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The Last King of Scotland (2006)
Outstanding, thrilling, surefire Oscar winner.
'The Last King of Scotland' is intelligent and thrilling drama created with flawless acting, writing and direction. Directed by Kevin McDonald, making his fiction debut after acclaimed documentaries 'One Day in September' and 'Touching the Void', brings Giles Foden's novel to the screen with flair and creates a haunting and entertaining cinematic experience.
The film is based on Foden's fictional book, which constructs a fictional story from true events surrounding Idi Amin, Ugandan dictator and self-proclaimed 'Last King of Scotland'. Amin ruled Uganda as a tyrant, responsible for the deaths of, as the film explains, at least 300,000 of his people. The film mixes fact and fiction to follow the fictional character of Nicholas Garrigan - who is inspired by real people - a young Scottish doctor, as he spontaneously travels to Uganda, determined to do what he can to improve the nation. There he meets, by chance, Amin and is soon appointed his personal physician. Nicholas gradually becomes a greater part of Amin's life, as Amin does in his and slowly becomes aware of the dangerous position that he is in, one where he cannot escape.
The film's script comes from Jeremy Brock (writer/director of 'Driving Lessons') and Peter Morgan, currently earning acclaim for his script for the award-winning 'The Queen' and his hit West End play 'Frost/Nixon'. Their screenplay blends humour, tragedy and emotional human drama with two complex lead characters to tremendous effect. The two men are fascinating and captivating characters.
The direction is excellent. The film is well-paced, with breathtaking locations and urgent, often hand-held cinematography that give gritty realism that doesn't glorify the story in gloss as could have happened if left in the hands of Hollywood. But this production is in good hands, with a Scottish director and English screenwriters.
The film really comes alive with the outstanding performances of the talented cast, in particular Forest Whitaker as Amin and James McAvoy as Garrigan. Whitaker thoroughly deserves the Best Actor Oscar for his blistering and intense portrayal as the dictator, searing across the screen alternately charming and terrifying. McAvoy does not allow himself to be upstaged by Whitaker's powerful screen presence, and his performance will at least gain him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. His performance is every bit as compelling as Whitaker's, as he creates a character whose actions render him difficult to like, but crucially we can sympathise with in the climactic scenes. Great support comes from Kerry Washington as one of Amin's wives, David Oyelowo as McAvoy's predecessor as personal physician and Simon McBurney as a sleazy, manipulative Englishman.
'The Last King of Scotland' is a thoroughly deserving Oscar contender and a truly great piece of film.
Number 13 (2006)
Highly enjoyable mystery drama.
BBC Four continue their excellent form in drama with an adaptation of this MR James short story. This was a Christmas treat that perhaps continues a new tradition for the channel's Christmas output, after last year's MR James adaptation 'View From A Hill'.
'Number 13' was simple, pleasurable entertainment; delivered in 40 minutes of suspenseful storytelling. The story was simple, with he mystery coming from the fact that room 13 does not exist, but can be heard by Greg Wise, in the lead role.
There was very little to 'Number 13'. It was a short and enjoyable Victorian ghost story, something that should be welcome as an annual fixture for BBC Four.
Messy and disappointing but entertaining.
The new BBC adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula is flawed but makes for enjoyable viewing. It seemed so promising, with a great cast and the aim to create an exciting new take on the old tale. Also, the BBC rarely produce a bad piece of TV drama.
So where did it all go wrong? I think the sometimes drastic changes from the source material were poorly constructed. The writing was competent but the plot dragged and never really flowed. Characters were underwritten and, despite the efforts of the talented cast, remained unconvincing throughout. The character of Jonathan Harker was reduced to a couple of scenes, then disappeared, leaving Lord Holmwood to become the main character. The changes were supposed to bring freshness to an often told story but paled in comparison to the original story; which, told well, is an exhilarating experience.
The casting was perhaps the production's strongest point, though the script never did justice to the characters. Talented young actors Rafe Spall, Dan Stevens and Sophia Myles were wasted in their roles, but Stevens in particular did well to convincingly portray Holmwood despite the dodgy dialogue he had to contend with. Marc Warren made a decent attempt at the Count but his was the most severely underwritten role, and because of this Dracula is never menacing, just some foreign bloke who likes blood. The standout performance came from David Suchet, as Abraham Van Helsing, who stole the limited screen time he was given.
This telling of Stoker's tale was competent but largely dull, benefiting from some interesting acting and a decent ending.
Hilarious, award-winning short film.
'Dupe', written and directed by Chris Waitt, is a simply brilliant short film that begins with a clever but simple idea and creates a very enjoyable ten-or-so minutes of film.
The story involves slacker Adam, played by Waitt, tired of washing dishes and other household chores, so he orders a cloning machine from eBay and creates a second Adam to help out around the house. Unfortunately, his clone is equally lazy, and the creation of a third Adam is also unsuccessful, leaving dishes to pile up in the sink and food to run out. When Adam leaves the clones to go to work, they wreak havoc, creating several other clones and partying. Matters are further complicated when Adam announces that his girlfriend is coming over.
The film is extremely funny and features some clever trickery to integrate the cloned Adams with him on screen. This film is well worth catching and thoroughly deserves the award it has won.
At the End of the Sentence (2005)
Well-made and enjoyable short.
'At the End of the Sentence', the debut from director Marisa Zanotti is a darkly funny tale focusing on two brothers, one a local newspaper editor and the other a high school student who hear of their father's early release from prison and prepare for his return. This piece has an odd feel, emerging as an under-developed hybrid of western, drama and black comedy that ends up feeling like nothing happens. However, its interest comes from an engaging central performance from Stephen McCole, a funny script from David Greig, one of Scotland's leading contemporary playwrights, and some nice cinematography. This short could do with more depth but is still interesting enough to please.
Delightful Scottish short.
'Accidents', the debut film by Scottish writer-director Martin Smith is a charming short following a teenage boy who, as a consequence of not being invited to a party, wanders to the beach in his Scottish coastal town. There he meets a girl of similar age and they slowly strike up a friendship as they throw stones and have a cautious but friendly conversation. The film is successful in portraying the concerns of a teenage boy and is generally sweet and enjoyable, with natural performances from the two youngsters. Also of interest is a brief appearance by Scottish actor Kate Dickie, now critically acclaimed in 'Red Road'. Overall, a promising start for a Scottish director and a sweet little tale.
Born Equal (2006)
Urgent, essential and though-provoking TV
'Born Equal' is honest, challenging TV that poses lots of questions without really giving easy answers. But then, with the difficult subject matter, it wouldn't be easy to. This one-off, 85-minute long drama, shown recently on BBC1, followed the stories of ordinary British people affected in different ways by homelessness and poverty. It has been compared to 'Cathy Come Home', a landmark TV film from the 60s focusing on, near enough, the same problems. The film is also of particular interest because the actors improvised their own dialogue, from ideas developed by director Dominic Savage, who has frequently worked in this method.
This film involves the sometimes intertwining tales of a City banker, a Nigerian immigrant family, a released Scottish convict and a pregnant young woman and her daughter,escaping from troubles at home. The latter three of these stories mostly take place in the hostel where the characters are temporarily living.
The actors rise to the challenge of improvisation and still deliver subtle, intense and honest performances. Every cast member is magnificent, with popular and rising British actors filling the roles. Colin Firth is terrific as the rich banker racked with guilt over the poverty he sees every day, and is matched by rising star Nichola Burley and Emilia Fox in his segment. David Oyelewo and Nikki Amuka-Bird are particularly affecting as the Nigerian couple striving to bring a relative from Nigeria to London. The other two stories intertwine more than the others do, and a tale both sweet and tragic unfolds, featuring Robert Carlyle as the ex-con and Anne Marie Duff as the young mother. Both are excellent, with Carlyle balancing the violent and reformed sides of his character in a searing performance. A delightful performance also comes from the young girl playing Duff's daughter.
This piece is perhaps not as gritty as it could have been, but has an uncompromising and suitable ending. The entire piece successfully captures contemporary Britain, with a distinct feeling of the present in its social and political relevance and is a truly moving and challenging experience that can be taken as both excellent TV and something designed to raise awareness of the problems plaguing our country.
State of Play (2003)
Possibly the best TV drama ever made
Paul Abbott is a genius. His writing here is taut and intelligent, just like anything else he has done. This BBC production is truly flawless. From the writing to direction to the acting, it is outstanding. This is exhilarating and challenging TV that, though politically-charged, crucially develops interesting characters that you can care about. The plot is complex, as the best political thrillers are, and delivers a TV drama that hopefully shuts up those who say that us Brits can't make TV like the Yanks. Yes, American TV is great but the marathon seasons and multiple writers are exhausting and create bloated, sometimes frustrating TV. Look at Lost, it is as easy to hate as it is to love and becomes dull frequently in the flabby, direction-less mid-season hell. Not here though. Six streamlined parts that never let up the pace and never loosen their grip on the audience. 'State of Play' keeps you hooked and leaves you begging for more, as with all great pieces of entertainment. You'll be sucked into this world and won't want to leave.
Credit must be equally divided between its makers, and the direction is every bit as thrilling as the writing, and ,accordingly, David Yates is moving on to bigger things with the Harry Potter franchise. The tremendous cast all deliver as you'd expect, with David Morrissey and John Simm excellent as the leads and a stunning supporting cast that includes Kelly MacDonald, Philip Glenister, Polly Walker, Patrick Brennan, Shauna MacDonald, Rebekah Staton, James McAvoy, Marc Warren and, of course, the ever-delightful Bill Nighy.
More joy is found in the pulsating soundtrack, tight editing and cinematography.
Overall, 'State of Play' is among the most thought-provoking and exhilarating thrillers you'll ever see and is quite possibly the best thing to have been on TV; British, American or otherwise.
Housewife, 49 (2006)
Perfect Sunday evening TV
Written by and starring Victoria Wood, 'Housewife 49' was a lovely one-off drama that was perfect for a quiet, winter Sunday evening. Its broadcast also signifies that ITV may be moving in the right direction with its drama output; which has been truly awful this year, with embarrassments such as the ludicrous 'Bon Voyage'. However, the future looks promising as their winter schedules are packed with drama and improvement has been shown recently with 'Mysterious Creatures', the acclaimed final 'Prime Suspect' and this wartime tale.
The drama followed Nella Last (played by Victoria Wood in a nice change from her usual work in comedy) through the Second World War as she, against the wishes of her reserved husband, volunteers to aid the war effort with other housewives. Nella is initially ignored or looked down on by the other housewives, but, battling depression and low self-esteem, slowly gains their respect and admiration.
The performances are first-rate, from Wood's sympathetic portrait of a woman who is eager to please all, to David Threlfall (of 'Shameless' fame), who is magnificently restrained as Nella's husband, and when he finally shows some love to his wife it is irresistibly joyous. Excellent support comes from Stephanie Cole as an uptight housewife, and Ben Crompton and Christopher Harper as Nella's sons.
Overall, a very entertaining, tender and heart-warming piece of TV drama.
The Banker (2004)
Endearing and oddly uplifting BAFTA-winner
Hattie Dalton's 'The Banker' tells the story of a shy, nervous man who works in a sperm bank who is madly in love with a the woman who works at the artificial insemination clinic where he delivers his weekly donations.
This wonderful short film won a BAFTA and deservedly so. The Banker is an original and imaginative piece of storytelling that begins as a comedy but becomes something very different, and with this being a short film, does so within minutes. The film ends on an oddly-uplifting and sweet note which comes as a wonderful surprise.
The film is led by a charming and engaging performance from Michael Sheen, currently very popular in film, TV and theatre, for among others, his portrayals of David Frost in 'Frost/Nixon' on stage and Tony Blair in 'The Queen' in cinemas. He has also proved himself in a variety of roles on TV, recently playing both Emperor Nero and HG Wells.
This sweet, charming and highly entertaining film is one to look out for, as is its writer-director who shows great promise for the future in the British film industry.