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Film Reviews March 2015

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SIGNIS REVIEWS MARCH 2015


BLACKHAT
CINDERELLA
CITIZENFOUR
EX MACHINA
DOLPHIN TALE 2
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
GAMBLER, The
INTERVIEW, The
IT FOLLOWS
JUPITER ASCENDING
KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE
MOST VIOLENT YEAR, A
PROJECT ALAMANAC
ROSEWATER
SEVENTH SON
UNFINISHED BUSINESS


BLACKHAT

US, 2015, 133 minutes, Colour.
Chris Hemsworth, Leehom Wang, Wei Tang, Viola Davis, Yorick van Wageningen.

Directed by Michael Mann.

Blackhat is certainly topical. The title refers to computer hacking and hackers. And that is certainly topical, with experiences in recent months where Sony Pictures was hacked on the occasion of the release of The Interview, suspects, amongst others, North Korea which was being satirised in the film. There have been a number of successful hacking’s of American government and military sites.

This is not a film for Luddites. If the audience is not sympathetic to computers, there will be far too much detail, too much hacking, too much hacking the hackers, and trying to deal with information technology and communication. But, this screenplay does strive to provide enough information to make what is going on intelligible (more or less).

The audience can see, right from the opening credits, that hacking has explosive results, even literally with government and company installations. As we watch the progress and process of the hacking, we see it leading to destruction in both China and in Chicago. Chinese authorities as well as the FBI come in on the case, one young expert recognising that a program being used was created by a friend who is, in fact, in jail for hacking crimes. FBI authorities (including Viola Davis) agree to get him released temporarily to work on the sabotage but he is particularly strong minded, makes no deals unless he sets the terms. Out of prison he comes.

He is Nick Hathaway, played by Chris Hemsworth, taking time off from being Thor. He is a big man, an abrupt manner, taciturn, not particularly relational, clever at his work, his investigations, his conclusions. Just when we thought he couldn’t have a relationship, he is attracted by the sister of one of the Chinese agents. She becomes a significant contributor to the solution of the problems.

The investigation takes place in Chicago but then all and sundry move to China, recognising the hacker but also detecting the influence of some of his clients, which leads to violent shootouts in China. Nick and the Chinese girl then travel to Malaysia visiting and examining a drive river bed where tin is being mined and which is about to be flooded, making tin scarce and so raising profit margins. And the action moves to Indonesia, to a crowded Jakarta, where the climax takes place, violent confrontation during a crowded public ritual ceremony.

The film was directed by Michael Mann, well known in the past for Miami Vice, making films every couple of years, best known for The Last of the Mohicans, Heat and, more recently, Public Enemy. His visual style is idiosyncratic, using muted light with action often taking place at night or in darkness, coming to bright light in the Malaysians sequences, a great relief, and in some of the Indonesian sequences. Because it is dealing with IT, it is more of a cerebral thriller, although there is quite some action, shootouts and fights.

CINDERELLA

UK, 2015, 105 minutes, Colour.
Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgaard, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell, Rob Bryden.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh.

This version of Cinderella is one of great charm, a pleasure to watch, entertaining and often funny, with some witty and wry lines – a film for girls of every age, young girls and old girls, but not one for boys of any age!

The screenplay was written by Chris Weitz, writer and director of several very entertaining films, including About a Boy, and directed by that fine actor, Kenneth Branagh. And the cast is top-class, Lily James a lovely as Cinderella, Richard Madden making an impression as the Prince. But it is some of the adults who are entertaining, principally Cate Blanchett as a smilingly cruel stepmother (often wearing green, indicating her envy and jealousy), uttering quite ironic and cutting lines. She spends a lot of time promoting her daughters simply because they are her daughters, whom she thinks are rather stupid (and not incorrectly). Derek Jacobi is the King, Stellan Skarsgaard is the scheming Grand Duke, Ben Chaplin Cinderella’s sympathetic father, with a brief comic turn from Rob Bryden as the artist commissioned to paint the Prince.

The thing is, of course, that we all know what is going to happen. The pleasure is in anticipation and then the satisfaction of seeing how what we were expecting turns out.

There is something of a more serious opening to the film, Cinderella as a young baby, the loving parents, her mother’s death, the father and his travels, and the charming Cinderella making no objections at all to her father’s wanting to marry again. It is clear that she has not yet met her prospective stepmother!

All goes according to the stepmother’s plan when she moves in, installing the daughters, relegating Cinderella to the attic, not allowing her to eat with the family, Cinderella not allowed to do anything much in fact. But, Cinderella has great comfort in her four pet mice, the most engaging little animals on screen since that chorus in Babe 20 years ago. Their comic presence and some of their antics are very entertaining – especially in comparison with the stepmother’s big ugly cat.

Cinderella is certainly an energetic young woman who does ride off in frustration into the forest, encountering the Prince going hunting, pleads for the life of the stag that the hunters are chasing, and thinks the Prince is an apprentice. In the meantime, the Prince has fallen in love, telling his dying father and irritating the Grand Duke who wants the Prince to marry into foreign royalty. So, the ball is proclaimed, stepmother and daughters get their dresses ready, Cinderella being reduced to having to put on her mother’s stress and having stepmother berate her, mock her and tear the dress.

It is time for the fairy godmother to arrive – although it is she who has been doing the amusing voiceover. She appears as an old beggar at the mansion door to whom Cinderella is kind and, lo and behold, a transformed begowned blonde beauty, Helena Bonham Carter. She is very funny as she goes choosing the pumpkin, transforming the lizards into footman, the goose into the coach driver, and the four mice into the horses.

The ball is as lavish as might be expected as is Cinderella’s blue gown, her skill in dancing, talking with the Prince – but it is soon midnight and the spell is lost (except, of course, for the glass slippers which do not disappear).

Some comedy as everybody tries to get the slippers to fit, the cruel stepmother preventing Cinderella from trying – but, and it’s thanks to the mice and their thoughtfulness, that she gets her opportunity and, then, happy ever after. And the final credits conclude with the song from Disney’s 1950 film, Bibbity, Bobbity Boo. What more could one ask for?


CITIZENFOUR

US, 2014, 114 minutes, Colour.
Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald.
Directed by Laura Poitras.

The Edward Snowden case was very much a story of 2013. He made headlines, was praised as well as vilified because of his whistleblowing, documentation he made available, the repercussions for national security, for invasions of privacy by surveillance, and the American government reaction.

Once he took refuge in Russia, he slipped from the headlines and, for world media consumption, he was not so important in 2014.

That was until this documentary about him and the events of 2013 was released, nominated for an Oscar and perhaps, very surprisingly, won the award. This raises the issues of how the case has been thought about in the United States, the hostility of the government and the criminal charges compared with public opinion and the fact that the members of the Academy would give it its award.

In fact, this is a very serious documentary. The maker behind the film, directing, producing, editing it is Laura Poitras who had made several documentaries about American politics in the aftermath of 9/11. She explains that she had been detained at passport control by American authorities after the release of some of her films. She was contacted by Snowden under the pseudonym sea, Citizenfour, and was invited to make contact with him in Hong Kong.

While the film does give some background to Snowden, aged 29, his work, the availability of secret material, his decision to make public documentation, his motivations, the bulk of the film is real-time footage, photographing Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel, cinema verite, it is certainly, offering quite an amount of material for audiences to respond to Snowden and listen to his explanations.

The other character to feature is Glenn Snowden, a journalist based in Brazil, writing articles on Snowden and going to Hong Kong, questioning, exploring, and publishing, with the UK paper, The Guardian, entering into the controversies with some American papers following.

While the public might not understand a lot of the material made available, the film raises issues of the public’s right to know, rights of privacy, government capacity for surveillance and the consequent use of data and metadata to track down the movements and activities of citizens.

Towards the end of this film, there is an appearance by Julian Assange, much better known to the public because of WikiLeaks? and the nature of government concerns, moves to extradite him, and his living in the Ecuador embassy in London. He offers advice about countries where Snowdon might take refuge.

In many ways this might be a transitional film, opening up the situation, introducing Snowden, but another film could deal with the consequences of his actions, the reactions of the American government and courts and governments around the world and the subsequent history of Snowden outside the United States.


EX MACHINA

UK, 2015, 108 minutes, Colour.
Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno.
Directed by Alex Garland.

Now here’s a challenging title!

This Latin phrase, ex machine, has been used, in English, to describe the device in Greek tragedies where, at the end of the play, there would be some kind of intervention, usually of a God who is let down by a machine into the stage action, the full phrase being Deus (God) ex Machina.

So what is it doing as the title of the film, written and directed by author Alex Garland (The Beach, and of screenplays for 28 Days Later, Dredd, Never Let Me Go)? It takes the whole film to interpret this title: other scientists playing God? Who are the machines, in this case sophisticated robots, and some tantalising thinking about the word ex and its meaning ‘former’ and ‘out of’…

This is science fiction for intelligence fans rather than action fans. A lot of talk, a lot of philosophical issues, creativity and robotics, the relationship between humans and robots, the humanising of robots.

Domhnal Gleeson plays a young man who is employed by Blue Book, named as the world’s most serious search engine. Here’s delighted when he wins a ticket to visit a robotics scientist and inventor in his remote house in the mountains (filmed beautifully in Norway). He is to stay a week. He then learns from the scientist (Oscar Isaac) that he has a task, the Turing test (posed by Alan Turing or, featured in the film, The Imitation Game), to pose questions and interact with a machine to find out whether it can develop emotions or just knows how to simulate emotions.

The main robot – avoiding the word android because of its man/mankind origins in Greek – is female. She is played by Alicia Vikander, visually a machine, especially her metal midriff, but her head, facial features, voice, made to appear and sound very feminine. As might be expected, the young man begins to become infatuated with the robot, thinking that she is responding to him emotionally, but not absolutely sure. And this has some dire repercussions on his response, his report to the scientist, his becoming involved in the protection of the robot, fearing manipulation, but not recognising true manipulation when it happens.

The scientist is a kind of self-indulgent, hard-drinking, boffom who enjoys the company of the young man, wants to test him, and gets a certain satisfaction when he gets the results of the tests and tries to indicate that they are no results and that they still do not know whether the robot, named Ava, has actually developed the capacity for emotional response or is particularly good and simulating it.

This is a film for those who enjoy films about Artificial Intelligence and what this will mean in terms of development of Robotics and interactions with humans. And, because it does not necessarily have a propensity for an American happy ending, audiences will enjoy the final dramatic ironies.


DOLPHIN TALE 2

US, 2014, 107 minutes, Colour.
Harry Connick Jr, Nathan Gamble, Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Charles Martin Smith, Bethany Hamilton.
Directed by Charles Martin Smith.

One quick way for a reviewer to save time with Dolphin Tale 2, would be to dig out the original review of Dolphin Tale. The same characters turn up in this sequel. The plot is just a variation of the original, pleasant, easy, though an appeal to sentiment because of dolphins getting old and dying, clashes between dolphins, and the difficulty in fulfilling all the regulations and the danger of being closed down.

Once again, there is a loving concern about the dolphins, to rescue, to rehabilitate them, to release them – a motto for the centre, repeated during the film which is managed by Clay, Harry Connick Jr, with Sawyer, Nathan Gamble, a bit older, as the young man responsible, with some other teenagers, for the life and rehabilitation of the dolphins. And there are some romantic touches in the background.

There is actually a new dilemma. Kyle is so good at his work that he is being offered a scholarship, to work as an intern and learn more about dolphins. While this seems to be a no-brainer to some of the characters, Kyle is so attached to working with the local dolphins, especially when an old one of them dies and a new one comes in but is not able to work in a pair, and the centre is threatened by a fussy bureaucrat (played by the film’s director, Charles Martin Smith), Kyle is reluctant to go and take the whole film to make up his mind.

Kyle’s mother is always there, played by Ashley Judd. Morgan Freeman comes again for a visit and gives Kyle some sound advice. Kris Kristofferson, pleasantly crusty, is there again as Clay’s father, offering advice from the older generation.

All in all, for audiences who enjoyed Dolphin Tale, it will be a pleasure for them to renew acquaintance with the characters, to learn a little more about the dolphins and more serious rehabilitation and release rather than exhibitions and exploitations at Sea World’s (the theme of the impressive documentary, Blackfish, of some years ago).

It is obviously a film designed for family audiences and has the value of encouraging children and teenagers to become involved in outdoor activities and concern for nature.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

US, 2015, 119 minutes, Colour.
Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dorman, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Marcia Gay Harden.
Directed by Sam Taylor- Johnson.

Notoriety and big box-office.

By 2005, readers the world over were indulging in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, millions of them. And then came the movie version with everybody going to see it. 10 years later, everybody seems to be reading or have read 50 Shades of Grey (but not this reviewer). More than a ready market for the movie version. And here it is.

Different groups have had some negative reactions. Those concerned about sexual morality question the behaviour of the characters, especially with the issues of dominance and submissiveness in sexual interactions. Many concerned about sexual violence, especially towards women, consider that this is a story about a male exploiting a woman for his own gratification – and, to a large extent, it is.

But, in many ways, it is not a film to get to het up about. It is not as if we have not seen this kind of behaviour on screen before – there was Nine and ½ Weeks almost 30 years ago, quite explicit and contentious for its time. Themes of bondage and dominance have been present in many films, perhaps not so much in American films but, certainly, in those from continental Europe.

The film is a variation on adult men and women, sexual attraction and behaviour, dominance and freedom.

Christian Grey (Jamie Dorman) does not seem exactly like your ordinary citizen. Not only is he good-looking, he is a billionaire, controlling a company, shown to be effective in business, from a respectable family, and dreamworld character rather than a character who seems real. Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) does seem a little more real. She has a loving father who turns up to her graduation. She has a loving mother, although she is on her fourth husband and cannot make it to the graduation, but keeps contact by phone and a visit from Anastasia. Anastasia is studying literature at the University, has a roommate who gossips, and has been holding herself back in terms of relationships. Awkwardly stepping in to do an interview for her roommate with Christian, she is smitten, infatuated, flattered by his attentions (which include helicopter rides, new clothes, an expensive car, a trip in a glider…). And falls in love.

Christian, in Jung’s psychological terms, is the epitome of the introverted decisive type who is focused completely on the detail of the present and seems in no way subjective in his approach to decision making – and his conversations with Anastasia are straightforward, even blunt, certainly not good at humour or jokes. And, of all things, he hands Anastasia a multi-page contract about the relationship, his dominance, her submission, the rules and possible punishment (but she does reject some clauses). Some of these scenes are serious, seriously ludicrous.

There is a revelation that as a 15-year-old boy, Christian was seduced by a friend of his mother and involved in this kind of dominant-submissive sexual relationship, He the submissive, finding it liberating, so he says.

Many of the scenes in the film are quite ordinary, Anastasia and her work, her graduation, her visit to her mother, a meal with Christian’s parents… However, whether out of interest from reading the book or whether from touches of prurient curiosity, it is the sex scenes (rather restrained in comparison with many other films) that draw in the audiences.

It might be difficult to let go of 50 Shades of Grey because there are another two novels in the trilogy.


THE GAMBLER

US, 2014, 111 minutes, Colour.
Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Michael Kenneth Williams, Anthony Kelley, Brie Larson, George Kennedy.
Directed by Rupert Wyatt.

In 1974 there was a rather grim film, The Gambler, written by James Toback, his first screenplay - and he was to go on to direct some rather blunt and grim films. James Caan portrayed the title gambler.

Movie-making powers that be decided that 40 years later it was worth telling the story again. Not so sure!

This is certainly a grim film while it has some very strong credentials, the adaptation of Toback’s script by William Monahan who has written such screenplays as The Departed and directed by British Rupert Wyatt, who made an impact with a very different kind of film, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This time Mark Wahlberg is a gambler of the title and there is an interesting supporting cast including Jessica Lange as his mother, Brie Larson as a student with whom he is having a relationship, John Goodman as a more kind-hearted loan shark, Michael Kenneth Williams as the gambler’s nemesis, and a few moments at the beginning of the film with veteran George Kennedy as the hero’s dying father.

Jim Bennett is a professor of literature and we are shown some of his classes, his reflections on Shakespeare, his love of language, the reaction of the students. Bennett is in a compromising position in having a relationship with a student. But he has an even shadowier life in terms of gambling, going to the casinos, not content with to take away any winnings, but seemingly compelled to bet and to bet until he has lost. It seems a kind of death wish.

The casino authorities are wary of him. But a smooth-talking entrepreneur gambler, Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams) interests himself in Bennett, offering lending deals, getting Bennett in his own-shark tentacles. And Bennett allows himself to be caught.

While not winning at the tables, he takes the opportunity to borrow from his mother, a rather hard Jessica Lange who realises that she has alienating her son, but nevertheless goes to a bank to give him access to money. The other source is Frank (John Goodman) who becomes something of a father-figure to Bennett, prepared to support him, but warning him to exercise some gambling prudence.

This all means that Jim Bennett has to face himself, his future, his gambling which he thinks is not an addiction, his relationship with his girlfriend, his dependence on Frank. Rather shrewdly, he works out a way of playing Frank off against Neville, going to a neutral gambling house and playing and playing the house so that his debts might be paid off.

Will they? Will he be able to stop? (And how easy is it to be sympathetic to Jim Bennett as a character for us to want him to achieve some kind of redemption?)


THE INTERVIEW

US, 2014, 112 minutes, Colour.
James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzie Kaplan, Randall Park, Diana Bang.
Directed by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg.

It actually says at the end of the film that it is a work of fiction has no relationship with any person or any place. That, certainly, is a fiction.

At the moment, it is very hard to consider the film without relating it to the hacking of Sony Pictures and suspicions that this was the work of North Korea, as well as all the difficulties about its distribution and the controversies that its theme raised.

What it is, of course, is a political spoof. Given the record of writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and taking a clue from the title of their comedy, Superbad, it lives up to their particular context of comic style, a great deal of corny lines and situations, some verbal humour, sometimes crass, sometimes toilet, an American sense of humour that caters for the funnybone of 12-year-old boys of any age!

Seth Rogen does his usual shtick as, perhaps a little more sympathetically this time, jovial, sometimes petulant, a big bear of a man. He plays a producer of a very gossipy talk program, with contents more like the scandal mongering articles of The National Enquirer. The interviewer, Dave Skylark, is played by James Franco, obviously enjoying himself, all grins and laughs on air, pausing in the interviews as he listens to his producer in his earpiece. The satire is immediately evident with an interview with Eminem, discussing the lyrics of his songs which indicate that he is gay. Then there is an interview with Rob Lowe, his baldness and taking off his hairpiece.

Just when Aaron is wanting something better in his life, the call comes through from North Korea official to say that the President, Kim Jung Un, is a great fan of the program and that an interview in North Korea would be welcome.

And this is where the spoof becomes serious, as the two go to the CIA and are granted permission as long as they agree to assassinate the President. While this might seem to be funny and satiric in its way, there seems to be a subtext which is very pro-American, taking for granted that this kind of assassination behaviour is reasonable, given the enemy status of a particular country.

The rest of the shenanigans are in North Korea, the couple’s arrival, being settled in a lavish hotel, checking whether it was bugged or not, having meals, when, suddenly, a particularly serious authority sees the means of poisoning the President and is told it is chewing gum, which he immediately choose (death throes are delayed till the next day). The television producer assigned the program is particularly serious though she has a change of head and heart, falling for Aaron, falling out of devotion to the President.

One of the most effective sequences is Dave Skylark being called to chat with Kim, being shown the inside of an old tank, learning that the president likes Katy Perry’s music and lyrics, has had difficulties with his father, and is prone to a tear or two. Dave is drawn in as, perhaps, we are. It doesn’t always remain that way, once Dave discovers with plastic fruit which means that, probably, the President is lying and is as bad as he has been painted and that life in Korea is terrible.

While the interview goes ahead, Dave is much more serious than in his usual program which means then the soldiers are anxious to cut the program, the president is limited by what is happening, soldiers have the guns at the ready, and Aaron and the producer have to cut and run.

There is always a place for spoof, and, if the North Koreans had a good sense of humour, they could obviously make a parody of American government. But, the American assumption, that heads of state can be eliminated when necessary, means that below the surface, there is some serious and ruthless American patriotism.


IT FOLLOWS

US, 2015, 100 minutes, Colour.
Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary.
Directed by David Robert Mitchell.

On the one hand, this teenage horror thriller has received accolades from critics and has been popular with the target audience. On the other hand, there have been quite a lot of criticisms that the film is a poor example of what it sets out to be.

A film which has a title It Follows should make logical sense. This is not true of so much of the screenplay here, sometimes giving the impression that the makers were making it up as they went along, not plotting cause and effect, simply offering sequences and moving on to another whether it made sense or not. It might be argued that that the film is a subjective perspective from the central character, sometimes hallucinating, sometimes dreaming – which might give some explanation to scenes that seemed to have no connection at all (the heroine fleeing from her pursuer in the house, driving away intensely, then found sleeping on the top of her car near the beach, then seeing three men in a boat and stripping to her bathing suit – and a sudden cutting to her sleeping on the floor of the house!).

Once again, those in favour of the film have referred to the performances as “understated”. This reviewer, thought that they were barely stated at all, not very convincing performances and not helped by the rather flat dialogue.

What was stated, or overstated, was a loud and strident discordant musical score from a group called Disasterpeace.
There is a prologue which seems to indicate much more than what follows, a terrified woman running in the streets, getting into the her car, ruminating on the beach, a sense of something dreadful; morning comes and there is her body lying on the beach, limbs distorted, some broken. No other reference made to this throughout the film, simply a suggestion that something fearful could be following.

The main characters are teenagers seemingly in high school, perhaps the final year. One is a visiting male character who is referred to as being 21. Parents seem to be absent, a glimpse or two, and the final glimpse of a murderous mother, but, otherwise, where were they, especially as some of the characters spend some time in hospital with only their friends waiting around?

The central character, Jay, has some girlfriends (one, bespectacled, reading continually from a Kindle which looks like a compact case and quoting Dostoevsky) and an admirer, a kind of dorky character called Paul. She is going out with the 21-year-old visitor who sees a girl in a cinema which his girlfriend doesn’t see. He then becomes pretty nervy, but they do have a sexual encounter in his car, with his running off without explanation. The apologising when they track him down. Later, we discover that this sense of dread, with a sense of someone following, can be passed on through sexual encounter, some noting this as an allegory of STDS (though film reviewer, Alan Frank, thought this meant Sexually Transmitted Demons).

There are many more sequences, some isolated, with a kind of cumulative effect of horror and fear, and an attempt at STDing bringing death to a young man, and a final attempt, which seems rather inconclusive – leaving the heroine and the dork still possessed and doing the following, when the film just stops.

As regards youth films, despite the STDS, the film is rather ordinary, the setting being somewhere out of Detroit – although a climactic scene takes place in a dilapidated suburb (or is that just the perspective of the heroine?) in a large, old and neglected building which, inside, says Detroit Pool, quite a good looking and well-kept swimming pool, where a confrontation with an anonymous Follower takes place. This is the blood scene, no gore!

This review is not a fan’s response, but rather an expression of exasperation and disappointment.


KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE

UK, 2014, 129 minutes, Colour.
Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Mark Hamill, Sofia Boutella, Michael Caine, Sophie Cookson, Jack Davenport.
Directed by Matthew Vaughan.

A surprisingly popular film at the beginning of 2015, not only in the UK where it originated, but also in other English speaking countries, including the US.

Writer-director, Matthew Vaughan, and his co-writer, Jane Goodman, have worked on a number of films including Stardust as well as Kick Ass. They draw on graphic novels, finding cinematic equivalents both visually and verbally, hyper-real, colourful, and with touches of parody. This is certainly the same here.

The Kingsman Secret Service organisation allegedly originated at the time of the Napoleonic wars, with wealthy men gathering together and forming this agency for England and patriotism’s sake. As time went on, the organisation went underground, using a fashionable tailor’s store and service as a cover – and, covering quite a bit, as the lift goes down and the underground, as shuttles go through tunnels to open up on a vast arsenal and training facilities for this espionage elite.

As the film opens, and an agent is being held by a deranged scientist, Kingsman agents arrive to save confidently the day, only they don’t. But an apprentice saves the suave and gentlemanly agent, played by Colin Firth, falling into the hands of no, rather, the stiletto shoes of quite a vicious martial arts femme fatale.

The principal action takes place 17 years later, where it is revealed that the Kingsman group models itself on the Knights of the Round Table, with Michael Caine as the leader, Arthur, with Colin Firth’s Harry Hart’s codename, Galahad. Mark Strong, who has appeared so effectively in many films, often as the villain, is the instructor and trainer for Kingsman, codenamed, Merlin.

Harry is on the lookout for further recruits and has his eye on the sound of the agent who saved his life years earlier. The boy, who is called, of all names, Eggsy, (Tamsin Egerton) has had a pretty unhappy life, his slovenly mother taking up with a local brute, his opting out of education despite his intellectual and physical capabilities, running with the local gang. When Galahad arrives to save him, Colin Firth is doing an impersonation both of James Bond as well as John Steed, Patrick Macnee’s top-hatted and caned character in The Avengers from the 1960s. The local toughs are no match for him. Eggsy, meanwhile and his pals have been going around stealing cars, joyriding so Galahad has to rescue him from prison with the guarantee that Eggsy will train for Kingsman.

There is a lot of rivalry amongst the trainees, who really do have a strict regime, the toffs from British public schools looking down on Eggsy. But, they lose.

It is just as well that Eggsy has been recruited because there is our larger-and-life in the offing, a very insane type who might aspire to be a Bond villain, Valentine, who wants to control the population, giving away free Sim cards with implants to rouse anger so that everyone attacks each other and it won’t be too long before the apocalypse. Even world leaders play into his plans and Eggsy’s mother, along with millions of others, lines up for the free Sim card.He is played He is played for laughs and mockery by Samuel L.Jackson – and who should be one of his assistants but the stiletto shoes assailant!.

This leads to a whole series of surveillance sequences, Kingsman and the villain having the technology to spy on each other, a rather dramatic confrontation with unexpected ending in a revivalist church in the United States. But, it is finally up to Eggsy, now a suave personality, and James Bond Jr, to use his wits and the advice of Merlin to drum up a dramatic confrontation with Valentine.

Audiences seem to have enjoyed the paralleling of this film with the Bond films, the elements of parody and spoof, the drawing on the Knights of the Round Table imagery, the fact that so many people are mind-affected, the confrontations leading to potential disaster, and the young hero saving the day.

Lots of action, lots of special effects, lots of humorous dialogue – but, it is probably about time that screenwriters gave us a break from not intermittent, but incessant, crass language which is very weary and offputting to some of the audiences who might enjoy this kind of film – we need a break. And Colin Firth, despite his Oscar, seems very awkward in delivering four letter words!


A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

US, 2014, 122 minutes, Colour.
Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola, Catalina Sandena Moreno, Peter Geraty.
Directed by J. C. Chandor.


Many of us would think that in any year could be well named a most violent year. For the film makers, the choice is 1981, New York City.

This is very interesting drama, taking us into industrial issues in the United States, the ambitions of big companies, wheeler-dealing, the use of violence to put competition out of action. This has been a long time theme in American films, considering the 1950s and the look at unions and workers and power struggles in On the Waterfront, or in the 1980s, the biography of the teamsters boss, Jimmy Hoffa, with Jack Nicholson as Hoffa.

This film has been written by J.C.Chandor, who made his mark with a very interesting film about Wall Street, financial deals, speculations and risks, covert action in Margin Call. While expectations might have been that he would made another intense drama, he did do so, but confined his action to a yacht in trouble in the Indian Ocean, and one sailor battling the elements, Robert Redford in All is Lost. Now, he has moved back to New York City and strong drama.

The focus of the struggles is the trucking industry and the transportation and distribution of fuel. Oscar Isaac, becoming well known as a leading actor (Inside Lewynn Davis, X Marking), plays Abel Morales, a man of principle, who wants to do the right thing, but finds himself and his trucks and drivers targets of unknown boxes and their thugs, intimidating and bashing the drivers, stealing the fuel. At the same time, the industry is under investigation by the authorities, especially in the person of DA, Lawrence, played by David Oyelowo, the British actor, settled in the United States, appearing frequently in all kinds of films including The Butler, The Paperboy, his acclaimed performance as Martin Luther King in Selma.

Behind Abel is his strong-minded wife, and business partner, played by Jessica Chastain. A major complication is that Abel’s plan is to buy an abandoned terminal to turn it into a centre for his oil distribution. Negotiations are well under way with the Jewish community who own the property. He makes the required deposit, has 30 days to pay the rest of the money or he will lose the deposit. With the complications of the attacks on his trucks, the suspicions of the investigating authorities, it would seem that he will not be able to find the money, despite his sounding out various friends and associates, and will lose the edge on his business.

Part of the complications for Abel as well as for the audience is that it is not clear who are the powers-that-be behind the attacks on the trucks, the thugs just being hired without knowledge of who was really employing them. Another complication is Abel’s helping a young man in his work, the young man fearful, carrying a gun against the thugs and running away, compromising Abel.

On the one hand, this is an interesting drama about social issues in the American context. On the other hand, it is an interesting drama about a good man trying to do his best in the capitalistic world, becoming a victim, the whole process causing great personal and physical tension, complicated by the influence of his wife.

A Most Violent Year might well be called an adult drama in the best possible sense.


PROJECT ALMANAC

US, 2015 106 minutes, Colour.
Jonny Weston, Sofia Black- D' Elia, Sam Lerner, Allen Evangeliste, Virginia Gardner, Amy Landecker.
Directed by Dean Israelite.

One can’t complain about a story which shows teenagers enthusiastic about science, engaging in projects, looking for scholarships so that they can continue study. In this case, the hero wants to be accepted to MIT and we see him, at the opening of the film, controlling quite elaborate experiment to submit for a scholarship. He is joined by his two friends, enthusiastic as he is, as well as his sister who is ever ready with the video camera to record everything.

This is one of those films where everything is recorded, hand-held camera even in the least likely situations, straining the credibility sometimes, using the found-footage conventions so popular since The Blair Witch Project. Sometimes this is giddiness-inducing and we might be much happier with more conventional camera work.

David (Jonny Weston) is an enthusiastic scientist, with very happy memories of his dead father who was an expert in technology. The interesting plot device, very evident in the trailers for the film, is that in looking at the video of his seventh birthday, his teenage self appears in the mirror. How could this be? Time-travel, of course!

There is also teenage romance, David admiring, from a distance, the girl of everyone’s dreams, Jessie. Fortunately, despite the reticence, she is attracted to him and joins in the development of the time travel technology. After some experiments, returning objects to one minute earlier, they are ready for the big travel. Being teenagers, or, at least, now being made to look like teenagers in American teenage movies, they opt for some silly adventures, lottery winning, exercising grudges at school and the decision to go back to a music festival and kicking up their the heels. To contribute to the romantic development, David and Jessie go to a wall where people have put answers to the question, “Before the world ends…”. This is where the two really bond. But there is a certain coolness between the two when they return.

Where is the plot to go? Obviously, David wants to remedy the situation between himself and Jessie, which leads to his continued return to the past, by himself, which is against the rules because everybody has to go together. As might be expected, especially thinking of the butterfly effect, one small change causes a chain reaction, including plane crashes and deaths…

The film gets serious at the end, the group realising the risks in going back into the past, the risks in changing things, discovering consequences – and the need to take responsibility. And no one could question this.


ROSEWATER

US, 2014, 105 minutes, Colour.
Gael Garcia Banal, Kim Bodnia, Dimitri Leonidas, Haluk Bilginer, Shoreh Agdashloo, Golshifteh Farahani, Claire Foy.
Directed by Jon Stewart.


Rosewater sounds too sweet a name to describe the serious events in this film. Before the final credits, there is a comment about rosewater, its being sprinkled on pilgrims during pilgrimages when they are particularly sweaty – and then there is a pretty picture of collecting roses and extracting the rosewater and scent from them.

But, it all becomes very serious, as an Iranian-born journalist returns home, covering the 2009 elections, staying with his mother, but suddenly accosted at her home and arrested.

He is Maziar Bahari, played with sympathetic intensity by Gael Garcia Bernal. Then the film goes into flashback, 11 days earlier when Maziar is packing in London, farewelling his pregnant wife in some tender scenes and flying to Tehran for his assignment. He is met at the airport by one of those enthusiastic taxidrivers who insists that you go with them. He is sympathetic to the opposition candidate, standing against the famous President, Ahmajinedad.

Maziar is taken on a ride around the city (with some genuine vistas of Tehran mixed with performance footage filmed in Jordan) and meets with a conservative young enthusiast for the President, with students who are not, who are lamenting their experience of repression and unemployment.

There are scenes of the election day, crowds and riots in the city, again some actual footage from the period intermingled with the performances. Maziar keeps filming and sends the material through to London, with the help of Lindsay Hilsum, BBC correspondent of the period, here playing herself.

And then we’re back to the arrest, which means that the second half of the film focuses on Maziar in prison, confined in solitary for almost 4 months, the film using the device of naming the number of days of his being in prison. He is interrogated in a cruel and violent way (but with the caution that his face not be damaged if he has to appear on television). He is also interrogated in a ludicrous way, the authorities having taken several DVDs including Pasolini’s Teorema, the Sopranos, a CD of Leonard Cohen songs, all of which are deemed pornographic. The food is poor and he is for a large part of each day blindfolded. The interrogations are held with him blindfolded.

The authorities, one of whom wears Rosewater scent, which covers the sweat of Maziar in his suffering, want him to admit that he is a spy, something which seems quite bizarre in the context, and especially for journalists working in such magazines as Newsweek as he was. The world knows that his confession is only a show trial confession – with footage added in of news coverage from around the world as well as footage of Hillary Clinton commenting on the situation.

The film uses a clever device of having Maziar’s father present in the cell, conversing with his son, becoming the consciousness of the son, offering standards, because he himself had been imprisoned because of Communist sympathies but had given the authorities nothing. The father advises his son to play on the weaknesses of his interrogators – and does so, quite comically, eliciting their curiosity about sexual massage descriptions. At another stage, his sister appears in his cell – she had been executed.

While the story is interesting in itself, a lot of detail is given so that we share the experience. It is a strong critique of repressive measures, legislation, imprisonment in Iran.

The film has been written and directed by television host for The Daily Show for so many years, John Stewart. In the film there is a scene, made for The Daily Show, where Maziar has a mock interview in Tehran with a comedian posing as a spy journalist which the authorities take up, believing it is actually true. Later, Maziar was to write a memoir of his going to Iran, his time in prison, his return to journalism and the birth of his child. John Stewart is drawing on his experience as a television current affairs host, the episode on his program, and adapting as Bahari’s book.

This is quite compelling, all the more so because it is based on reality, but a reminder of what so many journalists experience in the contemporary world, arrest and imprisonment, even torture and execution, by repressive powers.


SEVENTH SON

US, 2015, 102 minutes, Colour.
Jeff Bridges,Ben Barnes, Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Antje Traue, Olivia Williams, John De Santis, Kit Harrington, Djimon Hounsou, Jason Scott Lee.
Directed by Sergei Bodrov.

What fans to do now that The Lord of the Rings cycle and The Hobbits cycle now complete, after 14 years? Television viewers are already hooked on Game of Thrones, and for several seasons. Seventh Son is a kind of interim filler. It is based on a young adult novel by Joseph Delaney, The Spook’s Apprentice.

A great deal of money has been spent for the budget of this film with plenty of colourful sets and vigorous action up there on the screen, especially with a 3D version. With mediaeval castles, isolated and lonely villages, flying dragons, evil witches, seventh sons with power to cast out the witches and demons who are instantly and spectacularly cremated, there may be enough to satisfy those who really love this kind of thing.

But it is not quite enough, even though one of the contributors to the screenplay was the British Stephen Knight (Dirty, Pretty Things, Locke). Despite a lot of high flying, it is much more on the pedestrian side, imaginative and creative language not one of its strengths. And then there is the question of Jeff Bridges’ half- swallowed voice and semi-English accent which may mean that he was trying to channel Ian Mc Kellen as a new Gandalf. And then there is the British star and the Danish star affecting some kind of American twang.

The film opens with the Master Gregory (Bridges) imprisoning what seems a forlorn victim beneath a domed metal grate. When time passes and the grate melts, we realise that he had a point. He has tried to imprison mother Mother Malkin, truly a malevolent black-clad witch who, inevitably, once loved Master Gregory but who is into incantations, spells, destroying enemies – and in the meantime transforming herself into a vicious dragon sweeping through the skies. Mother Malkin is played by Julieanne Moore which seems to remind us that many actresses (think of Meryl Streep recently in Into the Woods, or Julia Roberts, or Charlize Theron, or Angelina Jolie) feel that a wicked witch should be part of their repertoire. (Now, with a well deserved reputation and Oscar, Julianne Moore can do what she likes).

Master Gregory has apprentices who are seventh sons but fail to serve out their time, being destroyed by witches or Mother Malkin. He finds another apprentice in the form of Tom Ward, Ben Barnes, who has mysterious prophetic dreams and feels called to his mission, despite all the attacks, pursuits, his having to jump off a very high cliff with Master Gregory, going over waterfalls, falling from another cliff, all kinds of endurance and confrontations, including the attraction of Alice (Alicia Vikander), daughter of a witch, who loves him but is not above bewitching him to steal his protective metal, given to him by his good witch mother, Olivia Williams.

In many ways, the action is the old Saturday Matinees style, chases, confrontations, battles, and even a literal cliffhanger. Which means that audiences who have a reasonable tolerance for this kind of adventure might find it entertaining while it is up there on the screen – and then forgotten.

The director is a Russian, Sergei Bodrov, the Russian director who has made interesting films in the past, Prisoner of the Mountains, Bears Kiss and Mongol, the rise of Genghis Khan.


UNFINISHED BUSINESS

US, 2015, 90 minutes, Colour.
Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson, David Franco, Sienna Miller Britton Sear, Ella Anderson, Nick Frost, James Marsden, Ken Scott.
Directed by Ken Scott.

When Vince Vaughan’s name appears above titles, we can usually expect a comedy, a touch of the serious, some crass moments, some sentiment. And they are all here in Unfinished Business.

Also above the titles are the names of Tom Wilkinson and David Franco. They are part of the unfinished business in the revelation of how difficult it is in a competitive world to reach a deal and cement it with the handshake.

But the unfinished business of the title while relating to the world of business also refers to the business of family problems. Vince Vaughn’s Dan, a family man, a bit too self-sufficient which tangles him with his competition in the office, Chuck, played by Sienna Miller as a hardball player with a masculine name. Dan goes out on his own, taking on Tim (Tom Wilkinson) who is being retrenched because he’s 67 and Mike (David Franco) who has gone for an interview taking a business box to make a good impression.

On the business side, the trio have to travel to Portland, Maine, and find that they have been undercut by Chuck with the smooth and sleazy boss, Jim (James Marsden). There is a chance that they might be able to redeem the deal by travelling to Berlin to see the overall corporate boss. This means that a lot of the action takes place in Germany, plenty of vistas of Berlin, but there is Chuck once again, manoeuvring.

When all seems lost, the three go out on the town. Accommodation in Berlin is all occupied except for some corridors for Jim and Mike and the show-display apartment, with tourists passing by, looking in commenting, for Dan. It is Berlin in October and so an Oktoberfest, beer galore, but it is also time for a gay festival – and the film detours for rather longer than necessary here, alcohol, ecstasy, gay bar toilets, the crass component of the film.

We wouldn’t be watching the film unless we hoped (and knew) that it had a happy ending – but the drama is in how the happy ending is reached.

On the home level, Dan keeps in touch with his wife and children by Skype, regularly talking to his son who is being bullied at school and his little daughter who has punched someone out in defence of her brother. He has a loving and long-suffering wife.

Tom Wilkinson, who seems to appear in many films a year these days, has a world weariness in his role as the ageing businessman, not really loving his wife and wanting a divorce, but wanting a loving and sexual relationship (which is suddenly parachuted in the end). Dave Franco (with more smiles and grins than his older brother, James Franco) is a naive young man who lives in a special community, is often gauche and awkward but, it seems, something of a whizz at figures.

While there is the crass, there are some positives about the reality of the world of business and focus on a loving family home despite all the problems.

The film was directed by Ken Scott who made a film about a prolific sperm donor, Starbuck, which was remade in Hollywood as Delivery Man, starring Vince Vaughan.


Created by: malone last modification: Monday 16 of March, 2015 [23:37:24 UTC] by malone


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