A Civil Action  (1998)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                       115 Min       15

John Travolta leads in this true tale depicting one team of lawyer’s fight against the corrupt practices of big business – in this case Beatrice Foods and W. R. Grace and Company, who stood jointly accused of dumping toxic waste into the water supply for the town of Woburn in Massachusetts, leading to a stark rise in cases of Leukaemia in the area during the 1980s. Initially motivated by the potential for a large financial payout at the expense of said companies, Travolta (playing lawyer Jan Schlichtmann) soon begins to realise the true extent of the human tragedy and all but runs his business into the ground trying to get justice for the families involved, much to the chagrin of his practice associates (William H. Macy, Tony Shalhoub and Zeljko Ivanek).

Robert Duvall has a memorable (and indeed, Oscar nominated) turn as the eccentric, but skilled, opposing lawyer, as the story exposes the inherent difficulties of proving such corporate wrong doing in a court of law, and also some of the machinations of the American legal system and the legal profession itself as a business – will definitely remind modern viewers of the more recent, and just as noteworthy, ‘Dark Waters’ (2019) starring Mark Ruffalo. With support from the late James Gandolfini, Kathleen Quinlan, John Lithgow, Sydney Pollack and Stephen Fry.

Bridge of Spies  (2015)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                     141 Min        12A

Spielberg’s latest delivers a film stylistically similar to his last, ‘Lincoln‘, with its focus on one central historical character and the legal, human and emotional struggle he finds himself having to negotiate for the outcome he desires; one that flies in the face of the odds and stands to make him multiple enemies. James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is the gifted insurance lawyer working in 1957’s New York City who is chosen, because of his talents and his solid reputation, to defend captured alleged Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (played by renowned stage actor Mark Rylance), and who will find himself embroiled in diplomatic and legal intrigue with his values and wit tested beyond any normal and fair measure as he stands resolute in Abel’s corner, eschewing the piecemeal defence he was expected to mount.

Donovan turns out to be fully worthy of firstly being committed to film, but also of the calibre of the filmmakers responsible for doing so, and Hanks is as comfortably likeable and commanding as he always is. Interestingly, the story features the top secret operations of the American U-2 spy planes (an aircraft that was nicknamed ‘Dragon Lady’, incidentally), and Donovan’s daughter Carol is played by none other than the lovely Eve Hewson, who is of course the daughter of U2 frontman Paul Hewson, aka Bono.

Rylance delivers an impressively stoic performance replete with an utterly convincing Scottish accent – Abel was apparently born and bred in Newcastle but nevertheless sounded like he was from north of the border, which is why the screenplay relates he was born in northern England but then makes deliberate mention of Scotland when Donovan pretends to be going on a fishing trip there (although this anecdote is historically accurate) – The Red Dragon appreciates the acknowledgement, otherwise people may have thought they used northern England because of the old fashioned falsehood that nobody would know where Scotland was (incidentally, I meet mortals from all over the world on a regular basis and time and time again they tell me ‘Braveheart’ (95) is especially popular in their country. It really helped put Scotland on the map internationally and is apparently shown as a sort of Christmas staple around the globe {come to think, it was shown here on Film4 a few days ago too}. I wonder what it is that all nations can relate to in it … ).

The movie has numerous saccharine moments and a few fanciful overly patriotic ones too, such as a brief aerial action ‘hero’ sequence that’s not in the least believable, although it does have visual parallels with scenes in other Spielberg films, like ‘Tintin‘, ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ (89) and ‘E.T.’ (82), and it’s fascinating to learn more about the director’s approach, such as turning up way before everyone else on set (after watching several movies in the early hours of the morning) and only then really thinking about, and going through, how he’s going to film that scene, constantly asking himself what the heart of the movie really is, what it’s really trying to say and so on.

A genuine filmmaker through and through, his final version proves intriguing from start to finish if a little long for the story, where perhaps less of the secondary characters in Matt Charman’s script (who gave it to the Cohen brothers to spruce up a little) could ultimately have proven more, just as veering away from Janusz Kamiński’s borderline cheesy cinematography (it’s the Cold War so everything looks cold for the most part with predominant shades of blue and grey etc.) and not condensing several months of negotiations into a couple of days may have helped the film ring a little more true. Compelling, mostly accurate and well crafted nonetheless, the classic tale of someone standing up for what they believe in, and using their intellect and charm to try and persuade everyone else they’re right, is there for us to enjoy and we can expect at least a few Oscar nods coming its way in the new year …

Nostalgia for the Light / Nostalgia de la luz  (2010)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                       90 Min        12A

Documentary from genre veteran, director Patricio Guzmán, exploring, or rather interweaving, the desolate beauty of the Atacama desert in Chile, inclusive of some of the world’s most sophisticated telescopes and observatories (La Silla Observatory, Paranal Observatory, the immense ALMA radio telescope array), with the harrowing and continuous search of that area by the mothers of the Chilean disappeared, the victims of general Pinochet’s brutal regime who were buried in the desert: indeed they were dug up from their original points of execution and secreted in the desert specifically in the hope they would never be found.

The film is very successful in generating a haunting feel throughout. It’s calm, and slow-paced with some beautiful shots of landscape and the night sky, leaving plenty of room for contemplation as parallels are drawn between those looking to the Heavens, and thus looking back in time at light travelling toward us from the distant universe, and the archaeologists studying the area who are also looking to understand the past, whilst they mention a collective national attempt to do the opposite regarding Chile’s more modern history and its atrocities.

Where the film does let itself down though is with the details, which it is very light on. We never see any maps of the desert, nor do we get much about Pinochet and his regime within a historical context for those not in the know, and there is a moment where we watch astronomers as they look for calcium spectral lines from distant stars to make the quite profound connection between that and the bones being searched for in the desert around them, but they don’t explicitly explain that calcium is one of many primary elements forged by nuclear processes at the heart of stars and then disseminated throughout the universe when those stars eventually go supernova. The observatories featured were founded there of course because of the lack of light pollution and atmospheric interference in the area, but to be fair a lot of the stills of galaxies and the night sky used to exhibit the wonder of the cosmos are amongst the most famous of images, and indeed some of the interlinking effects used seem perhaps a little overtly basic.

Nevertheless, a film that is successful in its primary goal of putting our lives and existence a little under the microscope and making us reflect purposefully on the value of not only remembering the past, but also understanding and coming to terms with it – all driven home with deeply emotional interviews from survivors of brutality and people who have been relentlessly searching for the remains of their loved ones for many, many years.

Danny Collins  (2015)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                     106 Min        15

‘Hey baby doll, what’s going on …’ Aargh! That song’s stuck in my fucking head! It’s not even like it’s stuck in there in the sort of ‘ah this is really catchy I’ll listen to it a few more times’ kind of way – it’s shit and it’s not even sung very well, noooooo ….

As you may have guessed, this film features a song called ‘Baby Doll’ and it is performed by none other than acting legend Al Pacino in the titular role of aged, drug abusing, successful, and yet distinctly disheartened Danny Collins, whose manager one day presents him with a hand written letter from John Lennon that tells him to stay true to his music and to give him a call sometime. Never having received the letter in the decades since it was written, and in his view having sold himself out artistically since then, Collins questions how different his life would have been if he’d been able to speak to his musical idol at the time, and he begins to take everything back to the drawing board to salvage his soul from ‘the road’ and endless performances of music he has long since lost interest in.

Shown after a brief credits role at the end is the real performer, Englishman Steve Tilston, this is based on (the central plot with the letter is true, though the rest appears to be fiction), and director/writer Dan Fogelman has done a great job of keeping us interested in what is a fairly low key film, one ultimately revolving around two dynamics – the main one of Collins trying to reconnect with a son (Bobby Cannavale) he has never had anything to do with before, and the second his attempt to seduce the manager, Mary (Annette Bening), of the hotel he permanently checks into and the ensuing relationship between them that results.

It’s very well paced for what it is and performances full of charm all round really ground the film in the characters, but mostly this works because it all feels very real, a lost soul trying to reconnect with what he has been missing for most of his life. Jennifer Garner plays his son’s wife and Giselle Eisenberg their young daughter, who is supposed to have ADD (attention deficit disorder) but really she seems just like a normal kid enjoying herself. The music comes predominantly from John Lennon with the occasional little ditty from Collins, although Al Pacino has apologised for his crooning in the film, and whilst billed as a comedy the focus is very much on the family drama here. With Christopher Plummer in support too (also, the brunette in the pic above is only in that one scene, disappointing I know).

A Most Wanted Man  (2014)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                     122 Min        15

Spy thriller set in modern day Hamburg and based on John le Carré’s 2008 novel of the same name. Directed by Anton Corbijn, his clinical and perhaps slightly austere artistic approach suits the genre well, as we see both the grubbiest and some of the more upmarket areas of the city feature and we are treated to the same slow, thoughtful and considered build up that was evident in ‘The American’ (10), and indeed seems to reflect the director himself if you’ve ever seen the documentary ‘Anton Corbijn Inside Out’ (12) about his life (he is arguably more famous for the music photography of bands like U2 and Depeche Mode than his movies as of yet).

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann, who leads a team of counter terrorist operatives in the city that must evaluate the potential threat of a Russian rebel, one who may have been radicalised through torture and who is seeking to withdraw a huge amount of money bequeathed to him by his father – presenting both funds and human collateral that could potentially be used by all sides in the local and global games of espionage and extremism at play. Robin Wright plays the CIA agent sent to make ‘suggestions’, Willem Dafoe plays the head of the bank holding the funds, and Rachel McAdams plays the idealistic lawyer with good intentions and tight jeans, which again present a dual opportunity for state appropriation.

It’s good, it holds attention throughout and the performances deliver – notably from leading man Hoffman as always, but it never reaches the level of intrigue or intensity of the likes of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ (from 2011 and based on le Carré’s 1974 novel), although it has almost definitely been stylistically inspired by that film and it is ultimately a deserving addition to the canon. Look out for the scene with Hoffman and one of his informers on a boat talking about matters of deadly consequence whilst a barrage of seagulls swarm around them squawking noisily in the background. They determinedly carry on and Corbijn keeps the take – it’s a nice touch and shows his dedication to try and create something that feels gritty, but authentically so.

Chef  (2014)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                     114 Min        15

Jon Favreau writes, directs and stars in this feel good film about a divorced chef experiencing creative restraints at work and trying to connect properly with his young son. A showdown with the biggest critic in town (played by Oliver Platt) leads him to embark upon a self employed adventure with his own food truck, where he bonds with his son (Emjay Anthony) by showing him some of the tricks of the trade as they travel from Miami to California.

Sumptuous shots of food being prepared feature heavily throughout – from the never to be underestimated classics like cheese on toast to dishes which, as far as I’m concerned, have no name, with meats and vegetables ranging from the common to the exotic, and a similar infectious passion for some of the locations shines through, especially Miami and New Orleans. It’s a convincing and enjoyable drama that, bar a couple of slightly contrived moments of confrontation, simply focuses on the story it’s trying to tell, with the acting and character interactions feeling grounded and real, and just enough moments of comedy thrown in for relish on top. With Dustin Hoffman, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara and Favreau’s chums Robert Downey Jr. (at one point, during a brief father-son montage, we can tell from the sound effects that they are watching Iron Man at the cinema) and Scarlett Johansson in support.

3 Days to Kill  (2014)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                     117 Min        12A

Kevin Costner stars as a CIA operative diagnosed with terminal brain and lung cancer and given three months to live, inducing him to visit his estranged wife and daughter in Paris to make amends before he kicks the bucket – enter sex on legs Amber Heard to throw a spanner in the works and offer him an experimental life extending drug, if he does just one more job for the agency that is …

It’s a lot more light hearted and fun than it sounds with numerous comedic moments, decent action and several beautifully iconic shots of Paris. In fact, it is exactly what you might expect from mixing writer Luc Besson (‘Leon’ 94, ‘The Fifth Element’ 97) with director McG (‘Charlie’s Angels’ 2000, ‘Terminator Salvation’ 09). It doesn’t start off too well, with the intro intelligence brief telling us about primary terrifying villains ‘The Wolf’, and, ‘The Albino’, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, nor does it take long to settle either.

Costner brings his wealth of experience to ground the central role and he plays it in the same subtle and subdued way that he did in ‘Jack Ryan : Shadow Recruit‘, again playing a CIA operative there, and the support from the likes of Hailee Steinfeld as his daughter is equally good.  A return to form for many involved and a suitably likeable and entertaining weekend action film.

Under the Skin  (2013)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                     108 Min        15

This is only director Jonathan Glazer’s third feature film (the other two, ‘Sexy Beast’ 2000 and ‘Birth’ 04 are definitely both worth watching too) and as an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name it’s his most ambitious project yet. The essence of the plot is that aliens have come to Earth and managed to don themselves in our skin, and they go around collecting live human specimens for some nefarious purpose. Interesting, but nothing especially new – however the delivery mechanism is uncomfortably captivating. Scarlett Johansson plays the primary alien honey trap and we watch her drive around the streets of Glasgow in a white transit van (it was nice of the aliens to target our mercurial ned population) trying her hand as a pick up artist, though one imagines her perhaps not having too much difficulty with this, she is after all Scarlett Johansson even with a black wig on. The necessity for the wig becomes obvious when we realise that some of the film is actually comprised of real footage and features members of the public rather than actors.

I love this concept – not only is it daringly unique but, especially with what happens to the men she seduces, it is a very powerful statement on what could lie beneath the skin of any potential partner, whether the viewer wants to interpret that in terms of disease, personality or both. Does it also perhaps imply Scarlett Johansson has a fetish for Scottish men? She is welcome to a cup of tea courtesy of The Red Dragon if so, although I am reliably informed by one of my pregnant female friends (I impregnate human females on a regular basis) that miss Johansson is expecting, so many congratulations to her and her fiancé.

As the film progresses it moves away from this concept somewhat to focus on the character of the main alien herself (assuming it has a gender) as she has a bit of a moral/personality crisis. This is where the film is at its weakest – we spend a lot of time with the director trying to convey this change across to us, but it usually amounts to little more than the principal lead staring into space, or at a wall, and the sci-fi concept of something non human coming to consider their humanity is something that most audiences will be overly familiar with.

There are plenty of moments of darkness and just as many of contemplation, creating several very, very memorable scenes, and there are many physically brazen performances from the cast to accompany them, none more so than from the leading lady herself. She is wonderful throughout, but in this physical aspect she was also the perfect choice. Consistently held up as an ideal in terms of both beauty and sex appeal in the real world, we see her examine her naked skin and body in the mirror in growing curiosity, though it is an opportunity half realised as personally I would have liked to see more focus on this aspect – not for the sake of perving but rather to show that everyone, even the most supposedly flawless person, can find parts of their bodies that are not ‘ideal’ and from certain angles look pretty far from it. The film does at least delve into this denuding of perfection.

A movie like this is always worth going to see if only to appreciate an artist trying to create something original. It’s largely a success and it will certainly stay with you for a long time, just be prepared for lots of nudity and sinister, yet not entirely alien, concepts.

Scarlett Johansson enjoying the Scottish sunshine

Kill Your Darlings  (2013)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                     104 Min        15

A film hot on the heels of Walter Salles’ perspective on the Beat Generation of Jack Kerouac and co released earlier this year. Here, the story focuses on the coming of age of budding poet in the making Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) and his erotic fascination with Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) whilst the two of them studied together at Columbia university in 1940’s New York City. I wasn’t expecting to get anything out of this, and was simply envisaging more pretentious glorification of just how self absorbed they all were, as they continue to drag their lives into ever increasing circles of depravity, a vicious symbiosis with their writing careers (misery and poetry do often go hand in hand) all whilst the audience ask themselves who exactly would want anything to do with these people?

This sort of egotistical masturbation does exist, and it is annoying, but as the film progresses the story and in no small measure the good central performances begin to make it quite interesting – Radcliffe in particular has a very good turn, with a convincing accent to boot. The film opens with Carr in jail for murder, and the rest primarily fills in the blanks as to what led to it. The murder in question is a matter of historical record which inevitably most of the Beat Generation wrote about at one point or another – here the details have been shifted around a little, but the essence of events seems to be well captured. An interesting and impressive directorial debut from John Krokidas and, ahem, miles better than ‘On the Road‘.

Don Jon  (2013)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                       90 Min        18

Joseph Gordon-Levitt chooses a very interesting subject for his directorial debut – pornography. Also written by Levitt and starring him as central character Jon (nicknamed Don Jon by his friends on account of his pulling prowess with girls) we watch as he works out on his body at the gym, keeps his flat immaculately clean, and works his way through a succession of young hotties – and yet still finds jacking off to pornography more pleasurable than the real thing. Then he meets knock out blonde Barbara Sugarman, played by Scarlett Johansson, and becomes convinced she is the one – but will even her curvaceous figure and sublime features be a match for the infinite and easy choices available online?

The subject matter has been treated very well here by the man at the helm (no pun intended) dealing with it head on (ditto), and by mixing in a lot of good comedy. It is thematically reminiscent of Steve McQueen’s ‘Shame’ (11) but I would argue this is in many respects better as it ditches the prevalent moralising tone which permeated that film, and in many ways it does actually represent the differences between a British and American treatment of the topic, one prudish and judgmental – the other forthright and more fun. Indeed, the very idea of porn is often still hugely divisive between the sexes – the next time you’re in a group scenario just throw in the subject of masturbation over your friends facebook pictures and you’ll quickly see the dichotomy that exists generally (you can google that particular aspect of the debate for a plethora of very humorous threads – also something which works quite well is the timely interjection during a game of ‘I’ve Never’, which is normally used as an excuse for people to show off their real or exaggerated sexual exploits, of the line ‘Never have I ever … masturbated whilst thinking about anyone in this room’. This never fails to issue forth a blanket of silence over the sophistic podium, and you can usually tell by the extremely sheepish faces who indeed has done exactly that. Most amusing).

Both Levitt and Johansson sport very convincing accents (it’s set in New York City) and give really good performances, as does Julianne Moore in support. Although Levitt has done a couple of short films prior to this, for a first feature this is a sterling effort – and kudos definitely has to be given for opting to write about difficult subject matter with originality. The alienating problems with intimacy that Jon suffers from will strike a chord with many viewers, some of which will be surprised by the resonance – so seldom is any light shone on this area in a way that audiences can relate to. The only real criticism would have to be there are many aspects of a more traditional resolution to the movie, and although it makes sense for the story and what he’s trying to do, it nevertheless feels a little too black and white – the shades of grey are conveniently, and swiftly, removed from the equation…