snowden

Sully: Miracle on the Hudson
Directed by Clint Eastwood; stars Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Valerie Mahaffey, Mike O’Malley. 96 minutes

Two films, currently in cinemas, focus on the David and Goliath battle between the individual and corporate institutions. Many will remember the unbelievable landing of a US passenger aircraft on the Hudson River in 2009. The plane suffered a catastrophic bird strike that destroyed both engines forcing Captain Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger to take the decision to land on water rather than attempt a return to La Guardia airport. This was a risky decision as, informs the tower controller, water landing are always fatal. Miraculously Sully manages to land the plane with no loss of life to the passengers or cabin crew, the only fatality being the aircraft itself, the damage of which concentrates the subsequent investigation. While the world media proclaim Sully a hero, air crash investigators are determined to prove culpability through human error, interrogating both Sully and co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, over the days following the incident.

Throughout this time Sully is haunted by visions of what might have been, seeing his aircraft plough from the sky into highly populated tower blocks – visions reminiscent of 9/11. Director Clint Eastwood handles these nightmare scenarios well while allowing his actors scope to interpret their responses. As an actor/director Eastwood has the insight to enable the actor to inhabit the moment and possesses the intuition to know when a scene is right. Hanks stated when interviewed that the director would let them do a scene several times then, when he knew he had what he wanted, calmly told them ‘ok, that’s it’. This semi-relaxed attitude shows in the engaged performances from lead actors Tom Hanks as Sully and Aaron Eckbert as co-pilot, Skiles who bring plausibility and depth to their characters predicament. Ever since Cast Away (2000) ‘Mr Everyman’ Hanks has redefined the individual facing devastating loss or adversity in films such as The Terminal (2004), Captain Philips (2013) and Bridge of Spies (2015).

The one person who fails to acknowledge the precariousness of Sully’s situation is his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) who comes across as neurotic and a little clueless. This, we are led to understand, has to do with the fractious state of the Sullenberger’s finances. Lorraine’s main concern is that Sully retain his pilot’s licence and associated income. We are not made aware as to why their finances are in such a perilous state but are able to appreciate the strength of their relationship from Sully’s over-protection of his wife.

Through it all Sully has to remain strong in an effort to prove his instincts led to the appropriate course of action. Throughout the NTSB enquiry, where the committee insist the plane could have landed back at LaGuardia, Sully and Skiles realise the goal is to find human error and a scapegoat.

This is expert filmaking that engages the audience. One of the best examples of the duality between hero worship and intense scrutiny. The real life Captain Sullenberger is seen at the end of the movie with the passengers of US Airways Flight 1549 at a reunion.

Snowden
Directed by Oliver Stone; stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley,  Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Rhys Ifans, Tom Wilkinson, Joely Richardson. 134 minutes

A fractious relationship lies at the heart of Snowden, Oliver Stone’s politically-charged biopic of hacker Edward Snowden. Snowden achieved notoriety after leaking thousands of US government documents to the media that detailed covert intrusion of privacy on US citizens, intelligence gathering across the globe and the hacking of political leaders mobile phones. Snowden was branded a traitor and enemy of the United States and forced to seek asylum in Russia, where he currently lives. While his was a dangerous flight from US justice Snowden’s escape is almost a footnote in Stone’s masterly film. Stone, more an investigative filmmaker than a purveyor of drama, digs behind the headlines and the sensationalism of Snowden’s deceit to examine the man and his motives, similar to his 2008 biopic of George W. Bush – W (pronounced ‘Dubya’).

Snowden’s story is told in flashback, beginning in a small Berlin hotel room where he meets with journalists and a documentary film maker Laura Poitras to hand over encripted data files for publication. From here we revisit his failed military career, his advance into the CIA and relationship with Lindsay Mills. It is this fractious relationship that anchors the drama and Stone uses this domestic setting as dramatic interludes to the more technical explainations as to where and how US Government covert surveylance was being undertaken. That’s not to say this is too technical to understand as Stone cleverly uses question and answer sessions between Snowden and his compatriots to explain what is going on. As always with Stone’s films this is one you have to pay attention to so as to understand the nuances of what is happening.

American actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays anti-hero Snowden with such natural flair and intensity that it almost feels as if watching the actual man on-screen. His portrayal is so accurate that, following the premiere, Snowden’s parents told the actor they felt as if they were watching their son on screen. Shailene Woodley, who gave such an impressive performance in The Fault in Our Stars, here again impresses as Snowden’s long-suffering girlfriend. There are effective cameos from Nicolas Cage, Tom Wilkinson and Joely Richardson with the real Edward Snowden appearing at the end of the movie.

What is so effective with Stone’s film is that it lays bare the extent of government surveillance in a way that news reports of the day failed to do. It informs on how and by what methods ordinary citizens are monitored and watched every day – either through social media, mobile phones or secretly activated webcams and microphones on ‘idle’ laptops and computers. Even if, like me, you feel you have nothing to hide it will still leave you edgy as you leave the cinema. Snowden viewed his behaviour as morally justified and received no monetary gain from his actions. Whatever your view Stone’s film lays bare the injustice of his expulsion from his family and country for highlighting illegal surveillance by one of the world’s most powerful institutions.

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Nocturnal Animals

Director: Tom Ford; stars Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron-Taylor Johnson, Isla Fisher. Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough.  99 minutes.

It has been six-years since Tom Ford directorial debut with his acclaimed first-feature A Single Man. It has been a long wait but his second feature Nocturnal Animals opened in UK cinemas last week and is a well-constructed, stylish yet brutal thriller. Art gallery owner Susan Morrow receives the draft of a novel written by her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield. Susan finds the novel both compelling and disturbing upon realising the narrative metaphorical of her relationship with Edward.

Ford’s flamboyant creativity is evident from the nauseatingly grotesque opening scene in which two excessively obese podium dancers gyrate in front of an invited audience, their flabby skin bouncing in all directions. One wonders whether this is a statement on waif-like fashion models or the imminent danger of overindulgence as the camera pulls back to reveal four motionless bodies laid face-down on marble slabs – the projected images around them an art exhibit in Susan’s gallery. Things are not what they seem is recurrent theme throughout the movie that skilfully weaves three interconnecting narratives – Susan’s dysfunctional marriage, the novels fictional narrative and Susan’s relationship with Edward.

The clinical, stylish interiors of Susan’s world is in stark contrast to the brutish, dust-infused outback where Tony’s family are terrorised. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey drenches the rustic outdoor scenes in a sepia haze whilst infusing the extravagant city interiors with cold, impersonal detached isolation. The occupants of these living spaces, as opposed to those in Tony’s novel, do not appear to live but merely exist, albeit with an extravagant view of the Los Angeles cityscape.

Closeted in her splendid isolation Susan receives the draft of Edward’s novel, Nocturnal Animals, and becomes engrossed in Edward’s words, eliciting a duplicitous meaning from the story. The novel’s anti-hero, Tony Hastings, is incapable of stopping the abduction of his wife and daughter, constantly having his masculinity questioned as to his inability to protect his family. Jake Gyllenhaal, in a dual role as both the Tony and Edward, is called upon to emit conflicting emotions that the actors achieves faultlessly. In contrast to Tony/Edward is the larger than life detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) whose virility overshadows Tony. Amy Adams gives a sensitive, nuanced performance as Susan, a woman battling with her inner demons whose emotion hides beneath the surface. This is a role that demands the actor express the deep and painful feelings through looks and movement rather than verbally, which Adams pulls off well. Laura Linney is a joy to watch as Susan’s rigid, ice-cold mother that she plays thoroughly inhabits.

Ford, who adapted the screenplay from Austin Wright’s novel ‘Tony and Susan’, creates a compelling drama that skillfully interweaves the fictional narrative of Edward’s novel with the background of their relationship and Susan’s current predicament. It is a multi-layered drama in which not all is as it seems with meaning behind every image. The cracked screen of Isla’s mobile phone not only shows the fractious state of Susan’s marriage to Hutton but also hides a much darker secret. It is a movie that leaves you with many questions the answers to which, on reflection,  are plain to see. “Nobody get’s away with what you did. Nobody!”

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Julieta

Director: Pedro Almodovar; stars Emma Suarez, Daniel Grao, Inma Cuesta, Adriana Ugarte, Rossy de Palma, Dario Grandinetti.  99 minutes.

Julieta marks Almodovar’s second decade directing feature films. Coincidentally it is also his 20th feature film. Julieta is in sharp contrast to the high-flying camp comedy I’m So Excited (Los amantes pasajeros) released in 2013. This comedy was Almodovar trying to be his old cheerful, over-the-top, dirty-minded self – the narrative littered with sex, drugs and inuendo. It is a throwback to his earlier outrageous, black comedies and sits uncomfortably within the directors recent oeuvre during which the director crafted his finest work that includes  All About My Mother (1999), Volver (2006) and Talk To Her (2002).

Julieta is Almodovar back on top form with a narrative as nuanced and complex as any Hitchcock drama. Julieta is arranging to leave Spain with her partner Lorenzo who is unaware of the split between Julieta and her daughter, Antia, twelve years earlier, during which time Julieta has had no contact or knowledge of her daughter’s whereabouts. By accident she encounters Bea, who was her daughter’s best friend and who informs Julieta of her recent encounter with Antia. Thrown into despair Julieta cancels her plans to leave with Lorenzo and moves back to her old apartment in the hope that her daughter will return. By day Julieta scours the streets of Madrid, while in her apartment she writes a letter to Antia, explaining events that lead to their separation.

Exploring complex issues of estrangement, grief and loss Julieta is comparable to Talk to Her and Volver, with the narrative firmly focused on Julieta’s journey. While there are several amusing moments this is drama and not comedy with illness and death affecting several characters, so much so that I wondered whether the director is contemplating his own mortality!

As Julieta, Emma Suarez is remarkably nuanced and measured emoting the pain and fragility evident through her circumstances. Almodovar is a master at gaining extreme emotion from his actors. Julieta Serrano’s devastated scream at the end of Dark Habits (1993) echoes from the depths of her soul and has to be one of the most searing, gut-wrenching moments in cinema. Here it is as Julieta sees Lorenzo and staggers into the road, pain and desolation etched into her face. There is no sound, no scream but from her movement, her expression, her pain is evident in what is one of the most powerful scenes of the movie.

Almodovar ensures that the focus firmly remains on Julieta. There are no marginal characters such as Agrado (All About My Mother) to distract attention. That said he still explores issues of adolescent sexuality in relation to Antia and Bea and, as if wanting to add his trademark statement, has an androgenous male appear in one of the opening scenes – blink and you will miss him. This is a film during which the director utilises every moment of screen time. At no time does the action ease or the narrative lose focus. My only criticism is that once or twice the Julieta’s voiceover is too lengthy. Rather than allow dialogue between Julieta and Xoan during their train journey the director has Julieta recount their conversation.

Of the many actors and collaborators Almodovar has worked with over the years only two appear in Julieta, Rossy de Palma as housekeeper Marian and Dario Grandietti as Lorenzo. Gone are the talents of the wonderful Chus Lampreave who died earlier this year. Lola and Esther Garcia, long time assistant and producer to the director who have also appeared in other films, are here along with long-time composer Alberto Iglesias whose musical score, as in many Almodovar films, captures the mood and detail perfectly.

Cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu demonstrates a wonderful eye for detail both while panning around the streets of Madrid or capturing the intense beauty of the Andalucian landscape.

Julieta is a powerful drama full of depth and meaning. Gorgeous to look at, extremely moving and exhilarating it demonstrates that, now in his mid-sixties, the maetro is still at the top of his game. A five-star treat.

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Pedro Almodovar: Overview

Prolific director Pedro Almodovar was the enfant terrible of post-Franco Spain throughout the early 1980’s. The unconventional director produced an early body of work that  challenged the repression of the Franco era in its expression of sexual liberation, promiscuity and drug use, liberating a generation from under the repressed control of Catholicism.

While his inspiration and style came from Hollywood’s screwball comedies of the forties his themes engaged terrorism, self-mutilation, infidelity, murder and rape – issues still relevant 30 years later. As an openly gay director Almodovar did not shy away from depicting lesbian, transgender and gay characters on screen in his movies. These characters were not stereotypical but three-dimensional, flawed, emotionally challenged and, in many cases, criminal. During the early 1980’s Pedro was not only developing his personal style but also pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable on screen, depicting a spanish culture that many found embarrassing and controversial.

Many were shocked, but for his increasing number of fans it didn’t matter that, as in La ley del Deseo (Law of Desire, 1987), his main character was unmasked as a predatory murderer who happened to be gay. It was a relief at last to see gay men depicted on screen who were neither camp or effeminate, their sexuality being just a part of who they were.

It was Almodovar’s farcical comedy Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, 1988) that would garner the director worldwide recognition, especially in America, receiving the Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. The trajectory of his filmography incorporated the melodramatic with Tacones Lejanos (High Heels, 1991) and, one of his finest and most underrated movies,  La flor de mi Secreto (The Flower of My Secret, 1995) before moving on to more serious dramatic confines with the masterly, Oscar winning Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother, 1999) and Hable con Ella (Talk to Her, 2002).

Reuniting with Penelope Cruz on Volver (2006) cemented Pedro’s reputation as a director who could constantly surprise. Then the tone of his films changed. Pedro changed direction, showing his serious, sombre side with Broken Embraces (2009) and The Skin I Live In (2011). Unlike All About My Mother, neither had  the humour that interjected more serious issues of death and mortality – these films were much darker in tone, gone was the madcap humour of his earlier films.

Possibly Pedro thought this darkness too overwhelming and decided this wasn’t a road he wished to follow and so he returned to his trademark style of camp, overly-indulgent comedy first seen in Women on the VergeLos amantes pasajeros (I’m So Excited) (2013), re-embraced the effeminate, madcap, drug fuelled world of his earlier films. Unfortunately it was not only the aircraft that was doomed to crash land – Pedro served up an assembly of one-dimensional characters as appealing as an in-flight meal. The film received mixed reviews – Almodovar could have done better.

What is without doubt is that the director’s finest dramatic work can be seen in Volver (2006), Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother, 1999) and Hable con Ella (Talk to Her, 2002). The director’s latest film Julieta (2016), starring Adriana Ugarte,  Rossy de Palma and Emma Suárez draws from themes and situations evident in these earlier films. This, the director’s 20th film, was released in the UK on Friday. That said, given Almodovar’s skill and cult status as a filmmaker the release of any Almodovar film is more often viewed as an event.

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Money Monster

Money Monster (2016) on IMDb

Directed by Jodie Foster; stars Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Christopher Denham, Caitriona Balfe. Cert 15.  99 mins.

As director, Jodie Foster has had a rather patchy career that started with Little Man Tate in 1991. This was followed four years later with the comedy Home for the Holidays. Both films received mixed reviews and Foster’s skills as director faltered on several levels. Foster herself may have realised that, at this point in her career, directing was not her forte and subsequently waited 16 years before directing and starring alongside Mel Gibson in The Beaver. Dealing as it does with depression, not an easy subject to tackle, Foster maintains credibility and focus throughout, drawing a compelling, forceful performance from co-star Gibson. Alternating her acting roles Foster went on to direct one episode of Netflix political drama House of Cards and two episodes of Orange is the Only Black. 

In her fourth film as director Foster pulls out all the stops to deliver an engaging, well-crafted, tense thriller that deals with corrupt financial trading and how this affects investors. Money Monster is a TV show hosted by charismatic financial wizard Lee Gates (Clooney). Gates clowns around on set before dishing out investing tips to impressionable viewers eager to find the next big deal. When one of his tips goes bad, leading to the loss of $800m in one day, Lee insincerely jokes that some of his investors got their ‘asses-smacked’.

Cue down-on-his-luck Kyle Budwell (O’Connell) who gains access to the set and hijacks the show. Kyle, having lost his life savings investing in Gates dodgy deal, wants answers as to why the supposedly rock-solid deal went bad. Instructing Gates to wear a suicide vest Kyle airs his grievances live on air as producer Patty Fenn (Roberts) struggles to maintain control.

While Roberts and Clooney lead the movie it is an inspired choice to cast rising star Jack O’Connell as Kyle Budwell. Derby born O’Connell came to prominence as James Cook in TV series Skins which led to him being cast as a violent teenager moved to an adult prison in Starred Up proving his survival instincts. Surviving was the theme of his next movie ’71 where, as a young rookie soldier, he is deserted on the streets of war-torn Belfast. In both films O’Connell gives stand-out performances not to be misses and it was no surprise that the actor received the EE Rising Star award at the 2015 BAFTA ceremony.

O’Connell’s Kyle rages against the machine determined to get answers and expose a rigged system. It is a stance he knows could end badly. All he wants are answers. As usual with hostage dramas the police locate and bring in Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend, a plot devise that at first appears cliched develops against all expectation and had the guy next to me yelling ‘Oh, my God’ at the screen! Kyle’s emergence onto crowded sidewalks recalls that of Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon (1975) whilst the media background is reminiscent of, though no match for, Lumet’s Network (1967).

Foster’s film doesn’t doubt that money rules our lives but is an uneasy reminder of how little we know of what goes on behind the scenes. Entertaining and well worth seeing.

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Our Kind Of Traitor

Our Kind of Traitor (2016) on IMDb

Director: Susanna White; stars Ewan McGregor, Damian Lewis, Stellan Skarsgard. Cert 15. 107 mins.

Dima, a money launderer for Russian gangsters enlists College lecturer, Perry Makepiece and girlfriend Gail, a lawyer, to pass details of these transactions to MI6.  Dima fears for his family’s safety and in return for information wants to ensure safe passage for himself and his family to London. Perry and Gail find themselves drawn into Dima’s elaborate plot as intermediaries between duplicious MI6 Agent Hector and Dima.

There have been numerous film and television adaptations of John Le Carre’s novels, the most recent being The Night Manager (BBC), A Most Wanted Man and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Susanna White’s thriller, Our Kind  Of Traitor being the latest big screen adaptation. Le Carre’s novels are both complex and detailed and one problem of adapting them into a two hour movie is that justice isn’t given to nuances and character development. This is why the six-part BBC adaptation of The Night Manager worked so well as the extended running time allowed for the gradual development and relationships between characters to emerge. Serialised dramas, unlike feature films, are able to more closely follow the trajectory of the novel, enabling plot points, laced with elements of surprise, to be subtly developed.

While director Susanna White effectively maintains the tension throughout the film, especially during the escape sequence, overall development of the plot is unengaging, cliched and bland. What is expected of espionage thrillers is a fair amount of double-dealing, subterfuge and surprising plot twists but here events are as predictable as a warning note slipped under the door. Actions meant to surprise lose their shock potential as they are too obvious and the giveaway mobile phone call from the hideout is both weak and unimaginative.

Perry Makepiece is far too gullible and unbelievable as the college professor drawn into Dima’s plans and credibility is stretched when his educated, lawyer girlfriend Gail willingly becomes entangled in the plot. What saves the movie from being totally mundane are the two central performances from Stellan Skarsgard as Dima, the Russian money launderer and Damien Lewis’ duplicious MI6 agent, Hector. Dima and Hector are credible, resourceful characters whom Skarsgard and Lewis endow with depth and complexity of character. Ewan McGregor’s performance appears laboured and lacks conviction, possibly too much globe-trotting with sidekick Charlie Boorman! Makepiece comes across as a lame duck rather than the hero of the piece.

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle is allowed free reign and delivers some lush photography, especially the climatic showdown in the French Alps that has overtones of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Overall one of the lesser LeCarre cinematic adaptations.

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Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) on IMDb

Director: Stephen Frears; Starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Christian McKay, Nina Arianda. PG cert, 110 mins

Florence Foster Jenkins is a delicious comedy based on the life story of the New York heiress and socialite who lived with the belief that she was a great opera singer. Jenkins performances sold out faster than a Justin Bieber concert and her recorded works became instant collectors items. Not a bad record for a woman whose voice often resembled a wolf howling at the moon. Florence’s fame spread because of her commitment to her music that brought her joy and a purpose for living. It was a pleasure she wanted to share and nurture and, being a wealthy woman, Florence provided financial supported to struggling musicians and the theatre, whose patrons indulged her passion.

Stephen Frears poignant film depicts Florence as a tragi-comic character caught up in her own delusion and effectively draws out the humour within the tragedy. Florence epitomises a 1940’s ‘X-Factor’ hopeful, believing she has the voice of an angel, with her supporters shouting enthusiastic encouragement from the wings. Florence’s delusion becomes clear as she is unable to discern how bad her singing is when listening to her recorded voice. Perhaps her hearing is as poor as many elderly patrons who support her!

Streep gives Florence warmth and heart, playing this dumpy songstress as a flirtatious schoolgirl forever seeking her moment in the spotlight. An accomplished singer in her own right Streep is note perfect hitting all the wrong notes. It is a remarkable display on how to act well while appearing terrible.

Hugh Grant is perfect as Florence’s second husband St. Clair. Gone are the awkward, stuttering utterances so familiar in many of his previous characters. Devoted to Florence he effectively shields his wife from all negative comment, reviews and gossip. He sails through each scene with wit and charm, reminiscent of Cary Grant in the screwball comedies of the thirties. The affection between Florence and St. Clair dispels any notion that he is a gold-digger, even though the relationship is sexless.

Simon Helberg, best known as Howard in The Big Bang Theory, ramps up the humour as Cosme McMoon. Employed to accompany Florence on piano McMoon’s surprised expressions on first hearing Florence’s off-key tones had me aching with laughter. Cosme is young, soft-spoken, effeminate and charming and it is through him that we learn of Florence and St. Clair’s unconventional relationship.

This is a sweet, charming movie that gently ushers you into Florence’s happy world that will leave a smile on your face.

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Eye In The Sky

Eye in the Sky (2015) on IMDb

Directed by Gavin Hood. Stars Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Iain Glen, Monica Dolan, Phoebe Fox. 102 mins.

Col. Katherine Powell, a military officer in command of an operation to take out militants planning a terrorist attack finds the mission compromised when a nine-year old girl is seen playing in the ‘kill zone’.

Director Gavin Hood effectively builds the tension as the dispute over when to engage escalates to the highest level of US and British Government. Skilfully the film explores the moral, political and personal implications of modern warfare involving drone strikes. The movie is very well paced and events happen almost in real time.

A flawless cast, led by Helen Mirren as Powell, ably supported by Alan Rickman as Lieutenant General Frank Benson. This was Rickman’s last on-screen role and it is fitting that he flawlessly delivers the last, and best line of dialogue, in the movie. Having moved on from Breaking Bad, Aaron Paul delivers one of his best performances as conflicted flight operative Steve Watts. He has to launch the ‘seek and destroy’ missile thousands of miles away from the combat zone and ultimately decides to halt the mission and throw the rule book at Powell. Following his superb performance as the hijacker in Captain Phillips, Barkhad Abdi is convincing here as agent Jama Farah, facing the enemy on the ground while operating futuristic drones in the form of robotic humming birds and flying bugs. (Do these things actually exist?)

The tension is eased in part by Iain Glen’s UK Foreign Secretary, caught with a stomach bug, and forced to take a life-or-death call while on the loo in his hotel room. Similarly the US Secretary of State insists the Brits stop interupting his game of ping pong with the Chinese and just get on with it.

Guy Hibbert’s intelligent, dialogue heavy script does not distract from the action or the increasing tension as the issue surrounding collateral damage leads to heated debate between military personnel and politicians. A rare drama that explores the physical effects of war and its consequences.

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Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar! (2016) on IMDb

Written and Directed by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen. With Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johannsen, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio. 106 mins.

The latest Coen brothers movie, set in 1950’s Hollywood, follows a day in the life of studio fixer Eddie Mannix, who receives a ransom demand following the abduction of top studio star Baird Whitlock. The film is not so much a thriller as an homage to the golden era of Hollywood, epitomised by carefully crafted scenes that could have been edited from films of the period. Most affecting is Scarlett Johannsen as Esther Williams look-a-like DeeAnna Moran in a Busby Berkeley-inspired water ballet; Channing Tatum displays incredible versatility as dancing, singing, toe-tapping ‘Kelly-esque’ sailor Burt Gurney. George Clooney gloriously parodies himself as studio star Baird Whitlock, cast as a Roman centurion in the studios prestige picture, Hail, Caesar! – a pastiche of the overblown religious epics of the day.

What is clear is that writer/directors the Coen brothers have invested much thought and inspiration in interpreting scenes that are both entertaining, humorous and a joy to watch. Cinephiles will derive much pleasure in cross-referencing scenes and characters to other movies. In depicting Hollywood’s golden age, the Coen’s provide insight into a film industry that exhibited total control over the means of production. The studios at the time had an army of writers, directors, technicians and stars who laboured long and hard to deliver the movies audiences craved, many of which have stood the test of time and have come to be regarded cinema classics.

It is appropriate then that Hail, Caesar! is so well cast with an ensemble that resembles the cream of Hollywood’s most talented actors. Alongside the impeccable Clooney, Brolin, Johannsen and Tatum are Alden Ehrenreich, both charming and naive as lasso twirling, rodeo rider Hobie Doyle. Frances McDormand cameos as a hilarious, chain-smoking editor C.C Calhoun whose necktie becomes entangled in the editing machine, almost choking her. It is regrettable that there are so few scenes featuring the wonderful Tilda Swinton in a dual-role as gossip columnists Thora and Thessally Thacker. Such scenes could have livened up proceedings and given the film some much needed madcap humour.

The problem with the movie is that the overarching plot involving the kidnap and subsequent ransom demand for Baird Whitlock is banal and rather tedious, resulting in the action dragging along at a snail’s pace. Not to give too much away this plot is devised around political anarchists intent on sabotaging the capitalist ideals of both the movie studio and western society. Who is behind this is not too difficult to work out and at length the plot does appear rather clumsy and not too original.

From the preview trailer and positive reviews, I desperately wanted to enjoy Hail, Caesar! but was left with the opinion that it could have been much better. Enjoyable in part but lacks that extra sparkle.

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