Gold (2016) on IMDb
Director: Stephen Gaghan. Stars Matthew McConaugheyEdgar RamírezBryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Craig T. Nelson. Cert. 15. 120 mins.

Without doubt, Matthew McConaughey is one of Hollywood’s most attractive leading men and this may be why, rather than trade on his good looks, the actor prefers his talent to shine through and selects his roles carefully. In Free State of Jones (2016) he is almost unrecognisable as a deserting confederate soldier while in Dallas Buyers Club (2013) he appeared emaciated and gaunt as an AIDS patient – for which he received the Best Actor Oscar in 2014. Few actors receive rave reviews for a brief 10 minute appearance in a movie, which he did for his cameo as Mark Hanna opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). This one scene demonstrates McConaughey’s skill as an actor and his ability to own the moment.

This is an actor almost at the peak of his professional ability. I say ‘almost’ only in the hope, and belief, that McConaughey still has more to offer. As prospector Kenny Wells the actor once again disguises his good looks. Bald, overweight, bear-bellied and chain-smoking Wells could easily epitomise white-trash America. What stands him apart is his work ethic and belief in fortune that he will one day strike gold. Enter good-looking, charismatic geologist Michael Acosta whom Wells teams up with in a joint search for fortune in the jungles of Indonesia. The two men hit it big and then have to manoeuvre the sharks of Wall Street and the Indonesian government who want a cut of the action. This convoluted thriller, based on actual events, has more twists and turns than a faulty drill bit.

Dramatising complex business negotiations isn’t easy and much of these negotiations are whispered asides that made me feel I was missing important information. Wells’ unconventional approach to business dealings takes him literally into the lion’s den – well in this case a tiger! McConaughey plays this scene with great comic timing and an innate sense of manic insanity.

Visually director of photography Robert Elswit captures the intense beauty of the lush, green expanse of the Indonesian jungle, contrasting the wide-open vistas with the dull, enclosed interiors where Wells’ conducts business meetings.

Director Gaghan maintains a slow and steady pace that at times veers off-track but is saved by McConaughey’s engaged and energetic presence. The film is very loosely based on true life events and it seems fairly implausible that Wells’ motivating factor is a drunken dream in which he sees the location of the gold deposits. The chemistry between leads McConaughey and Ramírez fails to engage, though this could well be due to Ramírez’ ambition. While writer/director Gaghan provides plenty of twists and turns the eventual outcome is unsurprising and slightly disappointing. McConaughey is the nugget of gold in this decent drama.

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Denial (2016) on IMDb

Director: Mick Jackson; stars Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Karen Pistorius, Alex Jennings, Harriet Walter, Mark Gatiss.  Cert. 12A.  109 mins.

As the film begins Deborah Lipstadt asks a group of students what proof is there that the holocaust happened? Sitting in the audience is holocaust denier David Irving, whose work and reputation Lipstadt has constantly challenged. Irving challenges Lipstadt to debate the issue and when she refuses he subsequently brings a case for libel in the British courts knowing that in the English legal system the burden of proof is on the accused.

Irving asserts that the holocaust was an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the jewish people in order to reclaim their homeland. He further claims that the Nazis never gassed anyone at Auschwitz, the gassing chamber being used to de-louse cadavers prior to cremation. To challenge these claims Lipstadt engages the services of Anthony Julius, noted as the lawyer who handled Princess Diana’s divorce settlement.

Rachel Weisz is engaging and compelling as Deborah Lipstadt. During her first encounter with Irving she is caught off-guard, as a rabbit in the headlights, unsure of what to do and unable to challenge her accuser. Her confusion is compounded when she takes-on the challenge of the legal fight, unaware of the nuances of the British legal system and unprepared for the stringent demands of her legal team. What initially appeared a simple case of holocaust denial becomes a David and Goliath encounter.

Weisz teams with British actors Tom Wilkinson as barrister Richard Rampton and Timothy Spall as her nemesis, David Irving. All three deliver exceptional performances of the highest calibre. This could well be a career best for Wilkinson who, as defending barrister, has to seek the truth that surround this emotional maelstrom. Timothy Spall’s Irving exudes an air of arrogance, all the while unaware of his racist and anti-semitic remarks.

*As the title suggests, the overarching theme of the film is denial. This is not only Irving’s denial that the holocaust happened but also Deborah’s reticence to engage with Irving, denying herself a right to reply. Taking on the case against Irving she is unaware that she will be further silenced, advised not to speak either in court or to the media. Once her lawyers take charge all control of the decisions made are out of her hands and Deborah, along with the holocaust survivors wanting to give evidence, must observe from the sidelines as events unfold.

David Hare’s exceptional screenplay is based on Deborah Lipstadt’s book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” and is both intelligent and concise. I did wonder if some of the discourse in court had been taken from transcripts given the immediacy of the cross examination.

As a court drama the movie works well and, especially during the scenes at Auschwitz, is an emotional experience. Given the abundance of explosive action movies in cinemas it’s good to have a well-acted drama that tackles the most heinous crime of the 20th century. A movie that should be on every school curriculum for discussion of the holocaust.

Updated 8 February – * paragraph added

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Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge (2016) on IMDb
Directed by Mel Gibson. Stars Andrew Garfield, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Teresa Palmer, Nathaniel Buzolic, Vince Vaughn. 139 mins.

Hacksaw Ridge is the inspirational story of Desmond Doss, an army medic who fought for the right to go into battle without a single weapon to protect himself. In the heat of conflict Doss single-handedly saved 75 comrades without firing a single shot and was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor.

Director Mel Gibson immediately depicts the hell of warfare as combatants dodge enemy bullets as they run over the rat infested bodies of fallen comrades. Flame throwers send the enemy screaming to their deaths while in this rat infested quagmire men fall like flies. From this hellhole Desmond is carried away, another casualty of battle, being assured by his stretcher bearers they will save him.

Gibson uses a flashback to16 years earlier where as young boys, Desmond and his brother climb a ragged peak to look across the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia (the lonesome pine nowhere in sight!) This couldn’t be more of a contrast to the hell of war as the boys tear through the lush, green Walton-esque hamlet.

This would be an idyllic childhood were it not for the presence of an abusive father, scarred from his experience in the Great War ten years earlier. Tom Doss is a harsh authoritarian who constantly admonishes his young sons and beating his wife. Bertha, Desmond’s mother, tells him not to hate his father who, she lets him know, was a much better man before going to war. Tom’s pain is evident from the time he spends at the graveside of his fallen colleagues, all the young men he knew and enlisted with. This makes it all the more painful for him when his own sons enlist. Tom is all too aware their cosseted upbringing makes it difficult for them to fully comprehend and fully understand the horrors of war. Is this Gibson grandstanding, letting younger audiences know they often do not know best and that to fail to learn from the mistakes of the past only leads to repeating them in the future. Being young and idealistic both Desmond and brother Hal brush aside advice from their elders thinking they know best. As their father before them, both men believe in their patriotic duty and are easily coerced to enlist.

Desmond enlists as a medic with the belief that he will not be required to handle a weapon. His refusal to touch a gun during training has him labelled a conscientious objector and he suffers retribution from his commanding officer and comrades. Ironically it is through his fathers intervention that he is given leave to go into the hell of war without a weapon to protect himself.

Director Gibson competently handles Desmond’s sentimental coming of age that is in direct conflict with the hostile, sober and unyielding theatre of war. I did wonder why the director decided to open with the conflict at Hacksaw Ridge, immediately showing the apocalyptic combat zone. If to set up some form of tension as to whether Desmond will live or die most will know the outcome prior to seeing the movie. Having this scene at the start informs the viewer as to what Desmond will face while omitting it would, in my view, have made the contrast between Desmond’s idyllic romance and subsequent combat role more shocking.

Andrew Garfield perfectly epitomises the idealistic all American boy, good looking, sweet natured and inexperienced. He brings a sense of innocence to Desmond, especially during his courting of Dorothy that is both tender and endearing. Teresa Palmer as Dorothy also evokes the pure, virtuous period of 1940’s small-town America. Gibson’s inspired choice of Rachel Griffiths and Hugo Weaving as Desmond’s parents brought a sense of instability and realism to their backwoods homelife.

Simon Duggan’s cinematography and John Gilbert’s editing perfectly capture the shock and awe of war. Contrast the intimate close-ups on the battlefield to Duggan’s painterly hues and tones in the wide-open spaces of Virginia. His lush, colour-soaked scenes of small-town America are Sirkian in both tone and look, accurately evoking the landscape.

It is almost inevitable that in period movies there are always mistakes and errors and Hacksaw Ridge is no different. It does make you wonder as to the efficiency of the continuity/research department when Hal Doss’ ear piercing is visible. Tom Doss appears wearing the 1939-1945 Croix de Guerre when he should be wearing the 1914-1918 medal for service in WWI. Also spotted is when Dorothy bids farewell to Desmond on the bus he is sitting on the right side. In the next shot as he looks at the Bible she gave him he is on the left side of the bus.

Errors aside, Hacksaw Ridge is an inspirational film and one that demonstrates that, even in war, there are men and women who stand by their convictions and, as seen in the scene with the injured japanese soldier, humanity and compassion are still evident. As brutal as the film is I’m sure it does not come close to showing the true extend of Desmond Doss’ bravery or the horror of Hacksaw Ridge.

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Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea (2016) on IMDb

Written & Directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Stars Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, Oscar Wahlberg, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov. 137 mins.

Finally I have managed to see Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea and what a rewarding experience it is. I must admit to two reasons I initially dismissed this film as

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La La Land

Directed by Damien Chazelle; stars Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemary DeWitt, JK Simmons, Callie Hernandez. 128 mins.

Musicals have tap-danced their way into moviegoers hearts ever since Al Jolson crooned ‘Mammie’ in Warner’s The Jazz Singer (1927). The genre has fallen in and out of fashion ever since, with its heyday being the 1950’s and 60’s. The most recent resurgence began with Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001), closely followed by the movie adaptations of Chicago (2002), DreamGirls (2006) and Mamma Mia (2008) – all adapted from their successful stage shows.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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).

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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.

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