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A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
So visually inventive and verbally clever that it has become a classic.
At the end of the Second World War, relations between the Americans and the British were a little strained as, in the run-up to D-Day, the yanks won local hearts while they were "overpaid, oversexed and over here" and a British Government department suggested the idea of a locally-made film to improve perceptions.
Written, produced and directed by the quintessentially British Michael Powell and the Hungarian-born Emeric Pressburger, the work may not have fully met its contemporary brief: British critics of the time thought the film was too pro-American and the Americans renamed the work "Stairway To Heaven" because they thought the word 'death' would kill its prospects. But the movie played well with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and it was so visually inventive and verbally clever that it has become a classic.
At the heart of the story is an inversion of the usual 'yank gets the girl' narrative, as RAF bomber pilot Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) wins the affection of American radio operator June (Kim Hunter) in record time and audacious circumstances as he is about to bale out without a parachute. That should be the end of the 'matter' but Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) of "the other world" (the word 'heaven'is never used) fails to find his man in the Channel fog.
So this is a romance - and a comedy - but it is also very political with some satirical analysis of contemporary Britain and America. The tribunal in the other world, pitting American prosecuter (Raymond Massey) against the British defender (Roger Livesey), features critiques and characteriisations of both nations, not least in the choice of the members of the two juries.
The set designs - by German-born Alfred Junge - are simple but striking, especially the staircase to the other world and the scenes of that world, while there are a whole range of clever visual techniques, starting with the representation of earth in colour and the heavenly world in black & white and including the 'freezing' of 'real life' when Conductor 71 makes his earthly appearances and an amzing shot from an eyeball point of view.
Even the statutes on the stairway are carefully chosen (all of the 17 famous personages named in Pressburger's copy of the script were believed to be sufferers of epilepsy). Indeed the whole film is constructed so that the viewer can interpret the story either as a real life medical phenomenon or as an obviously spiritual experience.
Most people will only have seen this film on television which is where I first encountered it. But, in December 2017, a digitally restored version was shown in British cinemas and I was fortunate enough to see it on the big screen as a Boxing Day treat.
Seven decades on, the film still has resonance as a British Prince Harry wins the heart of the American actress Meghan Markle and the second jury - made up entirely of self-declared immigrants to the USA - reminds us that current US President Donald Trump does not represent the real America.
Fun but flawed
The trouble with reviewing the latest episode of a galatic franchise like "Star Wars" is that expectations are so hign. Ever since I saw the first movie almost four decades ago as a 30 year old who had fairly recently become a father, I have approached each new chapter - usually with my son - with immense exitement and not a little trepidation. If there was no "Star wars" canon, this film would be judged a great success with lots of enjoyment and entertainment. Assessed as the eighth segment of a saga, however, the sum of the parts (too many parts) - often exhilerating - is less than the rather incoherent whole.
As with the previous episode, the same person writes and directs, but this time Rian Johnson has taken over the baton (or light sabre) from J J Abrams and, all things considered, has done a fine job, presenting a series of exciting action sequences in a rich palette of colours with some splendid cinematography to add to the dramatic scenery and clever CGI.
The best performances come from Mark Hamill as the eponymous final jedi and Adam Driver as Keylo Ren of the First Order, both of whom offer conflicted and emotional states of mind. Other convincing performances comem from two new heroines: Laura Dern as a Vice Admiral commanding a Resistance space cruiser and diminutive Kelly Marie Tran as a Resistance soldier who brings more ethnic diversity to the cast. However, Daisy Ridley struggles a bit to bring the necessary gravitas to Ren's more central role, while it is sad to see the late Carrie Fisher barely coping as Leia Organa (although she does have one of the best one-liners).
The real problem with "The Last Jedi" is that there are too many characters and too many strands to the plot with too many 'endings' and an excessive running time (at two and a half hours, the longest in the franchise). Also, like the previous film, it is often derivative, so we have another cantina sequence like "A New Hope" and another snow planet like "The Empire Strikes Back" (Episode IX needs a new world). But, for all my quibbles, I savoured the movie and can't wait for the final segment of the third triptych in the franchise.
Mugen no jûnin (2017)
A stylist bloodiest - so not fort all tastes
Apparently Japanese director Takashi Miikwe has a hundred movies to his credit hut I've only previously seen one of them: "13 Assassins". Like "13 Assassins", "Blade Of The Immortal" is a stylish bloodfest - if that's not an oxymoron - set in the Edo period of Japanese history (1603-1868), but this film tells a much more personal story, namely the relationship between a tormented samurai called Manji (Takuya Kimura) and the girl to whom he becomes bodyguard Rin who reminds him of his dead sister Machi (both played by Hana Sugisaki).
The reason for Manji survivability - and also his despair - is that, as explained in a black and white prologue, he has been infected by bloodworms which heal his wounds so that he cannot die. The growing friendship between Manji and Rin reminded me of the film "Leon" but the deathtoll in this tale is many times more with the blade of the title slashing into bodies and cutting off limbs with great speed and fluidity.
This is not a film to everyone's taste and at 140 minutes it is somewhat overlong, but for me it was the perfect cinematic escapism between two challenging meetings on a cold December day.
A moving true story
In the late 1970s, Academy Award-winning American actress Gloria Grahame - four times married and deeply troubled - struck up an unusual relationship with an actor from Liverpool called Peter Turner who was some three decades younger than her. This British film is based on Turner's account of their life together and is ably directed by Scottish Paul McGuigan. The director eschews the classic jump flash-back in favour of a series of more subtle slides from one period to another. However, the American scenes are clearly staged in the studio in the interests of a small budget.
The role of GG (Glo to her beau) is terrific for Annette Bening who brings real star quality and a nuanced performance to the part. Jamie Bell - who has come a long way since "Billy Elliot" 17 years ago - does well in the company of such star power and, among the well-cast minor roles, we have the inestimable Julie Walters who guided Billy Elliot all those years ago.
There are some memorable scenes: Grahame and Turner dancing together when they first meet, a recital of "Romeo And Juliet" in an empty theatre (where the real Turner has a tiny role), a clever repeat of the same scene viewed from the different perspectives of the two principals, and of course the farewell departure. Also the attention to period detail is noticeable: that terrible flowered wallpaper, the dial telephone in the hallway, and Elton John's "Song For Guy" (I remember it all).
Justice League (2017)
A film to divide critics and public
This is a movie which has divided the professional critics and the general public with the former being hard on the work but the latter generally enjoying it. I confess that my feelings fall somewhere between the two. It seems that DC Comics just cannot replicate the success of Marvel Universe's Avengers.
Superman is dead but the Earth is under great threat and so Batman and Wonder Woman put together a league of superheroes, adding Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash to the team facing somebody called Steppenwolf. The movie has considerable visual appeal with a whole variety of locations and worlds and lots of crashing action, but the plot is weak - yet again a small number of objects of great power which must not be brought together - and the characters (too many of them) are of variable impact.
Ben Affleck is dull as Batman, never achieving Christian Bale's convincing portrayal of the role, and it is Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman - fresh from her success in her stand-alone appearance - who is the most appealing character, not least because we know so little of the back story of the other three league members. As for the huge and ugly villain Steppenwolf, he is just like so many other sci-fi bad guys and his entourage of flying warriors looks too much like the monkeys in "The Wizard Of Oz".
The film had a troubled production with original director Zack Snyder - who helmed "Man Of Steel" and "Batman vs Superman" - having to step aside and leaving the final shooting to Joss Wheldon. This mixed heritage is combined with a confusion of tone with the work unsure whether it wants to be as serious as the previous two films or more comedic in the vein of "Guardians Of The Galaxy". There are extra scenes at the very beginning and the very end of the credits.
Paddington 2 (2017)
Somehow - and thankfully - as good as the first
I loved "Paddington" and - to my delight - I loved "Paddington 2" too.
Of course, we start with the adorable character created by Michael Bond (who died between the release of the two films), the brilliant CGI representation of our furry friend, and the purr-fect voicing by Ben Wishaw. This is such a British franchise with so very many British character actors (OK, and one Irish) and so many London locations, although this is the kind of gentle London that we saw in "Notting Hill" (most notably in the prison scenes). Indeed the villain this time is less threatening than Nicole Kidman's character in the first film and played brilliantly by the ever-so- English star of "Notting Hill", Hugh Grant, who - following his success in "Florence Foster Jenkins" - shows that he is not just a pretty face.
The film is endlessly inventive, not least in bringing to life a pop-up book of London landmarks which is at the heart of the plot, and it is stuffed full of visual gags as well as so many funny lines, a few aimed at adult viewers rather than little ones. My granddaughter (almost seven) found it delightful with one of her favourite scenes being Paddington's window-cleaning efforts. Be sure to stay for the credits - a final delight in 100 happy minutes.
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Go along for the ride
I saw the star-stunned 1974 film version of Agatha Christie's famous 1934 novel, so I knew the outcome of the equally star-stunned 2017 remake, but I still found it an enjoyable ride through the snow. It has to be said that the plot is massively contrived and the whole thing sags somewhat in the middle, but the cast and direction make the work eminently watchable.
Heading the cast is Kenneth Branagh as the Belgian master detective Hercule Poirot and he is splendid in his clever deductions, while it is a special pleasure to see the return to the screen of Michelle Pfeiffer who is particularly good in a cast-list that also includes male stars Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe & Derek Jacobi and female talent such as Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley & Penélope Cruz. The director is Branagh who offers us a flashy production with lots of soaring camera-work and plenty of colour and noise.
Well-made and life-affirming
Breathing is the most natural thing on earth, right? But when British tea broker Robin Cavendish contracted polio in Kenya in 1958, he found that he was paralysed from the neck down and could not breathe without the constant support of a mechanical ventilator. This true story is told with Andrew Garfield as Robin and Claire Foy as his wife Diana, both of whom give fine performances of nuanced emotion.
Inevitably the film will be compared with "The Theory Of Everything" but it is no bad thing to be reminded that people with disabilities can achieve remarkable things. In Stephen Hawking's case, he was still able to make great contributions to theoretical physics; in the instance of Robin Cavendish, he transformed the treatment of those with paralysis, both in the UK and much wider.
For first time director Andy Serkis, this is clearly a very personal project. His professional partner and producer on the film is Jonathan Cavendish, the son of Robin and Diana, while Serkis's sister has multiple sclerosis. Serkis is known for his acclaimed acting in performance-capture roles, but the only major use of special effects here is to enable Tom Hollander to represent both of Diana's identical twin brothers.
At the end especially, the heart strings are well and truly plucked, but it is gratifying to see such a well-made and life-affirming work on our screens.
The Death of Stalin (2017)
Ultimately more chilling than comedic
This is not the film I was expecting. Knowing that it was both written and directed by the British Armando Iannucci who gave us the outrageous delights of "In The Loop", "The Thick of It" and Veep", I thought that I was going to encounter a full-blown, satirical comedy (and the trailer had confirmed this impression), but instead - while there are certainly plenty of laughs from a sharp script - this is an altogether darker work, full of foreboding, terror and casual slaughter, than I was anticipating. It is not just the tone that is off-kilter; the brilliant cast makes no attempt to effect a Russian accent but offers everything from a Yorkshire accent to an unashamedly American one.
Several of the characters (the dictator himself played by Adrian McLoughlin) and his eventual successor Khruschev (Steve Buscemi) are known to everyone, but others - like war hero Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) and spy chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale) - will be less-known and still others - such as Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and Molotov (Michael Palin) - will be unfamiliar to many viewers, so you need to be something of an enthusiast for Soviet history to pick up on all the allusions. And real historians will rightly challenge some of the detail because there are some major errors (although these might rather be deliberate distortions to enhance the plot). Iannucci has moved from contemporary Whitehall and Washington to take us to Moscow in 1953 but, if we were expecting "Carry On Up The Kremlin", we have something much more gut-wrenching and all the more effective.
A few weeks before the release of this film, I was in Georgia and visited Gori, the town near where Stalin was born. The year after Khruschev denounced Stalin, a museum was opened in the town to venerate Stalin's leadership and essentially (and astonishingly) the messaging remains unchanged to this day. Oh, how I wish they could show this chilling movie at that museum.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
This is the not the film I was expecting. As the third entry in the "Thor" franchise, I anticipated a traditional super-hero movie like the previous two: lots of drama and threat and the occasional humorous one-liner. But this is actually the funniest by far of all the works in the Marvel canon (now 17 films) and has clearly been influenced substantially by the commercial success of the two "Guardians Of The Galaxy" movies which came out in between "Thor: The Dark World" and "Thor: Ragnarok".
This makes for an immensely entertaining outing but inevitably dials down the tension. As well as different writers, we have to thank for the new style New Zealand director Taika Waititi who additionally voices the granite character Korg who could have stomped straight out of a "GOTG" film.
As always with super-hero movies, we have lots of noise and colour together with splendid sets and effective special effects, but ultimately what makes this movie work is the cast. As well as Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston as brothers Thor and Loki, we have the wonderful Cate Blanchett as their gorgon-like sister Hela, another enjoyable female actress Tessa Thompson as a Valkryie, Mark Ruffalo as the Incredible Hulk, and the delightful Jeff Goldblum as an unlikely- looking villain called simply Grandmaster.
The plot is rather confusing (but essentially Ragnarok = the destruction of Asgard) and the humour sometimes juvenile (a cosmic star gate is called "the Devil's Anus"), but the whole thing is such F-U-N.
Marvel movies always have a teaser clip at the end and this time we are treated to two: one early in the credits and one at the very end. The humour never stops.
The Last Valley (1971)
An under-known and under-appreciated film.
Over my many years of cinema-going, I've viewed a whole range of movies with titles beginning "The Last .." including "The Last Emperor" (1987) and "The Last Samurai" (2003). "The Last Valley' may not be the best-known film with this kind of title, but it made an impression on me when I first saw it at the cinema in 1971 and still resonated with me when I viewed it again on DVD some 46 years later.
It is partly the unusual historical context: the story is set during the repeated bloody clashes of Catholic and Protestant armies largely in German-speaking continental Europe in the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648 and reference to a particular battle in a line of dialogue places the period more precisely in late 1643 and early 1644. It is partly the important subjects that it addresses: the narrative is a sharp critique of the role of religion and superstition in fostering hatred and war and the leading character eventually shouts at the local priest: "There is no Hell. Don't you understand? Because there is no God. There never was. Don't you understand? There is no God! It's a legend!".
This British film was written, produced and directed by James Cavell before he became famous for his blockbuster novels. The 17th century village in question was recreated in the valley of Trins in the beautiful Tyrol region of Austria. The Catholic villagers who live there may look rather too clean and well-clothed for the period but the mainly Protestant soldiers who occupy the valley certainly look the part. The music is from John Barry who had made his name with the early James Bond movies.
At the heart of the story is the changing fortunes of the characters as they are subject to competing sources of power: civil authority in the shape of the head villager Gruber (Nigel Davenport), religious dogma provided by the village priest Father Sebastian (Per Oscarsson), military authority imposed by a character known only as The Captain (Michael Caine), and the voice of reason and tolerance offered by the academic refugee Vogel (Omar Sharif). In the course of the story, each will have his moment of triumph but each will suffer grievously in this under- known and under-appreciated film.
The Party (2017)
A real oddity - but in a delightful way
This black comedy is a British oddity of a film in so many respects: written by a woman (Sally Potter), directed by a woman (the same Potter), as many female roles as male (actually one more out of seven), shot in black and white, located wholly on the ground floor of a London house, told in real time, and running for only 71 minutes.
Newly appointed (shadow) health minister Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) are hosting a small celebration of her success with an odd American/German couple April and Gottfried (Patricia Clarkson & Bruno Ganz), a mixed-age lesbian couple Martha and Jinny (Cherry Jones & Emily Mortimer), and a hyped-up husband Tom (Cillan Murphy) waiting for his wife to arrive.
All the performances by this starry cast are a delight, enhanced by a witty and twisting script, while the opening and closing scenes, so intertwined, are simply wonderful.
A United Kingdom (2016)
An uplifting (true) tale well told by people who care
This film is based on a fascinating story - both political and romantic - of which I was previously totally unaware. Tne kingdom in question is not Britain today but Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana) in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The unlikely romance was between the black lawyer who is a prince, Seretse Khama played so well by David Oyelowo, and the white, working-class Londoner, Ruth Williams ably portrayed by Rosamund Pike. Against all the odds, they defy opposition to their marriage from both the British colonial authorities and elements of Khama's tribe led by his uncle who has been regent for so long.
The British establishment - both politicians (including Clement Atlee and Winston Churchill) and civil servants - come out of this narrative as much more concerned with collaborating with apartheid South Africa than with respecting the wishes and interests of the people of the Protectorate of Bechuanaland. But the end titles assure us that the marriage survived and the nation thrived, so this is an uplifting message of endurance and justice.
Much of the film is shot in glorious terrain in Bechuananland and the house occupied by Khama and his bride is the actual property where they lived. For some at least of the creators of this enjoyable work, the project was personal: the director Amma Asante (previously best-known for "Belle") is both female and black (how often can you say that of a director?) and David Oyelowo is himself married to a white woman (who actually has a small acting role in the film).
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
The wait is over, the fear is dispelled, another classic is born
You really need to have seen the original 1982 "Blade Runner" to appreciate this long-delayed sequel because the new film is not a self-contained story but - and all the more satisfying for being so - a clever development of the earlier narrative. For this, we must thank Hampton Fancher, the co-writer of both works. Fortunately I've seen and massively admired the classic first movie four times, including "The Director's Cut", which meant that I was familiar with the back story but anxious about how the new work would turn out. In minutes, my fears were dispelled because "2049" delivers just about all that fans could expect.
It is not just the plotting that is so consistent with the original movie. French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve ("Arrival"), British cinematographer Roger Deakins ("Sicario") and Canadian production designer Dennis Gassner ("Skyfall") have created a visually stunning world with some awe-inspiring sets and sequences that resonate convincingly the dystopian Los Angeles of Ridley Scott's earlier work. Even the music, from Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, while having having its own compelling character echoes the Vangelis soundtrack of old.
While in our world we've had to wait an astonishing 35 years for this second film, rather neatly in the cinematic world the action has moved forward three decades. The central blade runner this time is Officer K - Ryan Gosling in an ideal piece of casting - who is tasked with terminating replicants who have gone rogue and, unlike last time when it was merely hinted that Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) was himself a replicant, we are clear that the runner is an android who, initially at least, understands exactly who he is and what he needs to do.
Although women have not been flocking to see "2049", the film does have four fascinating female characters: K's virtual girlfriend Joi (Cuban Ana de Armas), his boss Lieutenant Joshi (American Robin Wright), his intended nemesis Luv (Swiss Sylvia Hoeks), and dream-maker Dr. Ana Stelline (Swiss Carla Juri). And, of course, it's no secret that Harrison Ford is back. Plus we have more musing on the nature of humanity and identity. What's not to like?
One of the many other delights of the movie though is that it offers some surprises and concludes in a manner that sets us up nicely for a third segment. Hopefully this won't take 35 years to arrive because I can't imagine being around that long. Meanwhile I'm going to see "Blade Runner 2049" again because, although it is long (164 minutes) and often leisurely, it is so rich in visuals and narrative that it invites repeat viewing. If I have a reservation about the work, it is that it lacks some of the iconic action scenes of the original, but I can imagine a final part of the trilogy with more vigour and a "Spartacus"-like exposition subtitled "The Replicant Rebellion".
The LEGO Ninjago Movie (2017)
Better than "The Emoji Movie"
"The Emoji Movie", an attempt to emulate the success of "The Lego Movie", was released just weeks before "The Lego Ninjago Movie", the third construct in the popular plastic brick film franchise. "Emoji" was a disappointment, whereas "Ninjago" continues the winning formula of the Lego series.
Many children will already be familiar with the Ninjago television series and, like "Power Rangers" (another recent film based on a television series), we have a set of heroes with their own colours and powers and, for those are unfamiliar with them, there is a quick exposition of the the six members of the Secret Ninjago Force. Like "The Lego Movie", the story is neatly book-ended by some live action.
"Ninjago" does not have the originality of the first film in the franchise, but my 10 year old companion really enjoyed it and we can be sure that Lego characters will be back on the big screen sometime soon.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)
Over the top - but (mostly) deliciously so
The first outing for Kingsman, "The Secret Service" in 2015, was so successful that two years later it's back, even more star-stunned and even more outrageous but just as action-packed and entertainingly over-the-top.
Taron Egerton as Eggsy Unwin is growing into the role and Colin Firth and Mark Strong are back (even though the former's character was apparently killed off last time) while, thanks to the involvement of Statesman (the US equivalent of Kingsman), we now have a host of American stars, most notably Julianne Moore, who clearly loved her role as Poppy Adams, head of a truly massive drug operation, but also Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum and Halle Berry (whom we are likely to see next time round in a more active role).
Throw in Elton John playing himself and you'd think that would a rich enough cast-list. But we also have Poppy Delevingne, older sister of the model Cara Delevingne, Emily Watson (Elsa Einstein in "Genius"), and Pedro Pascal (Oberyn Martell in "Game Of Thrones").
From the opening fight sequence in a racing London cab, the action is furious and massively enhanced by CGI so that it all looks utterly fantastical. There's a magical lasso, following in the path of a similar device in "Wonder Woman", and some scary mechanical apparatus such as robot killer dogs and a giant meat grinder.
Four-letter expletives are commonplace, but the most offensive element is a scene at Glastonbury music festival involving a miniature tracking device which surely goes beyond the bounds of decency even for the "Kingsman" franchise. But, perhaps not, because director of both movies Matthew Vaughn and his co-writer of both scripts Jane Goldman are obviously determined to see how far they can subvert the James Bond formula for a new, usually younger, audience. And it's working ...
Patriots Day (2016)
Respectful account of the Boston bombing
The day is 15 April 2013; the place is Boston; the occasion is the annual marathon. As we all know, two radicalised Chechen immigrants, Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze), set off two bombs which killed three people and injured several hundred others, including 16 who lost limbs.
This film is a very workmanlike and respectful, almost documentary-style, account of the eve of the event, the bombing itself, and tracking down of the assailants in a tense five-day manhunt. Mark Wahlberg, reuniting with the director for the third film in a row, is Boston detective Tommy Saunders, a composite of several real people, while Kevin Bacon plays FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers.
For writer and director Peter Berg, following "Lone Survivor" and "Deep Water Horizon", "Patriots Day" can be seen as the third part of his unofficial Americans-in-crisis trilogy which probably play better for US audiences than overseas, but manage to combine information with entertainment.
This time round, the viewer cannot fail to be struck by the complexity and sophistication of modern-day surveillance and forensic technologies. If only these technologies could prevent terrorist incidents (without too much of a sacrifice of our privacy and freedoms) as well as find those who have just committed such an atrocity.
Victoria & Abdul (2017)
A little gem starring a national treasure
Queen Victoria has now replaced Sherlock Holmes as the most featured character on British screens. According to a study by the British Film Institute, the monarch is now jointly tied with James Bond on 25 films. This is thanks to "Victoria & Abdul" (2017) which is a kind of companion piece to the earlier "Mrs Brown" (1997): both works star the inestimable Judi Dench as the British Queen in a relationship with a court outsider in an attempt to assuage her loneliness (indeed the new film mentions the friendship of the earlier film).
Like all good football matches, "Victoria & Abdul" is a game of two halves. The first half is played for laughs with Abdul (Bollywood rising star Ali Fazal) and his Indian companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) acting like Laurel & Hardy or R2D2 & C3PO and the various British establishment characters presented in rather stereotypical or satirical manner.
But then the second half is much more serious with Victoria making very plain the sorrow of widowhood and the isolation of court life and struggling to make her "Munshi" (Indian Secretary) an intimate part of her life even when all around her - especially son 'Bertie' (Eddie Izzard) - are utterly opposed to the friendship and Abdul himself proves to be something of a charlatan.
It seems that this remarkable true story only became known in any detail through the relatively recent discovery of Abdul's diaries and, at a time of significant Islamophobia in the Western world, the idea that a British monarch and a Muslim clerk could have such a meaningful friendship resonates powerfully.
Director Stephen Frears and writer Lee Hall have crafted a work that manages to be both entertaining and topical in a very British movie that will have international appeal.
A worthy film about a hugely important subject
When British history writer David Irving sued for libel the American historian and academic Deborah Lipstadt, because she had accused him of being a Holocaust denier, I assumed that he had no chance of winning and that, having been defeated in a court of law, the cause of Holocaust denial would be irredeemably damaged. I was wrong on both scores which is why, 17 years after the trial, it is so important that this big name film about the case has been made.
As the film makes clear, Irving's defeat was far from certain because, in an English libel case, the defendant has to prove the veracity of the offending material and an important part of the price paid by the defence was that neither Lipstadt nor Holocaust survivors were called to testify so that Irving, who conducted his own case, could not exploit them. The film is released at a time when social media online and Trump in the White House are giving extraordinary prominence to falsehoods in an era which has been dubbed "post-truth".
The Holocaust happened and, if this film helps to remind people of this incontrovertible fact, it will make a valuable contribution to evidence-based discourse. The main problem for such a cinematic work of less than two hours is that the case was so prolonged and complex. It ran for five years (2000-2005) and, when it came to trial, it went on for 32 days and ended with a judgement of 355 pages. A further problem is that the viewer always knows the outcome, which inevitably diminishes the tension of the narrative, although director Mick Jackson and writer David Hare do their best to build up a sense of uncertainty. So, as a film, this is never going to be a crowd-pleaser.
But it tells an important story about an issue of huge historical significance and it does it with a roster of fine British actors. Rachel Weisz (herself Jewish) is the feisty Lipstadt and Timothy Spalling is convincing in the unsympathetic role of Irving, while Tom Wilkinson is formidable barrister Richard Rampton and Andrew Scott is cerebral solicitor Anthony Julius. Some of my Jewish friends feel that the film is unfair to the British Jewish community, but a good deal of research went into this work and every word that Irving utters during the screen version of the trial is taken verbatim from the court records.
Very uncomfortable viewing but powerful movie-making
There are far too few female film directors and probably none as commercially and artistically successful as the American Kathryn Bigelow. Her two previous works, "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty", were both outstanding and showed men in uniform under pressure.
"Detroit" has the same essential theme but, as the title makes clear, this time we are on Bigelow's home territory of the United States. Indeed we are in the midst of actual events, the race riot which took place in one of the country's major cities over five days in July 1967 when 43 were killed, 1,200 injured, 7,000 arrested, and 2,000 buildings burned down.
As the film unfolds, the focus constantly narrows, starting with a quick animated history of black migration in the USA, moving on to the rioting throughout the 12th Street area of Detroit, then closing in on the Algiers Motel, and finally remaining in real time in an annex to the motel where we find ourselves in a kind of horror movie.
This is a long film and the final segment jumps forward a couple of years, with glimpses of the court case where all the accused were acquitted, to conclude with short text advising the viewer on what happened to the chief characters in the incident.
If this is a cinematic tour de force by Bigelow, it is a tribute too to writer Mark Boal and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, both of whom she has worked with before. The inter-cutting of contemporary news footage and the use of hand-held cameras mean that the viewer is drawn into a seamless exposition that, from the beginning, induces anxiety and, during the interrogation sequence, is some of the most uncomfortable viewing outside of the horror movie genre.
The acting is excellent across the piece, but the stand-out performances come from two British actors: John Boyega ("The Force Awakens") as the black security guard caught up in the events and Will Poulter ("THe Revenant") as the white Detroit cop who orchestrates the whole macabre, and ultimately murderous, shake-down
I saw Bigelow interviewed about her latest movie on "The Daily Show" and it is clear that she regards "Detroit" as not simply a 50th anniversary commemoration of a dark period of American history but a call to today's America to recognise that race is still a bitterly divisive feature of society that continues all too often to witness young black men being shot down by white policemen who are rarely called to account at a time when the current occupant of the White House is adding by word and deed to the already toxic atmosphere.
Collateral Beauty (2016)
Worthy and watchable effort
I'm really not sure about this movie.
What is certain is that it is studded with stars: Will Smith (in an unusually sensitive leading performance), Edward Norton, Michael Peña, and no less than four British actresses, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley and Naomie Harris. It deals with a terribly serious issue - the death of a young child - and it does not minimise the profound pain or offer an easy answer.
But I was not wholly convinced by the narrative device of having Smith's character, the father of the dead girl, writing letters to Love, Time And Death, three of his co-workers engaging actors to portray these three ideas, and each of the three friends associating with one of the concepts - just a bit too contrived.
A worthy and watchable effort though.
An exceptional performance from Portman
Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman has come a long way since her amazing performance as a young girl in the thriller "Leon", winning an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in "Black Swan".
In this film, she portrays Jacqueline Kennedy in the days between the assassination and funeral of her husband, US President John F Kennedy, in 1963. It is an exceptional representation, affecting the unusual voice of her subject and communicating the horror and pain of the First Lady's experience and her determination to have the funeral she thought appropriate.
This is the first English-language film from Chilean director Pablo Larrain and it is a respectful if, ultimately (and perhaps inevitably), cold work with Mica Levi's discordant score adding to the sense of alienation. As Jackie tells the reporter whose interview is the framing device for the film: "Don't let it be forgot, that for one brief, shining moment there was a Camelot."
We have the chance to save the world
When "An Inconvenient Truth" was issued in 2006, it took me three years before I caught up with it at home but, this summer, I made a point of viewing the sequel straightaway at the cinema. The issue of climate change has become so much more urgent and the stakes so much higher now that we have a climate change denier in the White House.
Directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk have done a fine job in knitting together extracts from fluent presentations by former US Vice-President Al Gore, his visits to sights illustrating both the growing instances of disaster and successful initiatives to cut carbon emissions, and his role at the UN Climate Change Conference in 2016. The sequel may not have quite the shock impact of the original documentary, but it makes a compelling case and offers a sense of hope that was lacking 10 years ago as new technologies transform our options for effective action.
As an American politician, Gore rightly points out: "In order to address the environmental crisis, we're going to have to spend some time fixing the democracy crisis."
The Accountant (2016)
Definitely worth watching
This is an action thriller with an unusual central character - a kind of cross between Raymond Babbitt from "Rain Man", since he has acute autism with phenomenal mathematical skills, and the eponymous hit man in the "John Wick" series, since he has the kind of martial and shooting skills of a small army.
Christian Wolff (played in a necessarily downbeat fashion by Ben Affleck) is the accountant, but he is much more of a wolf than an Christian. Indeed he is a morally complex figure indeed, assisting crime syndicates to clean up their ill-gotten gains while running a host of front companies himself to enable the funding of a meritorious endeavour and, along the way, killing as callously as efficiently and yet sparing a couple of his potential victims.
A slow burner with some initially complex plotting but sufficiently different certainly to merit viewing.
Atomic Blonde (2017)
A triumph of style over substance
This espionage thriller is adapted from a graphic novel called "The Coldest City" and is the directorial debut of David Leitch, formerly a stunt coordinator and second unit director in work such as "John Wick" (and it certainly shows). The eponymous MI6 agent is Lorraine Broughton, played with panache by the tall, once South African once model who rather stole the show in "Mad Max: Fury Road". Set in Berlin as the wall is about to fall in 1989, like the recent "Baby Driver" we have a loud soundtrack of contemporary music.
If all this suggests more style than substance, that would be a fair inference. The convoluted plot - set out in a series of flashbacks - revolves, as so often in spy movies (think "Mission: Impossible"), in the hunt for a list of agents but, again as so frequently is the case, the object of the search is really irrelevant (what cinema critics call a MacGuffin). But, if the substance of the movie is thin, the style is terrific with flashy camera-work and tons of gritty action, involving not just guns and cars but any domestic object that comes to hand, just as long as it can be smashed into someone's face. A ten-minute fight scene on a set of stairs is set to become something of a classic.
This is not a film that would stand up to any serious feminist critique, but it's an all-too-rare guilty pleasure to see a confident and capable woman kicking male ass. There has been too little of it since "The Long Kiss Goodnight" (1996), although this summer (2017) we've had the delights of "The Ghost In The Shell" and "Wonder Women". If the Blonde were to become a franchise like Bond or Bourne, I for one would not complain.