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Isle of Dogs (2018)
Quirky and whimsical and charming
15 April 2018
If you live in London (as I do), then the Isle of Dogs is a former area of dockland bounded by a major meander in the River Thames. In this case of this move, however, it is a fictional island opposite the Japanese metropolis of Megasaki City headed by a cruel mayor who expels all dogs from the city to the island on the ground that they are a health threat to local citizens. It's not difficult to see this as a liberal-minded allegory for how we threat any group in society which is seen as different.

But this is not an overtly political film because of its utterly whimsical style - after all, this is a work directed and written by Wes Anderson who never does things conventionally and whose last production was the wonderful "The Grand Budapest Hotel". This time - as with his earlier "Fantastic Mr Fox" - the whole thing is a beautifully-rendered stop-motion animation with some striking visuals but, in spite of the certification and the involvement of a 12 year old pilot, this is not a children's film. It is just too quirky, with all the references to Japanese culture (including exciting taiko drumming) and the use of Japanese language (not always translated).

The speaking cast is simply incredible with a dozen well-known actors voicing the different dogs, including Bryan Cranstan, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, and Jeff Goldblum plus (in smaller roles) Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton. Some scenes seem random and unexplained, but the whole thing is so charming and enjoyable that it doesn't need to make complete sense to be an unusual delight of a movie.
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Aimed at a particular demographic where it will be a smash
13 April 2018
The much anticipated and hugely hyped latest directorial offering from cinematic wunderkind Steven Spielberg is visually stunning, set substantially in a fantastical virtual world of 2045 called The Oasis. An early visit to The Oasis involves a race and the experience is genuinely thrilling. The movie is also visually rich with an unbelievable number of allusions to (mainly 1970s and 1980s) pop culture - by some estimates around 300 so-called Easter eggs. It seems that every scene, every wall, every item of clothing features some (often subtle, even opaque) reference.

This is an enormous artifice to place on the shoulders of a largely young and under-known cast, notably Tye Sheridan as Parzival/Wade and Olivia Cooke as Art3mis/Samantha and the only stars in the work are British actors Mark Rylance and Simon Pegg who are hardly recognisable in their roles. Above all, this is a film which needs a more engaging plot as the discovery of three keys is just so, well, like a video game.

The problem could be that I'm not in the demographic at whom the movie is pitched and with whom it is doing so well: I've never played a video game and a lot of the pop culture appearances simply passed me by (for instance, I haven't see "The Shining" and don't want to). The clue is in the source material, since the movie is based on a young adult novel by Ernest Cline. But I acknowledge that, for many cinemagoers - especially younger ones - "Ready Player One" is going to be a smash that will need to be seen several times.
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Lady Bird (2017)
8/10
A rare treat of a movie
26 March 2018
It is such a rarity - but a delight - to see a maintstream movie both written and directed by a woman. As well as being a fine actress, Greta Gerwig has written before (notably "Frances Ha" and "Mistress America") but this is her directorial début. Astonishingly (but deservedly), at the age of just 34 this made her only the fifth woman in history to be nominated for a Best Director Academy Award and the first to be so honoured for her directorial début (but she did not win).

It is also uncommon - but again a pleasure - to have a leading role in a film with a decent budget taken by a young actress. Here Irish Saoirse Ronan plays the eponymous 17 year old American senior year high school student in this coming-of-age story. We first saw Ronan in "Atonement" but she has since proved to be an outstanding talent in work such as "Hanna" and "Brooklyn".

"Lady Bird" is clearly semi-autobiographical territory for Gerwig: the central character's real name is Christine (the name of Gerwig's mother); the narrative is set in the early 2000s when Gerwig herself was a teenager; and, like Christine, Gerwig went to a Catholic high school in Sacramento before studying at a liberal arts college in New York City.

But Gerwig does not romantise her central character who has acne and a poor hair dye and exhibits selfishness and anger as well as charm and humour in a narrative that is at turns poignant and funny but always engaging. Although the focus is on one girl in one year, the supporting characters - notably Lady Bird's parents and four friends (two girls and two boys) - are well-cast with Laura Metcalf especially impressive as the hard-pressed mother. In short, a rare treat of a movie which, at just 93 minutes, never overstays its warm welcome.
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Red Sparrow (2018)
An unusual work of some ambition but limited appeal
6 March 2018
A beautiful and talented actress decides to branch out into an action thriller in which she plays a tough secret agent, but this is not Charlize Theron in "Atomic Blonde", rather it is Jennifer Lawrence who has been making some bold choices since completing the "Hunger Games" franchise: "Joy", "Passengers", "Mother!" and now "Red Sparrow" - the last reuniting her with Francis Lawrence, the director of the last three "Hunger Games" films.

While her Russian accent is faltering, Lawrence is never less than compelling to watch as Dominika Egorova, a ballet dancer who suffers a career-crushing accident which compels her to become a 'sparrow', an espionage asset who uses seduction as a secret weapon.

From the beginning - intercutting between her final dance sequence and a nighttime park scene involving an American agent played by Joel Egerton - the movie is always gripping, densely plotted and endlessly dark, both visually and metaphorically, and it contains some genuinely disturbing sex and torture scenes, so this is not Katniss Everdeen we are viewing and Lawrence has exposed herself here both physically and psychologically.

It is hard to know, however, what makes her character so able both to take and inflict violence and to make the transition from ballerina to brutalist. So, in short, an unusual work of some ambition but limited appeal.
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The Commuter (I) (2018)
Starts well but goes off track
8 February 2018
"The Commuter" - a teasingly down-beat title for an action thriller - has the same director (Spanish Jaume Collet-Serra) and the same star (Irish Liam Neeson) as the earlier "Non-Stop" and indeed has essentially the same plot: a troubled hero with law enforcement skills trying to identify a key passenger on a tubular form of transport, last time an airliner and this time a commuter train. There is some flashy camera work, including a long shot seemingly taking us continuously the length of the train, and even an "I'm Spartacus" type scene.

It starts really well with a Hitchcock-type scenario where a mysterious woman (played by Vera Farmiga of whom we see too little) offers a recently sacked insurance saleman who used to be a cop $100,000 if he will just find someone who is not actually commuting before the train reaches the end of the line. The tale becomes increasingly twisted and unlikely but, at the time, it is entertainiung enough with plenty of thrills and spills unfolding in near real-time.
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A must-see that must win many awards
1 February 2018
When so many movies are franchise works or sequels or remakes, it's such a pleasure to find a genuinely original film like "Three Billboards". The plotting is unconventional with unexpected developments and most of the characters are complex (unfortunately two young women are presented as stereotypically dumb and a black cop as overly honourable).

This is a social drama in the vein of "Manchester By The Sea" where the central characters are suffering great pain and anguish but, unlike the earlier film, what starts with a sense of vengeance ends in a kind of redemption. Much of the credit for the movie's success has to go to the British Martin McDonagh who both wrote and directed, as he did in 2008 for "In Bruges", but he is well-deserved by an excellent cast.

Frances McDormand, Academy Award winner for "Fargo", is simply brilliant as Mildred Hayes, the mother of a girl who - as the middle of the three billboards states uncompromisingly - was "raped while dying". Although she initially has the viewer's unqualified sympathy, we are soon treated to words and actions from her that make clear that this is a woman who will say or do almost anything to advance what she sees as a righteous cause.

Woody Harrelson and especially Sam Rockwell give subtle performances as good cop and bad cop respectively in the Ebbing police station and, as the story develops, they - like Mildred - do not behave as you would expect. There is much physical and mental pain in this tale but also some black humour and unusual friendships. A real must-see.

Note: There is no Ebbing in Missouri and the film was largely shot in Sylva in North Carolina. The film has echoes of a use of billboards in a similar fashion over a long period in a place called Vidor in Texas where the killer has still not been identified.
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The Post (2017)
Cinematic gold and a timely reminder
22 January 2018
Steven Spielberg is one of the most commercially and critically successful directors in the history of Hollywood. Meryle Streep and Tom Hamks are among the very finest actors of their generation but, until now, have never appeared in the same movie. So a work which brings together these three titans of the screen has to be cinematic gold and so it proves to be.

The year is 1971, the Vietnam War continues to devour lives, and someone has leaked the Pentagon Papers, a 7,000-page study of American policy on the conflict commissioned by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The renowned "New York Times" accesses the Papers first but is blocked from further publication by the US Government headed by Richard Nixon. When a much smaller, more local newspaper, the "Washington Post", gets its hands on the review, its owner Katherine 'Kay' Graham (Streep) has to decide whether to follow the urging of editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) and risk the very existence of the paper by publication of the Pentagon's secrets.

Every viewer will know what happened but Spielberg makes the story genuinely gripping, aided by superb performances by Streep and Hanks and a fine script by newcomer Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (who wrote "Spotlight"). The period is wonderfully created with all the smoking, drinking and misogyny and all the visions of old technology (dial phones, pay phones, typewriters, vacuum tubes, and hot metal type). But the film - which was produced quickly without special effects - is so topical for our times, in showing both the need for women to be recognised and respected and the requirement for the American media to stand up to a bullying president.

"The Post" is a companion piece to "All The President's Men" (1976) since both films deal with the same newspaper and the same president. Indeed the final scene of the former is the first scene of the latter: the burglary at the Watergate offices. However, in 1976 nobody would have imagined that another American president would be so embroiled in nefarious activities and so hostile to the media. "The Post" is a wonderfully timely reminder that the price of freedom is indeed eternal vigilanc
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Darkest Hour (2017)
A tour de force by Oldman
20 January 2018
"Darkest Hour", an account of Winston Churchill's premiership in the few weeks before the evauation from Dunkirk in May 1940, can be seen as complementary to two other recent films: "Dunkirk" by director Christopher Nolan and "Churchill" with Brian Cox in the eponymous role. It may be a coincidence that all three works have appeared since the British people (narrowly) voted to leave the European Union, but each of them seems to intended remind us that historically this country has (sadly) always been insular both geographically and politically.

As cinema, "Darkest Hour", directed by Joe Wright ("Atonement") and scripted by Anthony McCarten ("The Theory Of Everything"), is an absolute treat. There are some very artful visual compositions and techniques but, above all, this film is made by its actors.

A barely recognisable Gary Oldman is simply brilliant as Churchill, conveying powerfully all the varied emotions for which this this complex (and controversial) character is known. This tour de force portrayal deserves all the awards which it will undoubtably win. But the support roles are also quality, notably Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, Ronald Pickup and Stephen Dilane as the appeasers Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax respectively, and Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James as the women - wife Clementine and secretary Miss Layton respectively - who calm the volcano that is the new PM.

As history, however, "Darkest Hour" has some serious weaknesses, especially because of something that is not shown and something that is presented as pivotal to the glorious finale.

The missing element of the story is the recognition that Churchill was not alone in opposing a peace settlement with Hitler; his Labour ministers - led by Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood (who have tiny roles in this film) - were equally determined to fight on. The scene to which one has to take great exception shows Churchill taking the London Underground and seeking the views of fellow travellers who conveniently are a cross section of the popuation but all back resistance to the Nazis. Not only did this incident never happen; it is quite frankly unthinkable and spoils what is otherwise an informative and gripping account of a huge turning point in British history.
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An oddity - but one that works
19 January 2018
This is an oddity of a film for at least three reasons. First, it tells an incredible story - except that it is true - of how the world's richest man J Paul Getty refused to pay the ransom after his 16 year old grandson was kidnapped by the 'Ndrangheta in Italy in 1973. Second, surprisingly it is directed by Ridley Scott who has previously been acclaimed for his science fiction movies (such as "Alien" and "Blade Runner") and history blockbusters (like "Gladiator" and "Exodus: Gods and Kings"). Third, the work had to be substantially reshot when sexual harrassment allegations against Kevin Spacey led to his replacement by Christopher Plummer as the aged plutocrat.

It has to be said that the reshooting was seemless and 88 year old Plummer - much more age-appropriate anyway than Spacey - gives an excellent performance. Mark Wahlberg is assured as ever in the role of intermediary between Getty and the criminal gang. French actor Romain Duris is convincing as one of the kidnappers who goes by the name Cinquanta. But it is Michelle Williams as the kidnapped son's mother who gives the most powerful and nuanced exposition of a cocktail of emotions. Kidnapping is a particularly terrible crime and, as it happens, at the time I saw this film I was reading a novel about a fictional child kidnapping ("The Couple Next Door" by Shari Lapena) and great wealth is a mixed blessing (not that I have any personal experience of this) and Scott tells a compelling, if downbeat, story.
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So visually inventive and verbally clever that it has become a classic.
27 December 2017
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.
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Fun but flawed
17 December 2017
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.
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A stylist bloodiest - so not fort all tastes
13 December 2017
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.
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A moving true story
3 December 2017
Warning: Spoilers
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).
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A film to divide critics and public
24 November 2017
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.
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Paddington 2 (2017)
Somehow - and thankfully - as good as the first
13 November 2017
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.
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Go along for the ride
7 November 2017
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.
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Breathe (I) (2017)
Well-made and life-affirming
6 November 2017
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.
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Ultimately more chilling than comedic
2 November 2017
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.
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Unexpected fun
1 November 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.
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An under-known and under-appreciated film.
28 October 2017
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.
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The Party (I) (2017)
A real oddity - but in a delightful way
14 October 2017
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.
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An uplifting (true) tale well told by people who care
11 October 2017
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).
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The wait is over, the fear is dispelled, another classic is born
9 October 2017
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".
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Better than "The Emoji Movie"
9 October 2017
"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.
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Over the top - but (mostly) deliciously so
2 October 2017
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 ...
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