Tag Archives: Movies

Movie review – La La Land

For once the hype is justified.

Well, almost….

Winner of a record 7 Golden Globes – in every category for which it received a nomination – La La Land is surely bound for Oscar glory too.

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The movie is written and directed by the enviably talented Damien Chazelle, still only 31 and the creator of Whiplash, another jazz-themed original piece of artistic brilliance from a couple of years ago.

La La Land sets out its musical stall in the dazzling opening set-piece. Gridlocked LA commuters jump out of their cars and onto the freeway tarmac, bursting with colourful, choreographed energy.

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Chazelle has created a musical drama very much for the 21st century. There are too many nods to old-time Hollywood song-and-dance classics to call out, but La La Land is a brilliant and original updating of the genre.

Emma Stone is Mia, a wannabe actress pouring coffee for stars in the Warner Bros film studios between her own unsuccessful auditions .

Ryan Gosling is jazz pianist Sebastian, forced to betray his musical principles to pay the bills.

Mia and Sebastian meet, They fall in love. They break up.

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So far, so very Hollywood. But the freshness comes from Chazelle’s use of music, dance and lush cinematography – and the chemistry between Stone and Gosling – to bring the story to sumptuous, vibrant life.

With a critic’s hat on, the movie feels a little like a game of two halves. The first is musical, the second more conventionally wordy. And I’m not totally convinced by the Sliding Doors-like alternative ending to the love story…..

But these are churlish observations.

Leave your cynicism at the cinema door, open your cold English hearts and embrace the cloudless skies and musical warmth of highly original La La Land.

And start counting those Oscars……

Movie review – I, Daniel Blake

First Odeon Screen Unseen for a while last night. What a great concept. For just £5, it’s a complete surprise what movie you’ll see. Like Forrest Gump’s words of wisdom from his Mum – life is like a box of chocolates…..you never know what you’re gonna get. 

Well, we got I, Daniel Blake, this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner, from film-making legend Ken Loach.

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Dave Johns is Daniel Blake, an ageing carpenter who is signed off work with a heart problem.

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This proud, honest working class man loses his dignity and just about everything else as he struggles to penetrate the opaque benefits system. On one of his futile visits to the Job Centre, he tries to help single mother Katie – played by Hayley Squires – and her two young children, relocated from London to Newcastle and also being stonewalled by the rules-bound staff.

The film is relentlessly bleak in its assessment of the welfare state bureaucracy, but through the despair an unlikely friendship is formed and at least some human decency is glimpsed.

Ken Loach is renowned for his political views…somewhere left of Trotsky. But there’s no denying that he makes films that shatter you emotionally and which resonate with powerful issues of the day.

I remember being wowed by Land and Freedom, his 1995 homage to the communist protagonists in the Spanish Civil War….which coincidentally is also what Laurie Lee experiences in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, which I’ve just finished reading.

Next Screen Unseen in November. Hope it’s got a slightly softer centre than I, Daniel Blake.

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Theatre review – The Shawshank Redemption

The 1994 Oscar winning movie The Shawshank Redemption is regularly right at the top of many favourite film of all time lists.

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Based on a novella by Stephen King, it tells the story of Andy Dufresne, a banker incarcerated in the infamous Shawshank penitentiary for the murder of his wife and her lover.

Andy initially remains aloof inside the brutal prison, but slowly forms an unlikely friendship with fixer Ellis “Red” Redding. He continually professes his innocence of the double murder, but over the years inside The Shank he uses his wit and intelligence to make life as bearable as possible.

This intriguing tale has now been transported to the stage. I can’t compare to the movie or to the original book, but it stands alone as a thrilling, life-affirming piece of live entertainment.

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Paul Nicholls plays the wily banker, Jack Ellis the devious Warden Stammas and Ben Onwukwe, as Red, is a convincing double for Oscar nominated Morgan Freeman.

With stealthy set changes and a little imagination, we’re on the inside of the penitentiary with the cast, moving seamlessly from the canteen to Andy’s cell – adorned by a Rita Hayworth poster – into the exercise yard and back into the new library, a reward for Andy’s money-laundering efforts for Warden Stammas.

The cast of just eleven men punches well above its collective weight, thanks to a clever soundtrack and theatrical trickery .

We come to despise prison bullies and rapists Bogs and Rooster, pity institutionalised librarian Brooksie and laugh with the other long-term inmates.

In just two hours, we live with them all through almost 20 years of lies, violence, fear, friendship and – ultimately – redemption.

I might yet see the much lauded film one day, but it’s hard to imagine it could be a better experience than seeing this stage adaptation, on a wet September night in Windsor.

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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.

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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.

Theatre review – Sideways

There was a dramatic surge in sales of Pinot Noir wine, after the 2004 movie Sideways became a surprise hit.

Writer Rex Pickett has adapted his script for the stage, and after success in La Jolla it has now made its way across the pond to the St. James Theatre in London.

Miles is a wine bore. And he’s depressed. He’s a failed husband and a failing writer. He loves Pinot Noir. He hates Merlot.

He and his buddy Jack are hitting some California wineries for a week before Jack’s wedding, but they have very different agendas. Miles is searching for some answers at the bottom of an expensive wine bottle. Jack – a second-rate actor and ageing lothario – just wants to get laid before his nuptials.

Opportunity knocks in the form of Terra – a winery host – for Jack, Pinot Noir – and waitress Maya – for Miles.

After a languid first sip or two, the performance really hit its stride mid-way through the first half. By the time the bottle is emptied, the audience is gurgling with laughter as Miles and Jack have to face the music.

Sideways is a touching, funny and poignant story of love, friendship and grapes. The English cast admirably ape the American characters and voices, but Paul Giamatti as Miles and Thomas Haden Church as Jack in the original movie are hard acts to follow.

A few cautionary words. There is a lot of swearing. And some full-frontal nudity. And get some Pinot Noir down the off-licence before it sells out.

 

Book review – The Boys in the Boat

Just finished reading The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, Barry’s selection for our latest West Surrey Boys and the Book Club.

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Essentially a sports book, its tag-line is An Epic Journey to the Heart of Hitler’s Berlin. But it does so much more than tell the story of the Washington University’s all-conquering nine-man rowing team and their quest to win the gold medal at the 1936 Olympic games.

The author skilfully weaves the narrative around Joe Rantz, a young lad abandoned by his family and struggling to find his way in the world. But it also reveals much about the Great Depression in the USA in the 1920s and 1930s, and the rise of Hitler’s National Socialists in Germany at much the same time.

And it’s a morality tale of the American Dream, and how the impoverished sons of loggers, farmers and shipyard workers pulled together to defeat their local rivals from California University, more privileged rivals from Ivy league colleges on the East Coast, then the elite teams of Oxford & Cambridge, and – ultimately – the representatives of Hitler’s Third Reich, in the German boat at the infamous Berlin Olympics, just 3 years before the outbreak of World War II.

A vast amount of research, from talking to Joe before his death in 2007 at the age of 93, from journals of the rowers and their esteemed coaches, newspaper reports and much more, has resulted in a long book of close to 400 pages.

But I hung on every word, enjoying the historical, political and emotional under-currents, as much as the perfect synchronicity of the team’s minds and oars in every race.

Already being called Chariots of Fire on Water, I can’t wait to see the book retold on the movie screen. The Weinstein Company have recently announced the cast….Daniel Radcliffe and Bradley Cooper will star, Ken Branagh will direct. Prepare to be pulled along on a tide of emotion.

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.