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Cinema Lists

The Best Films of 2014

* The following list is in alphabetical order *

’71 (Dir. Yann Demange): The Troubles in Northern Ireland have inspired some very bad films (A Prayer for the Dying), some excellent ones (Bloody Sunday) and some masterpieces (Hunger). This intelligent and absorbing examination of a British soldier (Jack O’Connell) on the run in Belfast, during 1971, can be safely added to the ‘excellent’ category. Although parts of the film owe a debt to Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947), albeit in reverse, it remains a pulsating historical drama. Mostly set over one hellish night in the city, the performances, production design and visuals are deeply impressive and bode well for newcomer Yann Demange.

A Most Wanted Man (Dir. Anton Corbijn): The last significant performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of his best, playing a German spymaster in this John Le Carre adaptation. Set in Hamburg post-9/11, it examines the tensions and suspicions that abound between the U.S. and German security services. This comes to a head when a Chechen refugee turns up in the city who may (or may not) pose a security threat. Corbijn evokes the mood and nuances of Le Carre’s world, whilst cinematographer Benoit Delhomme shoots an appropriately gloomy Hamburg in blues and greys. A rare and bold contemporary thriller, which actually embraces the complexities of our times, instead of shunning them.

Birdman (Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu): One of the most inventive and technically accomplished films of recent years was this darkly comic exploration of a washed up Hollywood actor (Michael Keaton) trying to reignite his career on Broadway. It plays like a brilliantly audacious mashup of Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) and is laced with some delicious supporting performances from Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts. The extraordinary cinematography which glues the film together could spell another Oscar for DP Emmanuel Lubezki.

Boyhood (Dir. Richard Linklater): Perhaps the most conceptually ambitious film project of the modern era, this film was shot over several years, from 2002 to 2013, and follows a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) – and his older sister (Lorelei Linklater) – from childhood to adulthood. Director Linklater demonstrates his trademark eye for human behaviour and the performances are uniformly excellent – especially Patricia Arquette as the boy’s mother – and the seamless time transitions are perhaps the most impressive aspect of all. Is it as powerful as Michael Apted’s pioneering Up documentaries? Probably not, but in terms of US filmmaking this is an unusually daring and satisfying film in an era of safety first thinking from the major studios.

Calvary (Dir. John Michael McDonagh): Although this Irish drama bore some similarities to McDonagh’s last film, The Guard (2011), it was darker in tone and content. The tale of an Irish priest (Brendan Gleeson) who hears a troubling confession explores the light and shade of modern Ireland with a knowing, morbid wit. Gleeson stood out in an impressive ensemble cast, but Kelly Reilly was also notable in a key supporting role as his troubled daughter. Over the last twenty years, Ireland has undergone seismic political, financial and cultural changes, which are reflected in this grimly comic exploration of a small coastal town.

Citizenfour (Dir. Laura Poitras): Perhaps the most riveting cinematic experience of the year for me was experiencing the inside story of the Edward Snowden leaks. The former NSA contractor who contacted Poitras and two Guardian journalists (Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill) about the post-9/11 eavesdropping activities of the US government. What gives the film real power is the sense of being in the Hong Kong hotel room as Snowden reveals the initial secrets, the tension of them getting caught at any time and the consequences of what might happen next. A remarkable document of an incredible story, as tense and thrilling as any fictional film.

Foxcatcher (Dir. Bennett Miller): Bizarre and disturbing real life events are the backdrop for this compelling drama about two Olympic wrestlers (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) and their relationship with one of America’s richest men. That man was John du Pont (played with eerie intensity by Steve Carrell), a philanthropist and wrestling enthusiast. The film is something of a blank slate, preferring suggestion over explanation, but this is a powerful tool in exploring themes such as patriotism, class and the seedy underbelly of the late Regan era. Since his rarely-seen debut film The Cruise (1998), Miller has often drawn from the enigmas and oddities of real life and packaging them with considerable intelligence.

Gone Girl (Dir. David Fincher): This love letter to Hitchcock was a smart adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel, tailor made for the sensibilities of David Fincher. When his wife (Rosamund Pike) goes missing, a Missouri husband (Ben Affleck) slowly enters a hellish nightmare of trial by media. Using a highly effective flashback structure, it Fincher uses his formidable array of skills to dissect and dismember the institution of marriage. The performances from the leads and supporting cast are all first-rate and Tyler Perry was an unexpected jewel as a high-profile ambulance chasing lawyer.

Interstellar (Dir. Christopher Nolan): A sci-fi epic which blended theoretical astrophysics with human emotions was always going to be a tricky feat to pull off. Thankfully Nolan just about achieved it with this story of futuristic Earth on the brink of dying and the NASA mission to save it. Headed by a former pilot turned engineer/farmer (Matthew McConaughey) forced to abandon his young daughter and family, the depiction of space travel is realised with tremendous verve and clever use of sets and visual effects. Although its grasp sometimes exceeded its reach, it was a bold and unusual blockbuster filled with ambitious ideas.

Life Itself (Dir. Steve James): A documentary about a film critic might seem an esoteric, even indulgent, project, but when the subject is the late Roger Ebert and the director is Steve James it immediately becomes more tantalising. After the acclaim that followed its premiere at Sundance, I was expecting something good, but not quite the heartfelt and fascinating tribute James created. Aside from his storied career as a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, it reveals numerous other nuggets including work with Russ Meyer (!) and backstage spats with fellow TV critic Gene Siskel. Interviews with his wife Chaz and a wide circle of friends paint a moving and unflinching picture of a remarkable man.

Mr. Turner (Dir. Mike Leigh): A slow burn portrait of the famous Victorian painter J. M. W. Turner, was greatly aided by a tremendous central performance from Timothy Spall in the title and some dazzling visuals by cinematographer Dick Pope. Interestingly it begins when he is firmly established as an artist and covers the last 25 years of his life. This means we see a reflective Turner coping with a complicated private life and critics disliking his later, unconventional style. One can still detect a defiant spirit (the list of credited financiers seem to indicate Leigh’s determination to get it made). The result is also a richly layered portrait which ranks highly amongst Leigh’s best.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir. Wes Anderson): A delicious layer cake of a movie, Wes Anderson crafted his most elaborate and ambitious project yet. Inspired by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, the madcap story involves a concierge (Ralph Fiennes) who needs the help of one of his employees (Tony Revolori) to prove his innocence after being framed for murder. A wonderful ensemble cast featuring F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Edward Norton and Willem Dafoe (among others) is headed by Fiennes, who gives one of the best performances of the year, showing a lovely comic touch. Some people simply don’t like Wes Anderson’s intricate style of filmmaking, but even arch sceptics might be tempted by this.

The Imitation Game (Dir. Morten Tyldum): When World War 2 codebreaker Alan Turing got a posthumous pardon from the UK government, it was a sad reminder of how a great hero of the war could be a victim of prejudice on the home front. Norwegian director Tyldum also brings a compelling pace to this adaptation, whilst juggling the complexities of Turing’s life and work. Cumberbatch is very strong in the lead role, whilst Mark Strong brings a enigmatic gravitas to his role as a shadowy MI6 agent. The production design by Maria Djurkovic impressively recreates three periods (1930s, 40s, 50s) and is aided by some sharp camera work which involves a subtly altered visual sheen for each.

The Rover (Dir. David Michôd): This follow up to Michôd’s stunning debut, Animal Kingdom (2010), didn’t quite reach the dizzy heights of that film but was still a stellar effort from the gifted Australian director. Set in a lawless post-apocalyptic world, the plot sees a loner (Guy Pearce) have his car stolen by a gang who have left a member behind (Robert Pattinson). It then becomes a fusion of genres, principally drawing from the Western and road movie. Although it bears some similarities to The Road (2009), this has a slightly more arid and oppressive atmosphere, partly due to the hot conditions of the Australian Outback. Filled with intriguing surprises, whether it be strange characters or bizarre actions, the pay off when it comes is a corker.

The Theory of Everything (Dir. James Marsh): The life story of another British genius, only this time the subject was the theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking. Although at times it borders on hagiography, director Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten manage to steer the film away from too much sentiment. The bulk of the narrative deals with Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones) as they fall in love at Cambridge in the late 1960s and have to deal with motor neurone disease. Redmayne bears a strong resemblance to the Hawking and does a fine job in portraying the younger and older man. Beautifully lit by Benoît Delhomme and directed with precision by James Marsh.

> 2014 in film
> Critic Picks from 2014 on Metacritic
> The Best Films of 2013

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Cinema Reviews

Life Itself

Steve James is one of the best filmmakers of his generation, and his latest documentary is a deeply insightful portrait of the life and legacy of US film critic Roger Ebert.

A US film critic might sound like an unlikely subject for a full length feature, but as James Joyce once wrote:

“In the particular is contained the universal”

This quote rings especially true here: a cornucopia of experiences and emotions compressed into a moving narrative via through the lens of an individual life.

Using Ebert’s 2009 memoir as a platform, the basic outline involves: his formative years in Urbana, Illinois; a long career in print at the Chicago Sun-Times and subsequently on television with Gene Siskel; it concludes with his final years, where he lost his old voice to cancer but found a new one online.

Peppered throughout are startling scenes of the ‘other’ Roger: the screenwriter who co-wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) with Russ Meyer and a never-made project with the Sex Pistols; the prodigious journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, but nearly drank himself into oblivion.

He was also an early champion of directors such as Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, all of whom talk warmly of him, even when he disliked some of their work. (Herzog even ended up dedicating his 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World to his fellow ‘soldier of cinema’.)

There are also some hilarious outtakes from the TV show he presented with rival Chicago critic Gene Siskel. Whether it was squabbling like a married couple over Full Metal Jacket (1987) or whose name should come first on the title (Siskel won out), both found the Yin to the others Yang.

Crucially though, the rich archival and interview material is skilfully weaved in with the personal: his beloved wife Chaz who provided critical emotional and practical support in his later years.

Diagnosed with cancer in 2002, his condition eventually led to him losing his lower jaw and ability to speak.

However, as an early adopter of the web, he eventually found a new audience through his voice-activated computer, an extensive website and on Twitter.

It was in the medium, which almost seemed invented for him, that he wrote deeply powerful meditations on not just the latest films, but his own existence and, by extension, ours.

Four years before his death in 2013 he wrote:

“I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting.”

These words are used at one point in the film and I suspect they have special resonance for director Steve James. His documentaries, which include Hoop Dreams (1994) and The Interrupters (2011), are often fascinating, humane explorations of people’s lives in Chicago.

The Windy City is an almost tangible presence in this film, it was the place where Ebert penned his reviews at his beloved newspaper (The Sun-Times), where he married his soulmate Chaz and where he found a nationwide platform to champion films like Hoop Dreams.

For James, Life Itself feels like the culmination of an unofficial Chicago trilogy, but it is also seems to be the most personal of his works: a joyous celebration of a man who loved movies, people and life.

> Official website for Life Itself and Twitter feed
> Get local listings via Dogwoof, pre-order the DVD or rent or buy via iTunes UK
> RogerEbert.com

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Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Interstellar

A film of enormous ambition and stunning technical accomplishment, director Christopher Nolan’s space epic dares to dream big and mostly succeeds, even if its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp.

Set in a dystopian future where Earth’s resources are running dry, widowed farmer, engineer and ex-test pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is confronted with a dilemma when offered the chance to lead a last-ditch mission to save humanity by the elderly NASA physicist Professor Brand (Michael Caine).

This involves using custom-built spacecraft, advanced theoretical astrophysics and travelling to the far reaches of space and time. Apart from the obvious risks, he will have to leave his family behind: young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and son Tom (Timothee Chalamet), who are both devastated to see him go.

Joined by Brand’s own scientist daughter (Anne Hathaway), two other NASA (Wes Bentley and David Gyasi) and a multifunctional robot called TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), the team venture into the unknown, searching for potentially habitable worlds.

To say much more about their mission would be entering dangerous spoiler territory, suffice to say that what they experience in deep space is truly a sight to behold.

Nolan’s own challenge was to blend real-life theoretical science (with the help of world-renowned physicist Kip Thorne), interstellar space travel grounded in a semi-plausible way, and finally to explore the emotional toll this takes on human beings.

It is a tall order and using a blend of practical and digital effects, and a scientifically literate script, the writer-director weaves a patchwork of influences which he just about pulls it off.

The twists and turns of the story may be too much for some on first viewing, but this one where you have to strap in and embrace the ride into other worlds.

Dust-filled Earth and chilly deep space are realised with stunning clarity and imagination: cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let The Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) shoots the dark wonders of space and other worlds with a piercing intensity.

Visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin complements these with seamless digital transitions, working from stock NASA imagery and Thorne’s theories, the work he and his team at Double Negative have achieved here is truly exceptional.

Editor Lee Smith also brings a wonderfully brisk pace to an epic that lasts 166 mins, whilst utilising the crosscutting technique that Nolan used to such great effect in his Batman trilogy (2005-12) and Inception (2010).

The production design by Nathan Crowley, costumes by Mary Zophres and sound design by Richard King all create a rich, immersive and at times even tactile quality, which is surprising for a film as expansive as this.

Given all the technical brilliance at work here, and perhaps because of it, the performances of the actors are occasionally dwarfed by the sheer scale, but McConaughey, Foy, Hathaway and Irwin are the standouts.

McConaughey especially delivers the goods as the engineer burdened with courage and a seemingly impossible inner conflict and Ellen Burstyn burns brightly in a small, but critical role.

Surprises abound in Interstellar, and although the obvious sci-fi influences are here – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – perhaps less expected are traces of Reds (1981), Field of Dreams (1989), The Abyss (1989), Solaris (2002) and Sunshine (2007).

Like Nolan’s other films it will almost certainly repay repeated viewing, but it bears all the hallmark of his very best work: smart, technically accomplished and leaving the viewer with a desire to experience it all over again.

> Official website
> Reviews at Metacritic
> Interstellar at the IMDb
> Roundtable interview with Nolan and his cast with THR (26 mins)

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Cinema Festivals Reviews

LFF 2014: Mr. Turner

Director Mike Leigh brings the life of Victorian painter J. M. W. Turner to the screen, with the help of a tremendous central performance from Timothy Spall and some dazzling visuals by cinematographer Dick Pope.

Covering the last 25 years of his life, we begin with Turner (Spall) at the peak of his career, a somewhat eccentric but brilliant landscape painter who commands respect among his peers, despite (in their eyes) coming from a more modest background.

The narrative also delves into various relationships over this period: his doting elderly father (Paul Jesson); housekeeper and lover (Dorothy Atkinson); an estranged partner (Ruth Sheen), with whom he has fathered children; a landlady he meets on a trip to Margate (Marion Bailey); Scottish polymath Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) and art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire).

Whilst all of those actors shine in supporting roles, it is Spall who dominates with a performance of rare quality. The physical movement, intensity, and rough edges he brings to Turner are all a delight to watch, but he also manages to use silence to express the painter’s emotional distance from people.

The slow-burn episodic narrative is effective in immersing us into his world. Details of his life are presented, but they always seem to be in the shadow of his artistic obsessions.

The technical presentation of these is remarkable, as Leigh and his long time cinematographer Dick Pope have crafted a visual look, which uses Turner’s work as a reference point. Added to this, the production design by Suzie Davies, art direction by Dan Taylor and costumes by Jacqueline Durran are all impeccable.

The choice to use the digital ARRI Alexa camera was an interesting one, as the film looks very analogue, but perhaps shooting on digital offered greater latitude in capturing colour and light. After all, embracing new methods in order to capture light is essentially what Turner was doing in his later period.

Whether you are an expert or being introduced to Turner, this is one of the best recreations of an artist, and ranks alongside Pollock (2000), Le Belle Noiseuse (1991) and Van Gogh (1991) as one of the best depictions of a painter at work.

Some art historians, even one who actually advised on the film, have quibbled about details, but the wider thematic point seems to be the conflicts a mature artist has to face when he has already broken through and achieved a great deal of respect.

The choice to eschew the ‘early years’ was a wise one, and perhaps the result of Leigh’s own introspective thoughts as an established filmmaker who still feels like an outsider in an industry filled with social and financial restraints.

Questions like: ‘What have I really achieved?’, ’What is my art worth?’ and ‘Why do I do what I do?’ seem to be in the air, both for the director and subject of this film.

Leigh has always carved out his own identity in an industry susceptible to conformity and now at 71, he is regarded as one of the great British directors.

In Mr. Turner one can still detect a defiant spirit (the list of financiers on the credits seem to indicate his determination to get it made) and a certain satisfaction in going his own way.

The result is also deeply satisfying, a richly layered portrait of an artist that ranks highly amongst Leigh’s best work.

Mr. Turner screened at the London Film Festival on Friday 10th and Saturday 11th October 2014

> Mr. Turner at the LFF
> Watch the official trailer
>
 Find out more about J.M.W. Turner at Wikipedia

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Cinema Festivals Reviews Thoughts

LFF 2014: The Imitation Game

The story of World War Two codebreaker Alan Turing is brought to the big screen with class, compassion and a standout performance from Benedict Cumberbatch.

Based largely on Andrew Hodge’s biography, it employs a well-worn but effective flashback device which sees the maths genius (Cumberbatch) relate his story to a police officer in the early 1950s.

As the story unfolds we see how a seemingly odd bachelor in Manchester, with a fondness for electronics projects, was in the previous decades a maths prodigy who would become crucial in defeating the Nazis, and in the process help lay the blueprint for modern computing.

The real life events that inspired this version are both extraordinary and complex, but screenwriter Graham Moore has wisely woven them in to his nicely honed screenplay, with only a handful of overwritten moments (most of them involving his childhood).

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum also brings a compelling pace to proceedings, whilst juggling the complexities of Turing’s life and work with how it affected those around him.

Production designer Maria Djurkovic impressively recreates three time periods (1930s, 40s, 50s) and is aided by some sharp camera work which results in a subtly altered visual sheen for each.

In key supporting roles, it is Mark Strong who stands out as a shadowy MI6 agent, bringing an enigmatic gravitas to his role. Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode, as fellow codebreakers, also do solid work in fairly underwritten parts.

This is a far superior film to Enigma (2001), the Michael Apted film which covered the same story with a somewhat hackneyed thriller premise, which seemed to turn away from the goldmine of the central protagonist.

Perhaps the shrewdest thing this film does is to embrace the puzzle of Turing himself: war hero; rebel; math genius; autistic savant; and finally a victim of the British society he had helped to save.

That the final film works as well as it does, is in large part down to Cumberbatch’s performance.

Although at times it borders on being a little too mannered, it nonetheless feels like we’ve been in the presence of Turing for the duration of the film.

Convincing whether he is answering back to his superiors or colleagues, fragile when worrying about his emotions, and belligerent that his vision will work no matter what, it is the range of emotions on display that make this his best screen performance to date.

Ultimately, the wider story is a bittersweet one, with a war hero unable to see what profound impacts his ideas had on World War II and the development of the computer and the field of artificial intelligence.

The Imitation Game does not seek to sugarcoat Turing’s legacy, nor is it an ‘issue film’ about Britain of the time.

Instead, it acknowledges the complexities of both the man and the times, whilst wrapping it up in a accessible narrative that acknowledges the profound impact he had on the world.

The Imitation Game opened the London Film Festival on Wednesday 8th October

> Official website
> Find out more about Alan Turing on Wikipedia

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Cinema Lists

The Best Films of 2013

Best of 2013

* The following list is in alphabetical order *

12 Years a Slave (Dir. Steve McQueen): The British director brought us a stunning historical drama with its haunting depiction of US slavery. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender were the highlights of an outstanding ensemble cast.

All is Lost (Dir. J.C. Chandor): Robert Redford alone on a sinking boat provided a multifaceted drama of survival, with Redford’s best role in years. After his brilliant debut Margin Call (2011), Chandor is clearly a talent to watch.

Before Midnight (Dir. Richard Linklater): The conclusion (?) to a unique trilogy provided director Richard Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy another opportunity to explore their charming characters in another beautiful setting.

Blue Is The Warmest Colour (Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche): An intimate epic of the heart, this year’s Palme D’or winner featured two outstanding lead performances (Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux) and a refreshing approach to portraying relationships on screen.

Blue Jasmine (Dir. Woody Allen): The rise and fall of a rich society wife (Cate Blanchett) provided rich pickings for Allen and his superb supporting cast featuring Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin and Andrew Dice Clay. A bittersweet treat with a memorable lead performance.

Captain Phillips (Dir. Paul Greengrass): This true life tale of a US tanker captain (Tom Hanks) taken hostage by Somali pirates (led by Barkhad Abdi) was an expertly constructed thriller that also managed to examine the sharp end of globalization.

Enough Said (Dir. Nicole Holofcener): One of the lighter pleasures of the year was a romantic comedy that was both clever and funny. A middle-age romance between two divorcees (Julia Louise Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini), it contained numerous delights.

Gravity (Dir. Alfonso Cuaron): Perhaps the most ambitious film of the year was this stunning drama, with two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) adrift in space. Cuaron, DP Emmanuel Lubezki and VFX maestro Tim Webber took on screen visuals to another level.

Inside Llewyn Davis (Dir. The Coen Bros): The New York folk scene of 1961 provided the backdrop for this bittersweet tale of a struggling folk singer (Oscar Isaac). Intricately crafted, with a great soundtrack produced by T Bone Burnett and a great cat, this is top-tier Coens.

Nebraska (Dir. Alexander Payne): Another road movie from the director of About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004) provided a great role for veteran Bruce Dern in the twilight of his career. Shot in atmospheric black and white, the supporting cast is also note perfect.

Short Term 12 (Dir. Destin Daniel Cretton): One of the unexpected delights of the year was this beautifully crafted drama set in a foster home. Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr were excellent in the lead roles but there are many aspects to admire, not least Cretton’s direction.

The Act of Killing (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer): One of the most disturbing and unique documentaries in film history, Oppenheimer secured a remarkable degree of access amongst the former death squads of the Indonesian revolution. A landmark work.

The Great Beauty (Dir. Paolo Sorrentino): Wonderfully rich look at the twilight of the Berlusconi era, with Tony Servillo again proving an excellent foil for his director. As usual for Sorrentino, the visuals and location shooting are of the highest order.

Upstream Colour (Dir. Shane Carruth): Returning from a 9-year absence, Carruth crafted a dazzling puzzlebox of a film, performing multiple duties (acting, writing, directing and music) alongside his impressive co-star Amy Seimetz. Fascinating, complex and brilliant.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Philomena (Dir. Stephen Frears)
Iron Man 3 (Dir. Shane Black)
Mystery Road (Dir. Ivan Sven)
The Look of Love (Dir. Michael Winterbottom)
The East (Dir. Zal Batmangajli)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Dir. Martin Scorsese)

Find out more about the films of 2013 at Wikipedia
End of year lists at Metacritic

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Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Nebraska

Will Forte Bruce Dern and June Squibb in Nebraska

Director Alexander Payne returns to his native state for another wry look at the American midwest and the characters who populate his goofy, desolate cinematic landscape.

In a marked change from the picturesque setting and vibrant colours of his last two films, The Descendants (2011) and Sideways (2004), here we go back the grey Nebraskan skies of his earlier work Election (1999).

Even more than that, Payne has opted for black and white, an unusual visual choice these days and one that invites comparisons to films like The Last Picture Show (1971), with its depiction of things ageing and slowly dying.

This central theme drives the story which revolves around Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a grumpy and partially senile old man who seems convinced he has won a million dollars, just because he has received a certificate in the mail.

Despite trying to convince him that the letter is a scam, his son David (Will Forte) decides to accompany him on the long trip from Billings, Montana to their home state of Lincoln, Nebraska where they meet family and old friends, some of who believe his story about the $1m.

All of this unfurls in classic Payne fashion: there are shrewd observations about family dynamics; a lingering sense of comic frustration and some truly memorable supporting characters, including Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) and an old work partner (Stacey Keach).

Working from Bob Nelson’s original screenplay, this marks the first time the director hasn’t had a hand in writing one of his films. But the material is a nice fit and the road movie structure and odd-couple dialogue has parallels with Sideways (2004).

Although the backdrop couldn’t be more different, there is an acute eye for detail and the bittersweet nature of relationships, especially the effect time and money has on our lives. In its own way, this is a sly parable about the illusory nature of the American Dream.

At the same time there is a lot of heart beneath the surface of these lives and one suspects that Payne sympathises with Woody’s plight, whilst not being too precious about his shortcomings, as evidenced in comic scenes where he visits Mount Rushmore or loses his false teeth.

The decision to use black and white (it was shot in colour and converted in post-production) whilst creating an elegiac tone, also allows cinematographer Phedon Papamichael to indulge in different lighting choices, which are interesting for such contemporary material.

Dern has often been cast in secondary roles, but here at the twilight of his career he gives a wonderfully nuanced performance. He’s cranky and unpredictable, yet somehow manages to paint a sympathetic portrait of a man sliding into the fog of old age.

Forte provides an effective foil as his adult son trying to understand his father better, Bob Odenkirk is nicely vain as the other son (a local TV newsreader), whilst Squibb gets the most belly laughs as the dominant matriarch.

The musical score by Mark Orton, with its use of guitars and strings, also sets a distinctive mood throughout.

> Official site
> Reviews at Metacritic

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Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The Counsellor

Javier Bardem and Michael Fassbender in The Counsellor

The screenwriting debut of novelist Cormac McCarthy sees him team up with director Ridley Scott for a bleak tale set amidst the drug trade of the US-Mexican border region.

When a shady lawyer (Michael Fassbender) gets caught up in a transaction gone wrong, he starts to fully realise that his world may be a cesspit of corruption of murder, endangering not only him but his fiancee (Penelope Cruz).

Employed by a flamboyant Mexican dealer (Javier Bardem), who has a strangely sinister girlfriend (Cameron Diaz), he is warned by a business associate named Westray (Brad Pitt) that Mexican cartels can be ruthless and unforgiving when crossed.

Although an original screenplay, we are firmly in ‘McCarthy-land’, where human suffering is seemingly around every corner and harsh punishment is meted out in remorseless ways.

Ridley Scott has long been interested in bringing the novelist’s Blood Meridian to the screen and he’s admitted that when the option to make this film came up, he jumped at the chance.

The result is a dark and strange film, defiantly going against the grain of conventional studio filmmaking, with its sordid scenes of sex and violence marking it out as a rarity in the current climate of animation and safety-first blockbusters.

It may have one of the most in-demand casts of recent memory, but it largely plays them against type – Fassbender is a naive protagonist, Bardem a surreal supporting act, Diaz a wild femme fatale and Pitt a larger-than-life cowboy, with only Cruz playing it straight.

None of them are untainted by their world (although some are more tainted than others) and initially life seems good for the title character as he indirectly reaps the rewards of the drug trade before foolishly succumbing to his greedier instinct, although ironically it is a benevolent act that triggers the main events of the film.

Although the characters are distinctive, the real stars here are the writer and director: McCarthy has managed to create his grim but often disturbingly plausible visions intact, whilst Scott can do this kind of drama in his sleep as the plot unwinds with clockwork efficiency.

Scott has often been accused of being more interested in visuals than characters, but that makes him a perfect fit for this material, where humans really are pawns, and whilst McCarthy’s screenplay will undoubtedly enrage screenwriting gurus, this is no bad thing.

An early scene involving rabbits being chased and hunted by cheetahs is a forewarning of what is to come: shootings, beheadings, strangulation by weird devices.

This is a brutal world in which we see people in over their heads, affected by forces out of their control.

The oddness of the material extends to the quality — parts of the film are highly effective and stay with you long after the final credits roll, but there is also a strange familiarity here.

This may be because Cormac McCarthy has been such a cultural influence on the border region of Mexico and the US: after Breaking Bad (2008-13) and the Coen Brothers’ masterful adaptation of his own No Country for Old Men (2007), there seems to be a sense of déjà vu running throughout the film.

Despite this, there is something to admire in how it boldly defies conventions and stays true to the spirit of the screenwriter’s vision.

Some audiences will be repulsed by aspects of The Counsellor but like a fine wine may be more appreciated in the years to come.

> Official site
> Reviews at Metacritic

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Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2013: Saving Mr. Banks

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks

The story behind the film version of Mary Poppins (1964) is the subject of a clever and charming new film about the clash between the English author Pamela ‘PL’ Travers and famed studio head Walt Disney.

When we first see the elder Travers (Emma Thompson) in 1961 she is running short of money, due to declining book sales, and her agent is urging her to accept the offer of a trip to Los Angeles to meet Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), the mogul who has pursued the rights to the project for 20 years.

Having promised his two daughters to turn their favourite book into a movie, he is very keen on the idea of a big budget musical, granting her full creative input into the project, something he rarely did.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t realise that Travers actively hates the idea of a musical and resists almost all the suggestions from the creative team at the studio (a trio played by Bradley Whitford, B. J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman).

Gradually, through flashback, we discover the reasons for her reluctance may lie in her childhood, when she grew up in Australia with a loving but troubled father (Colin Farrell).

On the surface, this may appear like another slickly produced Disney feel-good comedy.

Whilst it is certainly all that, the film has its own interesting backstory.

The origins of the project lie in a 2002 TV documentary about Travers, which eventually led to Allison Owen coming on board as producer and eventually a script credited to Sue Smith and Kelly Marcel made 2011s ‘Black List’ (an unofficial survey of the years best unproduced scripts).

Then, in a strange reverse parallel to the film, the producers had to persuade the notoriously sensitive Disney that they would not trample on Walt’s legacy.

Eventually, the Mouse House relented to the first ever depiction of Walt Disney on screen and the finished film is mostly a charming surprise.

This is due in large part to Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, whose constant sparring provides a lot of the comedic sparks.

Thompson’s Travers is a perpetually defiant English woman who manages to hide a troubled past, whilst Hanks plays Disney as a loveable, charming uncle who’s drive and ambition are never far from the surface.

To an extent, the film glosses over the thornier aspects of each character: there is no mention of Travers’ unconventional personal life or the darker side of Disney. However, this is not entirely a bad thing as a warts-and-all drama would have been out of the question for a mainstream Disney release.

But the end result is not just a sanitised product but a rather sly portrait of a spanner in the Hollywood machine.

It is in essence an exploration of ‘creative differences’ — that well-worn phrase so beloved of Tinseltown to maintain the idea that idea that raging rows were amicable disagreements.

Some of the funniest scenes in Saving Mr. Banks come in the rehearsal room, where Travers is aghast at some of the songs and suggestions that are now so beloved by fans of the 1964 film.

These are executed with a light touch that is unfortunately not true of the extended flashback sequences which dwell a bit too clumsily on her childhood.

Make no mistake, this is a manipulative film and the hiring of Thomas Newman to score it only adds to its seductive power, with his lush hanging strings and signature instrumentation providing a lightness to the comedy and emotion to the drama.

As Walt Disney ultimately persuades P.L. Travers to accept the idea of a movie, we can see what a driven man he was, whilst at the LA premiere we can be moved at the author’s reaction to the film, even if that may not have been exactly as presented here.

She told the BBC in 1977 that she had ‘learned to live with the film,’ which is a hardly a ringing endorsement.

But then maybe this film, like the musical and the original book, is just another pleasurable fantasy.

Is pleasure such a bad thing?

Saving Mr. Banks closed the London Film Festival on Sunday 20th October

(It opens in the UK on November 26th)

> Official site
> Reviews of the film at Metacritic

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Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2013: All is Lost

Robert Redford in All is Lost

One man adrift in the Indian Ocean is the premise for J.C. Chandor’s second film, a compelling tale of survival against the odds.

Opening with a brief, mournful monologue of an enigmatic sailor (Robert Redford), we hear a crash and are plunged back a few days to when his boat, the Virgina Jean, collided with a large metal cargo container.

We immediately see he is calm under pressure, scooping out water and doing the best he can under the circumstances: patching up the hole and trying to fix the wet radio.

Who is this man?

Cryptically listed in the credits as ‘Our Man’, perhaps he is a retired businessman who took up sailing. Maybe he is a professional sailor. Who knows?

Perhaps he represents any human being caught up in a desperate situation. The point of this film is to put us in there with him as he battles the elements.

Chandor and his crew slowly build the tension as we see all manner of obstacles: the leaking boat, storms and sharks.

Apart from a few words, it is free of dialogue, meaning there is a relentless focus on Redford and his situation.

This is surprisingly riveting, as previously routine acts such as putting up a sail or jumping into a raft become critically important.

But Chandor also has a few more tricks up his sleeve, most notably the casting of Redford. The movie star brings a grizzled gravitas to his part in what is his best work in years.

Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco brings an immediacy to the action on the boat, whilst visualising the beauty and danger of the oceanic environment.

Cleverly blending in location shooting with work in tanks and visual effects, it paints a hauntingly plausible scenario of what it is to be stuck at sea.

The sound design is outstanding and the large sound team, headed by Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns, does sterling work in capturing the many different aural textures aboard the boat, life raft and ocean.

For writer-director J.C. Chandor this marks another remarkable film after his feature debut, Margin Call (2011).

That still remains the best feature about the financial crisis, and seems to be a world away from All is Lost.

But look closely and there may be parallel themes: crisis, dread and the aforementioned survival.

The building and firm in Margin Call which created their own financial problems could be a cousin to the boat in All is Lost – both are sinking fast.

With these two films Chandor has already created powerful parables for our time and the degree of skill and intelligence he applies to his work only makes me hungry for his future work.

All is Lost screened at the London Film Festival on Oct 12th, 13th and 14th

(It opens in the UK on December 26th)

> Official site, Facebook page and Twitter
> Reviews at Metacritic

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Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2013: 12 Years a Slave

Chewitel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

Based on the true life experiences of a free black man forced into slavery, Steve McQueen’s latest work is a stunning achievement.

The kidnapping and enslavement of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from 1841 until 1853 form the spine of this harrowing tale.

Northup endures a hellish odyssey as he is chained and sailed down to New Orleans, where he encounters the brutal truths of the slave trade.

One owner is relatively benevolent (Benedict Cumberbatch) but his psychotic assistant (Paul Dano) forces a sale, meaning Northup eventually ends up picking cotton for the ruthless Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

Amongst the other important people he encounters are a slave trader (Paul Giamatti) who renames him ‘Platt’; a fellow slave (Lupita Nyong’o) and a sympathetic Canadian who may be able to help him (Brad Pitt).

From the opening scenes until the closing credits, fans of McQueen – and I remain a huge admirer of Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) – will recognise his mastery of the visual and audio language of cinema.

But here, he and his collaborators are painting on a bigger canvas and the result is a stunning historical drama which is likely to be the definitive film on the subject for many years to come.

The production design by Adam Stockhausen and use of the Louisiana landscape gives everything we see a remarkable authenticity.

This in turn is aided by the superb ensemble cast who chew up John Ridley’s dialogue with relish.

At the centre of all this is an incredible performance from Ejiofor as Solomon Northup.

We see him go through many episodes of mental and physical torment whilst maintaining his quiet dignity and hope.

It is a moving, subtle and rich performance which shows just what he is capable of with the right material.

Cinematographer Sean Bobbit continues his fruitful visual collaboration with McQueen and the beauty of the South is evoked alongside an air of dread and menace.

An agonising one-take sequence of a lynching is just one of many scenes that stay with you long after the film is over.

The icing on the cake is Hans Zimmer’s haunting score, which at times resembles his orchestral work on Inception (2010) and The Thin Red Line (1998).

In addition the use of spiritual songs as the slaves work in the fields, adds another human touch, hinting at the defiance which would later spawn the Civil War and ultimately the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

There has long been a curious reluctance for mainstream US cinema to examine the dark chapter of slavery.

Aside from the stylised world of Django Unchained (2012), realistic films haven’t really been made about the subject.

Even this project took a British director and several production companies (River Road, New Regency, Plan B and Film 4) to eventually bring it to the screen.

Perhaps the oddest aspect is how this particular story was dormant for so many years.

Although it was published around the same time as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book remained a relative obscurity.

Maybe it was a reluctance to confront the ghosts of the past, or perhaps it just wasn’t good box office.

Intolerance still lies beneath the surface of American life, even in the age of a black US president, but this film is a powerful reminder of the cruelties of racism and the endurance of hope.

12 Years a Slave screened at the London Film Festival on Fri 18th October, Sat 19th and Sun 20th

(It opens in the UK on Friday 24th January 2014)

> Official site
> Reviews at Metacritic

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Cinema Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2013: Inside Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers are in a more reflective mood for this beautifully crafted drama, set amongst the New York folk scene of the early 1960s.

Opening with folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) performing in a Greenwich Village nightclub in January 1961, we soon discover he is a man struggling against the odds, in both his personal and working life.

His record label are useless in paying his meagre royalties, a hectoring ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) tells him she is pregnant (and she’s unsure who the father is), he frequently has to couch surf and also manages to lose a friend’s cat.

Despite all of these mishaps he plugs away in search of a bigger break, travelling to Chicago and back again in the winter, trying to convince people to take a chance on his music or a least help him out financially.

Wilfully subverting the traditions of the rags to riches music biopic, it focuses on a man whose existence appears to be an ever decreasing circle of fame and money.

Imagine if Bob Dylan hadn’t quite made it and you’ll soon get the idea.

If this seems like a gloomy tale, don’t forget that the Coens are past masters at mixing light and dark and this is along the lines of A Serious Man (2009) and Barton Fink (1991).

Like those movies, it features many funny scenes populated with memorable characters: two friendly academics (Ethan Phillips and Robin Barrett); a sister (Jeanine Serralles); singer and ex-partner Jean (Mulligan) who is now seeing a rival Jim (Justin Timberlake).

One of the most striking episodes – which may be related to the film’s title – is a road trip to Chicago where Davis hitches a lift with a silent driver (Garrett Hedlund) and a rotund jazz impresario (John Goodman), on the way to see a promoter (F. Murray Abraham).

This sequence, and the film as a whole, bears all the hallmarks of their very best work: immaculately shot by DP Bruno Delbonnel, it also features some stunning production design by Jess Gonchor, who recreates the era in meticulous detail.

At the centre of all this is an excellent performance by Oscar Isaac, who manages to capture the weary melancholy and outsider attitude of a struggling – and not particularly likeable – artist.

As for The Coens, this seems to be another of their more personal films where a Job-like protagonist is constantly struggling within a comically hostile universe.

But the aforementioned connection with Bob Dylan is an interesting one: like the legendary folk singer, they moved from Minnesota to New York and a scene near the end is perhaps more than just a tip of the hat to him.

As for the soundtrack, the Coens team up once again with executive music producer T Bone Burnett, who memorably collaborated on the O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) soundtrack, and the result is arguably as good.

One of the year’s most impressive films, it is a strong addition to the Coen’s canon and a memorable depiction of a struggling artist.

Inside Llewyn Davis screened at the London Film Festival on Tues 15th, Thurs 17th and Sat 19th October

(It opens in the UK on Friday 24th January 2014)

> Official site
> Listen to the soundtrack
> Reviews of Inside Llewyn Davis at Metacritic

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Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2013: Blue is the Warmest Colour

Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux in Blue is the Warmest Colour

The winner of this year’s Palme D’Or is a frank but absorbing study of a young girl’s sexual awakening.

Running close to three hours of screen time this is an epic of the heart and disarmingly in-depth depiction of falling in love.

When we first meet the protagonist, Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) she is a 15-year old girl about to begin her first serious relationship with a classmate Thomas (Jeremie Laheurte).

However, a chance encounter with an older blue-haired woman named Emma (Lea Seydoux), leads her to question her emotions and feelings towards her own sex.

But this is just the beginning of the long journey which director Abdellatif Kechiche takes us on, as emotionally charged highs are gradually mixed in with heartbreaking lows.

Despite taking place over a number of years – I would roughly estimate around six – Kechiche cleverly uses the narrative, so key episodes gradually fade into another.

These segments could almost be short films in themselves: an early encounter at a lesbian bar; a tender scene in the park; and two awkward dinner parties are just some of the memorable scenes as Emma and Adele fall in love.

This is all depicted with remarkable authenticity, with the telling silences providing a neat counterpoint to the natural, flowing conversations.

The intensity of the film is heightened by the decision to mostly shoot in widescreen closeups, with cinematographer Sofian El Fani capturing the emotions and actions with piercing clarity.

Even in exterior environments, which are relatively rare in the film, the focus is on the characters, especially Adele.

This depiction intimacy spills over into the explicit sex scenes, which have attracted a lot of media attention since the premiere in Cannes.

In truth there isn’t a great deal to discuss other than the fact that they are more brightly lit and longer than most movie sex scenes.

The fact that three scenes has coloured discussion of this film for several months perhaps says more about certain journalists than it does about what is on screen.

Whilst the bravery of the two actresses should be noted, it as part of a much wider story, with many tones and textures.

Just as notable is the film’s embrace of the complexities of sexuality and human relationships, with both characters behaving in believably erratic and confused ways.

The themes of commitment, trust and social anxiety are all explored as the film progresses, and it says much about the skill of writer-director Kechiche that none of it ever descends into cliche or pat conclusions.

He is aided by two outstanding lead performances from Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, with the former taking the greater share of screen time.

Displaying a remarkable assurance in front of the camera, she not only has a natural screen presence but manages to convey emotion with the slightest of moves and expression.

Given that nature of how this film was shot – in searching, close-up compositions – it is a testament to their acting that the audience may feel like they’ve been in a relationship with the pair.

A rich, draining and highly accomplished drama.

Blue is the Warmest Colour screened at the London Film Festival on October 14 and 17th. (It opens in the UK on November 25th)

> Reviews at Metacritic
> IMDb link

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Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2013: Short Term 12

Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield in Short Term 12

Ditching the conventions of the indie coming-of-age genre, the second feature from Destin Daniel Cretton is a wonderfully bittersweet drama.

The independent film world is not short of tales involving journeys into adulthood and this year alone we had two come out of the Sundance Film Festival: The Kings of Summer and The Spectacular Now.

Whilst those had their charms, they pale in comparison to Short Term 12, which occupies somewhat similar territory but excels in nearly every department.

All of which makes it staggering to think it was actually turned down by this year’s Sundance festival, only to go on to triumph at SXSW in Austin a few months after, where it snapped up both Grand Jury and Audience awards. (The film is based on a short film Cretton had play Sundance in 2009).

Set at a foster home for at-risk children, it follows the relationships between the supervisors and children, focusing on Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr) as tensions at the workplace spill over into their private life.

Among the kids they have to look after include: Marcus (Keith Stanfield) a young man who was forced by his mother to sell drugs; Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a middle class girl prone to self harm; and Sammy (Alex Calloway) who regularly tries to escape.

Grace and Mason are not therapists but they are there to make the environment as safe and productive as possible for the young people under their care.

This they are good at, so much so that they understand the patients better than the on-site therapists, and their love for each other makes them seem a perfect couple, until a sequence of events starts to affect them in a profound way.

The delicate writing and direction means that cliches of this sub genre are tactfully avoided. No autistic savants, no magical redemptions – only normal people trying to cope with the abnormalities of life.

Drawn from his own experiences working in a foster home – and the little-seen Steve James documentary Stevie (2002) – Cretton manages to strike the perfect blend of comedy and drama: the former is never exploitative and the latter never overwrought.

Larson has been acting since she was a young girl, but this is a major breakout role in which she shows previously hidden depths, channelling anger, love and hurt with consummate ease.

Almost a match for her is John Gallagher Jnr (bearing an uncanny resemblance to Jason Reitman), who accomplishes the tricky task of playing a genuinely good man – something not as easy as it sounds or looks on screen.

This is a very interior film, with Cretton and his DP Brett Pawlak going for a handheld visual style, increasing the emotional intimacy between the characters and the audience.

There are several disarming moments – some dark, some funny, others joyful – but this element of unpredictability and lack of cheap shocks elevates the film to a different level.

Several of the characters have surprising back stories and there is a genuine pleasure in seeing the narrative unfold, with each character displaying all the contradictions and complexity of genuine human beings, as opposed to the clichéd types often found polluting certain screenplays in the indie realm.

On top of all this, Joel P West’s distinctive staccato-like score is a perfect musical accompaniment.

Short Term 12 is ultimately a little bit like its lead characters: plucky, funny and sad, but a warm reminder of human beings ability to empathise and love one another.

Since the financial crisis broke five years ago it has been an extremely tough time for the independent sector, but films like this show that not only is creativity thriving in adversity, it is perhaps thriving because of that adversity.

Short Term 12 screened at the London Film Festival on Tuesday 15th October and will also screen on Sat 19th

(It opens in the UK on November 1st)

> Official site
> UK Twitter

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Cinema Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2013: Philomena

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena

A moving odd-couple road movie based on real events is powered by two outstanding lead performances and the return to form of director Stephen Frears.

Based on the true life tale of how former Labour spin doctor Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) came across the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an elderly Irish woman looking for the child she was forced to give up for adoption in the 1950s.

Their journey leads them from London to the original convent in Roscrea, Ireland and then on to Washington DC, where Sixsmith’s previous life as a BBC journalist comes in handy as they try to find out what has happened to her son.

The misery wrought on generations of young women by Irish nuns was also the subject of Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters (2012), but whilst Frears takes a very different approach, it is both subtle and clever.

Working with an intelligent script by Coogan and Jeff Pope, humour is frequently used to highlight the differences between the cynical, Oxbridge journalist and the (seemingly) naive Irishwoman.

But whilst there are some very funny scenes and memorable lines, Frears skilfully manages to slowly stitch together the two emotional strands, blending heartbreak and laughter with a precision rare in modern cinema.

Coogan is convincing as the highbrow journalist concerned that he is slumming it in a mere ‘human interest’ story, whilst Dench has her best role for years as the title character, bringing an innocence and wisdom to the part.

Even those familiar with the events of the basic outline of the story may be blindsided by key sequences, as the comic surface is often complemented by a depth and engagement with issues such as faith and regret.

The two contrasting lead characters mirror the film’s inner themes: worldly journalist versus innocent Catholic; atheism and religion.

One would think the film comes down on Martin’s side, but on reflection there is more to the story.

In its final act Philomena throws up a few surprises, both intellectual and emotional, and some of them stay with you after it is all over, which is rare for a film such as this.

It has the sheen of a BBC TV movie — and it was indeed part funded by BBC Films – but rises far above that level, not only as an indictment of an appalling episode in Irish history but of how different people can cope with complex problems of life and death.

Stephen Frears has long been one of the UK’s finest living directors but this marks a major return to form after the disappointments of Tamara Drewe (2010) and Lay the Favourite (2012).

Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is another bonus, with digital camera work used for the present and Super 16mm utilised for the 1950s flashback scenes.

The editing by Valerie Bonerio is very smooth and the score by Alexandre Desplat isn’t too obtrusive, although it’s a tad familiar to a lot of his other work.

After a wave of positive reviews at the Venice film festival, the Weinstein Co. – who have US distribution rights – will be busy preparing it for a long awards season campaign and it is hard to imagine it not being a contender, with Dench one of the frontrunners for Best Actress.

Philomena screened tonight (October 16th) at the London Film Festival and will show again on the 17th and 19th

(It opens in the UK on November 1st)

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> IMDb link

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LFF 2013: Mystery Road

Aaron Pedersen in Mystery Road

Director Ivan Sen makes great use of the sparse Australian landscape to create a brooding police procedural that almost functions as a contemporary Western.

When the corpse of a young aboriginal girl is found on a remote Outback highway (the road of the title), the investigating detective (Aaron Pedersen) slowly uncovers a web of indifference and sinister motives in his home town.

Although it contains familiar tropes of the conventional murder-mystery, the distinctive setting and approach give it an unusual flavour.

The gorgeously framed sunsets and blue skies are undercut by a sinister stench of indifference and corruption, which even appears to be infecting police colleagues, including his boss (Tony Barry) and fellow officer (Hugo Weaving).

Moving at a slower pace than is usual for this genre, the film may irk some impatient viewers, but the multi-talented Sen (who serves as the writer-director-cinematographer-editor) manages to create a compelling atmosphere.

He also proves himself as a fine director of actors, coaxing a nicely stoic lead performance from Aaron Pedersen, and some solid supporting turns from Weaving and Barry.

Pedersen makes an interesting lead as he could almost be as being a modern day Shane with his white hat and steely determination to root out wrongdoing.

But he also has a nicely laconic sense of humour and is a real presence on screen, showing an impressive range from intimate family scenes to a climactic shoot-out.

That particular sequence seems on the surface to be a homage to a traditional Western climax, but like the rest of the film manages to subvert the familiar whilst acknowledging it at the same time.

The ghost of Australia’s past is ever present with the issue of race always in the background. But the film manages to effectively weave these into the genre conventions with considerable tact and skill.

Clunky dialogue is refreshingly absent from the script and the power of silence is shrewdly used in key sequences where words have real importance, reflecting the anxieties simmering beneath the surface of everyday life.

When this atmosphere gets heated up by the investigation into the young girl’s death, implicating those close to the lead character, the film becomes more than just a murder-mystery and something symbolic about Australia itself.

Shot in the arid outback of Western Queensland, the locations gradually assume a greater meaning with the metaphorical title not only key to the narrative but also the major thematic concern of the film.

It might seem a strange or even foolhardy choice to attach such weighty issues as race to a hybrid Western/Mystery film but it turns out to be an inspired one, with Sen rapidly establishing himself as a talent to watch.

Mystery Road screened at the London Film Festival on October 10th, 11th and 19th (UK release is TBC)

> Official site
> IMDb entry

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LFF 2013: Gravity

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity - Image courtesy of Warner Bros 2013

Director Alfonso Cuaron returns after seven year absence from cinema with an exhilarating journey into outer space that sets new standards for visual effects.

When a seemingly routine US mission to fix the Hubble telescope goes disastrously wrong, two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) find themselves floating alone above the earth.

Like his last film, the dystopian drama Children of Men (2006), Cuaron and his crew have come up with a highly inventive approach to story, using a stunning blend of camera work and visual effects to create a chilling plausible dystopian world.

Whilst his latest doesn’t have the thematic depth of that film, it remains a gripping thrill ride, utilising cutting edge technology to elicit human emotion and create a powerful tale of survival.

For most of the film we are with a stranded Bullock as she struggles to find a way back home and this is her best role in years. She makes a convincing astronaut but also channels a wide range of emotions from panic to resolve.

As for Clooney, his character is cleverly used and he brings his usual charm and screen presence to his role as a veteran spaceman. An off-screen voice cameo from Ed Harris is a tip of the hat to his famous role in the last major space drama, Apollo 13 (1995).

For Cuaron this is another step in his chameleon-like career, which has included genres such as fantasy, Charles Dickens, the road movie, Harry Potter and sci-fi. Here he takes a bold step into the world of digital cinema and 3D and the result is as impressive as his previous work.

To describe Gravity as science fiction doesn’t feel right quite right.

For most of its lean 87 minute running time it feels terrifyingly realistic, even if in retrospect some of the narrow escapes feel a little bit too last second.

But make no mistake, this is a truly groundbreaking film with highly innovative camera work from Cuaron’s regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and stunning visual effects supervised by Tim Webber of Framestore (a previous collaborator).

The extraordinary long take that begins the film sets a marker for what is to come with shots of the various space craft and earth below that are a marvel to behold on a big screen.

Using a complex mixture of camera rigs, LED lighting panels, groundbreaking CGI and even puppeteers from the stage version of War Horse, the zero gravity of outer space is brilliantly realised, with the earth below just as convincing.

Cuaron and his team have wisely opted to use technology in service of the central story, which was perhaps the reason they opted for such a lean premise, and the result is a pure fusion of technology and emotion.

Sound, silence and a dramatic score by Steven Price also play a critical role in creating the extraordinary atmosphere of the film.

Although time will inevitably lead to more advanced visual effects, Gravity will still represent a landmark in modern cinema.

In a time of great uncertainty and opportunity for the medium, it represents how more traditional directors can utilise digital tools to tell a spellbinding story.

Gravity screened at the London Film Festival on Thursday 10th and Friday 11th October

(It opens in the UK on Friday 8th November)

> Official site
> Reviews of Gravity at Metacritic

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Cinema Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2013: Captain Phillips

Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips

Director Paul Greengrass returns to the tensions of the post 9/11 era, with a gripping account of the 2009 hijacking of a US cargo ship.

Based on the real life account of Richard Phillips, it depicts how he and his crew came across a gang of pirates whilst travelling the dangerous shipping lanes of East Africa.

Early on we see the contrasting figures of Phillips (Tom Hanks), as he leaves his wife (Catherine Keener) at the airport, and the skinny Somalian pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi) who is forced out to sea by his bosses.

In this we see a snapshot of globalisation: the well off captain of a US cargo ship and the poor fisherman with an AK-47, both conducting their own forms of business but ultimately caught up in events outside of their control.

Billy Ray’s script touches upon these issues but wisely skips ponderous, explanatory dialogue, instead opting for a lean depiction of a particular event.

Within this, the film touches upon the seemingly incongruous aspects of modern piracy, ships using water hoses rather than armed security as owners won’t insure them and the desperation of Somalis who face a choice between piracy and selling Khat.

Greengrass and his cinematographer Barry Ackroyd do a highly efficient job of getting us quickly into the action and ramping up the drama without resorting to sentiment or bombast.

Ackroyd’s distinctive handheld style and Christopher Rouse‘s pacy editing gives the proceedings the necessary kick, helping to sustain the tension in the bright sunlight of the ocean or the dark bowels of the ships.

As it reaches its latter stages and the US military response cranks into life, the tensions kicks up a gear with the kind of precision you might expect from the director of the best Bourne movies.

Looking at the film overall, we see different genre elements at play: it quickly builds up steam to become a chase film, a hostage drama, a portrait of two clever but defiant individuals and ultimately a study in endurance.

Hanks is dependably solid in the title role, with one remarkable scene at the end which will surprise many and may secure him a lot of awards attention, and the rest of the cast are convincing, especially Abdi as the lead pirate.

After the relative disappointment of Green Zone (2010), this marks a return to form for Greengrass and in some ways could be seen as a companion film to United 93 (2006).

Both contain extended interior sequences and explore how people react under extreme, life-threatening situations. Whilst United 93 remains the superior work, Captain Phillips is another sturdy addition to the Greengrass CV.

It may lack the thematic weight of some of his previous films, such as Bloody Sunday (2002) and United 93, but it shows his brilliant knack in wringing out tension and emotion from real life events.

Captain Phillips opens the London Film Festival on Weds 9th October and also screens on October 10th.

(It opens wide in the UK on October 18th)

> Captain Phillips at the LFF
> Official site
> Reviews of Captain Phillips at Metacritic

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Upstream Color

Upstream Color

The long-awaited second film from Shane Carruth is a mind-bending puzzle filled with striking images and sounds.

Back in 2004 Carruth startled audiences at Sundance with his ultra low-budget time travel drama Primer, which has since become a significant cult film.

He quickly became something of an enigma – apparently one long cherished project was stuck in development hell – prompting questions about when and what his new film would be.

But earlier this year he was back at Sundance (nine years after his debut film) with Upstream Color, which prompted eager anticipation.

Suffice to say, Carruth has lived up to expectations with a film that is both absorbing and uncompromising.

When a young woman (Amy Seimetz) is involved in a bizarre series of events after being drugged, she forms a connection with a man (Carruth) who has had similarly surreal experiences.

Although that is a very basic outline of the story, part of the pleasure is seeing how it veers into surreal realms encompassing roundworms, pigs, flowers and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.

Just trying to describe the film in words feels futile as this is one that should be experienced on a audio-visual level.

The sound design by Pete Horner and Chad Chance is a huge part of the film and the seemingly omnipresent synth score is hypnotic.

The visuals too have a strange, sinister beauty as most of the time Carruth and his co-editor David Lowery cut in an interesting way, cramming a kaleidoscope of images into the 96 minute running time.

Such specificity of vision is probably due to Carruth’s array of talents: he serves as actor-writer-director-producer, cinematographer, composer, co-editor and one of the camera operators.

In a time where too much information is poured out before a film’s release, he has been refreshingly enigmatic in interviews promoting it.

What is it really about?

You could say the film is about recovery and reconnection, but it is intentionally ambiguous and presented with a sense of mystery at almost every turn.

The way images, both urban and rural, are blended with sound is hypnotic, putting us into an almost trance-like state.

Because the film is so unconventional in its approach, some might dismiss it as pretentious or incoherent.

It isn’t a mainstream film by any means, but in an era of manufactured franchises it is heartening to see such singularity of vision in US cinema.

Like Memento (2000) and Mulholland Drive (2001) it keeps the audience in a state of suspense at what may happen in the next sequence, which is quite a feat in an era noted for its adherence to more rigid forms of storytelling.

If Primer explored time travel and engineering, Upstream Color delves deep into the mysteries of identity and human connection.

The best compliment I can pay it is that as the final credits rolled in the cinema, I immediately wanted to experience it all over again.

> Official site
> Reviews of the film at Metacritic

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Cinema DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts

Plein Soleil (Purple Noon)

Alain Delon in Plein Soleil

Although later adapted in 1999 by Anthony Minghella, the first film version of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley was a French adaptation, directed by Rene Clement.

It follows the adventures of Tom Ripley (Alain Delon), hired by the father of rich playboy Phillipe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), with instructions to bring his wayward son home from Italy.

But Phillipe, his fiancee Marge (Marie Laforet) and Tom decide to stay in the Mediterranean, divisions start to arise.

Clement made his name as a director just after World War II, with Beyond the Gates (1949) and Forbidden Games (1952), both of which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

Plein Soleil a.k.a Purple Noon (1960) came at an interesting point in world cinema, just as the French New Wave was taking the world by storm with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Godard’s Breathless (1960).

Some of the younger directors were critics who had derided Clement, most famously Truffaut in his famous diatribe “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema“.

Although at that time he was seen as part of the establishment, this could be seen as something of a bridge between the old guard and the up and coming autuers.

Ironically, Plein Soleil was enriched by cinematographer Henri Decae, who had shot Truffaut’s landmark debut film the year before.

Here he basks in the vivid colours of the Mediterranean and visually the film is a treat, with Bella Clement’s ultra-stylish costumes adding to the mix.

But the really big deal with this film was that it cemented the arrival of Alain Delon as a bona fide movie star, with his smooth charm and young good looks.

He would swiftly become an icon of European cinema with appearances in Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962), and Melville’s Le Samourai (1967).

The comparison with Anthony Minghella’s 1999 version is fascinating because although Clement arguably captures the spirit of Highsmith’s novel better, he fudges the ending (Minghella’s was more ambiguous), incurring Highsmith’s displeasure.

That said, there is much to feast on here and this UK disc features some notable extras.

BONUS FEATURES

  • Interview with Alain Delon: A new interview wih the French actor in which he discusses working with Clement and the importance of Plein Soleil in establishing his career. (19 mins)
  • Rene Clement at the Heart of the New Wave: A documentary by Dominique Maillet focusing on Clement and his legacy featuring interviews with director Jean-Charles Tacchella (Cousin Cousine), actress Brigitte Fossey (Forbidden Games), Alain Delon, film historian Aldo Tassone, director and producer Dominique Delouche (L’homme de désir), assistant cameraman Jean-Paul Schwartz (Purple Noon), producer Renzo Rossellini (Don Giovanni, Death Watch), and costume designer Piero Tosi (The Leopard, The Damned). (67 min).
  • The Restoration: A short video showing selected scenes in split screen comparing the old footage alongside the new 4K restoration. (5 min).

Plein Soleil is re-released at selected UK cinemas from Friday 30th August and is out on DVD & Blu-ray on Monday 16th September

> Pre-order the Blu-ray at Amazon UK
> Get local showtimes via Google Movies

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World War Z

Brad Pitt in World War Z

The buzz surrounding this expensive zombie-apocalypse movie has been largely negative but it turns out to be agreeable genre fare, laced with some spectacular set-pieces.

Brad Pitt plays a UN troubleshooter who has to escort his family to safety after a virus turns Philadelphia (and the rest of the world) into bloodthirsty, rampaging zombies.

From there he is recruited to find the source of the disease and his journey takes him to South Korea, Israel and Wales, all the while avoiding infection himself.

Although this is essentially a big budget, apocalyptic disaster movie – reworking elements of 28 Weeks Later (2007), Contagion (2011) and Independence Day (1996) – Pitt has the screen presence to keep our attention hold as the film shifts rapidly around the world.

At times it moves too fast, but the action is competently handled and there are some interesting ideas laced amidst the chaos, notably the real world hotspots such as South Korea and Israel making their way into the mix.

Though those traces remain the novel upon which it was based was apparently much more political (exploring the issues from a global perspective and having the disease begin in China), which meant they were trimmed for the demands of the global marketplace.

Whilst this is a shame, the central set piece set in Israel is visually stunning: when crazed zombie hordes attack a walled Jerusalem, they resemble a biblical plague of insects.

The false safety the Israeli survivors feel perhaps reflects real world anxieties and the visual effects are blended in well with the live action.

Just before Pitt lands in Israel we see a nuclear explosion in the distance and when he lands his contact there seems to have too much faith in the city wall keeping the zombies out.

It is left up to the audience to decide what these images might mean by audiences can infer parallels with contemporary strife in the Holy Land.

The film’s final third has been the subject of much speculation, with reported rewrites and re-shoots ballooning the budget, but whatever the cost it just about works.

A scene involving a drinks machine is the only jarring moment in a tense climax in which Forster and his sound editors load on the tension.

The casting of relatively unknown actors in supporting roles (Mireille Enos as Pitt’s wife and Daniella Kertesz as an Israeli soldier) is also a nice touch for a film of this scale.

Ultimately it may not make a huge profit for Paramount and its multitude of producers, but for a summer blockbuster it is refreshing to see one not based on a comic book.

World War Z opens in the UK on June 21st

> Official site
> Reviews of World War Z at Metacritic

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Cinema Reviews

Man of Steel

Henry Cavill as Superman in Man of Steel

The latest incarnation of Superman sees Warner Bros recruit two of their star directors in an attempt to revitalise the character after the huge success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

In a sense, this was to be to Superman what Batman Begins (2005) was to the other DC Comics superhero. The relative failure of the previous reboot, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006), led the studio to the key players behind Batman’s recent success: writer-director Christopher Nolan and co-writer David Goyer.

They in turn recruited Zack Snyder to direct and assist them with bringing a fresh angle to the material and whilst some of the approach is interesting, the end result ultimately becomes an indigestible dish of CGI-fuelled set pieces.

Although Singer’s vision was criticised for being too respectful to Richard Donner’s 1978 film (it was an ‘unofficial sequel’), Man of Steel opens with the destruction of Superman’s home planet Krypton as his father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends him to Earth.

Then it takes a slightly different take by exploring Superman/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) in flashback as he learns of his real identity and has to defend himself from a sceptical Earth and the evil General Zod (Michael Shannon), whilst dealing with intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams).

To their credit the filmmakers have tried to establish a new universe for this iconic character: Alex McDowell’s production design is a striking mix of Dune (1984) and Alien (1979), the main actors perform well in their roles (quite a feat given some of the dialogue) and there are some nice touches put in for the fans.

Perhaps the most radical and refreshing of all is Hans Zimmer’s score, which jettisons the famous John Williams one and brings a more sombre feeling to the action on-screen.

But despite the presence of Nolan as producer, this DC adaptation fails where Batman Begins (2005) largely succeeded.

With the Batman origin film Nolan managed to convey the struggles that inspired Batman, but here Snyder squeezes way too much story into the mix.

The most interesting parts of the film are when the younger Clark is struggling to cope with his powers but he (and presumably the studio) couldn’t resist the temptation to wreak digital carnage on the screen.

For the first two-thirds of the film this just about works but when the climax begins the battle between Superman’s allies and Zod’s army becomes almost incoherent. Snyder’s sickly, desaturated visuals and shaky, handheld camera work also don’t help.

The visuals of skyscrapers collapsing during the Metropolis sequence also feel like a cheap reference to 9/11 and a way to darken up the material.

At times it feels as if this film was directed by game controller, with Superman and Zod smashing through buildings and leaving a mass of destruction in their wake. Perhaps if two characters with those powers did fight then they would cause mass destruction, but the way it is done here is pure overkill.

Superman has always been a problematic character, with his almost invincibility and lack of worthy villains (Zod excepted) making him less interesting than Batman or some of the Marvel characters (Iron Man, Hulk, X-Men etc).

Although the attempt to dig in to his Krypton heritage is welcome, ultimately it isn’t enough with the film descending into a swamp of CGI when the focus shifts to Earth and specifically Metropolis.

Perhaps someone will one day do for Superman what Nolan’s films did for the Batman character.

But when Nolan himself is part of the team behind this attempt, one wonders if Hollywood is just beating a dead horse.

> Official site
> Reviews for Man of Steel at Metacritic

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Cinema

Rewind 2012: Sundance London

Sundance London 2012 Line-up

N.B. This is part of a series of posts looking back on the past year that I couldn’t write up at the time.

The news that the Sundance Film Festival was coming to London back in April was intriguing as the log cabins and snow of Utah in January seemed a world away from the cavernous spaces of the 02.

Since its relaunch in 2007 as a music venue with a multiplex cinema, it has shed its image as the white elephant formerly know as the ‘Millenium Dome’.

For the Sundance Institute it was a chance to experiment by taking a shorter festival abroad, (just four days) with a bigger emphasis on music and its relationship to film.

I couldn’t attend every film or event, but settled on two films and two sessions, which caught my eye.

DAY ONE (Thursday 26th April)

Liberal Arts (Dir. Josh Radnor): Radnor is most famous for being on the TV show ‘How I Met Your Mother’ and his debut as director ‘happythankyoumoreplease’ in 2010.

It went down well at the festival, winning the audience award, but its poor box office and mixed reviews meant that it faded away, not even getting a UK theatrical release.

To a degree, his second film has followed the same pattern – although it did secure distribution here it didn’t exactly set the box office alight.

It explores what happens when a careers adviser in his mid-30s (Radnor) accepts an invitation from an old professor (Richard Jenkins) to go back to his old Ohio college.

There he forms a connection with a student (Elisabeth Olsen) and generally takes stock of his life in much the same way that Zach Braff did in Garden State (2004).

But despite bearing some archetypal tropes of the typical US indie movie, Liberal Arts does contain some pleasures.
Radnor, Olsen and Jenkins are likeable in their roles and there is an interesting attempt to portray an early mid-life crisis that seems to be prevalent in Radnor’s generation.

But like Radnor’s character in the story, this is a US indie film that looks back with nostalgia to another era: quirky supporting characters  acoustic guitars on the soundtrack – and is ultimately overwhelmed by that.

DAY TWO (Friday 27th April)

SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS (Dir. Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace)

Maybe it was just serendipity, but when the documentary of LCD Soundsystem’s premiered at Sundance in January, it seemed a natural fit for the inaugural London festival.

Not only did it tie in snugly with the overall ‘film and music’ theme – it is one of the best concert films in quite some time.

When the New York band announced in February 2011 that they were splitting up – effectively at the height of their career – a farewell concert at Madison Square Garden was planned for April 2, 2011.

A four hour show with appearances by Arcade Fire, Reggie Watts and others, this was essentially The Last Waltz (1978) for the Pitchfork generation.

In a decade of turmoil for the music industry, it seemed a curiously appropriate gesture.

Like Scorcese’s classic concert film about The Band’s farewell show, it intercuts concert footage with interviews, although much of this is dominated by frontman James Murphy.

The main advantage of seeing a concert film (or any film for that matter) in a cinema is the superior sound system (no pun intended) and the dynamic shifts were not only aural but visual.

Directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, who previously made the Blur film No Distance Left To Run (2010), pace the action so that it becomes as much an intimate portrait of Murphy as a standard concert movie.

We see him the day after the concert inspecting the band’s instruments, fielding unanswered voicemails and (in a very meta moment) being interviewed by a journalist about the end of the band.

Ultimately the theatrical potential for any concert film is limited in the modern era and most people will watch this on Blu-ray and DVD (it has since been released along with the full 4-hour concert).

But there was something joyful and exhilarating about experiencing the swansong of this band on the big screen.

It might not be in the same league as The Last Waltz or Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense (1983).

N.B. A longer review of the Blu-ray will be forthcoming.

DAY 3 (Saturday 28th April)

The idea of a ‘Documentary Flash Lab’ wasn’t one I was familiar with, but ultimately very impressed by.

A two-hour event hosted by Cara Mertes, director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Program and Fund, it was possibly the best event of its kind I’ve ever been to.

Sometimes Q&A-style events at film festivals can be poorly hosted and plodding affairs with rambling non-questions from the audience.

Here was a textbook example of how it should be done: Mertes went through the history of Sundance and the importance of documentary to the festival and she was joined by directors Lauren Greenfield (The Queen of Versailles), Eugene Jarecki (The House I Live In) and Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Ice).

All gave informative insights into their respective films but about twenty minutes in, as Mertes introduced Orlowski, a familiar figure entered the room.

It turned out to be a surprise appearence by the founder of Sundance himself, Robert Redford.

He apologised for being delayed in London traffic, but went on give a quick speech about his love of documentary and how he first got hooked on factual content whilst watching a televised military hearing in the 1950s.

It was just a taste of Redford’s commitment, but it has been a mainstay of the festival since the beginning, and his sincerity and contribution was obvious.

Over the years the festival he began has arguably become the global mecca for both filmmakers looking to sell their documentaries and distributors looking to buy them.

In retrospect 2012 has turned out to be a particularly strong year but it has also reflected both the frustrations and possibilities for documentarians.

Although each spoke eloquently about their films and the issues they explored, the question of how you actually get audiences to see them is another matter.

Eugene Jarecki expressed his desire to explore new was of getting his film out there, almost like a travelling musician going from city to city and forgoing more traditional distribution models.

On the one hand, it has always been difficult for documentaries to get attention in the theatrical marketplace, but reduced production costs (enabled by cheaper digital cameras, editing systems and prints) have dramatically levelled the playing field.

Representing the UK perspective was Jess Search, CEO of Channel Four BritDoc Foundation, and her enthusiasm matched that of her US counterparts as she went through the newer funding and distribution possibilities afforded by the web (e.g. Kickstarter, YouTube etc).

Two hours flew by and although there are deep anxieties about the technological revolution currently engulfing cinema, it was a session that left me excited about the shift to digital and the stories that will enable.

The downside is there will be plenty of bad films and documentaries made in the coming years, but overall I’m optimistic about the cream rising to the top.

DAY FOUR (Sunday 29th April)

Sunday afternoon was my personal highlight as Harry Gregson-Williams gave a two-hour talk on film music entitled ‘Film Music from the Composer’s Point of View’.

A composer probably best known for his collaborations with the late director Tony Scott (Unstoppable, Man on Fire), Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, The Town) and various animated films such as Shrek.

Accompanied by the setup he uses on films and a group of musicians, the auditorium resembled a makeshift mixing stage.

After being introduced by Peter Golub, director of the Sundance Film Music Program, Gregson-Williams not only provided valuable insights into scoring for films but also dropped in some amusing anecdotes.

One of these was Ben Affleck’s disarming honesty in admitting that he actually wanted Thomas Newman to score Gone Baby Gone (2007) – there is a distinct Newman-esque vibe to the opening titles.

Not only that, but two years later for The Town (2010), he again admitted Affleck wanted Newman (!) before eventually hiring him.

It is hard to compress the session into neat sound bites but his music setup was connected to the screen and he was clear as he could be about the different stages in scoring a film, with practical examples on the screen behind him.

Throughout he displayed a refreshing self-deprecating wit and if the composing work ever dries up he could start a side-career as a public speaker.

He also spoke of the importance of Hans Zimmer to his career and discussed how scores are done on software programmes like Cubase, Logic and Pro Tools, but also how that ties in with live musicians.

When he first started out, his Zimmer told him to lock himself in a room for several days and learn Cubase – the audio software programme he still uses to this day.

One thing that struck me after the session was how long the digital revolution has been with filmmaking process.

In the 1980s computers became more prominent in scores and chart music generally; the 1990s saw the arrival of the Avid and non-linear editing; and in the last decade we have seen cameras and projection switch to digital.

Ultimately the step-by-step way he broke down the elements of a film score was fascinating.

Using a sequence from Unstoppable (2010), he began by showing time-coded footage and gradually added in the elements that made up the final mix.

At the time he was scoring a film at Abbey Road Studios and another nice touch was that he passed around the vintage microphones and instruments from that iconic studio.

They still actually use them and it was a salient reminder that although the digital revolution has enveloped the music and film world, there is still a place for analogue pleasures.

Sundance London
> Connect with them on Facebook (facebook.com/SundanceLondon) and Twitter (@sundancefestUK)
> More on the history of the Sundance Film Festival and The O2 at Wikipedia

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UK Cinema Releases: Friday 27th April 2012

NATIONAL RELEASES

Avengers Assemble (Disney): The eagerly anticipated blockbuster brings together the super hero team of Marvel Comics characters. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk and others are united on the screen or the first time. Directed Joss Whedon, it stars Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Renner [Nationwide / 15]

ALSO OUT

Damsels In Distress (Sony Pictures): A group of style-obsessed college girls take in a new student and teach her their misguided ways of helping people at their grungy university. Directed by Whit Stillman, it stars Greta Gerwig, Carrie MacLemore, Aubrey Plaza and Adam Brody. [Key cities / 12A]

Albert Nobbs (E1 Films): Drama set in late 19th century Ireland, about a woman posing as a man so she can work as a butler in an exclusive Dublin hotel, Albert meets a handsome painter and looks to escape the lie she has been living. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia, it stars Glenn Close, Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, and Brendan Gleeson. [Key cities / 15]

Being Elmo (Dogwoof): Documentary about Kevin Clash, the man behind Elmo of Sesame Street, as he chases and ultimately achieves his childhood dream of working with master puppeteer Jim Henson. Directed by Constance Marks, it features Kevin Clash, Frank Oz, Rosie O’Donnell and Whoopi Goldberg. [Key cities / U]

Buck (Revolver): The story of the American cowboy and real life ‘horse whisperer’ who travels the US for nine grueling months a year, helping horses with people problems. Directed by Cindy Meehl, it features Buck Brannaman and Robert Redford. [Key cities / PG]

The Monk (Metrodome): Drama about a 17th-century Spanish monk (Vincent Cassell) and his descent into evil. Directed by Dominik Moll. [Selected cities / 15]

Outside Bet (The Works): British period piece set in the 1980s directed by Sacha Bennett and starring Bob Hoskins, Jenny Agutter, Adam Deacon and Emily Atack. [Key cities / 12A]

Strippers Vs Werewolves (Kaleidoscope Entertainment): Another British film whose title is perhaps self-explanatory. Directed by Jonathan Sothcott, it stars Adele Silva, Robert Englund, Billy Murray, Martin Kemp, Ali Bastian and Steven Berkoff. [Key cities / 15]

> Get local cinema showtimes at Google Movies or FindAnyFilm
Recent UK DVD & Blu-ray releases

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UK Cinema Releases: Friday 20th April 2012

NATIONAL RELEASES

Gone (Entertainment): Thriller about a woman (Amanda Seyfried) who is convinced that the serial killer who kidnapped her two years ago is the same man responsible for kidnapping her sister. Directed by Amanda Fuller, it co-stars Jennifer Carpenter and Wes Bentley.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Lionsgate UK): The story of a fisheries scientist (Ewan MacGregor) approached by a consultant (Emily Blunt) to a Yemeni sheikh (Amr Waked) with a scheme involving salmon. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, it co-stars Kristin Scott Thomas, Catherine Steadman and Tom Mison. [Nationwide / 12A]

Lockout (Entertainment): Sci-fi actioner about a man (Guy Pearce) who is wrongly convicted of spying against the U.S. but is offered his freedom if he can rescue the president’s daughter (Maggie Grace) from an outer space prison taken over by violent inmates. Directed by Heitor Dhalia. [Nationwide / 15]

ALSO OUT

Marley (Universal): Kevin Macdonald’s documentary about the life and career of reggae legend Bob Marley. With contributions from his family members, former collaborators and Chris Blackwell. [Selected cinemas / 15]

Elles (Artificial Eye): A well-off Parisian journalist investigates the lives of two student prostitutes for a magazine article and is forced to confront her own sexual fears and desires. Directed by Malgoska Szumowska, it co-stars Anais Demoustier and Joanna Kulig. [Select cinemas / 18]

Fury (Revolver): Crime drama about a veteran grifter (Samuel L Jackson) trying to go straight, but who is sucked back in by the son of his former partner looking for vengeance for his dad’s death. Directed by David Weaver, it co-stars Luke Kirby, Ruth Negga and Tom Wilkinson [Select cinemas / 18]

Elfie Hopkins (Kaleidoscope): An aspiring teen detective stumbles into her first real case, when investigating the mysterious new family in her neighborhood. Directed by Ryan Andrews, it stars Jaime Winstone, Ray Winstone, Aneurin Barnard, Rupert Evans, Kimberley Nixon and Kate Magowan. [Selected cinemas / 15]

> Get local cinema showtimes at Google Movies or FindAnyFilm
Recent UK DVD & Blu-ray releases

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UK Cinema Releases: Friday 13th April 2012

NATIONAL RELEASES

Battleship (Universal): Aliens arrive on Earth to build a power source in the ocean when they come in contact with a navy fleet. Directed by Peter Berg, it stars Taylor Kitsch, Tom Arnold, Alexander Skarsgard, Jaqueline Fernandes and Rhianna. [Nationwide / 12A]

The Cabin in the Woods (Lionsgate UK): A group of friends at a cabin retreat scratch the surface of something so massive and horrific that they can only begin to fathom it as time quickly runs out. Directed by Drew Goddard, it stars Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Kristen Connolly and Jesse Williams. [Nationwide / 15]

ALSO OUT

Delicacy (Studiocanal): A French woman (Audrey Tautou) mourning over the death of her husband three years prior is courted by a Swedish co-worker. Directed by David Foenkinos and Stephane Foenkinos. [Selected cinemas / 15]

Gospel of Us (Soda Pictures): Filmed version of the Passion player spread over several days at venues in and around Port Talbot. Directed by Dave McKean, it stars Michael Sheen, Di Botcher, Francine Morgan and John-Paul Macleod. [Selected cinemas]

> Get local cinema showtimes at Google Movies or FindAnyFilm
Recent UK DVD & Blu-ray releases

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UK Cinema Releases: Friday 6th April 2012

NATIONAL RELEASES

Titanic 3D (20th Century Fox): Re-release of the 1998 blockbuster starring Kate Winslet & Leonardo DiCaprio. Directed by James Cameron, it has been digitally restored frame-by-frame and post-converted into 3D. [Saturation / 12A]

Mirror Mirror (Studiocanal): Modern take on the Snow White tale with the traditional story jettisoned in favor of an edgy and modern tale. After her evil stepmother (Julia Robert) kills her father and destroys the kingdom, Snow White (Lily Collins) bands together with a gang of seven quarrelsome dwarfs to reclaim what is rightly hers. Directed by Tarsem Singh, it co-stars Armie Hammer, Sean Bean and Nathan Lane. [Nationwide / PG]

The Cold Light Of Day (E1 Films): Thriller about a young Wall Street trader (Henry Cavill) whose family is kidnapped on holiday to Spain and he’s left with only hours to find them and uncover a government conspiracy and the connection between their disappearance and his father’s secrets. Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri, it co-stars Bruce Willis and Sigourney Weaver. [Nationwide / 12A]

ALSO OUT

Headhunters (Momentum): Norwegian thriller about an art thief who gets dragged into a game of corporate cat-and-mouse. Directed by Morten Tyldum, it stars Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Synnove Macody Lund. [Key Cities / 15]

Le Havre (Artificial Eye): When an African boy arrives by cargo ship in the port city of Le Havre, an aging shoe shiner takes pity on the child and welcomes him into his home. Directed by Aki Kaurismaki, it stars Andre Wilms, Kati Outinen, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Blondin Miguel, Elina Salo and Evelyne Didi. [Key cities / PG]

This Must Be The Place (Trinity Filmed Entertainment): A bored, retired rock star (Sean Penn) sets out to find his father’s executioner, an ex-Nazi war criminal who is a refugee in the U.S. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino, it co-stars Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch, Harry Dean Stanton, Eve Hewson and David Byrne. [Key cities / 15]

La Grande Illusion (Studiocanal): Re-release of Jean Renoir’s anti-war classic starring Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim, Jean Gabin and Dita Parlo. [Key cities / U]

> Get local cinema showtimes at Google Movies or FindAnyFilm
Recent UK DVD & Blu-ray releases

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UK Cinema Releases: Friday 30th March 2012

NATIONAL RELEASES

The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists (Sony Pictures): The latest film from Aardman is about a group of swashbuckling pirates who team up with different historical and fictional characters. Directed by Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt, it features the voices of Hugh Grant, Brendan Gleeson, Jeremy Piven and Salma Hayek. [Nationwide / U]

Wrath Of The Titans (Warner Bros.): A decade after his heroic defeat of the monstrous Kraken, Perseus (Sam Worthington) – the demigod son of Zeus – is attempting to live a quieter life as a village fisherman and the sole parent to his 10-year old son, Helius. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman, it co-stars Rosamund Pike, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Toby Kebbell, Bill Nighy and Edgar Ramirez. [Nationwide / 12A]

Streetdance 2 (Vertigo Films) (PG): After suffering humiliation by the crew Invincible, street dancer Ash (Falk Hentschel) looks to gather the best dancers from around the world for a rematch. Directed by Max & Ania, it stars Sofia Boutella, Falk Hentschel, George Sampson and Tom Conti. [Nationwide / PG]

ALSO OUT

Into The Abyss: A Tale Of Death, A Tale Of Life (Revolver): Werner Herzog’s latest documentary explores capital punishment in Texas. [Selected cinemas / 12A] [Read our full review]

The Island President (Dogwoof): Documentary about the efforts of then-Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed to tackle climate change. Directed by Jon Shenk. [Key cities / PG]

This Is Not A Film (Palisades Tartan): Iranian documentary by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb which was smuggled out of Iran in a flash-drive hidden inside a birthday cake and then specially screened at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. [London West End / U]

Tiny Furniture (Independent Distribution): Feature debut from writer-director Lena Dunham which gets a UK theatrical release two years after its US premiere at SXSW. [Key Cities /15]

> Get local cinema showtimes at Google Movies or FindAnyFilm
Recent UK DVD & Blu-ray releases

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UK Cinema Releases: Friday 23rd March 2012

NATIONAL RELEASES

The Hunger Games (Lionsgate): Adapted from the series of bestselling books where a young girl (Jennifer Lawrence) joins a survival contest in order to save her community in a dystopian future. Directed by Gary Ross, it co-stars Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson. Set to be the first blockbuster of 2012, the built-in fanbase and brilliant marketing campaign could see it net a $125m opening weekend. [Nationwide / 12A]

Act of Valor (Momentum): A Navy Seal squad goes on a covert mission to recover a kidnapped CIA agent, and in the process, takes down a complex web of terrorist cells determined to strike America at all costs. Directed by Josh Trank, and Alexander Asefa, the main selling point here is that it features real Navy Seals: Roselyn Sanchez, Mike McCoy, Charles Chiyangwa and Megan Hilty. [Nationwide / 15]

Wild Bill (The Works): Set in East London, the story revolves around Bill Hayward (Charlie Creed-Miles), a prisoner of eight years out on parole. Returning home, he finds his 15 and 11 year old sons, Dean (Will Poulter) and Jimmy (Sammy Williams) abandoned by their mother and living alone. Directed by Dexter Fletcher. [Nationwide / 15]

ALSO OUT

The Kid With A Bike (Artificial Eye): The latest film from the Dardennes Brothers is the story of a young boy abandoned by his father and left in a state-run youth institution. In a random act of kindness, the town hairdresser agrees to foster him on weekends. Stars Thomas Doret and Cécile De France. [Selected cinemas / 12A]

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UK Film Releases: Friday 16th March 2012

NATIONAL RELEASES

21 Jump Street (Sony Pictures): Comedy based on the 80s TV show about an undercover police unit consisting of young looking officers infiltrating high schools to control youth crime. Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, it stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. [Nationwide / 15]

We Bought A Zoo (20th Century Fox): A man (Matt Damon) and his family used their life savings to buy a dilapidated zoo, replete with 200 exotic animals facing destruction, in the English countryside. Directed by Cameron Crowe, it co-stars Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Peter Riegert, Elle Fanning and Angus Macfadyen. [Nationwide / PG]

Contraband (Universal Pictures): A security guard (Mark Wahlberg) and former alcohol smuggler (Caleb Landry Jones) on the Iceland-Netherlands route who is tempted back into illicit business. Directed by Baltasar Kormakur, it co-stars Caleb Landry Jones, Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Foster and Kate Beckinsale. [Nationwide / 15]

The Devil Inside (Paramount): Horror film about a woman who becomes involved in a series of exorcisms. Directed by William Brent Bell, it stars Fernanda Andrade and Simon Quarterman and is yet another found footage film. [Nationwide / 15]

ALSO OUT

In Darkness (Metrodome): Drama based on a true story in German Nazi-occupied Poland, the film tells of Leopold Socha, a sewer worker in the former Polish city of Lwów (now Lviv in Ukraine), who uses his knowledge of the city’s sewers system to shelter a group of Jews from the Nazi Germans. Directed by Agnieszka Holland, it stars Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Furmann and Agnieszka Grochowska. [Key Cities / 15]

Once Upon A Time in Anatolia (New Wave Films): Turkish drama based on the true experiences of one of the film’s writers, telling the story of a group of men who search for a dead body on the Anatolian steppe. Co-written and directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, it won the Grand Prix at Cannes. [Key Cities ]

Bill Cunningham New York (Dogwoof): Documentary about one of the fashion world’s most influential photographers. Directed by Richard Press. [Key Cities / 12A]

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UK Cinema Releases: Friday 9th March 2012

NATIONAL RELEASES

John Carter (Walt Disney): Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs Former Confederate captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is mysteriously transported to Mars (“Barsoom“) where he becomes part of a conflict between the various nations of the planet, whose leaders include Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Directed by Andrew Stanton, it stars co-stars Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds and Dominic West. [Nationwide / 12A]

The Raven (Universal): A fictionalized account of the last days of Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack), in which the writer is in pursuit of a serial killer whose murders mirror those in his stories. Directed by James McTeigue, it co-stars Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson and Oliver Jackson-Cohen.

Bel Ami (StudioCanal): A chronicle of a young man (Robert Pattinson) and rise to power in Paris via his manipulation of the city’s most influential and wealthy women (Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Christina Ricci). Period drama directed by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, it is based on the French novel of the same name by Guy de Maupassant. [Nationwide / 15]

ALSO OUT

Trishna (Artificial Eye): Based on Thomas Hardy’s classic novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, set in contemporary India, it is about a young woman (Freida Pinto) who meets a wealthy young British businessman Jay Singh (Riz Ahmed) who has come to India to work in his father’s hotel business. Directed by Michael Winterbottom, it marks his third Hardy adaptation after Jude (1995) and The Claim (2000). [Key Cities / 15]

A Man’s Story (Trinity Filmed Entertainment): Documentary film covering the last 12 years of designer Ozwald Boateng’s life. Directed by Varon Bonicos. [Key cities]

Cleanskin (Warner Bros): UK terrorist thriller, about a terrorist (Abhin Galeya) and the agent hunting him (Sean Bean). Directed by Hadi Hajaig, it co-stars Charlotte Rampling, James Fox, Tuppence Middleton, Shivani Ghai and Michelle Ryan. [Selected cinemas / 15]

The Decoy Bride (CinemaNX): When the world’s media descend on the remote Scottish island where a Hollywood actress is attempting to get married, a local girl is hired as a decoy bride to put the paparazzi off the scent. Director by Sheree Folkson, it stars David Tennant, Kelly MacDonald, Alice Eve, Michael Urie, Sally Phillips, Federico Castelluccio [Limited release / 12A]

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UK Cinema Releases: Friday 2nd March 2012

NATIONAL RELEASES

This Means War (20th Century Fox): Two CIA operatives (Chris Pine and Tom Hardy) wage an ‘epic battle’ against one another after they both fall in love with the same woman (Reese Witherspoon). Directed by McG. [Nationwide / 12A]

Wanderlust (Universal): Comedy about a married couple (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) who try to escape the trappings of modern society by joining a free-wheeling commune. Directed by David Wain, it co-stars Justin Theroux, Ken Marino, Malin Akerman and Lauren Ambrose. [Nationwide / 15]

Project X (Warner Bros.): Comedy about 3 teenagers who throw a birthday party to make a name for themselves, but as the night progresses, things spiral out of control. Directed by Nima Nourizadeh, it stars Thomas Mann, Oliver Cooper and Jonathan Daniel Brown. [Nationwide / 18]

Hunky Dory (E1 Films): Drama about the trials and tribulations of an idealistic drama teacher (Minnie Driver) as she tries to put on the end of year show. Directed by Marc Evans, it co-stars Aneurin Barnard and George Mackay. [Nationwide]

ALSO OUT

Michael (Artificial Eye): Acclaimed Austrian drama loosely inspired by the Fritzl case. Directed by Markus Schleinzer, it stars Michael Fuith, Christine Kain, Gisella Salcher, Ursula Strauss and Victor Tremmel. [Key cities / 18]

Carancho (Axiom Films): Argentinian crime drama about an ambulance chasing lawyer (Ricardo Darín) and a doctor (Martina Gusman) he meets. Directed by Pablo Trapero. [Key cities / 15]

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UK Cinema Releases: Friday 24th February 2012

NATIONAL RELEASES

Safe House (Universal): When a group of villains destroy a CIA-operated safe house, the facility’s young house-sitter (Ryan Reynolds) must work to move the criminal (Denzel Washington) who’s being hidden there to another secure location. Directed by Daniel Espinosa. [Nationwide]

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (20th Century Fox): A story set in Bangalore and centered around the workers and residents at Dunroamin, a home for the elderly. Directed by John Madden, it stars Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Dev Patel and Tom Wilkinson. [Nationwide]

One For the Money (Entertainment): Comedy-thriller about an unemployed lingerie buyer (Katherine Heigl), who convinces her cousin to give her a shot as a bounty hunter. Her first assignment is to track down a former cop on the run for murder – who turns out to be the same man who broke her heart years before. Directed by Julie Anne Robinson, it co-stars Debbie Reynolds. [Nationwide]

ALSO OUT

Black Gold (Warner Bros): Set in the 1930s Arab states at the dawn of the oil boom, the story centers on a young Arab prince torn between allegiance to his conservative father and modern, liberal father-in-law. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, it stars Mark Strong and Tahar Rahim. [Selected cinemas]

Rampart (Studiocanal UK): Set in Los Angeles during the early 1990s, veteran police officer Dave Brown Woody Harrelson) works to take care of his family, and struggles for his own survival. Directed by Jean-Pierre Ameris, it co-stars Ben Foster and Sigourney Weaver. [Selected cinemas]

Red Dog (G2 Pictures): Family film based on a true story about a dog and his how he affects a town in Western Australia. Directed by Kriv Stenders, it stars Josh Lucas, Rachael Taylor and John Batchelor. [Selected cinemas]

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Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Handsomely made but problematic in places, this drama about a young boy’s grief is likely to provoke wildly differing reactions.

Adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, it explores how a 13-year old boy named Oskar (Thomas Horn) deals with his own personal tragedy the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

After becoming obsessed with a mysterious key in a vase, he embarks on a journey that takes him around New York and  various inhabitants of the city including his mother (Sandra Bullock), a mysterious neighbour (Max Von Sydow) and a divorced woman (Viola Davis).

Given the kind of talent producer Scott Rudin usually assembles for his movies, you might expect this to be an end-of-year Oscar contender furnished with positive reviews and respectable box office.

Whilst it ended up snagging a Best Picture nomination some of the hostility – if not outright venom – directed towards the film suggests it struck a nerve in all the wrong ways.

The twin subjects of autism and 9/11 would prove difficult for even the most talented writers or filmmakers and ultimately proves a stretch too far for Foer and this adaptation.

Some images (especially one towards the climax) are dramatically misjudged and the film falls into the trap of many literary adaptations by being too literal.

Eric Roth’s dialogue is too respectful of Foer’s prose and whilst it may have been tempting to use voiceover to duplicate Oskar’s internal thoughts, over the course of the film it becomes too much.

Ultimately the film never really finds its own way into the material and the considerably weighty themes.

But there are stretches of the film that are undeniably moving, and some of the acting on display is both heartfelt and highly accomplished.

Thomas Horn in the lead role has the hardest part: not only is the film shot almost entirely from his perspective, but essentially rests on his shoulders.

His depiction of the obsessions and particularities of Asberger syndrome is remarkable, especially for a non-actor who came to the producer’s attention as a contestant on a US quiz show.

What many have found ‘annoying’ about his performance, seems to me an authentic depiction of a condition that is recognised as being on the spectrum of autism.

Not liking a performance is one thing, but the casual threats of physical violence (even in jest) suggest an ignorance and intolerance that is disquieting.

Although billed above the title, Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock have supporting roles and nicely play against their usual star personas with performances of quiet dignity.

Max Von Sydow brings his usual gravitas to his role as ‘the Renter’, which bears interesting similarities to Jean Dujardin’s role in The Artist, and is a reminder of his considerable acting skills.

The best performances are Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright, who demonstrate impeccable emotional precision in their small, but perfectly formed roles.

Even though the narrative is a journey around New York (specifically, an unofficial ‘sixth borough’ Oskar’s father had created for him) much of the drama takes place inside apartments, offices or houses.

Like his British contemporary Sam Mendes I’ve long harboured the suspicion that director Stephen Daldry instinctively prefers theatre to film.

Perhaps that is why so many of his films contain scenes with actors in confined spaces.

Positive side effects of this include powerful performances and the fact that he surrounds himself with talented crew members.

Alexandre Desplat’s musical score is just one of the emotionally affecting elements, even if at times it is almost too rich and smooth for the material.

But the real star of this film is cinematographer Chris Menges, who shoots with piercing clarity on the new Arri Alexa camera.

He has always been a master at lighting and watching the range of images delivered here via 4K digital projection was remarkable.

Along with recent films such as Hugo, Anonymous and Drive it will undoubtedly be used as a demonstration of how far high-end digital cameras have come.

What’s interesting is that this is more of an intimate, character-based drama and not the kind of material that you might benefit from using digital capture over 35mm.

Whilst people debate other aspects of this film, they are overlooking something technically profound: lighter digital
cameras are enabling directors like David Fincher and Stephen Daldry to create new working environments with their actors.

Just three years ago, Danny Boyle was telling Darren Aronofsky that although he used digital cameras for certain sequences of Slumdog Millionaire (2008), he’d still shoot close ups on film.

His DP Anthony Dodd Mantle won the Oscar that year, becoming the first cinematographer to win using a digital camera.

It is a sign of how far digital capture has come in that time, that the Alexa has caught on in films like this to the point where directors and cinematographers raised on film can feel comfortable making the jump to digital.

On the subject of ‘Oscar-bait‘ films, there is no doubt that Scott Rudin is the David O’Selznick of his generation, an ‘auteur producer’ of rare taste and talent.

In the current landscape of movies based on toys and boardgames, is aiming for Oscars really such a crime if it gives us movies like No Country for Old Men (2007) or The Social Network (2010)?

As with any prestige film released in the Autumn, it was expected to be in the running for awards contention.

But when the first reviews spilled out, especially the New York Times, it was clear that it wasn’t going to be the heavyweight contender its makers hoped.

The shock that it landed a Best Picture nomination was testament to how far it had fallen short of expectations.

But despite having some awkward moments this isn’t an exploitation movie and I imagine it was a sincere and personal movie for both Daldry and Rudin.

There is much good work here, both in front of and behind the camera.

It doesn’t ‘exploit’ 9/11 anymore than television or news coverage has done since terrorists murdered nearly 3,000 people and scarred a city for a generation.

But it does raise the question that came up in 2006 as the first wave of movies to deal with September 11th hit cinemas.

How soon is too soon?

> Official site
> Reviews of the film at Metacritic
> More on the novel, Asberger Syndrome and the Septmber 11th attacks at Wikipedia
> LA Times article on 9/11 movies
> Tuesday’s Children

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Cinema

UK Cinema Releases: Friday 17th February 2012

NATIONAL RELEASES

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Warner Bros.): A nine-year-old boy (Thomas Horn) searches New York for the lock that matches a mysterious key left by his father (Tom Hanks) when he was killed in the September 11 attacks. Directed by Stepehn Daldry, it co-stars Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis and Max Von Sydow. [Nationwide / 12A]

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (Sony Pictures): Sequel to the 2007 film which sees Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) hiding out in Eastern Europe, he is called upon to stop the devil, who is trying to take human form. Directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. [Nationwide / 12A]

The Woman In the Fifth (Artificial Eye): A college lecturer (Ethan Hawke) flees to Paris after a scandal costs him his job. In the City of Lights, he meets a widow (Kristin Scott Thomas) who might be involved in a series of murders. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. [Key Cities / 15]

> Get local cinema showtimes at Google Movies or FindAnyFilm
The Best Films of 2011
The Best DVD & Blu-ray Releases of 2011
Recent UK DVD & Blu-ray releases

 

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Cinema

UK Cinema Releases: Friday 10th February 2012

NATIONAL RELEASES

The Muppets (Disney): Modern update of the TV show which revolves around The Muppets reuniting for a show to save their old studios in Hollywood, which are in danger of falling into the hands of an evil Texas oil man. Directed by James Bobin, it stars Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Animal, Jason Segel, Amy Adams and Chris Cooper. [Nationwide / U]

The Woman In Black (Momentum): A young lawyer (Daniel Radcliffe) travels to a remote village to organize a recently deceased client’s papers, where he discovers the ghost of a scorned woman set on vengeance. Directed by James Watkins, it co-stars Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer and Liz White. [Nationwide / 12A]

A Dangerous Method (Lionsgate UK): A drama which explores how the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) gave birth to psychoanalysis. Directed by David Cronenberg, also stars Keira Knightly. [Selected cinemas / London 10th Feb, Nationwide 17th Feb / 15] [Read our full review]

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (20th Century Fox): 3D re-release for the 1999 Star Wars prequel. Directed by George Lucas, it stars Natalie Portman, Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor. [Nationwide / U]

The Vow (Sony Pictures): A newlywed couple (Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum) recover from a car accident that puts the wife in a coma. Waking up with with severe memory loss, her husband endeavors to win her heart again. Directed by Michael Sucsy, it co-stars Sam Neil and Scott Speedman. [Nationwide / 12A]

ALSO OUT

Casablanca (Park Circus): Reissue of the classic 1942 film. Directed by Michael Curtiz, it stars Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains. [Key cities / U]

> Get local cinema showtimes at Google Movies or FindAnyFilm
The Best Films of 2011
The Best DVD & Blu-ray Releases of 2011
Recent UK DVD & Blu-ray releases

 

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Cinema

UK Cinema Releases: Friday 3rd February 2012

NATIONAL RELEASES

Young Adult (Paramount): Soon after her divorce, a writer (Charlize Theron) returns to her home in small-town Minnesota, looking to rekindle a romance with her ex-boyfriend (Patrick Wilson), who is now married with kids. Directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody, it co-stars Patton Oswalt and J.K. Simmons. [Nationwide /15]

Martha Marcy May Marlene (20th Century Fox): Haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, a damaged woman (Elisabeth Olsen) struggles to re-assimilate with her family after fleeing an abusive cult. Directed by Sean Durkin, it co-stars Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes and Hugh Dancy. [Key Cities / 15]

Carnage (Studiocanal): Adapted from Yasmin Reza’s stage play about two sets of parents who decide to have a cordial meeting after their sons are involved in a schoolyard brawl. Directed by Roman Polanski, it stars Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz. [Nationwide / 15]

Chronicle (20th Century Fox): Sci-fi drama about Portland teenagers who develop incredible powers after a trip to the woods. Directed by Josh Trank, it stars Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly and Alex Russell. [Nationwide / 12A]

Jack and Jill (Sony Pictures): A family man (Adam Sandler) deals with his twin sister (also Adam Sandler) when she visits for Thanksgiving then won’t leave. Directed by Dennis Dugan, it co-stars Al Pacino. [Nationwide / PG]

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (Warner Bros): The sequel to Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) which stars Dwayne Johnson, Michael Caine, Josh Hutcherson, Vanessa Hudgens, Luis Guzmán and Kristin Davis. Directed by Brad Peyton. [Nationwide / PG]

Man On A Ledge (E1 Films): An ex-cop turned con (Sam Worthington) threatens to jump to his death from a Manhattan hotel rooftop. Directed by Asger Leth, it co-stars Elizabeth Banks, Anthony Mackie, Jamie Bell
and Ed Harris. [Nationwide / 12A]

ALSO OUT

Bombay Beach (Diva Partnership): Acclaimed documentary about a community living in an area of Southern California. Directed by Alma Har’el. [Selected cinemas]

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UK Cinema Releases: Friday 27th January 2012

NATIONAL RELEASES

The Descendants (20th Century Fox): A Hawaiin landowner (George Clooney) tries to re-connect with his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) after his wife suffers a boating accident. Directed by Alexander Payne, it co-stars Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster and Beau Bridges. [Nationwide / 15] [Read our full review]

The Grey (Entertainment): In Alaska, an oil drilling team struggle to survive after a plane crash strands them in the wild. Hunting the humans are a pack of wolves who see them as intruders. Directed by Joe Carnahan, it stars Liam Neeson and Dermot Mulroney. [Nationwide / 15]

Like Crazy (Paramount): A British college student (Felicity Jones) falls for an American student (anton Yelchin), only to be separated from him when she’s banned from the U.S. after overstaying her visa. Directed by Drake Doremus. [Nationwide / 12A]

ALSO OUT

Intruders (Universal): Spanish-British horror film about an 11-year old girl forced to confront childhood demons.
Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, it stars Clive Owen, Carice van Houten, Daniel Bruhl and Ella Purnell. [Key Cities / 15]

A Monster In Paris (Entertainment One): A French 3D-animated movie set in Paris during 1910, it centres on a monster who lives in a garden and his love for a beautiful, young singer. Directed by Bibo Bergeron.

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Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Haywire

The most eclectic director working in Hollywood tries his hand at a spy thriller.

Steven Soderbergh is the resident chameleon of US cinema, who thrives on jumping between genres and styles.

Since his mainstream creative rebirth in the late 1990s he has mixed mainstream commercial success (the Ocean’s trilogy) with more challenging fare (Solaris, The Good German, Che) and digital experimentation (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience).

Most recently he made an all-star disaster movie Contagion and now he employs a similar trick here with an illustrious supporting cast recruited from his impressive contacts book.

But the real surprise here is the casting of mixed martial arts star Gina Carano in the lead role.

She plays a hired government ‘contractor’ (a veiled reference to Blackwater) who we learn in flashback has been set up by her bosses after jobs in Barcelona and Dublin.

The impressive supporting cast includes Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum and Michael Fassbender.

There aren’t many directors who could pull off this trick – casting a former American Gladiator in a spy thriller alongside some of the most recognisable actors in the world.

But Soderbergh has become highly proficient in navigating the fringes of the mainstream, with occasional leaps right into it.

This on the surface is a very mainstream subject story – essentially a Bourne movie by way of the Ocean’s trilogy.

Old-school action is blended with a knowing globe-trotting humour and a smart script by Lem Dobbs.

There’s nothing too heavy here as it is basically an experiment to combine the breezy style of 1960s spy thrillers like Charade (1963) with the pulp literature of something like The Baroness series from the 1970s.

But a closer examination reveals a more interesting formal experiment to subvert the action genre from within.

Not only do we have a female lead in a movie that isn’t about weddings, but she regularly outsmarts and beats the crap out of every man in sight.

(Mysteriously, the global locations – Ireland, Catalonia and New Mexico – also coincide with places that offer generous tax rebates).

Whilst the basic narrative owes a lot to Bourne (US government assassin goes rogue) there is a deliberate attempt to avoid the ‘chaos cinema’ that has been so influential on the modern action genre.

Serving as his own cinematographer and editor (under his regular pseudonyms) quick edits are rejected and the fights are refreshingly reminiscent of those in 1960s thrillers, when killing another human being didn’t involve slow motion.

Going for a more realistic approach, it rejects the post-Matrix wire ballet or frenzied editing style of the later Bourne films in favour of a more composed and leaner approach.

Keep an ear out too for more believable slapping sounds you actually hear in fights, rather than the overcooked punching effects so beloved of Hollywood.

Soderbergh also apparently altered Carano’s voice in post-production, which makes it an intriguing project from an audio perspective – was the lead actress his very own creative ‘recruit’ to mess with the action genre down to the last detail?

It remains to be seen if she can make the breakthrough into acting full-time, but here she impresses with her imposing physicality and easy charm.

As for the supporting cast, it is something of a slam-dunk for all of them as the screenplay gives each of them plenty of dry humour on which to feast.

There has always been a James Bond influence on the Ocean’s films (e.g. casinos, smooth charm, glamorous locations) and it is here too, although the neat trick is having what essentially amounts to a female 007.

At times the groovy score by David Holmes is a little too close to the vibe he established on those films, but it largely proves a good fit for the material.

In many ways it is reminiscent of The Limey (1999) – another Soderbergh film scripted by Dobbs – which also dealt with revenge, a father-daughter relationship and villains who got beaten up or killed.

Over the last few years Soderbergh has been at the forefront of the A-list directors using digital cameras (others include David Fincher and James Cameron).

Here he has gone for a slightly different look, going for a digital version of the rich anamorphic look beloved of certain ‘classical’ action movies since the 1960s.

The digital workflow used by the production again set new boundaries in producing imagery for relatively low cost, prompting a colleague to say:

“If digital cinema had its own country, Steven would probably be President”

In the week Kodak announced that it had entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy, this feels significant.

It should also be noted that Soderbergh has essentially created a crafty commercial film from inside the system.

With financing from Relativity Media he has managed to make a more audience-friendly counterpart to his artier experiments like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience.

It is this range that makes him one of the most interesting directors working inside the system.

> Official site
> Reviews of Haywire at Metacritic
> Lengthy Box Office Magazine interview with Soderbergh
> Detailed post on the digital workflow used by the production

Categories
Cinema

UK Cinema Releases: Friday 20th January 2012

NATIONAL RELEASES

Haywire (Paramount/Momentum): A black ops super soldier (Gina Carano) seeks payback after she is betrayed and set up during a mission. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, it co-stars Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas. [Nationwide / 15]

J.Edgar (Warner Bros.): Biopic of the founder of the FBI and modern law enforcement in America for almost 50 years, J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) was feared and admired, reviled and revered. Directed by Clint Eastwood, it co-stars Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Damon Herriman, Jarreth J. Merz and Judi Dench. [Nationwide / 15]

The Sitter (20th Century Fox): A suspended college student (Jonah Hill), living at home with his single mom, is talked into baby-sitting the kids next door – two boys and a wild 8-year-old girl. Directed by David Gordon Green, it co-stars Landry Bender and Sam Rockwell. [Nationwide / 15]

Underworld: Awakening (Entertainment): The latest chapter in the franchise involving a centuries-old blood feud between the aristocratic vampires and their one-time werewolf slaves, the Lycans. Directed by Bjorn Stein and Mario Lopez. [Nationwide / 15]

W.E. (Studiocanal): A  two-tiered romantic drama focusing on the affair between King Edward VIII (James Darcy) and American divorcée Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and a contemporary romance between a married woman (Abbie Cornish) and a Russian security guard (Oscar Isaac). Directed by Madonna. [Nationwide / 15]

ALSO OUT

Coriolanus (Lionsgate): Adaptation of Shakespeare’s play about a Roman soldier (Ralph Fiennes) who despises the people. His extreme views ignite a mass riot and he is banished from Rome. Coriolanus allies with a sworn enemy (Gerard Butler) to take his revenge on the city. Directed by Fiennes, it co-stars Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox and Jessica Chastain. [Selected cinemas / 15]

> Get local cinema showtimes at Google Movies or FindAnyFilm
The Best Films of 2011
The Best DVD & Blu-ray Releases of 2011
Recent UK DVD & Blu-ray releases