Category Archives: Movies

Movie review – Swallows and Amazons

Arthur Ransome is partly responsible for my lifelong love of books. Along with Mum & Dad for encouraging me to read from a young age. And Mr Ingram, my English teacher for later “O” and “A” levels, introducing me to Graham Greene, Saul Bellow, Master Shakespeare and so many other disparate, illuminating writers.

But it was the adventures of Swallows and Amazons that opened my youthful eyes to an exciting wider world, both physically and in the imagination.

We borrowed Gill’s nephew Ben (11) and nieces Jess and Lucy (7) last week. In a high-risk strategy, we took them to see the new movie Swallows and Amazons. No inter-galactic wars, no dazzling animation, and not far short of two hours….would they survive an old-fashioned yarn lasting longer than a WhatsApp exchange with their friends?

The film is largely faithful to the concept of Ransome’s well-spoken Walker family, zooming north to the idyllic Lake District while the patriarch captains a destroyer somewhere in the Far East, not long before the outbreak of World War II.

The four older Walker children – John, Susan, Tatty and Roger – persuade their baby-cradling mother to let them set sail in the Swallow across the lake, to camp for a few days on Unexplored Island.

Park your 21st century cynicism at the cinema door: of course no responsible mother would let her brood loose on such an adventure now. Especially as the youngest can barely swim. And how sad that the author’s Titty has succumbed to contemporary political correctness and had her name changed to the ridiculous Tatty.

The out-of-towners are attacked by friendly local pirates Nancy & Peggy Blackett on the Amazon, sporting the evil Jolly Roger on its mast. But they soon share a mutual respect. Just as well, because – in another diversion from Ransome’s original innocence and a further sop to modern demands – they have to work together to foil a Russian spy plot.

No matter. Swallows and Amazons remains a nostalgic tale, conjuring up days spent in the open air, having old-fashioned adventures and making a campfire, with no sign of Facebook, Instagram or texting.

Ben, Jess and Lucy stayed awake – and hopefully fully engaged – until the happy ending.

I wonder if they’d like The Famous Five books too…..


Movie review – The Nice Guys

I’m not going if it’s just a blokey film, Ruth said.

But it’s getting some great reviews. And it has a 91% Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer ratingparried John.

We were looking for something to do, on a soggy Saturday afternoon and within spitting distance of Dublin. Something to stop us eating and drinking for just a few hours, after a heavy couple of days enjoying Irish hospitality. Something that wasn’t too mentally challenging, after a Leonardo da Vinci culture-fest at the National Gallery the day before. And something sitting down, after some energetic yomps through the moody Wicklow mountains.

John won.

Sure enough, The Nice Guys is a grand way to escape reality. Just park your critical faculties at the door, stick your nose in a bag of Maltesers, lean back in the velvety seat….and let your mind drift back to the 1970s.

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe stumble around a time-warped Los Angeles as a private-eye Odd Couple.

The plot is a load of old hokum, but has something to do with a dead porn star, a missing girl, some dangerous gangsters and a conspiracy. Maybe.

But forget the plot.

The point of the movie is the undoubted chemistry from the unlikely pairing of Ryan and Russell. Gosling in particular is a revelation in a comedy role, what with his droopy moustache, drink problem and bad father issues.

Enjoy the authentic soundtrack, party scenes, clothes and scenery. Hell, even the title credits transport you back to 1977.

Enjoy some good one-liners too, and a cracking performance from Angourie Rice as Holly, Gosling’s wise-beyond-her-years teenage daughter.

Angourie Rice Picture

It’s a buddy movie. We laughed a bit. It won’t win any Oscars. We stayed dry for a couple of hours. We ate and drank loads more afterwards.

Job done.

Movie review – Midnight Special

Are you one of those people who likes certainty in life….or do you thrive on being surprised?

If you find that elusive, magical holiday nirvana one year, do you return again and again….or do you constantly look for somewhere new, and hopefully even better?

It was time for another Screen Unseen at the Odeon tonight. They gave the usual cryptic clues on Facebook, but what really gave it away was an email from them yesterday saying: we can’t wait to welcome you at ODEON Guildford tomorrow for MIDNIGHT SPECIAL!

So not a great surprise when the credits rolled and Midnight Special was announced by the British Board of Censors. Note to the marketing guys at the Odeon……get your Screen Unseen email distribution sorted!

I’m not normally a science fiction fan, and for the first hour or so the film plays out as a conventional thriller and then as a road movie, a father abducting his son from a weird cult at a remote Texan ranch.

But gradually the other-worldly pieces fall into place: the 8 year-old boy Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) has mysterious powers. His adoptive father Calvin Meyer (Sam Shephard) is the persuasive leader of the cult, and they believe Alton is their prophet. The FBI – and other US security forces – become involved when some of Alton’s messages replicate confidential state information.

The plot descends further into sci-fi realms as Alton’s real father Roy (Michael Shannon) reunites him with his mother Sarah (played by an unglamorous Kirsten Dunst), and spooky things start happening to the moody landscape of Texas, Louisiana and Alabama.

The dramatic dénouement is reminiscent of Close Encounters, ET and War of the Worlds.

It didn’t float my movie boat, but the cinematography alone was worth the (cheap) ticket price. The writer and director Jeff Nichols elicits good performances from the boy and from Adam Driver, as enlightened Fed agent Paul Sevier, in particular, but overall it wasn’t an out-of-this-world movie experience for me.

Does that mean I won’t risk another Screen Unseen? Of course not. I’ll be there. As long as they don’t spoil the surprise again….


Movie review – High Rise

What greater honour can there be for an artist than to have a generic term attached to their life’s work? Apart from awards and royalty cheques, obviously.

Ballardian is a recognised term for the total literary output of J. G. Ballard. Born in Shanghai in 1930, he died in 2009 and achieved a huge amount in between.

Whilst at Cambridge University, he studied medicine with an intention of becoming a psychiatrist. His exposure to art, anatomy and psycho-analysis shaped his thinking, and future writing, as did a love of science fiction, read whilst training with the RAF in Canada in 1955-56.

His book High Rise, first published in 1975, is now the inspiration for a new film, written by Amy Jump and directed by Ben Wheatley.

Tom Hiddleston – the next Mr. Bond? – plays Dr. Robert Laing, a physiologist who has just moved into a 40-storey modernist apartment block. He seems to be alone, having recently lost his sister, and we see nothing of him outside his pristine apartment and work, where he graphically dissects human brains for his students.

We’re introduced to some of the other occupants of his new home. The enigmatically sexy Charlotte – surprisingly well played by Sienna Miller – is Charlotte, immediately above him. Down in the bowels of the building is the manic Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), and his abused, pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men fame, but with an impeccable English accent here).

The premise of the story is laid bare when Dr. Lang is whisked off to the lavish penthouse apartment to meet Anthony Royal, the architect of this brutalist building (played by a God-like Jeremy Irons). The sprawling roof-top gardens, including a beautiful white horse, are a sop to his ice-cool wife Ann (Keeley Hawes). But at a decadent party, the posh inhabitants of the upper floors humiliate Robert, and the die is cast.

As the power fails, so does the social fabric of the building. The block descends into class warfare, and the movie into an allegorical abyss.

If you like to see rape, violence, a severed ear with a dangling ear-ring, a slow-motion suicide jump and much more, you’ll lap High Rise up.

Robert tries to stay semi-detached, even as the mayhem around him escalates. But when he refuses to perform a lobotomy on Richard for the upper-floor aristos, and screws Helen, he is most definitely involved.

This movie works on many levels, but on none of them for me, I’m afraid.

Ballardian literature is hallucinogenic, apocalyptic, dystopian, bleak science-fiction. I’d prefer to remember the undoubtedly brilliant writer more for his auto-biographical Empire of the Sun, than for High Rise or Crash.


Movie review – Disorder

Do you prefer certainty, or the unknown?

The Odeon’s admirable Screen Unseen concept is by definition a surprise. Although they do give some clues on Facebook and lots of clever cinephiles try to anticipate what the next Unseen movie might be.

So I toddled off to last night’s outing, fully expecting to see Hands of Stone, the story of boxer Roberto Duran, starring Robert de Niro as his legendary trainer, Ray Arcel.

The appearance of Disorder on the Censor’s certificate caused a ripple of unease amongst the audience, and within minutes quite a few had vacated their seats and were heading for the neon-lit exit door. Disappointed boxing fans, or perhaps sitting through a sub-titled French film on a cold Monday night was just too much effort?

Matthias Schoenaerts is Vincent, a muscular French army soldier suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Not knowing if he’ll be assigned to another mission, he’s persuaded to sign up for a private security job, a lavish party at the opulent estate of a shady Lebanese businessman.

For the first hour, the film is a taut thriller played out largely in Vincent’s head. Not helped by a cocktail of drugs, his mind and hearing are still on the battlefields, and he’s suffering from a paranoia that distorts his judgement. The soundtrack perfectly complements this mental mayhem.

Thereafter, it morphs into a fairly pedestrian – and confusing – home-invasion thriller.  Vincent is asked to stay on after the party, to look after the businessman’s wife – Diane Kruger as Jessie, looking like a dead ringer for Grace Kelly – and son Ali.

Vincent suspects that the Lebanese husband is an arms dealer who also has dubious links with the recently elected French Interior Minister. His suspicions are confirmed when the husband is arrested on a trip to Switzerland, the police protection outside the estate disappears, and masked men invade the house.

The developing relationship between Vincent and Jessie is the glue that binds the plot together, but the movie is a whole doesn’t quite work. In my humble, non-cinephile opinion.

But Matthias Schoenaerts is an undoubted star, and carries the film as far as it can go. He was outstanding as one of Bathsheba Everdene’s suitors in the recent version of Far from the Madding Crowd,  played a small but important part in The Danish Girl, and is undoubtedly destined for full-blown Hollywood stardom. Another famous Belgian for that favourite quiz question?

Disorder is being called Maryland for English-speaking audiences, and is released in the UK on 25th March.

I wonder what Hands of Stone will be like?

Movie review – Brooklyn

In the post-war 1950s, Ireland was stagnating. Conversely, the US was booming. As a result, around 50,000 Irish emigrated to the Brave New World across the pond, with a quarter of them settling in New York City.

The movie Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Catholic coleen sent away by her loving older sister, to a ready-made job in an Italian department store and to a new life of opportunity.

Desperately homesick initially, she slowly embraces her new environment, helped by Catholic priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) and her landlady Mrs Keogh (a scene-stealing Julie Walters).

And then she falls in love, with gentle Italian plumber Tony (Emory Cohen), and nothing will ever be the same again.

But back in Wexford, her sister Rose dies suddenly and Eilis is pulled back to the old country, and to her lonely mother.

From the book by Colm Tóibín, and with a screenplay by Nick Hornby, this is a beautifully told story. Saiorse Ronan perfectly captures the fragile innocence of a young girl transplanted from a limiting, narrow-minded rural community to a thriving cityscape, bursting instead with energy and opportunity.

We see her mature into a confident, ambitious person, quietly comfortable in her own skin. But will she choose her new life, or stay loyal to her Irish roots?

The themes of love, family, home and opportunity often conflict with each other. Ms Ronan deserves her Oscar nomination for portraying those emotions in such a poignant, understated way, although I’m not as sure that the film deserves its own nomination, alongside more worthy competitors The Big Short, Spotlight and Room.

Movie review – Before Sunset

Who said romance is dead?

For Valentines Day, as trashily commercialised as it may be, I bought Gill a champagne and romantic movie experience. With me. And in the intimate small private screening room at the Courthouse Hotel in Soho, rather than at a popcorn-filled, trailer-laden Odeon multiplex.

And the movie?

A few years ago, we’d been the only people in a late night viewing of Before Midnight at a cinema in beautiful Bruges.  That was the third – and final – instalment of the well-regarded trilogy from Richard Linklater, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke.

The three films span 18 years, both in terms of movie release dates and also the lives of the protagonists, Céline and Jesse.

This time we were seeing Before Sunset, the middle instalment. So we’re working our way backwards…..

Nine years earlier, in Before Sunrise, young American tourist Jesse and ideological French beauty Céline had bumped into each other on a train in Europe.


Through conversation as much as the obvious physical attraction, they connect. And spend a magical day and night in Vienna together.

But then they go their separate ways.

Before Sunset takes place in Paris, 9 years later. Jesse has written a successful book, and is talking to journalists in the historic Shakespeare & Company bookshop about how auto-biographical the love story is.

Céline appears, and for the next hour – again in real-time – they stroll through Paris, reminiscing about that romantic first meeting, and peeling away the layers of what’s happened in their lives since.

Céline explains why she didn’t show up for a planned second meeting in Vienna exactly 6 months later. Jesse admits he flew over from the US to honour the commitment.

As the camera follows them through the city, we eavesdrop on the intimacy of their witty, sensitive conversation and – like them – wonder what might have been. Jesse is now married and a father, Céline a passionate environmentalist and in a relationship of her own.

But is either of them really happy?

Beautifully shot, intelligently acted and smartly scripted, this is cinema at its finest. And most romantic.

Movie review – Spotlight

Why do so many people cling to religion, like a Titanic passenger to an over-crowded lifeboat? Whether it’s for personal strength, gentle spiritual guidance – or just a habit – I’m afraid I really don’t get it.

Whether I believe in God, or not, is another ball-game, but time and time again, His earthly representatives let Him down, and betray the very people they exist to help.

The institution of the church – in its broader form, across religions – fails so frequently that its message has long been lost, for me and for many others, I fear.

Spotlight is the latest film to shine a dazzlingly bright light on the earthly failings of a disconcerting number of religious representatives. And I’m afraid it paints a terrible picture of the Catholic Church yet again, as so many before. PhilomenaDeliver Us From Evil, or The Boys of St. Vincent are just a few from a depressingly long list, all rooted in fact.

Spotlight is the name given to the Boston Globe’s specialist unit of investigative reporters. They choose stories to dissect in forensic detail, over a protracted period, before potential publication.

In 2001, encouraged by the newly arrived editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), the team pursue the story, initiated a few years earlier by another Globe journalist, of sexual abuse by a local Catholic priest against a child.

But what makes the story of real interest for the editor and for the Spotlight team is the potential cover up of the abuse, led by Boston’s powerful Cardinal Law (Len Cariou).

What follows is a real insight into the journalistic world, as the team dig deeper into the story, interviewing victims, priests, lawyers, police and anyone connected to the expanding web of connected horror.

They discover a systematic cover-up of child abuse by up to 90 Catholic priests in Boston alone over the previous 20-30 years. But what appals them – and us – is the devious collusion of the city’s authorities – the Archdiocese, lawyers, police – that allows confidential settlements to be made, and for the perpetrators to be moved to another parish, where they repeat the abuse.

The movie is told almost as a docudrama,  focusing as much on the mundane journalistic and editorial challenges as the underlying horror. It’s perhaps an unusual role for both Michael Keaton as Walter “Robby” Robinson, head of the Spotlight team, and Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes, the most passionate and driven member of Spotlight. But they convince, with Mark Ruffalo earning a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, and Brian d’Arcy James as Matt Carroll complete the conscientious Spotlight team.

Stanley Tucci deserves a special nod. He plays Mitchell Garabedian, an Armenian “outsider” living in Boston, a lawyer who has been quietly supporting past and present abuse victims, long before the Boston Globe scoop breaks.

The movie is a tribute to what the Spotlight team achieved through their painstaking work, so thorough and shocking that it led to similar stories of abuse by priests and cover-ups by the Catholic church in dozens of other cities throughout the world.

And in a painful twist, Robby realises he had all the pieces of the jigsaw in the Globe’s possession 5 years earlier, and let the story slip, allowing even more innocent young victims to be abused.

Religion, eh….who needs it?


Movie review – Everest

I am officially old.

How so?

Because today was a first experience of the Odeon’s Silver Cinema deal. Great recent movies available only to the over-55s, and for the scarcely believable price of £3. Throw in a cup of coffee, a few biscuits and a free pair of dentures, and why would you want to spend a couple of hours on a hypothermic Thursday morning in January anywhere else?

I dragged Gill along too. Technically, she doesn’t qualify. She’s 53. Nearly 54 though, which is very nearly 55, right? OK, so she looks more like 43….but with a walking stick and a fake driving licence, we got in. And we climbed Kilimanjaro together, so I couldn’t leave her behind when we were going to Everest, could I?

The experience of summiting (yes, I know it’s not really a proper verb, but it just sounds so impressive) Kilimanjaro was brutal enough. But if I ever harboured thoughts of attempting to climb the world’s highest peak, this movie has dispelled them.

Everest is based on the true story of an ascent by different groups of climbers in 1996. But during the fateful summit attempt on 10th May, nature unleashed one of the most extreme snowstorms ever experienced on the mountain, with inevitable consequences for mere humans.

Everest (2015) Poster

The story is told like an old-fashioned disaster movie. The main strand focuses on Rob Hall (played by Jason Clarke), an experienced Kiwi leading his Adventure Consultants team and clients. In the climbing group, paying an eye-watering $65,000 each to play poker with death, are Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), amongst others.

Scott Fischer (a very beardy and heavy-drinking Jake Gyllenhall) leads a more maverick team of his own, appropriately named Mountain Madness, but the two groups unite for the summit attempt.

Back at base camp, Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) plays the Adventure Consultants support role. She also provides a convenient communication and narrative link between the climbers and their humanising back-story partners.

In New Zealand, Rob’s wife Jan (Keira Knightley) is expecting their first child, and Peach (Robin Wright) is Beck’s feisty wife back in Texas.

But the real star of the movie is the mountain. Aerial shots make you gasp at the smallness of the climbers as they begin the final, fateful ascent. And, in the eye of the storm, Everest wreaks a terrible toll.

A couple of journalists survive, including Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly). He wrote a controversial book himself about the climb – Into Thin Air – which I just have to read myself now for a contrary view.

In one of the camps shortly before the fateful summit attempt, he apologises for having to ask the inevitable question: why are you doing it?

Beck has already said he gets depressed at home in Texas, away from mountains.

Doug, a simple man who delivers the mail at home in the US, has failed before and says it’s because he can. Not to try again would just be wrong.

Yasuko, a Japanese climber in her late 40s, needs to climb Everest to complete the ultimate mountaineers’ quest: summiting the 7 highest peaks of the 7 continents.

This is an emotional film to watch, as all well-told disaster movies should be. It’s not without its faults, but it kept a bunch of Guildford geriatrics very quiet for a couple of hours, enthralled by the majesty of nature and the vulnerability of man.

I felt really old after the final credits had rolled.




Movie review – The Big Short

Another trip to the Guildford Odeon for a lucky-dip Screen Unseen movie. As Forrest Gump would say….you don’t always know what you’re gonna get.

After a couple of recent suboptimal experiences, The Big Short has renewed our Screen Unseen enthusiasm. Out on general release in the UK from this Friday, 22nd January, the film is a sparkling effort to tell the story of the 2008 financial crash in an understandable and entertaining way.

As Michael Lewis, the scourge of Wall Street since Liar’s Poker was published, and author of the original book The Big Short says: Who’d make a movie about credit-default swaps?

Who indeed would think that the movie-going public could be entertained by a complex tale of sub-prime mortgage loans, credit-default swaps and collateralised debt obligations. And, by the architect of the final descent into financial madness, synthetic CDOs.

Enter Adam McKay as director of The Big Short. Known as a comedian and a director of hugely successful comic movies, he has used off-the-wall cinematic techniques and ploys to highlight the frankly unbelievable and absurd unravelling of the banking system.

Adam McKay Picture

The stellar cast – Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Peter Epstein – play along as the Wall Street outsiders, non-conformist geniuses, idealists and chancers who bet against inherent Wall Street greed and corruption.

This is a seat-of-the-pants, can-this-really-be-happening, will-they-win-big-or-lose-everything story, told and acted in a totally compelling way.

Hard to believe it all really did happen.