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Woodly Allen - now 77 - makes a sparkling return to form in this his
46th film as director. It opens with the eponymous American socialite
(Australian Cate Blachett) on a flight from New York to San Francisco,
seemingly having a conversation but in reality indulging in a ranting
monologue, and it closes in a similar style on a San Francisco park
In between, we are treated to brilliant, Oscar-worthy acting from Blanchett as a woman tottering on the edge of complete mental breakdown as her material world and ridiculous illusions vanish in a terrifying miasma, partly of the making of a financially and sexually venal husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) and partly the result of her own fantasy vision, latterly fuelled by much pill-popping, spirit consumption, and outright lying, laced with much condescension and cynicism.
Her materialistic values and inveterate duplicity are contrasted with the lifestyle of Ginger (the excellent British Sally Hawkins). Jasmine and Ginger were both adopted and raised as sisters but could hardly be more different. Jasmine's history with her husband and sister are only slowly revealed in a series of flashbacks which serve to underline this nightmare of a car crash in slow motion.
Ginger's fiancé Chili (Bobby Cannavale) is the nearest we see to a decent man and he is lacking intelligence and composure. The rest are either too trusting or utterly untrustworthy. So "Blue Jasmine" is not a great advertisement for the human condition, but it is a movie of great flair and a spectacular central performance.
In "Knocked Up" (2007), writer and director Judd Apatow focused on the
unlikely couple of Ben and Alison, but a sub-theme was the experience
of Alison's sister Debbie (Leslie Mann who is Apatow's wife) and
brother-in-law Pete (Paul Rudd), representing a warning vision of how
adulthood can so often work out. Five years later, Apatow is back as
both writer and director to tell us how things now look for Debbie and
Pete (played by the same actors) as they both hit the big four-oh.
And it's not a pretty sight as they struggle with both relationship and professional challenges plus inter-generational problems at both ends of the life scale. Their daughters Sadie and Charlotte (played by Apatow's own children) are a handful and a half and Pete's father (Albert Brooks) and Leslie's father (John Lithgow) present very different, but equally painful, dilemmas.
If this sounds grim, it is far from it with both dialogue and situations providing lots of humour, much of it very broad indeed. Somehow Apatow manages to balance hilarity with pathos, so that the viewer is constantly ricocheting from laughter to sadness, often in the same scene. Essentially this is a a kind of rom-com, but its insights into marriage and parenthood give it a powerful extra dimension.
What is so accomplished about this British film is that it manages to
tell a heart-rending (and true) story with so much understated humour
through two such contrasting but utterly believable characters.
Philomena Lee is an Irish woman who was forced to give up her baby son,
who was borne out of wedlock in her repressive homeland, but she never
forgot him for a day and almost half a century later endeavoured to
find Anthony against the wishes of the nuns who sold him to a childless
couple. The quest was originally recorded in a book by the British
journalist Martin Sixsmith.
Here Philomena is played by Judi Dench, an actress who, like a fine mature wine, just gets better with age, managing to convey so much with just a tearful look. Sixsmith is portrayed by Steve Coogan who gives his best acting performance to date as someone who is so unlike Philomena - strikingly intelligent against her lack of education, profoundly agnostic in contrast to her continued piety, depressed and angry while she is optimistic and forgiving. It is such a joy to see challenging roles written for an older woman and someone who has been considered mainly a comedian.
Coogan also co-wrote and co-produced this sensitive work which was directed by Stephen Frears whose more recent films have included "The Queen" and "Tamara Drewe". Do they find Philomena's son? As so often, the journey is as important as the destination which in fact brings her full circle.
"The Hunger Games" can be compared to "His Dark Materials' - two novel
trilogies that I have read and enjoyed immensely. Both were written for
young adults but have crossed over into popularity with a general
readership. Both are set in a world related to ours, but profoundly
different, and feature a resourceful female protagonist. But, whereas
(sadly) the attempt to film "His Dark Materials" started and finished
with the opening novel ("The Golden Compass"), it was always clear that
the movie adaptation of "The Hunger Games" was - like the "Twilight"
series - going to go all the way. In fact, "The Hunger Games" films are
making far more money at the box office than "Twilight" because - in my
view - the themes are much more realistic and the central actress,
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, is so accomplished.
The author of the novels Suzanne Collins continues to act as an executive producer and is ensuring that the films are faithful to the books and, as long as she and Lawrence stick with the series, it can only grow and grow. In fact, since the first movie Lawrence - like the heroine she portrays - has become bigger than the Games, as she has now won a well-deserved Academy Award for "Silver Linings Playbook". Meanwhile "Catching Fire" had twice the budget of the original film and the result is superior production values.
In this very satisfying sequel, it is a year on from the opening salvo: Katniss and her co- victor (the rather weak Josh Hutcherson as Peeta) have to go on the Victory Tour, where they find rebellion is in the air, before finding themselves sucked back into the arena as a result of a particularly cruel Quarter Quell which requires all this year's Games contestants to be drawn from previous winners. There is a new Games master (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) and new murderous challenges in the gladiatorial battlefield. And, at the end of it all (almost two and a half hours later), the final line of dialogue is identical to that of the book and sets us up brilliantly for Part 3A.
This hugely ambitious and immensely worthy film attempts, through the
experience of the eponymous manservant in the White House, to tell the
story of American racial segregation and the civil rights movement that
challenged it over three decades. It is "inspired by a true story"
which came to light in a "Washington Post" article in November 2008 as
the first black President in US history was about to secure his
The real life butler was Eugene Allen (who spent 34 years in service), but in the film he is called Cecil Gaines and portrayed with understated sensitivity by Forest Whitaker. In her first acting role for a decade a half, Oprah Winfrey is excellent as his long-suffering wife Gloria. This is a movie with lots of roles for black actors, such as Cuba Gooding Jr and David Oyelowo, but there are also many celebrity cameos, especially in the representation - of varied quality - of a succession of Presidents: Eisenehower (Robin Williams), Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Lieb Schreiber), Nixon (John Cusack), and Reagan (Alan Rickman).
There are echoes here of "Forrest Gump", another movie that sought to narrate social change in America over a period of decades with all sorts of chance encounters by the character of the title but, in that case, we excused the contrivances as part of the humour. Another film that comes to mind is "The Help" where again we had an indictment of racial discrimination in terms that lacked any subtlety or nuance and that all too obviously wore its heart upon its sleeve. In "The Butler", director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong strain to do too much and be in too many places and some of the characterisations are stereotypical and a few of the scenes mawkish.
This is a movie which will play better in its home country than elsewhere but still, in the north-west London cinema where I viewed it, there was a substantial black element in the audience and there was applause at the end. So, for all its flaws as a film, this is cinema with a powerful message.
The title is telling. Set in orbit around the Earth, there is virtually
no gravity here but, thanks to a freak accident, very soon the gravity
of the situation becomes terrifying. Gravity and oxygen are not the
only things in short supply in this film: there are only two characters
(played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) and in consequence not a
lot of dialogue but, if there is a paucity of words, there is almost an
excess of wonder and drama in this terrific movie from Mexican director
Alfonso Cuardon ("Pan's Labyrinth").
Although years in the making, Cuardon - who also co-wrote the script with his son - does not waste time with scene-setting or character exposition on Earth. Immediately we are suspended in space, marvelling at the silence and gloriousness of it all. At the other end of the story, Cuardon does not bother with Hollywood-style codas to lighten the mood - "Gravity" ends exactly when it should. In between, there is never a moment when you are not captivated by what is happening on screen. And, for once, a blockbuster does not overrun its time, coming in at just an hour and a half.
Bullock and Clooney are excellent in portrayal of very different characters who will live or die by the other's decisions. She is Ryan Stone, the mission specialist with no previous time in space who becomes fear personified. He is Matt Kowalski, the space veteran on his last mission who never loses his charm or cool. The crisis they face is so predictable - if, hopefully, unlikely - that it has a name in the scientific community community (the Kessler syndrome).
For movie fan like me, there are so many allusions to earlier films: the floating majesty of the opening scene recalls the first view of space in "2001"; when the astronauts are warned by Houston mission control of the impending danger, the voice is that of Ed Harris from "Apollo 13"; when Bullock takes off her bulky space suit, we are inevitably reminded of Sigourney Weaver at the end of "Alien".
I saw "Gravity" at London's newest multiplex - Cineworld at Wembly's London Designer Outlet - and I opted to view in 3D (which i normally avoid) and D-BOX (which I have never experienced before). I can't say that the tilting seat added that much to the enjoyment of the movie, but the 3D was terrific. Not since "Avatar" have I felt that the extra dimension worked so well. I really felt as if I was in space and there is an especially moving moment involving a single tear. Some of the science may be suspect, but the brilliant special effects made it all too real for me.
It is rare to find a film that manages to combine an intelligent script
and treatment with a sustained sense of visceral excitement and
tension, but "Captain Phillips" pulls it off in brilliant style in a
manner not see since "Zero Dark Thirty". In both cases, the final
resolution comes in a non-triumphalist operation by Navy SEALs, but
here the mission is not to find and kill a known terrorist but to free
a kidnapped ship's captain whose location is perfectly known and whose
captors are the very antithesis of a man whose wealthy upbringing led
him to a perverse global vision. This is a tale of two very different
worlds: two captains, two ships, and local destitution pitted against
All the ingredients are there and mixed to consummate effect.
First, a compelling story: the true experiences of American captain Richard Phillips over a five day nightmare in April 2009 when his ship, the "Maersk Alabama", was boarded by four armed men off the coast of Somalia. Next, a sensitive treatment by scriptwriter Billy Ray ("State Of Play") who does not demonise the Somalians but puts their desperate action in the context of the over-fished coastline, appalling poverty and brutal warlordism of their failed state. Then the director: the brilliant British Paul Greengrass who brings us the urgent camera-work and cutting that so characterised "United 93" and two of the Bourne movies. He is helped by the location shooting at sea and the loan of some heavy-duty US Navy shipping which all adds to the verisimilitude that grabs you by the throat from the very beginning and never lets you go. The score by Henry Jackman seems to match your heart beat as the action unfolds and the tension mounts.
And then there is the acting. Tom Hanks - the source of so many wonderful performances over three decades - is simply splendid as the eponymous sea captain ("Cap" to his crew and "Irish" to his captors) and the final sequences especially are incredibly emotional. The revelation though is newcomer Barkhad Abdi - who was born in Somalia - as Muse, the leader of the khat-chewing pirates, the other captain, the man who dreams of being in America one day. The rest of the casting is spot on and, in the final scene, the US Navy medic is actually playing herself.
In short, "Captain Phillips" is film-making of the highest order and you should not miss it.
Australian information campaigner Julian Assange is a complex and
fascinating figure and WikiLeaks, the whistle-blower web site that he
founded, is a massively controversial project. So there is plenty of
challenging material at hand here, but this film does not quite come
off as the exciting and provocative narrative that it should have been.
Although Assange - currently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London - pleaded with Benedict Cumberbatch not to take the role, Cumberbatch gives a very convincing and spirited performance as the human rights advocate with an ego the size of the Internet. Many people who challenge the most powerful in our society are branded as self-centred and even delusional, but the truth is that one has to have exceptional self-belief and a passionate commitment to take on the elites of the world. This is not a flattering portrait of Assange by any means because it draws on two books critical of him by people who have worked most closely with him and who feel that they have in a sense been betrayed by him, notably the German WikiLeaks expert Daniel Domscheit- Berg (played by Daniel Brühl) and colleagues of the British "Guardian" investigative journalist Nick Cohen (David Thewlis).
In an age when the ability to obtain and store vast amounts of information on governments, corporations and individuals is ever more possible thanks to incredible development in technology, questions about the legitimacy of holding, using, abusing, and revealing such information are at the core of what privacy and protection mean in the age of all-powerful governments and armed fundamentalist groups. Some of these issues are raised in the movie. By focusing on one US state official (played by Laura Linney) and one informer against his corrupt government, we are asked to appreciate that simply revealing everything that is leaked without careful redaction and the provision of context - arguably best done by conventional media like the "Guardian" newspaper - is literally playing with life and death.
This is heavy stuff and director Bill Condon (previously director of bio-pics "Gods And Monsters" & "Kinsey") seeks to liven it up with some kinetic and flashy camera-work and surreal sets which actually detract from what needs to be a serious examination of an incredibly serious issue. The challenge was to make compelling story-telling and he does not quite pull that off. Part of the problem may be that stories are supposed to have a beginning, a middle and an end - although not necessarily in that order - and, in the case of Assange, the story is far from over and it may well be that Edward Snowden's story in the end will have the more impact and influence.
I went along to this movie thinking that it was a rom-com. There is
some romance and some comedy, but mainly this is a serious look at a
serious subject that the media usually finds difficult to treat
seriously: sex addiction. This is shown to be much like other
addictions, such as those to drink or drugs - utterly destructive of
the addict's personal and professional life and needing a great deal of
support to combat.
This is a brave choice of subject for co-writer and director Stuart Blumberg who also penned "The Kids Are Alright" which dealt with childrearing by a lesbian couple. What makes the film is the excellent cast which includes good-looking Mark Ruffalo (who was in "The Kids ...") as a sex addict, the ever gorgeous Gwyneth Paltrow as his new girlfriend, Tim Robbins as the leader of the addicts' support group, and the singer Alecia "Pink" Moore as another sex addict in only her second acting role. As a film, it has its weaknesses but it is an honourable attempt to deal with a sensitive subject in a way that balances honesty with entertainment.
In the winter of 1936-37, the Japanese occupation of Nanjing, then the
capital of China, was so unspeakably brutal that it was dubbed the rape
of Nanjing. Most people in the West have never heard of the event but,
in China, it is still an intensely raw issue. In recent years, two
Chinese films have been made about the occupation. In 2009, there was
"City Of Life And Death" directed by Lu Chuan. Then, in 2001, we had
"Flowers Of War" directed by Zhang Yimou.
"City Of Life And Death", which is unquestionably the far superior work, made little effort to appeal to a Western audience, although it did have a European character - the real-life John Rabe, known as the German Schindler - as a key character. "The Flowers Of War", however, was deliberately pitched at a Western audience: the chosen director had achieved considerable acclaim (and rightly so) for films like "Hero" and "House Of Flying Daggers"; the central character is a (fictional) American mortician played by Christian Bale (echoes of his much earlier role in "Empire Of The Sun"); almost half its dialogue is in English; and it was accorded a massive budget of some $100M from the Chinese Government and state-backed banks. At the domestic (Chinese) box office, it proved to be the highest-grossing Chinese production of all time but, in the United States, it was a total flop.
The story - drawn from a novel - is actually a powerful one: convent girls and prostitutes, with seemingly nothing in common, thrown together as they take refuge from the marauding Japanese inside a Catholic church where the priest is dead and their only hope is a drunken Westerner. While it is an invented tale, the context in which it is told was all too real and nothing that is shown or hinted at comes near the horror of what actually happened. So "The Flowers Of War" does not have the strengths of the more realistic "City Of Life And Death" but it is well worth viewing and would be instructive to Americans who think the Second World War started with Pearl Harbor.
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