Monday, 26 September 2011


Here we have another in the line of child assassins - the angelic looking Hanna played by Saoirse Ronan. The teenager has been brought up in the frozen wastes of Finland just below the Arctic Circle by her father Erik (Eric Bana) who is an ex CIA agent. Erik home schools Hanna by reading about Blue Whales and Music from a children's encyclopedia. In addition to this knowledge, Hanna is schooled in the arts of the hunter - and the assassin under the guiding philosophy of 'adapt or die'.

In essence this is an action road movie. Once Hanna activates a homing signal, she knows the CIA will come and 'extract' her. Her goal - the one thing she has been trained for all her life is to kill CIA operative Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). It's not until the end of the film that we are given the back-story to explain why this might be justified. The journey is from Finland to Berlin and takes in some interesting places en-route.

The film moves with an uneven pace - but the soundtrack gave my new sub-woofer a significant workout! There is plenty of action and - yes, more blood. Hanna's efficiency is matched only by her lack of social skills and her degree of confusion over what to do on a date!  The film is extremely well shot with plenty of variation using tight-cropped close-ups and sweeping wide-angles to deliver stunning vistas - especially in the opening 30 minutes. Cate Blanchett is a compelling villain obsessed with oral hygiene and it is good to see the wonderful Tom Hollander playing a camp ex CIA operative (Isaacs) who manages an anything-goes strip joint in Tangier.

I guess the central driving issue plainly shows that two wrongs don't make a right - however well-intentioned Erik and Hanna feel they are. The film operates within a world of moral relativity where individuals and agencies are free to override social norms and protocols in order to complete their self-appointed tasks to defend national security. The back-story that is introduced also adds an ethical dimension to the plot but it fails to justify the ironic deployment of Hanna to kill Wiegler. It is also interesting to note in these days of creeping political correctness that both the main adversaries are female.

There is the usual quota of holes in the plot:
  •  Why does Hanna kill only the first wave of special forces who come to 'extract' her and not any more?
  • Why do Isaacs and his henchmen trail Hanna all across Spain and France before making their move?
  • How does Wiegler get in front of Hanna to emerge from the tunnel at the end?

Perhaps I wasn't paying proper attention, but these and other things irk me when I'm engaging with a story. Overall this is a film that does not invite - or merit any deep engagement. It is an action film that delivers tons of action, much of which is unbelievable either in terms of 'how did he/she do that', or 'why did he/she need to do that'. This is an eye candy film that trades on the novelty of a blond teenage killing machine. It tells us nothing more about the CIA which we know will do whatever it wants whenever it wants (just like MI6) with minimal accountability (hopefully unlike MI6). Perhaps I've seen too many of this type of film recently and I'm suffering from blood fatigue? I'll give it 6.5/10.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Made in Dagenham

When ordinary people do extra-ordinary things the possibilities for transformation multiply. This film left me feeling exhilarated. It is warm, engaging, believable, well told and very well acted. The setting of the film occupies a corner of my childhood memories. A group of machinists at Ford's leading UK car plant hold the company to ransom by going on strike.

What began as a strike over a regrading dispute leaving the ladies as lower paid unskilled workers, became a fight for equality of pay for women, This is fundamentally a story about justice - social justice. It is also an exposé of the class structure that still pervades British life and the arrogance of the multi-national whose only duty is supposedly to return a dividend to their share holders.

This is so much more than a docudrama. This film invites us into the life of ordinary people struggling against the odds to make ends meet and to make meaning in their life. The central couple are Rita and Eddie O'Grady (Sally Hawkins and Daniel Mays) who do their best to bring up their two children and have a family life. In a memorable speech, Eddie confesses he's not anything special, but at least he tries to provide for his family and he doesn't abuse Rita. Rita responds by pointing out to him that this should be the norm and is not a the behaviour of a saint and this in turn provides the pivot for Eddie's personal epiphany.

We are also reminded that in the 1960's many were still living with the effects of World War II. The leading male character Albert (Bob Hoskins) refers back to his days of fighting Rommel but it is in the difficult relationship between Connie (Geraldine James) and George (Roger Lloyd-Pack again!) that the horrors of the legacy of a war that ended 23 years previously are most keenly and cruelly felt.

An unlikely ally for Rita emerges in the wife of the Dagenham Factory Boss Lisa (Rosamund Pike). They first join forces to take on a bullying school master and later Lisa, frustrated by the way her husband belittles her, lends her full support to Rita - and a designer dress for her meeting with Government Minister Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson).

The film provides a timely reminder of the cosy and collusive relationship that the Unions enjoyed with the major corporate employers in that era. Power and control were the dominant features - a stark reminder of how a social movement can lose its way. This is reinforced when the Union bosses try to put pressure on the striking women but is challenged at the National Conference when others want to hear directly from the strikers leader Rita herself. She always proves to be up to the task and her speeches are both epic and inspirational as they place matters of social justice at the centre of the debate. This is not a dry political commentary but a film filled with warm and enriching relationships. It demonstrates what can be achieved when people display solidarity to achieve justice. It is possible the outcome might have been different had not the Government Minister responsible been a woman, or had the Prime Minister not been unavailable for consultation at the critical moment. On such things the course of history turns.

The ladies won their day - and rightly so. Why did it take so long? The film asserts in the end-credits that the Ford Motor Company is now held up an an exemplary employer world-wide. When will we see FairTrade cars appearing?

This is as entertaining as it is compelling. The characters and performances are both accessible and endearing. If you've not seen this yet, do get hold of the disc and give yourself a treat. Great stuff. I'm giving it 8/10.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy

The hype and media interest surrounding the release of this movie is .... fully justified. It is an understated tour-de-force in a drab and monochrome world. A world populated by people who are largely anonymous and who do the dirty work on behalf of their masters - people who kill, lie, steal and cheat to keep us safe. It's an odd world out there.

The central character, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a study in the perfection of the reflective observer. Never phased, never flustered, flurried or out-thought. The steadiest hand at the tiller you could wish for. He is ably supported by John Hurt, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and, showing his versatility once again, Roger Lloyd-Pack.

For those unfamiliar with John LeCarre's style of writing, this is a stylish spy-thriller full of double-crosses and unsavoury characters. Just when you think you have nailed down the baddies, something happens to cause you to question your judgement. The whole story is illustrated in flash-backs to a Christmas office party and the different relationships, straight, gay and extra-martial that go on. It seems that Smiley is beset by infidelity in both the office and at home.

There are no car chases, no helicopter shoot-outs, no high-tech gadgetry. Just solid character studies of the kind of people who do our dirty work for us and then brush it all neatly away under the carpet. I don't want to say any more for fear of spoiling things for you.

Do please go and see it - a 2 hour 7 minute masterpiece of understatement. I'll give it 8/10.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Apollo 18

In space, no-one can hear you yawn! Which is just as well as this is really the only response this film deserves. This claustrophobic moon-shot yarn is one for the conspiracy theorists - and not really for anyone else. Avoid it is my advice.

The whole thing is predicated on supposed orignal footage that has been uploaded to the website in a wiki-like leak. Apollo 18 was a supposedly secret moon-shot to follow up reports (possibly from the Russians) of life on the Moon. The entire film, we are told, comprises edited highlights of the 80 hours of mission video that was uploaded to this website. The trouble is that people actually buy into this! I googled it and the web if full of people asking why they can't access the website and concluding that it's because of national security or government censorship issues. They seem unable to imagine that it could just be a marketing ploy. Here's what someone actually asked Yahoo! Answers.

"Why can't I access Lunar

I just saw Apollo 18. I am wondering if the government took it down, NASA took it down, the website is just down, or if the whole thing was just a scam to make it look like it was taken off. Thanks!"

All in all, the film has a very authentic retro moonshot feel as we are treated to the annoying blips and beeps of Mission Control in Houston and scratchy juddering video. Conveniently the video image is affected by interference and so breaks up just when you might see something meaningful. We are however treated to a decomposing Russian Cosmonaut, rocks that turn into scuttling spider/crab mutation combos and the idea that the good old US of A would not only sanction such a mission but abandon it's bravest when things get a little difficult.

The final five minutes are undoubtedly the best - but having to watch the rest of it simply to get there is one giant leap too far. Save yourself - don't go and see it. Its Alien-like homage is crude, Sc-Fi dimensions shabby, acting a tad wooden and horror delivery woeful. For the soundtrack alone which featured 'Yes', I'm going to give it 2/10!

Great looking new releases scheduled for the UK this autumn

I've just received the autumn edition of "Picture House Recommends" which outlines forthcoming releases. It seems we are being offered a rich and varied menu this autumn beginning with this Friday's release of
I'm also looking forward to:
and especially Mark Kermode on tour in full 3-D (Southampton 1 Oct)!

Wow! I'm going to be busy this autumn - plenty of trips to Harbour Lights in Southampton. If you haven't connected with your nearest Picture House cinema check out their website 

where. you can choose to subscribe to a weekly email to see what's coming up and also their 'Recommends' magazine - a 48 page full colour glossy detailing forthcoming releases and other events - including live streamed opera and productions from the National Theatre. Membership gives free tickets, 10% off on food and drink, cheaper tickets, no booking fees and occasional members' special events and free screenings. It also gives a range of discounts in local eating houses and shops - a bargain that pays for itself in weeks.

Public Enemies

Caught up with this on DVD - and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I don't know how much blood or how many bullets I've seen on screen this week - but the total is mounting!

Jonny Depp stars in the title role of Public Enemy Number One - John Dillinger. Another performance to underline his competent versatility which is in stark contrast to Batman who turns up as a Federal Bureau Special Agent - the not so versatile Christian Bale (although to be fair there was a hint of a regional US accent).

Set in the early 1930's four years into the Great Depression and in the wake of prohibition, John Dillinger feels robbing banks gives a better return than queueing for work. Dillinger is presented as a gentleman bank thief with a high moral code and leader of an effective and loyal gang. Set against him is Special Agent Purvis (Bale) in the fledgling days of the formation of the FBI. Dillinger acquired folk-hero status and as he is taken into custody crowds of cheering supporters throng the streets.

Time and time again, Dillinger brazenly robs banks, kills a few cops and treats his getaway hostages with courtesy and respect. Meanwhile, Purvis uses emerging technologies and scientific methods to try and track down Dillinger and his accomplices. The film maintains a well-paced balance of suspense, threat and escape as Dillinger wreaks havoc across the USA.

Early in the film, a key conversation telegraphs the narrative arc that will book-end this story. In discussion with a fellow gang member, Dillinger is reminded not to get to get involved in women as they will be his downfall. Sure enough, it is through this channel that he is ultimately apprehended.

This film shows not only the extraordinary lengths Dillinger and his accomplices went to, to set up and carry out their raids, it also shows a darker side to FBI interrogation techniques - and this on a woman!

This film does nothing to critique the social and economic context in which it is set - although on both sides of the conflict it seems that the immigrant melting-pot nature of emerging America's population is given specific emphasis.

A thoroughly watchable film with some very good performances. I'll give it 7.5/10.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Those of us of a certain age were brought up on the nasal twitches of Roddy McDowall and the original TV and movie franchise of the 1960s/70s. The current generation are used to CG enhanced characters and the ubiquitous Andy Serkis squeezing into the latest latex body form to perform his particular brand of magic. I was fearing that this would be a lame and dismal prequel - I was wrong - very wrong.

It seems that the super able Apes (not monkeys - please) are brought into being through some well-intentioned but morally compromised medical research seeking the holy grail of a cure for Alzheimers Disease. The central character Will (James Franco), isn't motivated by altruism but by his sick father who has advanced Alzheimer's.

The plot of how the research impacts the Apes and then humans is believable but ably demonstrates how easy it is to cross boundaries and do good things for the wrong reasons. In essence this could be an old-fashioned morality tale. What we get is a stark warning about the potential for things going wrong when we meddle with the genome and are driven by profit rather than cautious laboratory protocols.

The story includes a love interest in the guise of Caroline played by Freida Pinto who played the older Latika in Slumdog Millionaire. Despite Will's dodgy ethical practice, she sticks with him and will no doubt feature in the prequel sequel which must already be in pre-production.

I won't spoil the story except to say that it is as believable as any scenario that sees Apes become endowed with human-like abilities. I anticipated that the film would end further along the evolutionary road but am happy that the Apes are now emancipated and free to do Ape-like things in an increasingly human way in the Red Wood on the North shore of Frisco Bay. They will need more than a couple of hundred if they are to eventually conquer the Earth!

A major point of reflection for me was that the driver in the narrative is Will's inability to accept the onset of Alzheimer's and the living loss of his once vital and creative father. I am not for one minute suggesting I might have behaved any differently faced with the same set of circumstances, but there does seem to be in society as a whole, a determination to resist Alzheimer's, which is a horrible disease, rather than try to come to terms with it. A form of living denial on the part of the non-diseased. Another painful symptom of a world which is screwed!

I'd recommend going to see this - you don't need to have any previous experience of the franchise - this can be enjoyed as a stand-alone. There will be more - possibly several more if the intervening centuries are to be covered in a similarly detailed way. I would like to give a vote of sympathy to Will's sorry and abused neighbour!

I'm going to give this 7.5/10.


I saw this last night at my local Reel Cinema in Andover on their small (10 foot) Screen 5 - for the amazing price of £3.80. Friendly staff, a small audience and the low ceiling all combined for an intimate viewing experience - excellent value for money.

Beginning in Colombia in 1992 we witness the assassination of the drug-cartel parents of nine year-old Cataleya - named after a rare Colombian orchid. The murder of her parents fills her with an all-consuming desire to seek revenge on the drug lord (Don Luis) that ordered the killing. The narrative arc begins with the motive being given and ends ..... predictably with the motive being satisfied.

This film is visually gripping and fast moving with a story written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen it has a notable heritage underpinning it. It is however not without serious flaws. The film is presented as a collage of homage scenes drawing on Lara Croft, Kill Bill, The Matrix and Mission Impossible - to name but four! It is also one of a growing number of films that casts a child in the adult role of assassin - Kick Ass and Hanna come to mind. Although we never see Cataleya kill anyone as a child, her vocation is set and her childhood and teen years are, we are left to imagine, training her to become the assassin she is driven to be under the tutelage of her uncle in Chicago. I am extremely uncomfortable about this growing trend of child assassins - a genre that is popular in much Japanese and Oriental narrative and film-making. For me it does not translate easily or convincingly to Western culture and comes across as a clumsy and crude plot device.

The film is full of chase sequences with miraculous escapes. Cataleya has clearly mastered the art of devising the perfect 'hit' as she carries out contract after contract for her uncle. She draws her trademark orchid on the corpse of each victim in a bid to draw out the killer of her parents but this information is only put into the public arena after her 23rd victim! Slowly but surely her adversaries foot soldiers are despatched to eliminate her and the film builds to climax in a villa in New Orleans.

Cataleya has a relationship of sorts with Danny - an artist. He knows nothing about her - she even uses the name Jennifer when she is with him. She is usually waiting for him when he returns from being out and within five seconds she has initiated and act of energetic intimacy. She then usually slips away before he wakes. This is an extremely abusive relationship on her part as Danny is clearly in love and appears to be a decent guy who wants a relationship with her. Although it is clear Cataleya cares deeply for him, she subordinates her feelings for him as her life is totally focussed on fulfilling the prime directive - killing Don Luis.

There are several continuity and plot difficulties. The dialogue is clunky as it unpacks back story after back story and explains what's going on in a really unsophisticated way. Such as when she travels on her own (aged 9 and in the USA for the first time) from Miami to Chicago she reads a Xena Warrior Princess comic book. The adult Cataleya's avoidance of being caught on surveillance cameras in public places is telegraphed with such repetitive regularity that you know it will in some way contribute to her downfall. How the film ends leaves this unresolved as her visage is now on the CIA and FBI databases - untidy, or leaving the door open for a sequel?

The action sequences are breath-taking and the ingenuity of the assassin's art is something to be marvelled at in this fantasy blood-fest. On one level the film was hugely enjoyable - but then I catch myself reflecting on the underlying morality and feeling really uneasy about enjoying such stuff. The meteoric transition of a wide-eyed squeaky clean school girl in her pinafore uniform into a vocational assassin with attitude, style, grace and beauty is a transition that can only occur in a world that is screwed. To make such things attractive and portray Cataleya as the helpless victim is to present a character who fails to take responsibility for things she should seek to change instead of taking responsibility for killing scores of people herself. But that would mean no success at the box office. In her dialogue with an FBI Agent she says that she wanted to be on the side of good but was forced to be on the other side - does vengeance absolve people from responsibility? Perhaps that's easy for me to say as my father wasn't (as far as I know) a drug lord, and certainly wasn't gunned down in front of me.

Where the film oozes a sophisticated engagement with its narrative is the soundtrack to the end credits! As the names roll we are treated to Jonny Cash singing his version of Nine Inch Nails Hurt with these words which I imagine are intended to be applied to Cataleya:

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that's real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything

Perhaps this says more about the sins of fathers being visited on their children than the rest of the entire film? As worrying as the plot glitches and morality of this story are, perhaps the most worrying thing is that I enjoyed the movie! I'll give it 7/10 for the visual presentation, soundtrack and acting.